I’m thirty-six years old and I’m pacing the yard outside the house on Bright Street in Northampton, working up the nerve to call my father. It’s warm. I’m coatless. I could do this all day.
But we need to have the talk. I’ve been procrastinating. I know my dad; he won’t make the first move. I have to thank him for the money anyway; that’s my Trojan horse. I take a deep breath and dial 727. The light beats in my chest turn to those thumps: the ones I associate with anxiety, bullying, confrontation.
I’m relieved when he answers. I didn’t want to leave a message, prolong this, plus it soothes me to hear his voice: warm and crackly with age, like an old record. At seventy-five he’s mellowed considerably, seems content, and contentedness had never come easily to my dad. We have that in common. And then the divorce, his retirement, the move: all within such a short period. Everyone was concerned, including my mom. Maybe even her especially.
The small talk goes well, so I decide to regale him with the story behind my living situation. He knows that my brother Michael, his own divorce pending, has lost access to his house—a judgment that was handed down on the same day I left California—but my father is unaware of the effect that this has had on me.
I was permitted to leave Los Angeles on the condition that I continue formal probation in Hampshire County, living with my brother, a reputable businessman and homeowner. I was to check in monthly and find legitimate work, like any local offender, but now I had to explain to Hampshire County Probation that the housing, my transfer’s lynchpin, had fallen through. I contacted Chief Foley from my childhood home, pled my case. Foley was unmoved. He gave me twenty-four hours to land an address in his county—or else. That meant revocation of the transfer, and my LA-based PO had bitched about the paperwork. His final words were “Fuck this up and I’ll hang you.” I repacked some things and headed for the door, brushing past my mother on the way. “What if you don’t find anything,” she said, “where’ll you go?” Back to jail, I replied. There was no time to bullshit her. I drove straight to Northampton with the goal of targeting tattooed, wayward-looking women on Main St. I realized the outlandishness of that, but it was too late for Craigslist. That I succeeded can only be attributed to luck coupled with the Jedi mindset: that zone in which you simply cannot fail. A young woman named Teresa took me in, a situation that would sour soon enough, but I could tell Foley that I was living there, on Bright Street.
Dad likes my story, which I tell comically, leaving out the part about mom’s despair. He laughs easily these days, and in stark contrast to when I was young, he’s very attentive. He no longer talks over me. I thank him for the money, a much-needed two grand that helped tremendously with the settling process. I’ll get it back to you as soon as I can, I tell him. Of course he rebuffs the offer. “You’ll inherit it anyway,” he explains, “why wait another ten years when you need it now?” I tease him about his optimism, reminding him that he’s already outlived his own father by several years. Again, he laughs.
I wait for the next lull, take a breath, and dive in. No amount of mindlessness or impulsivity could explain a drug business five years running, so I make no excuses. I just explain that I did what I did willingly, recklessly, methodically. I paint broad strokes, sparing him extraneous details. No point in defending my product line. That I sold only what I used, eschewing heroin and other opiates, probably wouldn’t sound cogent to him, I assume. To him drugs are drugs. I do explain, however, that while I broke the law, I broke no moral code of my own. Everyone involved was a consenting adult and no one was ever coerced, cajoled, etc. It’s very important to me that he understand, “I never meant to hurt anyone,” and though I know how flimsy that sounds, I say it anyway. He stops me, tells me that he gets it: the temptation, the lifestyle appeal. He even uses the word “glamorous,” which I’m sure I’ve never heard him say before. I begin to realize that my nervousness had nothing to do with any perceived disapproval. It was about my father’s true feelings, and how I’d have to live up to them now.
Ever since his boys had grown he’d cherished every moment he could spend with us, in person, on the phone, and the divorce had only intensified that. Here I am throwing myself on his mercy, and all he wants is for me to feel better. As determined as I am to repent, I feel consoled, so I give in to it. “I just didn’t know,” I say. “The sales thing wasn’t happening, and then this opportunity comes along.” Again, he tries to comfort me, tells me that it’s okay. Now I’m the one talking over him. My new job (restaurant, kitchen), the writing I’ve been doing, the possibility of grad school. I’ll make things right, I promise! Then I feel the tightening in my throat. I’m trying to keep from breathing—no, I’m trying to keep from crying. “One day,” I say, “I swear I’ll make you—” and my voice cracks on “proud.” Now the tears come.
I can hear my father choking up. His breathing labored, he struggles to tell me that he’s proud already, that he always has been. We’re both crying freely now, yet somehow I can’t resist appealing to his manliness, for he ought to know: his boy was no punk. “No one fucked with me in jail, daddy. And the cops didn’t break me, either.” Again, he tells me that he’s proud, that I handled myself well, the way he would have. “You were always a good boy, James.”
Now I know. This man, the one I’ve wanted so badly to please my whole life, the one I’ve always suspected of having to accept my existence after the fact—he loves me regardless. And he always has.
That would’ve been September or October of ’09, whenever I got around to making the call. But I know that mom called in November. I was headed home from the gym, I think, but I was definitely going south on King St. She asked if I was sitting down. I said I was driving, which answered her question in the literal sense, I suppose. Actually, mom, I’m standing. On the edge of a cliff. Teetering. That might’ve made a difference, who knows? You can’t blame someone in shock. “Your father had a heart attack,” she said. “He’s gone.”