IF AUDUBON STUDIED FATHERS
For almost all of his forty-five years, since he learned to write at age four, Jeff filled notebooks with observations of fathers.
Age six: Brain’s dad has a mostash. He is tall. He is fat. He laughs.
Jeff wanted to know how fathers acted, interacted, reacted. No matter where he lived, he kept the filled notebooks in a neat row on a bookshelf next to his desk. His mother always thought he was writing in a journal. She complained that this was a girly-thing to do, and for a while, she plied the young Jeff with GI Joes and Star Wars Lego sets. When his mother refused to buy him any more notebooks, he paid for them himself, using his allowance or spare change found in the couch cushions or from the jobs he began to pick up in middle school. Because his mother thought the notebooks were journals, Jeff booby-trapped them so that he would know if she was sneaking peeks. He stole her matches and placed the individual red-tipped cardboard sticks in between notebooks, figuring they would flame to the floor from friction if she pulled a notebook out. But no match was ever disturbed.
Jeff wrote neatly on every cover, giving the date of the first observation and the end. The colors of the covers varied. It depended on what kind of mood he was in when he purchased the next one.
Often, he chose blue. Sometimes black or red. He chose purple too, but that worried his mother further.
Age eleven: Andrew’s dad is a banker. He goes to work in a suit and he drives a nice car. On weekends, Andrew and his dad are building a boat.
A few observations were on television dads, but Jeff soon gave that up, feeling like they portrayed more what he, and children in general, thought a dad should be instead of what seemed to be the real deal.
Age fifteen: Tim The Toolman Taylor always finds time for his sons. Even when he’s angry, he’s not angry.
Jeff knew that fathers could get angry.
Age fourteen: Mike’s dad hit Mike’s mom. Mike’s dad is in jail. He uses his phone call to talk to Mike.
Jeff’s mother remained cool about the notebooks, though possibly concerned about Jeff’s sexual identity, never looking at them until Jeff started packing for college. Between his steadily working jobs since he was twelve and his good grades which led to scholarships, he was able to migrate north from Illinois to a university in Wisconsin. Jeff knew he was born in the Badger state. He didn’t know where, only the location of the hospital listed on his birth certificate, so Jeff chose the large university in Milwaukee and hoped that maybe, one of the fathers he observed might be his own.
Age seventeen: Bobby’s dad works at the foundry. He is missing two fingers. But he still plays catch on the weekends, sometimes with a football.
After his last night of work before leaving for Wisconsin, Jeff came home with more boxes for packing. His boss was a father of two young boys and Jeff studied the way he said goodbye, patting Jeff’s shoulder, offering his hand for a shake, wishing him the best of luck. Jeff said thank you and went home. When he walked into his bedroom, he found his mother sitting on the floor, the notebooks all around her. Unlit matches were scattered too. “What is this?” she asked, holding up one blue notebook. From the block printing on the cover, Jeff deduced it was from elementary school. “I thought you were journaling your life.”
He sat on his bed. “When I was little, I started writing down what other guys’ dads were like.” He shrugged. “I wanted to know.”
When his mother turned to him, her eyes were tragic. She looked like she realized for the first time that he was a fatherless boy. Jeff wondered how this was possible. She’d given birth alone. Jeff had her last name. The blank for a father’s name on his birth certificate was just that: blank.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Age eighteen: Mark’s dad is going to pay for his tuition and room and board. He’s giving Mark a stipend. He’ll probably spend it on weed.
Jeff asked his mother innumerable times who his father was, what his father was like. Before Jeff turned twelve, his mother only answered, “A jerk.” But after that, as if the age of twelve was some kind of crossed border, she answered, “A jackass.” She always laughed quietly afterward, like at some secret joke, but she never ventured any further than that. Jeff was thirty years old when she died. He leaned over her hospital bed to carefully kiss her cheek, to feel for her breath.
“Mom,” he said, desperately sad and desperate for information, “what was my dad’s name?”
“Jack –“ she said. Then she gasped and closed her eyes. “Ass,” she exhaled. She smiled.
Her last word.
Now Jeff was forty-five years old. He could still hear his mother whisper, “I’m sorry.” And he could never hear the word “jackass” without thinking of his father. In his study, away from his wife and son and daughter, Jeff kept a tall bookshelf. The notebooks were still on it. There were many more. And most still were blue. He no longer worried about matchsticks.
Age thirty-eight: I watched Benny’s dad during the boys’ basketball game. He only sat during time-outs. Otherwise, he was on his feet, yelling, stamping, cheering. After, Benny’s dad hugged him, even though Benny was sweaty and his dad was still in his suit, since he came right from work. He didn’t even wipe his palms off.
I told my son, “Nice game,” when we got in the car and he said, “Thanks.”
Jeff took his daughter to the middle school father-daughter dance. When the music was slow, he carefully put his right hand on his daughter’s tiny still-girl waist and his left hand in hers, drawing her arm out like he was nocking an arrow. They moved carefully in a circle, his daughter’s eyes never leaving his necktie.
“Nice dance,” he said to her when the music stopped.
“Thanks,” she said, then ran to join her girlfriends on the other side of the gym. Jeff sat on the bleachers and watched.
Age thirty-nine: Jenny’s dad went to the middle of the dance floor during the fast dances. He got right under the disco ball and made all sorts of crazy moves, jumping in the air and wiggling his hips and pretending to sing into a mic. All the girls giggled and imitated him. My daughter too.
At high school graduation, Jeff’s son was valedictorian and was weighed down with scholarships and awards. Jeff remembered his own migration to Wisconsin, where he and his family still lived. When his son joined them after the ceremony, Jeff patted him on the shoulder and offered his hand for a shake. “Nice job, son,” he said. “Best of luck to you.”
“Thanks,” his son said, then turned to his mother and hugged her. Jeff watched as she clung to him, even though she spent such a long time pressing his royal blue graduation robe and it was bound to get wrinkled.
Age forty: Alex’s father cried at graduation. So did Frankie’s.
Five years later, Jeff’s daughter left for college too. Jeff put together a bookshelf for her dorm room. She thanked him. His wife cried in the car on the way home. Jeff kept his eyes on the road.
Age forty-five: My daughter’s roommate’s father picked her up off her feet and swung her in circles before he left. “I love you,” he said. “I’m proud of you.”
I patted my daughter’s shoulder, held her hand. “The best of luck to you,” I said. She said thanks.
The first full day of an empty house, Jeff sat on his front step. His wife was in the living room, talking on the phone with his daughter. He knew she would call his son next, to see how he was faring in his first professional job. Jeff listened with an ear turned toward the screen door, waiting for his cue. His wife called out, “Say hi, Dad!”
He called, “Hi!” He knew the phone was extended toward him, but he didn’t hear the answer.
He watched the road in front of their house, observing the cars going by, the pedestrians on the sidewalk. A blue notebook sat on the top step beside him. Jeff paid special attention to the fathers in the cars, their children in tow in the back seats on the way to games or dances, and the fathers on the sidewalk, their children trotting alongside. He wondered if they were on their way to a park, to throw a football. To push the child on the swings. To listen to shrieks of laughter. To build sandcastles in the sandbox.
Fathers seemed to do these things. These were all in his notebooks.
Jeff’s children said thank you. Jeff wondered what it was like, to say thank you to a father.
If the men passing by were older, at least twenty years older than Jeff, he sat up a little straighter and watched until the man was out of sight.