the old last-time-i-saw-my-dad story

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Family Week concludes, as threatened, with the original last-time-I-saw-my-Dad story.

• • •

Like many little kids, I couldn't wait to grow up and leave the family. Like few, I actually did.

When my brother sent a message into the fog, our dad had no idea where I was or how to find me. I hadn't seen him in four years. I fully intended to make it a lifetime.

"Dad's trying to drink himself to death," my brother told me.

"How's that new?"

"He really is trying to kill himself. He hasn't eaten in two weeks, and he's drinking nonstop. His bloodstream is pure alcohol. He's trying to commit suicide."

I didn't say what I was thinking: Maybe that's for the best. "Well, take away his booze."

My brother continued. "He's requested to see you one last time before he dies."

"Oh hell no. I have no interest in saying goodbye to a drunken martyr."

We talked some more, my brother trying to talk me into fulfilling the request, for the family's sake. He thought it might make a difference.

"If I go, I'm calling the sheriff and having Dad thrown in the drunk tank," I announced.

My brother didn't object. I was the perfect candidate to do so, after all. It's not like I was going to be cut any more out of Dad's will. And thus did I drive to tiny London, Ohio, against my better judgement. As I approached my father's house, every corpuscle in my body tugged me away. But once you've committed to such an enterprise, I reasoned, you're going straight to hell if you back out. I searched the neighborhood for the address my brother had given me, for a house I had never seen. When I came upon a house with a gigantic statue of the Virgin Mary in the front yard, I slammed on the brakes. It could be no one else's home.

The back door was unlocked, and the house wasn't as decimated as I would have thought. My brother had reported that my dad had spent all of yesterday trying to call him, so impaired was his mind and dexterity; I had expected a war zone. There were a few magazines and newspapers scattered about, but it was otherwise neat. I did some quick reconnaissance. I found it downright creepy to break into this strange, silent house and see long-forgotten artifacts from my childhood—lamps, paintings and such. I paused to look at pictures of the family hanging on the staircase wall. And then in the kitchen, I found a rifle lying on the kitchen counter. Next to it was an illegible note. It looked like toddler scribbling. If my dog, Ed, attempted to write a note while blindfolded and clenching the pen in her butt cheeks, it would be no less legible.

I could put it off no longer; it was time for the main event. I found my way to the bedroom, where Dad waited for me. Unconscious, buck naked, one leg off the bed, one leg on, and ol' brownie winking at the world. I winced and covered him up. The man reeked of alcohol and vomit and alcoholic vomit. I tried to wake him. It couldn't be done. It took me an hour to get him to sit upright and focus his eyes on me. When he did, he thought I was my brother and mumbled something about his rich son taking yet another day off. I informed him that I was not, in fact, my brother.

"Do you know who I am, Dad?"

He squinted. "John...?"

"Yeah, Dad. It's me."

With surprising speed, he lunged at my throat, wrapping both hands around my neck and trying to crush my windpipe with his thumbs. I smacked him off. He apologized. Then he lunged at my throat again.

We played choke-me-punch-you until he got tired, and we sat on the edge of his bed until his breath returned and we could resume. It was then that I noticed his toenail polish. It was sloppily applied—apparently Ed had been clenching the brush in her butt cheeks—but it was definitely toenail polish. And fingernail polish. And rouge. And was that mascara? What had my stepmother done to him? And then my dad uttered the words that would rock my moronic family. Here they are in unfiltered drunkenese:

"Tho....tho...tho....I I I I I I g-guess b-by n-now you you you've phiggered out dat...dat...dat myour old man's"

Actually, I hadn't. Thanks for the anecdote, though. I promise to use it only for good.

I explained to him the deal: I was throwing out all the booze, and he was eating, or I was calling the sheriff. I got up to go to the kitchen. He did something approximating my movement, but not really, tumbling like an armload of empty liquor bottles to the ground. I helped him up. Leaning on me heavily, he nevertheless lunged for my throat. Ker-PLUNK-PLUNK.

I got him to the kitchen table and began to cook whatever I could find. He told me how I'd wronged him by disappearing. He accused me of being on drugs.

"I hope you fully appreciate the irony of that statement someday," I snapped.

Oblivious, he plowed on. He told me what a stupid fuck-up I was. Why, I couldn't even get through college.

"Actually, if you'd bothered to check, you'd see that I did."


"I graduated."

"Bullshit! Liar!"

I had actually anticipated this particular line of abuse, as it's where he'd left off four years earlier. I pulled my Ohio State diploma, still in its bright scarlet binder, out of my backpack. I flipped it to my dad. "There ya go, Sherlock."

He held the diploma, tried to focus on it, and promptly drooled on it. A big, globular ball o' toxic slobber plunked its surface. And then he dropped the binder, and it slammed shut. To this day, my undergraduate diploma has a huge orange smear. If anyone, God forbid, needs my dad's DNA sample, look no further.

He had me read the diploma to him—a hilarious request, in retrospect—lunged at my throat twice more, and fell down countless times. I don't think he ever ate. Finally, my sister Linda called. I gave her the report, and she said she was coming later and thereby got me off the hook. Except for anecdotal fodder, my descent into revulsion had been a complete waste of time, a wholly unnecessary compromise of my principles. Lesson learned. I was still on the phone when Dad appeared in the doorway.

"Hold on a second, Linda. Dad pulled a gun on me." I set the phone down.

"John? JOOOOOOHHHHN!" said the tinny voice on the other end.

There dad was, cackling with glee and trying to aim the loaded rifle at me. Fortunately, the man who could scarcely stand could point a rifle even less, and I was able to disarm him before anything could happen. But the deed was done. My dad had pulled a gun on me.

I took that opportunity to leave. "Why??" he said angrily. All I wanted was to get out the door and back to the comforts of the fog that hid and protected me from my family. Desperate to extricate myself, I made whatever promises to see him again that it took. He accused me of lying. For once, he was right.

• • •

I drove back to Columbus, where I picked up Maddie at her workplace and took her out to dinner. We sat in a booth, facing one another. I thought she was wincing because of my story, but she informed me that my breath reeked of alcohol. That's how drunk (and near) my father had been. The alcohol in his exhalations had so saturated my lungs that even an hour later, my own breath reeked of his.

• • •

There are many epilogues to this story, but one of my favorites is the most recently discovered. A year after the encounter, when he was relatively sober, my dad's account included some editorial commentary.

"I forgot to check whether the diploma was real," he snorted. That he was unable to hold or read it without help? Not mentioned. The drool? Didn't make the cut. The swipe at my character? There as always. Truly, I must be on drugs not to want to be around people as kind and decent as them.