The last time I saw my father I was six. He had driven from Miami to Flatbush for Christmas and was sleeping on a mat near the flocked tree. Mama was sleeping with her second husband, Eduardo Aguilar or Daddy Ed, a wiry man who tolerated my mother’s mood swings and visiting ex-husband.
For years afterward I confused my father with Saint Nick. He was round and jolly with a thick blonde beard and suitcase full of gifts. And then he vanished like smoke. We relocated to a hippie commune in northern California. Daddy Ed and Mama had two more children. Eventually they divorced. But Ed raised me, so he’ll always be my real father.
I was a smart-ass boy who rarely sat still. Mama would say I was going to wind up in the nut house like Daddy Jack. ‘He checked into Bellevue for six months,’ she’d say. ‘Watch your step, buster.’
‘Where’s he at now?’ I’d ask.
‘I have no idea. On the moon for all I care.’
Thirty-five years after that Christmas in Flatbush up pops an email from Jack Nelson. Subject: Family Reunion? He’s tracked me through the Internet. My grandmother has left a small bequest for me. (What grandmother? I was told she’d died before I was born.) He’s living in Oakland and would like to drive up to Red Bluff to see me. I reply that he might also like to see his two granddaughters. His next email is signed “Grandpa Jack.”
I phone my mother. She isn’t interested.
‘I’m a little curious,” I say. “Aren’t you?’
‘The SOB thinks he can buy his way back into your life,’ she says in that flat voice that means end of story.
My wife is more excited than I am.
‘I’m not going to work up a lather over this, Anita,’ I tell her.
‘But he’s your natural father!’
I shrug. ‘He abandoned us, remember?’
‘Blood is blood,’ she says.
Jack pulls up on schedule in a beat-up VW bug, its back seat piled high with bags and tools. He extracts himself slowly. He has gotten quite fat, his beard and hair white, his cheeks red-veined. He is wearing black pants, a black sweater and beret, and he walks with a cane. The two girls and Anita hang back shyly while we shake hands and eye each other.
I do resemble him physically. I see the ghost of Christmas future, my own belly billowing hugely. He doesn’t seem to be a lunatic though. In fact, he is a genial, witty fellow. There are gifts in one of the bags for the children, who warm up to Grandpa Jack quickly. He watches them through bifocals with a bemused expression. They are thin and dark like their mother.
Anita brings out dish after dish, and our guest eats it all with relish. We learn that he never remarried but has lived with several women and traveled widely.
‘I’m a jack of all trades and master of none,’ he says cheerily.
We stay up late drinking the bottle of cab he brought us and reviewing the past three decades, then on to film, books, politics, art. Our tastes are eerily similar. He likes Italian and French films, Tony Hillerman mysteries. We both have dabbled with painting and sculpture. He plays mouth harp, and I noodle around on a guitar. Even our voices sound alike.
When we are alone, Anita says, ‘So what about that diet, Andrew?’
I’m up early the next morning as usual. Jack is already in the kitchen drinking coffee, his imposing bulk still swathed in black; hair and beard damp, smelling of soap. He’s brought in the newspaper and filled in my crossword puzzle completely, in ink. Everyone else is asleep.
We regard each other cautiously across the table.
‘I should have tried to find you sooner,’ he says. ‘I did try once years ago, but your mother and Eduardo hid their tracks too well.’
‘I could have tried, too. But I assumed you weren’t interested.’
We are quiet, considering our next moves.
‘Were you ever really interested?’ I ask finally.
He looks at me intently. ‘See, I thought you’d be pissed at me.’
‘I never gave it much thought,’ I say.
‘Well, I’m glad I came,” he beams. “We can start fresh.’
I don’t reply.
‘So, you are pissed.’
‘Alright, I’m pissed.’
He chews on that for a while. Then: ‘Don’t you want to know about your grandmother? Do you even know her name?’
‘Louise. I wish you could have met her. She was a marvellous woman, and she never stopped asking about you. You had a grandfather, too, of course. He died when I was 16. You have an aunt and uncle, cousins.’
Upstairs a muted shout, the sounds of my family awakening.
‘The girls will want to know about their family someday,’ he persists.
I stare at him. Maybe there’s no getting away from him now. Or maybe he’ll vanish again, this time forever. Meanwhile, here he is, fat and sassy and in my face, and he’s ruined my Sunday crossword.
‘I was too messed up to be a father,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry it happened that way.’
‘Sorry?’ I repeat. ‘Really? Since when?’
‘Since now. I can’t undo what’s done. It was my bad luck, not yours. You turned out fine, as far as I can tell.’
No thanks to you, I almost say, but he seems so bewildered and downcast, I relent.
‘Do you play chess, Jack?’ I ask, instead.
‘Sure do.’ His face lights up.
I haul out my set. He picks up the ceramic pieces one by one, fingers them.
‘You made these?’
I nod. It’s from my cubist phase. The pieces have sudden sharp angles, clashing colors, weirdly juxtaposed body parts. The one-eyed bishop is a terror.
‘Nice work,’ he says. Jack anticipates my every move and vice-versa.
‘Damn,’ he says, looking surprised. ‘I’m sure I taught you how to play.’
‘What’s this, a recovered memory?’
‘I do remember playing chess with you, and by candlelight. A storm knocked out the power. I made all the pieces from wine corks and wire, I swear that’s true. Ask your mother. You were three or four, whip smart.’
‘Uh uh.’ I shake my head. ‘Daddy Ed taught me to play chess.’
‘Maybe he did,’ he says. ‘The second time.’
He stays with us three days. We play several games of chess, without talking much, unless chess is a kind of language. By the time he leaves I’m one game ahead, which seems to please him. Then the bags go back in the VW, despite Anita’s coaxing.
‘After all this time, you could stay a little longer,’ she says. She hugs him, and so do the girls, giggling because they can’t get their arms around his girth.
I offer my hand.
‘Let’s stay in touch,’ he says, pumping my hand, and then hugging me. ‘We’re family again, right?’
I want to believe him. But when I step back, a little dazed from the bear hug, his eyes are focused elsewhere, as if he’s already moving on down the road again and we are fading into memory. So I don’t believe him.
‘Bon voyage’ is all I say.
After he leaves, Anita begs me to stay in touch with him for the sake of the children.
‘Don’t keep them from their grandfather,’ she says, ‘just because your mom kept you from yours.’
I tell her Mom was wrong about a lot of things, but not about Jack. ‘He doesn’t really want a family. He wants another feel-good moment.’
‘How do you know that?’ she demands. ‘You’re not always right, either.’
‘Nor are you.’
She glares at me and stomps out of the room, muttering something about a stubborn asshole.
‘Alright!’ I shout after her. ‘If Jack stays in touch with me, I’ll stay in touch with him.’
I’ll bet that never happens. AQ