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Monday, July 14, 2014

On the Road to Shambala

Gene Dall has always been quiet.  He's not one for small talk.  He doesn't ask questions.  My father has no use for details.  There was a time that he might know something about you.  Take, for instance, if you owed him money.  He may not catch your name, but guaranteed, he knew where you lived.  That was just his way. Quiet, yet effective.

My father was gone from the house all day.  We hardly ever did anything together. He was more of a peripheral presence, like a cat you leave food for on the porch.  It keeps coming back, but you never know when.  And you probably shouldn't get too close.  When I was little, I wished I had a special characteristic or ability that would make me more interesting to him.  I longed for some kind of connection. Sometimes, I wanted to be a boy.  At least then, we'd have that in common.

Saturday evenings in early Summer, I sat on the stoop making gum wrapper chains and staring into space.  I don't remember having many hobbies.
"C'mon, take a ride," Dad mumbled.  I could barely make out what he said.  A part of me wondered if he hoped I hadn't heard him.  Then, he wouldn't have to bring me along.  The screen door slammed behind him.  My mother hollered from the house as he left.
"Listen, you.  Be back in an hour," she yelled.  "And go easy with that kid in the car!"

Gene Dall never seemed like he was comfortable being a father.  He was awkward and ill-suited for the job.  It was as if he never quite got the hang of what was expected of him.  Engaging my father in conversation was impossible.  Words left his mouth with a price tag, and each sentence cost him a small fortune.  He was not deliberately negligent in the way he behaved.  Just indifferent, preoccupied with other pursuits that required his attention.  Cop shit, making money, securing a meal every so often and getting some sleep.  That's pretty much it.

After watching Dad in action for all these years, I realize now that every interpersonal exchange was more than he bargained for - it wasn't just me.  But I didn't know that when I was eleven years old.  I saw him as secretive and withholding.  His privacy was impenetrable.  I longed for more, and he refused. This wasn't true, but it's how I interpreted things.  The seeds of want grow best from less.

At that point, my usefulness was unclear to Gene Dall.  I thought if I could just get his attention, he'd recognize my value.  We could have a special… I don't know - something.  I didn't care what we did or where we went.  Spending time with my old man happened so infrequently, anywhere was good.

I hopped in the car like a Dalmation on a fire truck, and I tried to slide next to him in the front seat.
"You're gonna need to move over," he said.
"But I wanna sit with you," I told him.
"Plenty of room."  I scooted toward the other side and leaned my face out the window.  I kept my eyes shut tight so I wouldn't cry.  As he pulled onto the avenue, the breeze bounced my head around and tumbled my thoughts.  My feelings were replaced by the weird wind in my ears.

My father was not one for human contact.  He didn't reach for my hand when we crossed the street.  I can't remember ever crawling into his lap.  He only became affectionate when he was drunk, which made those episodes even more confusing.

The late afternoon sun was blinding as we drove along East Tremont Avenue toward the Parkchester beer distributor.  Dad employed the visor on his side of the windshield.  When I reached for mine, a bunch of paperwork spilled into my lap - church bulletins, maps and parking tickets.  I gathered them up and tried unsuccessfully to reinstate them.

"Give them here."  My father pointed to the space between us, as if he almost wanted to guarantee I'd keep my distance.  I handed him the pile of pamphlets and other junk.  I couldn't understand what I did wrong.  In general, my father's reactions made me feel gross about myself.

Gene Dall whistled through his teeth, and so did I.  He sang along with the radio.  I memorized the words to the songs he liked so when I heard them, we could both sing.  I'd explain the lyrics with as much authority as I could muster.  But mostly, I fabricated the details.

Rocket Man came on right after Shambala.
"You can turn that up," my father suggested.
"Did you know that Elton John used to be an astronaut in England?" I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"What a voice.  He's the best," I said.
Dad didn't say anything.
"Whadda you think?" I asked.
"He's okay."
"Yeah," I agreed.  "He ain't so great."

The young men at the beer distributor were sweethearts.  There were a couple of favorites, but I had crushes on almost all of them.  They couldn't have been more than 17 and 18 years old.  Almost grown, but still smooth-skinned and approachable.  They made me wish that I could have a boyfriend.

I watched them swing from the doors of the soda truck like monkeys.  They jumped clear of the loading dock, stumbling and landing dramatically in their heavy leather boots.  They moved with lumbering ease, stocking cases and kegs of beer onto shelves and into the backs of station wagons and vans all day long.

Beer boys wore tank tops and denim vests with no shirts underneath.  They nurtured indefensible mustaches.  Keys dangled from the waistbands of their jeans and rattled musically when they walked.  They roostered about, alternately shrugging and tugging at themselves.  Transactions were sealed with a firm handshake, as male customers tucked dollar bills into their sweaty palms.  They smoked cigarettes.  Some drank the product while they worked.  These guys were rock-n-roll.

Gene Dall switched out the empties and hoisted two fresh cases of longnecks into the back of the car, as well as four six-packs of Schaefer shorties.  He handed me an empty cardboard palette.
"Go fill this," he said.
I wandered through the various towers of soda flavors.  I chose orange, black cherry, lemon lime and grape.  Ginger ale was for grown-ups and when you were sick.  I picked up the completed case and carried it across the driveway.  It was heavy, but I wanted my dad to see how strong I was.  He didn't notice, but one of the beer boys did.
"You got some muscles, girl!"
"Thanks," I said.  I was embarrassed by the attention, but it felt good.

I returned to the front of the store while my father settled up.  Two young ladies walked in behind me.  They were dressed almost identically in halter tops and cut-off shorts.
"Is Tommy here?" one of them asked the older dude at the counter.  He was eating an orange, and the juice dripped down his chin and neck.  His shirt was covered in so many stains, it looked like part of a big, greasy design.
"He's making deliveries," he said as he opened the register.
"Will he be back soon?"  This question seemed more insistent than the last.
"Honey, Tom's got work to do."
"It's just that he said I should come by..." Her voice drifted off with disappointment.
Older dude stared over the top of his glasses and directly at her breasts.
"Ain't nobody else here can help you?"  He coughed and sucked some snot back down his throat.  He wiped his cheeks and the corners of his mouth with his sleeve.  Something was different about his hand.  He was missing a thumb.
"We should go."  The girl grabbed her friend by the arm, and they left.

The door jingled as it closed behind them.  A dirty Christmas elf hung from the entryway, two red bells swinging from his groin area.  His little outfit was filthy, and he wore a shit-eating grin on his dirty face.  From the look of him, he'd never even been to the North Pole.  He probably worked at the beer distributor his whole life.  Lucky.

*******

"Your mother wants you to go to confession," Gene Dall told me when we stopped at the light.
"But I haven't committed any sins," I argued.
"You'll think of something."
"Will you come in with me?"
"Nope," he replied.  "See if you can find me the opener."  He gestured toward the glove box.

Dad pulled up in front of St. Raymond's.  He reached into the back seat and retrieved two warm bottles of Bud.
"Take your time," he said.
I walked down the stairs and into the chapel.  I enjoyed being down there.  What a different mood from the church, where everything was fancy and traditional.  The whole vibe of the space was cool, modern and conducive to revealing secrets you might only share in somebody's basement.

When it was my turn, I entered the booth and kneeled at the opening in the little window.  I leaned my nose against the mesh that separated me from God's trusted servant.  I could see his outline through the screen, but I didn't recognize him or his voice.  And I guessed he didn't know me, either.

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  It's been two weeks since my last confession," I started.  "I didn't come to church last Saturday.  Nobody could bring me."
"Well, God certainly appreciates that you're here right now." the priest said.
"I didn't go to school a few days this week, either," I told him.
"Go on."
"My dad's a doctor," I whispered.
"Well, that's an important job."
"And he drinks," I said.  "Sometimes I have to go to work with him and help deliver the babies."

I don't know why I lied.  It wasn't necessary.  But my false admission immediately put me in a different place.  I felt important and exciting.  I liked that.
The priest didn't say anything, so I proceeded to run through my standard list of offenses.
     - I talked back to my mother.
     - I practiced cursing.
     - I pinched my sister really hard.
     - I stole money from the bowl in the kitchen.
"I'm sorry for these and all my sins."

My confessor prescribed one Our Father and ten Hail Mary's as my penance.  A small price to pay for ushering children into the world with no formal training.

When I got upstairs, Gene Dall was hustling across Castle Hill Avenue, coming from the corner of the apartment house on the other side of the street.  He adjusted his pants as he approached our vehicle.  It didn't matter where he was or who was watching, my father could find a place to piss.

We both got in the car at the same time.  I could smell the tang of stale beer on his breath.  He can't be too bad, I thought to myself.  I wasn't gone that long.  But his face looked softer, rubbery.  Like a Halloween mask.

"Can I sit next to you?"  It couldn't hurt to try again.
"I don't see why not," Dad replied.
I slid the pile of papers on the floor beneath my feet and smiled.

"You need another one?" I asked.
"That'd be nice," my old man said.
I reached behind me and pulled a full bottle from the box.

Hey, I took what I could get.
The seeds of want grow best from less.

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