Fathers

Fiction
Amanda DeNatale


Photo Credit: Stefano Corso/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

When I was eight years old I saw my father for the last time. Mom and I had dinner with him in our old town in Kansas. We were there visiting some of Mom’s friends, and met my father at Hal’s for a bite. A yellow light hung in the air of the dimly lit bar, and wood paneling raced around all four walls. Mom said she used to work there when I was little, but I didn’t remember.

At dinner, my dad told me he was going on another long vacation soon, so he wouldn’t be able to be in contact with us. At this age I remember realizing that vacation was another term for his bullshit excuses, or some trouble he was in with the law. I remember watching mom pat her bottom lip with her fingernails, a habit she’s always had when she’s nervous. We ate our mediocre cheeseburgers and said goodbye.

I hugged my father around the waist—he was so tall then—and he patted me on the head and said, “I love you, kiddo. You always remember that.” I’ve thought about his words a lot over the years, before deciding, they too, were bullshit.

When we drove by the little house where we used to live, I remember feeling a wave of familiarity, but no concrete details. There was a little red wagon in the yard, and a few pink flowers planted below the front windows. I remember seeing Mom cringe a little. It looked like it could have been a decent home once, but the one we lived in now was much nicer.

Eight years later, double the age when I last saw him, and I still haven’t heard from him. I took one last pull and tossed my cigarette to the curb. I could see Mike walking down the sidewalk. I ran my hand over my shaved head. Mike’s curly brown hair that hung to his shoulders—a huge hit with the ladies—made him easy to spot from a distance. I pulled my notebook out of my back pocket and recorded the blood sugar level that appeared on the insulin pump clipped to the belt loop of my jeans. I pressed the button to inject the bolus I would need for lunch, and returned my notebook to my back pocket. Everything was normal.

Mike and I were meeting our girlfriends, Hayley and Leah, for a double. They were sisters. We were cousins. Hayley, Mike, and I were all juniors at Ridgedale High, and Leah was a sophomore. Hayley and I had caught Mike and Leah making out in her backyard one day. Mike and Leah had started dating, officially, a few weeks later, and the four of us had become nearly inseparable.

“Hey man,” Mike said when he was close enough. He was glaring at his phone.

“What’s up?” I asked.

He let out a huge sigh. “Leah said she wants to talk or something, so it looks like we are not going to lunch anymore.”

“Weird.” I double-checked my phone to be sure. “Hayley hasn’t said anything about it.”

“Why do we always need to ‘talk,’” Mike groaned. He started sulking in the direction of the Jacobsons’ house.

I slapped him on the back and laughed. Girls.

He shoved me back.

“Oh yeah, I have something for you.” Mike slid a picture out from the side pocket of his cargo shorts.

It was a picture of both of our families together, in some sort of cabin with a log backdrop. Mike and I looked barely two. Uncle Ron and Aunt Katie were kneeling next to a little kid that must have been Mike. Ron was patting down his curly fro, and Katie was straightening his tie. Aunt Katie and Mom looked even more identical than they do now. Next to them, I rested on my dad’s hip with my arms hugging his neck. Mom had her arms wrapped around his waist and her head leaned on his chest. Her eyes were closed. She looked peaceful, happy even. Everyone looked so young. I had a sudden urge to crumple it up and throw it in the street.

“I wonder where they took it,” I said. I had stopped walking to take in the full picture, still holding it delicately between my fingertips.

“My mom made me help her clean out the basement yesterday. We found it, and she said it was from a vacation they all took to a cabin my dad’s company owned.” Mike shrugged. “I thought you might like it.”

He knew I didn’t have many pictures of my father. “Cool, thanks.” I wanted to say more, but I had no idea what.

“I like how it’s candid, you know, we can see them un-posed—exposed.” He pretended to take a picture of me looking at the picture. I rolled my eyes. Mike could thrive on dramatics. I slid the picture carefully into my pocket.

When we got to the Jacobsons’, I knocked on the door of their large two-story, and we waited. Mike lingered slightly behind me. I looked back at him and mouthed, “Good luck.” He cracked a little smile and pushed me forward as Hayley opened the door.

“Hey guys,” she said. She smiled at me and leaned forward to kiss me on the cheek. “Leah’s waiting for you in the living room, Mike. Let’s go.” She dragged me quickly down the front walk towards her Old Malibu, while Mike closed the door behind him.

I felt lucky with Hayley. Her milky brown hair hung down to the top of her jeans, and she had a way of talking that made you never want to stop listening. I knew her parents thought I was trouble, but I had realized a long time ago that girls’ parents rarely trusted boys over the age of twelve.

Hayley seemed nervous after we settled into the car, and then suddenly her eyes were wide and panicked. She tried to smile at me, but her faced looked pained. I grabbed her hand that rested on the gearshift and kissed it.

“What’s up?” I asked. Our hands rested, intertwined, next to the shift. She opened her mouth, but said nothing. What was she afraid to tell me? I squeezed her hand.

“Well,” she started. Her forehead scrunched up and she started to sob.

Was she going to break up with me? Was it something I did? I stumbled over my words. “What—what’s wrong?”

“Just everything,” she said. I pulled her into a hug. I wondered if she could hear my heart racing.

“Tell me about it, you can tell me anything.” I swallowed. I tried to be earnest, but I was terrified.

She mumbled something into my chest and I heard the word pregnant. My stomach dropped, and I could feel a cold trickle down my spine. “What?” My voice had become hoarse. Images popped into my head—a baby, a pregnant Hayley, Mom sitting at the table with her head in her hands, disappointed.

She stopped crying for a second and looked up at me with her eyes wide. “Leah’s pregnant, and she hasn’t told our parents yet.” Hayley broke into more sobs in my arms.

Part of me felt relieved, but I was still tense. Poor Mike. Leah must be telling him right now. We were only teenagers. Leah was only a sophomore. Mike was my best friend, my family. Wow. He must be terrified. Aunt Katie and Uncle Ron would flip, and probably my mom too. The four of us hung out way too often for Hayley and me to be left out of this.

“So she’s telling him now, I guess?” I looked over my shoulder at their red front door.

She nodded and her gaze focused bleakly behind me.

“Wow—just wow—Mike and Leah and a baby.”

Hayley shook her head. “I just want everything to be okay.”

“Me too.” I looked hard into her golden brown eyes and wished for the best possible outcome—whatever that could be. “Why don’t we get lunch to go and head to Helena to detox?” I pulled a small joint out from my cigarette carton, and wiggled it between my fingers. Helena was a large lake that was enclosed by a huge park, just outside of our subdivision. There were tons of places to sneak off to there.

“Gotta make sure we feed Panky there first.” She smiled weakly. Hayley had named my insulin pump Panky, since it was a replacement for my pancreas. It was cute that she was so understanding. I think that’s why my mom liked her so much.

As we drove away, the sun seemed too bright overhead.

*

Hayley and I lay together on the green-checkered blanket she kept in the trunk of her car for occasions like today. Our legs intertwined, and her head rested on my chest. We held each other close as the weight of the news about Mike and Leah pressed down upon us. The warmth of the sun seemed to weld us closer, and the haze of the afternoon lulled us into a phase of comfort—at least we had each other.

We had been lying there for at least an hour when our phones buzzed simultaneously.

Leah was calling Hayley in hysterics because Mike had freaked out about the pregnancy—naturally, I thought.

Mike had texted me that he and Leah had broken up, but nothing else. I offered to meet with him later to talk things over. They couldn’t just be ‘broken up.’ Mike was stupid to think that was an option. I wasn’t really surprised by his reaction though, he could be a hot head—and was great at overreacting. Maybe I could talk him into a more reasonable state.

Hayley dropped me off at home, but we were going to meet up by the docks later. I would talk to Mike there, and she would talk to Leah at home. I leaned over to kiss her goodbye through the driver side window and squeezed her shoulders. “Everything will be okay.” It had to be.

“Okay, I’ll see you then.” She took a deep breath and nodded. She closed her eyes for a moment then said, “I—just don’t know what I’d do without you.” Her eyes had a sparkle to them and I felt my stomach turn over. I loved this girl, even if I couldn’t tell her yet.

She drove away, and I lit a cigarette. I thought about what I would say to Mike. We had agreed to meet down by our old spot at seven. It was the place we had always fled to as kids to escape the rules of our parents. Our dock was partially enclosed by a cove of trees, and not many park goers ever looked beyond them. As kids we would race there and see who could throw the biggest things into the lake. Once we heaved a huge boulder over the wood railing. You could still see the top if you looked closely. It was perfect for childhood or teenage delinquency. We liked to call ourselves delinquents—it felt edgy and exclusive, although the most that ever went down there now were a few beers or a joint or two.

I tossed my cigarette butt into the street and headed inside. Mom’s Honda was in the driveway, so I knew she was home. I wondered if she knew about Mike and Leah yet.

She was in the kitchen sitting on a stool at the counter. She stared at her phone that she cradled with both hands. Her blonde hair was tied up into a ponytail, and she was still wearing her maroon scrubs from work.

“Hey, Mom.” I opened the fridge and poured myself a glass of OJ. I figured she had just gotten off the phone with Aunt Katie, but I was going to let it lie until she brought it up.

She looked up and smiled, but then both corners of her mouth drooped downward. She definitely knew, and she was definitely upset, but I had to play it casual. “So how was work?”

She sighed, and then looked at me like she was calculating something. “Just the same old thing.”

I nodded, took a slow drink of my OJ, and tried to lean casually against the counter across from her. She did medical coding and billing for some small company. They paid her well there.

“Cade,” she said, standing. She started pacing back and forth, and crossed her arms. “There’s something we need to talk about.”

She set her phone down on the counter, screen down. I nodded and waited for her to go on about safe sex and mature relationships, like she had a few times before.

“Your father just called.” She paused and looked up at me. Her forehead was wrinkled with concern. She ran her hand over her head and down the length of her ponytail. “He’s going to be driving through here in a few days. Wednesday, specifically.”

I stiffened. “And?” I turned away from her and braced myself on the lip of the counter.

“He asked if he could see you. I told him it was up to you—you’re old enough to make your own decisions now.” She pursed her lips and continued pacing and shaking her head. I could tell she was pissed too—but there was something else there.

“It’s been eight years, and now he wants to see me?” I was fuming. Who did he think he was anyway? Waltzing into our lives now? We’re doing just fine—thank you for nothing.

“I know it’s tough, but this may be an opportunity—”

“For what, Mom? For what? What the hell does he even want?” I pressed my palms over my eyes.

“Cade,” she said, stern. She had closed the gap between us. “This is an opportunity for you.”

“To do what?” I snorted. I could feel a stinging rising behind my eyes, and dropped my hands hard to my sides.

“Whatever you want to do.” She looked me right in the eyes, and grabbed my arm tightly.

“What if I don’t want to see him?” I challenged her. I couldn’t tell if this was one of those “make your own decisions, but make sure you choose the right one,” type of situations.

“Then don’t see him.” She released my arm. She seemed so conflicted—I couldn’t read her. “But know that not everyone gets a chance like this.”

I could tell she was trying hard not to sway my opinion one way or the other. She never talked much about my dad—only if I had questions. I could tell he’d hurt her pretty bad.

“You’re right, not everyone has a deadbeat father come knocking, asking you to choose to meet with him or not.” What a prick. I should ask him where he ‘vacationed’ for the last eight years while mom worked her ass off to go to school, work, and provide for us. Dickhead. I turned away from her, shaking my head.

She placed her hand firmly on my shoulder. I could feel the tension radiating from her body. “Just let me know by Tuesday what you decide, and I’ll call and let him know either way.”

“I have to go meet Mike at the dock at seven.” I turned toward her and tried to walk past, but she stopped me.

“Cade, wait.” She folded her arms around me. “I love you, buddy.”

Her hug made me catch my breath. I could feel her hesitation and her sadness about the whole thing. I knew that she wished it had never come to this with my dad.

“I love you, too, Mom.” I sighed and rested my head on top of hers. “Thanks for telling me.”

“Of course,” she said. I thought I heard her sniffle a little, but I had never seen her cry before. “Now get on. Don’t make Mike wait on you too long.”

“Right,” I said. She definitely didn’t know about Mike and Leah yet. I could feel a headache coming on as I left toward the docks to meet Mike.

*

It was about a ten-minute walk to the dock from my house, and by the time I got there, the sun was nestled on the horizon. Everything had an orange tint to it, and the trees seemed almost black in the lighting. I could see the slouched figure of Mike leaning over the dock. I had tried to clear my head of my father on the walk over, but I couldn’t shake it completely. This needed to be about Mike and Leah.

“Hey man.” I walked up and patted him heavy on the back.

“What’s up?” Mike was drunk. He burped. “Want a beer, dude?”

“Uh sure, man.” Damn. I wasn’t surprised, but I really wasn’t in the mood to deal with this shit.

He passed me a PBR tallboy. I cracked it open and took a sip.

“Remember that time we dug that huge hole in your mom’s backyard?” Mike asked. He hadn’t looked away from the lake. The wind was blowing mini rips of water into the dock.

“Yeah.” I laughed. “Our underground fort.” We had spent one summer when we were kids digging a hole in my backyard. I think it ended up being about four feet deep by the end of it. We had been obsessed with the Ninja Turtles that summer. We had even sculpted footholds in the walls and made a small dirt couch to sit on. We kept a piece of wood over the top to hide it.

“Your mom was so pissed.” Mike smiled for a second, and then his face was blank.

I laughed and took a sip of the beer. The orange sun sank lower.

“So, Leah’s pregnant,” he offered.

“I know.” I took a deep breath and leaned on the rotting wooden railing next to him.

“I broke up with her,” he said, in a challenging way. “Can’t be mine.”

“Uh, you think it’s not?” This was not what I was expecting. Of course it was Mike’s. They had been dating for six months and doing it for five, a fact that Mike had been very open with me about. Leah wasn’t the type of girl who got around.

“Can’t be, we wrapped it every time, man.” He shrugged, smashed his empty PBR can on the railing, and chucked it into the lake.

I was silent. I knew that Leah had not cheated on him, but I didn’t think this was really a time for an “accidents happen” lecture.

“Fuckin’ bitch,” he mumbled, cracking open another beer.

“Come on, man. I don’t think she’d make this up.” I tried to sound neutral, but anger was starting to creep into my voice. My headache was really starting to pound.

“Well, I’m not fucking falling for it. She’s not going to trap me with some ‘pregnancy’ bullshit.” His words slurred together.

I snorted. “Mike, she’s fifteen, I don’t think she wants to marry you or anything. She’s scared, too.”

“What do you fucking know, man? Huh?” He shoved my chest and I dropped my beer. It hissed and spewed at our feet. I felt anger curl around my chest like a snake.

My head was still throbbing. “Listen, I don’t—”

“Of course you side with her, Mama’s boy.”

Rage flooded my body to every extremity. “Mike,” I tried to say calmly, but it came out a growl. “I know this is hard—” I grabbed his shoulder.

“You don’t fucking know anything, Cade!” He pushed me again.

I didn’t know anything? Me? The mama’s boy, the fatherless kid, and I don’t know anything? He was going to abandon Leah, just like my dad had my mom.

“I don’t know?” I yelled at him. “There is a baby and he deserves to have a father, Mike, goddammit.” I gripped his arm tighter.

Mike decked me in the face with his free hand. It felt like a rock smashing into my eye socket. I swung back, and connected with his jaw. Strings of pain shot down my wrist.

“This kid did nothing to deserve this!” I shouted. We wrestled our way to the ground.

“You don’t know anything about my life, dickhead.”

“Fuck you.” I pressed my arm hard over his chest.

He wiggled underneath it. I didn’t know? Mike was the dickhead. My father was the dickhead. How could Mike, my best friend, be acting like him?

I felt a splitting pain in my side and cried out. Mike must have raised his leg and kneed me in the side. I couldn’t breathe.

Mike scrambled to his feet. “Don’t come around anymore, Cade. I’m done talking about this. Fuck.”

I grabbed at his ankle. He kicked me again in the stomach, and I wheezed. I needed help. My pump, the injection site was on my side, he must have kicked it. “Mike.” I tried to say his name but nothing came out. I could feel the thud of each step as he ran off. I tried to sit up, but I couldn’t catch my breath. I coughed, reached for my phone, and dialed Hayley. I heard the ringing, but still couldn’t speak. Heat rushed to my head, and all I could see were images of Mike and my father, and the two of them morphing into one. No answer.

“Cade! Cade!” I heard a warped voice. I was shaking. No, someone was shaking me. I opened my eyes and saw a dark blur surrounded by white baubles like a halo. I tried to speak, but all I could do was close my eyes. “Oh God,” I heard. I think it was Hayley.

*

“Cade,” I heard. “He’s awake, Jen. His eyes are open.” Someone shouted this.

I immediately smelled hospital. My body ached everywhere, like a workout gone wrong.

“Cade, I’m here. Your mom is here,” Hayley said. She was holding my left hand. My right, I noticed, was in a cast.

My eyes opened and closed a few times before I was really awake. My mom came running into the room.

“Hayley, will you go get the nurse, please? I want her to check on him.” Hayley’s eyes were red around the rims, and so were Mom’s. She patted Hayley on the shoulder, and Hayley squeezed my hand before leaving the room. It was like someone else had been driving for the past few hours, and I was just along for the ride.

What happened?” I asked. “Where’s Mike?”

“Hayley found you on the dock like this, and called 911,” Mom said. “Was Mike with you? They can’t find him.” Her voice was full of concern. She pinched the bridge of her nose, and looked at me again. I could see tears brimming in her eyes.

“Mom,” I said. I didn’t want her to cry.

“Who did this to you boys? Did someone take Mike?” she pressed. None of them knew what had happened.

I looked away. Mike did this, I wanted to say. “No, he was there, and we kinda just got into a fight.” I shrugged.

Mom’s mouth hung open. “Did he do this?”

“I didn’t help,” I said. “We got into a fight, and—” I paused. I could see the anger flaring up in Mom’s eyes.

“And what? Where did he go?”

“It’s not all his fault, “ I said, feeling guilty. He had been wasted when I got there, and I had been heated over everything with my dad.

“So he left you there?”

“He didn’t know,” I said. “I said some stuff too.”

“You could have died, Cade.” She started to cry for real.

My nose started to tingle and I could feel my own tears well up, just looking at her. I had never seen her like this before. “Its okay, Mom. I’m okay now. Everything’s okay.” I squeezed her hand.

“I know, I just.” She took a deep breath, calming herself. She shook her head, and looked at me sternly. “No more fights, ever.”

“Promise,” I said.

“So you don’t know where Mike is?” she asked. Her brow creased.

“No, he just told me to leave him alone and walked off,” I said.

“He didn’t say where he was going?” She took out her phone and pulled up a text with someone.

I shook my head. Where could he have gone? I shouldn’t have overreacted. I couldn’t believe that Mike would actually try to run away. I hoped he hadn’t passed out somewhere like I did.

“They can’t find him anywhere I guess. Katie is a mess of course,” she said. “And Leah’s pregnant.” She looked behind her at the door.

“Hayley already knows,” I said. “That’s why I went out there to talk to him. He was pretty upset.” I didn’t want them to think Mike was the bad guy here. We were both just pissed and got into a stupid fight.

“She was the one that told me.” Mom looked preoccupied. Everything was starting to feel a little weird. I could tell there was something she was keeping from me. I couldn’t believe Mike had run away.

“Everything okay?” I asked. Mom looked at the door again. “Waiting for someone?”

“Cade.” She looked at me wide-eyed. “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t not call him since you were in the hospital. It didn’t look good for a minute there, and I couldn’t—”

“Mom, what?”

My father walked into the room.

“Cade,” he said. His voice was deeper than I remembered. His eyes were blood-shot, and he’d definitely been crying. He was older-looking than the last time I saw him. Definitely older than the picture—I glanced quickly at my jeans that were splayed on a chair next to me. Gray hairs littered the edges of his beard, and his hairline was receding a little. He had also gained a few pounds in the stomach. It had been eight years, I guess. We looked to be about the same height now.

I looked away. I was pissed, but a part of me was happy he showed up, and that part pissed me off more.

Then Hayley walked in with the nurse, and she asked everyone to leave. They all looked at me as they walked out the door. Hayley with a wary smile. Mom looking guilty—I didn’t blame her. My Dad looking scared. I was relieved to be alone for at least a moment.

The nurse checked my injection site and a few other vitals. I snatched my jeans from the chair, and dug through the pockets. The picture was still there. It was a little crinkled and folded around the edges. I stared at my father, my family. I felt so disconnected. He looked so happy. I couldn’t remember the feeling of the love in this photo. The nurse left. I hid the picture under my crumpled jeans and crossed my arms. There was a knock on the door.

“Can we talk?” My father poked his head into the room.

I nodded and he walked in slowly and took a seat in the chair next to my bed. We were both silent. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. It seemed like he was trying to make himself smaller.

“So,” I said, finally breaking the silence.

“How are you feeling?” he asked me. His voice was deep, but quiet.

I shrugged. “Fine.” He was the one that wanted to talk. Start talking, I thought.

“I—” he began. “I’m sorry.” He looked down at his feet.

“Okay.” My voice rang with annoyance.

Then, my father looked up at me and started to cry. His sobs were deep. He folded forward, cradling his head between his hands.

I stared at him, shocked. It felt like someone had dumped a cold bucket of water down my back. “I—” My voice was dry.

He looked up at me. I could see that his hands were shaking where he clutched them together in his lap.

“Can I show you something?” I asked, scrambling to pull the picture out from under my jeans.

He nodded. “Of course, anything.” He leaned forward, and looked me right in the eyes. His were the same light brown as mine.

I could feel tears sting the corners of my eyes. “Mike found this picture.” I held it out for him to see. “Our family,” I mumbled.

His eyes grew wide, and he stood and hugged me over the bed. I remained still at first, and then sank into it. He smelled like stale coffee and clean laundry.

pencil

Amanda DeNatale is an alumna of Creighton University’s MFA program where she served as the nonfiction editor for Blue River. She is currently a junior editor for F(r)iction. Amanda is a writer by day and a waitress by night. She is a St. Louis native, currently residing in Omaha, Nebraska with her cats Lady and Booger. Email: AMD34342[at]gmail.com

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