Let's grab a beer, my father told me one Saturday. I was up visiting, and he hadn't said much to me all day--he'd ask the basic questions; I'd answer them--but then, in the middle of the baseball game we were watching, he shut off the television and asked if I wanted to head with him to Hamill's, the bar and restaurant he always went to after work. Sure, I said. And we got in the car and went down the street.
This is only the second time I've visited him. I'm in North Carolina--living just outside of Raleigh--and I'm working in an advertising agency in the city and making pretty good money. It's not what I expected to do: really, I wanted to work in movies as an actor and a director, but you realize pretty quickly it's you against 3,000 other people and likely more. You tell yourself there's no point. You have to shoot for the next best thing.
My father never understood this. He wanted to me to get a "real" job--which, ironically, I ended up getting, but that's beside the point. It's the principle of the thing. Land of the free and the home of the brave, right? We're the country where it's okay to pursue your dreams. But he didn't want me to pursue mine.
That's part of the reason I headed down the coast to a place I'd never been. It was a place I'd never wanted to go. I'd grown up in Boston and heard everyone below, well, Virginia was a hick. We were the educated ones, the ones who had the doctors and the lawyers and all that. They had bad teeth.
But it wasn't true. I settled in and found everyone warm, smart, and fun--and I met my wife down here, too. I'm happy. It's a great life.
I didn't have such a great life when I was at home. My mother died when I was young, and I never got a chance to know her. It was just me and my father, and he was strict: come home immediately after school; if you go out, you have to be home by 10 p.m. If I disobeyed any of his rules, I'd get these obnoxious lectures, and sometimes he'd even shout at me. I broke the rules only a few times, but the results were enough to get me to hate him. Other than that, he never talked to me much. Our house was often filled with silences that hung heavy like blizzard-fresh snow on old, dying trees.
So I kept my distance. He worked in a business somewhere. I never asked him what he did, and I didn't really care to find out. I don't mean this in a cryptic way, as if he was some kind of a gangster and I wanted to put blinders over my eyes and ignore his activities. It was because I wanted nothing to do with him.
When I moved to Raleigh, I didn't talk to him for five years.
But then I realized I should start again. Slowly. I didn't really do it on my own. I'd see his messages--hey, are you doing okay?--and I'd feel terrible. I'd say to myself: look, maybe the guy wasn't the best dad, but he's still yours. And who else do you have?
So I'd call him. We'd talk for ten to twenty minutes, and I'd fill him in on things, but then I'd tell him I'd need to get going. And so on.
But then I decided to start visiting him. I stayed for a day. We got dinner, went to the movies, and then I drove to my hotel, slept, and flew home early the next morning.
Now, a year later, we were in the car, and we were going for a beer. I kept looking out the window, reflecting on how much my town had changed: the thickets of plants and trees that had once buffered the streets had been cleared and now, in their stead, stood tall brown apartment buildings and fresh, hip storefronts. Everything seemed bigger. The streets were clogged with traffic; people rushed along the sidewalks. It was as if the town wanted to separate itself from its past and plow headfirst into the future, away from everything. As I had done.
My father saw me looking around--rubbernecking at my own town--and laughed, and then, in his gruff way, said: "Different, huh?"
"You like it?"
"Uh, no. Not really. I mean, I didn't like the town while I was here, but the place it is now is too different."
He looked away, satisfied with something. I couldn't tell what.
I pulled out my iPhone and the headphones I had in my pocket and plugged them in and started listening to some music. I flipped my gaze back to the outdoors.
The awkwardness would have to subside at some point, I said to myself. I hope it would soon. I tried to ignore the horrible thoughts I'd had about him when I was younger--that he'd disappear, for instance, so I wouldn't have to worry about him. He'd become a sob story I could tell people. I haven't seen my dad in ten years, I could say. I miss him. And they would respond: Oh, you poor thing. And then they would never have to hear of our shattered relationship, the abyss that pretended to be family, and I'd be in the clear.
I continued to stare out the window, hoping I'd see something interesting. But nothing outside caught my eye. More bigness, more trees, more gentrification. But then we drove by a house that hadn't changed--a red-bricked thing with the same faded roof and ivy-covered sides that it had when I was a kid. And then I remembered.
I was standing in front of that very house and was running around with neighborhood kids, when one of them pushed me to the ground. I was no more than seven, and it was probably over something like tag. Perhaps we couldn't agree which one of us was it, and so, the social contract having broken down, we resorted to blows.
I didn't expect it, though. No, nothing like this had ever happened to me before. And so I cried. I wailed, yelled. I screwed up my face, turned it toward the sky, and screamed. I heard shoes slapping the pavement. The sound got closer. And then I felt someone hugging me: him, my father.
I'd forgotten about that. I'd buried it under the years of anger and pain, of wanting him to go away.
I turned toward him again--this time, with fresh eyes, with increasingly fresh eyes. Everything began to melt. It was like remembering your middle or high school bully and all the things he did to you, and so you always held him in contempt, but then you see him at the ten-year reunion, and he's a mild-mannered family man who speaks in the softest of tones and tells everyone he has to leave by quarter of ten: his favorite show, a medical drama, is on.
I heard the clicking of the blinker, and soon we were pulling into the Hamill's parking lot, pockmarked and filled with weeds. The restaurant itself was no better: faded and chipped paint, missing roof tiles. But this was the place everyone in town went. You'd walk in and see neighbors, acquaintances, all of whom would give you a quick head nod or stop you as you were on your way to your table, asking you about your weekend plans or your home life or whether you'd be going to the Fourth of July festival. And it was a place my father loved.
He parked, and then he sighed. He cleared his throat. I saw him reach down into the center console and pull out something red--which I soon realized was a book.
He said: "Give me a few minutes, okay?" And he exited the car and walked over to the lawn, where he stood looking down at the book, which was old and worn and faded, with bending at the spine. I watched him read it closely, his finger following every word, and then he came back over to the car, put the book down, and said: "All right. Let's go."
"Sure thing," I said.
But I hesitated. He saw a friend of his standing outside of the entrance, and so he waved and walked over to him. I used it as my chance to pull out the red book, and on the front of it I saw "Christian Prayer" on the front and flipped to the inside cover, and there, written in marker, was: "Bro. Mark."
I couldn't help but stare at him. I had visions of him rising at dawn for prayer, indistinguishable from the other religious--all habits the same, all haircuts the same, all eyes focused on the eternal. I decided to ask him about it.
I got out of the car and walked toward the restaurant, and he saw me coming and stopped his conversation. His friend left, and then my father patted me on the back, and we walked into the restaurant together.