Monday, June 16, 2014

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Eighteen Months: one profile of my father

The only photo I have of my father is on his driver's license

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 I've been bringing up my father a lot on my blog, but I haven't really said much about him other than the fact that he left when I was young. I've had a few readers contact me, asking to know more about him. I felt it was time to give a little back story on the man that so shaped my life. This is an essay I wrote a few years ago about my father. It was originally published in North Dakota Quarterly.

The Utah County Jail was 30 minutes from Grandma’s house. She couldn’t drive, so I drove her, every Thursday, for eighteen months to visit her son—my father. The first time we visited, Grandma didn’t ask that I turn on my blinker, or slow down, or not drive so damn close to the curb.  She didn’t speak, her eyes fixed on the highway leading us from Dad’s childhood home to the cell he now lived in. Grandma was seventy-eight. She stood five two with straight brown hair and a short round nose, traits she passed down to my father and then to me. Raised in Charleston, a farming community in central Utah, Grandma often spoke of the Great Depression, saying that she survived on SPAM, water, and the will of the Lord. In the evenings, she sat in the living room with Cheetos, and a Sprite, and listened to the Book of Mormon on audio. After my parents’ divorce, I moved in under two conditions: I would attend church, and I would keep my hair short.
This was the summer of ‘98. Each cellblock of the Utah County Jail is named after a ski resort—Alta, Solitude, Snowbird, and Sundance. We met Dad in the Solitude corridor; it was stagnant and dry and not what I’d expected. I was 16 and Mormon and didn’t understand the distinction between prison and jail. I assumed sweat and sin, anger and remorse, would weight the air, but the corridor was clean and church quiet. Dad sat behind Plexiglass, arms crossed reverently, wearing a white crew collared t-shirt that was visible through the v-neck of an orange jump suit.  Boyish heart-breaking freckles spackled his cheekbones and contrasted his small-pitted eyes and dark eyebrows. His lips were puckered—monkey-like—because he had no teeth.
Dad communicated through a blue telephone with a heavy metal cable. The receiver crackled, flattening his usual chirp to the husky baritone of a long time smoker. Two weeks in jail, and his face already showed a mix of fear and boredom, eyes glossy and cold, and at times I couldn’t tell if he was looking at us or a reflection in the glass. Gray streaked his black hair, and as we spoke, he licked his palm and dragged it across his scalp. Dad was given an eighteen-month sentence for driving under the influence with a revoked license, forging prescriptions, and insubordination towards a police officer. Later, he missed court dates. These offenses were misdemeanors, but once placed together before a judge, they became felonies.
There was one phone, so Grandma and I took turns.
“I’m happy you stopped by.” Dad said. He asked how I was doing, and said he needed a drink. “Not a lot happens in here, and I can’t sleep.”
Grandma and I swapped places, and as she and Dad spoke, I wondered what Dad thought about when he was awake, at night, in his bunk. Did he think about me? Or his mother? Did he retrace his steps, wondering how he found himself in an 8 by 15 cell with three other men, or was his mind as blank as the white cinderblock walls that surrounded him? I don’t know, but what I do know is that each time we visited Dad all I could think about was how badly I never wanted to become him. And as Grandma gazed at Dad, saying little, her small hand holding a handkerchief, she must have wondered where she went wrong raising her son.
In the fall of ‘97, Dad’s teeth blackened and died. He never told me why, and I assume it had something to do with his Vicodin addiction. Before they could fester, his teeth were pulled. His mouth became a soft meaty cavity with a lonely tongue.  Grandma gave him money for dentures, but Dad spent it on alcohol and Vicodin. Without the reinforcement of teeth, his flesh caved in on the jawbone. Scrambled eggs, Jell-O, oatmeal, and other soft entrees were his diet. He slurred. His gums bled. Fluid the color of weak strawberry milk drained from the corners of his lips. He caught it with his left cuff.
Dad was 46. Hunching made him appear shorter than five seven. He was a laboring man with flat feet and slender hips, traits he passed to me. He walked with a feeble barrel‑legged strut, his eyes fogged and distant. He wore weighty leather boots and thick jeans. Monday through Saturday Dad installed heating and air-conditioning ducts. Sundays were spent alone in a one-bedroom apartment high and drunk and watching the Playboy Channel. Once, when dad was visiting us, Grandma asked why Randy was printed on the back of his belt. “So when I pull my head out of my ass, I’ll know my name,” he said. She told him he had a foul mouth, and sent him to his apartment.
During my junior year, about six months before Dad’s incarceration, he installed my high school library ventilation system. Once, I watched him from a library alcove. I didn’t tell him I was there; I just wanted to watch him.
Dad lugged a seven-foot aluminum ladder in his right hand with a sloppy right leaning stride, his weary boots heals scraping the carpet. In his left hand was a small plastic cooler. He leaned the ladder against the wall and sat on the floor. From the cooler he pulled a flat aluminum can of herring and a Budweiser tucked in a thin blue insulated can liner. He hunched, his sloping shoulders bent forward, a beer between his legs, and gripped chunks of fish with his fingers and chomped them with hard calloused gums. I remember a weight in my gut—heavy and unyielding. I was 16 years old. Dad wore a size nine shoe, 32‑inch waist jeans, and a medium shirt. So did I. His handwriting was sloppy and scrunched, lost somewhere between cursive and standard. So was mine. In so many ways the two of us were similar: hair and eye color, love for sweets and hatred for spicy food, irritable stomachs, poor spelling, and so on. As I gazed at this toothless, hunched over man drinking beer in my high school library, I longed to be nothing like him. But he was my father, and I feared how much he was a part of me. Were my genetics aligned like a compass, forced to point at the same future? Would his Budweiser eventually slide into my palm as easily as his Wranglers and boots slid over my legs?

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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times Motherlode, Huffington Post Parents, Huffington Post Weddings, and The Good Men Project. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley