The Importance of Where; A bi-weekly glance at Grayson Russell (#3)
I’m sitting at the dining room table as I go through the folder of essays Grayson has sent to me over the last year or so. The one that caught my eye is “Father’s Day”.
Why? Maybe it’s because I haven’t heard from my good friend in a while. Maybe it’s because, much like this essay suggests, he’s taking time away from everyone because he feels it’s what is best for us. The last I knew he was setting up an interview with an artist and hopeful about leads on a staff writing position at a newspaper and magazine somewhere in South Carolina. He was also fighting off the idea to give up writing altogether. What I am sure of is that he is probably in his bedroom making love to that typewriter of his and cursing the walls where his ideas temporarily come to a halt.
Enjoy this read. You’ll walk away with a different view of why someone may have walked away from you.
Years ago I wrote my father a letter when he was in prison, and today a decade after I feel the need to start with the words, “It’s been such a long time when I was just a child.” I pause and shuffle about my wounded emotions this day. I pull the curtains back after a healthy but sordid rain. The western wall, my father, as I once wrote. The eastern, my mother. I look outside toward the declining sun. I rise and put on my best clothes and sit down again. I light one of the cigarettes, a brand that he loved after he quit smoking. Marlboro’s, a soft pack. He had said that in the one conversation we ever had. You see the years before we ever had that conversation I always wondered what he would say. You see he had kept out of the view of my life since my mother left him; but there was always an aura, a figure, his ghost, something I had to see. My Father.
I don’t know who said memory is a ruined home, a place that needs to be destroyed. The thing is I had no memories to destroy, only what I was told and what I was not told. My mother came up with several reasons over the years for why she left him. Some of them were painted with her anger. Some of them were coloured with her hope that I might have a better environment to grow. And as she grew older the picture in her memory began to fade and crackle. And as I grew older, I could feel the overcompensation from my family and from her. It was not a unique thing who never saw the other half of his life, to be treated as a king or a beautiful dog.
It was some years ago when I begged my grandmother to help me find him, and within less than a few seconds of my supplication to her, she had written me off, if I was to go, to look after, to see my father.
When we finally met, two years later at a diner for lunch and I learned he was much shorter than me, and more nervous than I thought myself. Not long after I had googled his name and found where he was and called him, and he answered with the same name, the clothes, what people have called me since I was born. My name, I replied to his. He had been waiting for the call for twenty four odd years, and he said. “Can I take you to lunch tomorrow?” ‘Yes.’ The phone died. I called my mother and told her I had found him. What distraught and bruised heart she must have had. I was happy, because I had found the cheap bastard who had burnt my mother and did something so outrageous to his own mother that she disowned me for even having the curiosity to look for her first son. I remember asking her why. I remembering pleading, but I didn’t know that he was the iceberg that sunk her, and that she and my mother were in a conspiracy to protect me from such a collision.
I remember what I wore for some reason, a plaid button up shirt I had bought second hand. I wore a necklace that I had been told since I was a child had been blessed by the Pope, and that was my father’s. To this day I don’t know if I wore it as an insult, or homage. I had worn it for two years, angry between the slipstreams of midnights when I had no one to call, and wished that he might answer.
My grandmother again, I never saw again. She died anonymous, as was her wish. That my father should never step over her grave. I guess because, as the story unfolds, he had kidnapped my mother at gun point, drove to his mother’s house, drug her out into the lawn and put a revolver down her throat and demanded money. That is something a child will never know. So I get her refusal, her reticence. She died a very bitter woman, alone. So alone she shunned me and her first born son, and her second son in some respects and wrote her will in such a way that would make us all but outlaws to stand near her grave. That day in the diner when I first spoke with my father, he was shocked that she had not left me anything, any money. I explained. I told him that at the risk of finding you she had cut me off. She had ruined her grandson’s mobility. It didn’t work. I looked him in the eye and he tried to weep, or to come off in a way that I wasn’t going to buy. “I thought she would have left you something, son.” I had never heard that word before and I told him that was her choice, and I had made mine. I didn’t say to him how heartbroken the choice rent me. That to hear from him, a man I did not know, a stranger to my entire world, a legend, that someone close to me passed away. There was a long silence at that table in that diner. Then he spoke up, and said. “Tomorrow let’s go see her grave.”
Now my grandmother was a tough woman. She smoked Winston light one hundreds, and wore a gold chain around her neck, and blue denim shirts that cut just above her cleavage and she had short hair, went to the beauty parlor and slept with a net around her that hair. She had two dark war dogs, Rottweiler’s and her second son had the illusion that he was in the C.I.A. Her first son, my father, if I don’t botch the story, was born out of wedlock when she was nineteen, and hidden from her father for weeks in the attic beneath a mattress. It may be that her father would have killed him or her, or both. She was young, lithe, and beautiful. She was nineteen. Her whole life was
ahead of her. I don’t know how she concealed the pregnancy as long as she did. But women have a way of concealing everything. I think of when I was born. I was shown to people, and people were happy. My grandmother was happy. She loved me for a time. She helped my mother through the dark years, when we supped on food stamps. She bought gas for the winter. She even bought me my first swing set. I remember her and my mother taking turns, pushing me into the heights, the drift backwards, the freedom, weightlessness.
I always thought she would be there. But I called her and made the reckless mistake of asking about my father. I could still tell we were online, but there was an evil silence. I called to her. I said, “Grandma, grandma, please.” Then I heard the voice of my father’s brother. “She doesn’t want to talk. What do you need?”’ I want to find my father’, I said. He paused, like it were a moment he knew he could not stand outside of.
“She is really upset, right now.”
“Look. We get our hair cut at the same place. We both call in, we avoid each other.”
“Are you sure about this.”
“No, not at all.”
“That’s all I can tell you.”
“When’s the last you’ve seen him.”
“He is in town is all I know.”
“When did you see him last, Goddamn it?”
“I ran into him, in a bar. He was with a girl I used to date. She didn’t know we were brothers. He looked good, I hadn’t seen him years. Then she asked if he had ever been married or had kids. He said no. I hit him.”
That was the last conversation I had with my grandmother and my uncle. I met my father when I was twenty four. I was broke and I was moving to New York to become a writer. We had lunch. I learned that my grandmother had died in her bitterness, which was not new to me. My father had money then. He bought lunch, and had quit smoking. He ran marathons and had remarried to a woman much younger than him. I forget her name because she was not my mother. When we walked out of the diner, three or four women assailed him, and he, he reluctantly introduced me as his son. They shook my hand as if they were amazed. We drove to the place that I was staying, and he asked how I found him after all these years. It was the post office box. You have a phone number. You are the corporate official for a marathon run for Peace. You have ran in 17 different races, even though you use different names, or aggregates of the same name I have been hunting you for twenty four years. That and I am your son.
He dropped me off, and dug into his billfold and brought out a hundred dollar bill. He said son I haven’t given you anything in twenty four years. I resisted, but I took it anyway, as a token faith for the last twenty four years of my life. I walked inside and went to sleep with a kind of peace I never knew, but dreamt of. We were going to see my grandmother’s grave, we were going to walk together over, a son and father, against her bitterness. I was going to buy him lunch. But I waited in that godforsaken drive way for five hours, alone, dressed as I was, filled with the sorrow of my grandmother’s death and her unforgiving hatred toward her first born. Filled with joy that I had finally met my father after all those long years, and how I was disowned for wanting to meet him. He never came that day. I never saw him again. The hundred dollar bill he gave me was stolen. I waited in that driveway for more time to hours than I ever want to count again. I broke my nose on the patio doors because I stumbled. It was the longest night of my life. When I woke the next morning, I turned the news on. The man that I had just met less that fourteen hours ago was being hunted. My father was being hunted. Who I am. Who I will always be was being hunted. The hundred dollar bill he gave me had been part of a donation to shelters that protect battered women and abused children.
He ran to some anonymous hotel somewhere near the ocean and was picked up and taken to prison.
I wrote him in prison. I wrote the Warden. I wrote everyone. I never got the letter back.
My God, I wish I could see him now, tomorrow on father’s day. I wish I could say I love you, pops. You’re the foil in the whole goddam pan of things, but I wish to say I can’t. It’s all crying wolf.
Then I think backwards, from this story. I didn’t know him at all. It must be hell for a son raised beneath a mattress, when your own mother will not, can’t, picture you as a reality. When I look at it that way my father was right to put a revolver down his mother’s throat. He was right to take the money and try to run, the poor bastard. He was right to buy me lunch and give me a hundred dollars in blood money. He was right to say I will see you tomorrow, son. Because I think he wanted to change everything. I think he was just too consumed with bitterness to forgive himself for what he had done to his mother. I think he lost the way back. He thought burning anther bridge would make the difference. Then I came, and I am not sure he could handle that very well. He had stolen over three hundred thousand dollars and he was on the run.
I don’t know if I have it in my heart or I am just insane, but I often dream of that run. I would have done it, hands down to beat the grass. For he is my father, and I dream I could have gotten us out of here. We could have seen the sea of Cortez together, smoked the cigarette that I am putting out in the ashtray. He could have never handed me that hundred dollars. I would have been safe to know my grandmother died from another source.
The thing is my father is not the last person I have heard from. I have been burnt like him from the entire memory of that family, from the ancestry, the blood line cut.
He put a gun down my grandmother’s throat. He kidnapped my mother. He was hidden as an infant. He stole an inordinate amount of money from people who cared to make the world better, who donated. He bought me lunch. He was arrested and I never saw him again.
The thing is, he didn’t want me to run with him. He always wanted to stay as far away from me as he could, because that was the one good thing he could do. He wanted to protect me just as much as his mother did, as mine.
I am his son.
I am not the sum of his failures.
I am the hope of all that he has given to this world.