Last Spring I spent an afternoon with my sisters, Pam and Lisa. Pam’s house sits on what used to be soybean fields with about a thousand other beige houses. Her back deck overlooks her yard (dandelions, a few spindly trees) and the new freeway that’s transformed the little river town we grew up in into a suburb of Minneapolis.
As we began our second glasses of wine, Lisa told us about one of her co-workers at the DMV. She had to raise her voice to be heard above the traffic.
“We just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “He’s just not the type at all.”
“What type is he supposed to be?” I asked.
Lisa rolled her eyes. “David,” she said, “don’t get politically correct on me. You know what I mean.”
“Expecting all gay guys to be the same,” I said, “is like expecting all straight guys to be the same.”
“I’m just saying he doesn’t fit the stereotype.”
“Which is what?”
“He just isn’t feminine. Most gay guys are sort of feminine, right?”
It wasn’t until this moment that I knew I was going to go through with it.
“Not all of them,” I said.
Pam clunked her wine glass down on the picnic table and was all eyes.
“He’s just trying to mess with us,” Lisa said. She gave me a dismissive wave, but was also watching me.
“David?” Pam asked.
I shrugged and said: “I always thought it was kind of obvious.”
There was a moment of just traffic noise and then Lisa came close to shouting: “What the hell, David, are you kidding?! Seriously, are you kidding? Are you trying to mess with our heads?!” She didn’t pause for answers, so I sat back against Pam’s house and sipped my wine. Lisa’s good at giving the big reaction.
When Pam could get the words in, she asked: “What about Beth Steinke?”
“Beth Steinke?” I said, “That was about a hundred years ago. I think I was still trying to figure things out.”
“Was she too stanky?” Lisa asked and laughed. Sometimes Lisa’s jokes are too obvious to be funny.
“She was a sweetheart,” Pam said.
Pam is intrinsically kind and always feeling guilty about not being able to stick to whatever diet she’s on. She has four kids and a successful husband who isn’t around much. When I was younger the only people who interested me were other artists from whom I could learn. Now I’m more appreciative of kindness.
“David,” she asked, “is it a choice?”
“No, why would anyone choose to be gay?”
“Does the thought of having sex with women disgust you?”
“I love women,” I said, “I just don’t want to kiss them.”
“Are you a top or a bottom?” Lisa asked, mimicking Pam’s seriousness.
“It depends,” I said, “on how generous I’m feeling.”
Lisa laughed and Pam asked: “What does that mean…top or bottom?” Lisa threw her head back and really laughed.
Lisa has green eyes and is out-spoken. She’s pretty and smart and we’ve clashed some over the years. I’m sure she’d say I’m a bigger control freak than she is, but whenever she eats out she breezes by the “Please Wait to Be Seated” sign and seats herself. If the hostess says anything, Lisa pretends she missed the sign. That’s Lisa.
When we were done explaining “top or bottom,” and had settled back down, Pam said: “David, I feel kind of bad you waited this long to tell us.”
“I know,” I said, “I’m sorry. I wanted to, but I figured once I did, it would get back to dad. That’s what’s always held me back.”
My sisters’ expressions showed they understood and then Lisa shook her head.
“It might be good for him,” she said. “That old fart needs to be shaken up.”
“Oh, I don’t know…” Pam replied.
“If you’re afraid of him finding out,” Lisa asked, “why are you telling us now? Are you going to swear us to secrecy?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “The thought of coming out to him makes me ill, but it seems silly to be past thirty and to still be keeping this secret. Also, my partner’s been pushing me. We rented an apartment on Lake Calhoun and he said he’s not going to walk around the lake every time one of you pops over.”
“And his name is…?” Lisa asked with a smile.
“His name is Patrick.”
“And he’s a photographer who can talk to anybody. He’s an optimist-”
“Thank God!” Lisa said and Pam laughed.
“-he can cook, and his Jewish parents treat me like a second son.”
Pam gave me a “good for you” smile.
“He’s good looking isn’t he?” Lisa asked.
“Yeah,” I said, “Dark curls, tall, no gut. It’s depressing.”
Pam frowned and said: “David, you’re still good looking.”
Over the last few years I’ve grown a gut and a double chin. No one notices me now when I walk into a coffee shop or a restaurant. It’s kind of a downer, but probably good for me. I wasted too much of my twenties going around thinking I was good looking.
Lisa suddenly grabbed my arm and said: “You should bring Patrick to Kristin’s party!”
Kristin was Lisa’s only child and was graduating from High School. She’s one of those wild, but likable kids who everyone prays will get through school. Since Lisa is divorced and lives in an apartment, the party was going to take place at Pam’s.
I had a sinking feeling.
“No, David, listen,” Lisa said, “the party would be perfect. All you’d have to do is show up together and people could figure it out for themselves. You wouldn’t have to make any big announcements. Those who don’t make it to the party will hear from those who did and you’ll have the entire family done in one afternoon.”
“I’m not sure it would be the best way to tell Dad,” I replied.
My sisters began to debate our father’s reaction. It didn’t matter to them that I hadn’t consented to bring Patrick to the party. I slid down to the box of wine and worked the little plastic nozzle. My sisters were facing each other, talking a mile a minute, and I didn’t bother sliding back down to them. It’d been fun to reveal my secret, but now things were slipping.
On the opposite side of the freeway the car dealerships were competing to see who could fly the most American flags. There were acres of fresh asphalt and chain restaurants and mini-vans and SUVs and a white jet trail was ascending in the pale sky above the freeway.
Beyond the new development was the older part of town. There our father was still living in the little stucco house in which we’d grown up. I pictured the oak trees budding above the tidy yards, the blue morning glories and the red hummingbird feeders. And I pictured my reticent, workaholic father.
Things had been strange between us since Christmas. In Pam’s kitchen I’d handed him a check for twenty-seven hundred dollars. It was all the money he’d loaned me since I’d left my hometown. He looked put-out. Without a word, he folded the check and slipped it into his wallet. My father has always been weird about money and I don’t know what irritated me more, his inability to say thanks or my continuing need for his approval. I asked if he was disappointed I hadn’t given him interest and he took a sip from his Dr. Pepper and asked if I was still freelancing. I told him I was barely scraping by and walked out of the kitchen.
After a decade and a half of struggling I’ve found work I love. I’m a set designer in the Twin Cities theater scene. I’ll never be rich, but I can pick and choose my projects. My father considers what I do freelancing because I don’t work a traditional nine to five job with benefits and all the rest. And maybe I am freelancing. If anyone else said it I wouldn’t be offended, but coming from him it’s an insult.
Back on the porch, my sisters were running through our family members. Would Aunt Ginny give me a hug or a snub? It sounded like they were looking forward to some backyard drama. My stomach felt funky and I couldn’t listen anymore. I got up from the picnic table and told my sisters I had to get back to the city.
Kristin had to complete summer school before receiving her diploma, so her graduation party wasn’t going to take place until August. I had the entire summer to brood and speculate about my father’s reaction. For twelve weeks my rhythm was off. I stubbed my toes and spilled my coffee. The weather was beautiful, but I was too distracted to appreciate it.
I also spent the summer wondering what my mom’s reaction would have been. She died from breast cancer the summer after I’d graduated from High School. She was a housewife who was kind like Pam and funny like Lisa. I’ve never respected anyone more than her, and somehow worrying about coming out to my father made me miss her even more.
By July I’d gone back and forth so many times on whether or not to bring Patrick to the party that he announced that he would go without me if he had to. He was actually looking forward to it. He told me to quit making up stories in my head and that planned speeches never work. I knew he was right, but I couldn’t stop. I also couldn’t stop reliving old memories. One in particular kept popping up in my dreams.
On a snowy morning when I was ten, my father and I drove into the city to pick up Pam at the airport. In the concourse leading to her gate, there was a group of men who were chanting and dancing as they banged on tambourines. They had shaved heads and were dressed in white. In the Seventies in my hometown guys like these were called Moonies and I’d never seen anything so exotic.
As my father and I passed the men, one ran up and tried to pin a carnation to his shirt. Without breaking stride my father shoved the guy so powerfully he slammed into windows that were at least six feet behind him. He hit so hard I thought he was going to land on top of the baggage handlers. The chanting stopped and as I followed behind my father in complete shock, the guy who’d been shoved called: “God Bless You, Sir!”
My father was never violent with us, but his words could feel like the shove he gave the Moonie. When Pam received her degree in social work (she’s the only one of us with a degree) he said: “You’re going to find out real quick there aren’t many good days in a job like that.” Pam looked dazed and when Lisa reprimanded him, he said: “Tough, I tell the truth and sometimes the truth hurts.”
He might be right about social work, but deep down he’s bitter. He pines for some lost, golden age in America that I have a feeling was invented by the advertisers in Life Magazine. And if I’m wrong and there was such an age, I’m positive it only existed for straight, white guys with money. My father and I don’t share the same reality.
When the party was less than a week away, Lisa called and offered to break my news to our father. It was obvious that she was looking for some kind of a showdown and I felt used. I was also stressed from taking on too much work and Lisa and I ended up having a blow-out argument. Later in bed, as I relived the argument for the hundredth time, I realized what I needed to do. On the Friday before the party, I took off after lunch and drove back to my hometown.
When I got to my father’s house he was in his driveway, under the hood of a classic car. He owned “Slim’s Service and Auto Repair” for over thirty years and now that he’s supposedly retired he works out of his garage. I think he does all right. He doesn’t work on anything foreign and he only accepts cash so the “criminals in Washington can’t steal a dime.”
I parked behind the 50’s car and came around to where my father was bent over the massive engine. He always looks the same. He’s had the same sharp jaw line and white crew cut my entire life.
I said hey and he turned and gave me a suspicious look. Then his bicep formed a walnut-sized lump as he tightened a mounting screw. My father has the kind of stringy muscles that are stronger than they look.
“How come you’re here?” he asked.
“I just felt like taking a ride.”
He moved around to the far side of the engine and I saw his white t-shirt was clean except for where his belly had brushed against surfaces while he’d worked. His ever-present toothpick was also in the corner of his mouth. I’ve never understood why old guys are so into toothpicks. Lisa says he’s dependent on them because of the tough meat he likes to eat with his mushy vegetables.
I walked around the car.
“Wow,” I said, “she’s a beauty. A ’57?”
“A ’56,” he said, “It’s Dr. Taylor’s. I rebuilt her carb.”
The Chevy Bel Air Hardtop had big, rounded contours and even with its hood up looked like it was leaning forward, ready to take off. It was black with white tailfins and its gleaming chrome grill looked like barred teeth.
“You want some help?” I asked.
“Nah,” he said, “it’s a one-man job.”
As he reconnected the fuel line I was reminded of the times I’d watched him work when I was a kid. Back then, if I ever needed something, I’d have to walk down the hill and across the railroad tracks to his service station.
“You’re not working today?” he asked.
“I worked this morning.”
He set his screwdriver down and selected a flat wrench from the leather apron that was draped over the Bel Air’s right quarter panel.
“Kristin got through summer school,” I said to his profile.
“Having to sit through summer school after her friends had graduated must have been hard.”
He didn’t say anything. I took a breath. Robins were chirping. A crow cawed.
“Are you going to her party?” I asked.
Again, he didn’t say anything.
“I’m bringing a date.”
“Is there a point to all this?” he asked without looking up from the engine.
My stomach was churning and I wanted to ask him how often he was checking his blood sugar. Instead I took the plunge and said: “My date’s name is Patrick.”
I think I saw him flinch. Then, without looking at me, he walked into his garage. He went to the peg board above his workbench and selected a smaller wrench. When he came back he was really going to town on the toothpick. He stopped in front of the Chevy and rubbed the back of his neck. Then he raised his eyes and said: “I don’t know what sin I’ve committed to warrant having to stand here and listen to this goddamn garbage.”
He went back to work as I stood next to the Bel Air with my ears ringing. Then I walked back down to my car. My keys were still in my hand and I thought about how easy it would be to get in and back out of the driveway. I paced next to my car. I wanted to throttle Lisa. What did my sex life have to do with my relationship with my father? What possible difference did it make? I felt like a schmuck. I’m not embarrassed about being gay, I’m just private. I’m never going to go dancing down the street in a gay-pride parade.
I decided to leave, but as I swung open my car door, my father called to me. He came down the driveway and then stood next to my front tire. A red grease rag was hanging from his hand and I couldn’t look at his face. I just kept looking at that red grease rag. I shut my door with more force than I’d intended and felt a little silly as a dog barked.
“You must really think I’m a bumpkin,” he said.
“You think I don’t know you, my own son?”
I was astonished. “Then how come you’re mad?”
“I’m not mad.”
“Yeah you are.”
My father squatted down and began pulling clover from where tree roots had bumped up and cracked the driveway’s asphalt. He pulled slowly in order to extract the thin, clean, white roots along with each weed.
“Well,” he said, squinting up, “so you tell me. What am I supposed to do? Give you a hug and tell you how proud I am you’re a…?” he scoffed.
“I didn’t expect anything. It just seemed dishonest not to tell you.”
“The thing I don’t understand,” he said, “is why everyone broadcasts every goddamn detail about their goddamn sex lives. It was better in my day when you did your rutting and then knew enough to keep your goddamn mouth shut.”
“I’m not broadcasting any details.”
“Good,” he said. “That’s something.”
He pulled more weeds and I turned around and leaned against my car. There didn’t seem to be anything more to say. In a weird way I understood where he was coming from.
I looked around. The old neighborhood hadn’t changed much. For once there hadn’t been a late-summer drought and the lawns were lush. The trees were impressive and met in several places over the street. When I lived here I thought of my hometown as consisting of television, lawn maintenance and adultery. Now I realize it’s mostly made up of people just trying to raise their kids and pay off their mortgages.
I pointed to the house across the street. “Do the Cantwells still live there?” I asked.
My father looked. “Yeah,” he said, “thirty-five years and Jerry Cantwell still doesn’t wave when we’re both going for our mail.” The mailboxes stood at the edge of the street facing one another.
“Do you wave at him?” I asked.
“I did for the first ten.”
“Mrs. Cantwell used to spy on me.”
“Yeah, I used to catch her as I mowed the lawn in my cut-offs. As I mowed toward her I’d see her peeping through her drapes. Then when I was walking away I’d spin around and give her a big wave.” I demonstrated the wave. “The drapes would come flying together.”
My father smiled. “Maybe that’s why Cantwell doesn’t wave,” he said.
He dropped his handful of weeds on the edge of the driveway and then stood up and leaned back against my car. We were standing shoulder to shoulder, with my father’s putting green of a front yard before us. A big maple in its center shaded the yard and the front of the house. There were patches of sunlight and shadow on the lawn. It all looked underwater and I could smell the loamy soil. A yellow monarch zigzagged over the neighbor’s marigolds and then flew up over the street.
“You really want to bring this guy to Kristin’s party?” my father asked.
I shrugged. “It was Lisa’s idea.”
My father shook his head. “She always has to stir things up,” he said.
“Yeah, but I think I’d still like to bring him.”
As I waited for him to say something a woman in a nylon jacket walked by with an overweight Shetland sheepdog. The sheltie looked like a walking ottoman. When she was gone, my father still didn’t say anything, but I could tell something was coming. A breeze shivered through the maple making the patches of sunlight and shadow shift upon the lawn.
“One summer when I was a kid,” he said, “my dad shipped me and my little brother out to work on farms. He said it was time for us to pull our own weight and to contribute to the household. This made me mad because my brother and I had a paper route and my father took most of what we made. There was competition for the routes and I told him that if we gave it up for the summer we’d never get it back. But he wouldn’t listen. He just kept saying it was high time we pulled our own weight. John was eleven and I was thirteen. I wanted to tell him it was high time he held down a job for more than six months.
“When school ended John went to work on my uncle’s farm and I went to work for German immigrants who didn’t have any kids. My dad could have put us both on my uncle’s place. It was a big farm and we always had fun with our cousins, but he had to make it as difficult as he could.”
My father pointed towards the south. “The Schnitzlers,” he continued, “were way out in the sticks and I was cut-off from everything. They didn’t have running water or electricity, their outhouse was full of spiders and they ate runny sauerkraut with every meal. Mrs. Schnitzler was nice enough, but she didn’t speak English, and Mr. Schnitzler was angry because I’d arrived not knowing anything about farming. I was miserable. It was the first time I’d ever been lonely. But I got up every morning and worked my tail off, thinking this would somehow show-up my dad.
“After a month or so I got a letter from my mom saying my uncle was going to have a pig roast for the Fourth of July. This became all I thought about. I couldn’t wait to taste the pork melting on my tongue and to see everyone, and to show my dad I was, unlike him, a real working man.
“The morning of the party I rushed through my chores and then scrubbed myself outside at the pump. Mr. Schnitzler wouldn’t lend me his truck because I’d clipped it while backing it into his corn crib, so I had to bike the twenty-five miles between the farms. That doesn’t sound far, but it was all on gravel, through rolling cornfields and I had a one-speed. The bikes back then weren’t as good as they are now.
“When I started out there were dark clouds in the West and I could smell rain. I pedaled my ass off and by the time I could see my uncle’s farm it was sprinkling and I was soaked with sweat. The farm was on a rise and you could see its clump of trees for miles. It had three silos which was a big deal during the Depression. It showed everyone how prosperous you were. As I got closer I could see smoke rising from the fire-pit.”
My father paused. When he began again, he spoke slower.
“Before I was even under the trees, my cousin Tessie ran out and told me my parents had already left. My father had asked my uncle something about my brother’s wages and they’d had words. My dad made my mom get right back into their car. She hadn’t even made it into the house. Tessie said John had bawled in front of everybody. If I could do the day over I’d say the hell with the old man, find John, and get us each a plate of bar-b-que. But at the time, I was so disappointed I just turned my bike around and started back.”
My dad paused while a pick-up rolled by. Then, when he was about to continue, the phone rang inside his garage. He went back up the driveway and grabbed it on the third ring. As he stood with his head down, giving one-syllable answers, I thought about his story. Even with the loss of my mom it was hard to imagine him ever being lonely. My father hung-up the phone and then grabbed a Dr. Pepper from his mini-fridge. When he came back, I asked him if he’d gotten caught in the storm as he’d biked back to the Schnitzler’s.
“The point,” he said, “is that I’ll never treat you like my father treated me. I won’t abandon you like that chickenshit abandoned me. End of story.” My father opened his Dr. Pepper and took a drink.
I hadn’t seen this coming and was moved. When I knew I could get the words out, I said: “I was worried that if I told you the truth you’d stop loving me.”
“Shit,” he said, “now you do sound gay.”
He shook his head in mock disgust and I couldn’t help laughing. Then he turned around and looked at my car. He was scowling, but there was light in his eyes. “How long,” he asked, “has it been since you changed the oil in this foreign piece of plastic?”
I told him it’d been awhile and then stepped onto the lawn so he could pop the hood. My car looked like a toy behind the ’56 Chevy and as my father went to work I realized our conversation was over. I’ve never felt so relieved.
I crossed the lawn and sat down on the front steps. I was too tired to process what had transpired. Squirrels were chattering and sunlight was streaming down through the wide maple leaves. The tree was twice the size it’d been when I’d last lived there, which meant it was also twice the size it’d been when my mom was alive. I leaned back against the storm door and wished I could feel her moving around inside my father’s house. I’d give anything to have her back. Not to reveal anything to her, just to have her around.