The dad makes so many mistakes.
For instance, one morning his daughter and son spent too long in the bathroom, arguing about who got to use the last pastel paper cup, and they all had to rush out of the house to get to school on time. The dad yelled at them all the way down the stairs and into the garage and into the car. In the car he kept yelling at them with his foot unwittingly on the gas pedal. He yelled so much that he didn’t think to let the engine rev down before shifting to reverse, and he didn’t consider the position of the steering wheel and how its being slightly turned to the right would send the car in a diagonal slash down the driveway and onto the corner of the lawn.
But that’s exactly what happened. He shoved the car into gear, jerked the kids off the back bench seat, jagged down the driveway, and gouged out a wad of grass. At first he thought he hit a sprinkler pipe, and he shouted as if he were sure he’d hit it and as if the imaginary broken sprinkler pipe was the direct result of his daughter and son arguing in the bathroom.
“See what happens?” he said. “See?”
But it would have been his reprimanding the spiff in the bathroom and not the spiff itself that had broken the pipe, had there been a pipe under the spot of grass where his tire gouged a hole. But there wasn’t any pipe, and now instead, just this hole they can all laugh about.
The dad has big calves. He used to like to show them off. He’d wear shorts to almost anything and owned many styles: faded denim cut-offs, worn khaki cargo shorts, white linen shorts with creases that he called his “yacht wear.” Once he wore his yacht wear with a pair of maroon loafers to his daughter’s dressage competition.
“I’m not going to wear pants on a hot day just because these horses think they’re doing ballet,” he said.
No one else wore shorts that day, just the dad. His son sweated through the fabric of the blue blazers the dad insisted he wear. He wanted his son to dress appropriately. He could dress how he wanted, the dad said, when he had paid his dues, the way the dad had paid his dues.
But the dad was uncomfortable all day. The aluminum bleachers felt like a hot mirror on his bare skin, and the procession of riders on their twitching, mechanized horses seemed endless.
When his daughter finally performed her test, and the judges revealed a disappointing score, the dad vaulted over the handrail that kept the crowd out of the arena and walked across the dirt to the judges’ table. The whole crowd watched as two men in security uniforms approached the table and took the dad by the arms.
The dad’s son saw him twisting his arm out of the men’s grip to pound on the judges’ table and point at his daughter, who wouldn’t look at him. She stood by her gate, stroking her horse as if she’d earned a perfect score and had no idea who the man at the judges’ table was. She didn’t even like dressage, just horses.
The men overpowered the dad and dragged him across the soft, dark dirt and into the small doorway they emerged from. Even from the bleachers, his son could see the dad’s calves, two corded trunks of white flesh, spluttering dirt into the air with twice the strength of any horse ballerina.
The dad hates to punish. He is not stern, he is playful. But when his son once punched his own mom, the dad had to punish him. He was just a little boy, and his arm popped right out of the socket. The boy’s mom took him to the hospital while the dad stared out the window at a purple sky that just wouldn’t snow.
When his kids become adults the dad treats them like his friends instead of his children. This, he thinks, is how they would like him to treat them. He takes them out drinking when they visit. He wants to hear details about the men his daughter is sleeping with, instead of the generalities her mom settles for. He wants his daughter to know he’ll never judge her the way her mom does.
If he has something in the works – which is how he refers to his business deals – he invites his son to get in on it. Fathers and sons make the best business partners, he says.
The dad likes to play with his children’s names. He rhymes, he slants, he monikers. He gives them special names on their birthdays and holidays. On Sunday they get names from the Bible. On Christmas his son is an apostle and his daughter the Holy Virgin. Sometimes he gives them names that make them feel like pets. Or historical names they don’t recognize. Names that make them feel important when he thinks they’re important and names that are supposed to make them feel bad when that’s what he wants. For both of them he has many names, and both of them know all of each other’s names but when they speak to each other, they only ever use their real names. Only the dad gets to use his made up names.
The dad’s only gotten his son into trouble once. But no one doubts it was an accident.
The dad met some men at a bar who told him they wanted to get a system going where they would solicit investments to fund the importing of a special European cheese that would sell like wild in American high-end food markets. These men just needed enough funds to outfit the European dairy with the equipment necessary to mass-produce and export it.
That’s what they told the dad at first and when they saw they had him on the line they told him this: there actually was no cheese; the European town with the imaginary dairy didn’t exist; the real plan was to pocket the investors’ money but tell them the development had fallen through.
All these men really needed, they said, was a guy with experience doing this sort of thing to draw up a phony business plan and present it to interested investors.
The dad must have had more drinks in him than he’d usually like when talking business. Or maybe the idea of drawing up the plan and then enlisting his son to present the plan to investors seemed like an opportunity to nudge him into the world of business.
Either way, when the potential investors listening to the son’s clumsy presentation of the dad’s phony business plan revealed themselves as FBI agents working with the same FBI agents that had approached the dad in the bar in the first place, the son was sent to a minimum security prison and the dad had his funds frozen for almost a year. But nobody doubted the dad spent that year in grief and deep contrition.
Before his hair falls out, the dad’s face sags. He expected wrinkles, not sags, but he got sags. He always worried about wrinkles and made sure to moisturize all his life. He put on sunblock if ever there was sun. He even experimented with firming masks, but only after he was living alone.
When he spent a weekend at his daughter’s house, he forgot his sunblock and so could not help her and the grandkids in the garden. They were planting squash and had to clean the weeds and rotted squash from last year out of the planter bed, mix two bags of manure into the dirt, carve out the rows, bury the seeds, and add water. The dad watched them from inside, with a glass of lemon drink that looked grey in the kitchen with the lights off. He thought why not maybe go out and help anyway. He thought his grandsons looked a little like him and then that his grandsons looked nothing like him.
But before he decided if he would help, his daughter came back in the house, bragging about the boys and their green thumbs. It was a big job and everyone got sunburned except the dad. This, he told his daughter, is why her children needed a dad of their own.
When the dad’s children stop talking to him, he tries talking to their mom again.
When his children were kids, the dad pinched them. He pinched them for speaking too loudly, running in the house, fighting with each other, talking back, disobeying their mom, telling lies. It was a quick, sharp pinch, like the skin on their arm accidentally got caught between his snap. But always playful. The dad likes to be playful.
As the kids grew, the dad worried it is no longer appropriate to pinch them – he couldn’t tell how old was too old for pinching. He pinched his son until he was fourteen, when he responded to the pinch by punching the dad in the stomach. The punch sucked the dad’s breath out, and he fell to one knee, gasping.
His son sprinted out of the house and spent the day wandering the neighborhood; it was the first and last time he’d ever hit the dad but the first of many times he’d sprint out of the house and spend the day wandering the neighborhood. The dad never brought the punch up, just stopped pinching his son.
He kept pinching his daughter though. Mostly in an affectionate way. It wasn’t until she had children of her own that the dad stopped pinching her. Once, at Christmas, she caught the dad pinching her own children. She told him this was inappropriate in a voice that made everyone in the room quiet. The dad’s already red cheeks turned plum colored and he apologized.
The dad wonders if his son and daughter still talk even though they don’t talk to him. He can’t think why they shouldn’t – they got along so well their whole lives, no reason they should stop talking now.
He imagines his son calling his sister from time to time to tell her what work he is doing or about the women he is seeing. Maybe they exchange advice. The dad hears so little from their mom about where they’re living and what they’re doing.
He thinks maybe his daughter might invite his son to spend the holidays with her and the boys. He imagines them all in his daughter’s small living room on Christmas, his son sitting by his daughter on the couch, the boys shuffling toward them on their knees with boxes their uncle brought them in their arms, asking their mom if they can open them.
The dad hopes something like this happens from time to time and can think of no reason why it shouldn’t.
Before the dad was the dad he lived in a house much smaller than the one he lives in now. It had a basement and ground floor but no upstairs. The front room had yellow walls and lace curtains, and the sunlight would come through and bake the furniture and the carpet so the whole room smelled like hot wool. This was the dad’s favorite room in the house because of the smell and the warmth and because it had his favorite chair.
Before he was the dad the dad would spend hours draped over the arm of the chair, his legs on the cushion and his upside-down head touching the carpet on the chair’s side. He would sit this way and stare at the miniature landscape of dust formations beneath the chair, looking for changes in the shapes from the day before, until the blood in his head got so loud he had to sit up. He did this so often the chair’s arm slumped from his stomach.
This house’s yard had a hole in it, too, but from a stump, not a car tire. Before the dad was the dad he liked to spend time in the hole. Severed roots stabbed out of the hole’s walls, and the dad pretended they were dinosaur bones or goblin digits. He tried to dig around them, to reveal a whole hand or a skull, but the dry sediment would get under his fingernails and sometimes make them bleed. It was so deep he could fit his whole self in it, and if he crouched, no one would know he was there.