My father laid his guns down on the kitchen table next to our box of Cocoa Puffs: the .38 from his ankle and the .38 from his hip, as flat and lifeless as my expression. He nodded and patted the front pocket of his jeans to make the bullets in them jingle and let me know it was all right, but I wasn’t convinced.
So he said it: “It’s all right.” Which didn’t work.
We were in our house, a one-room, 300-square-foot converted boat shed that sat in the corner of the front yard of another, normal-sized, house. The whole setup was like some modern-day feudal arrangement, except instead of a lord and lady, there were the O’Reillys. And instead of it being Medieval Europe, it was Queens, 1987.
I was a second grader, my dad was a cop, and we were the serfs. For the past five years, since my parents’ divorce, he had been living in the O’Reillys’ boat shed, mostly because it was all he could find back in his hometown. Broad Channel was a breadcrumb island between Howard Beach and Rockaway, with cross streets that dead-end at the water. In the far, far distance, you could see Manhattan, its familiar miniature metal triangles and squares in a strange frame of fog and reeds.
I spent every other weekend with my dad, and we had a routine. We shared the pullout couch. After he fell asleep, I’d crawl out from the crook of his back to the end of the bed and turn up the heat on our electric blanket. In the morning, he’d tell me not to do it again. Because there was nowhere to go when you got out of bed, we didn’t. Instead, first thing, he’d turn his long white athletic socks into puppets called Filbert and Albert, who were mute and whose only shtick was fighting and making up. My dad could keep them going for close to an hour.
Eventually, we’d have our Cocoa Puffs for breakfast and go to mass at St. Virgilius, where my dad was once an altar boy. On the way home, we’d stop at Kim’s Deli and buy SpaghettiOs or Hamburger Helper for dinner. Then I spent the day playing with Tommy O’Reilly on the docks. By dusk, Tommy’s parents and my dad sat on foldout chairs in the yard, drinking cans of beer and watching us.
Before Christmas each year, my dad would store my toys at the O’Reillys’. On Christmas Eve, while I slept, he’d creep around the tiny room stacking them everywhere. I’d wake up to three hundred and sixty degrees of presents—G.I. Joes on top of the TV, Hot Wheels on the windowsill.
My father has always been a devout Irish Catholic. In fact, becoming a cop was his second-choice career. The first was to be a priest. He even went to seminary, fervently hoping God would call him, but as it turns out, He didn’t. No hard feelings—my dad left, and a little while later, he met my mother and they had me. And that was that.
Although he wasn’t cut out for bringing God’s love to the masses, it turned out he was just great at throwing them in jail. A warrant-squad cop, he was essentially a bounty hunter for the NYPD for 21 years.
I was five the first and only time he ran into someone he had put away. Having served his time, the guy was out doing what we were doing: shopping for clothes. A seemingly innocuous thing to do, but when he saw the man’s face from across the racks, my dad instantly took his gun out from its holster. With him unmarried and me his only child, I was my dad’s one true Achilles’ heel. Without a word, he took my wrist and shoved me behind a nearby register to hide. The two met eyes. The other guy nodded and said, “Hi, Clancy.” Hiding the gun in his hand behind a row of suits, my dad said hello back. Then they started to chat.
“It’s gotta be fifteen years. You just out?”
“Yeah, ‘fraid so.”
“You were only supposed to do 7 to 9. Must not have been such a good boy in there?”
“Nope. But I’m back with my wife now. She had two more kids while I was in!”
“Immaculate conceptions, huh?”
The guy didn’t seem like an immediate threat. But when they were finished, as he kept thumbing through the rack, my dad slowly walked away, grabbing me just before he reached the door, leaving the clothes behind.
Not long afterward, he started taking college classes at night, in accounting.
“Go ahead, Scooter, pick ’em up.”
There was no locked-bottom-drawer-of-the-mahogany-desk-in-the-study in our house. There was no study. There was no desk. In small places like that, problems don’t hide. They live on top of the dresser, next to your deodorant and a bottle of Paco Rabanne. For that reason, he decided I need to hold the guns and “get it out of my system.”
Twelve years later, we sat across from each other at another tiny table, in an equally small room, having just as tense a conversation, in a way stranger town. A lot had changed by then. Dad got his college degree, retired from the NYPD, remarried, and left the O’Reillys’ boat shed for a proper house. His career path now read: priest, bounty hunter, accountant.
He was a white-collar guy living in the suburbs of Atlanta, working as a midlevel accountant for Sara Lee, albeit one who carried two guns at all times and kept a picture of the pope hanging from the rearview mirror of his truck. I was a nineteen-year-old college kid, living in Manhattan’s East Village, watching Woody Allen films, listening to Tom Waits, and planning to move in with my first girlfriend.
When I called my dad and told him I was gay, I expected it to go okay for one specific reason: he had a couple of very good gay friends, pals from his local bar in Queens whom he lovingly called “old-school gays” and about whom he sometimes bragged, “And they don’t make ’em like that anymore!” But apparently the way he felt for his gays didn’t much matter. When I told him I was gay, he flipped out and insisted I fly to Atlanta to talk in person—”Now!” Click.
Three days later, we got in his car and drove, his only words “We’re going to a hotel.” Two hours passed, he and I silent and motionless, the pope swinging left and right. Another hour, and we were on a one-lane road in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Then I started to think what you might be starting to think: “Hotel, my ass!” Just as I started to imagine how he’d shoot me—or worse, throw me into some “pray-the-gay-away” Jesus camp—a billboard appeared. A woman not unlike the St. Pauli girl, with blond braids and huge, ahem, beer steins, smiled down at us. Next to her, in giant German Gothic lettering, it said, “Welcome to Helen, Georgia! A recreated Alpine village.”
Somehow, we had passed through an invisible trans-dimensional portal. Having been the lone car on a deeply wooded curvy road, we were suddenly in a long line of minivans rolling through this Disneyland-bad, fake Bavarian town. Whole families wearing matching green hats with feathers crammed the sidewalks. Three elderly guys wearing lederhosen played glockenspiels outside of a place called “Charlemagne’s Kingdom.” And there were windmills. Lots and lots of windmills.
Yes, this was it. This was the place my dad chose to have the conversation of a lifetime with me.
We pulled into our parking space at the Heidi Motel—no shit!—and headed in. For the first ten minutes we sat, stone-faced, drinking Johnny Walker out of our complimentary beer steins like idiots. Then, in one fell swoop, he set out to discover if, how, and why I was gay, in a room that had not one, but two cuckoo clocks.
First he blamed me. “You’re confused, and you need therapy,” he said.
“I need therapy?” I replied. “I need therapy? There is an oompah band outside, Dad!”
He didn’t laugh.
We spent the next six hours drinking scotch and rehashing every argument, disagreement, and previously unexamined minuscule moment of contention we’d had in my nineteen years of life. Like the time he told me not to play in the grass in my Easter dress, so I climbed a tree instead. Or the time I faked my eye exam at school because I wanted glasses. Or when I stuck pencil erasers in my ear, and he took me to the doctor thinking I was going deaf. And then there was my atheism, the worst part of which was that he would miss me when he was in heaven and I was not.
Then, if for only a few seconds, he went from blaming me to blaming himself. “I shouldn’t have bought you those GI Joes when you were a kid! Or the Hot Wheels.”
Suddenly he got quiet, thinking back to our time in the O’Reillys’ boat shed, and said to himself as much as to me, “What did I know about bringing up a girl? I just…I did what I could.” And, a second time, even softer, “I just did what I could.”
And with that, we hugged and broke for dinner across the street at Heidelberg’s Schnitzelhaus.
We made small talk. Awkward, kind of like an ex-con and the cop who put him away for fifteen years, but small talk all the same. It felt tense, but Heidelberg’s Schnitzelhaus is a hard place to stay angry. He confessed that he had asked his new coworkers where to spend the weekend with his visiting teenage daughter. Of course, he neglected to mention the nature of the visit and was as shocked as I was when we arrived in Helen.
Then, somewhere in between the sauerbraten and the strudel, my dad surrendered. He looked up, raised his glass and said, “Ah, screw it. At least now we have two things in common—whiskey and women!”
Four years later, my father lost his job in Atlanta and I lost that first girlfriend. For a little while, we ended up living together again, in my one-bedroom East Village apartment.
At 700 square feet, my apartment was palatial compared to the O’Reillys’ boat shed. My dad couldn’t fly with his guns, so they were in his safe back in Atlanta. But still, from my kitchen table, as we sat drinking wine that first night, I could see straight back into the bedroom where he had set his deodorant and Paco Rabanne on top of my dresser.
I met a new girlfriend, Shauna, and ended up spending most of those four months at her place on the Lower East Side. It was getting serious, and soon, she came over to meet my dad for dinner. He had worked at the 7th precinct in her neighborhood in the late 1970s. After she left, he said, “I don’t care how pretty she is, you ain’t moving over there!” Even though my apartment was only fifteen blocks north of hers, he hadn’t been back to the Lower East Side in almost thirty years. “It’s changed, Dad,” I said. “Why don’t we have brunch there this weekend and you can see for yourself?” He was stunned they now had brunch on the Lower East Side.
Spring trickled by. It took a little coaxing, but in June, he came with Shauna and me to the Gay Pride parade. An hour later, he saluted as a group of GLBT cops marched past.
In September, we met up with the O’Reillys in Broad Channel to watch the Labor Day parade. We watched it from the street in front of our old little house, drinking cans of beer.
Come October, we moved out of my apartment. He headed for Long Island. I moved in with Shauna.
When we talk today, my dad still starts our phone calls the same way he did back then, “Hey, Scooter.” But now he ends them with “Love you. Love to Shauna too.” My wife.
Sitting in dead silence at our kitchen table in the O’Reillys’ boat shed, the seven-year-old me finally slid the guns off the table. And as I lifted them into the air my dad gave slow, careful instructions:
“Point them down. Fingers away from the trigger. Now, put ’em back on the table.”
“And don’t ever touch ’em again.”
There was no locked-bottom-drawer-of-the-mahogany-desk-in-the-study in our house.
You can watch Tara tell a shorter version of this essay for The Moth.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.