I’m sitting across from the man who looks exactly like my father would look if my father had lived to be fifty-seven. If my father hadn’t died sixteen years ago when I was thirteen. But he did. And here is this man with his grey-and-brown moustache and swollen face. To be fair, his face probably isn’t swollen. This is probably the weight he put on as he aged. But my father’s rail thin face couldn’t have looked this way. Though, on the day of his funeral, my father’s face was swollen, unnatural. Someone told me this was from the embalming fluid. They just overfilled him. They didn’t know my father was so thin, malnourished-looking.
Whenever I talk about this man I call him “Keith” or “my father’s brother,” though I clearly know this makes him my uncle. But I can only think of him as my father’s identical twin and not my uncle. Calling him “uncle” might imply I have some claim on him. Keith and I sit across from one another at a hamburger place in Birmingham. I order a falafel with pickled vegetables and he orders the same because he figures I must know what I’m talking about. But he doesn’t touch his burger or his fries. He has a bite of each and tells me that he doesn’t eat much, not since he lost weight. I wonder how big he was before he lost weight, because he looks huge to me. Inflated. Like my father, but not like my father.
I have to keep telling myself, This man is not my father. I remind myself not to think about it very much. Let my eyes glaze over, breathe deeply, relax.
My father probably would have gained weight if he had lived longer. He ate fried chicken, fried gizzards, and pints of butter pecan ice cream. The weight would have packed on eventually. His body would have changed. He would probably look exactly like Keith. I use the word “probably” a lot when I think about my father.
We look at pictures of my father with Keith and then my father with me. Keith offers to sit on the same side of the booth as me to make this easier, but I don’t want him too close. I tell him, no, this is fine. He offers again because I’m squinting at the sun’s glare and leaning to see the computer screen that I’ve turned sideways, but I say no. No. I’ve already decided that this man and I will not sit on the same side of the booth.
It is strange to look at pictures of myself when I was smaller. I was thinner, cuter. My hair is healthy and shiny. I was seriously a cute kid. But my father looks stern. He doesn’t smile in photos. Doesn’t look friendly, inviting. I wonder what his life was like. I only know what my life was like with him in it. I try to piece it together. He worked swing shifts at a nuclear power plant. He slept a lot when he was home. He and my mother argued. They screamed obscenities. I remember the shouting. I went to school crying with tangled hair because my mother was too upset to brush it for me. I remember feeling surprised the few times I saw them kiss or hold hands. We went camping and fishing, which I hated because these things were not entertaining for a girl of five or six or seven. We sat on a fishing boat for eight or nine hours at a time, and I wanted to play with my friends or watch television. I was bored. Children are sometimes bored.
I remember my father going to play cards and my mother making a big deal out of it, probably because he was gambling and we didn’t have the extra cash. My clothes were from Wal-Mart and the Salvation Army. They had holes in them, and my classmates made fun of me. I tried to hold my hands over the holes in my sweater. I tried to snip away the loose threads so no one would see. My parents argued about the grocery bill. Money was always a problem. But playing cards is one of the few things I can look back on and say, “This is what my father did for fun.” It was a recreation and space that was all his own, in a life where he worked strange shifts and ate meals my mother covered with plastic wrap and sent with him to reheat at work—a life of naps and estrangement and microwaved meals.
My father also watched baseball on a small television in his bedroom. This space felt fully his. His pajamas would glow blue in the light of the screen, and I’d bring him beers that crackled in my ears if I held them to my face. I wasn’t allowed to go back to his room after he’d been watching TV for a while, because this meant he’d had several beers and was what my mother called “silly.” He seemed happy and relaxed. Maybe that’s what he was like when he was younger, before there were bills and swing shifts at the power plant.
Keith talks a lot and smiles at me, trying to maintain eye contact. It feels too intimate, and I look away. I think Keith prides himself on friendliness. This is a desirable trait, he thinks, smiling at me, leaning toward me. He tells stories about how close he is to his daughter and stepdaughter. He is bubbly. I think he wants to be what my father wasn’t.
I call my father reserved, and Keith agrees, but says that probably isn’t the word he would use. He seems like he wants to say something else, but he doesn’t. He keeps saying he doesn’t want to offend me. He doesn’t want to say anything negative about my father. I tell him I wouldn’t have met him if I were worried about that. I tell him I already made my choice. “When I agreed to meet you, I agreed to meet you,” I tell him.
I’ve only met Keith three other times in my life. The first was when I was very small and I ran up to him in my aunt’s house, yelling, “Daddy, daddy!” because I thought my father was at work and was very happy to find he wasn’t. Keith laughed and told me he wasn’t my father, and somehow I understood. I wouldn’t think of this incident until years later. Another time, when I was eight years old, I saw Keith at his and my father’s great uncle’s funeral. Keith approached my family, and my father said, “I don’t think so,” and we quickly walked away. I never asked about it, and I somehow forgot the man who looked like an exact copy of my father.
How does someone forget that? How did I tuck it away and make myself believe it was inconsequential? The day my father died, my aunt took me aside and explained who Keith was and how he would be arriving at my house in a few short hours. My father’s body lay on the floor for over an hour before it was taken away in a black bag. I didn’t watch them put him into the bag, but I knew that he was inside. My father’s body wasn’t in the house anymore, but this man’s body would soon replace it. This man would be upright and talking and alive. This man had the same health problems that my father had, the same high cholesterol, but this man was alive. This man was coming to my house.
I know there were problems between Keith and my father. I’ve heard bits and pieces from different relatives. I don’t know the exact details, but I have enough to piece together a very sketchy narrative. I think Keith slept with my father’s first wife and then he and my father never spoke again. I don’t have any more details, because no one wants to fill in the gaps for me.
I can’t help wondering. Did Keith sleep with my father’s first wife while my father was married to her? Was it right afterward? Was it a long-running thing? What’s this woman doing now? What does she look like? I’d love to know what she knew of my father. Is there an appropriate way to ask about this woman? Would she be horrified to hear from me? I just want to know what he was like. They were married when my father was very young, so like Keith, she probably knows a very different version of my father. I want to know that version. My father is gone, and I can only really have the version I was given. But I want so much more.
Keith tried to apologize to me on the phone before we met. He tried to explain what had happened between him and my father, but I asked him not to talk about it. I asked him not to keep asking me if I was going to cry. “I’m not going to cry,” I told him. “I’m not emotional.” I tried to be polite, because he sounded earnest about it. He told me he was worried he would cry when he talked to me. He repeated the same things a lot, like they would be truer the more he said them. Like I would become attached to him if he told me again that I was important to him and that he wanted to know me. This made me uncomfortable. This is why I waited half a year after talking to him before I agreed to meet him for lunch.
I agreed to this mostly because I want the photos he has of my father. I want to see pictures of my father when he was a kid, then a teenager, then a young adult. I want to see pictures of him before I knew him, before he was my father. I want to have some understanding of who he was as a man.
The way a child thinks about their parents is different from the way an adult thinks about their parents. I’ve been robbed of the ability to see my father through anything but a child’s eyes. I can look at his identical twin brother and try to map my father onto this man, but my map doesn’t fit. This man is not my father.
I ask Keith to tell me about himself. He says he can cook and he likes to grill. He likes to eat out and seems to like spending money. He talks about all the wine he purchases. He tells me about his large house. He talks about his car. It’s the red car out front, he says. It’s a nice sports car, but I don’t know enough about cars to remember what kind. It is his generic midlife crisis car, and I don’t want to hear about it. Shortcomings in this man are imagined shortcomings in the man my father would have been. The midlife crisis my father might have had.
More realistically, my father would have worked hard all his life and not been close to retirement. He’d have struggled. He’d have two jobs and still worry about groceries and the bills. I remember the second job he took retarring rooftops. He came home blackened and sweaty. He smelled burnt. “It’s hard work,” my mother told me. “It’s going to kill him,” my mother told me. And maybe it did. Something did. His heart gave up, and I woke to my mother shrieking and my father’s stiff purpled face with its blackened lips. I always thought people went pale when they died, but they don’t.
If my father were alive, he and my mother would be married and still loveless. My mother is happily married now. She wouldn’t have found this life or this version of herself if my father had lived. She went back to school, got a job, married a man who laughs with her and works in the yard with her. He cooks her dinner. Does that mean she’s glad for the life she has now? Glad for the person she had the freedom to become? Is she glad he’s dead?
When I stand up to go to the bathroom and when I return, Keith stands up too, out of some sense of formality. It’s awkward, anachronistic, but I try to smile and nod, because I am polite enough that I don’t want him to feel weird or uncomfortable. I don’t want to offend. I don’t want him to have the impression that I’ve been raised to be impolite, disrespectful.
He asks if my father was affectionate, if my father hugged and kissed me. I can’t figure out why he’s asking. Does he think my father was cold? Does he think I was unloved? He tells me my father could hold a grudge longer than anyone he knew. He tells me my father had very high moral standards, though he wasn’t religious. And I think, Yeah, my father didn’t sleep with your wife.
I was loved. My father was affectionate. I took naps on the couch with him, threw myself at him every chance I got. Ran to his truck to hug him goodbye when he left for work or hello when he got home. My father wore this khaki work jacket, and when he came in from outside in the winter, he was cold. The jacket was cold, almost wet feeling, but not wet, just cold. These cold hugs are the only thing I can still vividly remember of his touch. I can’t remember his hands or his body. The first thing I forgot was his voice. It was instantly replaced in dreams by Keith’s voice, which wasn’t the same at all. The accent was different. The words were sprawling, less controlled. I wish I had a recording of my father’s voice, but it is forever lost to me.
I think Keith believes he can regain some piece of my father by getting to know me. I am my father’s copy. I too have the same eyebrows, skin color, and hair color. I have the same tendency toward the solitary. I am unforgiving. I hold a grudge. I am bitter, resentful, stern, unemotional. I like to sit quietly alone and read. I am not spiritual or religious. I am crass. And I’m happy in all this. I see my father in myself in a different way than I see my father’s visage in Keith. Keith is only a physical replica. So I can’t help thinking that in knowing me, Keith feels like he is closer to my father.
My father died estranged from Keith. He never forgave him. I have the feeling that Keith wants me to absolve him. He thinks I can offer him something of my father’s forgiveness. He offers half apologies that I shrug away. I can’t do this for him. I’m not angry with Keith, but I can do nothing to erase the anger of my father. My father died with this resentment. Who am I to try to wrestle it from his grave? He can have it. It is something wholly and forever his.