A Childhood Story
I am well into my thirties when my father says to me, “I’m not afraid of dying, I just haven’t tried it yet.” It’s a one-off comment on a phone call that includes a play-by-play of how he convinced the cable company to give him another free month of HBO and a breakdown of his top five coaching candidates for the Indiana Hoosiers. It catches my ear, but I let it pass.
Basketball courts host more inviting conversations than cemeteries.
Death talk is taboo. I don’t know who taught me to hold my breath when I walk past a cemetery, but I know all my childhood friends held theirs, too. No one’s willing to risk a whisper when the Grim Reaper’s nearby. Death comes uninvited regardless—my goldfish belly-up in its bowl or my grandfather resting in his coffin—the expected deaths of youth that are easily forgotten. It’s the summer I stumbled upon a different form of death that stays with me. One not so easily dismissed by the slang little boys use to keep feelings at bay:
Kicked the bucket.
Took a dirt nap.
I was single-digits-old when my parents divorced. Like any kid, I wanted to know why. “Adult stuff,” they pseudo-explained, “you wouldn’t understand.” They assured me it wasn’t my fault and refused to elaborate further. Perhaps it was a prelude death—an unexpected death of unknown causes—the death of the family.
My mother got the suburban home in the divorce, so neighborhood friends could keep an eye on me. My father, however, moved into a dilapidated duplex near the Kokomo Mall. It was well within the city limits and well outside of my school district. I had no one to play with, and he had no one to watch me.
This wasn’t a problem during the school year, when the Indiana Parenting Guidelines established visits one evening a week and overnights every-other weekend, times when my father was off work and eager to entertain. Those were fun getaways from suburbia and the seemingly strict rules of my school teacher mother. The guidelines were different when school was out. My father had custody for half the summer.
Unlike my previous visits, time spent mainly in movie theaters and toy aisles, my father had to work on weekdays. The first week, he took time off. We went to Highland Park. I climbed the monkey bars and slid down the slides. We tossed horseshoes. We didn’t go to the movies that night; my father had to work in the morning. He said that money was tight. I cried a little.
Those were all his vacation days. Like many single parents, he resorted to the technology of the time to babysit. We went to the sole VHS store in town, where I was allowed to rent as many tapes as I could carry to the register. He bought handfuls of Twizzlers and Red Cream Soda from the counter displays—sugar and cinema were my bribes to be good when he was gone.
My only other weekday entertainment option was Jason, the mystery boy next door. His father was single and worked, like mine, so those Indiana Parenting Guidelines made us both summer latchkey kids. But I was leery of Jason. He was a couple of years older than me. Plus, he attended the city school, in Kokomo, rather than the county middle school I was familiar with: my classmates told stories about those downtown Kokomo kids. I could hear Jason shuffling around the other half of the duplex while my father was gone. My imagination escalated with each footfall. Was he setting up a satanic ritual with me as the intended sacrifice? Worse yet, prepping his bathroom for advanced swirlie experimentation?
Rather than find out, I buried myself in my stack of tapes: First Blood, Iron Eagle, Commando. While I got a laugh out of the likes of Tom Hanks and John Candy, it was the solitary soldiers—Sly Stallone, Schwarzenegger—who held my attention. Men who handled problems on their own.
I watched through splayed fingers while these one-man wrecking machines took on the world. These men weren’t talkers, they were problem solvers. John Rambo was doing just fine on his own until the sheriff hassled him. The Iron Eagle didn’t have time to ask for help—he had to save his father. I developed such a tolerance for violence that onscreen bloodshed concerned me less than a Red Cream Soda spilled on the carpet. These were self-described suicide missions, but only the bad guys died.
My father would return home from work, glance at the TV, and go to his room. We only had a single air-conditioner in our half of the duplex—a rusted unit that hung precariously from the living room window—so shutting doors wasn’t an option. When the artillery Commando rained down on his enemies got particularly heavy, I’d hear the volume on my father’s little black and white crank up—one, two, three notches—until Judge Wapner’s gavel punctuated Schwarzenegger’s post-murder catchphrases:
He had to split!
What a pain in the neck!
Hasta la vista, baby!
My father didn’t like my movie choices. He said they weren’t realistic. He’d been in the Air Force and was deployed in Vietnam. He’d brought back his own war stories. His go-to was about the night he went to the latrine wearing only a pair of tighty-whiteys. He’s going about his business, half-asleep when something tickles his ankle. He looks down. Between his legs, below the underwear scrunched to his knees, sits a tarantula. It’s sizing up one of his feet.
“It was as big as a steering wheel,” he’d say, forming a massive circle with his arms. “If I’d had my gun, I’da shot the sucker.”
As for why the shots fired on screen made him uneasy, or why he jumped when a car backfired, or why he always gasped, eyes darting about as if he wasn’t sure where he was if roughly awoken—we didn’t talk about those things.
I watched my father’s morning work ritual that summer. He’d first choose a pre-knotted tie from the row of hooks that hung inside the doorless closet of his bedroom. Pop up his collar, drop the loop in place, pull secure. Choose from two suits, one black, one blue. Slide on the black loafers that held a military shine; he’d later teach me how to work cloth over leather pinned between my legs until it gleamed. I saw how the shine helped to hide the holes in the bottom.
The final act was applying the toupee. At home, the hairpiece rested atop a yellowing Styrofoam bust that had long ago lost its nose. He kept this head on a shelf above his suits and dress shirts. A few years earlier, I had been cured of hunting Christmas presents when I came face-to-face with this jaundiced, deformed head sporting a mane of jet-black hair and tumbled off the back of a chair.
Toupee application was an art form, one that required a series of double-sided tape strips to secure it in place, as well as an attention to detail to make it appear legitimate. The tape adhered directly to his flesh, always bringing to mind the Star Wars band-aids I loved to apply, but dreaded removing. He performed this process whenever he left the house. There was a more permanent method of attachment that involved weaving the hairpiece in place, but that was expensive, and he said wearing the toupee at night was “like sleeping with a wool sock hat on.” I never asked why he wore it at all.
Hair in place, my father would sip his morning Diet Coke, smoke a Salem Light, then head for his job at the unemployment office. Out the aluminum storm door below the address nailed in block letters, down the cracked and off-center cement steps to a weed-choked gravel lot where he parked his Honda Accord. He’d leave me alone to my own devices.
It took about a week before boredom overcame my fear of satanic sacrifice and toilet bowl dunks. That Jason was older than me and attended city school doubled as significant temptations. Plus, action movies get pretty repetitive once you pick up on the fate of everyone who isn’t the hero:
Jason and I indulged in a buffet of summer-bred bad decisions. We held improvised-frisbee contests from the front porch to see who could toss the shingles that fell from our roof farthest across the busy street below. The shingles coated our limbs—and no doubt our lungs—with a fine moldy-olive film. Those that didn’t crumble in our hands rarely made it further than the median. The cars destroyed what remained, leaving behind puffs of grit and green.
We caught lightning bugs in Mason jars. I’d been taught in the suburbs to poke holes in the tin-top, but Jason showed me how to shake them out on the sidewalk and use my sneakers to scrape their bodies across the broken concrete. Instead of temporary pets, I wrote my initials in their iridescent entrails.
Near the alley out back, Jason double-dog dared me to eat mystery berries from a bramble that weaved its way through a busted chain link fence.
“Don’t be chicken shit,” I can hear Jason say.
“I’m not scared. Really. I’m just not hungry.”
“Yeah, right. All talk, no trousers.”
I think (hope) he knew they were harmless. Just a blackberry bush growing in an untended lot. But I couldn’t ask. I knew better than to address death directly. Even the grown-ups preferred their euphemisms:
Gone to a better place.
Met his Maker.
I swallowed a handful of berries and acted out a Days of Our Lives suicide. As I lay prone in the gravel Jason played the part of the grieving partner, shook his fist at the heavens, asked the world why. He pulled a make-believe antidote from his pocket. Put it to my lips. Saved me at the last possible moment before I slipped away.
My berry-eating gained Jason’s respect, which earned me a peek at the porn stash.
“You’ve gotta see this,” Jason spoke in hushed tones. I prepared myself for a new world. A gateway to Narnia. Instead of a mystical wardrobe, Jason parted a beaded curtain nailed to the frame of his father’s bedroom closet.
It was a tame introduction (the internet has no doubt exponentially increased first-time porn shock), but it floored me. Men’s magazines of various titles and quality. A pack of playing cards. Classified ads. There was even a Rubik’s cube, the scrambled breasts and thighs a reflection of the kaleidoscope of the new naked spinning through my mind.
I struggled with this new temptation. My pre-pubescent prime directive was well ingrained: Girls Are Gross. But when I saw that skin, I felt something not unlike the tingle in the pit of my stomach when I raced my bike down a hill—a feeling that told me there was something to this. As I struggled through the dichotomy of desire versus cooties, Jason muddied matters further: “I bet your dad has some of this stashed away, too.”
I searched for my father’s porn alone. Part of me hoped to strike out, to find that my father was not like the neighbor next door, a strange man who looked at stranger women. Another part of me hoped otherwise—hoped to get that funny feeling in my belly again.
The bedroom closet was a bust—nothing naked except the scalp of that Styrofoam head. Nightstand, bust. Nothing in his sock drawer. Nothing in the space between the mattress and box spring (the spot Jason swore was a honey hole). I was about to give up, when I struck gold: a stack of wilted magazines buried beneath the bathroom sink.
I worked my way through their pages like I was cramming for an exam—frantic at first, then in the glossed-over daze of information overload. The images started to blur together. The tingling in my belly smoldered to an itch.
By the bottom of the stack, my initial shock had numbed to classification: article, article, article—cartoon!—naked, naked, naked. I was about to tuck another magazine back beneath the mold of the sink, when I saw something new.
Imagine a woodcut of a woman. Just her silhouette Something vague. Perhaps naked, perhaps not. Or imagine the logo you’ve seen on a semi-trucker’s mudflaps. Only, not that reclining pose. Not suggestive—at least not suggestive of sex. Her pose intended to startle in a different way. In stark contrast to the high-gloss images I’d studied before, this drawing was inked in red. Flesh was not the focal point. Instead, the drawing centered on a pair of scissors held to her open wrist. From their blades, a thin red ribbon swelled to a river below.
I thought I had grown comfortable with blood that summer. At least, blood justified by movie logic. Rather than the roar that erupted from Rambo when he cauterized his wound with a white-hot blade, this woman on the page was silent. The river of blood that flowed beneath was more abstract compared to what I had seen on television. In spite of that—and because of it—it terrified me.
I thought I knew about suicide. I’d reenacted that Days of our Lives scene with the berries for Jason—when the desperate girlfriend took poison. But in both the show and in our games a savior intervened. This woman was alone. A suicide prevention hotline at the bottom of the page was her only companion. A request to call for help. It made me feel as if my own blood had been drained.
When my father returned that night, he could sense something wrong. He pried and prodded, first with jokes, then increasing concern. I finally confessed to uncovering the magazines. I don’t remember his reaction. I like to imagine he felt a mixture of embarrassment and relief. That he gave me a little pep talk, thinking my shock stemmed from the nudity rather than self-inflicted death. Some form of, It’s okay, son. You’re a little young for that, but one day you’ll get it. I’m uncertain, though.
I’m not certain that we spoke at all.
It became more convenient to not talk with my father once I left home. The emergence of email. Text messages. When we did speak on the phone, our conversations lacked substance. We eased into the Hoosier version of father-son scripts. The Fighting Irish. The Tipton Pork Festival. Indiana University basketball.
The drawing from that magazine continued to haunt me. When I was home for the holidays, I’d often watch movies with my father, in silence. If someone was cut, I’d flinch. He never asked why. I’d never say. Today, when someone on screen brings a blade to their own flesh, I still look away.
The VA Hospital diagnosed my father with depression. I doubt he would have told me had he not been able to spin it in a positive light. “They upped my veteran’s disability payment,” he said, before bragging about the free compression socks he got for diabetes. He never mentioned when his symptoms started. What haunted him and made him flinch.
Like most men I know, I learned to idolize Hollywood heroes—the strong, silent type. The death they cause is not to be feared. It is justice. Vengeance. Necessity. To discuss death, to make it real, is tactless. Awkward. Embarrassing.
That is why when my father tells me that he doesn’t fear death, I ask no questions. Why when I tell you this essay is about his death—that I have written around it—I hope you understand. Why I instead shared a childhood story. Why I continue to rely on other words:
Took his own life.
Ended it all.
Directness escapes me, as it always has before. I prefer to return to that summer boy who found desire on the pages of a dirty magazine and death upon the next. I will tell you all about him rather than acknowledge it. I will place something in its stead. A more pleasant conversation. A euphemism. Images, symbols. A toupee skillfully arranged atop a bald head. A pair of loafers with a bright new shine, hiding a hole in the sole.
Rumpus original art by David Dodd Lee.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential crisis counseling twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. You don’t have to be suicidal to call (1-800-273-8255). The Lifeline also offers services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing (1-800-799-4889) and people who speak Spanish (en español: 1-888-628-9454). People who are transgender can also call the Trans Lifeline (U.S.: 877-565-8860; Canada: 877-330-6366). – Ed.