Like many dictators, my father cloaked his intentions in the guise of democracy. As his subjects we were consulted only after decisions had been made. We could see, even then, that the process was a sham, but the thread of his logic made dissent impossible. Whatever he proposed would be good for us in the long run, he reasoned, providing us with yet another thing he never had as a boy. Whether the pitch was for a new house or a new baby sister, our objections were duly noted and roundly ignored. Despite her seeming surprise at his pronouncements my mother was seen as main pinsetter in negotiations, her protests serving only to define obligations, all of them ours. It wasn’t the best system. It wasn’t even a good system.
He preferred a captive audience for these deliberations and to this day the phrase “a Sunday drive” is family lexicon for “breaking the news.” Heads bowed and shoulders slumped we would take up our positions in the back seat of the family car, (assigned, left to right in descending order). My father spoke to each of us through the rear view mirror. More times than not we returned home fundamentally changed.
The very first Sunday drive covered the shortest distance, inches possibly, but forever set the tone. We were 3, 4, and 5, respectively, living in Long Island. Ike was president, Pious 12 was Pope and the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. Had we known the vagaries of fate we would have marveled at our luck. Too late for the war, too early for the red scare and just in time for television. The baby boom provided us with kids our own age and the gods gave us Disney. What could go wrong?
That year’s car was a two tone green Mercury with green interior, automatic, to accommodate my mother. As the tallest I was rear window left, behind my father. I would stare at his neck bulging over starched white collars. Study his hairline and the crosshatched creases that deepened or faded when he moved his head. If the sun was right I could track the capillaries in his ears, and when he rolled down the window to let fly with a lunger, I could see it wobble then catch the wind.
“Larry! Must you?”
I remember all of it.
Sunday drive #1:
“All set?” he chirps, ignoring our descending looks of trepidation. We have never been forced to face his directives en masse and the alliance makes us uneasy. My sister is the first to flinch.
“I have to pee,” she claims.
“This won’t take long. You can hold it,” he slips the car into gear.
“Noooo, I gotta gooooo.”
He hits the brakes and we tumble backward. The car sputters then stalls.
“Sorry dear,” he grinds the ignition to no avail. Then silence marked by the whistle of his breathing, the ping of the dashboard clock, my mother tapping a cigarette against her thumbnail.
“It’s flooded,” he says, but we know he’s guessing. He drums his wedding ring against the steering wheel and hums a line from Fernando’s Hideaway. After a full minute he tries it again. Nothing.
“OK, listen up,” he wades right in. “How would you guys feel about moving?”
“Nooooo,” my sister wails. “Nooo, don’t make us!”
“Not right away,” he backpedals. “I’m thinking maybe next year.”
“No, No, No.”
“Maybe in the fall.”
My brother turns away, staring out rear window right as if we’re moving. My father can fit just two of us in the mirror without turning it, something he will do when the time comes.
“Why don’t you say something?” my sister scowls at me.
“What good will it do?”
He turns the mirror.
“What do you think Bobby?”
My brother pushes the lock button down, pulls it up, pushes it down.
“Well, this is certainly going well,” my mother sighs.
“They’re just worried about leaving,” he tells her. “Wait till they hear where we’re going.”
“Where are we going?” my sister stiffens.
“Pennnnnn – sylvania!” he announces like a train conductor.
“Nooooo, we don’t want to.”
“You’ll love it. It’s the country.”
Why he thinks we will love it is a mystery. We know nothing of the country, though the case could be made that we know nothing of the city either. We know where our friends live and how to go to the supermarket. We’ve heard of Pennsylvania but couldn’t find it on a map. We couldn’t find any place on a map. We are three, four, and five but we are set in our ways.
“It’s not definite,” my mother assures us. What she means is it’s definite.
My sister sobs. “If we move I’ll kill myself.”
“Come on now kitten.” Dad’s taken to calling her kitten after some father on TV.
“I’ll take poison. We all will.”
I picture the can of Draino under the sink, the blue skull and crossbones. I see us barricaded in the bathroom, my sister doling out portions.
“I don’t get it,” my father shakes his head. “When I was a kid I would’ve given my eyeteeth to live in the country.”
His willingness to part with eyeteeth is a matter of record, one of a dozen family slogans that bristle with imagery. (My mother’s “crack your head open” recalling eggshell skull shards, yokey brains spilling out). While other dad’s might part with an arm or a leg, eyeteeth were the coin of my father’s realm.
“You think I would ask you to do something you wouldn’t like?”
The loaded question; liking what he made us do rarely figured into things, as far as we could see. How else to explain the crew cuts and matching outfits, the argyle sox? That he would suggest otherwise signals a change in the ground rules. Bending the facts to fit your position, a dangerous precedent. That it would become the bedrock of my father’s parenting strategy was fairly predictable.
“We’ll jump off the roof!” sister threatens.
Again, the bathroom, curtains wafting through an open window, heads cracked open down below.
“That’s enough, young lady,” he levels a finger at her reflection. “You’ll do what I say and you’ll damn well like it!”
This last part is unlikely. We will do what he says because we are small and without weapons.
“What about school? What about our friends?” she flails away.
“You’ll make new friends in a new school.”
The grossest assumption, making friends is a perilous business. We’d seen enough new classmates thrown into the mix to know the position was tenuous. A single miscalculation and you were stuck with the fat kid.
“Oh pleeeease, oh pleeeease, oh pleeease don’t make us!”
Dad gives the Mercury one last crank. The ignition grinds a wobbly vibrato then trails off in a death rattle. My mother stares straight ahead, planning her escape.
“Whaddya say Bobby-boy. Help me out here,” he pivots the mirror.
My brother works the button, his lips moving in silent incantation.
In Pennsylvania our Sunday drives are different. He favors back roads through rolling farmland, River Drive to points unknown. The dreaded country – home to deer, possibly antelope and myriad, fur-bearing body parts splattered about. My father drives with his arm across the seat, fingers tapping rhythm where my mother’s head would be. My sister is at rear window right owing to my brother’s recent growth spurt. We have a Buick now, an aberration in pink and green. How it came to be ours is never explained.
“Awful quiet back there.”
Dead quiet, in fact. It’s not like anything good ever comes of this. Last time out he got lost and we ended up getting braces. Once brought to our attention, our silence captures every sound, the drone of tires, the rustle of clothes. I feel my brother shudder beside me and then he is humming, softly at first, then loud enough to throw my father’s fingers off the beat. A one-note version of the Pepsodent jingle, only slower and less enthusiastic, it’s not much, but it’s something.
“You guys ever wonder what it would be like to have a dog?” asks dad, way too casually. What it would be like to have a dog is of little interest to us. The few dogs we’ve known have been old or incorrigible. My aunt had a poodle that would drink martinis but he died long before we could appreciate it. We sense that we are not dog people, just as we sense that we are not rich. Adjustments have been made.
“What for?” I can only think to ask.
“What for? That’s what you wonder?”
“ … Yeah.”
“Let me tell you something son. When I was your age I would’ve given my eyeteeth for a dog.”
When I picture him at my age he’s just a smaller version of himself, the kid in the suit with the five o’clock shadow.
“What if we don’t want one?”
“Jesus, am I missing something here? What kind of kids don’t want a dog?”
The kind who hedge their bets. Since the decision has been made for us we can only go on record. In fact, it’s not a dog we don’t want. It’s the dog he will get us, defective in some way vital, impossible to assimilate. When left to his own devices my father’s judgment is notorious, the Buick being an obvious example.
“Dogs aren’t easy, dad,” I say, as if anything he would want for us will ever be easy.
“What are you talking about? Dogs are practically self-sufficient.”
“What about vet bills?”
“And ticks,” my sister chimes in.
“And law suits,” brother Bob, ever-practical
“What about Old Yeller?” dad counters. “Tell me you didn’t love that son of a gun.”
“Yeah, but they had to shoot him.”
“ … and we don’t even have a gun,”
“ … do we?”
Silence again as he considers a different approach, the three of us running down the list of TV dogs, too big, too pushy, too devoted. My father drifting into some misguided reverie, his giggly brood tumbling past the picture window with Old Yeller II, rushing to tell him of the latest trick, the newest adventure, cheeks all rosy and eyes bright with gratitude.
“Patty Boyer’s dog chases cars.”
“Donald Hewitt’s dog rolls in dead things.”
“Mom wouldn’t like it.”
A low blow, perhaps but positions must be clear on this. In the not-so-distant future when he’s fixing the blame it will be all we have. We don’t want a dog. That practically said, we are weary of our Sunday drive and anxious to return home to our last dog-less days. Instead my father takes the turnoff to Vista Point, circles the empty parking lot and kills the motor.
“I gotta tell you guys,” he turns to face us. “This doesn’t seem normal to me.”
As if living in a wasteland of half-finished houses is normal. As if wrestling your dad into bed every night is normal. A pink car with green interior, this is normal?
“Are you mad at us?” my sister does her kitten voice.
“No, no … not mad so much as … disappointed.”
We try our best to look contrite.
“I was sure you’d be tickled pink.”
“Maybe when we’re older,” brother Bob consoles him.
“I just want you to be happy, you know?”
“We are,” we practically whimper.
The dog is a white boxer, full grown with a nubby tail and great yellow teeth. He is there when we get home from school, tied to a stake in the backyard. His relentless yelp echoed all the way to the bus stop, draining the blood from my sister’s face. We trudge up the driveway like condemned prisoners. The dog charges the second he sees us, nearly garroting himself with my mother’s clothesline.
“Isn’t he something?” my father calls from the safety of the porch.
He is that. 70 pounds if he’s an ounce and standing in at throat level, though it’s difficult to tell with him writhing around like that. The yelp reduced to a gurgle as he grapples with the clothesline, our very own hound of the Baskervilles, Old Yeller with rabies.
“What should we do?” my sister looks to me. I know that she will run if I say the word.
“Don’t be afraid. Dogs can smell fear.”
“But I am afraid.”
“Then don’t stand here.” I nudge her towards my brother.
“What’s the matter with you guys?” my father steps away from the porch, “Come over and say hello.”
We stay where we are, my sister mewling softly, my brother gnawing his lower lip. We are thinking the same thing. In years to come when we recall dad being torn to pieces it will begin this way. Watching him close the distance, the long ash of his cigarette, the tinkle of ice in his glass. For some reason he is in his socks and I hear that bone snapping in his ankle, as much my father’s sound as change in a pocket or wingtips over a hardwood floor. The dog backs away, clawing at the clothesline, yanking his head from side to side. When he runs out of rope my father moves in but the dog scrambles quickly to the right, circling the stake in a snarling frenzy. The pull of the collar yanks his ears forward, loose skin bunches in folds above his nose. He moves to the right when my father moves left then left as my father moves right. He is better at it than my father is.
“One of you give me a hand,” he calls over to us.
Fat chance, mister. We are versed well enough in the fine print of the fourth commandment to know the loopholes. Honor thy father except when it will get you killed.
“Just grab the rope,” my brother tells him.
To our surprise he does just that. Crouching to reel the dog in then, failing that, pulling himself closer, hand over hand. The struggle grows fierce as the angles diminish, and then suddenly the dog is free. A white streak across the back yard, over tractor rutted mud flats, past the long line of houses in progress, fading in the distance like the pale dot of a TV screen.
My father stands with his back to us clutching the last few feet of clothesline. The empty collar dangles limply at the end. I can read what he’s thinking in the tilt of his head and I worry suddenly that he will just give up. This is, after all, the unspoken fear. Living with one parent is like living with one eye. The other one goes and it’s lights out.