No. 14: “My Adult Life”
Context at the end of this excerpt.
Other entries in #33Stories at the Table of Contents. See you tomorrow!
Begun in 1994, completed 2000, never published.
MY ADULT LIFE
A novel in 19 chapters
© Copyright 2000 G. Wayne Miller
Dad had retired to a house in Buck's Harbor, twenty minutes out of Blue Hill on Eggemoggin Reach. It was across the road from the water: a traditional white Cape with an incongruous picture window so the previous owner, a summertime deacon at Saint Luke's, could keep an eye on his boat. The deacon had left Sea Watch, as the place was known, to Dad in his will. Dad had lived there a decade now. I'd visited only twice.
I knocked and my father opened the door.
``Hello, son,'' he said. He sounded as if he'd been expecting me. I wasn't sure I liked that.
``Come in,'' he said. A fire burned in the fireplace and I smelled a roast in the oven. Dad hung my coat and I followed him into the kitchen.
``Hungry?'' he said. ``I was just about to have my dinner.''
``No thanks,'' I said.
``I hope you won't consider me rude if I eat.''
``Not at all
``You reach my age,'' he said with a smile, ``and the noon meal takes on new meaning. Can I get you coffee?''
``Coffee would be fine.''
Dad set the table and served. He moved slower than the last time I'd seen him, when he visited Marblehead last spring. He'd suffered a minor stroke over the summer, an event he shared with me only after he was out of the hospital, and you could see it was still affecting his coordination.
``Let me help you,'' I said when he had trouble removing the roast -- it was veal -- from the oven.
``No need to,'' he said, ``I manage just fine.''
Dad made gravy, and finished the cream sauce for his baby onions, and zapped a pan of sweet potatoes in butter and maple syrup in the microwave.
``All that fat's bad for the heart,'' I said.
``Nixon and Johnson were bad for the heart,'' Dad said with a smile. ``A little cholesterol is nothing by comparison.''
I remembered all those Sunday afternoons, the Pax Universum creeps making themselves at home while Dad fussed in the kitchen with his veal, or turkey, or leg of lamb, or ham. Dad would say grace, and over dinner, he'd kick off discussion of one of their pet issues. The topic often was war, but not always. Dad had been first in his class at the Harvard Divinity School, and he could expound on Thomas Aquinas, Kierkegaard, More, Fox, a bunch of other philosophers and theologians I steered clear of in college. His peacenik friends couldn't get enough, and after Mom died, when there was no one to move things along, there were Sundays Dad's sessions went late into the night. I'd come back from Sally's or Bud's, and they'd still be there, drinking decaffeinated coffee and going around and around, as if they really did believe a bunch of do-gooders from small-town Maine could change the world.
``I suppose I needn't ask how you are,'' Dad said when he was seated. ``You can't pick up a paper or turn on the boob tube these days without seeing something about you.''
``It's been an experience,'' I said.
``You know what my first reaction was?''
``I won't even guess.''
``I thought: I haven't seen that bottom since his diaper days!'' He laughed, and I couldn't help laughing, too. I'd forgotten how funny my father could be, when he was in the mood.
``Seriously,'' he went on, ``my first thought was: My son's not a murderer. That's what I told the officers who came by.''
``When were they here?''
``Two days ago. I refused to answer any of their questions. `You'll need a judge's order before I say another word,' I told them. Turned out not to be necessary, judging by this morning's headlines.'' Dad rose. ``Ice cream?'' he said. He'd barely touched his dinner. ``I've got Ben and Jerry's.''
``You should eat something. Stress is not good on an empty stomach. The acid eats the lining away.''
``I appreciate the advice,'' I said, ``but my appetite's had a mind of its own lately.''
Dad cleared the table and rinsed the dishes and I thought of the dishwasher I'd offered to get him and the wide-screen TV and satellite dish and VCR and everything else. He'd refused it all.
``I was up in the attic a little while ago,'' he said, ``poking around for the manger scene. I happened onto your train set. Do you remember it?''
``Of course I do.''
``It's a Lionel. Still runs -- I know, because I tested it. I thought Timmy might like it.''
``I'm surprised you saved it,'' I said.
He paused, and in that deep voice of his said: ``I should have saved more.''
I knew what he was referring to -- my glove and bat, the posters of Tony C., my baseball magazines and Red Sox programs. He threw everything out during a sudden fury in the spring of 1968, when I was hounding him to get back into ball -- everything but my scrapbook, spared because I'd left it at Sally's. I know how cruel Dad's reaction sounds, and the truth is, it was cruel. Dad was never angrier, before or after -- never close. Something snapped and he became someone else, a raging monster who terrified me, until my anger set in. I never forgave him, despite his apologies and what he did the very next day, which was go out and buy replacements for everything. Thirty years, and I was still pissed.
``I was terribly wrong, you know,'' Dad said.
I shrugged. ``We all make mistakes.''
``Some far more grievous than others,'' Dad said. ``Is it too late to apologize?''
I didn't know if he'd forgotten how often he already had, or if maybe he believed an apology was mandatory whenever the subject came up.
``No,'' I said, ``it's not too late.''
``We were both different then.''
``I wish I could do it over.''
``You know the bitch of it?'' I said. ``You can't.'' I didn't intend it as a cheap shot -- I was thinking of Sally, and me, and my son.
``No,'' Dad said, ``but it's never too late to seek forgiveness. Or to forgive.''
I didn't reply. I was certain Dad was going to quote Scripture, but he didn't. I wondered if his memory was failing, or if he only wanted to move along.
The dishes were done. We went into the living room and Dad threw a stovelength onto the fire and went to the china cabinet for a bottle of brandy I didn't know he kept. I could see the harbor through the picture window, barely. The storm was settling in for real now and no one was on the water. I looked at Dad's desk, cluttered with large-type books, receipts and cancelled checks, many to charitable organizations and the Episcopal Church. ``Almost tax time,'' Dad said, and I remembered when I was 13, how he'd been arrested for withholding that portion of federal taxes he calculated went to Vietnam. Only the diocesan lawyer's intervention had gotten him out of jail, after a highly publicized weekend during which, not for the first time, I wanted to run away and never return.
Dad set the brandy and two glasses down.
``Care for one?'' he said. ``I'm not sure it's the best thing on an empty stomach. Nor am I sure it's the worst.''
``Why not,'' I said.
``Mama would have liked this view. There isn't a prettier spot on the coast of Maine. She loved the water, your mother did. She always said it put her at peace. Do you remember?''
``How could I forget?''
``It's thirty-two years next Christmas,'' Dad said. ``Hard to imagine you could miss someone so much after so long. The choir sang at service this morning. When I closed my eyes, I could almost hear her voice. Do you remember our Christmas days?''
``How I cooked while she played her beloved piano?''
``I visited her grave this morning,'' I said.
``Did you see my wreath?''
``Thank God. There's been a terrible problem with vandals lately. I'd hate for Mama to be without her wreath on Christmas.''
My eye traveled to Mom's piano: an ancient Kimball upright that had been handed down from her grandmother. Mom always dreamed of owning a baby grand, but she never complained that circumstances did not allow her one. What she did was put a pickle jar on the mantel and squirrel away spare change, pennies and nickles, mostly, for her ``Steinway Fund,'' as she called it. She died before it was full. Dad used what was there to buy her tombstone.
We sat in silence then, for I don't know how long. I finished my brandy and Dad his and he poured us another. We'd never shared a drink before, never mind two.
``Go on,'' he urged, ``it'll fortify you.''
``For climbing Blue Hill.''
I thought he must have been kidding, or in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's, or drunk. But to my knowledge, Dad had never been drunk, and he wasn't acting it now. He didn't sound the least bit senile. He sounded resolute, as if he'd pondered this a very long time. And there was no mistaking his eyes. They were as steely and defiant as the day IRS agents led him out of Saint Luke's in handcuffs while a photographer for the Daily News snapped away.
``You're kidding,'' I said.
``No,'' he said, ``I'm serious.''
``It's a blizzard out there.''
``City living's spoiling you,'' Dad said, smiling. ``What this is is a good old Downeast snowstorm, no more, no less. Now, I intend to climb Blue Hill. If you won't accompany me -- well, I guess I'll have no choice but to go it alone.''
We parked at the base of the mountain. Dad struggled leaving the car and I doubted he'd have been able to get out if I hadn't been there. And I thought, only half in jest: Where is Officer Bill when you need him? He'd put a stop to this, right quick.
``This is worse than when we left the house,'' I said as Dad got his balance.
``Maybe to a city slicker.''
``This is crazy.''
``You've more than made your point,'' Dad said, stern for the first time. ``Now let's go -- the day's getting away from us. Don't lock your doors, I'm afraid the locks will freeze.''
We made respectable progress the first few hundred yards, a stretch that is gently sloped. Dad walked unassisted and the pines surrounding us broke the wind and the snow hadn't drifted much, was only a smooth three or four inches deep. We nipped from a flask Dad had filled with his brandy and we were determined in our silence. It was one-thirty on the kind of wintry afternoon night is impatient to fall.
A bit further, we hit a deadfall. Dad tried getting over it by himself, but it was too much -- even he conceded that after a clumsy try that left him sputtering. I straddled the trunk and as Dad swung his body over, I bore his weight. He was thinner than I remembered and I thought, although it was probably only my imagination, that I could feel the brittleness of his bones. ``Damn arthritis,'' he said, then quickly added: ``Don't take that to mean I want to turn back. This is actually easier than I expected.''
A bit further still, we were on an open stretch of mountain. The wind had piled the snow to more than two feet in places and knocked down a row of pines. A ranger would have had trouble getting through.
``I don't know, Dad,'' I said.
``It gets easier past here,'' he declared.
``How do you know?''
``The Big Guy told me,'' Dad said. I grinned, but he didn't; he really meant it. ``Let's take a five-minute breather,'' he went on, ``then give it all we've got. We'll make the top by three.''
We took shelter behind a boulder. Dad drank deeply from his flask. I wanted to tell him that alcohol and sub-freezing temperatures were a deadly mix, but he'd had his fill of my observations. His face was flush, whether from effort or wind or both I could not tell, but I didn't mention that, either. I didn't tell him how worried I was that his gloves, and mine, were soaked. I listened to the wind and it sounded like the wildcats I always imagined awaited us on our family climbs more than three decades ago. The snow was so heavy I did not notice, until Dad was set to push off again, that just beyond this boulder was the path leading to Mom's grandfather's blueberry field.
I lost my grip bringing Dad over the last deadfall and he surely would have broken his hip if the drift hadn't cushioned his fall. I said nothing and neither did Dad, but his face showed pain. He put his arm around my waist and we hobbled on, under a canopy of pines that was strangely still and unblanketed with snow. Ten minutes more, we reached the summit.
``After all I've given Him,'' Dad said, dead-seriously, ``the Big Guy owed me.''
There is a firetower at the top of Blue Hill and a ranger's hut and, on good days, the finest coastal vista south of Bar Harbor. We found the leeward side of the hut and I eased Dad down. His lungs sounded like Timmy's, or Mom's on her final climb. Brandy brought him around. His breathing returned to normal and a satisfied look crossed his face. I wonder if he really would have attempted this without me, I thought, but didn't ask. I waited for him to speak and hoped it would be soon, for afternoon was starting to surrender to dusk.
``This was Mama's favorite spot in this world,'' he finally said -- like I didn't know. ``I think she really believed on a clear day, you could see forever.''
``You just about can,'' I said.
``Our first kiss was here,'' Dad said, ``on a day like that. I was still in divinity school.''
Dad had never shared this with me and although I wouldn't have stopped him, I didn't want him to go on. He didn't. His eyes grew distant and I could see he came here regularly in his mind.
``You were the apple of her eye,'' he said. ``I was always afraid she'd spoil you, but she'd have none of it. `It's impossible to spoil those you love,' she used to say. It was the only issue we ever had words over. The only one.''
``You did what you thought was right,'' I said.
``No,'' he said, ``I was a coward.''
``Coward? You went to jail for your beliefs.''
``Those were easy beliefs -- that senseless killing and wars are wrong. Only the Nixons and Johnsons of the world don't see that. My cowardice was with you. I wanted control.''
``You were protecting me.''
``No,'' Dad said, ``I was smothering you. Long after it was time, I wouldn't let go.''
``I was a brat,'' I said. ``I probably would have been with Mom, too, if she'd lived.''
``You had the most powerful imagination,'' Dad said. ``So unlike me. I was afraid of it. Instead of encouraging you, I tried to rein you in. That was wrong. What was more wrong was thinking I could live my dreams through you.''
I remembered the first anniversary of Mom's death. The bishop came to Saint Luke's to concelebrate her service, and afterwards, Dad hosted a reception. He and the bishop disappeared for a spell and I happened on them, alone in the vestibule. The bishop was tearing into Dad for his anti-war activities -- how the publicity was hurting collections and bringing dishonor to the Presiding Bishop and Executive Council. ``If you want a future,'' the bishop said, ``the shit stops now.'' I almost fainted, hearing a bishop talk like that. ``I can't,'' my father said. ``The war is wrong.''
And the bishop said: ``You do understand the Council has very high hopes for you.''
And Dad said: ``I have to do what's right.''
And the bishop declared: ``Then so be it. I hope you like it here.''
Only much later would I understand what had slipped away, forever, from my father that day.
What detached from him became affixed to me, however wishfully, until after I'd left for college. I would receive my doctoral degree in divinity and be ordained in the Episcopal faith. I would not be content with a small-town parish, but would take an assignment in a city. I would climb the church hierarchy, using my growing influence for social causes: working to end poverty, racism, hunger. I would be savvier than Dad was, more diplomatic, and I would make it to bishop, but I wouldn't be satisfied there. The longer my father protested Vietnam the more he became convinced change on the big issues could come only from Washington. And so one day I would be a Senator, even if it meant leaving the priesthood, and I would chair powerful committees and my words would move mountains. Dad never spelled this scenario out so definitively, but the gist of it became abundantly clear over time. It didn't seem to matter that there was an inverse correlation between his desires and mine -- that the harder he pushed, the more I ran.
``I've been doing all the talking,'' Dad said. ``It's your turn now.''
``I guess I don't have much to say.''
``Please,'' Dad said. ``I didn't drag us up here in a blizzard for one of my sermons.''
We laughed. ``So it is a blizzard!'' I said.
``Maybe a little one.''
``Really, I think you've said it all.''
``I know you too well to believe that,'' my father said.
I reflected a moment and said: ``Okay. You want to know the biggest thing?''
``No,'' I said, ``baseball.''
``That would have been my second guess.''
``You were mean.''
``That wasn't my intent.''
``And not just mean -- destructive and mean.''
``That was the last thing I intended. I was thinking only of you. Kids get badly hurt -- even die -- every year in baseball.''
``And a thousand times more get hurt crossing the street.'' I was getting angry. ``What kind of logic is that?''
``I didn't say it was logical,'' my father said softly. ``I've already conceded I was over-protective.''
``Bullshit,'' I said. ``You were jealous.''
``Of my own son?'' He was incredulous.
``You didn't make it in baseball and so you weren't going to let me.''
``You're dead wrong,'' Dad said. ``Nothing ever made me prouder than watching you play.''
``Well, it doesn't matter now,'' I said.
``I'm sorry, Mark. I wish I could change how you feel. But I'm giving it to you straight.''
The last light was draining from the sky and the wind had picked up another notch. I figured we had five minutes, ten at most, before we had to start down or face true peril.
``I visited another grave this morning,'' I said. ``Sally took me. Sally Martin.''
``She said me she might.''
``She told you?''
``Yes. In the confessional. I've known about Jake since before he was born.''
I was stunned. I still had the capacity for that.
``How come you didn't tell me?'' I asked.
``I wanted to, sorely -- but I had my vows. And Sally was explicit that if anyone shared her secret, it be her. It's been a heavy burden for me to carry so long. Far heavier, of course, on Sally. Except for her parents and cousin and the undertaker, I'm not sure who, if anyone, even knows Jake existed. Sally is a very strong woman. Stubborn, but strong.''
``I'll never get over it,'' I said.
``No moral being could.''
``I would've come back immediately if I'd known. Sally doesn't believe me, but it's true. I'm not saying I would've married her -- I mean, maybe I would have, I don't know. But I think of him, the things we could've done...'' I trailed off, my thoughts scattering with the wind.
``I suspect you blame yourself in some way,'' my father said. ``You shouldn't. The Lord gave us Jake and the Lord took him, for reasons known best to Him. As I've said all too many times, the Big Guy can work in strange and mysterious ways.''
``Was he christened?'' I asked.
``Yes. By me, in a chapel in Bangor.''
``So he's happy now.''
``And will be for all eternity -- he's at the Lord's side. Does that help, even a little?''
``Yes,'' I said.
``He was the image of you.''
``Do you think he would have liked me?''
``He would've liked the person I'm talking to now.''
In the movie version of my adult life, of course, this is where Dad would have hugged me. Tears in my eyes, I would have accepted his embrace, and the words would have rushed out of us, words of forgiveness and acceptance, a blessing on us both. But my father said nothing. We did not hug.
``Do you know about Timmy, too?'' I finally said.
It was the most unexpected development of our marriage, how close Ruth had grown to Dad -- although, the better you knew Syd, the more you understood. Ruth was the one who made sure my father visited Marblehead every spring. She was the one who kept asking him to live with us. I don't want to imagine how far my father and I might have drifted apart without Ruth.
``You've never mentioned that, either.''
``There's been no need to,'' he said. ``You're a wonderful father. There's not a single thing I'd change.''
``You're mocking me.''
``I'm as serious as I've ever been.''
``Not even all the toys and the ballfield and the pool?''
``Not even all the toys and the ballfield and the pool. Ruth is a fortunate woman. And you are a fortunate man.''
``How could I have forgotten?''
We both laughed at that -- crazy, fool's laughter the storm swiftly carried away. There was much I felt compelled to tell my father now, but it was almost dark; even if we started down immediately, our descent would be treacherous.
``We should do this more often,'' my father said. He was grinning.
``Maybe next time in a hurricane,'' I said, and we laughed.
I helped Dad to his feet, but he didn't start off immediately. He drew my attention to a heart and arrow carved into the hut. My parents' initials were faded, but legible.
``Forty-nine years they've lasted,'' Dad said. ``I don't know what I'd do if the Park Service replaced the hut.''
``I'd haul you up here to carve them again.''
Dad reflected a moment. ``Mama would be proud of you,'' he said, and while I didn't agree, I kept my objections to myself.
Carolers were moving through downtown Blue Hill when we arrived and Dad identified them as the Saint Luke's choir. ``You were in that choir,'' he said. ``Sally, too.''
``They're singing at Saint Luke's for the Christmas Eve concert,'' Dad said. ``Would you care to go?''
``Not this year,'' I said. ``I have some important matters to attend to.''
``Then stop here,'' Dad said in front of Merril & Hinckley, ``but keep that heater running, my bones are still freezing.'' I helped him out of the car and he went in -- alone, at his insistence.
When he returned, he handed me an envelope with Ticketron labeling. ``Sorry it's not wrapped,'' he said.
The envelope had three tickets to a Red Sox-Yankees game in June. They were bleacher seats.
``Our favorite homestand,'' I said.
``How long since we've been?''
``Twenty-five years, at least.''
``Does Timmy hate the Yankees as much as us?''
``More,'' I said. ``It must run in the family.''
Suddenly, my father was crestfallen. ``Stupid me,'' he said.
``I forgot you have season tickets.''
``Not anymore,'' I said. ``I'm getting rid of them.''
``Too expensive,'' I lied.
Dad brightened: ``Well, merry Christmas, son.''
``Merry Christmas, Dad.''
-- 30 –
I began writing “My Adult Life” in the late 1990s, during the dot.com era, as the internet world was transitioning from dial-up to fiber optic, the world we know today. Virtual reality was leaving the labs for the cineplex and home, and video games were advancing from Pong to Xbox. Like so many others, I was fascinated by and pondered how the internet would continue to transform modern life. We seemed to be accelerating to warp speed.
We also, as a culture, were becoming entranced with ourselves. The term “selfie” was yet to be coined (that apparently was in 2002), but with the rising popularity of the digital camera, folks were increasingly taking picture of… themselves. That was nothing new – since the advent of photography, in the 1800s, self-portraits were common – but digitalia made it so much easier. Social media as we know it today was about to dawn and narcissism, recognized since antiquity, was about to pervade the land.
So, yes, “My Adult Life” was prescient. In key respects, it rings as true today as in 2000, when I finished it.
But that is only the cultural backdrop to this novel. Beginning as parody and finishing as parable, “My Adult Life” is an exploration of fidelity, family and the power of memory and pull of the past. It speaks to an era, but more so, by the end, to honor and truth.
And it is set in Massachusetts and Maine.
SO, what happened to "My Adult Life"?
I ran it by a top editor at a top New York publisher, and he said, ah, well, not quite for me. Could have tried elsewhere, but while I had put considerable time and energy into “My Adult Life,” I was putting more of my capital into my other writing. You know, that stuff that pays the bills.
So into the trunk “My Adult Life” went. Perhaps, one day, the trunk will open. More than this novel is in it: for another, “Paper Boys,” come back on May 21 for #33Stories no. 21).