When I was a child, my dad always walked with a cane. He had a few of them, but the one I can picture most distinctly had a bronze dog head on top. The decorative head gave it some heft, making it the cane of choice when he went to check traps with my brother. I’m not sure when I asked how they killed the foxes they found in their traps, but at some point my dad must have explained, in his quick, harsh voice. He beat the foxes to death with his cane. Shooting them would have ruined the fur.
My dad crushed his hip when he fell asleep at the wheel sometime in his late thirties. I think he was driving a van of some sort. It rolled and trapped him inside. This might have been before my parents had children—my mom brings it up as an example of my father being such a baby.
He was fully casted from the waist down. He needed help going to the bathroom and couldn’t bathe himself. She had to lay him across the backseat of the car on the drive home from the hospital. When we got home he’d cry all the time, whining Renee! Renee! My mom tells me this, mocking him.
I imagine my dad spending all day in his recliner, immobilized for weeks. I picture him sobbing from the sheer pain of it, a vital piece of his anatomy crushed and replaced by steel reinforcements. I can hear him calling my mother’s name in the same demanding bark that blasts out from the basement when he wants her to help him move boxes, or to wrap the venison he just butchered in freezer paper and date each portion with a thick, black Sharpie.
The first time my dad ever rolled a car, he came out relatively unscathed. He must have been young, in his early twenties. Back then there weren’t speed limits on every road like there are today. He grew up in Oaks, Pennsylvania, very near where my family lives in Collegeville, and the road he names in his story is a road I drive on almost every day.
I was going too fast and lost control. Completely totaled my Mustang. He said this at the dinner table, to my sister’s fiancé. I was eighteen and that was the first time I had ever heard it.
I could never figure out what my dad’s tattoos are. The ink has faded and spread under his skin, making the figures blurred and blob-like. I think my mom once told me he got them in Vietnam, or maybe she had said Chinatown, right before he went to Vietnam. A few years ago I asked my older brother, Zack, if he knew what they were. He claims the one on the leg is a dragon and the one on the arm is a snake. I can’t quite see that in the regrettable black splotches, now more like plagues than symbols on my father’s skin.
For years my family went to Chincoteague Island, Virginia, for a week of summer vacation. We stayed in the same house each year. Out front of the large, wood-paneled house there was a sign with a Wood Duck on it and “The Boondocks” stenciled underneath. Pine needles blanketed every inch of the ground.
It must have been somewhere around fifth grade, one of the last times we went to this vacation spot, when my dad met up with the friend from his teenage years. I don’t know if they ran into each other or how he knew his friend would be there. We went to visit him in a trailer park on the other side of the island. He was a large man, blind in one eye, and had a limp. I don’t remember his name, but he called my father Jake. My father’s name is Charles. This man called him Jake the Snake.
For a year or two after the vacation, this man kept in touch, calling our house once in a while. Whenever I answered the phone, he would ask for Jake and out of habit I would say, Who? Jake?
And he would correct himself: Oh, Charlie. I find myself wondering more and more now—Who’s Jake?
After a trip to Lowe’s, my dad drives me to the house where he grew up. It’s near the movie theater where I used to work and is small, only one story, with a big yard. The road has a few other houses on it and comes to a dead end. He tells me the people living there now must have added that porch and fixed it up. He drives past his old elementary school too. It looks like a small church. It’s a preschool now. I pass it frequently whenever I go to the movies or Target.
On my first day of school I didn’t like it, so I just walked home at lunch, he tells me.
I answer the phone. This is sometime around middle school. The person calling asks for my dad. I figure it’s just one of his hunting buddies. My mom tells me it’s Uncle Johnny.
Who’s Uncle Johnny? I ask.
He’s your uncle, she tells me. Like it’s obvious. Like there shouldn’t be any confusion.
I didn’t know I had an uncle, I tell her.
Yes, you did, my mom says.
No. I didn’t.
Kim, stop it.
My mom walks away and that’s that.
I saw him once, years later, at a Stoll family reunion, when I was around fourteen, at the only gathering for my dad’s side of the family I’ve ever been to. I can’t remember what he looked like. I think he had white hair.
My parents decide to take a vacation to Canada, which requires them to get passports. My mom has no trouble filling out her renewal form, but my dad can’t complete his application because he has no clue when his parents’ birthdays are or where they were born.
It reminds me of when I was in elementary school and we had to make family trees. My mom’s side was easy. My grandfather could give me details about his brothers, sisters, and parents down to a tee. My dad’s side remained mostly blank, even after my mom called my dad’s sister and one of his cousins to try to figure out people’s names, when they were born, and what they did for a living.
Before I went into grade school, I would always wake up when my parents did, at four or five in the morning. The sound of pots and pans being pulled out of the cupboard was what stirred me. My mom would usually be cooking eggs and bacon while my dad got ready for work.
He worked as a receiver at a grocery store chain. He filled in wherever they needed him. A floater, he was called. Some days he would be at the store down the street, others he would have a forty-five minute commute. The trucks delivered the stock early, before the store opened, and my dad would be there to take inventory of it all. He sat in a cold back office surrounded by damp concrete walls and had contact with only the truck drivers.
After breakfast was eaten and my dad left for work, my mom would go back to bed until eight, when she had to get us kids ready for school and herself ready for work. I would lie on my mother’s side of the bed and she would slide over to my dad’s side. I felt like it would be against the rules if I touched his part of the bed.
If I cranked my head back I could see my dad’s rifle above the headboard of the bed. I don’t know if it was loaded and I don’t remember ever being told explicitly not to touch it, or any of the guns in the house. But I knew guns were meant for hunting, so I never did.
My dad comes back after only an hour of fishing down the bank, on the creek our house overlooks.
I found a sack of dead puppies. Someone didn’t want ‘em and just threw ‘em in the river, I overhear him tell my mom.
Oh, who would do such a thing? My mom is appalled.
My dad puts his fishing stuff away and sits in his recliner, glaring into the distance.
My brother stands up from the dinner table. He is maybe seventeen or sixteen. He is on the verge of tears, his face red and voice strained, a few octaves higher than usual. He is screaming, Shut up! Just shut the fuck up! I can’t stand it here! I fucking hate you!
He runs up the stairs to his room in what used to be the attic. My dad says, You better watch who you’re talking to, son.
My mom is crying, her jaw clenched, staring straight ahead. I am crying, picking slowly through my food, eating each bite deliberately. My head is down, hair draped like a curtain over my face. I do not remember what my dad was screaming at us about. I can only imagine him pointing his fork across the table, saying something like, You fucking people.
It’s hard to say what my dad is ever angry about. But he yells all the time; he’s always yelling. It is never much of a fight. Very few words are ever spoken back. He is relentless.
I can remember him tearing the clothes hooks off the wall by the kitchen door. He threw them against the cabinets, screaming, Fucking suburbanites!
All of his woods, which are also his hunting grounds, have been lost to developments. His family is keeping him here, in an unbearable suburban sprawl.
He is screaming, Goddamn, fucking suburbia!
Things my dad has accused my mom of:
Lying to him about where she bought the meat we ate for dinner. Telling him he wasn’t good enough to help move me into my college dorm. Not letting him speak to Zack when he calls home. Lying about where she put his clothes, his flashlight, his boots.
Once, when my brother was driving home from college, he would not answer his phone. I was positive that he just couldn’t hear it ringing, but my dad was certain that his son was dead. He began to weep loudly from his recliner in the living room. I heard him say, I can’t lose another child.
My parents’ firstborn died before she was a year old because of a heart problem, some sort of birth defect the doctors could not fix. A picture of her, perhaps one of the only pictures of her, once sat in a frame on my mother’s dresser. It was taken down while my mother was painting the room a few years ago and was never put back up.
I am on the couch in our downstairs living room, watching cartoons. I can hear my dad above me, a heavy step followed by the drag of his slipper along the hardwood. For as long as I’ve been alive, my father has had that limp. I stiffen and follow his path in my mind. I can picture him, shuffling down the hall from his recliner in the upstairs living room. I imagine how he first stands up, stiff, clutching at his hip and then gaining composure with each step. He is nearing the top of the stairs and I pull my blanket up over my head and pretend to be asleep. I am still awake enough to feel each thudding pulse of my heart. I can feel the blood heating my ears, making them buzz. As he passes by the stairs and continues on to his bedroom, I sigh and sit upright again.
Because, once, my dad said I want one last dog before I die, my sister drove out to a breeder in Erie and brought back a puppy, as a surprise. Being in love with Salinger at the time, I named him Holden. He listens to one person and one person only: my father. He waits outside the bathroom door, scratching at it anxiously if my dad is in there. Now that my dad is retired, he walks Holden twice: first thing in the morning and later at three, a total of four to six miles per day.
My dad had me help him train Holden. When he blew a whistle, my task was to place a canvas dummy on a platform. Then he would guide Holden up the platform, leading him by the collar. Holden hated picking up the dummies, though. He wouldn’t hold them in his mouth. So my dad zip-tied a bottle cap to his index finger, and when Holden wouldn’t pick up the dummy, my dad pressed the jagged edges of the bottle cap into the side of Holden’s ear. He yelped in long gasps, and my dad pressed the dummy into his mouth. I felt sick in my stomach and wished he’d stop doing it. The noises Holden made were brutal, gut-wrenching. We did this routine for about ten or fifteen minutes until Holden started picking up the dummy.
Once every few months my parents go away for the weekend with Holden for dog training tournaments and seminars. My mind always flashes a thousand what ifs, the most prominent being, What if he kills her and then kills himself? Will I live with my sister? What will we do with our house? Would he kill my mother and then come after us? Sometimes, when he is particularly angry, I will survey whatever room I am in and try to formulate a plan of attack if he comes in with a gun. Most scenarios end with me dead. But then I think, he’d sooner kill himself than any of us.
In one of his fits of anger, my dad once said, I can’t fucking stand this. I can’t wait until I die.
I think he meant it, that it is the sort of truth he has always felt and held inside until he can’t take it anymore and slips up.
I have that feeling too, sometimes. I can’t wait until I die. Maybe it’s genetics.
It is two days after I’ve overdosed on anxiety medication, and my dad is unwilling to leave me at home by myself. He goes to pick up hoagies from the local Italian bakery and I ride along in the cab of his Dodge Ram. The truck is on its last leg, has been for years. The key has to be clicked forward once, then paused, then turned all the way on. We have to mumble start, start, start under our breath when we attempt this. The engine roars and the entire vehicle shakes. We have to push the pedal all the way to the floor to go the speed limit. This is the truck my father took me to the middle school parking lot in, to teach me how to drive.
When we pull into the bakery parking lot my father opens his wallet for money, so I can go in and get the sandwiches. As he flips open his wallet he pauses and looks down at the pictures in the plastic center flaps. He turns and shows me the first one, a picture from my junior year of high school. My hair is light brown and streaky from a botched dye job, and my braces are the focal point of my smile.
This is your picture. The first one in my wallet. See? He says this gruff and quiet. I’m sure he is about to cry; I nod and jump down from my seat, slamming the door so it’ll shut.
Throughout most of high school I was burnt out on painkillers. It was the easiest escape I could find from my life, which was probably no worse than any other teenager’s. But it seemed unbearable. One of the side effects from this rampant prescription abuse is that my memories are all hazy. On the night of the overdose, the pills gave me a good forty-eight-hour amnesia.
I know the day after my hospital visit, my parents had some talks with me—trying to figure out what they were going to do, if I should see a counselor or be grounded, or why I had done it in the first place. But I don’t remember what I said at all. I wonder if I blamed my dad. I imagine myself sobbing that I take drugs because of him. I imagine it like so many dramatic movie scenes. I just can’t take it! I hate it here! I can’t do anything! I hope I wasn’t that cliché. I don’t know if I was even with it enough to articulate anything. I do vaguely remember my dad in the other room saying I wouldn’t be allowed to go out with anyone anywhere, saying I wasn’t to leave the house, and that my sister and mom protesting on my behalf would only make it worse.
But for a few months after the incident there were fewer restrictions, fewer questions, fewer demands. My dad controlled his temper, I assume out of fear that it would set me off. It didn’t last too long, though. Before the year was over the entire thing was shoved to the back of everyone’s memory, willfully forgotten, not to be mentioned again.
It’s a week or two after my overdose and I’m sitting at the computer in the downstairs living room. I don’t know what prompts it, but my dad shuffles over.
Are you done doing that stuff? he wants to know.
Yeah, I mean, it was just an accident, I mumble, uncomfortable with the questioning.
Good. ’Cause people get addicted and end up dead. My buddy from school started drinking and couldn’t stop. In a few years they found him dead. The anecdote is minimal, but this might be the most personal story he’s ever told me.