Oh Dad—Elaine Bonow
Fred walked from his car into his neighborhood grocery store to pick up a few things for his dinner. Raymond was coming to dinner and as usual was eager to eat one of the great meals that Fred cooked especially for him.
Fred counted himself among the lucky few who lived a very gentile life. He had a top job with the County, with a good pension and generous benefits. Tonight he was planning a mini feast of braised pork chops, roasted garlic potato salad, and corn on the cob. He grew his own heirloom tomatoes that he was also serving with black salt and olive oil. Pavlovas with strawberries and cream were already prepared and wine carefully chosen to punctuate the courses.
The store was crowded and there were a lot of families shopping after such a beautiful Sunday afternoon. They were probably, coming from the Zoo, or the Lake or the Park. While he was discussing the latest sports news with the butcher and before the vegetable aisle he overheard a father chastising the son, “Oh come on now Mike you almost shoved the cart right into that man. I told you to be careful. You could have killed someone or yourself on the way. You don’t pay any attention.”
Fred wanted to say something to the dad or to the kid, who was all of nine years old, but kept his mouth pressed firmly together. The boy, rail thin, his glasses askew shrugged off the criticism or seemed to. Mother held her self-tight, father trim and compact was much like his own father. That strident voice the same voice impatient with his imperfect son, struck a chord in Fred’s memory.
He wondered if the little boy had a secret mantra like he had that he thought about when his father was tormenting him. The scene rewound in his head. Dad was on him again. “Fred look around you when you walk across the street. You could have tripped and gotten your head smashed into a bloody heap.” In this replay Fred spun around fast, his eyes flashing. He seemed to have grown a foot in height, his shoulders broadened and in a deep baritone shouted his mantra “Give me a break.” Of course Fred never had the opportunity to cross his father, well almost never.
Pork chops bought, asparagus bagged, a fat new lemon procured and paid for, Fred headed for his car. The drama he had witnessed wouldn’t leave him. He sat in his car and opened the dark chocolate Dove ice cream bar, his favorite treat when he was gearing up to cook.
His father was dead. He died two years ago leaving Fred, his only child, a very comfortable income. Big Joe, formidable in his life had been extinguished in the fog of Alzheimer’s. Fred found that he could say anything to his father in this state. Big Joe could only sit before him faded blue eyes blinking rapidly mouth working up and down like a puppet.
At first Fred would talk to him about his mundane day. Big Joe’s expression never changed. Pretty soon Fred thought he would try to shock Joe, he would say some obscenity like “Fuck the Pope,” or “The Queen is a Dyke,” or “Your Mother was a Whore.” The expression didn’t budge. Tired of this childish game Fred thought he would just start talking to his dad like he would to a friend.
The first serious discussion was about Fred being gay and how hard it was to live in the house during his youth trying to hide and cover up this big secret. Fred was able to pour his heart out to Big Joe without fear of sarcastic digs and incriminating sneers. He could confess everything: who his first crush was, a boy naturally, how much he masturbated as an unhappy teenager and how when he took Julie Nelson to the prom he got really drunk and passed out instead having to kiss a girl.
Finally one day Fred, his anger inflamed by a conflict at work confronted his dad about how Big Joe had constantly tormented him, about how much he hated Big Joe’s derision about Fred’s inability to be athletic and charming like Joe had been. Fred became so angry he took all of his aggression out on the hapless Joe who couldn’t understand of feel anything Fred was shouting. Fred turned to face his tormentor, “You were such a selfish bastard dad, to all of us, mom included. Why do you think she died so young? I think her cancer was a manifestation of the cancer you were. So many times I wanted to take a stick and beat the hell out of you.“
Not that Joe ever laid a hand on Fred or his mother; his lashings were all: lingual, acerbic, sarcastic, belittling. That day Fred turned to Joe and shouted, “Get off my back. Give me a break.” Joe’s expression didn’t change just a small drop of spittle innocently rolled from the corner of his lips.
Fred, looking at Joe’s vacuous expression and started laughing and laughing. When he finally got a hold of himself, he realized that for the first time since he could remember he felt relieved, somehow light and healed like he had found a new religion. His life made sense somehow. It was a definite life changing moment. Remembering this moment still makes Fred smile. His life often fractured and unfulfilled before this became serene and peaceful.
Fred turned on the car. The oldies station channel pulsed on. Before he backed out he thought again of the little boy in the grocery and made a wish that somehow that poor kid would also discover a way to talk to his own father and find a measure of happiness, in time. Now it was time to cook something delicious for someone special, someone he loved.