Steven Wingate

Abecedarian Epistle to the Ghost of My Father upon Hearing that he had Stumbled into my Hotel’s Lobby and Left Again, Only Moments Before My Return

After the concierge told me you’d come and gone I felt the weight of my guilt over not say­ing I love you enough times sink from my bel­ly, where it lived, through my tired thighs and my aban­doned calves and my bro­ken feet and the car­pet­ed floor of this London hotel where the Fates had told me I could meet you. I heard the sound of grat­ing met­al as the sink­ing guilt solid­i­fied into enor­mous­ly long rail­road spikes and nailed me to the floor, to the sub­strate of this place where I failed you.

 

Because of my per­verse need to walk city streets inces­sant­ly, and because of my pecu­liar love for a sweet sold by Pret a Manger (which I will not name for fear of it being dis­con­tin­ued to spite me), I left the hotel for a grand total of eleven min­utes and com­plete­ly missed your sweat-soaked arrival in the lob­by, your des­per­ate con­ver­sa­tion with the concierge, your brief strug­gle with the poor door­man who was unpre­pared for your super­nat­ur­al strength. All of which I learned about from aston­ished onlook­ers, who report­ed that you knelt and wept and repeat­ed the words My one chance until your voice left you entire­ly, then depart­ed through the revolv­ing door as a gray-green mist.

 

Could the Fates be laugh­ing at you again? Cackling so hard that their crooked teeth fly out of their rot­ting gums and into their boil­ing caul­drons? They’ve laughed at you enough, father, in death and in life, and now it’s my turn to take over that bur­den for you. The Fates launched their assault on me by pick­ing my one moment of weak­ness in the whole forty-two hours I wait­ed in that London hotel—corresponding, I’m sure they knew, to the forty-two years you wait­ed on this earth. I should have been more obser­vant of that math­e­mat­i­cal con­gru­ence and bat­tled hard­er against my sweet tooth. That’s what kills me! I missed you because I felt sor­ry for myself and want­ed the suc­cor of sug­ar, a ter­ri­ble habit that will some­day lead to my demise, if it hasn’t already.

 

Don’t you think London was an odd place for the Fates to arrange our meet­ing? A lit­tle too con­ve­nient? They knew how eager­ly I’d jump at the chance because of my infat­u­a­tion for the city. They knew I’d fork over the cash for an air­plane tick­et, not to men­tion that gaudy old hotel, if it meant a chance to see you. They knew that my wife—who has suf­fered enough over my obses­sion with see­ing you again—would object to this expen­di­ture only briefly, and for dra­mat­ic effect. She’d be over­joyed if we man­aged to meet, since I’ve always claimed that see­ing you Just one more time would erad­i­cate my obses­sion for your ghost and make me a more present hus­band. A lover less dis­tract­ed by the creak­ings of the house. Of course she want­ed me to go, father. Of course she gave the enor­mous expense her bless­ing.

 

Eventually my desire to see you will dimin­ish our mar­riage. Not destroy it, because it’s a strong one. But dimin­ish it, because as the years go by I will get clos­er to death, and there­fore clos­er to you. And the clos­er I am to you, the greater my chances of see­ing you, yes? Whether the Fates arrange it or not.

 

Flying back home through Chicago I bare­ly thought of you at all until we were over Lake Michigan, when some idiot’s water bot­tle start­ed drip­ping out of the over­head lug­gage bin onto my lap. I thought The Fates are try­ing to reach me again! which made me elat­ed for six min­utes and depressed for eight hours. It had tak­en almost three years for the Fates to arrange our abort­ed London meet­ing, and if they both­er giv­ing us anoth­er chance I doubt they’ll pick anoth­er loca­tion that’s so per­fect­ly suit­ed to my fan­tasies. They’ll prob­a­bly pick some­where incred­i­bly dan­ger­ous like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I’ll be caught look­ing for sweets at pre­cise­ly the wrong moment and get held for ran­som in a rat-infest­ed prison. We’ll see each oth­er then, at least, since I won’t be able to get past the bars and pur­sue my sweet tooth. We’ll get close enough to look into each oth­ers’ eyes and raise our hands in greet­ing before sol­diers stick guns in my face and drag me away. The only thing keep­ing me from being mur­dered imme­di­ate­ly will be the gray-green appari­tion they see appear­ing and dis­solv­ing beside me, which makes them think that killing me would be unlucky.

 

Good fathers are all alike but bad fathers are unique.” Didn’t Tolstoy say that? Or was it some oth­er famous Russian who peo­ple quote now more than they read? I don’t remem­ber if you were a good father or not. I most­ly remem­ber being scared of piss­ing you off, and of moth­er telling me that you need­ed peace and qui­et. I remem­ber once kick­ing a ball through the win­dow of the bed­room where you napped and hear­ing you bel­low like King Kong. I hopped the fence and ran halfway across the park before I even turned around, that’s how scared I was. This sug­gests that you were not a hap­py father, but a unique one. It sug­gests that you did not even try your best, which is what peo­ple say about not-so-good fathers with enough self-aware­ness to know that they could have done bet­ter. If we’d met in the hotel lob­by in London, would you have revealed to me at last that you were, indeed, a good father, and proven this to me with math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­las etched onto my skin?

 

How did you express your love for your chil­dren? I often, as I express my love for your grand­chil­dren in as many ways as I can imag­ine, ask myself this. Can we count not shout­ing and not hit­ting as expres­sions of your love? I sus­pect so, since if you didn’t love us I doubt you could have restrained your­self from doing both. All that restraint took a lot of ener­gy out of you, didn’t it? Ended your life pre­ma­ture­ly, even?

 

I remem­ber wrestling with you on the floor—surely an expres­sion of unfet­tered love. Though do I actu­al­ly remem­ber, or have I mere­ly seen enough pho­tographs of us doing it to mim­ic true mem­o­ry? Remembering wrestling with your father is dif­fer­ent than remem­ber­ing that you wres­tled with your father. Though I wres­tle with your grand­chil­dren all the time, which indi­cates that the actu­al mem­o­ry of father/son wrestling float­ed around in my DNA at least long enough to repli­cate itself.

 

Just because I’m ques­tion­ing how you expressed your love and whether I tru­ly remem­ber one of those expres­sions, please don’t assume that I’m ques­tion­ing the fact of your love for us. Of course you loved us, or you would have left us behind while in full health instead of stick­ing around long enough to with­er and die. Sticking around sug­gests that you had some kind of guilt about not lov­ing us enough, which meant that you had to have some love for us, even if it wasn’t strong enough to keep you from los­ing your shit and try­ing to kill that guy. I’m not ques­tion­ing whether you loved us but instead how strong your love for us was—a relat­ed but not iden­ti­cal ques­tion. You can ask if a piece of met­al is mag­net­ic with­out ask­ing how strong its polar­i­ty is; but if you ask how strong a magnet’s polar­i­ty is, you no longer have to ask whether it’s a mag­net or not. Its sta­tus as a mag­net is assumed, as is the fact of your love for us—however weak or strong. I believe that my log­ic is irrefutable, though I’m sure some snot-nosed phi­los­o­phy major who has nev­er bro­ken a sweat in his life, let alone destroyed a build­ing with a crow­bar and his bare hands, will attempt to dis­man­tle it as soon as I turn my back.

 

K is a tough one for me right now. Every k-sound­ing word I want to start a sen­tence with actu­al­ly starts with a C. I need to con­sult the dic­tio­nary, which I promised myself I wouldn’t do in order to main­tain the sin­cer­i­ty of this piece. Sincerity is impor­tant to me. Isn’t it to you? Don’t you feel, when you’re read­ing some­thing and the author goes all metafic­tion­al and iron­ic on you, like you’ve been ripped off and used? Don’t you much pre­fer a clean­er emo­tion­al tale that comes from the writer’s heart? Kaput, that’s the word I’ve come up with after con­sult­ing my dic­tio­nary. Because my hopes of see­ing you again with­out hav­ing to sup­pli­cate myself before the Fates even more stren­u­ous­ly than before—if such a thing is even possible—are kaput.

 

Lie to me, father, and tell me you are com­ing tomor­row. Always, every day, with­out fail. It will then be eas­i­er for me to face the morn­ing, put on my mask of dis­pas­sion, and breathe.

 

Mask of dis­pas­sion, did I say? This is a lie. My dic­tio­nary tells me that dis­pas­sion means “not influ­enced by strong feel­ing; espe­cial­ly: not affect­ed by per­son­al or emo­tion­al involve­ment,” which is the most ridicu­lous descrip­tion of myself I’ve ever heard. Something no sane human being who knows me would ever utter. Yet I have ever claimed dis­pas­sion for my own. Do you remem­ber your funer­al, when I came up to see you in your cof­fin? My ten-year-old self refused to cry and chose to remain sto­ic. Perhaps he’d heard the word dis­pas­sion and yearned to embrace it—though dis­pas­sion was rather rare in New Jersey in the 1970s, and his expo­sure to it was there­fore unlike­ly.

 

Nonetheless he (I) did refuse to cry at your funer­al because I (he) want­ed to be a tough guy and want­ed to show peo­ple that even this death bull­shit wasn’t going to affect him (me), which is obvi­ous­ly absurd because I (him) still write about it four decades lat­er.

 

Ostentation is a bet­ter word than dis­pas­sion to describe the mask I wear, par­tic­u­lar­ly re: your death. Shouldn’t a nor­mal per­son be able to write about it once and move on? I sus­pect that this ancient garbage is churn­ing itself up now because your grand­sons are near­ly as old as I was when you died, which means I will soon be in a bizarre sit­u­a­tion: my sons will have more expe­ri­ence in get­ting along with a father than I ever did. Which is why I need you to come back, so I can stay ahead of the game. And how many of us can claim to have a father who has returned from the dead? If we could pull that off, then I could stay ahead of the kids for good.

 

Perhaps you could work on the Fates too, dad. (See, I called you dad. I got less for­mal. My resid­ual fear of you is melt­ing.) I make my appeals to them, beg them and pros­trate myself before them, but all they do is set up the kind of dis­ap­point­ment we just had in London. If you talked with them, it might have more grav­i­ty. Of course I’m speak­ing on a sub­ject in which I have no gen­uine knowl­edge (i.e., talk­ing out my ass), but it would seem that dead peo­ple have a dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ship with the Fates than liv­ing ones. When you’re dead, isn’t your fate sort of final­ized? Or maybe not. Maybe your fate, your jour­ney through eter­ni­ty, has only just begun after this dress rehearsal we call life. If this is true, I’ll need to rethink a great many things.

 

Q. Time for the dic­tio­nary again. I’m feel­ing quite hun­gry and will have myself a quick snack before con­tin­u­ing my quo­tid­i­an task of stum­bling through this life with­out a father. Without you, who could have taught me so much about what it meant to be me—your son, your spawn, your seed!—but instead aban­doned me ear­ly, after hav­ing most­ly ignored my youth­ful progress. Oh sure, I know you were proud of my report cards. But I don’t think we had con­ver­sa­tions about what it means to be human. I have those con­ver­sa­tions with your grand­sons all the time, which I sus­pect you think is decid­ed­ly non-macho. But nev­er hav­ing such con­ver­sa­tions with you left me want­i­ng answers, and now that I’ve earned those answers I real­ly wish I’d had them ear­li­er. I real­ly wish you’d sim­ply told them to me, so I could go off and earn oth­er answers.

 

Research shows that 97 out of 103 sons whose fathers try to kill peo­ple exhib­it intense per­son­al guilt toward their own chil­dren, com­bined with the fear that they will nev­er be able to escape the shad­ows of their fathers’ actions. These aren’t real sta­tis­tics. I just made them up so you’d be impressed, since I know you liked what a smart kid I was and prob­a­bly expect­ed me to become a sci­en­tist. I hope you’re at least super­fi­cial­ly impressed by my use of qua­si-sta­tis­tics, though you weren’t the kind of guy who got swept away by them. You had a bull­shit detec­tor. This much I knew from the way you talked—when you’d had enough booze to loosen your lips but not enough to get surly and/or unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly joyful—about the John Birch Society, the Tri-Lateral Commission, and oth­er ene­mies of the Brotherhood of Man.

 

Sinking deep into a couch togeth­er on the night of our imag­i­nary reunion, we spend hours dis­cussing those very ene­mies of peace and bon­homie. I’m star­tled that you’re com­plete­ly up-to-date on today’s ver­sions of such mis­cre­ants, right down to the orga­ni­za­tions they work for and the polit­i­cal posi­tions they hold. I do imi­ta­tions of world “lead­ers” and you know exact­ly who I’m talk­ing about, and you know their crimes a thou­sand times bet­ter than I do. This shouldn’t sur­prise me, though, since dead peo­ple have a far broad­er per­spec­tive on human events than liv­ing ones, plus all the time in the world (and then some) to read every news­pa­per, every self-pro­fan­ing blog.

 

Tomorrow, or the next day, or ten min­utes before my death—whenever our meet­ing happens—I hope that you’ll impart to me a bit of your dead man’s wis­dom so I can fin­ish out my life with a lit­tle more under­stand­ing than I have now. Which isn’t much, dad. I mean, I walk through life act­ing like I not only can under­stand it, but can even help oth­er peo­ple under­stand it. Which is a sham, as you know.

 

Unless some­thing sig­nif­i­cant changes in my life, like a com­plete ner­vous break­down or an even stronger reli­gious expe­ri­ence than the ones I’ve already had, I’m going to con­tin­ue that sham because it’s my bread and but­ter. At my age, what’s the point of trad­ing one sham for anoth­er? Most intel­li­gent peo­ple not only real­ize that all their pub­lic iden­ti­ties are care­ful­ly main­tained shams, but accept this fact as read­i­ly as they accept the ideas of time and prop­er­ty. Only crazy peo­ple believe it when they label them­selves as sin­cere. The only sin­cer­i­ty that real­ly mat­ters is the kind that crash­es into you against your own voli­tion, as when the forces of the world shake apart every­thing you know and you’re left with no shams left in your pock­et, only the self that dreams and hopes.

 

Variation with­in a species is the way of being—as Charles Darwin, demi-god of all the athe­ists, taught us so well. What of the vari­a­tion between you and me, dad? You were nat­u­ral­ly select­ed to fail so bright­ly, I was nat­u­ral­ly select­ed to bear wit­ness. To not fail, to not blow apart, but instead to endure. Are these our roles in the human econ­o­my?

 

Weight, that’s what I car­ry. Because I’m your son, I feel com­pelled to keep car­ry­ing every weight you ever dragged behind you. My back is bro­ken from it. If some­one had told my ten-year-old self Listen, kid, its cry now or car­ry that weight all your life, I would have cried. But I would still have felt the emp­ty hole you left in me. I would still have won­dered what we are.

 

Xenophiles, that’s what we are. Lovers of the oth­er, even if that oth­er is the estranged self. Because we both do that, don’t we, in the way we’ve been nat­u­ral­ly select­ed for? We pull our­selves out of our­selves and turn them over like five-dimen­sion­al alien egg pods, inspect­ing them from every per­spec­tive?

 

You soured on that prac­tice, though not before it killed you. Was it one per­spec­tive that did the trick, or the cumu­la­tive endeav­or? Did your estranged, abstract­ed self dis­turb you as you held it in your hand, pon­der­ing it like Hamlet pon­dered Yorick’s skull. On the night you start­ed dying I saw a man doing exact­ly that on TV. I lay beside you on the floor, and you lay on the couch watch­ing a PBS doc­u­men­tary about the dawn of man. An anthro­pol­o­gist held the skull of an ancient pri­mate, regard­ed it with respect and con­ster­na­tion. Even then I knew this was a sem­i­nal moment, the exact time when the habit of self-scruti­ny passed from you to me.

 

Zinjanthropus, they called that species when they first dis­cov­ered its skull in Africa. They call it Paranthropus now—they stopped think­ing of it as our direct ances­tor, and gave it a name that means “along­side man.” As I would like to be along­side you, man. Alongside you, my direct ances­tor. Name the time, and I’ll be there. No sweet tooth get­ting in the way this time. Make your best deal with the Fates, or skip them alto­geth­er and talk right to me. I’m lis­ten­ing. Always.

~

Steven Wingate is a mul­ti-genre author whose work ranges from print to inter­ac­tive media. His short sto­ry col­lec­tion Wifeshopping won the Bakeless Prize for Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was pub­lished by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2008. His prose poem col­lec­tion Thirty One Octets: Incantations and Meditations was pub­lished by WordTech/CW Books in 2014, and his dig­i­tal lyric mem­oir dad­dy­labyrinth pre­miered in 2014 at the ArtScience Museum of Singapore. He teach­es at South Dakota State University.