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, it’s 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.