He is holding up a clean and empty jelly-glass; bright, colorful cartoon characters chasing merrily around its rim, my long-anticipated reward earned with weeks of peanut-butter sandwiches.
He is hiding behind his dense, secretive mustache, handing me a can of cheap warmish beer, laughing loudly at me tentatively tasting it; spitting it vehemently out.
He is clasping my hand and leading me down the street to the local bar; propping me up on a barstool so all his friends can see, can joke with me and about me while I twirl about on the red vinyl, tall and proud to be out with Daddy.
He is standing at the wire fence, watching me playing in the dirt of our yard, asking, “Is your mother home?” Perhaps not realizing that I don’t recognize him anymore; will have to ask Mom later who that man was, the mysterious stranger who visited her that afternoon and called me by name. Perhaps not knowing that all of my memories of him have already been boiled down to these simple four.
And then he is gone.
He sits by himself in the green-painted barn, back of their house, listening to the Italian radio station, smoking his pipe and reading a newspaper, its foreign words and syllables impenetrable runes, like his shadowy face in the dark and tobacco-filled haze.
He defies approach, inspires timidity; despises interruption and declines conversation. They shake to address him; quiver in apprehension, dare only when driven by direst need.
“Bubba? Bubba, can I have five dollars?” the youngest son inquires, cowering, backing slowly away even as he speaks.
Harsh mumbling ensues; the status of the request indeterminable to those waiting anxiously outside.
“To go to the movies? Please, Bubba?”
The mumble metamorphoses into a shout; sends the child scurrying away from the barn, out underneath the clutching, hanging vines of the wine-grape trellis, back into the house where his mother waits, her lips pursed, her head shaking sadly.
“Mangia,” she commands kindly, pointing to the table laid with salad and bread and pasta while she fixes a plate for her husband, who will eat, by himself, in the green-painted barn at the back of their house.
Originally published in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, April 2013.
© Lori Schafer 2013
“Two Fathers” is one of the pieces featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past (only $2.99 Kindle, $6.99 paperback). To learn more about it, please visit the book’s webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.
I originally wrote this story in an effort to create an ultra-short of one hundred and fifty words or less for a contest. I don’t recall what prompted it, but somehow I got to thinking of my biological father and the very few memories I have of him, which, interestingly enough, taken all together, came out to about a hundred and fifty words!
The second segment is about the father of the best friend I had from the time I was four or five until I was about twelve. In the hundreds of times I visited my friend’s house – which, except for the year we spent living in Connecticut, was just across the street from ours – I don’t believe I actually saw the man more than a dozen times, and never once in all those years did he speak to me. Of course, most of the time he was busy working to support their five children, and there was no doubt that he loved his family very much. But as a kid I was only cognizant of the fear.
I also wrote a third segment of this piece about my “main” stepfather – that’s the one I had the longest – but I didn’t really care for the way it turned out so I omitted it. I’m still not sure if I should have included it after all. It certainly would have put a different spin on the piece as a whole, because it was a fairly flattering portrayal of a man who, without being anyone’s biological father, was nonetheless the best father I ever had. Except that in the end, when the marriage dissolves, the stepdad moves away and is never heard from again, and my intent was to make the story evocative rather than melancholy. And at bottom, I think it makes for a better “vignette” without coming to such a resounding conclusion, and that’s what Vine Leaves does best.