Read A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father Online

Authors: Augusten Burroughs

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs

A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father (18 page)

BOOK: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father
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My father’s answer was the same for every question. “Son, let’s just wait and see.” He would guarantee nothing, the holiday had no warranty. “I would hate to promise you something and then have you be all disappointed if it didn’t happen.”

Gradually, I stopped wiggling and took a seat. I parked my arms on the table, dropped my head onto them. It’s not that I was bored. It’s that there was not enough to be excited about. The only thing I was promised was that we were going to Martha’s Vineyard. I was not allowed to hope for more, so I didn’t.

Soon I began to dread the trip. If my father couldn’t even 
 here at home because his knee hurt, and he couldn’t play ball or even checkers because he was too tired, why would anything be different just because we were on an island?

I imagined a trip where my father sat in a chair in the motel room and smoked in the dark, just like at home. And my mother propped herself up in bed writing in her notebook, her lips moving to the words, just like at home. I imagined them getting into a fight and waking the manager, being asked to leave at three in the morning. I could see myself standing beside the car, holding on to my pillow. Geography was simply too weak a force to change my parents’ behavior, of this I was certain.

My father drew on the map with a red pen, tracing the line of highway that would deliver us east across the state, then south to the coastal town of Woods Hole. He picked up a black pen, uncapped it, and carefully marked an 
 on the map. He tapped it with his finger. “Right here, this is where we’ll catch the ferry.” Then he placed the cap back on the pen, set it down on the table with the others, and aligned his ruler on the map. He measured the distance from our town to the black 
 accounting for the curves. Then he read the key at the bottom of the map. One inch was equal to fifty miles. In this way he was able to determine that the trip would take us approximately three hours.

Next, he calculated the amount of fuel we would consume, which he multiplied by the current price of gas per gallon for a total of $4.86. This figure he printed neatly on the first page of his pad of paper.

He said, “We’ll allow an additional ten dollars, for emergencies.” I wondered what would constitute a 
ten-dollar emergency

He said that if we left by seven in the morning we wouldn’t need to stop along the way to eat.

With each mark of his pen, each measurement of the ruler, it was as if, inch by inch, he was removing any chance that something unexpected might happen. Like lunch.

I developed a rank, metallic taste in my mouth, always the precursor to illness. My throat felt raw, like I’d been howling. And my joints ached, my skin tender to the touch.

Sickness was how my body responded to anxiety.

WE STOOD ATOP the cliffs at Gay Head on the southwestern tip of the island. My father, closest to the edge, took expansive breaths. He scanned the horizon, his right hand poised against his forehead to block the sun.

I stood behind him on his left. I watched him.

My mother hung back behind us both, her arms crossed protectively across her chest. She smoked, exhaling curling wisps of smoke through her nose, her face to the sky. When she glanced down again, it was not out at the view, but rather at the earth around her; at ruddy gravel stirred by countless feet, crushed grass, tiny trampled wildflowers, pull tabs from beer cans. She turned and walked away from us, her attention on the very near and ordinary, not the distant and grand.

My attention shifted between my parents—my father watching the horizon line, dreaming perhaps that he was a sea captain piloting a clipper ship, his ancient wish, and not a man looking out to sea from shore, and my mother lost in whatever thoughts and images had been sparked by the path, the grasses and stones.

My mother existed largely in the past, replaying her south Georgia childhood at different speeds. Perhaps the scattered peanut shells I saw around me at my own feet reminded her of pecans and her beloved father’s orchard. Or maybe everything reminded her of her chilly Victorian mother, always withholding, punishing. A Latin teacher who warned, 
Aut disce aut discede,
Non semper erit aestas
. Either learn or leave, and It won’t always be summer.

This moment between them was like so many others. I was there, yet I was not. I occupied the space physically, but none of their attention.

I wondered if I screamed would they both turn suddenly and look at me? Or would they be unreachable? I had screamed before and not gained their attention. I had tried and tried to get them to see me.

If I wasn’t an accident, if my mother 
 telling me the truth, wasn’t this worse? If I wasn’t an accident, mustn’t I then be a crushing disappointment? My father couldn’t bear to be with me, it was as if to do so caused him more physical pain than all his ailments combined. And my mother lived in exile within her own mind, devoted only to the past.

My brother enraged them. With his wild life, his greasy hair, his disregard for the seat belts of life. With his requests for money, his thanklessness when they gave it to him. With his belittling nicknames for them—“Slave” and “Stupid”—to which they responded resentfully but thoroughly.

My mother’s form was farther away now; if I called she would not hear me.

It was late afternoon and we were facing west. The sun was so magnificent that I realized at once how, at home, I was deprived. The pines we lived inside of insulated me from the sky, the sun. There was a vastness in the outside world. There was more than I had at home. There was everything.

All at once, I wanted to live here, on the beach, near the sea. I felt the freest I’d ever felt just standing there. And this made me think of my brother, leaving home so young. Was this what he felt like? Was this what he saw? I understood why a person would want as few wheels as possible, no doors, no roof, no place to store a suitcase or anything else from the past.

The back of my father’s head was larger than the sun, twice the size at least. He stood no more than three feet from the edge of the precipice. He had not glanced back at me once. I reached for his hand. He withdrew it and slid them both into his pockets.

My mother was out of sight.

I took one step forward, then another step to the right, and finally a third. So that I was now standing directly behind my father. I inhaled through my mouth, tasting the salt, his Old Spice cologne, and something else—the atmosphere around the sea, the waves themselves.

We were entirely alone, my father and I. We were alone together. We were an 

For my twelfth birthday just the month before, my parents had given me a book, 
Where Did I Come From?
, which explained the mechanics of life. Though I already knew the basics, I’d realized, reading the book: there are no exceptions. 
 ejaculation had created me, 
orgasm resulted in the fact of me, standing there behind him. One erection, a number of thrusts, a release. And there I stood.

I stepped closer.

And I sat on the ground. Small pebbles, sharp edges of stone pricked me through the seat of my pants. I placed my hands beside me but it hurt, so I wiped the area clean of stones and then tried again. Now my hands rested on firm, dry ground on either side of me.

The sun streamed between my father’s legs and shined in my eyes.

I raised my legs off the ground, I took a deep breath, I lined the bottoms of my feet up with the meat of my father’s calves.

I kicked.

There was a gasp of surprise, then the guttural wheeze of air escaping from the bottoms of his lungs. His body folded and he collapsed right there on the ridge.

It was very fast.

His tailbone smacked the ground. I heard it break. It was a sound I’d heard before, which surprised me. It was the sound of a dog cracking into a T-bone from a steak.

And my father was gone.

I blinked. I stood.

I took two large steps and I peered over the edge of the cliff, saw my father sliding down the vertical earth on his back. He bounced. Desperately, his arms scrambled, grasping uselessly at grasses that released their hold.

I screamed, “Dead! Dead!”

I opened my mouth and my throat and I made the loudest sound I had ever made or ever heard. Even as the scream left my own body, I felt in awe of my ability to sustain the note. There was a beauty to the scream, it was something of an accomplishment. I was like a lighthouse standing there on the cliff, my voice a warning to all the ships at sea.

I turned and saw my mother running up the road. She stumbled and recovered, her arms flailing out at her sides, gravel sputtering at her feet.

I leaned over and looked again down the cliff. My father’s crumpled body lay at the very bottom on the beach. He was shaped like a horseshoe. He looked like a baby and I was overcome with the desire to cradle him, to pick him up and cradle him in my arms, to kiss his forehead. I looked away.

I ran toward my mother, fell, got up, fell, got up. My face was wet—I hadn’t realized I was sobbing. I felt the finest joy, a note of pleasure and release, entirely new.

I was hysterical. “Mom, Mom, hurry, oh my God. My father, he got too close. He stood too close to the cliffs. I told him to stand back.” I screamed this line again: 
“I told him to stand back.”

My mother was murmuring, “Oh no, oh no, no, no.” As she reached the cliffs, she grabbed me by my shoulders, threw me in the opposite direction, away from the cliff, as though it could willingly inhale, suck me over, too.

She threw me hard against the ground and this dented my heart. It was the truest expression of love I had ever been shown.

She stood at the edge, looking down. She brought her hands to her face, covered her features. She screamed through her fingers, took a step backward, then another and fell to her knees. Still, she, too, was close to the edge of the cliff, but not perilously close. She did not take that risk.

“We have to get help,” she said, looking up at me through her fingers, her face ruined, rearranged by shock and grief. And was that not excitement that I saw flashing in her eyes? Was there not joy there, too?

“Call the police,” I shouted. Knowing, of course, she had no more access to a telephone than I, out here on the cliffs at Gay Head point, so many miles off the coast of Massachusetts, alone in the Atlantic Ocean, beneath a fine, feathery layer of cirrus clouds, at the distant edge, and not the center, of our galaxy.

My mother had seen him standing there. She would tell the officers, “He was watching the horizon when I went for a walk. I saw some shells on the ground and I wanted to collect them.” Later she would admit, “Yes. We’ve had some problems, we argued like every married couple.” Finally, she would acknowledge, “I suppose you could say he was depressed.”

I would weep, withdraw into myself. The officers would not press me, a twelve-year-old boy with blond, curly hair and an upset stomach, holding his mother’s hand and wiping his nose on his wrist.

He slipped, 
of course
. It would be obvious what happened.

How else could he have landed there at the bottom with the waves? There wasn’t another person around for miles.

There had been only two people on that cliff. A man and a boy. A father and his son.

EACH NIGHT, I lay in bed replaying the fantasy. Wouldn’t it be just that simple? Wouldn’t the police truly believe it had been an accident? I really could get away with it, couldn’t I?

As long as nobody was there to actually see me push him, nobody would even consider that I had. Who would blame a twelve-year-old?

With my father gone, I might have a chance. As long as he was alive, as long as he was there giving me nothing of himself, I had to fight. I had to swallow the terrible truth of his disinterest and tell myself it didn’t matter.

I was seeing the enormous energy it took to not hate him. It would just be such a relief.

But when I finally felt I had every detail worked out perfectly, I understood that I could never do it. I could not end his life.

To do so would be interfering with God, whatever God was. Even if there was no God, it was still not my decision to make. Killing him would offend nature itself, defile the fact that he had spontaneously appeared in the world. And besides, killing him would not make him love me. It would not free me. I would be like my mother, trapped in the past, living within this single terrible act for the rest of my life.

If he’d beat me, if he’d tortured me, maybe then I could do it. Yes, then, I thought I could.

All he was guilty of was not wanting me.

That was not worth a stain on the fabric of my past, one I would never be able to wash out and would have to hide from everyone. If I killed him, he would continue to rule life.

It never occurred to me that while I was engaging in this elaborate fantasy, my father might be entertaining a fantasy of his own. Only in his, it was I who was standing on the cliff’s very edge looking out to sea, my mother right beside me. While he stood behind us both, smiling and doing just a little bit of probability reasoning in his head.

IN THE END, my father didn’t come on the trip. My mother and I went alone. She wrote in her black notebook and I walked along the chilly gray beach. The clouds were not wispy, as I had imagined, but dark and pregnant with rain. We stayed for two days, not four. At Gay Head point, I wondered what it would feel like to fall.

If you raised your arms above your head like you were diving and you aimed true for the waves, wouldn’t you experience perfect freedom? That the body would land broken on the rocks below didn’t matter, because you wouldn’t be there for the landing. So you would experience only that single moment of clean, pure freedom and grace.

But then, that would be it. There would be no chance to remember that feeling and strive, for the rest of your life, to feel it again. Or to surpass it. Or to pull somebody aside and tell them what it had felt like.

There would be nothing. It reminded me of when I wanted to find out about the universe and I’d asked my father, “What was there before there was everything?”

BOOK: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father
2.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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