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 (4 page)

BOOK: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father
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As I walked through the house, I touched his things. The gray metal lockbox where he stored monthly bills, his badger hair shaving brush, and a gold Hamilton pocket watch he never carried but always wound. I touched my tongue to the antenna of his black shortwave radio, which was centered on the kitchen table. As I expected, it had no taste. Only metals like brass and bronze really had much of a flavor, I’d found.

If I woke up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water, I often found my father sitting at the table, carefully rotating the radio dial to fine-tune a signal from China, or somewhere in the Caribbean.

He wrote to the stations that he reached, brief notes to let them know he’d picked up their distant signal, all the way out in little Massachusetts. As was their custom, they sent him in return a notice called a “QSL card.” 
Greetings from Northern Ireland. Thank you for listening to the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

“Imagine that,” he’d say, turning the card over in his hand, one side an illustration of a radio antenna superimposed over the Kremlin, the other filled with exotic letters, characters I could not decipher, and the station’s call sign. “This very card came from somebody all the way on the other side of the world. Just imagine that, will you?”

I was not allowed to touch the cards—he wanted to preserve the fact that a foreigner had touched them before he had. I understood his thinking. And looked forward to a day in the future when we would pull out the cards and touch them all, all at once. It would be like touching the fingers of people all over the world. A very special occasion.

I felt very close to my father examining his things. In a way, he 
was
 his things.

Sometimes, I lined a few articles in a row—a pack of his cigarettes, his leather coin purse, the round cork coaster he always used—then leaned over to pass my nose across each item, as though conducting my own olfactory orchestra, the different scents blending to create him whole before me, whenever I wanted.

After the last of the terrible, stubborn sunlight was drained from the sky it was finally dark, my favorite time. I stood in the living room in front of the sliding glass doors that overlooked our driveway. There were no lights along our narrow dirt road and trees packed both sides, making it feel more like a tunnel than a street. Cars could be seen well in advance as their headlights struck the silvery trunks of the pine trees. My eyes could be fooled into seeing the light as somebody running in the woods, their white shirt disappearing behind a tree, reappearing on the other side.

Past six o’clock, cars crackled steadily down our quiet dirt road—professors in Volvos and Saabs heading home. Nearly every house nearby contained a professor. But only one of the cars was my father’s gold Chrysler New Yorker, a gift from his parents in Georgia. This would soon be replaced by a dour brown Dodge Aspen wagon so bare of features it didn’t even have an AM radio, just a blank metal panel where a radio should be, like an automotive birth defect.

“My father’s home!” I screamed, wild with pent-up anticipation and sugar from the raw cake batter I’d eaten earlier.

And I ran, sliding over the wood floors and knocking against the walls. “My father’s home!”

It was just so thrilling. He was the missing piece, restored. The king in a game of chess.

As soon as he opened the door, I was on him. In the winter, his hands were icy cold and they made me scream with joy as they touched my face—freezing!—pushing me back. I tried to climb him like a tree. Fighting against his arms, those tricky arms, I had to get around them because they always tried to stop me. “Stop, stop, stop,” he’d say, the arms blocking my way to 
him
.

I pulled on the hem of his jacket, his sleeve. I grabbed his cold fingers and yanked them. I said, “Pick me up, pick me up!” Melting snow fell from his cap onto my neck and slid down my back, and this made me screech and laugh and jump in place. My father winced and complained, “Hush, that sound hurts my ears.”

“Pick me up!” He never did, but I said it anyway.

“Damn it, son, please.”

I backed away, still fidgeting and twitching with excitement. “Okay,” I said, and allowed him to walk into the house unmolested. Was he heading for the kitchen? Or the living room? I ran ahead of him, tearing across the floor. I made it to his destination long before he did. I hopped in place, up and down, up and down. I just could not stand it!

Finally, when he reached the kitchen or the dining room table, I hugged him. And then those arms of his slid down between us, prying me away.

It made me giggle. “You’re tickling me,” I shouted.

I always managed to hang on for a little bit longer.

I always won!

It was our game and I loved it. Me against the armsandhands to get to him, his solid core part, the middle, the 
him
.

Plus, I had so much to show him. There were drawings for one thing. And sometimes at school I made something out of flour clay and I had to show him this, too. Or my room, my room! I almost forgot, I moved everything around and he had to come see it 
right now
.

But he wanted his bottle. The bottle was his and it was important and not to be touched, but I touched it anyway.

He belonged to my mother the most and I knew it. “Let me speak with your father for a while. You can have him later,” she’d say. Then I knew I had to go away, so I trotted back to my room and waited and waited and waited.

I’d get to see him again at dinner. He sat at one end of the table, my mother sat at the other. My brother and I were on the sides and my brother read while we ate.

I had an awful lot to say but my mother raised her hand like she was directing traffic. “This is our time.” So I had to listen and eat, listen and eat, listen and eat. Sit, sit, sit. I hated to sit but what could I do? I smiled and chewed, chattered softly to myself. I bounced just enough to attract a narrow, warning glance from my mother and then I stopped right now this instant. I smiled, showing my teeth. She looked away, weary. She might have been mad at me because earlier she had let me lick an envelope and it was good so I went into her study and licked all the envelopes in the box.

And then it was bedtime and I had to be alone. I hated bedtime. I could hear them in the kitchen. I could see the warm light crawling in under my door. My brother got to stay up later. But I had to stay flat and sleep. It was just horribly unfair because after dinner he should have been mine. She should have shared. 
Not fair
.

After I was settled in bed, my father stepped into my room. “Good night, son.”

I replied, “Good night. I love you,” my voice rising to an invitation.

“I love you, too,” he said, from habit.

He backed out of my room. “Very much I love you,” I said, smiling because I knew just what would happen next. This had been our routine for most of my seven years.

“Very much I love you,” he answered mechanically, closing the door.

That was it. We spoke those words every night, just like that. The door would not be opened again until the morning.

On the weekends, he was home all day. I could have him. And this is what I thought about before I fell asleep. The whole, fat weekend just around the corner. My father, my father, my father.

Presents!

It was my first thought when I woke up the next morning and dressed for school. Maybe if I brought my father presents when he walked in the door at the end of the day, he might be happy to see me, as happy as I was to see him. At least his tricky arms would be busy and I could get to him.

Late that afternoon, I begged my mother to take me to Hastings, the store in downtown Amherst where you could buy pens and glue and construction paper and model airplanes and Matchbox cars. I wanted nearly everything, though I was only there to buy crisp, large sheets of white paper. The worn, wood floors and walls with paint peeling in strips like sunburned skin somehow made me want everything even more. They had a balsa wood airplane with clear, plastic wings that I would trade my brother’s life for. But I stayed focused. Only paper, only paper!

I took the paper home and with my mother’s scissors, cut words from magazines.

Love. Belong. New. Exciting. Delicious. Father. Together. Happy. Welcome home!

I pasted these words to the paper and connected the words with a Magic Marker line. I drew a small picture of myself, a larger image of my father.

When he came home, I barreled into him, slamming the collage against his stomach.

To my astonishment, my father was 
mad
. And his hands, instead of being busy with the card like I’d planned, came directly at 
me
 and swatted. Smack, smack, smack. He slapped my shoulder.

My mother had to tell him, “John, he 
made
 that card for you.” These were the words that suddenly made him stop hitting me. And all of a sudden, he was not mad anymore. It just drained away exactly like water from a sink, leaving behind not one drop. And he took the drawing and said, “Oh, that’s very good.”

The sudden change stunned me more than the slapping had. Plus, I could tell he thought the card was dumb. My mother made him like it, that’s all.

When the dog came up to him he reached down and stroked her on the back. I stood back and watched this, dumbfounded.

“Yes,” he said, in a much kinder tone than he ever used with me, “you’re a good, good dog.” He scratched behind her ears.

It wasn’t fair because, the dog didn’t even know. She hadn’t waited all day like I had. She just slept. She didn’t even care. It was so unfair.

But it got me thinking.

And the next time he opened the door, home from work, I met him with black construction paper ears, a black construction paper nose, a black construction paper tail, which he couldn’t even see.

When he walked through the door it took him a moment to notice that there was something different about me, something paper and canine. And then he complained, “What’s that mess on your face, son?”

I turned right there and scampered away from him on my hands and knees then sat in the kitchen, beneath the table. I lapped water from the dogs’ bowl and curled up in Cream’s spot near the sofa.

I realized that I enjoyed the view of the house from this perspective. It was entirely new.

It was like living in a new house. I saw the undersides of tables, walked through the tangle of chair legs. It would be good to be a dog, I thought. You would feel safe surrounded by all of these leggy objects that never tried to run away.

I wore the ears and nose and tail while I sat at the kitchen table and my mother took a picture of me.

I didn’t smile. My mother thought having my picture taken would cheer me up. It usually did. Cameras seemed to have a druglike effect on me, greatly improving my mood on the spot. But I was sad because I was losing against the Arms. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get past them and get to my father. They were always in the way, busy swatting and batting.

He shuffled painfully into the dining room, placing his black briefcase on the teak dining table. Then he walked like always over to the credenza, also teak, and poured himself a drink, filling the glass all the way to the top.

I crawled into the room and reached above my head for the briefcase on the table. I unsnapped the clasps and opened it. I hunted with my fingers for the Certs breath mints that I knew were there. Usually spearmint but sometimes he carried bloodred cinnamon Certs, which tasted to me like Lavoris mouthwash and were, therefore, entirely irresistible. But after my father watched a news report about the dangers of red dye number two he stopped buying cinnamon Certs and Lavoris and everything red, saying they would give us cancer. But my mother continued to chew her slender sticks of red Trident gum. My mother did not trust Walter Cronkite. My mother trusted only her psychiatrist.

Until now, I’d always assumed the Certs were something special, just for me. A little surprise my father brought home, to make me happy. So when I discovered that the pack was already opened, a mint or two missing, it puzzled me. Normally, I would take the mints and eat them all and the next day, there would be more. And now, some were missing.

It dawned on me then that they had never been a treat just for me. They were 
not a little surprise
 my father brought home just for me. They were his mints and I ate them so he had to constantly buy more.

I understood that instead of being a treat for me, the Certs had been a mild compromise for him. By letting me believe they were a special something, just for me, he didn’t have to actually think of a special something just for me.

I sat there on the rug and looked at my father’s legs as he strode across the room to take his position in the rocking chair to watch the evening news.

Maybe it shouldn’t matter to me why he bought the mints, I thought. 
Mints are mints, who cares why he buys them?

But I did care. The truth was, I didn’t really like mints. I only loved these mints because he brought them home for me. But he hadn’t given them, I had taken them. To me, this difference was enormous, the largest thing I could imagine.

A couple of mints had shifted the axis of my world.

 

FOUR

I WAS MESMERIZED by the old black-and-white photographs of my father when he was young. Some were in leather albums, affixed to the page by small black tabs at the corners of each picture. Others were matted and framed, but no longer appreciated, stacked against the rear wall of a closet behind raincoats, jackets, a row of winter boots with the white dust of road salt dried on their soles. But most of the photos were stored loose in a Gilbey’s gin box in the basement next to the oil tank. I was consumed for hours, examining each image, trying desperately to feel in my chest, to truly believe, that the boy astride the racehorse and the boy standing in front of the marble-topped soda fountain in the old-fashioned drugstore was my own father when he was young.

My father was in the center of every frame. In one, a wood-paneled station wagon with the liftgate down was parked on the sand, the ocean shimmering behind it, and my father standing in the foreground wearing knickers and a handsome blazer, his smile broad and confident. In another, a rolling pasture was bordered by a white fence that seemed to extend forever, following the gentle curve of the low hills as faithfully as a finger tracing the contours of a body. A chiseled horse, its coat so glossy it reflected the sun as a misty white flair, was half out of the frame, incidental. The camera only cared about the small boy off beside the horse, the sailor in miniature examining a stalk of grass between his fingers.

BOOK: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father
12.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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