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 (7 page)

BOOK: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father
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When I saw him sitting in his rocking chair, or watching television, when he was lying downstairs in his bedroom taking a nap and when he came home from work, I called his name in celebration and attempted to climb into his lap.

I did not need to count the number of checks on the little scorecard I had drawn to see that always, one hundred percent of the time, my father pushed me away. My father would never cuddle with me. I was not allowed in his lap, beside him in bed, or next to him on the sofa with my head on his shoulder. His rebukes were mild but they were consistent. “No, not right now.”

I decided this had been a terrible experiment in the first place. I returned the clipboard to my mother’s office and then clutched my little scorecard in my hand and carried it to the trash can in the kitchen. I buried it, because the only thing worse than the results of my experiment would be for somebody to see the card and know I had carried it out in the first, pitiful place.

ONE EVENING WHEN my mother was in her office typing and my father was still at the university, I sneaked into their bedroom and rifled through my father’s side of the dresser.

I found a pair of slacks I had not seen him wear lately and pulled them from the drawer. In the bathroom closet I pawed through the various shirts, jackets, and dresses on hangers until I found a plaid shirt that he would not miss.

He had a drawer of belts, coiled like sleeping snakes. I took one and carried the clothing upstairs to my room and laid it all out on the bed: slacks, shirt, belt through the loops.

I pulled my own top sheet from the tangled mound of blankets and worn clothes on the floor at the foot of my bed and began stuffing the corner deep into the leg of the pants. There was enough sheet for both legs but not enough to plump up the shirt, too.

I scurried down the hall and into the bathroom where I swiped the two towels hanging from the shower curtain rod. In the hall, on the way back to my room, I looked over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t spotted.

Next, I stuffed the shirt, pulling as much towel into each arm as possible, then I tucked the shirt into the slacks.

A headless, footless, modestly stuffed 
body
 lay on top of my bed. Outside my window, the crickets maintained their relentless throbbing and the clatter of my mother’s typing seemed to merge with their sound until there was almost a rhythmic chanting urging me forward: 
go, go, go, go, go
. The air in my bedroom had altered, brightened, become charged—like another person was now in here with me. As I looked at what I’d done, I felt a pulsing excitement. As well, I felt as if I had solved something. I’d never been good at math, except the single time my brother sat down with me and helped me think through a word problem. When I arrived at the answer on my own, I was both startled and euphoric. That’s how I felt, standing in my bedroom and looking at what I’d created with my father’s unworn clothing: a swell of pleasure at having arrived at the answer myself.

Tenderly, being mindful not to dislodge the torso from the legs and spoil the illusion, I crawled into bed beside the body, turned on my side, and curled against it.

A trace, a mere whiff of my father’s cologne clung to the shirt’s fibers when I pressed my face against its chest. It was an acceptable substitute.

Drowsiness overtook me like a drug. The father body had an intoxicating effect on me, and if I had spoken, my words would have been slurred.

Somehow, I understood that I must not fall asleep. That to be caught with my stuffed father would get me into a different kind of trouble. The punishment would have to be as unusual as the crime and this realization rejuvenated me, pulling me from the strange, thick sleepiness.

I climbed off the bed and severed the torso from the legs, stacked them together, folded them once. They would be easy to reassemble, and in the meantime they appeared to be just a pile of clothes on the floor of my closet. I pressed the surrounding closet contents—books, stuffed animals, shoes—around it.

Never again would I attempt to snuggle up with my father.

Now when I needed him, I would go to my room and assemble the body, place it on the bed, and hug it.

In time, the sheets and towels were replaced with pillows, “guest pillows” for guests that never came.

Periodically, I rubbed a little pine-tar lotion into the shirtsleeve or sprinkled the slacks with Old Spice. I smeared just a little Eucerin cream into the collar. These were my father’s scents. And with my head on the stuffed chest of the substitute, I would experience the same sudden, bleary tiredness that had overtaken me the first time. I would sleep, sometimes for ten minutes, sometimes for an hour. And then I would startle awake, flushed with shame, and quickly disassemble it, stowing it hastily in the closet and promising myself that this was the
last
 time.

For it had begun to feel somehow wrong, even dangerous. Dangerous to me, and dangerous to other people, though the recognition was dim and I had no idea exactly why. It terrified me to consider: What if, as a grown-up, I craved another body beside me as still as this one? What then?

But at seven, then eight, I was still sleeping with my stuffed father regularly. While not every night, I found I was sleepless without him at least three times a week.

When I considered how much comfort this arrangement gave me, I was sickened. So I refused to think of it. And my stolen, puzzling naps assumed a reckless quality. I was a slave to my need.

When at last my stuffed father was deconstructed it was not by my own hands. My mother discovered the clothes stuffed with pillows in my room. She thought nothing of it, or not enough to mention it. She simply returned the clothes to the closet and placed the extra pillows on my bed. Over time, my father’s scents faded from the pillows until there was nothing left of him at all.

 

SIX

MY FATHER AND I were walking along Market Hill Road in Shutesbury just two houses past our own. My father’s black oxford shoes crunched over the loose gravel on the dirt road while I kicked stones and tried to follow their trajectory. “What’s the straightest thing?” I asked. I tried to imagine what it could be. A ruler? The sharp edge of a piece of paper?

“What do you mean, son, the straightest thing?”

“I mean, what’s the straightest thing in the whole world?”

My father exhaled, weary. “Aw, well, let’s see, what would that be?” he asked himself. And as we walked, my father tilted his head to the sky, which was blocked by the pine trees that lined the road. I continued to kick rocks with the rubber toe of my sneaker, shooting pebbles into the ditch that ran alongside us. “Well,” he finally said, “I would have to guess that the straightest thing would be a ray of light.”

A ray of light
.

His answer excited and confused me, propelled me forward so that I was steps ahead of him and had to walk backward to face him. The questions spilled out of me. “But how? How can light be straight? Isn’t light just like water and it washes over everything? Light isn’t straight. Light isn’t a 
thing
.”

“Well, rays of light, yes. Those would be the straightest things, I’m pretty sure. It’s only an illusion that light is, like you say, water, washing over everything.”

Suddenly, I desperately wanted to look at the sun, I wanted to see in the sky a sun radiating pure, straight yellow lines. Like the drawing on a box of Raisin Bran. But the sun was blocked by the trees, these woods were so thick. Our whole neighborhood was just a street carved out of the wilderness, a few houses dropped down into small clearings. How could the rays of the sun be the straightest thing, straighter than a ruler or a piece of paper? “You mean, if you squint?” I asked, narrowing my eyes, instantly seeing rays of light—indeed—streaming through the dense pines. Yes, they were straight, these lines. But how could they be the straightest things? How could you measure?

“Son, I’m tired now. We’d best be heading back home.”

We’d only walked the length of four houses. We weren’t even past the Abramses’ yet, not four hundred feet from our driveway.

My father’s limp became pronounced, as though his right leg were sinking into the road with each step. His mouth was a fixed grimace, the lines on his forehead were bowed, as though bearing weight. I knew there would be no argument, no 
Just five more minutes
. We would turn around now and walk home.

But this had been something, our first walk together. I didn’t know then that it would also be our last. That the memory of this day would remain with me always: the single time my father and I took a walk and spoke of light.

Looking at my father’s face, seeing that half of it was in shadow, the other half nearly glowing, I felt engorged with hope.

I was his son and light was the straightest thing in the world and I felt amazed, like when my teacher played a record for us, a mournful, weeping song, and told us it wasn’t any instrument at all but the sound of a whale.

“No.”

I hadn’t asked him a question, I hadn’t said a thing.

“No, I just don’t feel good, not at all,” my father said.

ON MY NINTH birthday my father gave me a baseball glove. It was a beautiful mitt; a Wilson A2100 the color of cooked sugar. Not only had I never had a glove before, I’d never learned to throw a ball and didn’t know the rules of the game. For years, I’d sat and observed my father watching baseball games, cutting in now and then and asking, “How does it work? What are the rules?”

“It’s difficult to explain,” he said. “Just watch the game and see if you can follow along.” So I sat back, my gaze alternating between the small television and my father’s face, trying to decipher the rules of the game.

Now, I turned the glove over in my hand, slipped my fingers inside.

“Be careful with it,” my father said. “You have to break it in. You have to take good care of it. And especially, don’t get it wet.”

It seemed every moment in my life had led to this one, the first time my father had taken me aside and given me something special. I held the glove in my hand reverentially. “I will,” I said. “I will be 
so
 careful.”

He smiled tightly, slapped me on the back. “Good boy. I’m glad you like your gift.”

“Can we go outside?” I asked, embarrassed because I knew I was leaking hope the way our dog Cream would sometimes squirt pee on the floor when she was excited.

He folded himself into the rocking chair in the living room, exhaling loudly as he sat. “Oh, not now. You go play, I’m in a lot of pain.”

“Just for a minute?” I begged.

He closed his eyes. “I’m very tired right now. You go on and play with your new glove.”

I walked away, carrying the mitt by the wrist strap. The trouble was, I didn’t know 
how
 to play with it.

I knew I should be very grateful for this extraordinary present, but I couldn’t help feeling almost sad. Because before I had a glove, I didn’t need a father to throw a ball at me.

A ball
. That’s when it occurred to me, he’d given me a glove but nothing to catch.

THE BASEBALL GLOVE sat alone on the highest bookshelf in my bedroom, a location of honor, high above the record album sleeves, dirty laundry, general clutter. It sat there for months. But it seemed to taunt me from that height, with its wrinkle-free hide, its pristine condition.

One afternoon after school, my mother surprised me with a baseball. “Look what I bought at the store today. Would you like to go out to the backyard and play catch?”

“No,” I said. “That’s okay. I don’t need to.”

She smiled at me, bit her bottom lip. “Oh, come on. It’ll be fun.” With her big toe, the nail painted bright red, she scratched her calf, then hopped to regain her balance. She was in an unusually perky mood; she’d even set her hair in curlers and then brushed it out. But I knew that one of her good moods was always followed by a very bad one. I figured I better not be the reason.

“Well, all right,” I finally agreed. “Let me just go get my glove.” And I ran back to my room. I dragged my desk chair over to the bookshelf, stood on the seat, and grabbed the glove.

I followed my mother outside, around the house to the back. She lit a cigarette from the pack she always kept in the front patch pocket of her dress and said, “Okay, you go stand over there at the edge of the woods,” and pointed to the very rear boundary of the yard.

I jogged back there, swatting bugs away from my head. I turned around to face her. “Okay,” I shouted. The glove felt funny on my hand, heavy.

She brought her cigarette to her lips. “Are you ready?”

“Yeah,” I called back, waiting.

She tossed the ball to me, underhand. Even though I ran, I missed it because it only landed a few feet in front of her.

“Sorry,” she called. “I’ll throw it better the next time.” My mother had become expert at speaking around the cigarette in her mouth, squinting her eyes against the smoke.

I handed her the ball and then ran back to my spot at the edge of the yard. I slammed my fist into the glove, because I’d seen players do this, and shouted, “Okay, I’m ready again.”

My mother threw the ball again and this time it landed off to the side and rolled into the woods.

It was no use. She didn’t know how to play baseball any more than I did. My mother could open a book of matches and remove one and light it using only her toes, but she could not throw a ball.

I picked it up off the ground, wiped away a damp leaf, and then walked back to her. “I don’t want to play catch,” I said. “We don’t have to, it’s okay.”

“I’m not very good, am I?” she asked, gently tucking a curl out of my face. “Well, maybe your dad can come out after work and play with you for a while.”

“He won’t do that,” I said, and the anger in my voice surprised me. In a more casual voice I added, “He never wants to do anything with me.”

I wanted my mother to hug me and say, 
That’s just not true,
 but instead she said, “Well, 
I
 want to do things with you.”

She headed back indoors and I left the glove outside on a rock so that the rain could weather it. I wanted it to at least look like the other boys’ gloves, soft and well used. I certainly couldn’t bring such a pristine glove to school; I might as well show up in a dress. So I left it on a rock and after a week, dye had leached onto the stone beneath it.

BOOK: A Wolf at the Table: A Memoir of My Father
2.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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