Summer Stories: ‘My Father’s Ashes’ by Jamie Ford
July 5, 2020 Updated Wed., Sept. 23, 2020 at 2:42 p.m.
Jamie Ford grew up in Southern Oregon and Western Washington. He now lives in Montana with his wife and family. (Laurence Kim)
My brother tells me that as a baby, on the day I said my first word, my father’s voice was already hoarse from yelling at my mother. When I took my first steps as a toddler, stumbling into my sister’s open arms, a warm embrace that I’ve tried to remember because I don’t ever want to forget her, my dad already had a limp from diabetes. When my cousin taught me to ride a bike, a used Schwinn that looked as though it’d been salvaged in a house fire, my father drove off in our only car. He said he was leaving for good, that he was never coming back. I chased him down the middle of Fruitvale Boulevard, crying. I was young and scared. But everyone else knew better, even my father, because he didn’t take anything with him and was back in time for dinner.
We sat around the table and passed rice and canned peas and spoke about how Billy Carter, the president’s alcoholic brother, had received a $200,000 loan from Libya, how the Yankees’ Billy Martin had punched a Minnesota marshmallow salesman in a bar fight and how Billy Joel once tried to kill himself by drinking furniture polish. There were a lot of Billies in the Yakima newspaper in 1980. But what we talked about most was Mount St. Helens and whether it might erupt, acting as though a bomb hadn’t already gone off at home, turning our living room into ground zero. Even today, I think about the need for an emotional Geiger counter and how it would light up, crackling from decades of fallout. Reminding me that I still hadn’t reached the half-life of my family’s emotional decay.
As we ate, I kept glancing over to my mother. She didn’t talk much in those days, and I could predict how the evening would go simply by watching her eyes. Even as a boy, I knew the look of being crushed, being loved, being trapped, being praised, the confounding highs and lows of a being a human yo-yo, and it was only a matter of time before the string got tangled or broke altogether from mishandling.
“I heard that scientists near St. Helens are detecting 10,000 tiny earthquakes a day. That’s gotta mean something big,” my brother said as he cut his steak and gave me half. I then cut a smaller piece and tucked it into my pocket to share with our dog Chongo. The scruffy, pipe cleaner of a mutt had climbed into the dumpster behind our takeout restaurant and couldn’t escape. My father rescued him and brought him home. He didn’t mind when I fed the dog because even he had a soft spot for strays.
“That’s a load a hooey.” My father, who dropped out of high school at 15 to join the Merchant Marine as a ship’s cook, was unconvinced of the danger. “They’re just scaring everyone to try and sell more newspapers. Oldest trick in the book.”
Scaring everyone, I thought, as I watched my father’s old, faded tattoos flex and distort as he waved his arms while he talked. His hands as leathery as catchers’ mitts when they came down on the table to make a point, scarred from kitchen cleavers and low blood sugar. Burns from sesame oil splatting out of a cast-iron wok. If scaring people led to increased sales, I imagined my father must be the richest man in the world.
“Why would scientists lie? I think they’re just – you know – trying to keep people safe. Keep tourists away, before they all go …” My brother made an explosion noise, his eyes wide as he looked at me. “Wanna go fishing, little brother? I know a good spot.”
“We should go,” my father laughed. “We don’t even need to bring our poles. Just let the lava heat the water to a boil – poached carp, add some scallions and oyster sauce – like a four-star restaurant. And if the whole place blows up, that’s fine, too. I’d rather be cremated anyway, have my ashes scattered, than be stuck in a hole in the ground.”
“Worm food,” my brother said. “Worm’s gotta eat, too.”
Watching my brother and father joke and laugh, I knew they loved each other as much as any father and son. Despite coming home from school last week and hearing a yelping sound in the backyard. I thought maybe Chongo had been hit by a car, or worse – got in a fight with the neighbor’s one-eyed pit bull. But the sound had been coming from my brother. He was upright, pinned against the garage, his face pressed into the metal siding. My father had one hand on the back of my brother’s neck, the other gripped a leather belt that he swung against bare skin, red with welts. My father, a lifelong chain-smoker, had caught my brother doing the same.
I wondered where my mother was. Why she never put a stop to anything? That night I took out the garbage and saw the empty bottles of vodka and Kahlua. Years later, I understood why she took so many naps at odd hours, so maybe she’d been sleeping.
As I heard another crack of the belt, my brother turned his head my way.
I ducked inside as fast as I could. Ran to my room. I locked the door and hid in my closet that smelled of old shoes and dead grass, hoping he was OK , but more that, I hoped he hadn’t seen me. It’s one thing to catch a beating, but there’s another pain, the one that comes from the embarrassment and humiliation of knowing someone else has seen you at your weakest, robbed of all your dignity.
“How about we all go fishing tomorrow? Bear Lake should be open,” my father asked as he put chili oil on his rice that night at supper. “We can get up before dawn, get to the lakeshore just as the sun’s coming up, that’s when fish are biting.”
I waited for my brother to answer because if he said yes, I might not have to go. I liked the idea of fishing more than the reality of getting up at 4 a.m. When the air was cold, the water chilly and the nightcrawlers my father used as bait were fresh. To be honest, the only reason I ever went fishing was for the Tootsie Rolls that my father kept in his tackle box. Though I did enjoy whenever my father invited one of the new cooks, like the skinny old man from China who didn’t speak English. As soon as he caught a bass, he gutted the fish with a pocket knife, made a tiny fire, cooked and ate it right there on the shoreline. He gave me the cheek, the tenderest part, that melted in my mouth, and I realized that generosity exists everywhere, but especially in poverty.
“I have to go open the restaurant, get things ready,” my brother said. He was only 14 but had already worked as a prep cook for two years. Soon I’d join him and my parents in the kitchen where he’d anoint me, King of the Dish Pit, the way my father had called him the same. My father had even made a paper crown for my brother and said, “This kingdom is now yours,” as he pointed to a bus tub full of dirty pans covered in dried chow fun, black bean sauce and orange peels.
“Guess it’s just you and me, kid,” my father said, looking in my direction.
My mother met my gaze in a pregnant silence, and I realized, even as a third-grader, that her desire for a better life or at least a different one, had been stillborn. In that brief exchange, we wordlessly clung to each other like the living at a funeral.
“What … if I … don’t really like fishing?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
My father looked at me as though I’d broken his heart, failed him as a son, betrayed him for a few extra hours of sleep. Or just as likely, he must have realized how scared I was of him. He just said, “Uh huh,” and stared at my mother.
In that moment, I wondered if things would have been different if my sister still lived at home with us. She always liked to fish and had gone dozens of times with her boyfriend, right up until she’d been sent away.
I woke up that night to the unfinished symphony of my childhood. The sonata of slamming doors. The featured minuet of my mother crying. My father’s usual, angry soliloquy about how she had turned everyone against him. My mother’s vain pleas to not wake the kids. My father replying, “I’m not yelling. THIS IS YELLING.”
As I plugged my ears, I looked out my bedroom window and saw a star. I drew a deep breath, closed my eyes and made a wish – for my mother, for my brother, for the sister that I knew I’d never see again – that my father might go away, once and for all. That the door would slam one last time and the car would speed away and not come back loaded with ice cream or a replacement TV from the Salvation Army.
In the morning, I woke to thunder, but as I got up, I didn’t hear the sound of rain.
I found an empty place at the dining room table that normally would have been occupied by my father’s chipped coffee mug, a copy of the Yakima Herald and an ashtray full of Camel cigarette butts. But all that remained of his presence was the collection of burns on the plastic tablecloth were he’d often set his smoke down for a minute too long.
I went to my parents’ bedroom door, which had a fist-sized hole from an old argument. I peeked inside and saw the normal riot of dirty clothes, the broken mirror, the lamp without a shade, but my mother was alone, fast asleep. I stood for a moment and watched her breathe, her chest moving up and down, a liminal confirmation of life.
In the living room, I turned on the radio and listened to “Goodbye Stranger.”
I enjoyed the Sunday calm as I put on my shoes, my coat. Then the song was interrupted by the news, so I turned it off.
I went outside and rode my bike beneath a canopy of gray clouds, toward Elks Park, where I’d hoped to play whiffle ball with friends, or trade Star Wars cards, or laugh at who had stolen their father’s chewing tobacco and gotten sick.
As I rode, I thought about my own father, wondering if and when he might return.
Then the sky began to darken, my nose felt itchy, my eyes watered, and when I looked up, my father’s ashes were falling from the sky.
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