On the Fourth of July everyone who really loved America stood on the dam and shot roman candles at the rich, who were in their boats a hundred or so yards from shore blasting off all kinds of ordnance. The police liked it that way – all the crazies in the same bright acre. Every year a few people get hurt, and one or two die, usually of heart attacks. My dad went like that last year – close to midnight.
I can hear him in the quiet moments, when everyone has crouched down to light their fireworks. I had been hearing something like his voice for most of the day, which is why I came out to the dam – to drown it out. I wasn’t particularly surprised. I knew he’d come back one way or another. I’d known it since I saw him sleepwalking across the lawn wearing two and a half pairs of pajamas. There was something to the man, something that kept going after everything should have stopped. Anyways, it’s one of the rules of ghosts: it’s the great men who leave us forever and the mediocre who stay.
If I had died and come back as a ghost to haunt my father, I don’t think he would have thought it particularly remarkable either. He’d probably just assume I’d committed some irreconcilable sin and had been cursed to stay in that failed town forever. Or the other way around: he would think he had committed some sin without his knowledge and his curse was for some ghostly fraction of me to stay with him in perpetuity, hampering his movements, ruining the silence of his public life. The man, after all and despite barely believing, was obsessed with sin. At one point or another he told me that more or less everything was a sin. The only people who weren’t sinners were the ranchers. They were the last real Americans. More than once when he was angry he said the phrase “every breath you breathe would be better off if it was breathed by a rancher.”
Unlike my father I know all about sin and its arcane perimeters, so when I heard his voice I immediately knew all this had to do with me and my – recent – past.
If you really worked at it you could find a way to blame it all on a female friend of mine – Sarah. That would be the Christian thing to do. If you took that route then the threads of the sham stretch back to when I was seven and Sarah moved in next door. From then until 12 we were best friends. Everyone thought we were in love – that child love, where all you do is hold hands and maybe go and watch your cousin’s varsity basketball game. In truth all we did was spend the afternoons and evenings in her backyard talking or laying on the parts of the grass that were still alive while her mom smoked cigarette after cigarette on their deck. When puberty hit, our friendship, naturally, fell away. After that I went to school, I played video games on one of those old tube TVs. I read books, or tried to. At some point – out of a kind of geeky, pitiful loneliness – I got very into the church.
One Sunday, as I was leaving the kindergarten Bible school class I taught for $10 a month, I saw Sarah leaning against the paneled wall of the church corridor waiting to pick up her baby cousin who had the unfortunate name of Jerry Falwell Smith, Jr. – no relation; the family were just admirers. For the first time in a long while we talked. All the terrible energy of my 12th year was gone. Or, if not gone, in a past that was day by day receding from us.
Things progressed in the same listless way. Sarah and I got straight B’s. She made drum major of the marching band after another girl got demoted for calling the principal’s niece a nepo baby. I got made youth group leader after Daniel, our former leader, married a Catholic. With Sarah and the church in my life, everything seemed to have taken on – for the first time – an actual meaning that escaped all the ironies I could muster.
It was around this time that I had my visions. There were only three important ones. In the first, Jesus came to me and told me how proud he was that I was the head of a youth group and that not even he had been given that kind of responsibility by my age. In the second, Jesus just sat there on my bed drinking Western Family brand grape soda. In the final one the big man himself showed up and told me my life would be a life of purpose, though he refused to specify when I asked my carefully worded follow ups.
When I told my father he laughed at me. It’s for the best that he made fun of me. If he hadn’t I probably would have ended up in the asylum in Spokane, the one on Fifth, where they take all the real lunatics. Late that night I called Sarah to tell her about my visions, and how they had been refused. We spoke all evening and into the morning. First I recounted them down to the finest detail, then we just talked. About everything – our parents, our dogs, our coterie of friends and how we were going to escape them. This turned out to be one of many such conversations over the ensuing months. By the end of our sophomore year we’d stopped complaining about the bad people, the bad food, the bad meteorology, and started daydreaming – out loud – our escape. However complex the scheme we kept encountering the same problem: we had no money. Even if we saved up all our birthday and Christmas money until we turned 20 we couldn’t make it out.
We’d considered a couple options, including embezzlement and low-grade robbery. But, since neither Sarah’s or my parents kept cash around and the minister’s wife was a real accountant, our only hope was fraud. Or half-fraud, depending on how you looked at it. The plan itself was simple: I would simply ask my father for $400. That, combined with what funds we had, would get us a place in Spokane with a week of reserve.
Every time I tried to approach him about it I lost my nerve. I knew he would give it to me even if I offered no reason, but I thought that would be too cruel. So I did something that – like beating a hit deer to death with the shovel you keep in the back of your car – seemed kind at the time, but in retrospect probably did more harm than good. I told him Sarah and I were getting married.
I could have been honest and told him we were skipping town, but he loved it here: I knew he’d never understand.
He had only one question when I asked for the money.
Are you pregnant?
I couldn’t help but laugh until I realized he was trying to speak like he thought we did. Saying “we’re pregnant” rather than “she’s” pregnant. He must have seen it on the news. I assured him everything was fine. Which, in retrospect, probably made him think Sarah was pregnant.
I’m nearly certain he sold one of his pistols to get the money. At least there was one missing when I went through his things. He could have just given us the money – the man had $400 – but I think he thought selling the pistol was somehow more symbolic. I was impressed by that kind of devotion until I realized the gun he sold was his least favorite.
A few days later he showed up at the church in an early model Prius with another $4,000. He said it was for a real wedding, then he teared up a little bit. Forty-five hundred dollars was real money to him – and to everyone else in that town. I still do not know the full details behind the lengths he went to get it. I was actually angry at him for bringing the money, for selling his Toyota Tacoma and a bunch of other objects to fund “the wedding.” He’d sacrificed himself, and in doing so had attempted to shove me out of the center of my own life.
When I told Sarah we got in a big fight. She said we had to go through with it now. I made miles of excuses – some reasonable and some not. I didn’t tell her the truth I’d been hiding from everyone, even the minister. I’d been flirting with the Catholic priesthood, and I couldn’t have an annulled marriage on my record. Sarah said taking the money without a wedding would bring evil on our friendship and that our travels would fail and we’d end up back home and even worse than before.
As a kind of compromise, I bought some of that fancy thick résumé paper and printed a fake wedding license online. I showed it to my dad. He asked about the money. I told him we put it in the bank, which was true. For the child, he asked. He really said that – not for the baby, not for your kid, “for the child.” Maybe someday, I said.
Dad and I only talked once after that. It was the height of the June heat wave and the transformer blew at my studio apartment. I survived the first day with cold rags and ice packs, but on the second morning without power I woke, rushed to the toilet, and threw up a kind of yellow, viscous liquid. Sarah had been gone for months by then – she was off in Tacoma working at the worst rated Starbucks in North America. So I piled my computer and study Bible into my car, drove over to his house and knocked on the door.
Jesus, son, he said.
Sorry, he added.
We both laughed.
For the three days I stayed there we largely avoided one another. On my last night the Mariners played the Astros. We sat on the couch and watched Felix Hernandez give up six runs. Every few innings there would be a burst of conversation.
Dad would say, “Changeup coming.”
And I’d shake my head and say, “Slider.”
In the seventh inning they brought in a reliever – some kid straight from AA. I complained about their lack of pitching depth, Dad complained about how no one threw the fastball anymore. And almost without noticing it we kept complaining nonstop until the end of the game.
That next morning my father walked me to the door. When I turned to say goodbye to him an unsettling silence overcame the both of us, as if we had only been allotted a certain few words to say to each other, and they’d all been used in service of the Seattle Mariners. After a few seconds he held his hand out to me. I shook it and, without thinking, put my other hand on as well, as if I were shaking the hand of some widow.
“I heard you’re the pastor now.”
“Interim,” I said.
“Can I go,” he said, “or would that make you too nervous.”
“All are welcome,” I said.
He never came.