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Now with the same unremitting intensity he brought to his first memoir, Swofford describes his search for identity, meaning, and a reconciliation with his dying father in the years after he returned from serving ...
Now with the same unremitting intensity he brought to his first memoir, Swofford describes his search for identity, meaning, and a reconciliation with his dying father in the years after he returned from serving as a sniper in the Marines. Adjusting to life after war, he watched his older brother succumb to cancer and his first marriage disintegrate, leading him to pursue a lifestyle in Manhattan that brought him to the brink of collapse. Consumed by drugs, drinking, expensive cars, and women, Swofford lost almost everything and everyone that mattered to him.
When a son is in trouble he hopes to turn to his greatest source of wisdom and support: his father. But Swofford and his father didn't exactly have that kind of relationship. The key, he realized, was to confront the man-a philandering, once hard-drinking, now terminally ill Vietnam vet he had struggled hard to understand and even harder to love. The two stubborn, strong-willed war vets embarked on a series of RV trips that quickly became a kind of reckoning in which Swofford took his father to task for a lifetime of infidelities and abuse. For many years Swofford had considered combat the decisive test of a man's greatness. With the understanding that came from these trips and the fateful encounter that took him to a like-minded woman named Christa, Swofford began to understand that becoming a father himself might be the ultimate measure of his life.
Elegantly weaving his family's past with his own present-nights of excess and sexual conquest, visits with injured war veterans, and a near-fatal car crash-Swofford casts a courageous, insistent eye on both his father and himself in order to make sense of what his military service meant, and to decide, after nearly ending it, what his life can and should become as a man, a veteran, and a father.
There are days I still fantasize about combat, long nights when I wish I had rejoined the Marines as an infantry officer after September 11 and gone back over and got some war to score that kill I’d missed the first time. Most people don’t understand that desire, but I was born a war baby: my father impregnated my mother while in Honolulu on R & R from Vietnam. And I believed that there existed no grander test for a man than combat. Every other pursuit was pure, unimportant leisure when compared to a firefight. I didn’t know if another war would make me a better man, but it might. It certainly would have changed me. Or it might have killed me.
What did I do instead of heading back to war? My first book, Jarhead, was turned into a movie, and I wrote and published a novel. I divorced one woman, and I spent many years falling in love with various versions of the wrong woman and walking away from the right woman once. I bought two engagement rings. I bought a beautiful apartment on West Nineteenth Street in Manhattan. I taught at a few different colleges. I ate at some of the best restaurants in the world (in Paris, Madrid, Tokyo, Istanbul) and at some of the worst (in Ho Chi Minh City and Australia’s Pilbara region). I spent an unconscionable amount of money on Burgundy wine and I drank most of it. I bought and used the occasional batch of recreational drugs. I nearly killed myself in a sixty-thousand-dollar sports car. I watched my father get sicker and sicker from a heinous disease that was possibly partially the result of his twenty-three years in the military and his exposure to Agent Orange. I thought about killing myself for months on end. A few times I fantasized about killing my father.
I flew women to London and Tokyo and Oakland and Seattle and other cities I’ve forgotten.
Once I slept in a hotel room in Shinjuku, Tokyo, with my girlfriend Ava. Staying in a room ten floors below us was a woman named Anya whom I had flown to Tokyo from Munich. A few Metro stops away in Roppongi was a Japanese girl I’d just spent a week with before my girlfriend Ava and my ex-girlfriend Anya arrived, a few hours apart. Somehow, I had sex with all of these women throughout the week and I did not get caught. This is to say, I took risks. And the meaning of the word girlfriend had a lot of elasticity. I thought I’d created a new language of lust, but really I spoke artifice and despair.
I told so many lies about my whereabouts late at night or early in the morning I’m certain I set a record for the audacity of my libido.
I believe that having been a marine and having gone to war helped me become a great liar. Growing up with a Vietnam War veteran for a father helped me become a liar, too. I learned this from my father: If the lie will not get you blown up, the lie is worth whatever the cost. My father excelled at deceit. He deceived his wife and children about what kind of husband and father he was, but mostly he deceived himself about how that little war in Southeast Asia had changed him.
Like many combat veterans I know, my father and I lived with the wickedly exciting and doggedly exhausting knowledge that we had once, for a short period of time, flirted with death, and won. This knowledge is like a drug, the purest cocaine or eighty-year-old Highland single malt scotch: once you have had some it alters your understanding of the world and of other people and of consequences.
If I lied to a lover about what neighborhood or city or country I’d slept in the night before, it didn’t really matter: the relationship might sour but she would never kill me. Lying about sex became fun. It became a hobby. Manhattan bored me, drinking bored me, drugs bored me, but lying about sex never bored me.
Eventually I had wasted such a massive amount of money on women, wine, drugs, cars, and booze that my dissipation and deceit blew up in my face. I looked up one day and could no longer afford the mortgage on my apartment. I had to sell and became, in a way, homeless.
I would have liked to ask my father for advice but at the time our relationship was in complete disrepair.
But for some time my father had owned a Winnebago and a dream: that we two traverse the country and come to an understanding and discover a friendship. One trip wasn’t enough. Neither was two. It took three.
In February 2004, on the first night in the apartment I had bought on West Nineteenth Street in Manhattan, Ava and I slept downstairs. The mattress had been delivered that afternoon and I told the delivery guys to leave it in the living room. I liked the idea of the bare apartment, the walls freshly painted gallery white, nothing in the apartment but a new mattress, a bottle of champagne in the refrigerator. We brought in food from the Indian deli on Ninth Avenue. We drank the champagne and we made love.
My last night in the apartment, in May 2010, I dragged the mattress downstairs and splayed it on the bare living room floor. It was the last piece of furniture I needed to rid myself of.
Ava and I had been broken up for nearly three years but we habitually slept together every few months, whether or not one or both of us had a partner. Sometimes these evenings went well. Sometimes they did not.
I’d called her earlier in the week and asked if she wanted to say goodbye to the Mountain Lodge. The apartment invoked a Tahoe ski condo, with a two-story brick fireplace and a brick sitting window and dark wood spiral staircase.
Ava had been with me when I first saw the apartment and had somehow convinced me that I should make an offer on the most expensive property I’d looked at during my two-month, seventy-three-apartment search. That was the morning after the first night I had done cocaine with her, and only the second or third time in my life I had taken the drug.
(Note to reader: when purchasing an apartment, do not do so after a night of cocaine.)
Now we sat on the terrace and looked at the Empire State Building. We champagne-toasted the apartment. Six years earlier, at the age of twenty-eight, she had been beautiful. Now she was just pretty. I was six years older than she but her face held numerous and deeper lines. She’d spent her college years and her early thirties running around Manhattan doing cocaine and sleeping with many men, and smoking packs of cigarettes, and those men and that cocaine and those cigarettes had begun to take a toll.
She asked, “How many times do you think we had sex here?”
We went inside. I had thrown a plain white sheet over the mattress.
Knowingly, playfully, she asked, “And why is this still here?”
“I thought you might want to say goodbye to the mattress.”
“I thought that for once you might want to do this the right way,” she said.
“What is the right way?”
“We have never known the right way,” I said.
We undressed ourselves and made love slowly and deliberately, as though defusing a bomb.
Afterward we walked around the corner to a new hip restaurant. We sat at the bar and drank gin martinis, hers dirty, mine with a twist.
After I paid the bill she said, “Once more.”
We returned to the apartment. I felt as though we were entering a crime scene and the crime had been my life in New York City. We went straight to the mattress.
An hour later she dressed and we kissed at the door. She said, “Goodbye, Mountain Lodge. I’ll miss you.”
She did not say that she would miss me nor did I say I would miss her. I never saw her again.
I sat down on the mattress. I looked around the apartment. It had been the center of my life for many years: work, lovers, cooking. Writing. Sex. Eating.
I dragged the mattress three stories down and out of the building and threw it on the sidewalk. An old man I knew from the neighborhood passed by. He stopped and stared at the mattress, stared at me, pointed at the mattress with his cane.
He said, “You gettin’ rid of that? It’s a perfectly good mattress!”
I said, “That mattress should burn.”
I hailed a cab to my girlfriend’s house.
The next morning I moved alone to a cabin in Mount Tremper, in the Catskills.
MY NEW HOME sat on ten acres on the side of the mountain. From my former life in Manhattan I had brought with me two pieces of art, an abstract figurative painting and a drawing. The caption beneath the drawing—a dehumanized fool’s version of tic-tac-toe—read: WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY TO ME? I DO NOT UNDERSTAND.
I’d bought the drawing five or six years earlier but the relevance of the artist’s quotation to my life had in the prior six months reached its zenith. I understood no one. Others had difficulty understanding me.
I needed the solace of a cabin on the side of a mountain in order to redirect my life. But the cabin I found had thick beams and the forest around me was comprised of very tall old-growth pine trees, and thick beams and tall trees were an invitation to a self-hanging.
In addition to the artwork, I dragged to the mountain a few suitcases of clothes; a desk I’d had custom-made in Manhattan by a Japanese woodworker whose family had been creating beam-and-trestle furniture for five hundred years; a pair of handmade cowboy boots I’d had fashioned in Austin; ten cases of Burgundy, whites and reds; one hundred books from my library; two Turkish rugs I’d bought in Istanbul; a collection of family photographs; a wooden airplane that my paternal grandfather had constructed as a boy during the Depression; my maternal grandfather’s baseball glove from the same poor period in American life; two jump ropes, one leather and one plastic; one Le Creuset Dutch oven, yellow; a large and perfectly seasoned cast-iron skillet; a memory foam pillow.
I decided that over this summer I would rid myself of the waste from a number of troubled romantic relationships. Recently there was the Bad Writer; the charming but sexually incapacitated ER Physician; the beautiful, dynamic, and sweet but troubled Dancer I almost married; the Rich Girl/Boho Artist I almost married; the Canadian Writer I should have married; another Canadian Writer I might have married.
But the grand master of my romantic ruin was Ava, the woman I’d moved to New York for in 2004.
I remember the temptation, the first kiss, and the moment when passion overrode and crushed common sense.
We met at a party in Topanga Canyon on the deck of a house with a Pacific Ocean view. We were both in town for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. She was twenty-eight and Cuban American. Her hair was black and long and straight. She had a wide girlish smile and a deep throaty laugh. She sold advertising for a New York art magazine and wanted to be a psychologist.
She said, “I have a live-in boyfriend in Brooklyn. He’s lousy in bed and has a crap job in television. And he won’t marry me. My father says ‘Why buy the cow when the milk is free?’ ”
I knew that when preparing to cheat certain women malign the husband or boyfriend and invoke the folksy wisdom of the father.
I said, “I have a girlfriend who lives in SoHo and Victoria, BC. She’s a wonder in bed and a great writer.”
She stroked my beard and said, “I like your beard. My father has a beard.”
She read aloud the time from my Rolex dive watch and said her father also wore one and that like all the old Cuban guys in Miami her father pretended to run a scuba diving company but was really still trying to assassinate Castro. She said her father was a friend of Luis Posada and had been in Caracas in September 1976 and after reading his journals she thought he might have been involved in the downing of Cuban Airlines Flight 455. I assumed that all the Cuban American girls from Miami made this boast. All of this is to say she was beautiful, dark-skinned, and possibly dangerous.
She looked at my watch again and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
I had no license but I drove her rental car down from Topanga to the beach at Malibu because we determined that I was less drunk. We walked toward the water and kicked our shoes off.
She said, “I want you to kiss me.”
And I did.
Her shoes, stylish red Italian flats, were sucked out to sea in the wash and I broke the kiss and waded into the water to retrieve them. They were her favorite shoes and I had saved them and we returned to kissing. I don’t know how long the kiss lasted, a few minutes, twenty, an hour, a month. I forgot about my girlfriend who was meeting me in Seattle the next day, I forgot about any woman I’d ever loved or kissed. We kissed more and I held her wet, red shoes in my hand.
We returned to the car and continued to kiss.
And then the Malibu cops rolled up and asked us both to get out of the car. The cop who interrogated me was Japanese American, about my age, compact and ripped, and fast-talking. I’d grown up with kids like him. My best friend from childhood was a cop in Sacramento. This guy in front of me, I knew exactly where he was coming from: he wanted to bust bad guys but didn’t care too much what you did if you weren’t an absolute menace.
He asked me for my license and I told him I didn’t have one, that me and my girl were just sitting in the car, and that we were about to switch places so she could drive back to the hotel because I would never break the law and drive without a license.
He stared at me, as if to say Are you kidding me, you expect me to believe that? But he broke a half smile and said, “Quick thinking, smart-ass. Are you drunk or on drugs?”
And I said, “No.” False.
He said, “If you don’t have a license, who drove here?”
I said, “Her.” False.
He said, “Why were you in the driver’s seat?”
I said, “I wanted her to have more legroom.” False.
He looked at me, either disgusted or impressed with my commitment to the lie. He walked over to her and asked, “Is your boyfriend on cocaine?”
She said, “No.” True.
He asked, “Are you on cocaine?”
She said, “No.” True.
He said, “There’s a ten o’clock beach curfew in Malibu. If you move your car about twenty-five feet south, you can hang out on that beach or in your car and do whatever it is you need to do. I don’t care. But get out of Malibu.”
I don’t know why the cop didn’t press the issue. Maybe his shift was ending or maybe he didn’t care what we were on as long as it wasn’t cocaine.
Years later I would wish the cop had pushed the issue—after all, I had been sitting in the driver’s seat, and any fool would have known that I’d intended to drive without a license. So what if the cop had pressed things, what if he’d checked my sobriety, what if he’d pulled me in for the night?
Ava and I wouldn’t have gone back to my hotel room and been unfaithful to our partners. And I wouldn’t have changed the course of my life for the next many years.
Ava studied for her PhD in psychology during our three years together. I paid for everything except her rent. I overheard her tell a friend that she was on the Swofford Stipend. Once I caught her stealing fifties from my wallet but I didn’t confront her: if I had she might have left me. She introduced me to the regular recreational use of cocaine. I cheated and lied; she cheated and lied. We turned each other into animals.
I TOLD MYSELF that the side of the mountain would save me. Down the block from my cabin sat a Buddhist monastery, and while I didn’t plan on attending meditation, I read my Shunryu Suzuki and felt that if I was close enough, it just might count as meditation. The mountains, they say, have magnetic forces, and the mountain magnetism would pull some of the good forces across the side of the mountain from those bald monks and into my cabin oasis. When it comes to spiritual health, propinquity is everything, right?
But the two six-by-sixteen-inch beams in my cabin were close, too, as well as that multitude of old-growth trees and a fittingly thick length of rope I’d been carrying around for a few years. I once wrote that the suicide is brave, which would make the rest of us cowards. I felt a coward. It would have been easy enough for me to drive down to Kingston and buy a shotgun and a single shell at Wal-Mart. I made the excuse that I didn’t want to make a mess for my new landlords, a kindly hippie-ish string-instrument-playing couple in their mid-fifties with two liberally educated daughters and a happy plot of land with a very fine old mountain dog, and what a complete dick I’d be to blow my brains out all over their carefully constructed and manicured and maintained mountain ideal. Also, what would happen to all my stuff? My life was currently in storage on five pallets in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. All my papers, and most of my books, and a few pieces of furniture, the few I hadn’t given away while I prepared to leave Manhattan.
During the day I stayed on the mountain and I wrote. At nights I might drive to Phoenicia and drink beer and watch sports with construction workers. I walked to the top of Mount Tremper, three miles up and back, once a week.
On weekends a twenty-five-year-old hedge-funder from Manhattan would take the bus up after she got off work on Friday afternoons. We would drink and have sex, and sometimes do drugs, and watch sports until Monday morning, when she took the bus back to Manhattan. We did stupid things like buy scratcher lottery tickets, and drive forty-five miles for bad Mexican food and to get drunk with the locals. We’d flip a coin to see who got to drive home at two or three a.m.
But one weekend I’d had enough and I told her not to come up because I had a lot of work to do, and I never saw her again. She was a very pleasant girl and I am sorry that things ended abruptly. She sent me a few text messages accusing me of ruining her life, but I told her this was impossible, and that she was young and smart and pretty and by most measurements had a full and good life waiting in front of her.
I THOUGHT ABOUT suicide. I read Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind again and again.
I rewrote, thousands of times, this quote:
A good father is not a good father.
My father sat in a chair in the corner of his hospital room, upper body hunched over a brand-new government-issued aluminum walker. This was December 1999. The last time I’d seen him, in August, he’d helped load my U-Haul for my move from Sacramento to Iowa City. He’d lifted boxes and furniture, and he’d bought the beers and pizza, and later he’d treated my friends to a strip club, lap dances for everyone. Now he could barely lift his head to greet me.
“Hey, Bubba,” he said, deploying my least favorite of the multitude of nicknames he had for me: Tone. Old Tone. T-Bone. Pussy Hunter. Jarhead.
“Hey, Dad,” I said. “What’s the word? When can we wheel you out of this fleabag joint?”
“You ain’t wheeling me nowheres. The doc says walk. I’m gonna walk.”
“So let’s hit it.” I clapped my hands twice. I had a date that evening in San Francisco with my old college girlfriend.
A few days earlier I’d received a phone call from my sister Kim telling me that the Old Man had bit it hard in his living room—he’d collapsed, grasping for life, gasping for air. And whom did he call? Nine-one-one? No, he called a guy who performed menial labor for him. And the guy drove over in his pickup truck and heaped my father into the front seat, and here at the hospital his doctor told him to stop smoking or he would die soon.
When? he asked.
He’d smoked for forty-five years. He’d also spent twenty-two years in the Air Force, thirteen months in Vietnam, many of those months within the Agent Orange–tainted jungles and many other years breathing the fumes from the narcotics of war that drive the workings and skeletons of every military base.
Here we were on a military base, the same place I’d been born, Travis Air Force Base. In the late 1960s, while her husband fought in Vietnam, hippies spit at my mother’s car as she entered the base to take her children to the hospital or to buy groceries.
My father pointed out the window. “You see that building, that short building over there? That’s where you were born.”
“You tell me that every time we’re on base.”
“Well, Bubba, maybe it’s important to me.”
It would be many years before I could understand the importance of such a building to a man.
Right now all I wanted was to wheel the Old Man out of here. Hell, I’d fireman’s-carry him, if need be. I had a seven p.m. drinks date in San Francisco, forty-five miles away, and nothing would stop me from making it. I hadn’t been laid since moving to Iowa City. My father was alive and breathing. I needed to get him home and I needed to hit the road.
“Have some patience with me, Son. I’ll be slow a few days and pretty soon here I’ll be back up to speed.”
We stopped by the pharmacy and picked up a twelve-pack of meds. It took the pharmacist half an hour to explain the proper usage and the possible negative reactions and interactions. Other than to treat a bad batch of migraines in the 1970s, when he’d returned from Vietnam, my father had never been medicated.
He asked the pharmacist, “How the hell do you guys expect me to remember all of that?”
“We don’t,” he said. He handed my father a card with the pharmacy number on it. “Give us a call anytime.”
I carried my father’s meds and the overnight bag my sister had packed for him. My father slowly scooted along the corridors of the hospital—a working military hospital that also served the large retiree population in the area. Creaking GIs lurked everywhere. Many wore baseball caps from whatever unit they were most proud of serving with.
It took half an hour to get to the car.
He said, “Now, Tone, how about you take me grocery shopping? And I want to rent some movies. I think I’ll be bed-resting for a week.”
Within the confines of the hospital my father had not seemed out of place. Hobbling around were other addled men; whether it was from disease or old age or drink or smokes or government-sanctioned pesticide campaigns, the sick men belonged there in the massive sick bay of Travis Air Force Base. With a glance around I could easily find some guy worse off than my father: the blind, the amputee, the insane.
But in the parking lot of the strip mall near his house I registered just how incredibly sick he was. I knew this would only worsen. I removed his walker from the trunk and opened it at the passenger door. He needed help up. Hanging from the walker was a toy figurine of some cartoon character I vaguely recognized.
“What is this?” I asked my dad.
“The candy stripper gave me that, Tone.”
“Candy striper. Not stripper. But they don’t even use that term anymore.”
“Oh, right. That was one of them, what do you educated people call it? Freudian trips?”
“Right. Freudian strip. Candy stripers. Well, they’d get more business if they hired some candy strippers, don’t you think?”
“I suppose the dirty old GIs would like that.”
“Who you calling dirty and old?”
“Who do you think?”
With his stripers and strippers and Freudian trippers, I could not tell if my father was playing with me. Probably so. But I did not have the patience for this. The time was now four forty-five p.m. and I had less than three hours before I needed to be seated at a bar with a girl, a girl who would definitely have sex with me.
“Dad, just tell me what groceries you need and what movies you want. I can do this in twenty minutes. We’ll be out of here.”
It was nearly the shortest day of the year and already getting dark.
Dad said, “Give me some patience, Tone. I want to be outside. I got stuck in that room a week.”
And so we took our time. I walked slowly alongside my father. The severity of his disease began to register for me. I noticed how people looked at my father: the Man Lugging an Oxygen Tank. I knew the first thought that came to my mind when I saw a person using oxygen: poor white riverboat gamblers in the Midwest or South chain-smoking the Social Security Administration and Medicare into oblivion.
I wanted to say to the people who stared: No, you’ve got it all wrong. He’s a veteran. He was in Vietnam. It might have been Agent Orange. But of course I knew it wasn’t Agent Orange: it was forty-five years of Marlboros.
This was not my first experience with feeling humiliation because of someone else’s dire medical condition: in 1997 and 1998 my brother, Jeff, slowly died of a cancer and I was always ashamed of his illness whenever we were in public.
Is this a moral weakness in me?
Perhaps, I thought, as a little girl stared at the cartoon toy hanging from my father’s walker and then looked in horror at the oxygen tube shoved up his nostrils. With a shriek the girl recoiled into her mother’s pants leg.
We bought groceries for one of my father’s favorite one-pot meals, something he called goulash but that was really just a mash of over-boiled vegetables and meat in canned tomatoes, massively dosed with paprika.
We rented a stack of Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.
Back in the car Dad said, “You know, I’d like to have dinner with Clint Eastwood someday. Jeff met him down in Carmel, didn’t he say?”
“Jeff claimed a lot of things,” I replied.
“Maybe when I’m catting around again I’ll go down to Carmel and look old Clint up.”
“You should do that.”
“Other than Johnny Cash, Clint is my guy. When I was your age they used to say I looked like Johnny Cash. That’s what old Margarita in Texas used to say. ‘Johnny, you look just like Señor Cash.’ Damn that tickled me. Old Margarita. I’ll have to visit her, too.”
My father either did not grasp the immensity of the medical event he’d just survived, or he refused to recognize the totality of change it would bring to his life. This stubbornness or ignorance probably kept him alive for so many years while other patients might have just given up and died. His diagnosis was COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. Others might call it emphysema. COPD sounds, I don’t know, snappier? Less trashy? Emphysema connotes poor white riverboat gamblers in the Midwest or South chain-smoking the Social Security Administration and Medicare into oblivion. COPD? It’s just an acronym. But the end result is the same: your lungs will quit working someday and you will die. The elasticity of the oxygen sacs in your lungs will eventually fail, the sacs will dry up and calcify, and eventually you will want to inhale but there will be no room. All around you, everywhere, there will be oxygen, but you will be allowed none of it.
When I thought of my father’s lungs I thought of an old hunk of white coral that I’d had as a kid. I knew that it was bad to have a piece of coral. I knew that the coral reefs of the world were diminishing, but I liked having this strange piece of the ocean. The coral sat on my desk next to the piece of lava from Mount Fuji.
Brazenly, my father wanted to stop by one of his drinking holes just to say hello to the guys. It was now six-thirty. My date in San Francisco would never happen. I called the ex-girlfriend and she agreed to meet me in Fairfield later that night. I took my father to his bar.
I never understood it then, because he never articulated it, but I guess my father was proud of me. I was his son who had gone off and joined the Marines and served in a sniper platoon and gone to war and kicked Saddam’s ass, and returned home and gone to college, and paid his way through it working in a warehouse and with a little help from the GI Bill. And now I was in graduate school in Iowa City.
He introduced me to the bartender, a woman in her fifties wearing ten pounds of makeup and thirty years of rough road. She looked as though she’d been drinking since the previous night’s shift ended. “This is my son Tony. He’s gonna be a famous writer someday. He’s studying it in Iowa. The Writers’ Warehouse, right, Tone?” He winked at the bartender.
“Something like that. Can I have a double shot of bourbon?” I asked the bartender.
“That all they teach you in writing college, how to drink?” he asked.
“That’s one of the rumors about the place.”
Writers’ Warehouse. Freudian strip. If I had paid more attention, it was a funny skit my father performed: the father playing redneck to his smarty collegiate son. But the animosity that ran through his commentary was so obvious, or obvious to me. Anyone else would just see a charming older Southern gentleman who liked flirting with the ladies. Now he was not only old, but sick, too. His virility and vanity had taken a mortal blow. The handsome dark devil, the Johnny Cash look-alike, the wild man, the ravishing lover, his lungs had failed him and he was down for the count. Everyone knows the dick needs oxygen in order to perform. He did not want to admit it, but this was a major loss. This was the major loss. My father lived for good times and he also lived for the ladies. My father took the ladies out dancing and drinking and he took them home. Good-Time Johnny. Good-Time Johnny might have to take a final bow.
I drank my bourbon in silence while my father talked with his bar friends. They were happy to have him back in the crowd. Everyone always loved my father and his Southern charm. He was a good fella, that John Howard Swofford.
I stepped out to make a call to the girl in San Francisco. Hell, why not meet here at this divey little bar? I gave her directions.
My father asked me what all the commotion was on my phone. “What are you planning? You got that look in your eye. I know that look. That’s the Pussy Hunter. Swofford libido. A blessing and a curse. Who is it this time?”
Did I like this? Did I like my father calling me Pussy Hunter? Yes.
“Marin County,” I said. When I’d dated this girl in college my father could never remember her name, only that she had grown up in Marin County, and so that is what he called her.
“Goddamn, Tone. Pulling out the reserves? Marin County. Nice girl.”
“I was supposed to meet her in San Francisco. But she’s coming here.”
“Right here? To the bar? Hell, Tone. Don’t do that. Take her out somewhere nice. Take her to dinner. Take her out dancing.”
Lessons from a pro.
He continued, “This must be a generational thing. You can just meet a girl out for a few drinks and call it a night? Just like that?”
“It depends on the girl and the night. We have known each other awhile.”
“I might know a woman awhile but still take her out on a Friday night. There’s a good steak house downtown. Take her there, for Christ’s sake.”
“She’s a vegetarian.”
“Jesus, Tone. Jesus. My own son. Meeting a girl at a shitty bar and gonna try to get in her pants. You gonna get a hotel room?”
“Nope. I’m going to fuck her in your Cadillac.”
“Goddamn, Son. You can’t do that. You’ll get you both arrested. And I’m not gonna bail your silly ass out. Fucking in a car. Jesus Christ.”
Marin County never showed.
I helped my father settle into his home, into this new lifestyle of sickness.
I arranged his meds by day and dose. I plugged in the oxygen system that had been delivered to the front stoop that afternoon and cut a hundred-foot length of medical tube. I cut up the veggies and the meat and threw it all in a large pot with a few quarts of water, four chicken bouillon cubes, canned tomatoes, and a cup of paprika. We watched Hang ’Em High and my father fell asleep next to me on the couch. His oxygen tube hung from his nostrils like a clear snake and the oxygen machine howled.
The next afternoon a guy from the company that would service his oxygen came by. He was a big burly dude with a goatee. He said that his own father had succumbed to this disease.
“My old man,” he said, “he did what most people do when they get the diagnosis. He sat on his ass and got fat and stayed lazy and he was dead in two years, right there in the chair he sat in when he got home from the hospital. I couldn’t tell you if he ever moved once.”
“I plan to stay active. I plan to keep my job. This thing won’t take me down. Not soon, anyway,” my father said.
“Sir, I can’t say it’s a pleasure to meet you. It’s never a happy occasion when I meet a new customer. But I do hope we’ll have your business for a very long time.”
I couldn’t help but think that someday this big burly dude with a goatee would show up to deliver my father his oxygen and instead find him dead.
I SPENT THE rest of my winter break from grad school kicking around Northern California, crashing on friends’ couches or floors or in the bed of some former girlfriend or another. Every few days I’d drop in on my father and run errands for him or complete chores around his house.
One night Marin County met me at my dad’s house.
“Good to see you, darling,” my dad said, extending a hand and making a slight bow. “It seems like it’s been years.”
“Only months, Mr. Swofford. I saw you in August when we helped Tony load his truck for Iowa.”
I had not reminded my father of her name and I saw his brain working hard to retrieve it from his cloudy memory bank. And I knew he would not. Throughout my boyhood he never remembered my friends’ names. He referred to them by the names of the streets they lived on: Boyd, Marconi, Walnut, Lillian Lane.
“Your folks still live over in Marin County?” he asked.
“They do. And my younger brother.”
“Right. Right. Your father has a younger wife, and a son?”
My father could not remember this woman’s name but he recalled that her father, a man his own age, had a wife in her late thirties and a young son.
“So, Dad. How about I make dinner?” I offered.
“There’s goulash in the fridge!”
“I’m not feeling the goulash. I picked up steaks. I’ll throw them on the grill.”
My father looked lewdly at Marin County off and on throughout the evening. She was seven years younger than I and possessed a freshness and innocence not yet fractured by the bigger world. She worked as an intern with a radical publishing company and her father paid her rent in the Mission. She made bad art with crushed eggshells, and she wanted to change the world. And she was gloriously open in bed, or wherever we had sex.
For a few months while we dated in college she had lived at home and I would drive to Marin from Sacramento. We’d head into San Francisco for a date and then later return to Marin. We’d drive to the top of Mount Tamalpais and have sex in my truck, and then I’d drive her home. I’d park my truck around the corner from her dad’s house and sleep in the cab, and in the morning we’d reconvene. Sometimes I’d do this for three days straight without a shower.
I cleaned the dinner dishes while they watched a Clint Eastwood movie.
“Hey, Pops,” I said, interrupting a gunfight. “We’re going to head out for a drink. You mind if I take your car?”
“No problemo. Just don’t drive her drunk.”
“We’ll only have a few. Back at your local.”
“Tell them you are Alabama John’s son.”
We didn’t make it to the bar. We didn’t leave my dad’s driveway. We jumped in the backseat of his car and turned it into our own little sex dungeon.
During a break, Marin County said, “I like your dad. He’s a sweet guy. I like his accent. Is he going to be OK?”
“I don’t think that being on oxygen is OK. But he plans to stay active, and he seems to have a pretty good attitude right now. He’s not overly depressed and he’s not giving up; he’s not talking about where he wants us to bury him, so maybe he’ll hang on awhile.”
“Will you tell him we screwed in his car?”
“He’ll figure it out.”
“You are so bad.”
Later when I entered my dad’s house he was asleep on the couch. I awoke him and helped him back to his room.
He said, “Goddamn, Tone. As soon as you walked out the door I remembered her name. And now I’ve forgotten it. You have a good time?”
“We didn’t leave the driveway.”
“Dang. Something wrong with the car?”
“Nothing wrong with the car. We sat and talked.”
He looked at me with a sidelong glance.
“You’re bullshitting me, Bubba. You had sex with that girl in my goddamn car! Jesus. You better pay to get that interior detailed tomorrow. God knows what you did in my goddamn brand-new car. Thank god it’s leather seats.”
Was it cruel of me to invite a young, beautiful woman into my father’s house and parade her sexuality and her youth in front of the dying beast and then have sex with her in his car? Probably. But maybe it got him off.
The next day I mowed his lawn and made a few more pots of goulash before heading back to Iowa City. He stood in his driveway as my taxi backed away. He leaned on his walker. He hadn’t dressed. He wore the uniform of old sick men: white T-shirt and briefs. His legs were pale as rice and his forearms deeply sun-stained by decades of outdoor labor. The oxygen tube snaked down his body, a river, a story, a life. I waved to my father, not knowing when I’d see him again, or how long he might live.
One afternoon in April 2009, nearly a decade after his first collapse, I arrived at my father’s house and he greeted me in his driveway wearing white briefs with a T-shirt tucked in so that the look approximated that of a onesie. These days he wore dentures, but he hadn’t had a chance to put them in. He grinned at me, all gums, like a baby.
In the age-old tradition of crotchety and stubborn men, my father fought his diagnosis of COPD with abandon and verve. He held on to his job running a strip mall maintenance crew, even though a medical retirement coupled with his military retirement would have provided enough financial security for him to thrive and even head to Mexico for the winters.
I want to live, he screamed every morning as he cleared his lungs of muck and prepared for work.
Friends of his had gotten sick and died dozens of different ways, and the Old Man was still kicking. I’d been married and divorced, and the Old Man was still kicking. I’d lived in Iowa City, Portland, Oakland, and now Manhattan; I’d traveled around the world twice; I’d written and published two books; and the Old Man was still kicking. I’d been engaged and unengaged to two different women, and the Old Man was still kicking.
He did not say hello, he said, “Goddamn, Tone, we got a lot of work to do to get this rig road-ready!”
Excerpted from Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails by Swofford, Anthony Copyright © 2012 by Swofford, Anthony. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted October 27, 2012