DadThe first memory I have of my father is when I was six years old. We were fishing from the bank of a lake in East Texas. It was a big lake, and as I cast into the water for the first time, I had this little thrill of excitement. I caught a fish on that cast, and then another, and another. I caught at least sixty small bass in three hours.
I don't remember anything he said to me that day. I just remember that he was there.
That Christmas, or a Christmas near that time, he sent me a bright red Ambassador bait-casting reel. I was overjoyed when I opened the package.
A few years later, I spent the summer with him in Monroe, Louisiana. My older sister came with me.
Monroe was very different from anything I knew, because it was many hours away from the coast where I'd grown up. There were enormous trees and very little wind. Dad had a nice house in a lower middle-class suburb, much nicer than ours.
By then, he had been remarried for years--to another school teacher, ironically, although she wasn't nearly as intelligent or nice as my mom. Mostly, she argued with my Dad, who ignored her except for the occasional cutting remark. He was a health inspector, and every night when he came home, he went directly to the refrigerator and started drinking can after can of Lone Star beer.
He drove a tiny Honda Civic, and he told me proudly about the gas mileage and the quality of manufacturing.
Dad was very angry about integration. Everyone had rights, he said, but it was the natural order of things for different groups to have different kinds of rights. Black people were lazy and didn't want to work and caused their own problems. I knew that was awful, and wrong.
M*A*S*H was my favorite t.v. show. He said it was stupid, and when I made him watch an episode with me, he made it seem stupid. I don't know how he did that.
We would go fishing early in the morning, so early that I had to get up at 4:30 a.m. He would freeze ice in a big bucket in a garage freezer, and he would put on gloves and take an ice pick and chop the ice free.
We fished for bass, and fishing for bass in a lake is very different than fishing in salt water, which is how I fished at home. Fresh water fishing is all about finding structure, then trying to work that structure to catch the fish living around it while not getting your lure hung. It's closed off and claustrophobic, nothing like the open waters of a bay.
One morning, I saw an enormous fish boil up beside the boat. It was the biggest fish I'd ever seen, and I thought it was a world record bass. I flipped the lure behind the boat and let it drift downward. Then I started reeling, and I thought I had hooked the monster, because my rod bent over double. The fish never moved though, and after a long period of waiting, I realized there was no fish on the other end, just a log or something else that had caught my lure.
At some point in the summer, he threatened to send both me and my sister back home. He didn't, but at the end of the summer, I was very glad to leave.
The next memory begins on the porch of our house, when I was twelve. He had driven down from Louisiana with his new family and his friends, and he was taking me to fish on Padre Island for a week. It was raining as hard as I've ever seen it rain, before or since, and I remember waving frantically at him from the porch because I wanted him to come in.
I don't know why I wanted that. Maybe I thought that if he saw Mom, they would magically wind up together again. Instead, he sheepishly said hello, and my mom was angry and uncomfortable.
I remember how excited I felt as we drove away, not because I didn't love my mother (I did--very much), but because this seemed like extra life.
The beach is a hard place to live for a week. No matter how clean you are, it never lasts for more than a few minutes before sand invades everything again. We lived in a big, walk-in tent with light blue panels.
We bought live shrimp from Red Dot bait stand, and he told me that he used to own this very bait stand. "If I'd stayed, I'd still own this," he said. He made it sound like he would have made a fortune, even though it was nothing much.
One morning we drove down the beach, looking for flocks of birds that would signal fish underneath. We found them, and we found fish. Casting into the water, birds careening and tumbling through the air, the raw salty air, fish cutting up the surface--it was all exhilarating.
We fried fish and hushpuppies, then boiled crab, ears of corn and red potatoes in a pot. A bag of Zatarain's seasoning always got thrown into the pot, and when they were done, the white of the potatoes was stained orange.
Later that week, my dad rented an R.V., and we drove it down the beach. We stopped at one point and the men started looking at a girl in a bikini who was sunning on a towel. Her breasts were visible over the small shape of the bikini, and my father said, "Look at those titties." He handed me the binoculars and told me to look. She couldn't have been more than fifteen, and as I spied on her, I felt very, very dirty.
I was so sunburned after a week that even the tops of my feet were burnt.
For years, he sent us $100 a month in child support ($50 for each child), because a court had ordered him to as part of the terms of the divorce. When I graduated from high school and was preparing to go to college, he told my sister that he was going to stop sending the money (which was only $50 at that point, because my sister was grown and married) unless I showed some gratitude.
I wrote him a letter, and it was scathing. My mother told me not to bother. She said she would send me the $50, and she did. I never sent the letter.
While I was in college, I saw him as I passed through Monroe. I don't know where I was going. He took me to a place called Breaux Bridge that was nothing more than a few shacks. All of the shacks were bars. We walked inside and he said, proudly, "Not one woman or black man has ever stepped inside this place." I felt sick.
He wanted me to have a beer. I refused.
He took me for a drive, to Mississippi, because he wanted me to see where he'd grown up. We drove and drove, and then he pulled up to a series of houses on blocks in the poorest country neighborhood I'd ever seen. "This is where I came from," he said. "This is all I had." I could tell from his tone that he believed this explained everything, if only I was perceptive enough to understand.
I was not.
I didn't see him again for almost a decade, and then he appeared out of nowhere at my sister's house one holiday. He didn't come inside, but we talked in the driveway. "I'm still your father," he said. I don't even know anymore why we were having the conversation, but I remember him trying to leverage, pushing me with guilt.
It was like pushing water.
I haven't seen him since then. I know that if he had stayed, though, I would have grown up like him instead of my mom, who is an intelligent and honorable person. The only contribution he made to my life was not being there.
He lives on the coast now, not far from where I grew up. He's almost eighty. I've occasionally wondered if I would go to his funeral, but I realized yesterday that I wouldn't. What if I was in some kind of auto accident, some unlikely, horrible accident that could leave Eli without a father?
That's not going to happen.