We were perched in my father’s truck at the top of our cabin driveway, a couple of miles above Canandaigua Lake and the other western Finger Lakes. I looked out at the drifts of lake-effect snow that had blown off Ontario and had filled in whole valleys of knotted vineyards below, not to mention our tracks down the rocky drive.
I was eight years old and it was our day to work on the cabin together. Earlier, after my father’s disk sander had whirred to a halt, he turned to me and gestured majestically. “Matthew, the work is always the best pay.” He often declared things like this, which was an indication of the type of money I could expect to earn in the years to come.
We were leaving for Rochester, as we didn’t want to miss church again the next morning. The last time we’d missed it, I overheard my mother say to my father, “We cannot be divided on this, Bob,” and then a door slammed.
My father backed up the truck, then smiled mischievously. The truth was, he was fond of this stuff––spinning doughnuts in empty parking lots, driving on frozen lakes––and I was even fonder. I think it was man over machine for him, a sense of recklessness controlled. It was freedom for me too, a license to relinquish all control without taking on a single responsibility.
“Gambling…,” he said, stroking his thumb and forefinger over the corners of his bushy mustache. “Expensive form of therapy.” Then he eyeballed me sideways. When he gassed the pedal, we sprung over a bank of fresh snow that was concealing solid ice below. We were weightless for a moment, and when the wheels touched down, he didn’t stop accelerating as we banged down the drive. I felt a boulder running under the floorboards, pushing up against my boots, and then there was a crunch. I heard the muffler rip through some pine branches as it spun off into the woods. When we finally slid to a stop we just sat there, exhilarated by the ride and the still falling snow.
My father was a wiry man with ropy muscles who took me pheasant hunting in the Adirondacks and to demolition derbies in towns now long forgotten—any number of places, really, that would upset my mother had she found out. He held the record for most pins in a season on his wrestling team at Notre Dame, and though I almost never saw him angry, the absence of anger in him wasn’t entirely natural: he could, if he so chose, paralyze me with a single calculating grip to my bicep.
He painted himself as simple and austere, like his folks who were raised in Nebraska. I never questioned his illusion, but we lived a middle-class life, and my father, by this time in his late thirties, was never simple.
Though my father was a professor in the engineering school at the University of Rochester, he always thought of himself as an engineer more than a professor, and it’s a fact that I never knew him to do a half-ass job. But the truth was he was an exceptional teacher, able to make the complex seem simple, the sort who never told you when you were getting a lesson. I didn’t share his love for mechanics, but I wanted desperately to please him. He wanted to please me too, and so there was a degree of artifice in our relationship that we’d have to expel before we’d begin to know each other.
After a long silence, he slid his hand across the dash. “Whoo, that was worth it,” he said, smacking my leg. “Wasn’t it, kid?” I let go of the door grip and nodded.
It was cold out, but something about fresh falling snow, its softening of the hard world, always made me feel warm. I was fascinated by the seasons, and was already showing signs of a lifelong love for physics.
Immediately my father knew, beyond the muffler, there was more damage than he could fix on the fly. Snow creaked under the tires as we pushed the truck over to the brim. Stepping back, he patted his glove against my coat. “What now, kid?”
“Call Mom and have her pick us up?” I said.
He stood there in the purple tassel hat I’d given him for Christmas the year before, rubbing his mustache like I’d cursed at him. My mother always made me run to the bathroom if I ever had anything nasty to say, and shout it all into the toilet and flush it into oblivion.
“Nooo.” Then his tone became more conspiratorial. “You know,” he said, rubbing his chin now, “this accident presents a perfectly legitimate excuse to stay out here tonight.”
“Hmm.” I scratched my forehead using my hat, looking back up the steep drive at the cabin. “Maybe you’ve got something there.”
“But last time we missed church, Matty, you remember what happened.”
“Doghouse?” I said in a rising falsetto.
“Doghouse,” he said in a bass tone, pulling my hat down over my nose and having a laugh. This was a good two years before my mother left my father, and my father moved my younger sister Lucy and me overseas. “So what we’re gonna do––we’re gonna get a lift.” It was okay to hitch in the country, he explained, but not in the city. “You can trust folks out here,” he said. Then he gave me a look as if to say, You were just kidding me with that call Mom horseshit, right?
We still could have walked back to the cabin and called my mother, but we had already stomped out a good half-mile trail of sunken bootprints, and besides, my mother was giving Lucy a home perm that day, while we, the men, were privileged to the view over Canandaigua Lake.
Within twenty minutes a Pinto came barreling around the bend behind us, music blaring from the speakers. The reverberations were enough to jiggle little piles of snow off the branches arching over the bend.
The Pinto zoomed past in a whir of music and squashing snow. However, I got a distinct glimpse of the driver drumming his wheel with real drumsticks. At first I didn’t think he saw us, but then I caught the eye of the woman in the passenger seat. I also saw the fur of a sheepdog in the back.
Brake lights suddenly highlighted red in the snow, and they slid to a stop just against the snow bank walling in the road. My father gave me a high five as they whirred back in reverse with the window rolled down. “Awfully cold for a stroll around the lake?” the driver said. There was about three inches of clearance between his belly and the wheel. Manbreasts sagged over his chest, but he seemed agile enough, spinning his drumsticks in his right hand. He must have been about thirty, was good looking in the way that Brando might have been right before he really ballooned. “Where ya headed?” he said.
“Rochester, or anywhere near you can get us.” My father batted a few ice balls from his gloves.
“Saw your truck back a ways.” The man quickly looked at the woman and then looked back at us. “We’re catching the post-game at Orchard Park, but shit, 90’s just as fast as these back roads get us.” He smiled. “I’m Tim, and this is my girlfriend Carrie.” Carrie climbed in back while the Pinto’s exhaust stained a perfect circle of black in the snow. Tim stretched his arm out the window and gave my hat a tousle and said, “Come on in, Trouble.”
I went for the door and Tim revved the engine, which caused me to backpedal. He smiled and I went for the door again, and he nudged forward just a smidgen this time, almost running over my boot. My father, who was busy inspecting the car from the other side, put up a hand like “whoa now.”
“Just messin’ with you, Trub,” Tim said. “Initiation.” He leaned across and swung open the back door like a welcome mat.
I settled in the backseat, but my father was still outside inspecting the car. This didn’t seem unusual behavior to me––my father inspected everything in an overly analytical way he didn’t realize might be off-putting––but it obviously was for Tim and Carrie because they were giving each other pained looks in the rearview.
The windshield wipers were dragging ice, so my father pulled them up one by one and snapped them back against the windshield, shattering blue chunks of frozen antifreeze. Tim jerked his neck back theatrically with each snap.
My father finally looked up from the tires and said, “I can help you put on the chains.” Tim adjusted the rearview to see Carrie and smirked, “We’re not really chains type of people, to tell you the truth.” I watched my father mouth to himself, “no chains,” and contemplate this as he looked off. “But,” Tim said, “there’s always your other options,” and he eyeballed my father. It was my father’s notion that the more initial caution applied, the more reckless you could be later on. “Measure twice, cut once,” was an expression he lived by. Nevertheless, he tapped the roof and climbed into the front seat.
Barely off, my father leaned around and squeezed my knee, then gave Carrie––who was wearing a long-sleeve tee-shirt that said “WHUT?” across the swells of her chest––a once-over before turning back around front. The way I saw it, I really didn’t care at all that we’d gotten stranded.
Tim looked over at my father in the passenger seat. “Cute tassels.” I think they give you a certain something,” he said, fussing his fingers in the air. My father ignored the comment, but Tim wouldn’t leave the hat alone. “What did ya borrow it from the wife or something?” My father was speechless. “Kidding,” Tim said, slapping my father’s shoulder. “A little holiday banter.”
My father took a long look out the window, then finally turned back to Tim. “Nice tits,” my father said, weighing the air near Tim’s manbreasts. “What did ya, borrow those from your wife?” he said, then quickly turned away and exhaled heavily. From the back, I could see an area of fog he left on the window.
It went so quiet that I could hear the rubber on the steering wheel groan under Tim’s twisting grip. Finally, my father faced Tim and made a V with two fingers towards his eyes and then towards Tim’s. “You had that one coming,” he said, chucking him on the shoulder. They both started into an eerie sort of joint laughter, and then Tim, still laughing, wagged one finger at my father. “You are too fucking much, brother.”
Their sheepdog climbed right up onto my lap. “What’s his name?” I asked, noticing the fanny pack clipped around his neck. Tim leaned around the seat and he and Carrie responded at the same time: “Cash.” Then they both laughed and said it again, as if to try separately, but it came out harmonized again: “Cash.”
“Named after Johnny Cash?” my father asked. Tim gave him a one-eyed glance over his driving arm. “Nah. Paid for him in cash is all.” He looked back at Carrie. “Isn’t that right Care-Bear?” Tim winked at me before turning back to the road. My father leaned between the seats and scratched Cash’s chest saying, “Hey Bud, hey Buddy Bud,” which got Tim howling.
We were humming over the packed snow, though it was hard to differentiate white from white at this point, when Tim started asking me Buffalo Bills trivia. I knew all the answers to his questions before they were out of his mouth. If the Bills lost––which was nearly every Sunday––I’d piss and moan all day thinking that maybe if I had watched the game on a different TV, or did, say, thirty pushups during a goal-line stand with my sister on my back, I could have supernaturally altered the outcome of the game.
Tim announced that he knew Mean Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers from high school, and that Mean Joe was coming to his house for Christmas this year. These were no small words for me. “You want to come and meet him you can,” he said, “so long as your old man here gives you the go-ahead.” He slowly flicked his eyes at my father when he said it and my father cocked his eyes back at Tim. It was the same look he’d give Lucy and me whenever we’d ask about the tooth fairy.
Finally my father said, “Don’t get your hopes up, Matty,” and then added quickly, as if realizing his offense to Tim’s credibility, “you know your mother would never allow it.” Tim knocked my father’s arm off the rest they’d been sharing.
Tim pressed in the lighter as we approached the tollbooth, one of the makeshift tollbooths that we knew would never go away even after the road was paid for. “Toll booth operators,” Tim said, “have the highest rate of suicide of any occupation. God honest truth.” The lighter snapped out and Tim rested a quarter on its red coils and held it up, rotating it around. Right when the toll operator stuck her hand out for the change, my father grabbed Tim’s wrist and said, “Stop,” and I knew right then my father had found Tim’s pressure point with his thumb because Tim’s right arm went limp. But then Tim slipped the operator a dollar bill he had waiting in his left hand and said, “Ahhh, Bob, you wouldn’t make a good trigger man,” as he tried to pass off the grimace on his face with some casual chuckling until my father let go.
Carrie suddenly piped up from the back. “Of course he wasn’t gonna do it.” As we drove off, I locked eyes with the operator as Tim hollered, his voice ruffled in the wind, “Don’t do it, brother, it’s not worth it!”
Carrie was staring off out the window, so on the sly I unzipped Cash’s fanny pack to check out what was inside. There was a big Ziploc bag filled with what looked like vacuum-packed hairballs surrounded by crushed green leaves. I forgot myself and held it up. “What’s this?”
Tim turned around from the front and laughed. “That,” he arched back, tapping the bag, “is Astro…turf.” Tim nudged my father and winked, but my father didn’t budge. “That’s just turf seeds for the field I’m building. Like in Rich Stadium.” My father was scowling and Tim finally shrugged, “I can’t help it if Trub found a little grass, Dad.”
“I thought you said it was Astroturf,” I blurted from the back.
“Sure, sure, it’s a kind of grass, Trub—the super kind,” he said, and he played his drumsticks on the wheel like, Da Dum. Carrie let out a laugh. My father finally snatched the bag out of my hand and handed it to Carrie.
Everyone went quiet again. I stared out at the rolling farms passing, the plows with whirling lights whipping snow into the wooden fences.
Brother Wease came on WCMF introducing a Foreigner tune––I’m hot blooded, check it and see––and Tim was rapping his drumsticks on the wheel to the beat. The louder the song got, the faster we were going, and soon, we were bombing the turns. It would be hard to crash, I figured, with all the snow banks lining the road, or so I told myself. Carrie seemed perfectly calm through all this, like she trusted Tim thoroughly. I suppose that’s how I would have felt as well, if Tim were my father.
As we rounded a bend, suddenly there were a buck and two doe standing in the middle of the road, cool and calm, as if the Pinto approaching them were some kind of mechanical apparition. All you could hear was Foreigner coming out of the speakers, as everyone focused intensely on the road ahead. I could see through the seatbacks my father’s foot was pressed hard into the floor, his toe down and heel raised, as if he had some control over the vehicle himself.
Tim swerved just as we rounded the buck and, somehow without sliding out of control, split the two doe. My head knocked against the window, then I fell into Carrie’s lap. Tim was still speeding down the road, as if he couldn’t stop now, when my father took his hands off the dash and said, “Tim. Please. Just.” He raised his hands in the air. “Just. Please. Will you?” Then he lowered his hands slowly, compressing the air, like he often did to me when he was instructing me to calm down.
Tim grinned at my father. “That one’s for the Guinness book.” Then he wagged a finger at me in the rearview. “I’m expert though, and this shouldn’t be tried at home.”
Tim stared out the window for a while, then glanced back at my father, muttering under his breath, “Chains. Fucking chains.”
As we approached Honeoye Falls, a long silence was finally broken when the passenger-side window fell like a guillotine. My father snapped up in his seat, and Tim laughed, snatching his Marlboros off the dash. “God’s way of saying it’s time for a smoke.” My father didn’t say anything, which was beginning to make me nervous.
Tim lit up a cigarette and in a few minutes we popped out of the country and into town, where the river was streaming off the half-frozen falls, dropping lower as it sought out the Genesee and the Genesee’s waterfalls that tumbled northward towards Lake Ontario. Everyone felt relieved, I think, to be in town.
My father tried to break the awkwardness, this time without even bringing up Tim’s reckless driving. “So Tim, you guys are from Bristol?” It sounded forced. We were back to formalities we’d already managed to skip.
“Do I look like I’m from Bristol, Bob?” Tim turned his neck. “Is there something about me that says Bristol to you?”
“Forget it,” my father said. And then he changed his mind. “But you could see how I’d make the connection, Tim. And if you’re implying Bristol is a place you wouldn’t want to be from, well then I’d say that’s your own problem. Apparently,” my father continued, showing an inadvisable amount of pleasure in his smirk, “it’s good enough for Mean Joe anyway.”
Tim sucked his tongue against his upper teeth. “You have a cabin there, right?”
My father nodded.
“Playing country then. That’s cute, Bob.”
Tim picked his teeth in the driver-side mirror. “I’m just busting your chain, Bob. Yeah we’re from Bristol. What did ya think?” In the rearview, I saw that my father looked exhausted.
Tim pulled a flask out from under the seat and offered my father a pull. “Hair of the dog,” he said, and then threw him an elbow when my father refused. Tim turned back to me and tipped his chin, “How ’bout for the little man?” but I averted my eyes. Before my father had a chance to say a word, Carrie leaned up and whacked Tim right across the back of the head. Dandruff leapt from his hair. “You don’t go there,” she said.
No one moved. For a second, as Tim stretched back and stared at Carrie, filling the space between the seats with his bulk, I thought he might knock her right out the back window.
Honeoye Falls is not a big town, but a big enough one to get lost in if you had to, and maybe the last town of that size before Rochester. We pulled into The Rooster, a bar Tim apparently knew, and no one objected. A snow blower in the lot was churning loudly, spraying up a white rainbow framed against the black.
I’d never been in a bar before and my father immediately began guiding me across the sawdust that was covering the floor towards the bathroom. Inside, he cupped my chin in order to hold a steady gaze between us. “Listen, Matthew, I want you to know that you’re going to be fine.” He squeezed my chin. “Okay?” I immediately became frightened because it had never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be fine. My sister and I were taught to always express the positive in things, and later, this would sometimes come off as a masking of the negative, rather than what it really was: a fear of letting people down. “Are you going to fight with Tim?” I asked.
“Do you think I’m going to fight Tim?” he asked, twisting the corner of his mustache, and I could tell he really wanted to know, not for his own sake, but to learn something about me.
“I think you’ll win,” I said.
“You know, Matty, the only people who actually win arguments––”
“Who’s the only ones who win arguments?” Tim said, as he knocked open the swinging door.
“Lawyers,” my father replied, surprised.
Tim gave us a look that reflected his suspicion before he waltzed over to the urinal. “Stage fright?” he said, looking over his shoulder at us.
We stepped up to the urinal. My father turned to Tim to say something, but Tim spoke first. “Carrie says I’m making you two uncomfortable, so I want to apologize.” He shook himself off. “Have a drink, Bob. I’m just trying to be friendly, talking to Trouble here about the Bills and giving you a lift and all. Why is it that I’m the one who feels so cheap when I’m the one helping you out?”
“I don’t know why you feel cheap, Tim.” My father seemed to have gathered himself now. “Maybe something else is bothering you.”
Tim leaned up close to my father’s ear and whispered loudly enough that I could still hear. I wondered why adults sometimes thought you didn’t understand things just when it was convenient for them to have you not understand. “It seems to me you’re thinking of taking off, Bob,” he said. While my father zipped up, Tim continued in the whisper, “If you’re leaving, that’s one thing. But to just take off and leave behind the idea that I’m something wrong, a nobody, some fucking jerk-off.”
“You got a son, Tim?”
“Frankly, it’s irrelevant, Bob.”
“You got a son, Tim?” My father’s hands were jittery, more from indignation, I think, than anything else. Tim gave him a blank look, so my father continued. “Then don’t tell me about the particular hardships of fatherhood and family.” He nodded at Tim like the issue was settled.
Back at the bar Tim ordered a Budweiser, and I heard him say “particular hardships” under his breath to Carrie. My father ordered a hot nut shot ––Frangelico and coffee––and Tim snorted at the sight of it. Then Carrie took my hand under the bar top and squeezed, which I took as a bad sign.
Everything changed though when someone swerved into the lot and slid into the back of Tim’s Pinto. Not hard, but full enough to make a thump that we could all hear from inside. If I knew my father, he’d measured our situation twice, and now he was going to cut. But then, I’d never seen him in any conflict except with my mother.
Tim’s stool raked across the floor and he stormed outside like a lineman––fast and large. Cash started barking like crazy as Tim grabbed the offending man’s coat. My father got up and said, “Stay put,” then glanced back at me with an iron look as he went out. After he was gone, Carrie started making busy talk, saying, “Tim’s really not so bad, you know.” It was snowing again, huge drifting flakes illuminating as they swirled under the beams of the hunchbacked parking lights. Unable to contain myself, I got up and went outside after them.
My father had gone right over to Tim and was now telling him the whole thing was an accident. Then he added, “Thanks for the lift, Tim,” and extended him a twenty-dollar bill. “You’ve been more than kind and we thank you.”
Tim looked around for Carrie, confused, and then swatted the money away. By this point the other man was backing out of the lot. Tim glanced at me. “You’re doing a disservice to your son, Bob.” Then my father turned, and when he saw me outside, his scowl practically knocked me over. Immediately, he started guiding Tim––as if they were connected by an invisible thread––far clear from where I was standing.
My father stepped close to Tim, both of their heads moving vigorously with the words that were coming out of their mouths, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying with all the racket. Then Tim put his arm around my father’s shoulders in a friendly way and squeezed a little too tight. I could see that my father was afraid. I could see it in the lines in his face, lines being drawn in patterns I’d never seen before but now understood intuitively, and yet, for all the intuition, managed to simultaneously misinterpret as signs of weakness.
What my father would later describe to me about that night was not what I saw, and wouldn’t be able to see, wouldn’t be able to understand through his eyes, until I met my wife Alexandra, and we had our first son. Then it would hit me like a blinding eclipse, one of those rare moments that span the void between fathers and sons.
At the time, I was simultaneously indignant and engrossed, but instinctively I yelled out to them to stop, and they both looked at me, stunned. Though it had been only moments since my father had last checked on my position, it was as if I’d never existed and had suddenly materialized out of nowhere. Tim’s arms spread outward from his sides, his palms flipped up and his shoulders raised. My father nodded twice and then they shook hands for what seemed like eternity.
My father turned towards me and took a few steps, the anger melting off his face. Some other expression surfaced, but I couldn’t make it out. Then Tim said a few more words from behind him––the breath from his mouth visible––and before my father had turned fully back around, Tim, with all his weight behind him, landed a fist just above my father’s right temple on the side of his head. My father hit the ground, his hat jarring loose onto the snow. After a moment, Tim said, “A real disservice,” and then kicked my father in the back.
Then the situation seemed to sap itself of its own energy somehow. Tim stepped back quickly and fumbled a cigarette out of his pack. My father dragged himself up, dazed and pensive, one of his knees caked in snow.
Later, I wondered if things would have turned out differently if I hadn’t been there.
When I packed up a snowball and whizzed it dead into Tim’s chest, my father’s expression went dead. Tim backed off toward his car at Carrie’s calling, and my father limped over to the base of The Rooster sign that was busted up except one bulb lighting up the “OO.” Carrie pounded on Tim’s chest a few times and pushed him with all her might back into the Pinto. She started to come over towards us, but my father waved her off, shooed her away with a look that dismissed her as a child.
Finally, I walked over to my father following what was apparently not enough time for him to be alone, asking if he was okay. “Fine,” he said, pushing me out of his space. I suggested that he call my mother and have her come pick us up.
He snapped. “Why don’t you call your mother,” he said, almost mocking me. The tone of his words froze in the air for a second. I may have forgotten some of the details of that day, but I’ve never forgotten that tone.
My father walked over to the frost-etched phone booth at the far end of the parking lot as the Pinto made its way out. I wondered if he was going to call my mother, and I just wedged my heel into the snow for a while, twisting it back and forth. When he returned he took off his hat and combed his fingers through his graying hair. He looked down at me. “Let’s not tell your mother what happened here today. Okay?” Whatever crisis this withholding was meant to disarm—personal, familial, marital—I didn’t know, but it was clear to me by that point that there were things in the world that were none of my business.
“Okay,” I said, and I never did.
In the cab ride home, my insecurity began to run free, unchecked and unbridled until I’d worked myself into a full sweat. When my father rested a palm across my forehead and speculated about what was wrong, I wondered if I really needed to tell him, or if he already knew.