Nonfiction by Joe Kapitan
The fifth broken way a father loves his son is Drawn Line. In this way, a father grabs his son by the shirt collar and shoves him out the door, tells him not to come back. There is shouting. There is this: you can live in your car, your tent, your anger. This is for everyone’s good, the father yells, but the eels twisting in his head will not let him believe it. The son will never believe it. The fifth broken way is a love in hate’s clothing. The fifth broken way is a desperation—the sound of a stranger sobbing on a train.
When my son was born, I was the first to hold him. The nurse didn’t like his color, so she had me hold him beneath a heat lamp as if he were six pounds of fast food. Even after his color improved, I didn’t want anyone else to hold him. He seemed too fragile, and I didn’t trust anyone else’s arms enough. I barely trusted my own. If someone were to drop him, it should be me. He would always be questionable, and he would always be my responsibility.
The first broken way a father loves his son is Smoke Mirror. The young son calls out from his bed, and the father takes the stairs two at a time to find the son huddled beneath blankets, scared of what he calls “fakes”—the unseen, ghastly things that accompany childhood. So the father makes a show of searching beneath the bed and behind the door and amongst the clothes hung in the closet and proclaims the room free of fakes and then sits cross-legged by the son’s bed until the tiny boy drifts off to sleep, while all that time the father thinks how lucky he was that the fakes happened to be gone when he needed them to be gone, but he knows he won’t always be so lucky. He can’t protect his son, not really. The first broken way is fraudulent—a young maple seedling sprouting from a crack in a sidewalk.
My son ran away from home once, when he was eight. It was early June. I caught up with him four houses away. He carried a folded map of Ohio, a pocketknife I’d given him for whittling, his stuffed bear. He carried anger. He was headed south, intentionally or accidentally. I walked with him awhile. I asked him where he was going to stay, and he said, “Hotel.” I asked him what he was going to eat, and he said, “Hamburgers.” I asked him how much money he had, and he looked at me like that was the one thing he hadn’t remembered that he was forgetting. I reminded him I planned to grill some hamburgers that night for dinner. We turned around and walked back home without another word. He held his bear by one paw, its head dragging on the concrete sidewalk.
The second broken way a father loves his son is endless work, Sisyphus Stone, because the work is exhausting and the exhaustion makes it feel like something was done, something must have been gained. But the truth is that the doctors and the therapists and the tests and the evaluations and the new meds and the new self-help books all bring the old results, and those bring frustration and frustration’s long shadow, despair; if the patient dies on the table, no one cares how long the procedure was. No one counts the stitches.
My daughter should not have taunted her older brother.
Her older brother should not have tried to hurt her arm.
She should not have thrown something at him.
He should not have grabbed a handful of her hair and pulled her to the floor.
I should not have reacted so violently. I should not have said some of what I said: that he was worthless. A mistake.
I should have called the police. I should have done it sooner.
But I didn’t.
The sixth broken way a father loves his son is Rickety Bridge. In this way, the father knows that the son is growing tired of sleeping in his car, so he takes his son’s tent and pitches it in the backyard, near the firepit. The door of the tent faces east, protected from wind but aimed to catch the morning sun. He stacks some firewood near the stone-lined pit and places a box of matches inside the door of the tent, next to the rolled-up sleeping bag the boy used to use on the many camp-outs they shared in earlier, better years. The father remembers the boy falling asleep next to campfires, the dead weight of his limp body heavy in the father’s arms as he carried him to his bunk in the cabin, peeling off the boy’s coat and boots in the darkness. This sixth broken way is a wasted kindness, an old woman collecting trash on the side of a highway. A silent prayer for the stranger sobbing on the train.
Hours after the loud argument, we are awakened by heavy knocks on our front door. Two cops stand on our porch. Someone has called them. One cop wants to speak to my son, check him for damage. The other asks me questions. I mention the prescription, the one he is refusing to take. The cops question my wife. They look for nervous tics, inconsistencies in our stories. Satisfied, the cops leave. We go back to bed but can’t sleep. We are different now. We are those people, the kind of people whom other people call the cops on.
The third broken way a father loves his son is to truly see himself reflected in the younger face: Clear Mirror. The son’s anger is a young man’s anger, raw and straining at its chains—the way he uses his nails as claws, to open skin. The father’s is an older man’s: fire-tempered, edges ground sharp, hidden from view. The son’s is more direct, more honest. The father’s, more menacing.
People often say my son looks like me. They mean it as a compliment, but neither of us ever takes it that way. It feels more like a warning, like a dead bird found on our doorstep.
The fourth broken way a father loves his son is Heavy Hollow, the realization that love and like are two sides of different coins. There is that story in the Bible: a father of two sons says he loves them both although they are both unlikable in their separate ways. The father in this story is meant to represent God because he feels nothing but love for the sons, which only makes things worse for us non-God fathers. It’s hardly a fair comparison. What if the prodigal had never left? What if he had stuck around and bled his father out, a bit at a time—every day another fight, another insult, another lie? Would the father have cracked? It’s just a parable, the preacher says. It’s meant to convey a message. The message I get from it is that I’m fighting a battle God somehow avoided. Your Bible may help some folks, I tell the preacher, but in our house, it’s just another thing to throw.
When I was twelve, my father came with me on a Boy Scout campout in Dayton, the first and last time he would ever do so. My father was a lawyer, not an outdoorsman—his exercise consisted of working the lever on the La-Z-Boy recliner after dinner. My chosen sport that year was baseball, while his sport was watching news shows on television. I should have given up earlier on asking him to play catch with me, but I was the oldest and had no one else to turn to. He never wanted to play; he was too tired, too full, too busy, too disinterested. Instead, he bought me a Pitch-Back for my birthday in July. It was a net strung taut inside a metal frame using springs, a small vertical trampoline that returned a baseball that was thrown at it. It was a dad substitute. It was a very popular gift in our neighborhood that summer.
The campout occurred three months later, in autumn. A frigid northwest wind tore across the flat, open airfield at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, pummeling our flimsy tents, which clung to the meadow on the far side of the runways. Periodically, jets would thunder their way into the gray sky. We weren’t prepared for the noise or the cold. Halfway through the night, my father abandoned the tent and folded down the back seat of our station wagon. We crammed our bodies into the rear of the car. The windows steamed. My father had bought a blanket made of some new-fangled metal foil, the kind used by Apollo astronauts. It reflected heat, but whenever we moved it made a sound like the crumpling of tinfoil. My father twisted and turned to get comfortable, then cursed at the noise it made. To fall asleep, we had to lie perfectly still. He fell asleep cursing. I stayed awake much longer, obsessed with the sounds: wind howling, jet engines rumbling, my dad’s deep breathing, the tiny crinkling of the foil as he twitched in his dreams.
He would later forget the trip, as people tend to do with all the sour things in their lives. I would remember it. I welcomed the aberration, miserable as it was—like a hunter who lowers his rifle, deciding to let the rare albino live.
The seventh broken way a father loves his son is Long Vigil. The son has been gone with the car for months; perhaps he went to California as he always said he would, but, then again, how can that be, he only had enough gas money to make Indianapolis. Leaves fall and carpet the lawn; the clouds solidify in the sky, forming their winter crust. The father secures the tent stakes, restores the woodpile and tarps it against the coming snows. He stocks the tent with water, fresh matches. He kills two doves and butchers them, salt-curing the carcasses and leaving them hanging where the son will see them.
The father starts a fire—perhaps the son will see it from a distance. The father wonders if the son is living on a beach in San Diego, or dead in a ditch in Wichita. The father sits cross-legged in the door of the tent until his feet go numb. It is November now, and he can see his breath. He feels the damp earth lose hope.
The seventh broken way has a mantra, to be repeated by the waiting fathers to the vacant sons: You have realized by now that there is no good reason to come home and there is no fatted calf here—but if you return, I will share what I have, and I will sit with you while you eat. While you sleep, I will tend the fire. I will spend the winter here, watching the tree line. I cannot save you from this world, but you can possibly save me. The seventh broken way is conundrum. Or selfishness. Or love. Come home, and I will show you that they are all the same.