Here is the opening story in my new memoir. Give it a read, make a comment. Have at it.
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I awakened in the morning to find the banister to the second floor stairs torn out of the wall. Flakes of white plaster and dust were scattered on the carpet. I tried to pretend none of this had happened just like I tried to pretend I was asleep when my father, so wildly furious, burst into my bedroom late the night before. The best defense against my father’s anger was to turn away from the obvious evidence.
It had been a school night, but my parents agreed it was okay for me to go out on my first real date. We were 13 and she was the girl I was sure I would marry. Jane had deep-set blue eyes, shoulder-length brown hair, and the stance of a dancer. Her feet seemed to always be turned out as if she were about to perform a plié. We had tickets to see Three Dog Night and Alice Cooper at Three Rivers Stadium under the late spring stars.
After the second encore – Three Dog Night’s version of Neil Young’s The Loner – and the lights came up, Jane and I headed for the exit, creeping along in the mob of fans. We walked over the yellow steel bridge to Pittsburgh’s Point Park where the blue light of the street lamps illuminated the bridge’s sidewalk. On the other side, near the Hilton Hotel next to the park’s eastside entrance, Jane’s father was waiting in his running Pontiac.
“Is that your Dad?” I said.
“Yeah, he’ll give us a ride,” Jane said.
I thought she and I had agreed that it would be my father who would drive us home. I was sure Dad was likely somewhere nearby or on his way, expecting us to be looking for him. But I didn’t open my mouth. I didn’t bother to tell her that I should somehow let my father know we weren’t going to need his ride. I didn’t dare admit a mix-up or misunderstanding and I said nothing about it all the way home.
Her father pulled his car up near the blacktop driveway of my house at a few minutes past midnight. A nearby streetlight glowed like a full moon, casting the car’s shadow onto the stone wall that separated the lawn from the front walkway. It was just minutes before midnight. I was too timid to try to give Jane a kiss, especially with her father in the car with us. Instead, I awkwardly said thanks, waved goodbye, and immediately began to look for Dad’s car. It was not in the driveway and not parked on the street. I peered through the garage door window. No car.
If Dad were in the house, he and my mother were apparently asleep, but the porch light at the top of the outside front steps had been left on. I tried to ease my way into the house, opening then slowly closing the creaking storm door. I climbed the dark stairway, shut the door to my bedroom, hurriedly took off my clothes, and slid under the bed covers.
That’s when the front door slammed. I could hear heavy feet pound on the stairway, quickening with each step. And then, the bedroom door exploded open.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” yelled my father in a throaty crackle.
The light in the hallway broke into the darkness of my room not like a candle but like a searchlight.
“David. Jesus Christ!” Dad said, standing just inside the doorway.
I pulled the bedspread up over my face, revealing only my closed eyes. Dad grabbed it and yanked it off me.
“How the hell did you get home?”
I acted as if I had been shaken from a dead sleep. But Dad knew I was faking it. He had marched all the way into the room and was now standing beside my bed with his arms folded across his chest, hovering next to me like a policeman questioning a suspect.
“I drove all the way downtown, all over the goddamn city looking for you for over an hour, and you’re in goddamn bed?” he said. “Jesus Christ.”
The hall light illuminated just one side of Dad’s face, giving it a shadowy look.
“Well, Jane’s dad was there and he…”
“Jesus Christ,” he said again. “Jezzzsus Chrrrrist!” Dad quickly looked me up and down, shook his head and stamped out of the room, the door rattling shut behind him. That’s when I heard a series of sudden, sharp noises – a snap, a crack, and then a thud. “Goddamn it!” he said, the force of his voice permeating the wall. I pulled the covers back over me and tightly shut my eyes.
The next morning I headed down the stairs for school, cautiously stepping over and around the debris. Pieces of plaster littered on the stairway, there were cracks and holes where the handrail had been attached to the wall, and the top section of the rail lay on the steps, long screws hanging from the bent wall brackets. Looking at all those broken pieces for longer than a second made me nauseous. I feared touching any of it, believing if I got too close, Dad’s explosive temper would somehow rise out of the wreckage and fill the air, forcing me to breath it in.
But when I returned home in the late afternoon the damage was gone. The handrail was reattached to the stairway, the carpet on the stairs was freshly vacuumed, and new plaster was drying where there had once been holes in the wall.
Dad never said another word about what happened. Neither did I.
Thirty-five years after that angry night, I found myself sitting in my car in the parking lot of an Olive Garden restaurant. What brought me there was a panic-driven phone call from my 16-year old son.
“Dad,” he said in a whispery voice. I could hear his hand rubbing against the phone, shielding the mouthpiece. “I don’t have enough money.”
Graham’s older brother had just graduated from high school and had been to all the big events – homecoming and the prom – and had somehow handled the inevitable awkwardness and mishaps of those early girl-boy experiences. He had navigated his way through holding hands, the kiss goodnight, and the self-conscious dance of paying for a night out with a girl. But on this summer night, it was Graham’s turn.
The girl was wearing an overly formal pink dress with ruffles around the waist and along the knee-length hem. There was glitter in her eye shadow and shiny crimson lipstick drawn unevenly on her mouth. She looked a like the youngest bridesmaid at a VFW wedding reception. Graham had heard that she loved Olive Garden, so that’s where he wanted to take her to celebrate her birthday.
“The bill is over fifty dollars,” he said.
“Over fifty! What the hell did you buy?” I asked, not expecting any sort of real answer.
“She ordered two appetizers, a salad, Fettuccini Alfredo, chocolate cake for dessert. She just kept eating.” He continued speaking in a soft voice, trying to keep from being overheard by anyone else in the restaurant’s public men’s room. “I told her I was going to the bathroom.”
“Okay, look,” I said. “I’ll come by and give you some more money. But it’s going to take a little time to get there. I’m nowhere near the restaurant.”
“Hurry,” Graham said.
I found myself thinking wondered about the Olive Garden menu – the regular two-for-one specials and something the restaurant chain calls its “Endless Salad Bowl.” This prompted a question.
“Graham, how the hell do you spend fifty bucks at Olive Garden?” I asked, picturing how his girl must have just kept calling for the waiter, pointing to items on the menu, and saying I’ll have this.
“I don’t know. She just kept knocking it down, Dad,” he said.
“Okay. I’ll call when I’m close. Tell her you have to go to the bathroom again and come outside. I’ll hand you some money. Don’t order anything else. You hear me?”
And so, I waited. My eyes fixed on the front door to the restaurant, watching families and couples exit and walk to their cars. There was a brief break in the patron traffic at the entranceway when Graham burst through the door, his eyes quickly scanning the parking lot. I honked horn and he ran to the car. I handed him a ten-dollar bill through the rolled down window.
“That enough?” I said.
“I think so,” Graham said, grabbing the money and beginning to run toward the restaurant door.
“Don’t forget the tip,” I said out the window.
Graham was halfway to the entrance when he turned and ran backwards so he could see me.
“How much?” he yelled, still back-peddling.
I stuck my head all the way out the window and hollered, “Whatever you have left!”
Graham disappeared through the doorway.
I leaned my neck against the driver’s side headrest and smiled. I thought about how Graham wanted this night to go well and how much he wanted to be grown-up. I thought about my own first date and my father’s violent reaction to the mix-up that night. And about what it must have been like for Dad to go out with a girl the very first time. I don’t know this for certain, have no way of being sure, but my father’s first date was probably with my mother. They grew up on the same street just a few houses from each other, but didn’t have much in common in those early days. He liked boxing. Fighters were his heroes. Sliding on big gloves and throwing punches was an escape from his family, falling apart from the sins of his father. She liked reading. Dickens was her hero. Devouring books was her getaway to places far from the Pennsylvania steel town street where she was born. But there must have been something that brought them together. His smile? Her eyes? They could have walked together to the local ice cream shop where all the teenagers hung out. They probably didn’t kiss, but they most certainly thought about it. And when she returned home I’m sure my mother’s father asked about Dad. How did he treat you? How did he behave? Did he use his manners? But it undoubtedly was quite a different story for my father. I’m confident his dad – a reticent and detached man – had no idea that his son was out on his first date. I’m sure he wasn’t concerned that my father had forgotten to tell him where he was going, how he was getting home, or what time that would be. And Dad’s father certainly wouldn’t have been willing or available to sneak his son a few extra pennies to pay for the miscalculated cost of a chocolate sundae.
Many years ago, my father’s father threw a stone in the water and the ripples continue to reverberate, creating little waves against the shores of my life. Dad’s memories and my own, our individual stories of being a father and a son, are part of an everlasting continuum that both shines in the open sun and hides in the darkness behind the moon. Some are buried in the ground, quieted by dirt and earth, and the inevitable silencer – time. But others radiate, like heat off ancestral pavement, linked by DNA, shaping my life and the lives of my sons in ways I may never fully understand.
When Graham and his girl came out through the restaurant door, the sun was painting a thin red line across the western horizon and the evening remained warm. It was the kind of balmy night that had me wishing for a convertible or a big front porch where I could sleep in a chaise lounge until morning. Graham was smiling and so was she, a good sign that the night had been rescued. This would be the memory I’d want to evoke for every one of the summers of my past, if I could only make it so.