Winner of the Christine White Award for Memoir (Goucher College) and the Ames Award for Essay. First published in Literal Latte, 2005.
My father’s eye never slept. It floated in a drinking glass on the edge of a pink porcelain sink, dreaming of blinking and winking under a black-fringed frame and waiting for me to stumble into the bathroom to observe my most private moments. During these midnight encounters, I carefully avoided looking directly at the eye. It wasn’t that it was creepy, although in some ways I guess it was. It was just a habit of mine, the ingrained reaction of a child trained to look and not see.
My father liked to point out that this was no cheap, “off the rack” eyeball.
“See the veins?” he’d ask, pointing to the eerie red lines etched across the white glass globe. “And look at the color.” It was just like his good eye — hazel flecked with bits of gold and green. Resting in his gouged-out socket, the eye was virtually indistinguishable from his other, real one. But separate from my father, it seemed to have a life of its own, possessing an innate intelligence of the know-all, see-all kind, like a magic eight ball or a hypnotist’s magnetic glare. Sometimes I wondered if the eye could see more than my father could, more than any one of us living with him could see. In the middle of the night, I wanted to ask it why things were the way they were. But it was just a piece of glass, an illusion my father hid behind. And the eye wasn’t talking.
My father, however, loved to talk and I was the perfect audience— captive, attentive, admiring, gullible. Each weekend, in order to make sure I knew what he did for a living, I accompanied him to work some 45 miles from our home in the Watchung Mountains to his dry cleaning business in Newark, New Jersey. As we cruised up and down Route 22 in his pale green 1962 Volkswagen van, he pontificated on every subject under the sun. The highway was my classroom, the van, a school on-wheels, my father, a private tutor.
“What does that say?” My father pointed to a sandwich board. The hand-painted lettering escaped in a blur of black and white before I could answer. My eyes fixed on the next sign, crudely tacked on the side of a small outbuilding and I read as if my life depended on it: “Bill’s Rad-a-tor Repair. Same Day Service.”
“It’s pronounced ray-dee-a-tor,” my father said. “Keep going. Wherever you see words, read ‘em.”
We approached a wide, white sign tottering on top of a tall steel totem. “Blue Star Shopping Center,” I yelled out. A billboard appeared shortly after, featuring two giggling women with sparkling white smiles: “double your pleasure!” Up ahead loomed the proud golden arches of Mc Donald’s Hamburgers. “One...thousand sold!”
“Look again,” my father said. “That’s one million. See the one, then a comma, then six zeros? The six zeros mean a million.” I studied the zeros as the arches disappeared behind us.
“Wow. That’s a lot of hamburgers.”
“Sure is. Now keep reading. You’re doing a great job.”
My eyes sped up and down the highway searching for slogans, sale announcements and store names. It was a game — catching sentences in a net and bouncing them back to my father with rapid-fire precision. There were words everywhere and I ate them like jellybeans, jamming them into my mouth. My father corrected, illuminated and informed me of the greater meanings behind the words. He had seen it all before.
Advertising? “You can sell shit if you package it right.” Psychology? “Head shrinking, like the voodoos — a load of crap.” But sometimes, our conversations left me in a daze as he told me all that I needed to know and more than I wanted to hear. One trip might start with a discussion of my mother’s pregnancy, move on to where babies come from, and end with the revelation that cowboys have sex with sheep. This nugget of information was disturbing on several levels, not the least of which was that I always thought of sheep being with shepherds and shepherds being God as in The Lord is My Shepherd. As my father talked, I pictured an evil cowboy hiding behind a tumbleweed bush doing unthinkable things with sheep right under the Lord’s nose. I didn’t want to know anyone had sex with sheep — not even sheep, and I certainly didn’t want God anywhere in that picture. So I banished this information to the dark place in my head where all the strange things Daddy said and did got stored, and looked out the window reading signs, signs, signs.
One morning, as we passed by the intersection of Shop-Rite and the Leaning Tower of Pizza, a car cut in front of my father, forcing him to swerve sharply towards the median strip. “Goddamn sonofabitch,” he cussed under his breath. “If that asshole knew I how little I could see, he wouldn’t dare drive like that.”
Before that moment, I’d never even considered that my father might see less than other people. I covered my left eye with my hand and looked through the windshield. Cover. Uncover. See. Not see. The world wasn’t cut in half exactly, but a big piece of it was left out. By looking at him, you’d never know my father saw less of the world. He was a master at the art of optical illusion. His fake eye was so good and his way of looking at you so skillful, that you’d swear he had full and complete vision.
My father was born in Newark, New Jersey on April 5th, 1919, the only son of a Russian immigrant laundryman and his seamstress wife. He had been a healthy and rambunctious young child until, at four years of age, he ran across the parlor room with a sharp pair of tailor’s scissors in hand. His foot caught on the rug, tripping him, and the blade, the boy, the eye, collided, tearing a hole of blood and tears. His parents tried to find the best help available to them, but in the 1920’s, ocular surgery was a crude science. Still, the doctors managed to keep his eye intact.
“They told Mama and Papa that he should never cry because of the damage to his eye,” my aunt told me. “They spoiled him, gave him whatever he wanted, anything at all” to keep the tears at bay. He wore big, thick, glasses but his eye always looked lazy, what my aunt called “a little funny.” But not so funny as to stop a third grade teacher from exhibiting him to the other teachers in grade school, lugging him from classroom to classroom to show off his lush, “girly” eyelashes. “Have you ever seen such eyelashes on a boy?” My father would repeat this story over and over, speaking of it more often than his tragic accident.
There was another story that seemed to be connected to the eyelashes somehow, involving a hotel, a bathroom and a mysterious stranger. On the few occasions we drove by the crumbling Cedars Hotel in the resort town of Lakewood, he’d point to the upper floors. “When I was a kid, a man tried something funny there.” He never elaborated what the funny thing was, and at nine years of age, I didn’t want to know more. There was no warning attached to the tale, no be careful of strangers message embedded in the words. As I look back, I can see this was a confession disguised as an illuminating tidbit of life story, a statement of fact told as if he was a tour guide and I was a passenger on the bus trip of his life. But at the time, it was merely confusing. “I told the guy to cut it out. I wasn’t like that. I was a normal boy.”
Was my father ever normal? At twelve years of age, a basketball thudded directly into his damaged eye. The fragile retina detached, leaving doctors no recourse but to sever his eye. My father lost all hope of ever easily appearing normal again.
Once in awhile, he wore an eye patch, like the Hathaway shirt man. “For comfort,” he said, but it embarrassed me. You couldn’t pretend to have a normal father when the eye patch made adults stare and kids point at the pirate in a short-sleeve business shirt. It was also hard to look normal when the police showed up on your doorstep once a month, called in by neighbors alarmed by the violent sounds escaping through the walls of our house.
My father worked 14 hours a day, 6 days a week with a difficult and long commute. My sister and I were always excited to see the Volkswagen van pull up into the driveway, forever hopeful that the Daddy we loved would be the one to walk in the door. On his best days he entered the house a natural comedian, witty and charming. But more often than not, he lumbered in under a dark cloud, a threatening portent of bad things to come. One minute he was my father, the one I adored, the normal looking one. The next minute he was a pirate, a cyclone, a Cyclops literally tearing down the walls.
My mother nearly always took the direct force of his fury when he erupted. Unlike me, she never seemed to understand that his emotions could shift without notice at any moment, never recognized the signs of his storm warnings. While I monitored the atmosphere, she charged ahead, tossing words like dry kindling onto his smoldering rage as I watched horrified, knowing with terrible certainty what would happen next.
One night in particular, the signs were not good. I heard the front door slam followed by footsteps thundering down the stairs to the den. My mother broke spaghetti into a pot of boiling water while I hurriedly set the kitchen table. A few minutes later, my father loomed in the kitchen door. “Why isn’t dinner ready?”
I concentrated on placing the forks to the left of the plates just where my father had told me they should be.
“Guess what, Daddy? The Zimbardo’s dog had puppies and they all look like Jeff.”
Jeff was our dog.
He glanced in my direction with unfixed eyes, as if he’d been distracted by a slight noise, then snapped his gaze back to my mother.
“I said — why isn’t dinner ready?”
My mother turned to face him.
“I’m cooking it,” she said.
I knew what was coming.
Whenever he was displeased with my mother, my father hurled the ing part of whatever she said back to her as a verbal assault. “You’re do-ing. You’re listen-ing. You’re get-ting.” He could make ing sound so foul that it curled my toes just to hear it.
“Yes I’m cooking. Even you can see that!”
My father picked up one of the Flintstones glasses I had just set on the table and threw it in the direction of my mother. She quickly moved her hand to cover her face and caught the glass in mid-flight. It shattered on the hard knob of her wrist, slicing a deep cut into the back of her hand. Rivulets of blood zigzagged down her arm.
“I don’t want cook-ing when I come home. I want dinner on the table.”
My father grabbed the table and pulled it across the floor into the living room. The glasses I had placed so carefully just minutes before crashed onto the bare floor as he headed straight towards the front door.
“Look what you make me do, you friggin’ bitch!” He tore open the door and hauled the table down the front steps.
I ran into the dining room and cowered in the far corner. Through the open door, the sound of breaking plates and the dull thud, thud, thud of the table bouncing down the short flight of stairs rang in my ears.
“Now maybe you’ll have dinner ready for me when I come home.”
He retreated upstairs to his bedroom. My mother wrapped a dishtowel around her hand and headed outside, where the table sat on the lawn surrounded by broken dishes, spilled condiments and scattered cutlery. As I bent down to pick out bits of plate from the grass, a car rounded the curve in front of our house, then slowed to survey the scene. I pretended not to notice, but out of the corner of my eye I saw a girl from school pressing her face to the window. I wished I could dig a hole and hide, disappear from this lawn and the road in front of it that would lead me to the school bus the next day and the jeers and catcalls that would inevitably fly like paper spitballs at my solitary seat. My father could hide his physical handicap, but it was beyond his ability or desires to cover up the one raging from inside, the wound that bled unchecked onto every inch of our home, spilling out into the street and engulfing all of us in its horrible wake.
During the 20 mile drive to the hospital, I sat next to my mother as she drove one-armed and silent, the bloody towel-wrapped hand resting limply in her lap the entire way. The doctors stitched her up with a needle and thread, an event I did not witness but fantasized about the entire way home. If flesh and blood could be sewn back together like a torn dress, maybe my parent’s marriage could too.
When we arrived home, the kitchen table was back in the kitchen. So was my father, sitting quietly at the table reading the newspaper and eating a sandwich. Gauze circled my mother’s hand, which now resembled a fat white fist. My father glanced up at me. “Get me a soda from the fridge.” I opened the refrigerator and handed him a can of cream soda. He took it and looked back down at the paper. He didn’t thank me. He didn’t look at my mother. He didn’t ask about the damage he caused. He sipped his soda and turned the page of the Newark Star-Ledger like nothing had happened at all.
“Tell me what you see.” We were in his car again, this time flying high on the web of concrete and steel overpasses connecting northeast New Jersey with the bridges and tunnels of Manhattan. Asphalt fields spread out below us, a soot-covered landscape crowded with squat buildings, acres of trucks and cars and railroad flats stacked as high as houses. In the distance, large orange letters on the roof of the Monsanto plant proudly announced “better living through chemistry” as the sulfurous smell of rotten eggs seeped inside the van like a toxic cloud making it a challenge, an act of courage, to take one breath after another. Black scaffold towers stood watch over the highway, skeletal dragons spitting angry black and yellow flame into the sulfurous sky. Above it all, higher than the overpass itself loomed cement smokestacks as tall as lighthouses. The stacks belched thick clouds of smoke, rising like mountains over the concrete plain.
“Look at the sky,” my father said. “Tell me. What colors do you see?”
I stared at the sunset horizon. It seemed almost level with us on the elevated overpass.
“Blue... and pink.”
“Um…” I searched the smog-stippled clouds, trying to decipher subtler shades of color. “Purple.”
I looked again, forcing myself to steady my gaze on the deepening twilight. More colors emerged as if coming into focus for the first time. How could I have missed them?
“Orange! And yellow! And white, of course.”
“That’s right. It’s all there if you keep looking.” My father glanced over at me and looked back at the highway. “You have two eyes,” he said. “You should see twice as much as I do. I always want you to look — again and again and again — until you see everything there is to see.”
Here’s what I see: I see myself in the shower with my father, staring at the pink and black tiles glistening on the wall, trying to avert my eyes as he soaps up his penis, crowning it with foamy white suds. Hot water streams down his back, as both of us stand naked side-by-side waiting for the water to drip off our bodies. He makes me watch as he flicks droplets of water off his chest, stomach and buttocks. “This is the right way to do it,” he says. “This way you don’t have to use the towel as much.” Even though he teaches me this same lesson year after year, I pay attention. I am a good student.
I see my mother sleeping night after night on the couch, her preferred bedroom, while I sleep with my father in his bed. She never seems to notice that I am lying where she should be, in his arms, my head on his pillow until he kicks me out in the middle of the night when I am twelve years old and whispers in a husky voice we can’t do this anymore. In the car, he tells me he wishes he were born later so he could marry me, but I don’t want to marry my father. I want to marry Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees.
There are many things I do not want to see.
My father makes me look anyway.
“You’re the oldest. You’re going need to take care of things.” I was fourteen years old, consumed with boys and boy bands and my own painful insecurity. Without knowing it, I had become my father’s therapist and priest, trapped in the confessional of the Volkswagen Van. It was freezing cold, as it always was at 5 a.m. in the winter when I accompanied him to work on Saturdays. I was preoccupied with keeping warm while the heater got going. It never seemed to work right.
“You need to listen carefully,” he said. I stopped messing with the heater and looked at him. “I want you to take care of your brother and sister.” He stared straight ahead, his gaze fixated on the road, his profile a ghostly shadow against the gray light.
“I won’t be around much longer.”
My brain repeated the words, trying to make sense of what it just heard. He won’t be around much longer? I fought to find an answer. A few years before, there had been talk of my mother divorcing him, but nothing ever came of it. I had no idea what he meant. “Where are you going?”
“Don’t worry. You kids will be taken care of.”
“But where are you going?”
His voice was calm and slightly upbeat. “I need you to listen very carefully to me.” My body froze in alert panic on the cold car seat.
“I found an insurance policy that pays on suicide. You know what insurance is, don’t you?” I nodded my head in automatic response, a dumb wooden bobble-head nod. “I have a plan: I’m going to kill myself. You kids are going to get the money. One hundred thousand dollars. That’s a lot of money kiddo.”
I stared out the window at the bare trees whizzing by, trying to comprehend the full meaning of what I had just heard. We must have gone a mile or so before I could speak. Finally, the words rushed out of my mouth, sounding whiny and childish. “I don’t want the money, Daddy.”
“Oh, sure you do,” he said. “Trust me. You’re not gonna have a father. You’ll need it, alright.” The words sank into my chest, descending like a shroud. We stopped at a red light where I stared at the gutter, trying to avoid looking at my father. Someone had thrown a half eaten McDonald’s cheeseburger on the side of the road. The ragged patty of gray meat and congealed cheese lay stiffly in a blanket of dried bun, and the sight of it nauseated me. I thought about the one million sold, I thought of the big yellow arches in front of each store, I thought of the thin, square-edged French fries served in grease-spattered paper bags. I did not think about what my father had just said. We did not talk about it again that day.
But over the next year, he mapped out various aspects of the plan as we motored up and down Route 22. He had to pay the insurance for a full year before it became enforceable. The business would be sold. So would the house. My mother, sister, brother and I would move to Ohio to be near our Aunt. We would have plenty of money — the one hundred thousand dollars. “Of course,” he said, “your mother will piss it all away.”
On the first of each month, my father mailed a check to the Prudential Insurance Company. The payment stubs began piling up in the glass jar he kept on the top shelf of the kitchen cabinet. Winter melted into spring. My August birthday came and went. School started and I began my first year at Watchung Hills Regional High School struggling with algebra, insecurity and frizzy hair. The white perforated stubs continued to grow in the glass jar. Leaves piled up around the apple trees in the side yard. There were phone calls with lawyers and papers to sign as my father began the process of selling the dry-cleaning business to his partner. Weeks went by with no discussion of the “plan.” Instead, there was talk of moving to Plainfield and West Orange, periodic rumblings of “starting over.” My father began reading the want ads as well as the obituaries. All in all, things were looking up.
Then around Thanksgiving, my father asked me how I felt about living in Cincinnati. “You’d live near your Aunt Letty. Wouldn’t you like that?”
No. No way no. I knew what he really meant: moving to Cincinnati was part of the plan that meant a move without him. I kept telling him I don’t want to move to Ohio, I never want to move to Ohio. No Ohio, no Ohio no Ohio — my code words for please, please, don’t kill yourself.
In January, a “For Sale” sign went up in our front yard. My father was quiet now, quieter than I had ever seen him. The raging episodes — screaming at my mother, hurling our dinner at the walls, throwing dishes across the room— disappeared as if they had never happened.
On a cloudy February morning, I found my father in the living room dressed in his coat and hat. He appeared so much smaller than I knew him to be — more like a lonely stranger in a dark overcoat than the towering man I knew. When he finally noticed me standing at the foot of the stairs, he turned towards me. “Don’t worry,” he said quietly, “things will be different from now on.”
His words opened a door, letting in a strong breeze that pushed me across the room to him. I spoke without thinking, words rushing out of my mouth like Fizzie tablets bubbling over the rim of a glass, grape foam running down the sides, pouring over the ledge of the table, bubble words just spilling out.
“Does this mean you won’t yell anymore, Daddy?”
He looked at me without saying a word, his good eye welling with tears as his face softened into a mass of wrinkles. Before I could take back the question, he began to weep.
I only saw my father cry once before, in that same living room, after his mother’s funeral. I had no idea what to do. If he yelled, I could run from him. But with his face in his hands, his sobbing in my ears, I stood rooted in numb horror, able to back away only when my mother ran to him, her voice electrified with shock as she cried, “Manny, what’s the matter?”
Not long after that morning, my father got into his car and disappeared as if dressed for work, although the store had been sold and he wasn’t going to work anymore. On his feet were cloth bedroom slippers.
We all spent the day waiting, holding our breath for his return. He didn’t come home for dinner. He didn’t come home at bedtime. He wasn’t there when I woke the next morning. All day long, I kept returning to the living room window, hoping to see him pull into the driveway. As the sun began to fade, I looked again, and this time saw his car parked up the hill, pointed towards our house. There was a barely visible figure behind the wheel. When I pointed the car out to my mother, she said nothing. A half hour went by. Then an hour. Finally, my mother turned to me. “Go get your father.”
Although his car was parked only a few hundred yards away, it felt like miles. My steps were that of a lead girl, with weights for shoes and a chest full of concrete. As I approached the car, my father rolled the window down slowly. He stared at me.
“Mom wants you to come in.”
There was no answer. I hugged my coat and looked away uncomfortably. Then the car started up. “Get in the car,” my father said. We drove back to the house in silence.
That evening, I asked him where he went. “Nowhere special.” I pleaded with him to tell me where.
“A diner. Up north.”
I pictured him in his cloth slippers sitting at a booth alone. He read the paper and ate eggs with fried potatoes. I was the invisible diner sitting across from him. I could taste his pain.
Less than two weeks later my father was dead, lulled to sleep by the poisonous breath of a garden hose. My mother found him unconscious in the driver’s seat. Her screams catapulted me from my bed to the front yard, where I found her struggling with my father’s heavy body as she attempted to pull him out of the car. I remember how cold it was on that gray dawn, so cold the air stung my face and frost bit into my bare feet as I ran towards the driveway. I remember the hose still stuck in a crack of the barely open window of the open car door, the hissing sound it made as it exhaust escaped from the still-running car. And most of all, I remember my father’s body, limp and lifeless, lying crumpled in the driveway on a patch of dirty ice.
In a strange way, I felt relieved.
My father was buried with his glass eye firmly in place so he would have two eyes in heaven. For a full year after his death, I imagined him looking down on me from the majesty of the many-colored clouds. He was my father who art in heaven. The Lord was his Shepherd now, helping him to see everything clearly. I was sure of that.
Within two years of my father’s death, my own vision began to falter. I needed glasses to see things far away. The farther away he was from my life the harder it became to see him. My father came back into focus slowly, over a period of a long, long time. He appeared only after I lifted a hand away from a covered eye, recovering most, if not all, of what had been hidden from view.
My father loved me. He wanted to marry me. I was steak and my sister was ice cream. “You know steak is better for you,” he replied when I asked who he loved better, “but sometimes you just want ice cream.” I saw nothing wrong in that, in being a piece of meat for my father to throw on the grill. There was no rape, no touch, no name for what happened to me. Nothing wrong. Everything wrong.
Twenty years later, my mother told me that only days before he killed himself, my father confessed he was repeatedly molested as a child. “It was his older cousin Nathan. You know, the nut.” My father swore he had never said a word about this to anyone. But of course he had. It was the story of the Cedars Hotel, the insistence that he was a normal boy, the teacher exhibiting his “girly” eyelashes at school. He never spoke of losing his eye, of the pain of surgery or the fear of losing his sight. He spoke only of the wound no one could see.
I am my father’s daughter. A current of sadness runs through me, a tidal river rising and falling with the pull of the past. During rainy seasons, floodwaters swell over the banks threatening to overwhelm everything in their path.
But I do not plan a suicide, even though I know how.
Instead, I look at the sky. Yellow. Orange. Red. Purple.
Then grey … and more grey.
Night falls. Darkness follows.
And still, I keep looking.