Tonight, I asked my Facebook friends to give me three random story elements, and I would build a story around them. I was given “downtown walking bridge,” “the death of Phil Hartman,” and “chocolate cake.” This is what emerged from those things.
1998 was not a good year for my old man. I was only seven years old then, and I had no idea what was going on inside his slowly greying head, but looking back I can imagine the layers of turmoil that he was no doubt pushing himself through, day to day, just getting from one thing to the next.
There were a lot of little things that I later learned happened that year. In March, he lost his job at the accounting firm where he had worked every day since college, the family-owned company that he had loved and had imagined he would retire from some far-away day. In April, the doctors told him and my mom that there was a spot on his lungs that didn’t look good. In May, his favorite comedian was shot and killed in his bed by his drug-addled wife. In August, a tow truck pulled up in the driveway and took away the family car.
The thing that changed him, though, came in October. It was the least likely of things to break a man as strong as him, but break him it did, and I spent the rest of my youth watching the broken pieces of him, roughly stacked in the shape of a man, shambling through his remaining days.
Gene Autry died in October of that year, and my old man shattered.
There′s a lot of this story that I’ve pieced together from conversations with aunts and uncles and half-brothers and neighbors, so there are probably some holes in it. But when I look at the whole thing from a healthy distance, it makes sense. It aligns with the man I knew, the man I admired and loved, the man I once wanted to use as the template for the man I was trying to become.
I knew my parents, but my dad didn’t know his. I’ve never known my grandparents, but his were his saving grace.
You have to understand that it was the 1960s, and things were played fast and loose. I don′t begrudge my grandma and grandpa for bailing on the family that they accidentally started. Things turned out about as well as you could ask, when you take the long view.
But I think about my dad, going through it all during the worst of it, and I imagine it was pretty hard for him to take the long view.
Long story short, my old man was raised by his grandparents. His mom and dad simply weren’t around, so his Nana and Papaw and their modest little suburban home were the backdrop for his childhood.
As childhoods go, you could do worse. They were both sweet and kind, if a bit locked in their prejudices, the products of their time. But to those within their little tribe they had nothing but love to dispense, and my dad was the sole recipient of their energies. They had watched their daughter – my grandmother – grow out her hair and start to associate with the pacifists and the pot-smokers and the other undesirables, and so they reflexively held their grand-child a little bit closer, maybe to shield him from a world that made less sense to them with each successive evening news broadcast.
One night, when I was 10 years old, dad brought me into the kitchen with a small bag of groceries he had just brought home. ″We are going to bake a cake tonight, my boy,″ he said, with as much pride and happiness as I had ever seen in him. He carefully set out the cake mix and brought out the eggs and cracked them into the mixing bowl and worked through the steps of the recipe on the back of the box, including me as much and as often as he could. There was something manic about him that night, and the 10-year-old me knew that this was about more than making a cake.
Later, when the two halves of the layer cake were cooling and a casual silence descended into the room, he started to talk. In fits and starts at first, but later in more complete bits of narrative. Talk of chocolate cake, and that sweet suburban house that had nursed him into adulthood.
Papaw grew up listening to old-time radio shows every night, and he couldn’t get enough of them. His heroes had always been cowboys. There were plenty of cowboys to go around back then, but for Papaw, the shadow of Gene Autry loomed so much larger than any of the rest. Gene was everything my Papaw wanted to be – noble, brave, kind, honest.
Papaw, by all accounts, was all of those things. But because nobody told him that, he never believed it to be true.
The three of them listened to Gene Autry every Saturday and Sunday night. By the time my old man was 10 years old, Gene had already been retired for several years, but Papaw had cylinders and a phonograph that would let them revisit the old stories, and they did, and Nana always made a chocolate cake earlier in the day, so they could sit together and eat and listen and smile and laugh together. Every now and then, he would muster up the courage to ask about his mom and dad. And every time he did, he saw his Papaw′s shoulders slump down, as if he was a balloon and a third of the air had just been let out of him.
In 2004, the doctors circled back around my old man and had more to say about those spots they saw on his lungs. Those spots had gotten bigger, and more worrisome, and there were some tests that needed to be taken. He took the tests, and he went in for all of the office visits, but it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough, is it? It doesn’t really matter what you do. Dad died, just like everybody dies.
It′s July, a beautiful summer afternoon, and Grace and I have spent the better part of the morning walking around downtown. It′s Saturday. There′s just enough breeze, and just enough sunlight, to make you think that things are going to be okay. I think that when we get home tonight, I might look for Gene Autry on YouTube and lose myself down that rabbit hole.
Grace has wandered off somewhere, leaving me with my thoughts on this bridge. It′s nice to watch the water, because water doesn′t have anywhere to go. It does what it does, and it doesn′t care about what anything else is doing. It follows its path. And that can be mesmerizing to watch. I would like to be more like water, I think to myself. I begin to lose myself in all sorts of impenetrably deep thoughts like this.
But then, before I do, Grace is by my side and touching me on the shoulder. She has just returned from the cupcake shop on the other side of this walking bridge, and she is gently placing a chocolate cupcake in my hand.
We are pushing ourselves through, day to day, getting from one thing to the next.