Short Story

A Story about My Father, Whom I Never Met
(for Michael Olsen)

By James M. Hilgartner

Not all of the people who contributed to my reconstruction of my father’s story were aware they were doing so. All, however, have my thanks for their help.

My mother had gone to see her sister in Vermont, a visit she'd been planning long before she got the news, and my father, though he missed her, thought he'd do a little quiet celebrating on his own.  He cleaned his rollers and brushes, gathered up his dropcloths, and stowed everything in the van.  He'd have a beer or two on the way home, maybe hit the Square later and catch a movie.  Perhaps in the morning he'd go down to the kung fu school, apologize to Sifu for staying away so long, and train for a couple of hours.

He got behind the wheel and checked his mirrors.  He took a copy of my mother's sonogram--their first picture of me--from the seat beside him, folded it, and put it in his pocket.  It was early yet, the gray winter hour after the streetlights come on but before the stars come out.  Sully's Place would still be pretty dead.  My father drove up Mass Ave toward Harvard Square, passed the bar, and turned onto a snow-choked, narrow side street.  He found a parking space on the left and took it slow, leaning forward to get a better view in the wing mirror, feeling his way with the tires against the curb.  He'd been blind in his left eye for about two years: a prefab window had shattered as he wrestled it into place.  Of course, he had learned to compensate, and while my mother worried about his driving, [I never interviewed my mother for this project, but I did grow up with her.] my father worried more about the Registry of Motor Vehicles, to which he had neglected to report his infirmity.

The place was more crowded than my father had expected.  Several of the tables and booths were taken, and people stood scattered the length of the bar.  Among them, toward the back of the room, my father noted the shabby figure of the Norton Poet. [When I interviewed Mr. Sullivan, he remembered the Norton Poet fondly, though he declined to reveal his given name. The Norton Poet died of exposure, apparently, not long after the episode related here. My father was known to Mr. Sullivan by his surname, Edgerton. The surname listed on my birth certificate is Wheeler, my mother’s name, which she kept when she married my father.] He'd have to remember not to leave his money on the bartop beside his drink.

My father draped his coat over the back of a barstool and stood beside it, one foot up on the brass footrail.  Sully's Place had been a bar for as long as my father could remember, [It still is] but the hex-tile floor suggested a previous life as a drugstore or barbershop.  In the mahogany bar with its footrail, the dark wood panelling and bevelled-glass mirrors, and the ceiling fans, my father recognized the necessary, comforting features of an old-style taproom; such details also evoked a wistful appreciation for good materials and craftsmanship.  The renovation of Sully's Place was the kind of job my father wished he could have been part of.

When my father saw Sully looking at him, he nodded. Sully poured him a Guinness.  Sully, too, brought out a bit of nostalgia.  He reminded my father of his own father's friends from the shipyard. [As far as I know, my paternal grandparents both died before I was conceived. My father was an only child.] Sully tended bar in khaki trousers and a polo shirt; he'd been a gunner’s mate in the Navy, and had an anchor tattooed on his forearm.

"Haven't seen you in a while."  Sully set my father's beer on a coaster.  "What you been up to?"

"Working."  My father couldn't keep from smiling.  "I got some great news, really."

"What’d you do, win the Lottery?"

"Yeah."  My father unfolded the sonogram and handed it across the bar.

Sully squinted at the image, and my father considered what he must be seeing: a whitish, lumpy swirl against a black background.  Sully held the paper like a steering wheel and turned it this way and that.

"It's a sonogram.  An ultrasound image."  My father took the paper back from Sully and laid it flat on the bar.  "See?"  He pointed.  "That's her head.  And that?"  He ran a paint-spotted finger along a short, curved streak.  "That's her spinal column.  My daughter, Sully.  I'm going to be a daddy."

"Well, hey.  That's pisser!"  Sully seized my father's hand and gave it a shake.

"Thanks."  My father couldn't stop smiling.  "You know, the weird thing about it is, I never wanted any kids.  At least, I never knew I did."

"Yeah, sure. That's what they all say." Sully looked again at the sonogram. "Technology," he said.  "You know, this don't even look like a baby.  How can you be sure it's a girl?"

My father hesitated.  If Sully was roughly the age of his own father, then it was safe to assume that the two sons in the photo above Sully's register had been brought into the world, like my father himself, without much help from such technology.  Still, Sully surely had a sense of what was possible just from watching television and reading the paper. [I myself was born eleven weeks premature, with underdeveloped lungs. Restricted to the sort of technological help that was available to my father’s generation—and that of Mr. Sullivan’s children—I would quite probably not have survived.]

"Actually," my father said, "we know from the CVS.  It's a test, like amnio." 

"CVS.  Amnio."  Sully shook his head.  "Voodoo.  Don't it make you a little nervous, looking into the future?"

My father refolded the sonogram and put it away.  It wasn't a question of looking into the future, he said, but of looking deeper into the present.  I was already a girl, and the doctors knew it.  To have had them withhold that information would have seemed artificial.

"Well, it's great, anyway."  Sully glanced down the bar.  "And good to see you again.  You ought to come around more often."

My father said he'd been real busy; he had this whole new responsibility now.

"Yes, you do," Sully said, laughing.  "Congratulations.  And tell Claire I said so."

"Congratulations what?  Tell Claire what?"  The voice came from the dark area beyond my father's left shoulder.

My father turned to find Maxwell, one of the instructors from the kung fu school, smiling at him, standing a bit too close.

Sully looked at Maxwell and jerked a thumb at my father.  "This guy's going to have a baby.  Or at least, his wife is."

"Is that right?"  Maxwell looked my father in the eye.  "Well.  Congratulations."

My father thought about showing Maxwell the sonogram, but Maxwell made him uneasy. [When I spoke to Mr. Maxwell, he gave me the impression that my father got in his own way a lot, and should have been a better martial artist than he was. “He had a bad habit,” Mr. Maxwell said, “of letting people get his goat.”]  Maxwell, though small, was quick, unpredictable, and strong; he was formidable in the ring.  He was an excellent instructor who always knew whether to push a student or lighten up, but his tight little smile was impossible to read.  My father rarely saw that smile until just before he got kicked or punched.

Sully set a pint of Guinness in front of Maxwell.  "Get him to show you his baby picture."  He winked at my father and moved off down the bar.

Maxwell raised an eyebrow.

My father laid the sonogram on the bar and explained it.

"Amazing."  Maxwell saluted my father with his glass.  "To your family."

My father thanked him.  He put the sonogram away, then said, "I've never seen you here before."

"I was looking for you."

My father had suspected as much.  He hadn't been to the kung fu school in about a month, and he'd ignored the calls on his machine.

"Sifu asked me to track you down," Maxwell said.  "He's pretty ticked off.  I say your name and he starts muttering in Chinese.  But then sometimes he says your answering machine must be broken."

My father admitted that his machine worked fine and explained that he'd been trying to put away some extra money for the baby.  When he mentioned me that way he felt a sudden flutter in his solar plexus. [Everyone I’ve spoken to about this has confirmed (though not always in such harsh terms) that my father was the worst kind of stupidly excited, annoying expectant father.]

"I can see how that would keep you busy." Maxwell showed his unreadable smile.  "But still, give Sifu a call."  He took a business card out of his wallet and wrote on the back with the stub of a pencil.

My father took the card, red with black, stylized Oriental lettering that read "Chen Wu Academy of Chinese Martial Arts.  Wing Chun Kung Fu.  Chi Gung.  T'ai Chi Ch'uan."  He turned it over.  "Sifu," Maxwell had written, and then the number.  "Call him now."

My father looked up from the card.

Maxwell smiled again, then turned and, waving to Sully, held up his index finger.  "Have one on me," he told my father.  He laid some money next to his half-empty glass, clapped my father on the shoulder, congratulated him once more, and left.

Sully brought the drink over and picked up the money.  "What's with your pal?  He don't like Guinness?" [I spoke with Mr. Maxwell at a coffee shop in the Back Bay. He drank herbal tea.]
"He doesn't drink much.” My father shrugged.  “It impairs his ability to be intense."

My father glanced around the room and didn't see the Norton Poet.  In an act of faith, he left his coat on the barstool and his Guinness on the bar and walked to the back hallway where a pay phone hung on the wall between the men's and women's rest rooms.  Sifu accepted his apologies for not calling sooner and said he had, in fact, sent Maxwell.  Sifu was going to spend a few weeks in China.  He wanted my father to teach the 6:00 p.m. class for the whole month of February.

My father, astonished, began by hedging.

Sifu cut him off.  "Teaching the beginners very good for you.  Keep you focused on basics.  Build your confidence."

Sifu's English was usually impeccable.  When he started talking like a fortune cookie he was not to be argued with.  My father built deference and humility into his reply.  "You believe I lack confidence, Sifu?"

"You still let Maxwell beat you sparring."

My father found nothing to say.

"Cover these classes," Sifu said, "I cover your dues for the rest of the year.  Maybe throw in some private lessons.  Teach you confidence."

Of course, my father agreed.  He thanked Sifu effusively for the opportunity and for this expression of his trust.  Then he told Sifu that he and my mother were going to have a baby.

"Ah," said Sifu.  "Gong xi, ni men."

My father, who could count to one hundred in Mandarin and say "hello," "goodbye," and "thank you," had no idea how to respond.

Sifu repeated the phrase and then said, "That means, 'Congratulations, you two.'"

My father thanked him, but Sifu wasn't finished.

"Fatherhood will be good for you," he said.  "Keep you focused on basics.” [Mr. Chen has retired to San Francisco. We never spoke, but we exchanged several text messages. In one, he said, “You should be proud of your father. He was a good man.”]

After he'd hung up the phone, my father stood for a moment, bracing himself.  He got out his phone card and the number where my mother was staying and then, hesitating, walked to the door of the back hallway.  He thought about going back for his beer--he'd need it if he had to talk to his sister-in-law.  But since he might lose the phone if he didn't call right away he stepped back into the hallway.  He took a deep breath and picked up the phone and dialed.

Judy, my mother's sister, answered on the second ring, and when she recognized my father's voice she said, "So, Bruce Lee, I hear you got my sister pregnant." [My Aunt, Judy Wheeler, has always been hateful to me, as if I were the product of rape or incest, or had set about singlehandedly to destroy my mother’s life. In fact, my mother’s life is pretty cushy. She has a nice husband and a house in the suburbs; I have a well-adjusted half-sister, and a half-brother in rehab. I no longer speak to Judy Wheeler.]

My father didn't like Judy any more than she liked him, but, unlike Judy, he tried to respect my mother's admonitions to be civil.  He managed to say, "Yeah, that was me."

"So does this mean you're going to settle down and get yourself a real job?"

My father said nothing.  Talking to Judy was like sparring; this was a simple feint, meant to provoke a reaction which she could turn to her advantage.

"I know light contracting is how you pay for what you do with your life."  Judy was taunting him--throwing back in his face a silly, self-important remark he'd once made at his in-laws' house.  "But when you lose your other eye, Claire's going to have a cripple and a kid to support."

My father tried to stifle his rising anger.  When he was sparring, his unchecked anger often got him into trouble.  "I'm careful as hell about my eye."

Instantly, he regretted speaking.  As if his eye were the issue here.  He mustn't let himself be drawn in.  After all, what were his options?  If he agreed to fight, he'd have to win.  Winning, he'd make Judy hate him all the more.  My mother would sympathize with her sister; she'd blame my father for letting himself get sucked in and berate him for acting like a bully.  Still, his anger was getting away from him; he was on the point of saying something unforgivable when he heard my mother's voice in the background: "Cut it out, Judy.  Give me the phone."

When my mother came on the line she said hello to my father, then spoke past the receiver.  "Get out of here.  Go smoke a cigarette."  Judy said something my father couldn't make out; my mother laughed and said, "You, too."

My father waited.  He remembered a party he'd once crashed--the interminable, pitiless feeling that he was unwelcome, out of place. [Or maybe that’s all me.]

"Sorry about that," my mother said to my father.  "Judy's a bit stressed out about the baby."

My father said, "Stressed out."  It seemed an odd way to characterize Judy's reaction.  When my father had first learned he was to be a father, stress had pretty well shut him down.  He remembered the rush of adrenalin, the tunnel vision, the savage attack of nausea which had passed before he had time to vomit.  Fight or flight.  He'd had to sit down on the floor and put his head between his knees.

"Stressed out," my mother said.  "You know, uptight?  Edgy?"  She lowered her voice.  "Basically, I think she's jealous."

My father knew better than to release the last of his anger in a pithy, snide harangue about Judy and babies and men; he had no credible excuse for such imprudence.  He said simply, "Sibling rivalry?"

My mother told him everything was fine.  They were going to rent a video later.  After a pause, which my father took to signal an end to that part of the conversation, my mother said, "What's up with you?"

"I thought I'd call and see how you're doing.  I miss you, you know?  You and the baby."

My mother said, "You're sweet," and my father was surprised at how clearly he could picture her smile, the way her mouth pulled up slightly at the corners, the way the smile disappeared under the smooth skin of her cheeks and resurfaced as tiny wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. [As a child, I envied my mother her smile. She once told me I looked like my father, which may explain, in part, why her sister seems to hate me so.]

"I miss you, too," my mother said.

In the silence that followed, my father considered asking some neutral question about Judy--he didn't wish her ill, after all, and he was intrigued by the notion of her jealousy.  But at that moment the Norton Poet came out of the men's room and brushed past my father in the narrow hallway.  My father stared.  The Norton Poet looked no worse than he had the last time my father had seen him, reading poems for tips in an Ashmont car on the Red Line.  Of course, he looked no better, either, no more trustworthy.  He stepped into the first open space he came to and leaned up against the bar, and my father stopped watching.

My mother was speaking again.  "I appreciate the way you're taking this whole thing so well."

My father wondered what Judy had said about him and how my mother had spoken in his defense, but then my mother's appreciation sounded genuine. After all, he really was taking the whole thing quite well.  His stress and apprehension had grown into excitement about the pregnancy; he was ready to make the changes fatherhood required.  He was grateful for the penicillin that had made my mother's birth control pills ineffective.  He felt richer for the promise of a daughter.

"We got lucky," he said.

Back in the bar a glass shattered on the tile floor, and someone clapped and shouted.

"Where are you?" my mother asked.


My mother said nothing.

"I stopped in to show off my copy of the sonogram."

Again my mother paused, this time long enough for my father to feel awkward.  Was she worried because he was out for a couple of beers? [No one I’ve spoken to has suggested that my father had a drinking problem. As noted above, I did not interview my mother for this project.] Or was it the bar itself? My mother had heard rumors--perhaps from her sister--that Sully's sometimes got pretty rough.  But that was an echo from the old days, a shadow reputation that my father had never seen borne out.  Finally, my mother spoke again.  "Tell Sully I said hello."

Then my father told her about his deal with Sifu.  He said it shouldn't be a problem, because he could make up the time by getting started an hour earlier each day.

My mother sounded genuinely pleased when she congratulated him.  My father wondered if she didn't think teaching for Sifu would keep him out of Sully's.

"It's a pretty big honor, I guess," my father said.  "And Sifu says it will give me more confidence."  He smiled.  "Hell, I didn't know I needed more confidence."

"Well," my mother said.  "I mean, how could it hurt?"

They talked a while longer, and my father tried to tell her how much he loved her.  When he hung up the phone he suffered a moment of wrenching loneliness.

He came out of the back hallway and someone by the dartboards glanced over and did a double take.  He started toward my father, talking fast and low.  "Yo, Bill.  What the hell you doing in here?  You know Foley wants to fuck you up?" 

My father turned.  His name wasn't Bill, and he didn't know anyone named Foley, but still he squinted at the guy, trying to place him.  The guy was small, built like a runner; he wore jeans and a plaid flannel shirt.  He stopped a couple of paces from my father.  "Sorry, man.  My bad."

"No problem."  My father wondered who Foley was, and what he was angry about; Sully, if he knew, wouldn't mind filling him in. 

But when my father got back to his place at the bar, the Norton Poet was standing next to my father's overcoat.  He was drinking my father's Guinness and watching the room in the mirror behind the bar.  As my father approached, the Poet shifted his weight and tensed slightly.

Sully, across the bar, looked more than usually solicitous and concerned.  He spoke quietly to my father.  "Listen.  I'm sorry about this.  I'll get you another."

"Don't worry about it," my father said.  He turned to the Poet and spoke.  "Hey, Bro."

The Norton Poet didn't look frightened, exactly, but wary, ready to get out of the way.

"You're drinking my beer."

The Poet looked at the glass in his hand.  Sully frowned at my father.

"I don't mind."  My father, smiling, thought of Maxwell's enigmatic intensity.  "Think of it as a great big tip.  You're welcome to it.  But don't you think it entitles me to a poem?"

The Norton Poet nodded cautiously.  "What would you like to hear?"  His voice was surprisingly deep.

"Read me something about love." [One thing I learned about my father, growing up, is that he had a well-developed romantic side. My mother once referred to him, when she thought I was out of earshot, as “a big moosh.”]

"No, no," Sully said, laughing as if with relief. "Read him something about fatherhood.  He just found out his wife is going to have a baby."

The Norton Poet nodded again.  "I have just the thing."  He drew a fat, tattered anthology from the pocket of his overcoat, thumbed it open, and flipped over a few pages.  "This is by Robert Hayden," he said.  "'Those Winter Sundays.'"  He read:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

His delivery was overdramatic, but effective, and my father listened with a mounting sense of urgency and dread.  When the Poet concluded, with the lines:
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

my father, who had remained standing, sat heavily on a stool and leaned his elbows on the bar.  He sensed a great pressure building inside him, pushing against his heart and forcing air from his lungs.  He felt disconnected from the bar--from the world--where Sully was handing the Poet a short glass of beer and saying, "Now drink this up and get out of here.  You're starting to piss people off."

After the Poet had gone, Sully came over and looked at my father.  "You all right?"

My father nodded.  "It isn't going to be like that at my house.  My kid is going to know her father loves her."  [But of course, “The best-laid schemes,” as that other poet said, “gang aft agley.”] He rubbed his good eye with the heel of his hand.

"Hey, man," said Sully.

"I'm all right," my father said.  "But give me another beer and a shot of Jameson's."

        Two hours later my father was ready to go home.  He felt a bit drunk--he'd had a couple of boilermakers to release the pressure brought on by the Norton Poet's reading--but he figured he'd probably be okay driving.  Still, he knew it would be better if he stayed another half hour drinking water to force the alcohol through his system. [I’ve tried this technique. It seems most effective within a fairly narrow window. Less inebriated than that, I’ve always known it wasn’t working; more inebriated than that, I haven’t cared.]  He caught Sully's eye, and Sully came over with another pint of Guinness, which he exchanged for my father's empty glass.

"Actually," my father said, "I wanted a glass of water."

Sully left the beer where he'd set it. "This one's on me. You want a glass of water, too?"

"Yeah."  My father thanked Sully for the beer, drank the water fast and set the glass back on the bar.  Sully poured him another.

My father drank his second glass of water slowly and watched the room in the mirror.  Most of the tables and booths were full, though there were a few free spaces at the bar.  When his water was gone, my father sipped at the new pint of Guinness.  The various noises of the place came to him lumped together, and he amused himself trying to sort them out.  The jukebox, turned down low, mimicked the mechanical hum of the refrigerator fan.  The buzz of a lighted sign sounded like ice rattling in glasses, water dripping in the sink.  Two dozen conversations played around him in a jumble of words, which my father tried to follow back to their source.

A college boy in sweats stood up to shout, "Goddamn those goddamn Celtics!"  The couple at the nearest table began to argue.  The woman said, "Anybody who tries shit like that deserves to get fired," and when the man replied, she interrupted him.  "Why don't you just call it a day?"  She got up and moved to a spot at the bar.  The man paused at the exit and looked back at the woman.  She flipped him off.

When the water started working, my father left his beer--he'd only drunk about a third of it--and moved toward the men's room.  As he passed into the back hallway, someone yelled, "Hey, you wife-stealing motherfucker!  I told you--" and two other voices shouted him down.

My father almost turned to look, but he wasn’t a wife-stealing motherfucker, and he knew better than to intrude, even by staring from a distance, on the affairs of loud, angry drunks. [I, on the other hand, stare at everybody.]

The men's room reeked of the mothballs Sully used in place of toilet freshener.  My father read the graffiti above the urinal.  "I ballsacked your mother," somebody had written with a fat black marker.  Under it, someone else had written, "Go home, Dad, you're drunk."  My father laughed.  He was still smirking as he washed and dried his hands.  He'd have to remember to tell my mother.

When my father stepped back into the bar, several things happened almost at once.  A man off to his left somewhere shouted, "It ain't him, Foley.  Get back here!"; a bottle shattered nearby; and someone very big lurched into my father's field of vision.

My father, startled, drew back and turned.  The big man was already in motion, swinging his left in a wide arc at my father's head.

By reflex, my father tucked his chin down and pulled his head back beyond the range of the man's wild punch.  When the hand swept past my father's face, it drew a line of white heat across his cheekbone.  My father saw, then, the broken-off bottle.

Things slowed down, and my father had an impression of silence, a sense of limitless options and plenty of time to consider them and act.  By the wide, looping swing and the clumsy foot placement, he knew the big man was no match for him. My father was tempted to do nothing but keep out of reach and let his assailant wear himself out.  But the big man was armed.  He had attacked my father without warning, and if my father had reacted any more slowly, he'd have been blind in both eyes now, if not dead on the floor.  He had a flash then of my mother standing pregnant by a dark hole cut in snow-crusted earth, of his daughter growing up without a father.

He shuffled in fast, struck the swinging arm above the elbow with his open palm and then, as the big man spun off balance, stepped in close and smashed an elbow across his face.

It seemed the big man first went up in the air, that his feet actually left the floor, before he came down, hard and loud, with his head wedged up at an impossible angle against the footrail at the bar.

My father stood for a moment with his guard up, but he lowered his arms when he saw that the man's broken nose was leaking only a thin trickle of blood onto his collar.

Sully came over the bar with a can of pepper spray.  He looked at the body, then back at my father.  "Jesus," he said.  "You're a mess too."  He knelt by the man on the floor and felt for a pulse at the throat.  Then he bent and put his ear to the fallen man's chest.  After a moment he stood, glanced without comment at the wide, quiet half-circle of people forming around the scene, and walked past my father, into the back hallway.

My father felt his legs going and sat down on the floor.  A sound like heavy surf filled the room, and darkness rushed the edges of his vision.  He put his head between his knees.

When the worst of the nausea had passed, my father took out his copy of the sonogram.  As he gazed at the swirls and lumps that would become me, several drops fell on the image and rolled red streaks across the page.

"You're bleeding."

My father looked up and saw the woman who had argued with her date.  He folded the sonogram and put it away.

"Here," said the woman.  She handed my father a sodden white towel around a fist-sized lump of ice.

My father mashed the ice-pack against the cut on his face.

"I saw the whole thing," said the woman, and my father thought she was offering to stand up for him in court. [Actually, she did. Some of the details presented here were lifted from testimony at the inquest.]  But then she said, "Do you think I could learn to do that?"

Slowly, my father got the Chen Wu Academy business card from his shirt pocket and held it out to her.

The woman took the card, and my father noted the flush across her cheeks, the tiny beads of perspiration on her lip.  He shook his head slightly and closed his eyes once more.

And then Sully was in front of him, saying, "Hey, wake up," and holding out a shot of Jameson's.  My father took the glass.

"The cops are coming."  Sully spoke in a low voice.  "But you shouldn't have anything to worry about.  You got a roomful of people who saw what happened." [Sometimes a crowd of witnesses isn’t enough.]

My father nodded vaguely.  He set his whiskey, untasted, on the tile floor beside him, but didn't take his hand away.

James M. Hilgartner is an associate professor of English at Huntingdon College and the fiction editor at THAT Literary Review. He earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of Alabama. His short fiction has appeared in ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, The Chapbook, The Distillery, Greensboro Review, Mid-American Review, New Orleans Review, Red Mountain Review, SLAB, Writing on the Edge, and elsewhere. He is a two-time recipient of the Fellowship in Literature from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. He lives in Montgomery, AL.

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