Mom called during my last year at Syracuse University and told me that Dad and she were getting a divorce. She said it was a mutual agreement. An agreement, she called it. I pushed her for answers, but she said only that it was an agreement. Then she said, “Don’t tell your father I said this, but I think it was the right thing to do.”
I knew what she meant by this. Both my parents are this way. Anytime they preface a statement with “don’t tell your mother” or “don’t tell your father” it means they want me to tell the other one. This is how they get vital bits of information to one another – through their only child.
I worried about my mother more than my father. I worried about the money, because money was always a problem. Mom was a receptionist, and Dad worked the line at an assembly plant. But if money was a problem, Mom didn’t let on.
She seemed fine with the divorce. She went to church functions and started bowling twice a week. She had lots of friends around town for support. Still, I couldn’t help but feel she had been hurt in some secretive way by my father. Did he have an affair? I didn’t know. I found myself angry with him, yet I didn’t know why.
Dad took me to dinner during Christmas break. He gave me my Christmas present – an Abu-Garcia Ultra Mag Baitcast Combo, fiberglass rod, ball bearing reel, a nice piece of equipment, very expensive. I guess it didn’t matter to him that I hadn’t fished in years, and cared little for fishing in general. He wanted me to go fishing anyway.
“We’ll camp,” he said, “like we used to. We’ll camp just like the Aborigines. Living off the land.”
Living off the land?
Dad watched too many nature documentaries. The Mountain Gorillas of Africa. Fishing the Gulf Stream. Life in the Amazon River Basin. Stuff like this amazes my father and captures his imagination. I know it makes him feel like an outdoorsman, but he’s not really. Because when we used to camp, we camped in state parks on sites with full hookup, running water, electricity, the works. I doubt any Aborigine ever stayed at a state park with color television.
I didn’t want to go fishing, but I said I would. I was going only because I wanted answers, not because I was looking forward to those awkward hours of fishing, adrift off a weed bed, Dad saying nothing for hours on end.
“One other thing,” he said. “Don’t tell your mother, but I’ve been laid off.”
Dad fumbled with a roll, trying to butter it, then the roll popped out of his hand and dropped on the floor. He leaned over to pick it up, and instead of just setting the roll to the side of his plate, he began to butter the same roll that had just been lying on the floor. I don’t know why, but if there was any doubt before, there was none now. Whatever the reason for my parents’ divorce, I knew it must, in some way, be my father’s fault.
“Pools,” he explained. “Bigwig needed a new pool. No trouble. After 20 years, I’m tired of working to buy Bigwig his pool and mansion on the hill.”
That was how my father justified the layoff. I worried more about Mom now than ever before. I worried about the money. And Dad? What was he thinking? What was he doing? I just stared at him, a company man separated from his company, separated from his wife, and after all those years, I wondered what he had to show for it.
I graduated the following May and got a job at a national marketing firm in downtown Syracuse. For a first job, I couldn’t have asked for more. Dad never came to graduation, but I saw him a few days later. It was the first time I’d seen him since our dinner together. He had grown a ponytail, and it looked ridiculous, to say the least. Bald on top with the remaining hair shaped like a horseshoe, the ponytail made it appear as though someone had lassoed his skull, broken the rope, and now he was running wild.
I didn’t want to go on the fishing trip, but Mom wanted me to go. “It’s important to your father,” she explained. “But don’t tell him I said that.”
Dad’s one extravagant possession was a tiny 12-foot motorboat he kept moored on the St. Lawrence River. It was powered by an old Chrysler outboard motor that burned oil. Sometimes the motor stalled out on the river and wouldn’t start again. Sometimes we just drifted until somebody picked us up.
When Dad turned the ignition, the engine spit and sputtered and black smoke billowed out over the harbor. After a heavy rain the night before, the river oozed a thick, fishy smell that hung in the gray, morning air and became inescapable, almost suffocating, the farther out we motored.
Dad dropped anchor just off an island close to Canadian waters. The island was small, but the only house on it showed the manners and meticulous attention to detail that reflects wealth. A short, fieldstone break wall bordered the shore. Tall trees shaded the entire island. Barely visible behind the trees was a two story colonial home with four balconies – one facing each direction. A large – perhaps thirty-foot – Carver yacht was moored beside a long dock. A man in a gray turtleneck sweater was on the fly bridge rolling up a blue canopy. He waved, and I waved back. Dad just stared.
Dad started casting and immediately lost three lures. Twice he tangled his line on the motor’s prop during his backswing. I was using live bait and a bobber. I watched intently as the bobber floated on the current, somewhere below the minnow tugging on it helplessly. Water sloshed against the hull of the boat. Across the river, a motor wound out in the still morning air. Dad didn’t say anything. I watched the bobber. I watched the bobber. I watched the bobber.
It was just as I had expected: long moments of awkward silence, broken only by the rhythm of Dad’s casting – the whirl of the line, plop of the lure, click of the bail, winding of the reel – again, again, again. It hit me then that my father and I had nothing in common. I didn’t even know him. He enjoyed the still morning air, the smell of fish, and the simplicity of fishing. At the time, I didn’t understand this or recognize its significance.
I started telling my father about my job. I tried to explain marketing to him, how market position and sales were the basis for any successful business. I talked about profit margins and break-even points. But he seemed disinterested. I could have explained the business reasons for his being laid off: manufacturing was cyclical, the importance of controlling cash flow. There were sound business reasons for his layoff, not just that Bigwig needed a new pool.
When I asked what he was doing now, he started telling me about a nature documentary he’d seen on television the night before. He told me about a mountain gorilla, a silverback it was called. He was the patriarch of a family of gorillas that lived and scavenged for food along an African mountainside. One day, Dad told me, when the silverback became old and weak, one of the younger, stronger gorillas would sneak up behind him and beat his head against a tree stump, leaving the silverback broken and bleeding while the rest of the group moved on with a new leader.
“God, Dad!” I said. “What is that supposed to mean?” Couldn’t my father ever talk about anything normal? Anything real?
“It’s natural selection. The cycle of life.”
“Maybe for a gorilla it is, but in real life we don’t go around beating each other’s heads against a tree stump or scavenging for food.”
“We spend our whole life working hard,” he said. “Fighting the system to make money to raise a family. The conditions are different, but the principle is the same.”
I couldn’t wait any longer. I needed to know. I asked him, “Did you have an affair?”
His casting rhythm didn’t miss a beat, and he spoke as though his answer had been prepared well in advance. “I love your mother,” he said. “And I love you. You both are the best thing that ever happened to me.” Dad cast out again and started reeling. “I wouldn’t change a thing. Except, maybe, I wish I could have done more.”
Dad reeled his line in and stood silent for a moment. He pulled on his ponytail and stared at the man in the gray turtleneck sweater; the man walked off the dock and headed toward the house. Dad said, “Now that you’re grown and gone, your Mom and me, we just don’t have anything to talk about anymore.”
I recognized what he was saying: I – their only child – had kept them together. But now, with me starting to make my own life, they didn’t have anything in common to share. It hadn’t occurred to me that day, but I realize it now. Unlike my mother and him, Dad and I never had anything to talk about – ever – unless I was relaying some supposed secret information from my mother to him. Dad and I never shared anything. Even now, I have a tinge of jealousy when I think of the relationship my mother had with this man – how she knew him in ways that I will never understand.
Dad told me to pick up an oar and help row to the island. I was still searching for a reason, something more, but I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I picked up an oar and started rowing. “What’s wrong with the motor?” I asked.
When we reached the dock, Dad jumped out and quickly wrapped a line around a mooring spike. “I’ll be right back,” he said, and before I could say anything, he was on the other man’s boat and had disappeared into the cabin below.
When I watched him slip onto the boat my heart started pounding so hard I couldn’t swallow. At any moment I expected the man in the gray turtleneck sweater to come running down the hill cursing us. I held onto the dock, trying to keep the boat from rubbing against the wooden planks and making any noise that would give us away. But I got curious and climbed out. I tried to look through the yacht’s tinted windows, but it was too dark to see what my father was doing.
I walked to where the dock met the land, looked back at the yacht and then toward the house, and started walking up the hill toward a screen door. I was just walking, without any fear of being seen. My heart pounded, but it was like being in a dream, a dream that started hazy but moved into sharp focus. I was the man in the turtleneck sweater surveying his island home.
I stood outside the screen door. Inside the house, morning light poured through a large bay window, splashing across a polished oak desk. A gold lamp with a green shade sat on one corner of the desk. Shelves on the back wall were stacked with books to the ceiling. A sofa and coffee table were in the center of the room. A book was open on the coffee table, and a pipe was in the ashtray. The sweet smell of pipe tobacco spilled out the screen door.
A beautifully manicured flowerbed bordered the house – the flowerbed, perfectly cut and squared, the flowers and bushes nicely placed and positioned. I followed the flowerbed to the corner of the house, passing in front of the large bay window. Behind the house, under tall trees, was a stone fireplace that still smoldered, and next to the fireplace was a redwood picnic table with a red lantern.
A screen door snapped shut, and the man walked out carrying his pipe. He struck a match and puffed, then chucked the match in the fireplace, picked up the lantern and turned it over in his hands examining the base.
If I was breathing, I didn’t notice. I pressed my back against the cold stone exterior of the house and watched. Even though I didn’t know him, I had to admire the man in the gray, turtleneck sweater. I admired his yacht, his home, his education. I admired the way he held himself, the way he smoked his pipe. I admired his wealth. And I admired the fact that he stood in the center of his island domain, smoking that pipe under tall shade trees as the day took shape all around him.
Back at the dock my father stood on the fly bridge jumping up and down, waving his arms to get my attention. It was too far to tell, but I swear he was laughing. And there was something else; it was the way he held a railing to keep from tipping over. Then I noticed. The yacht’s stern sat lower, and the bow had lifted out of the water. I couldn’t believe it. My father had scuttled the man’s boat.
I looked back to where the man stood, but he was gone. I ran down the hill and onto the dock. Water was pouring over the stern now. The yacht lurched to port. The mooring lines drew taut, and the dock blanks began to buckle under the enormous weight of the yacht going down.
My father stood there, his hand held to his forehead in a grotesque salute. I knew what he was doing. Maybe for the first time in my life I knew what he was doing. He wasn’t just scuttling the man’s boat. He was scuttling bigwig’s pool and mansion on the hill. He was scuttling twenty years with the same company. And he was scuttling his marriage. He was scuttling everything he had ever known or done. He was scuttling his past.
A screen door snapped shut. “Stop that! Stop that!” The man was running down the hill, the pipe now clenched between his teeth. “Stop that! Stop that!”
“Start the motor!” my father yelled.
But the motor spit and sputtered and didn’t turn over.
My father threw the mooring line into the boat. “Hurry! Hurry!”
“Stop, you! Stop, you!”
The motor turned over once and quit. Black smoke poured out over the stern. My father jumped in, pounded the motor with his fist and pushed me away from the wheel. He started the motor and opened the throttle wide just as the man in the gray turtleneck reached the dock.
I crashed to the stern in a tangle of fishing line. The man was barely visible behind the gray, morning air. His yacht had completely rolled to port. My father laughed and didn’t look back. His ponytail flapped wildly in the wind.
That was the last time I saw my father. A few years later, I moved to Seattle to start my own business. I won’t go into the particulars, but it’s doing very well, the business. I’m married now, and we’re expecting our first child in a couple of months.
My mother still lives in New York and I call her often. She has gotten religion and raised her bowling average to 160. Once a year I get a box of letters shipped airmail from my father in Australia. He tells me he’s running around naked with the Aborigines. “Don’t tell your mother,” he writes, “but I’m considering marriage again, though the Aborigines don’t call it that.”
When I look across the quiet calm of Puget Sound to the large homes that line the water’s edge, I think to myself, I have more now than I ever dreamed. Bigwig, my father calls me. He says it in jest, but it hurts nonetheless.
Brian Kamsoke is a graduate student at Wichita State University, where he is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. His fiction has appeared in Reed Magazine, Pearl and The Flint Hills Review. He was awarded the MFA Creative Writing Fellowship at Wichita State University for 2012-2013.