The only thing I ever got off my old man was a birthday card when I was like, twelve. He’d run off when I was six. leaving me, Mama and Sis to fend for ourselves. He had stayed in my life just long enough to make memories for me, but not solid ones. Mama never talks about him, but being a few older than me, my sister remembers him.
“Tell me about Papa.” I remember I asked Sis a few years back.
“Huh?” She looked at me, pushing her dank hair back from her eyes. She was already small in build, but looked down right emaciated in the wife beater that was way too big for her frame. The strap slid and I saw a little too much of her breasts as she took the near empty bottle of vodka from between her legs and leaned forward to put it on the table. I move my eyes to look look at her arms instead. The inside of her forearms by were scabbed from all the scratching she did and I noticed she had two new perfectly mean looking fresh ones to match all the rest.
“I said, what was Papa like?’
She smiled at me, her eyes not really seeing me at all. I realized then just how drunk she was, again, and should probably ask later if I can catch her sober.
Anyhow, the only thing I ever got from him was a birthday card when I was twelve. I remember it was addressed to me, it was the first piece of mail I received that was not junk. It said “Happy Birthday Son!” on the outside it, with some little boy younger than me wearing a grown man’s suit and carrying a brief case. Printed on the inside of the card was a sad little rhyme:
You were once so small, I know
Now look at you, so big and strong now!
Though you’ve got more growing to go,
until you’re a man, won’t be so long now.
The excitement of my first mail crashed immediately as my first thought was how would he had even known if I’d gotten big or tall. It’s not like he had ever come by to see me or Sis. But the killer was, at the bottom of the card, below the rhyme, he wrote:
Keep your chin up and your back strong, see you around.
I studied the card on several occasions, trying to work out the meaning to what he was telling me. To this day, I still didn’t know. I showed it to Mama who looked at the card long enough to verify the writing before she drowned herself in Jack Daniels for the day.
“What was Papa like?’ I asked again a few days later. I
I had caught Sis at the sink washing dishes, trying to be being the dutiful daughter. That probably meant she must have needed money, again, and was sucking up to our mother. She looked up a little, thought about my question for a moment and then said, “Strict.”
“Strict?” I prompted her when she fell silent.
“Not strict as in mean, just like you know rigid. He had his way and that was it. His way was usually right, but I remember wishing he would at least listen sometimes first you know. Listen to see if I was right because I was right, not because he was. Come to think of it, it where you get being so headstrong from when you think you’re right. Only he was better looking.” She winked at me and smiled that lovely smile she only had when she was happy and sober.
Mama had kind of folded in on herself when Papa left. She crawled into her own bottle and never really came out. Only doing just enough to keep a roof over, fridge partially filled and clothes on. Sis was really my my mom and my pops. All the important things I learned, I learned from her. Sometimes by good example stay in school and get good grades, or by horrible warning, don’t drink, don’t do drugs. I’m still trying to work out how Sis who was once smart enough to be class salutatorian in middle school, was too messed-up to listen to her own advice by sophomore year of high school. Then again she is my mama’s daughter. Sometimes, I see a strange man sitting at the kitchen table and I honestly won’t know from which bed he crawled. And going by age don’t help none. Mama was once dating hah! a guy who wasn’t much older than me and I was all of sixteen then. And hell, if sis is almost twenty-seven now, then she could not have been more than seventeen that time she had to give her man at the time the dentures he left in her bedroom so he could eat breakfast. And me? I’m twenty-two now, transferring to State on scholarships just to get the hell out of this town. I got a good future ahead me, so they say. Though they been saying so for years now and I haven’t seen this good future yet. But I digress…
Anyway, I got that one card from my pop. I found half of it while I was cleaning my room as I was packing. I had forgotten I had ripped it in half in anger when I was fifteen or so I was so angry with this unknown specter that somehow had more a presence in our lives in absentia than he probably would have had were he there.
Keep your chin up and your back strong,
Like this was some sage mystical wisdom passed down through the ages. I didn’t know who he was, or where he was or what he did or anything much beyond a name. But he knew where I was to send the card. Why couldn’t he have actually been a father for one extra minute? Or better yet, had taken one extra to think about it and not send this shit card in the first place. We don’t hear a thing from him for years, until he sent this shit and I haven’t heard jack shit from him since. So what the fuck was that about anyway? I was twelve years old for fuck’s sake! I was his son! Was it easy for him to just keep going the fuck on like I didn’t exist? I remember raging to Sis just before I let her rip, literally. The riiiiiiiip was loud in the immediate silence following my tirade as I threw the pieces to the floor. Sis took the torn pieces, taped it together and gave it back a couple of days later. I was grateful, then. But that was then.
A nearly full year sober Sis was sitting on the bed helping me pack. She smiled a sad little smile and chuffed me on the arm as I reached for the other half of it, then held the two pieces together to read it once more. I spoke to the specter one last time.
I spent years, years, waiting for another sign of your acknowledgement of my existence that never came. Do you know how long that fucked with me? No more.
I let the pieces fall into the garbage bag on the floor.