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June 1, 2017 Nonfiction

My Father is a Collection

David Bersell

My Father is a Collection photo

I used to think my father was a baseball card.

My father is a bedtime story.

My father is too smart for his own good.

My father is a hustler, a family man, a dream.

My father wore Chicago Bulls t-shirts tucked into jean shorts, cotton constricting his gut into a solid sphere. He wore the same shirts over and over, even after pinholes formed around the neck. “What? I like to be comfortable.”       

My father wrote chicken scratch. Letters looked like they were trying to run away from each other, slanted in all directions, lines rounded instead of sharp, curves crashing into each other or trailing away too soon. I couldn’t read his to-do lists, left on scraps of paper around the house. When he couldn’t read his own words, he took off his glasses and squinted, shrugged.

My father filled bookcases. He stacked additional books on top of each row, placed a second row in front of the first, books hanging from the shelves, the wood sagging, two bookcases, three, four, paperback classics and legal novels and sports biographies and magazines, magazines on the kitchen table, newspapers on the edge of bathtub, his hands grabbing words, trading words he knew for new words, books coming and going from the shelves, rearranged every time I looked. VHS tapes got their own shelves. He liked action flicks and, most of all, westerns, the dirt-covered scoundrel passing through town who changes his ways. He taped playoff games and holiday specials and with a camcorder on his shoulder, he recorded our family’s own events.

I hear my father’s voice, slick with saliva, stopping and starting, asking what we are eating for breakfast, asking the meaning of Easter. Karen rubs her eyes, too tired to speak. My answer is indecipherable. Even with speech therapy, my parents can’t understand my words and my siblings translate. Kevin says Easter is a celebration of Jesus rising from the dead to save us all. When my father hands the camera to my mother, I see him. He is thinner than I remember him ever being, with oversized aviators, a push broom mustache, and a semi-circle of hair, tiger orange.

The morning he left, when I was sixteen, my father gave me his lifelong collection of baseball cards, thousands of cards, millions of cards. No reason was offered. "You can have them," was all he said. 

My father taught me how to drive. He skimmed the newspaper as I coasted laps around an empty parking lot. I was scared of the power of the pedals, too scared to drive home. I sat in the passenger seat during his final lesson. “Find something you love and do it. You spend half your life working, and I’ve worked jobs I hated. It makes everything harder.”

My father taught me how to fold a newspaper. He showed me the importance of leaving it the way I found it, unfolding and refolding the crisp pages, sections layered inside each other according to the letters and numbers.

After the divorce, my father quickly remarried without telling me and my siblings. He continued to lie but didn’t understand why we were angry.

When my father was on business trips, I used to sneak into my parents’ room and open his top dresser drawer, his “junk drawer.” On my toes, unable to see to the back of the drawer, I felt slick pens and batteries. A tape recorder. I pressed play and listened for his voice. I believed if I searched long enough, I would find something brilliant.

My father is hungry. He shovels food into his mouth because when he was a boy food disappeared. When it was gone, it was gone.

My father says thank you for meeting up, it has been too long. Like last summer, he asks what I’m studying in college. Plastic chilies hang from the wall next to our table. Our plates smell like butter and sodium. Onions and peppers sizzle somewhere. I can feel it in my eyes.

My father asks me about teams I cared about when I was fifteen and I do my best to remember.

My father.

My father: eating dinner on the floor with his brothers and sisters every time the electricity was turned off, helping his mother convince the young ones, “We’re having a camping party!”

My father: cleaning garages before school. I fill in the details, the paint cans, the dog shit, fingers ripping through cloth, bleach washing his brain clean.

My father: dropping cash into his mother’s hands.

I don’t know what my father wanted to be when he grew up.

My father bought tuxedo shirts and worked as a server in a fine dining restaurant when I was in middle school, when his sales and marketing company wasn’t doing well. My father made Ceaser dressing tableside and became friends with twentysomethings on work visas. 

My father took a third job managing Smart Cart at the airport. Nights and weekends, he emptied cash from the machines travelers rented pushcarts from. He paid me two dollars an hour, plus a quarter for each cart, to walk the parking garage, collecting those unreturned. I paced the rows at midnight. I nestled carts into a long line, secured them together with a rope, and pulled.

My father collected speeding tickets, the road home from work a siren song: faster, faster.

My father leads the way, hunting for Red Sox tickets outside of Fenway Park. Scalpers double, triple face value. The two of us have tickets, but we need a few more for his Dutch coworkers at the restaurant. I follow my father, cutting a wide path through the middle of the brick sidewalk, fans hopping out of the way, bumping into our shoulders.

My father negotiates with another scalper. The scalper rejects his offer. We keep walking, empties and butts blowing down Yawkey Way.          

My father turns to the only woman in our group. “You should’ve flashed him.” In my memory, I decide this is when I become a man, either because he thinks I am old enough to hear his joke or because for the first time, I witness my father as a man, a human.

My father is Tom Hanks, the hit man and bank robber Michael Sullivan in Road to Perdition.

In the film, his son says, “There are many stories about Michael Sullivan….When people ask me if Michael Sullivan was a good man…I always give the same answer. I just tell them he was my father.”

My father crying at Kevin’s wedding, my father’s stomach mirroring Karen’s, seven months pregnant, my father removing his glasses, nodding and squeezing his eyes.

My father’s sadness: not knowing; being erased.

My sadness: my father.

My childhood night terrors, my cloudy rage, when I screamed and vomited and fought, my father using his weight to pin me to the bathroom floor, my father hugging my thrashing limbs because he was the only one strong enough, because he was my father, and after I exhausted whatever I was afraid of, my father walking away, because.

My father is a collection, a series of images I swirl out of order, swirl into a new order, a new shape, a new image, a new image, a new image, a different meaning because I want greatness and I am missing parts.

I watched my father cry at his mother’s funeral. His siblings said she called his name in the hospital. She waited for him to fly home.

At the wake for Aunt Marie, a distant relative my family got to know late in her life, my father stood and told a story.

My father let me see his tears.

My father fought aboard a city bus.

My father felt a fork stab through his cheek. 

My father jumped on a pile of old mattresses in an empty lot with his friends. One of the boys landed on a nail, and the nail went through his boot. The boy’s father ripped the nail out with his hands. Then he beat the shit out of the boy.

I used to beg my father to retell his college stories. He tried to say no, it wasn’t the time, but I asked him about the time he booked Kiss to play and he described how the pyrotechnics burned a hole in the gymnasium roof. He talked about the house he shared with Party Marty, and I pictured men passed out on the floor, cuddling trash. Then my mother said, “If it wasn’t for me, you’d be dead or in jail.”

My bookcase is overflowing. I hear the shelves straining. I box the books I don’t need right now, but I might need someday, books I haven’t read, books I dislike, books I love no matter. I need their words to mean so much.


I didn’t realize every story was the same.

            The story was my father survived.


My father watched me run in circles. He drove me to Miami Beach for a race. Wind slapped my legs, sneakers sinking into the sand, the leaders sprinting away. He called my name.

I am hungry.

My father wants to catch up before ordering. He says it has been too long, thanks for returning his call. He asks what I’m studying in graduate school. He passes me birthday gifts, no wrapping paper, across the table, hats and jerseys and homemade fudge, his new company.

My father asks his grandson’s name, birthday, weight, height, scribbles notes on a piece of paper, slides it into his pocket.                                                                             

We are lost in the woods together. Onions and peppers in the air. The same restaurant on the side of the highway, then we drive home, an equal number of miles in opposite directions.

My father cruising Lake Michigan Avenue in a convertible, top down in a snowstorm.

My father reading while driving.

My father sleeping on the side of the highway, driving from California to Florida in four days.

Slow down.

image: Steven Lang