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March 7, 2016 | Nonfiction

The Man Who Isn't My Father

Jenni Garber

The Man Who Isn't My Father photo

I never call ahead to say I'm in town and on the way over because the front door is always unlocked. I'll charge inside and holler, Yooohooo. From the back of the house I'll hear his, Yooohooo, and then his six-foot five-inch body staggering through the hallway. His hair will be longer than mine has ever been and the bottom of his shorts rolled up so high the lining of his pockets peak out.

The sight will be familiar and amusing.

He'll hug me, spilling wine from the mason jar in his hand and say, Want some dope? He'll rush to the kitchen and throw open the cabinet to the left of the photos of the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, respectively. He'll pull out a tiny green pipe made of clay with a small stone glued to the top. The one I gave him as a birthday present when I was fifteen; a souvenir from our trip to Puerto Rico.

The pipe will already be packed.

He'll ask if I want some wine, then interrupt himself and say, No you probably want coffee. He'll swipe a folder stuffed with underwater sonar readings from the stove, putting a kettle in its place. He'll down his drink and refill it, popping the cork on another bottle.

The empty bottle will go in a stack by the kitchen window. He'll say that the glass makes great heat insulation.

We'll carry our mason jars to the back porch. Sit on the steps leading down to the yard. He'll point out the citrus trees, insisting they'll fruit this year for sure. I'll tell him this is what I miss most since moving to Chicago; all the green. Being outside, even if it’s just in a backyard.

I'll notice the dozen or so buckets on the ground around the trees. The projectile points and bits of pottery submerged in the buckets—waiting to be cleaned and cataloged— providing the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. I will insist on lighting Citronella candles.

They will make no difference.

I'll ask which one of my exes he's hired and to do what project. He'll go on about a bookshelf or installing a cat door or constructing a bed-frame. He'll interrupt himself to tell me that I can't stay for long because he's behind on an article that should have been published three years ago.

It will start to drizzle but we won’t move inside.

Then he'll say, How's your mother? Quickly followed by, Wait, I don't want to know. He'll jump to his feet and tell me that it's been great to see me but he really does need to get back to work. He'll tell me to come back soon, and throw in that if I need somewhere to fuck while I'm in town I can use his spare bedroom, and there's clean sheets in the dryer.

I'll say, Thanks, followed by, Gross.

Before I can start to leave, he'll offer to make more coffee and say, So tell me about Chicago.

It will never feel like we go for months without seeing or speaking to each other.

I'll think, This must be what family feels like, but I'll remember how since I was seven he's insisted that I don't think of him as a parental unit, but as a roommate. So I'll complement him another way. I'll say, That's a nice color, pointing to the nail polish on his toes.

He'll look at his feet and his legs that he regularly shaves. He'll look at my legs and shake his head and declare, You'd have boys lined up around the block if you'd only shave your legs. That's when I'll say, Who says I want that and besides some guys like it this way. He'll say, They're lying. I'll say, No they're not. He'll say, Well they're lying to themselves.

He'll complain that his own legs are all dinged up with scars and melanoma spots from years on a boat and where did all the old-man veins come from? Another, Yooohooo, will sound from inside the house.

He'll shout, Yooohooo, back. His neighbor, the one who runs a hair salon in her living room, will skip her way to the back porch. She'll hug me before I have the chance to stand up, spilling half of the dark wine she’s carried over from her house.

She'll tell me how excited she got when she saw my car in the driveway. She'll ask when I plan on coming by to visit the chickens. She'll ask if I have a boyfriend. She'll ask how long I'll be staying. She'll ask if I can get her some good dope. He will tell her to calm down, take a hit, and let me relax.

She'll settle on the steps but hop right back up to hug me again.

He'll say to me, Go on and tell her how good you're doing in school. I'll tell her how good I'm doing in school, even if I'm not. He'll say, None of us expected her to do so damn well. He'll say, We’re just happy if she’s alive. He’ll say he's proud of me and he'll tell me to go on and take another hit, that I've earned it and more. He'll pat me on the back hard and say, Now if only you'd just start shaving your legs.

She'll say, Leave the girl alone, and toss me a wink while managing to throw him a scowl. He'll say to her, Aren't you in a tizzy. He'll top off our drinks while I pass around cigarettes.

We'll relocate from the porch steps to the wicker chairs by the fire pit out in the yard. He’ll start talking about how he should have been born later than he was. He'll tell me to tell her about what my high school was like and how boys could wear girl-clothes and makeup every day and no one bothered.

He'll say he can't imagine what his life would have been like if that was how it was when he was growing up. He'll mention his mother's lipstick and how hard she hit him when she saw him wearing it and he'll say, Boy did that fuck me up, but not as much as that time she tried to kill herself after grabbing my dick, rubbing it.

He'll laugh the comment off and I'll laugh too because what else is there to do?

I'll say, The one time I met your mom she seemed pretty nice to me. And he'll chuckle and say, You're the only person she ever liked. I'll say, Aren't you the one who keeps insisting that people choose their parents? He'll say, Well, they do.

He'll ask about my car. How it's doing. I'll admit I'm worried it's low on oil after the long drive. He'll say, Well is it low on oil? And I'll say, I don't know. He'll say, What do you mean you don't know? I'll say, I don't know. That's when he'll say, Don't pull that crap. You just want me to check it for you. I'll give in and admit I know how to check my own oil. He'll say, There you go.

I'll ask where to throw my cigarette and he'll say, In the fire pit. Where else? He'll say, Can we go inside please? Followed by, You both need to scram so I can get back to work. Then he'll ask if we're hungry. He'll say it all in one breath.

We'll go inside. I'll sit at the bar in the kitchen. His neighbor will curl up on the sofa between the banjo and a white and black cat called Larry.

In the kitchen, he'll bump into half the wind-chimes strung from the ceiling. He made each himself out of driftwood, seashells, ocean glass, and rodent bones.

He'll slap a plate of soda crackers on the bar, pull a bowl of mashed potatoes from the fridge, open a jar of black olives. Peel an avocado.

We'll elbow each other to get to the laptop to control the music. I will insist on Flight of the Concords. He will insist on the album by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell.

We will agree to alternate song by song.

I'll ask if he'd mind moving the mummified mole off the bar. It will be curled up on a cutting board and positioned the way somebody might display a bowl of fruit or a vase of flowers. He'll start to move it, then become distracted looking at it, and put it down exactly where it was before. But look at it, he will say.

He'll ask if he's ever told me about the wild turkey he hit off Meridian. He'll proceed to tell me in detail about how the bird wasn't in bad shape, about how he wanted the feathers and bones but forgot about the turkey in the trunk of my mom's Honda for a few days. Left it there in the Florida heat. From the couch his neighbor will sleepily say, Shame you never got those feathers.

On the couch next to her, the cat called Larry will stretch and purr.

I'll make a joke about how all my parents have bones in boxes in the bedroom, or labeled zip lock bags of monkey shit in the freezer. He'll say, At least none of your parents tried to seduce you. I'll roll my eyes, smile, and admit he's got me there. We'll chink our mason jars together and laugh at ourselves, or each other, with no attempt to decipher which it is. 

image: Aaron Burch


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