Most children get their dads at birth. Me, not so. I got my dad when I was ten; just two weeks after my birthday, to be exact. That late summer afternoon, I kicked my ball against our apartment block wall and Mrs. Levy from the ground-floor apartment had already threatened me twice with her rolling pin.
As the ball bounced off the peeling plaster, someone stopped behind my back.
I waited for Mrs. Levy to smack me on the head. When nothing happened, I turned around.
The man’s russet beard and hair flared around his head like a lion’s mane. A duffel bag lay in a heap at his feet.
His voice rustled like when I walked through the dry grass in the school’s backyard.
“Do you know a Mirelle Meier?”
Oh-o! This was not good. You see, I am Max Meier. Meier—get it? Mirelle was my mom. She’d drilled me for years for just such an occasion. When a stranger appeared at our door, he was either a debt collector or a salesman. She couldn’t afford either one, and my task was to send them away or distract them.
Trouble was I’ve seen plenty of them and I couldn’t link the duffel bag or the man’s looks with either job.
“I need to speak to her.”
“Are you a debt collector?”
“What? No.” He smiled the way grown-ups smile when they’re trying to trick you because they think you’d fall for the sweetness.
I didn’t know what to do. He didn’t seem to fit Mum’s description of people to be afraid of, but I didn’t know what else to think of him either.
He stepped closer now, picking up his bag. Stooping down, he peered into my face.
“What’s your name?”
Another of Mom’s instruction was never to tell a stranger any details that might later help them find you. My name was such information, plus, seeing how the man was searching for a Meier there was the tiny problem of my last name.
“I’m not going to hurt you, kid. I’m Paul.”
The hand he extended towards me looked huge. His fingernails were bitten to the quick, just like mine. After some hesitation, I shook it, peering over my shoulder. I wouldn’t want Mom to see; she would worry for no reason. Because although Paul was still a stranger, I decided that he didn’t look very threatening.
“I’m Max,” I said.
Shock flew across Paul’s face like the blackbirds my ball had startled from a bush earlier.
He seemed so tall when he straightened up. “Max Meier?”
Then suddenly, he smiled. “Well, nice meeting you.”
Before I even registered that he knew my full name, he added, “I’m your father.”
I was so thrown I made a step back and almost fell on my ass. Before I recovered, Mum stood in the doorway, staring at Paul. I was afraid she’d be spitting mad, but she just paled, then blushed, then paled again. It was like in a cartoon, I swear! I hadn’t known anything like it was possible in real life.
She sent me inside, and when I protested, she gave me the darkest look. I tried to spy on them through the open window, but all I saw was her grabbing Paul’s elbow and dragging him further down the alley, away from Mrs. Levy’s and my ears. This was the first time Mom tried to hide something from me and it shocked me that it was now when my dad was concerned. I mean—he was my dad.
But the truth was I had no proof. All Mom had ever said about him was that they had broken up when I was six months old and she never saw him again.
I wanted to know what was going on when she came inside—alone—but she only looked at me and then continued on to the kitchen where she banged with pots and pans the entire evening. Despite all that noise, I only got scrambled eggs and a piece of stale bread for dinner. I could handle Mom yelling, but her quiet anger was the worst. So I kept my mouth shut.
For days, I couldn’t get rid of the questions. I had to find out whether Dad would be coming back. When I dug the key out of my pocket, coming home from school, I found the door already unlocked. With Mom’s fears drilled into me, I held my breath and quietly pushed the door open. I was faced with Mom’s stare as she turned on the couch. There were a few seconds when, just like in films, all I could hear was the ticking of the ugly orange wall clock. When Mom smiled, it seemed like a proper smile, one I haven’t seen in ages. Or at least since my last A in Maths. Which was … ages ago.
Dad sat with her on the couch, his hair tamer than last time.
I was happy Dad was back but I wished I could tell him about the years he had been gone. How hard Mom worked to keep us afloat, as she would say. How I had to practice what to do if people from the social services or the bank showed up. A different role for each man or woman in a business suit. Once, for six weeks, I wrote my homework in my winter jacket by candlelight. Mom pretended we lived in the sixteenth century and I was Shakespeare or something. She thought she made it easier, but I saw her miserable face when she thought I wasn’t looking, and that stupid stinging started behind my eyes.
Every time I mentioned any of this to Dad, instead of listening, he would start another tale about one of his adventures. Like the one about organizing a country-wide treasure hunt that he and his friends advertised in the paper.
“Oh, you should’ve seen it. Pat … Did I tell you about Pat?”
Many times. Pat was his best friend. He loved driving around in his van, shooting the breeze. Big man with a big heart, Dad had said.
“Let me tell you, Pat’s the man. He drew a downright splendid ad for the paper. It was a piece of art,” Paul said.
“So the treasure hunt was a success?”
He looked away. “Well …”
“Not many people showed up, to tell the truth. They must have thought we were joking because of the rich reward we offered.”
When I asked how he could afford it, he said it wasn’t about the money, it was about being crafty.
“Paul, crafty doesn’t pay the electricity bill, so you might try leaving this apartment and search for a job, now that you’re back,” Mom said from the stove where she was making mac and cheese for dinner. She sounded annoyed, but she wasn’t really, because she had that soft look on her face I had seen when she watched me receive a chess trophy at school.
“I’m working on it, Elle.”
Another proof that she wasn’t mad at him anymore was that the blanket that had been on the couch the first five days was gone. What had he told her to make her forget the ten years he had been gone?
I was happy he was back, too, honestly, but there was this itch in my chest, I just couldn’t tell what it was about. I had no one to ask for advice because, really, how many people have experience with finding their dads ten years after they were born? So I just waited for it to go away. Should’ve known it wouldn’t be as easy as that.
Dad was such a good storyteller he made me feel like I was right there with him on one of his explorations, seeing the things he saw, feeling the excitement. I wished he had been there when I was little so he could tell me bedtime stories like other parents. He said he couldn’t stay, that he was too young and wouldn’t have been a good father anyhow. I resented that he hadn’t given me the chance to be the judge of that.
Every time I told him how I had missed him when I was four, six or even just a week ago, he quickly changed the subject and we were back to his stories.
“And that one time we went to Mexico … I wanted to fly there, because I’d never flown anywhere, you know, but Pat insisted we take the van. He was right, because we could fill it with heaps of the best turkey sandwiches we bought by the pound in a deli in Hoboken. Ah, the smell that filled the van that day! Well, by the time we reached the border they turned rancid because we didn’t have a cooler with us. But we flushed the sandwiches down with beer, so we were okay. Alcohol is good for that, you know, it disinfects.
“Anyway, you should’ve seen the colors down there. I mean, right past the border, the first village we drove through, it was like a different universe. Like the single story houses and streets were spread out across a rainbow. The red of tomatoes, the ripe gold of tortillas, green trees dotted with juicy oranges and lemons, shiny black hair on pretty girls, ochre soil and dust, everywhere the dust! The air constantly smelled of spices: chili, coriander, cumin, lemon zest were the spices of life because they marked everything you did, everywhere you moved, whatever you ate and drank, you even smelled them in your dreams. And the girls … dios mio, those muchachitas! Too bad we had so little time there. If only we could’ve stayed longer, I think I would’ve loved Mexico.”
“But at least this way you returned to Mom and me,” I pointed out, jealous of all the people and places that had had the chance to see and be with Dad while Mom and I were here alone.
“Yeah, if for nothing else, for this I’m glad I never stayed down south.” He grinned and mussed my hair which I normally hated, but hey, he was my dad and he was home. When I thought about the years to come and how now he could deal with collectors and rude neighbors, I felt, for the first time ever, that I could relax and not have to worry about Mom. I could get used to that.
When Dad couldn’t find a job, he said it was because in the past he had been out of state a lot and that meant that his short-term employments made him look unreliable. The clerk at the job agency told him that his “employment profile lacked an affirmative feel”, whatever that meant.
To make it up to us, he spent an afternoon unloading u-haul trucks to earn some money. He would take us to an amusement park that weekend, he said. At first Mom protested that the money would be better spent on groceries or school stuff, but Dad insisted he had earned it for a weekend family trip. Mom still complained, but I could tell she was excited from the way she was trying to make it look like I needed convincing.
“You’ll love it, won’t you, Max? You’ve never been to an amusement park. It’ll be a fun trip, you’ll see. Best ever.”
We’d never been on a family trip, the two of us, unless I count the three times last year when we went to see her parents. I suspected she went to ask them for help or money. It ended with a fight and the end of visits with the only set of grandparents I had. So, yes, this family trip was going to be a big thing.
Mom made turkey sandwiches and boiled eggs. I may have grumbled something about popcorn and cotton candy, but she said it was ridiculous to pay so much money for foods that in the end harmed you. Meh, grown-ups!
I turned to Dad to get him on my side. He was lounging on the couch, watching Jeopardy! on our prehistoric TV, murmuring questions and answers to himself.
A knock on the door interrupted me. I looked from Dad to Mom and back. Neither of them seemed to be expecting visitors. I went to open the door.
A tall man with his hair slicked back into a ponytail looked confused when he had to lower his eyes to my level.
He and the man standing behind him were both dressed in white. Something was wrong with this picture and I suddenly had this heavy feeling of something bad happening.
“We’re looking for Paul Meier,” the ponytail man said. “Is he here?”
I pulled the door closer so that the gap became smaller. “What do you need him for?”
“Is he here? Do you know him?”
For a split second I considered my options. Then I shook my head.
“Are you sure?”
They didn’t look friendly, they were dressed weirdly, they were strangers. Mom’s training kicked in. I opened my mouth to repeat that I knew no one by that name, when Mom and Dad both called out, “Who is it?”
The giant exchanged a glance with his pal. When he pushed the door open, I spotted two police officers further back in the shadows of the one-bulb hallway.
Dad said, “Crap!” and Mom scolded him for his language and then mid sentence switched to, “What’s going on? Who are you?”
“Ma’m, we’re from Ashworth Mental Hospital to get Paul Meier.”
I didn’t like how he emphasized ‘mental’. Then I read the name tag on his white shirt: Patrick.
The police officers came closer. One fidgeted with his cap in his hands, the other—older, chunkier—fingered his baton.
I turned to look at my parents, but Dad had already run to the bathroom. Pat, the giant, pushed past me, slamming me into the wall. Mom screamed at him to get out.
The younger officer put a hand on her shoulder but she swatted it off.
The bathroom door shuddered. Pat yelled for Dad to open up and Dad’s voice replied in screeching tones.
“Leave him alone!” Mom said, making a step forward like she wanted to go help Dad, but then she hugged my shoulders and stayed put.
“What do you want with Dad?” I asked the other man in white. I felt the pressure behind my eyes.
“Everything will be all right, boy,” the police officer said, but I wanted real answers.
“You can’t just come here and threaten Dad,” I said.
“We’re not threatening him. He needs to be taken to the hospital. He left against doctor’s orders, son,” the orderly said, looked quickly at Mom, and then went to help Pat.
“What do you mean left the hospital?” Mom said.
Pat yelled, “Don’t do it, Paul! Your kid’s here, man. Don’t do it. Come with us, everything will be fine. Doc’ll give you meds and you’ll get better.”
I couldn’t pretend any more that I was teary because of the bad lighting in the hall. I wanted to scratch the men’s eyes until they teared up too. I wanted to yell at them until I lost my voice or they left us alone, whichever happened first.
The bathroom door gave way under Pat’s shoulder. I could see the way a comic book artist would draw the noise in a bubble: KRAKK!
Mom pulled me towards the kitchen, but I fought her. I couldn’t let them take Dad away; I only just got him back. We were supposed to ride the roller coaster tomorrow, he promised. The sandwiches were ready. Mom had bought an entire six pack of Cokes to take with. She even got the regular ones because I hated Diet Coke.
“Let me go, I want to go with Dad,” I begged.
“Max, shush now.” She hugged me, and I felt her warm tears dripping in my hair.
“We’re going to the park tomorrow,” I yelled, as Pat and the other man dragged Dad past the splintered door and down the checkered hall tiles. “Aren’t we, Dad?”
When he looked at me, I wished he hadn’t. His hair was like an out of control forest fire that blazes everything in its path.
“I’m sorry, Max. I wanted to make it up to you … I wanted you to have a great dad …” He sobbed and he looked so miserable, I sobbed right along with him.
“Dad! Please, leave him be.”
“Sorry, kid,” Pat mumbled, and pulled Dad with him.
“Daaaaad!” My cry was cut in half by a sob I couldn’t hold back. Daa-aad.
So I only had a dad for the three weeks that it took the authorities to track him down here from Virginia. He’d been institutionalized for four years and then one day he vanished. There was no record of him having a family; that was why it took them so long to follow him here.
The school counsellor said getting to know him was better than nothing. But this was the same dilemma my buddy Ernie had obsessed over for two months in second grade: is it better to be blind from birth so you don’t know what you’re missing? Or better to go blind once you’ve already seen the worl? Who could ever make that choice? I mean, really. It’s not even the same as deciding between having a cake and eating it because then you at least have it, one way or another, but this is about losing. Losing either way.
Mom didn’t mention Dad again, but I heard her cry sometimes at night when I couldn’t sleep. I asked her if he’d ever come back, but she developed crazy skills of diversion and denial in the days after Dad had been taken away. She focused on my Maths results instead, which doubled the suckiness factor in those days. Her constant attention at least won me a B plus. To celebrate it, I dished two dollars on a comic I’d been admiring on the shelf at the corner store for months.
I was reading it at the kitchen table, waiting for Mom to get home and make us dinner, when the phone rang.
“Yeah?” I said, imagining Mom’s furious look at my lack of manners.
“Is this the Meier residence? Carla Dyer from social services here.”
“Could I speak to Ms. Meier?”
I cleared my throat when my voice trembled. “Ahem, you mean Mirelle Meier?”
“Yes. Who am I speaking to, please?”
“Ms. Meier is a wonderful person, she is.”
Sweat beads formed on my forehead. My brain must’ve heated up from all the thinking it was doing and even the chilly feeling in the dip of my stomach couldn’t cool it down.
“They moved, you know. I heard she got a great job and Max’s grades improved. Did you know he got an A in Maths?” A small lie, just a small one.
“What do you mean they moved? Who are you?”
“I’m sure they’re doing great and they won’t need your services anymore.”
“I have no record of them moving. I called three weeks ago but the phone was disconnected …”
Mom had been only three days late with the payment but the phone company said that with her record they weren’t taking any chances and they disconnected the line until she paid.
“Oh, that! Yes … well … er … Of course it was disconnected after they left. I only had it connected again once I moved in.”
All of a sudden I realized I stood on the tips of my toes as I tried to sound like a grown man and, I guess, to look as tall as one, too. I laughed nervously, and then slapped my hand over my mouth.
“I’ll have to check our records. I’ll call—”
I put down the receiver, wiping the sweat from my face in my shirt sleeve. I trembled as I sat down. The black and white drawings on the pages in front of me were just a jumble of black lines.
My ruse wouldn’t last long. Next time, they wouldn’t call, they would come knocking on the door. But I got Mom a day or two and together we might come up with a solution.
When her steps sounded in front of the door, I realized that maybe I knew why she forgave Dad so quickly. I had liked the idea of being just a kid and not having to protect Mom. Maybe she, too, was tired of being the only one to deal with my school problems, worrying about bills, and giving me awkward lectures on growing up. Maybe she just wanted a break so much that she let her guard down. I know I did.
We were back to being just the two of us and luckily, she and I, we worked well as a team. I just hoped she wouldn’t find out I had lied about my grade.
About the author
Brigita Orel has published short stories and poems in numerous literary magazines. Her work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She currently studies creative writing at Swansea University. www.brigitaorel.com
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