Somewhere in Chapter One...
My parents had broken up when I was 15. This caused me no great shakes at the time—I was old enough to appreciate only having one parent with whom to fight and agonize over all trivial matters. Also, when Mom left, I knew Dad well enough to know that it was going to be an open road, as long as the dishes were done and the lawns were mowed. He would now be free to carouse and chase skirts like any forty year-old man in his position. And his grass would be well manicured and there would be no unsightly bacteria growing in his kitchen sink.
The irony is not lost on me that both my father and I went through our little epiphany at the same age. But my epiphany had come to an entirely different type of man. For one thing, I did not have my father’s capacity for random cruelty.
“I can tell by your face,” Dad would sing at the dining room table when I was a toddler. “That you’re a member of the monkey race—you’re bound to look like a monkey when you grow old…” Since I was a boy, the picture of Dad at the table, drinking his coffee before work, guitar in hand, is as vivid as any memory I have. The fact that he would sing songs about my resemblance to the simian only furthers my opinion that my father was not overly fond of me.
CUT TO: THE BACKYARD--MORNING.
There is snow on the ground. Toddler Jerry plays with his pet Beagle, Cleo. His father, obviously nursing a killer hangover, loads construction supplies into the back of his Studebaker. He runs a sliver into his hand.
God damn it!
Jerry continues to play with Cleo. Playful, the puppy nips his finger. Startled, Jerry begins to cry. Father strides over, still trying to pull the splinter out of his hand.
God damn it—stop that crying! What the hell is the matter with you?
(Points at the dog) Cleo bit me!
Father picks up the puppy by the scruff of the neck and hurls the squealing dog over the small house. Jerry bawls.
There, God damn it…
Father walks away, gets in his car and never thinks about the issue again. As far as Father is concerned, the problem has been solved.
I thought about that moment the morning of my fortieth birthday as I stood in front of the mirror, with my face covered in shaving cream. I now noticed wrinkles and even the dark circles under my eyes. And those little skin-tags that had begun to take root in my armpits, buried in the tangle of middle-aged hair there. The cycle had begun when my Dad threw the puppy over the house. Perhaps that day, perhaps later, on the porch with Uncle Harve, perhaps on one of any number of days—who knows. The cycle of the quick temper and petty intolerance, which is the breeding ground of the mid-life surliness, I’m nearly certain.
I shaved my face and thought about Cleo, and Dad, and my mom and Uncle Harve, and all the dark, sexy women I had known, and all the blondes I had tolerated and even married, and that morning, began the Great Search—we all have one, sooner or later—the Great Search For Meaning. I was now middle-aged, I had turned into my father, and I needed to know why.
I drove to work that day, as every day, and parked my car, as I always parked my car. “How are you, this morning, Jerry?” Phil the parking attendant asked as I strolled into the office complex that served as the epicenter of my daily life.
“Forty,” I replied.
“Right,” Phil said, his gaze returning to his Enquirer.
I made my way to my cubicle and sat down in front of the computer monitor. The lazy manatee that served as my screen saver floated listlessly on the screen and suddenly, it reminded me, in form and action, of Wife #2. I touched a key on the keypad and the image vanished, revealing the desktop beneath. “Another day at the salt-mines,” I mumbled to myself.
When I was eight and my little sister was four, we were on a trip from Ohio to West Virginia. It was a trip of about four hours and we had made it many times. Dad’s family was from Fairmont and we often went there so he could get drunk at my grandmother’s little house, instead of our little house.
Dad and Mom had been arguing over something. We children had been pacified with a bag of potato chips. The bag was a shiny, aluminum foil-type with blue writing—this much I remember. We were enjoying the chips despite the goings-on in the front seat. “Eat those God-damned chips a little quieter, would you?” Dad groused over his shoulder.
“Don’t take it out on the kids,” Mom countered. We ate—much quieter, we thought. Somehow, though, we must have gotten carried away with the chips’ deliciousness…
Dad: “Chew with your God-damned mouths shut, God damn it!”
Suddenly, with the wiliness that can only be attributed to those who are thin and wiry, like my dad, his arm reached almost nearly behind him and yanked the bag of chips from my hand. In one, smooth, fluid motion the chips were out of the car and onto the highway. I turned my head quickly and in the glow of the taillights, I saw the foil chip bag and the chips tumbling in the snow.
My sister cried for a few minutes and fell asleep. I smiled in the darkness, the magical image of the shiny bag and the chips flying through the air in the red darkness replaying in my mind like a movie. I suppose my mother and father were enjoying the newfound silence, because neither spoke until we got to my grandmother’s house, some three hours later.
I couldn’t bear to sit at my cubicle. There was no focus—I simply stared into space through the newly-epiphanated air. I wasn’t used to the new haze that lingered over my life, so it was nearly impossible to function in a normal manner. I walked to the coffee machine—I never drank coffee, didn’t like the taste. Toad was at the machine, filling a cup. “Morning, Jer.”
“Toad,” I said, plucking a Styrofoam cup from the upside down stack. I thought that maybe coffee was what was missing in my life—after all, I hadn’t drunk it for forty years, and I didn’t seem to be doing that great. What the hell, maybe I would try it for the next forty and see if it made a difference.
Toad was an on-air personality at the radio station where I worked. I sold airtime. I assumed that his job was much more interesting than mine. Toad poured coffee into my cup. I sipped. “I didn’t think you drank coffee, Jerry…”
The coffee tasted horrible—bitter and hot. “I don’t,” I shrugged.
“Right,” Toad said. “Well, have a good one, man…”
I broke open a couple of pink packets of sweetener and dumped it into the cup. “See ya, Toad.” I sipped again. Mary, who worked in accounting, came by to fill a cup. I could see that I had been missing not only coffee, but also a golden social opportunity for all these years. “Morning, Mary,” I said, adding creamer to my Java.
“Hi, Jerry,” Mary said. Mary was very tall and unpeasant-like, but still struck me as a viable candidate for the next ex-Mrs. Jerry. She had long, black hair and long, long legs. She was a little light in the chest department, but was blessed with a great set of teeth that was usually framed nicely by a tasteful shade of crimson lipstick. Hubba-hubba. “How’s the coffee?”
“Great,” I said, sipping from the cup. Rumor had it that Mary had gotten lit at the company Christmas party two years earlier and banged three guys in a conference room. I had heard the rumor third-hand, and had yet to get any first-hand confirmation. I didn’t suppose now was the right time to bring it up.
Mary sipped, and winked. “Have a great day, Jer.”
“Sure thing,” I said. Even if the rumor was completely fabricated, it sure gave a guy something to think about over his cup of Joe. I added six ice cubes and stirred the coffee. Then I drank it like a shot of whiskey. Fast and hard. I grimaced and crushed the cup in my hand, then threw it into the garbage can. I walked back to my cubicle, wondering how long it would be before I could legitimately consider going to lunch.