“You’ve Got His Hands”
In the mid-1990s I was traveling in Tennessee to research an upcoming novel when a long-delayed confrontation tested my spirit. I had recently discovered that my absentee father was living in a small town near the route of the day’s research. I slowed my car as I approached a fork in the highway ahead. A right turn would take me perhaps 30 or 45 minutes out of the way to the town where my father was living. If I continued straight ahead, I would remain on-task for my day’s work. Something told me that after more than 40 years I needed to make that turn. As a retired Army officer, I had the skills to find him, so I figured it was time to confront him. After all, he had mistreated me and my mother, such that she threw him out when I was only a few months old. He had abandoned her to raise me by herself. The man was a worthless drunk and he had it coming.
Throughout my life, my only contact with my father had been an occasional phone call at Christmas, perhaps three or four times, during my youth. He was usually drunk when calling, and mother resisted putting me on the phone with him, but I suppose she felt she had to. I clearly recall one or two of those conversations filled with promises of things he was never going to do, visits he would never make, and toys or gifts that he would never deliver. He promised me a bicycle one Christmas, and I became convinced he would show up with it. Mother, unable to stand the disappointment I was certain to face, went out and bought a bicycle. Of course, she had to finance it, given we were broke much of the time. And as she often did, she worked overtime hours at the telephone company, sold sandwiches in the break-room, and made and sold crafts to put together the extra money. And on Christmas Day I had a new bicycle. I only found out years later that my worthless father had nothing to do with my joy that day.
So here I was, laying aside my plans for the morning to seek some justice. And the further I drove the angrier I got. Oh, trust me, I had been plenty angry over the years. Several of my friends’ fathers had kindly included me in some of their family activities. I so envied that they had a father present and active in their life. But the more I recalled, and the closer I got to the town, the more disgusted I became. He had never seen me play a Little League game. Never been around for advice on a prom date. Never taught me to drive a car. Never saw me graduate from any school. Never met my wife. Never saw his grandchildren. Never saw me successful in my job. I was not exactly sure what I was going to do when I found him, but I had some ideas. Maybe I would verbally rip him a new one. I would tell him how his actions and lack of caring had hurt me and made it so hard on mother. Maybe I would curse him. Maybe I would toss him across the room, slap him around a little, and demand to know what kind of worthless, uncaring, demented, booze-guzzling fool would treat his son this way.
After perhaps an hour of detective work, I located where he lived. It was late morning when I parked my vehicle across the street from his house. I sat there for several minutes, calculating my play and eyeing the dilapidated, subsidized, government housing unit that bore the beast. Part of me hoped he would give me some crap. Part of me hoped he say or do something to give me the excuse to exact some pain from him like he had exacted from me for all those years. The disappointment of my youth, which had boiled into anger as an adolescent, had cooked down into apathy-soup for the better part of my adult life. But this morning that rage was palpable. I sat there for several moments.
Do you really want to do this? Do you really want to open this can of worms?
I told myself I could drive away right now and no one would be the wiser. Instead, I began taking several deep breaths, dug deep for some resolve, opened the car door, walked across the street, and stepped up on the shallow porch.
You can still turn around right now and leave. Who knows, maybe he’s not even home.
I knocked on the door.
First, I heard some shuffling about inside, and then the door opened only a few inches. I struggled to see into the room.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Can you help me find someone that lives in this area?”
Releasing the chain latch and cautiously opening the door, a gray-haired, frail-looking, old man, wearing a housecoat and sporting a two-day growth of beard stood in front me. He appeared weak in his eyes like he had been recently ill, and in those eyes was not a hint of recognition of who was standing before him.
“I’m looking for a Mister … uh, … who are you, Sir?
“Brewer,” he replied.
It was go-time. I knew I had the right man, and now I had the chance to act.
“I’m looking for a Mister … Caldwell,” I told him, fiddling with some papers I had brought along with me as a prop.” He shook his head without speaking. “Have you lived here long?” I asked.
“About two years,” he said. His voice was weak, and yet I searched my mind for some, or any, familiarity in it.
“Well, I was told he moved in here a few weeks ago,” I said, maintaining anonymity. I guess part of me, somewhere deep inside, hoped he would suddenly say ‘don’t I know you,’ or he might somehow miraculously realize who I was. But there was nothing.
“I don’t know a Caldwell.” he said, staring at me impatiently. I glanced into the room and could see behind him a small table that held three or four prescription medicine bottles. Now was the time for me to tell him who I was. I should announce in grand fashion that I was his long-lost son. I should demand he talk to me. After all, I deserved to know how in the world he could have been so mean and uncaring. He would now, finally, tell me why he preferred alcohol over me and my mother. Seconds crawled by like minutes as I gathered myself for the confrontation. But a voice inside me said, “Wait.”
You see, I needed him to be an ogre. I needed him to be loud, demanding, threatening, or maybe even drunk – any kind of trigger that would launch my long-awaited tirade. Instead, what I saw in front of me was a tired, sick, weak, old man living alone. I was observing a man who had run off just about everyone in his life that cared anything about him. His behavioral choices had destroyed his body, and now his life was devoid of anyone or anything that mattered. How could it possibly help me or anyone else to launch into a man who was sitting around alone waiting to die? After all, he’s the one who missed out, not me. He missed my childhood. He missed the baseball and the football and the growing up. He missed the prom. He missed my wedding. He missed his grandchildren. I was there for all of it. If anyone was the loser here, the loser was standing in front of me.
I had been staring at him now for several moments when he finally said, “What else can I do for you?”
“Nothing,” I replied. “There’s absolutely nothing you can do for me.”
I turned around, stepped off the porch, and walked to my car without looking back. I drove away that day, my mind a jumble of thoughts, not the least of which was whether I had done the right thing. Maybe I should have dressed him down. Maybe I should have kicked his ass. Many years have now passed, and I am since satisfied with my choice that day.
I heard that my father died about a year after that encounter, and at my wife’s urging I attended the funeral. Maybe I was seeking the ever-popular word “closure.” No more than a handful of people showed up, and it appeared that the minister had been the on-call chaplain or something because he seemed to know very little about anyone gathered there. Three half-sisters by my father’s later re-marriage showed up, along with my father’s brother. I tried to be gracious to those in attendance, but I spoke very little. After some generic remarks by the minister, I walked up to the casket with my wife by my side. Digging deep for my own indomitable spirit, I studied his face as he lay in repose, thinking to myself that this will, at last, close a sad chapter in my life.
Then my wife leaned over to me, pointed to the body, and said, “Look, Jim, you’ve got his hands.”
A tear crept down my cheek. I wiped it away quickly and that was that.
Mr. Brewer is a retired US Army officer, former West Point instructor, and the author of five novels and three non-fiction books. He currently teaches writing at Polk State College in central Florida. The first book in his new three-part Choctaw Parker Mystery/Adventure series, Blood on the Crossties: the Florida Chautauqua Murders, will be published in the winter of 2022 by Touchpoint Press. jamesdbrewerwriter.com