Fourteen Ways of Seeing Dad

Jonathan Alexander

Here's a collection of snapshots of life: some of them real, some imagined.

These are the things I know about my dad.


Coming home from the army, honorably discharged from his forced service during the Korean War, he's hitchhiking home on a dusty road in Georgia. A convertible pulls up, top down, and a youngish guy tells him to get in. He can take my dad as far as Birmingham, possibly further. My dad gets in, and they drive for hours and hours.

Eventually, they stop at a motel to spend the night before venturing further in the morning. The driver takes the bed, and my dad spreads out on the floor. The lights are turned off, and, after a moment, the driver tells my dad that he would probably be more comfortable in the bed. My dad agrees and climbs in beside the driver.

I don't know why, but I imagine my dad doing this very carefully--not in a fearful sort of way, but in a methodical, almost gingerly manner. Quietly. A few minutes pass and then the driver puts his hand on dad's thigh. Immediately, my dad gets out of bed, pulls on his clothing, and leaves the hotel.

I imagine him walking all night. Somehow, he eventually arrives home in Mississippi. Picayune.

I do not know what he told the driver, or even what they must have talked about for the hours and hours they were together, crossing Georgia and into Alabama. They may not have said much at all. My father never spoke much. But he told us this story one night, shortly after mother had cleared the plates from the table.

My sisters and I remained quiet and still while mother began washing the dinner. No one knew what to say, but I, at fifteen, knew the story had been for my benefit, a cautionary tale. I got up and walked quietly away from the table.


At times, my mother met with other women to arrange schedules for after-school care for their children or to borrow various cooking items or ingredients, and the gathered women would talk and talk--sharing much more than just Tupperware tips. But I never once saw my father talk to another man except in the most businesslike way possible. I don't think he had any friends. He even once said, over dinner, that friendships between a man and a woman were far more stable than those between people of the same sex.

At the time, as he was passing the butter, I didn't buy it--and I still don't. I knew that statements such as these had histories, whole genealogies of people trying to love one another. But I was not privy to this ancestry. I could not count the rings on this particular family tree. And what little I knew seemed hardly enough to prepare me for my own life, especially when I wanted to know how my father and mother had struggled, how they had survived.

I know that my dad worked for the electric company for most of his adult life, but I know that he got more of a charge out of retiring early than he ever did hauling meters from house to house. He hated his job--for the thirty years he had it, and for the twenty years he survived it. He will take much of his story to the grave.

My mom, made of sturdy stuff, didn't want to be a blue-collar wife, so she tried a business, and in its way, it succeeded; it proved that women who have married up into the blue-collar world can pretty much have their way with their men, twisting their arms into the most pathetic ventures imaginable.

I pitied them. I always thought they should divorce. I always thought that both of them would be happier pursuing other lives, other loves. Any other life, any other love. But that's not the way it was done. You moved up into the world through marriage. As my mother once put it, why cut your resources in half?

Over time, my mother slowly explained all of this to me. She was a tomboy and came from a very large family in which an alcoholic father, coming home smelling of jeans, dirt, and sweat, would sling his wife's laboriously prepared meal all around the kitchen. He would not remember doing this later. But my mother remembered going without supper because you couldn't eat off of the floor, no matter how hungry you were. Shortly after she turned eighteen, she and her gay brother moved away to New Orleans, where they figured they could start over, the butch little girl and the fag making a home for themselves at last. They knew there were other places.

My mother said that she married my father because he understood. I had trouble with this because I knew so little about my dad's life before he got married and I was born. Mom would tell stories--granted, always with a moral--but at least she talked, and my sisters and I slowly developed a sense of who she was as a person and not just as a mother.

My father, though, was a different story, with a seemingly simpler plot, almost two-dimensional. In short, a man--not much to know except for the given. What I did know was that my dad had grown up in southern Mississippi, and I think that part of him never forgave himself for that. I don't think he'd quite put it that way, but he wore sadness like a pair of sweat-stained overalls. Throughout his entire life, he worked in someone else's uniform, inherited from having grown up poor in a small southern town.

On one thing, my parents were clearly united: they both insisted that we never know their lives as it played itself out on their flesh and in their memories, so they shielded us with everything their money could buy. But even as a child, I could tell which histories were authentic, and which store-bought.

And as I began separating out the course of my desires from theirs, I began to resent them. Compared to the embarrassment of riches I imagined for myself, their lives seemed weak and pathetic. I enjoyed culture and the arts, read voraciously, imagined myself into a future resplendent with the height of aesthetic appeal. I would become a writer while they were just hicks. I would know the depths of the soul while they bargained at Kmart. I knew I was different, and knowing them (in pity) would tell me exactly how--and for what purpose.

I thought I could tell which futures were authentic, and I would be the arbiter of my own destiny. But the only thing I really knew is that there were--there had to be--other places.


I once saw a photo of my dad in his army uniform, posing for a picture he'd sent home to his mom and dad. I couldn't believe how old the picture was. It seemed to me that I shouldn't be holding something so old and worn, and I thought this stiff little photograph should be behind glass in a museum, awaiting the inspection of others and their learned comments about history and politics. "Note the insignia and the uniform: clearly the Korean conflict. I wonder what year this is?" "Well, if you examine the globe in the background, you can see the borders of..." "Oh, yes, I see... that would mean..." "Exactly..."

I carefully put the photo back in the cardboard box from which I'd taken it, and then I put the box back in the bottom drawer of the built-in chest. I had been home alone, finding a history, while my parents went to visit my grandmother's gravesite.

At times, I'd go with them to Picayune, where we'd spend the entire day transported to a different decade, a stilled eddy in time. I never much liked these visits, and as soon as I could I convinced my parents that I was old enough to stay home by myself, where I'd spend the day either masturbating or rooting through my dad's things, careful to place everything back exactly as I'd found it.

But sometimes, they'd pressure me with family responsibility. You ain't seen Aint Jo in months. She don't even know what you look like no more. And at times, it was easier to submit myself to inspection than assert my precarious adulthood. So I'd go with them to visit my dad's older sisters, little knowing at the time that these trips offered me a silent insight into the world still playing in my father's imagination.

For instance, there was Aint Jo, who gummed her words and lived her days in cotton floral onesies. I never knew if she worked or not, and I wasn't certain that she knew how to clean house beyond stacking dishes on every raised surface so you wouldn't have to step around them as they cluttered the floor. But mostly I couldn't take my eyes off her mouth, which worked nonstop from the moment we arrived to the time we departed, when my mother would attempt graciously to decline supper served in unwashed pots and pans. We spent the most time at her house.

Then there was Aint Ru, who could've been a carbon copy of Jo. Ru lived in a trailer, a dirty silver tube that might have once orbited the earth but for the lethargy of southern heat. Her many children had steadily built their white wooden homes around their mother's plot of dirt, creating a world that seemed a separate state of their union. They knew each other, obviating the need to know anyone else.

When we'd visit, I'd usually hang back, aloof. Their children, even those my age, played games whose rules I would never comprehend. I'd catch a glimpse every now and then of their exchanges of power and dominance, of how they'd transform a bat and ball into the battlements of an ongoing war of the sexes, but I'd usually watch from the sidelines, prematurely scornful of their simple ways.

My mother would encourage me to join in, but my dad himself remained mute, choosing to remain aloof. He seldom spoke at these gatherings, and my mom had to carry most of the conversation, about which she'd bitch all the way back to New Orleans.

I don't think my dad's sisters approved of my mother. She'd taken their boy, their plaything. I'd seen the one picture, buried in my dad's memory box, of him outfitted in a frilly dress and bonnet. He couldn't have been more than five, and I wondered how many such pictures from all over the world must exist of little boys dressed up as little girls, the living playthings of sisters and mothers. The camera would just have to come out and record the comic atrocity, to be kept secret the rest of the little boy's days, hidden in a box at the bottom of a chest of built-in drawers.

I wondered why no such picture had been taken of me.


One time, I woke up clutching my chest, pain choking my call for help. My parents found me and rushed me to the hospital, where I was released the next day, no explanation. My mother stayed with me overnight, sleeping upright in a chair by the mechanical bed, and before my father left to take my sisters home, my mother told him to kiss me. I remember the grazing of his stubble on my twenty-year old cheek. I remember shuddering, just a little, but I cannot recall if it was him or me.


My parents never hit us. They had themselves been raised with firm hands, perhaps too firm, and I think that kept them from striking us, even when we probably deserved it. My friends' parents thought us odd in that we were never spanked; nobody could be that good.

At times, friends would describe the intimacy of punishment, of taking their licks like a "man." Sons in particular seemed to get it from their dads with clockwork regularity. Part of me, I know, was a bit jealous when hearing these stories. I knew my friends would've thought me crazy, but I wondered what it would've been like to have dad pull down my pants or swat my butt, his emotion for me unrestrained and directed at last. But I never saw him once raise a hand to me. It was so much easier to simply ignore.


When I was in the ninth grade, we were taught some basics of family genealogy, and the inevitable assignment finally arrived: construct a family tree and history scrapbook, dating as far back as you can. Discover your roots. Discover who you really are.

I could fill out mom's portion of the tree fairly well; with age, she increasingly enjoyed remembering her childhood, probably because it was increasingly distant from her. My dad, however, wouldn't be pinned down: "The past is done with. Only the future counts." I knew I couldn't write that down and turn it in, as true as it might be for my dad. So, reluctantly, he said he'd give me the necessary names.

I awoke one morning to find a list of relatives on a scrap of paper held to the refrigerator with a banana magnet. Dad had already gone to work, and he'd probably written the names down while he had his morning coffee. This didn't surprise me. But I was old enough to be intrigued by the reticence. It was at about this same time that I started to want to stay home on Sundays, when the rest of the family went to grandma's gravesite. And slowly I began to piece things together.


When my dad was 19, freshly returned from the army, he threw what little he had away, put the rest in a duffel bag and took the bus to New Orleans. A friend had phoned and said that his boss was hiring people to work in a recently built jelly factory. The pay wasn't hot, but the boarding house around the corner didn't cost much anyway, and besides, he'd be living in New Orleans. A bar on every street corner. A brothel in the back of the bar on every street corner.

There were really no other options. Picayune wasn't a particularly gripping place if you were young, even for the most avid fans of local high school football. And the army had shaken him: he knew there were other places. His sisters, though, were content, and neither of them would see him off at the bus station. His mother didn't speak to him for a year afterward, and his dad had hardly ever spoken to him at all.

So, stowing his life above his seat, he rode the bus to the jelly factory and the boarding house. It wasn't long, though, before the sweetness of the factory became cloying, and the roaches in the boarding house competed for bed space, so dad took another job. Ten years later he met my mother, and together they drove themselves into a family, a house, and as much respectability as they could.


My father didn't marry until he was thirty-two. That's a lot of time between getting out of the army at nineteen and finally "settling down," as my mother constantly advises me to do. Sometimes, I think that I'm following in my father's footsteps, but I have no idea where he might have placed his own feet for that mysterious stretch of time before his marriage.

I have imagined many possibilities for him.


Once, after my dad had just turned twenty-two, he and a group of guys from work go out for a drink, perhaps visiting one of those neighborhood bars on a street corner. This one just so happens to have a brothel in back. First, though, they have a beer and peel peanuts, dropping the shells on the floor, ignoring the small red and white striped containers the peanuts are served in. The news plays loudly on the television because no one is really supposed to talk after all, this being largely a stag bar with a brothel in back.

Eventually, one of the guys gets up, winks, and says he'll be right back. And then they are all, one at a time, getting up to relieve themselves. And then it's dad's turn, and he goes because he knows it's what he's supposed to do, like dropping the peanut shells on the floor.

It's over quickly and he doesn't even get a good look at her face, but when they are done, he rests his hands for a moment on her thigh. She hasn't shaved on a while, he thinks, and for a moment he's hitchhiking again through Georgia. He gets up quickly and leaves, the guys clapping him on the back as they all leave the bar.


Another time, my dad plans his escape. He's twenty-five, maybe twenty-six, and he senses that time is running out. He would like to travel West, destination unsure, but he knows that there is something in the world he can do, something he can put his hands to besides the jars of jelly he helps to fill, or the meters he detaches from houses that refuse to pay their bill.

He won't go alone, though. He can't. But Beau, his best friend, this funny, funny coon-ass from Lafayette, just won't go with him. He has friends here. More importantly, he has family here, and they would never forgive him leaving the state. They barely forgive him moving to New Orleans, but in the course of a life some things must be done.

So my dad and Beau argue about it one summer night. Beau offers him the necessary cash, a friendly consolation prize, but my dad is not appeased. There are some minor accusations, nothing really serious, but they don't speak again like they used to. Beau finds other friends. My dad works at his job.

Then he gets married.


At times, I know I must have imagined him gay--a cute, if skinny country boy in the Big Easy. A little naïve, but all the more attractive because of it. I admit I liked my dad, grinning just a bit in his khaki army uniform, bending slightly over to rest his elbow on his knee. He seemed so pleasantly surprised to know the world bigger than Picayune, even if he was only stationed in some out-of-the-way fort, never making it to Korea because the war ended. Still, the look on his face said it was enough.

I often wish I'd stolen the picture and hidden it in a book. I could see my dad, off from work, wearing those tight-fitting uniform pants, perhaps seeing the driver from Georgia in a crowded bar. He shyly looks away, but he knows he's been spotted, and he gives in to the inevitable. They complete their unfinished business, and another history blossoms into the future.

But I know this is wrong. I know these thoughts belong to someone else, not him.


I am convinced that my father is the first to know I'm gay, even before my mother, even before me.

Not because I rejected the sports equipment they bought me when I was young, hoping I'd outgrow my glasses and oversized head. And not because I preferred to read and play school with the neighborhood kids, whose parents steadily refused invitations to come over. And not because of my flamboyance or daydreaming, which other boys forsook for the more ritualistic pleasures of knowing each other's bodies.

Actually, if I'm pushed to say how I know he knew, I don't think I could come up with a satisfactory answer. But I know that men usually know, or they are at least quick to suspect--often correctly.

But I'm not being completely honest. He knew when the picture of him in the little girl's dress was suddenly missing. No announcement of lost goods was ever made, but he came down to dinner one evening, quietly took his place, listened while my mother said the prayer before meals, and, just before the prayer was over, stole a glance at me, his head still slightly bowed.

He knew I had taken the picture. If I'd have swiped the one of him in his army uniform, he might have almost been proud. As it is, though, a whole other story opened up before us.

We ate most of the meal, as usual, in silence. And that was that.


When I finally brought my first lover home, I didn't tell my parents what Mike was to me or what the rings on our pinkie fingers meant, exchanged in a drunken ceremony in a crowded bar. I couldn't have been more than nineteen at the time, and, having grown up in the Deep South, I could barely put into words what the love of two boys might mean to others--except that this is not something you talk about or even admit to. Even in New Orleans, sex of any stripe existed between Bourbon Street and the Riverfront.

I knew, though, that I was doing something illicit, even damnable--and hot as hell. I kept hoping mom or dad would catch me trying to pull Mike's leg hairs as we sat around the dinner table. Every now and then, Mike's eyes would bulge and I'd grin through the mashed potatoes in my mouth.

My dad never raised his eyes from his plate. Nothing, perhaps, unusual in that, but I noticed it for the first time. I'd known before that my dad didn't say much during meals, and that the rest of us should be quiet. But tonight, chewing my food as quietly as possible, I saw my dad, in his electric company uniform, his weather-beaten face, his blotchy and straining hands, and I thought to myself, never, no. Not for me.


I moved out of my parents' home when I was seventeen. I went to college, paid for my own education, and kept my life a secret from those who had given it to me. Mostly, they kept their eyes on their own plates. Sometimes I'd visit, and they would bring me back to school, stopping to eat at the Piccadilly Cafeteria outside Baton Rouge. Each time, we'd order the same thing, my parents sharing a plate of food between them. By this time, they could afford more, but why cut your resources in half?

My mother and I talked, sort of, and my dad focused on his plate. No one asked about Mike, or why he had moved out of our shared dorm room. Most of the time, the clacking of metal on plates from the surrounding diners overwhelmed our need to talk, and we sat silently, stiffly.

After the last of the dessert had been eaten and my mother had had her post-meal cigarette, she began to pick up her things. They wanted to drive me into town before heading back home, but I refused. I could easily take the bus.

For just a moment before leaving, though, I looked at my dad full in the face. And he looked at me, first out of the corner of his eyes, his head still slightly bowed, and then with his head lifted and his eyes steady. I nodded once and said "Dad."

Then I got up from the table and walked quietly away.

Jonathan Alexander ( teaches English at the University of Cincinnati. His most recent writing appears in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Chiron Review, Salt River Review, SugarMule, Radical Teacher, The International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, and Blithe House Quarterly.

InterText Copyright © 1991-2001 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 11, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2001 Jonathan Alexander.