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One for My Baby

While he fancied himself a vampire, my dad was really a restaurant manager. He was at work from the time he woke up until the time he went to sleep, never a day off. Though it was nestled in a quiet little town called Keeseville, New York, the place was almost always busy. When he wasn’t there he was thinking about bills, thinking of new solutions to keep the business alive.

My Dad’s office and his apartment were two similar caves, dim and smoky, ideal for his nocturnal lifestyle. The shelves overflowed with paperwork, maybe a broken lamp hoping to be reincarnated, several pairs of random glasses, things like hats and dusty books forgotten by absent-minded customers years ago. The surface of the tables and desks were never visible under the heaps of works in progress. Kind of like a ship, he would say, as if it were all packed in tightly for a long voyage. Kind of like a cluttered mess and overflowing with junk, I would say.

It’s hard to imagine him in either place without a cigarette in one hand and one burning out in the ashtray, and a drink in the other hand; it’s hard to imagine him away from those two places at all. He would be sitting in a cloud of smoke, twisting his mustache and squinting through the bifocals precariously perched at the end of his nose, perplexed about an order, a bill, a staff member. Every once and a while he’d sigh, take off his glasses and rub the reddened indentations on his nose and take a long sip of a mixed drink disguised as a soda. He would be lighting his new cigarette with the old one way before it had burned anywhere near the filter. I wonder if he developed the habit before he started with the longer 100s, if his body was trained to light a new one before he even had to. I loved to surprise him at work; I loved his warm hugs that smelled of restaurant grease and stale smoke.

Every once and a while Dad would feel the need to realize his love of western movies, and we’d head out into the Adirondack Mountains on horseback. He would dress all up in his trench coat and cowboy hat and start quoting Clint Eastwood with a playful grin and a lousy western drawl. Once we arrived the Barkeater Inn and Stable, he would ask for the most spirited horse, an ornery, disobedient nag called “Britches” was his usual favorite, though the way dad described him you would think he was Silver from the Lone Ranger. He’d dig in his imaginary spurs and we’d all be off; the flustered trail guide and I chasing behind him as he galloped away. Cigarette trailing, he bore an uncanny resemblance to the Marlboro Man. After the ride he’d leave a big tip for the guide; probably so he wouldn’t get banned for his nonsense, and he’d treat his little buckaroo to some hot chocolate down at Monty Purdy’s Elm Tree Inn. Even though we only came once a year, even though the restaurant was nearly an hour away, Cowboy Dad and I were greeted warmly by everyone in the place. Every bar within a hundred miles was familiar and comfortable to me when I was eight.

“Come on, have a seat kiddo,” he’d say as he hoisted me up on a bar stool, “and I’ll buy you a drink.” He was always, of course, referring to a Shirley temple -- my favorite. He would flirt with the bartender if she were a woman. “Shopping,” he called it and I would pretend to be angry, at which point he would always remind me I was his number one girl.

After my parents divorced, I only got to spend time with Dad on Tuesday, if he wasn’t working. I looked forward to these meetings all week, like a favorite TV show only I really got to meet the hero. At home Dad would take on a new trade. He’d fire up the grill in the middle of winter, even if it meant shoveling off three feet of snow. He would cook up his latest recipe for me to try out and play Jeopardy at the same time. He was always killing the television competitors with his bank of knowledge, the bank he had acquired during the seven years of college that had earned him a bachelor’s degree, a drinking problem, and an infamous reputation for harmless and often hilarious mischief like bringing his St. Bernard, “Huggy Bear,” into the bar for pitchers of beer.

Tuesday evenings worked out well when I was younger, because it was really the only time he could spare to spend with me and it didn’t occur to me to mind. Money doesn’t grow on trees, he would tell me over and over again, after which I would feign surprise. But as I got older, I began to feel jealous when friends’ dads would be there all the time, not just on Tuesdays. I know that as I went through my growing-up milestones, my Dad was warming a barstool, contemplating when he stopped being my hero and started being a stranger.

My freshman year of college I turned nineteen. I didn’t receive a phone call or flowers or even a card from my father. Even though it was almost typical, I couldn’t help but call my Mom and choke through the story that he’d forgotten me, his only child, on her first birthday away from home. More than for that one day, I cried for the times he left me home alone on our special night, forgot to pick me up at dance class, couldn’t make it for my award ceremony. The next week I received some chicken vegetable Ramen noodles that I’ll forever hold dear to my heart. Neither one of my parents had ever let me eat “that crap” but he still knew my favorite flavor, and he sent an abundant supply in a giant package along with Milano cookies and some Haviland Wintergreen patties that you can’t find anywhere but he always seemed to have in his fridge. That’s how he used to tell if I had stopped by and he wasn’t around. I rarely left a note or called in advance to let him know I was coming, I would simply stop by when I was driving through town and do some of my own “shopping.” (My kind of shopping led to the disappearance of his not-so-secret candy stash). He would call me later and pretend to be angry.

When Dad got sick, all of his friends were eager to pitch in and help, to return the favors that he had done for them. They were always visiting and offering rides to the hospital, but I brought Dad almost every day except one. I had been bringing him for chemotherapy five days a week all summer, and needed a break. I argued with him, told him to call one of his friends who had offered a ride. I should have seen the fear in his eyes, never wanting to admit to anyone that he needed help, not knowing how to even ask.

Each morning we would pile into his ugly yellow Lincoln MarkVIII and head to the hospital, a drive of about half an hour. The car was an eye sore, but he loved it. “They just don’t make cars like they used to,” he’d say, while I thanked heaven for that and he scoffed at my tiny red Celica. I had to drive the Lincoln with a 12-pack of Pepsi behind me just to reach the pedals. The steering was so loose I thought every turn was our last, and the brakes were so bad it’s a good thing I never made it much over about 45 m.p.h.

The only time dad ever mentioned anything about his illness to me, we were driving along the lake in the old Lincoln. “If I don’t make it, just think, you get to keep ‘Baby’” he said, referring to the car.

“Don’t talk like that,” I replied, easing “Baby” through another turn, trying to ignore everything that needed to be said. His grey eyes turned toward Gunboat Island and he cracked a smile. It is a small rock in the middle of the lake with about three trees and that’s it. I’d heard the story a million times, but I let him tell me again. It looked so much like a ship that British shelled it during the War of 1812 at the Battle of Plattsburgh.

That summer was long and painful for both of us. At nineteen, though, I got the opportunity to know my dad again and be proud of the man that he was, not think about the typical father that he sometimes wasn’t. I learned that he was human, he makes mistakes and he can hurt, too. That maybe I was a little too harsh on him when I was angry and lost in the throes of adolescence. You would think that my dad would have done something great for me to earn my forgiveness, but the truth is I forgave Dad while doing something for him. That summer I may have thought driving Dad to the hospital was a chore, but now I cherish every minute I got to spend with him.

I realized what a privilege it was to share my dad with the people who came in to the restaurant and those who worked there. On all the days that I wished he was with me, he was doing more than drinking with his cronies. One of his neighbors lost her job and was having a rough time, so he offered to help buy groceries for her and her kids until she got back on her feet. A friend of his couldn’t get his life together because of a debilitating drinking problem, so my dad got him into a detoxification program, helped him clean up his apartment and get a job. He helped my Uncle pay his rent for years and never breathed a word to me, or to anyone. Though he sometimes struggled to make ends meet, and had to say no to my more frivolous demands, he bestowed upon me the greatest example of benevolence by putting others before himself. I am honored to have gone without an extra pair of name brand jeans, a long vacation, or a load of spending cash to know that my Dad helped so many others.

No one ever came right out and told me dad was dying. They would say things like “He’s not well,” or “getting worse.” One day I just knew. Around Septemberish, he couldn’t talk to me on the phone anymore because he would intermittently cough up blood. I cringed. I knew what it looked like: he would stammer “hold on” and put a tissue in front of his mouth to catch pieces of his lungs as they forced their way out of his tired body. I made my friends who smoked listen on my end and see how much it hurt both my dad and me. I visited home sporadically, spent most of my time in denial, always shocked by the dramatic changes, his skinny arms, listless eyes, and the smell of morphine that haunts my dreams to this day. I wanted to see my Dad the vampire, stewing in his office in the wee hours of the morning. I wanted to see the cowboy, the jeopardy champ, and the master chef. I wanted a warm hug filled with restaurant grease and stale smoke.

I forgive you, Dad, for drinking too much, for the smoking that gave you cancer and took you away. It’s okay that you didn’t go to my dance recital, my chorus concert, and my horse show. A part of you was there with me then, and a part of you is still with me today. I hear you singing to me sometimes, right along with Frank Sinatra when he calls out “One for my Baby…. and one more for the road.”

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