“To make more money than him.” My head cockily jerked toward my dad, who’d just gotten up from the table to walk to the sink. My mother looked even angrier than she had when she saw my unmade bed in the morning, and my dad, well, he just shuffled through the kitchen door and into the living room.
She unclipped the top of her cigarette case, pulling out a Benson & Hedges. With the long unlit cigarette dangling from her lips, she sneered, “What makes you think you’re better than anyone?” She fired up a match, lit her smoke, and flicked it onto her plate.
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“You are one selfish son of a bitch, aren't you?”
“I didn’t mean it like that!” And I really didn’t mean it like that; I just blurted it out. How could that hurt my dad’s feelings? Why was my mother so angry?
My mom pushed away from the table and started to leave.
“Clean up the goddamned dishes.”
That moment has been a continuous snippet of a home movie never shot. It’ll flash. I wince. It goes away for a while.
My dad was a garbage man. He had finally worked his way into middle management, but it was still a source of shame for me since my classmate’s affluence surrounded me. I think he was happiest, though, when he was on the street. He’d come home from work, dressed in his dirty overalls, after finding something for the house, or for me, with childish glee.
“I don’t want someone else’s goddamned trash,” my mother would holler. That didn’t stop him. I’d roll my eyes or be excited, depending on the find’s value. No matter what it was, my dad always got a kick out of it.
He was always obsessed with the war of his childhood, the Big One. His favorite foods are hot dogs and Oreos. He loves the Bears and the Cubs. He plays golf with doctors and lawyers, finding joy in beating their scores.
When we were touring the new WWII memorial last summer during his visit, we sat on one of the stone benches that circle the oversized fountain. He lit his pipe, turned to the man next to him, and struck up a conversation only veterans can have.
After exchanging name and rank with his new friend, my dad turned to me boasting of the man’s military accomplishments.
“Me? I was an obstetrician’s assistant. I had it easy.” He puffed the pipe, laughing, “I had it easy.” My dad didn’t know how to brag or, more accurately, found it embarrassing.
My dad never had a greater ambition than to just be happy, a simple pursuit he achieved even in the wake of two rancorous divorces, a cocaine habit in his early sixties, a single child who left for the west coast and rarely looked back, and, in the past year, three invasive surgeries. No matter what, though, my dad will always tell you he’s happy.
One of the basic arguments Billy and I had was accomplishment versus happiness. Billy’s primary goal was to be happy. I countered that happiness came from success.
“I don’t need a lot of money,” he’d say, “I just need enough to get by, you know, and have fun.” Nothing lit my fire like hearing that. Why don’t you start your own limo company? How about taking some acting classes? When are you getting that promotion you keep talking about, and do you really think you’ll get it by coming home early every day?
Billy was obsessed with Madonna and dancing. Even when he whipped an entire club up into his singular brand of dance, he’d turn red with embarrassment and downplay his achievement. His favorite foods were Kraft macaroni & cheese and Oreos. He would make small talk with anyone.
When he would walk Bob around our neighborhood, he’d scour the alleys for castaways. More often than not, he would come home with an armload of clothes, or he’d drag a table down the sidewalk and up our stairs. There was a prideful “Ta-Dah” that he couldn’t wait to say, walking through our front door. Most times, I’d roll my eyes and wonder where the hell we were going to put that.
Billy didn’t know how to brag. His pleasures were as simple as Oreos. His ambition was nothing more than to be happy.
When my dad met Billy for the first time in the backyard of my stepsister’s house, within twenty minutes, a squirt gun battle broke out between the two of them.
I got my wish. I succeeded in making more money than my dad; perhaps more than he made in his entire lifetime. It was an empty goal then, and it feels emptier now. My dad’s not going to leave much behind in the way of money. Neither did Billy. What is left, though, is the love of everyone they ever met. I can only hope I’m that wealthy.