July 11th, 2004

3rd grade

Good guys

Who was that old man standing next to the young woman at the car rental counter? It had been a long time since I last saw my dad but I wasn’t fully prepared for the giant owl glasses he wore, no doubt a cruel joke on him by some clerk at Lenscrafters, and the slouch of his shoulders. He was so much shorter than I remember. I was running late, picking him up at the airport, I was stunned when I rounded the corner to see the future me.

In the half hour he had been waiting, he befriended the car rental woman and convinced her to let him use her cell phone. When I came up to hug him, she said, “You’re little Terry?” with surprise in her voice. I felt like Kobe hugging Urkel. I took his bags and we made our way to the car, him traveling five halted paces behind me.

“Oh, this is nice. Nice,” he said while I piled his luggage into the back of my car. I’d been nervous about his trip to see me, a stopover, really, on his way to the yearly family reunion. It had been ten years since I last saw him, and those ten years were packed with more baggage than he could have checked on the plane, for both of us.

Billy and I stopped through Chicago to see my dad and his wife at the time. We played in his step-daughter’s backyard with her two kids, his grandchildren, Billy fully engaged in a super soaker competition with the kids. This was a year before my dad announced he was gay only to switch his story to confess he was, indeed, a crackhead for the past eight years. At the time, he was sixty-one. Since then, his marriage shattered, his step-kids no longer speak with him, and he has taken up with a young black woman and her two year old daughter. Such is my dad.

Talking to someone whose only news source is Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity is a fun sport for me, and my dad was a willing player. We swatted back and forth until he cried uncle, when he said, “You’re too smart. Where’d you get to be such a smart-ass?”

“Oh, Ter, this is nice. Nice. How can you afford this?” He had just walked into my apartment, looking around. “Can I smoke in here?” he asked as he was filling his pipe.

“You can chain smoke in here, Dad.”

I took him to lunch at a nearby restaurant, telling him that the last time I had been in there, I saw Bill Krystal, the editor of the Weekly Standard. Impressed, he would later brag about it to his niece and her husband, both Democrats, when we went to their house for dinner, deep in Virginia.

After lunch, we took a cab to the newly opened World War II Memorial. It’s more theme park, less reverent than the other memorials, the space filled with lounging tourists. The large fountain in the center had kids swimming in it, chasing the few poor ducks who had been planted there as set decoration, and I took pictures of him by the Illinois column and the dancing waters. The only thing missing was timed sprays to the booming strains of John Philip Sousa.

“Let’s go sit in the shade,” he pointed to a blazing hot, marble bench that was drenched in sunlight and planted himself next to an older man, dressed in uniform and medals. He lit his pipe, turned to the man, and instantly the two were engaged in stories of their service. The man served in Europe, in the Navy, and his Navy ring looked feminine on his forefinger.

“Oh, that’s something. That’s really something,” my dad said to an anecdote I didn’t hear. He turned to me, laughing, and then told the man, “Geez. I was just in the OB clinic in Alabama when I was in the Air Force,” he laughed his self-deprecating laugh, puffing on his pipe.

We returned to my place and relaxed for a moment until we had to drive to our relatives, people who I had never met.

“Do you mind talking about Billy?” He asked me quietly.

“Billy is my favorite subject to talk about.”

“Oh, good. Good. I didn’t know if it was okay.” He paused. “You know, the last thing I remember about Billy was him playing with the kids in Maria’s yard. He was like a little kid himself!”

“Yes, he was. That’s one of the things I loved most,” I said. I took it slow, not rushing into the subject, this particular memory, one as vivid for me as it apparently was for my dad.

“He was running around, chasing them,” he paused. “He was a really good guy. A really nice fellow.”

“I know, Dad. He was a good guy,” I repeated it because it was that phrase, good guy, Billy had used so often to describe someone he’d just met. That was his first response to people – they were good people. Sometimes, Billy would comic it up, and run the two words together, “Goo-guy.”

I asked him if he had heard from Maria. “Not a word. No. Not a word.” He started to lay blame on his ex-wife and the kids when I had to interrupt and remind him that their disappearance in his life didn’t happen in a vacuum.

“It was an odd time for all of us, Dad. You have to understand how confusing it was.”

“That was over fifteen years ago. It’s old news. Old news. Let’s talk about something else.” He laughed uncomfortably.

“It was 1995, Dad. Billy and me were living in our Canal Street apartment in Venice. We had just…”

He interrupted and argued the timeline, finally conceding it was almost ten years ago. Our conversation on the way to Virginia, to my unknown relatives, was animated and I continued to hammer him on politics, our conversational safety net.

After dinner and my hurried good-byes to my distant cousin and her husband, leaving my dad there to spend the night with them, I drove home and thought of all the mannerisms, speech quirks, and the child-like soul my dad shared with Billy. The revelation was nothing new for me; I had figured out long ago that with Billy, in so many ways, I married my father.

I once told Billy my theory and he said, “Thanks! You’re dad is a goo-guy.”