We didn’t have a bookshelf in our house. Behind the TV in the den there was my father’s bowling trophy and the one book he read, or at least bought, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. We didn’t have a bookshelf until we hired Mr. Klück, a fat bossy Holocaust survivor-turned contractor to finish our basement, and then there were two built-in units with my mother’s dime store paperbacks (James Michener, Leon Uris, Jacqueline Susann), the white leather-bound World Book encyclopedia set with gold lettering on the spine, which I flipped through randomly, settling on biographies and pictures of tropical birds, and an improbable copy of Émile Zola’s Nana. My mother was a reader and my father was not. She sat smoking on the living room couch, feet tucked under a print housecoat, Hawaii in hand. I wasn’t a ready reader (though I have a hazy memory of Madeline in Paris—in an orphanage? But no, it was a boarding school; easy to confuse the two.) so my mother bribed me with Hershey’s chocolate, and Nancy Drew came easily after that. I, too, palled around with George. Dickens and Madame Defarge followed a few years later. My father read the Sun-Times every day but that was it. He poured over the White Sox box scores; Fox, Aparicio, Wynn. Did he take note of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s machinations or the Freedom Riders’ drive to Montgomery? Any guess I might make would invariably be wrong. Much went on in that basement but not much reading. The Bridge on the River Kwai, Ella Sings Cole Porter, a few tepid sexual fumblings. My father and I watched Nixon’s resignation at the bar Mr. Klück put in but we never used. I have never been a quitter. My mother played mah jongg with the neighbors down there. One bam, two crak, the tiles clattering across the green felt board. One grim day Mrs. Solomon had a stroke at the table. She survived, but I don’t remember hearing much of her after. (Years later, while my father was playing pinochle at the JCC, one of the men had a heart attack. Oscar, Oscar, the others went when it was his turn, thinking perhaps that he had just lost track. But Oscar sat rigidly unresponsive, the cards still in his hands. My father laughed when he told me, incredulous it could end like that. The stakes are high in game-playing.) My father didn’t have time for reading. He had time for bowling, baseball, poker, and earning a living. He worked hard, first at the laundromat in Humboldt Park, where I liked to sail back and forth in a laundry cart while he emptied the washers of quarters and folded clothes, and later at the suburban model homes where he sold cheap-looking furniture every day. Occasionally he took me to Kiddieland. Where are you going? he’d prompt as I boarded the little train that circled the park. I’m going to California, I said, waving goodbye. He waited for my return. Eventually I did go to California and other places too, while he stayed in front of the TV and followed the White Sox. Often he’d lower the sound and turn on the radio too, so he could listen to his preferred announcers. Not a book man, he found escapes elsewhere. He liked to play poker and insult the other players. He took in the occasional game at the ballpark, and took me along. Weeknights he and my mother watched Johnny Carson. From my bedroom, I’d hear him go, “Here’s Johnny” along with Ed McMahon. He got liked Doc Severinsen on the horn. On occasion, he cut himself a wedge of iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing. In later years Ann and I met him for pizza at Lou Malnati’s, which he dug into with sloppy gusto. He was equal parts angry and vulnerable, coarse and mischievous (once there was an awful joke about sanitary napkins), bewildered by life’s battering. After my mother died he ate standing up in the kitchen, as if he’d lost all interest in sitting. The table was strewn with Medicare statements and utility bills. Is this an apologia for my father? I loved him, like daughters in Chicago, California, and beyond have loved their fathers if they are good and kind and do no harm. He taught me to play gin. He pushed his fist against my cheek and the force of it told me something about the measure of his love in return. I look like him; the same high forehead, the same small-mouthed smile, according to Ann. And now my hair is brown and gray like his was. My father’s last job was as a cashier at a car wash. He was ashamed of his status but I also think he liked the gig, kibitzing while he doled out change for sawbucks. I turned out to be a writer, improbable as the Nana on our bookshelf. I gave him a story of mine to read but he never commented. Years went by. We went for Chinese food at The Pineyard. He dated a woman in his building. He asked me if it was okay to have sex, only he said hanky-panky. We saw Michael Douglas in Wall Street and during the sex, I looked away. I found the story among the sweaters in his drawer after he died of a stroke on the expressway. I had access to everything. Birthday cards, bank statements, aphorisms from Jimmy Breslin and Mike Royko cut from the paper, notification of a meeting of the Jewish VFW, a reminder for his upcoming cataract surgery. There, slipped between two pilled-up crewnecks, was a large manila envelope marked “For Peggy Only.” This was improbable too, a message from the dead. Of course my heart beat faster. Who doesn’t long for a special dispatch from the departed with their own name on it? A declaration of undying love from the newly dead? Instead it was my own words, turned tawdry now that they were returned to me. The original story was no longer intact. He’d taken a scissors and cut it up, excising the lesbian parts and then taping the whole mess back together. The cut up bits were strewn among the wreckage. Had he done this under cover of night? Had he surmised that someday I’d be sorting through his life’s detritus? My father, never the reader, had read this, making line by line edits in his own crude way, and though he’d cut out the essence of my life and then bequeathed the final draft to me and for this I should have been angry or at least sad, I sat back on the familiar quilted floral bedspread and gave a grudging laugh. Why not? This was it? This was his final missive? He probably did this so he could show me off to someone, as I’m showing him off now, each of us creating a revised version of the other. My clever father. He’d made such an effort to leave me his handiwork, to document his erasure. Everything in this room, or just about everything, would soon be hauled or thrown away in the ritual post-mortem divestment. The bedroom set, the bed, the corduroy pants, the copies of Penthouse I’d found in his closet. I’d keep his wristwatch, his loose change, his Social Security card and driver’s license, his glasses smudged with fingerprints. The story, too, back in the envelope, mine and his.
-- Peggy Shinner is the author of You Feel So Mortal, a collection of essays on the body published by the University of Chicago Press, which was long-listed for the 2015 PEN-Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. She was one of Newcity’s 2014 Lit 50/Who Really Books in Chicago. Currently, she teaches in the MFA program at Northwestern.