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Steve Likes to Curse
Writing, comics and random thoughts from really a rather vulgar man
"The Old Dad" — a writing exercise 
Wednesday, September 12th, 2007 | 01:29 pm [college, fiction, writing]
So I'm taking Creative Writing this term, and for an exercise this week he asked us to lie to complete the sentence "My mother/father never . . ." and work up a short story about it using altered or fabricated details from our childhood. Here, then, is what I came up with:


My father never raised his voice to me. I was not an exceptionally well-behaved child, and must have given him reasons to on a regular basis, but he never did. I remember, when I was maybe three years old, him finding me sitting in the hallway just outside the door to his and my mother’s bedroom, scrubbing the wall with a piece of carbon paper I’d torn from the back of one of my mother’s checks, staining the white paint a grimy blue-black. He asked me what I was doing, not angrily but curiously, reached down and took the carbon paper away from me. “You should stay out of other people’s things,” he said to me sternly, but absolutely calm. “Now I have to clean this up somehow before your mother finds it.” He took me by both arms and lifted me to my feet and sent me off to play. Later, from my bedroom upstairs, I heard him spraying cleaner onto the wall and scrubbing away with a towel at the mess I had made.
Dad was nearly fifty by the time I came along. I’ve never been told outright, but I suspect I wasn’t planned. My brother Patrick was a year and then some into the navy when I was born, and I don’t remember the few months we lived in the same house before he found a place for himself in Maugansville and moved out for good.  He’d learned how to weld in the navy, and found himself a job working twelve-hour shifts at Maryland Metals. He got three or four days off every week, and Mom and Dad would often leave me with him evenings when they went out to eat or to see a movie, or on weekends they took trips to places like Stone Mountain, Georgia, or Branson, Missouri.
When I was small enough to need constant taking-care of, Patrick was like a second father. He fed me, gave me my bath, changed my diapers when I needed it. When I got a little older he started taking me to Suns games and for walks to feed the ducks in City Park. He and Dad liked each other enough when I was being dropped off or picked up — laughing and joking, asking after each other’s friends — but the only times I ever saw them in the same room for more than a few minutes were for family dinners. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter: other than meals on these occasions, and maybe a few of Dad’s cookouts over the summer, I never saw the two of them acting as father and son. From the time I was old enough to throw a baseball, Dad and I spent spring and summer evenings before the sun set playing catch in the backyard; I could never imagine Dad and Patrick doing the same thing.
One Friday night when I was ten, Mom and Dad dropped me off at Patrick’s so they could drive to Gettysburg for the weekend. Patrick had just gotten home from work. He told me to watch whatever I wanted on TV while he took a shower and changed clothes. While he was in the bathroom I noticed a cardboard box sitting on the floor next to the couch. Inside, wrapped in a clear plastic garment bag and folded very compactly, was a navy blue sailor’s uniform. Beneath that was a wooden plaque, in a shape that reminded me of a police badge, with a black ceramic plate in the center and a brass rectangle just below into which had been engraved the words
“Hey!” Patrick hollered. I hadn’t even heard the bathroom door open. I turned around and he was standing in the hallway still wrapped in his towel. “Did I say you could touch that?” I shook my head. “Put it back in the box and put the box back where you found it.” He went to his bedroom to get dressed, and I did just what he’d told me to do. He came back out a few minutes later and sat next to me on the couch. I pretended to be engrossed in what was on TV, which is what I still do when I’m not sure whether to be angry or to start crying.
“Hey,” he said, nudging me in the arm. “I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
I just shrugged, not taking my eyes off the TV.
“You want to know about what’s in the box?” he asked. “I’ll tell you all about it . . .”
“Where did you get it?” I asked, trying to sound only slightly interested, still not quite able to tear myself away from the TV.
“From when I was in the navy. All these years it’s been in a storage shed in Williamsport. The other day I had to get in there to get something for a buddy of mine. I saw the box and figured it belonged here with me more than it did locked up somewhere.”
“What are you gonna do with it?”
Patrick thought a moment, then gave a shrug. “I don’t really know. I got my plaque and my honorable discharge certificate, I figured I could hang them up somewhere. Maybe one of these days I’ll try on the old uniform, see if it still fits. Wear it out to a bar and see if I can get a free beer or something.”
“They give you free beer if you have a navy uniform on?”
“It’s been known to happen.” He must have noticed me looking away from the TV to sneak glances at the box, because he said, “Go on and pull it back out here if you want to see what’s in it.” He took the remote from me and turned off the TV, and I reached over the side of the couch, grabbed the box and slid it around to the floor at our feet. Patrick reached in and unfolded his bagged-up uniform. “Look at this thing,” he said, holding it up in front of him. “Can you believe they made us wear this thing?”
I remembered a photograph Dad had on the mantle of the living room fireplace of Patrick in that uniform, standing at attention in front of an American flag. “Why’d you join the navy?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said, running his eyes along the length of his uniform. “I wouldn’t have my job if they hadn’t taught me a trade. I wouldn’t have most of my old friends. It was the right thing for me to do, I guess.”
“Were you ever homesick? Dad says you were away for months and months before you got to come home.”
Patrick shook his head. “No, I didn’t get homesick.”
I was impressed when he said that. “I would have,” I told him. “I’d never want to be away from home that long.”
At that he lowered his head and got this bitter little smile on his face. He snorted, almost laughed, and said, “Things were different at home back then.” He folded his uniform back into the box and pulled the flaps shut over it. He paused a moment, then said, “I joined the navy in the first place so I could get away from the old man.”
“Dad?” I asked, honestly not sure if that’s who he meant.
“Why did you want to get away from Dad?” I almost laughed, the thought struck me so absurd.
“We didn’t get along. We fought a lot. I didn’t like living with him, having to listen to him. First chance I got to get out, I went for it. I signed up with the navy right after high school.”
“What did you fight about?”
Patrick sat up and patted me on the back. “You don’t need to hear about that. You wouldn’t understand, anyhow. You love him, and you ought to. He never whips you, he never hollers at you, never makes you scared to hear him come walking up the steps toward you. You get treated how a son ought to get treated by his father.” He ruffled my hair with his hand, tossed the remote into my lap and told me to watch TV.
He picked up the box and went with it through the kitchen and out onto his back porch. I caught glimpses of him through the kitchen window when I would get up to find a snack or go to the bathroom, but otherwise didn’t see him again before I went to bed. He spent the rest of the night standing on the porch smoking cigarettes. We had fun the rest of the weekend, doing our usual things. Dad and Mom showed up to get me Sunday evening. Once I was in the car, Patrick seemed to have a few brief but tense words with Dad — no yelling, but it ended with Mom bidding Patrick a hurried good-bye and ushering Dad away.
They had planned to leave me with Patrick the following weekend, too, while they took a train from Baltimore to New York City, but Dad canceled the trip. That Saturday he took me fishing at Deep Creek Lake instead.  I caught a sunfish off half a nightcrawler — nothing special, but Dad got Mom to take a photograph of the two of us with it anyway. I’ve still got a copy of it around here somewhere.
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