My father Robert grew up in Shaker Heights outside of Cleveland Ohio. I have been to the house where he grew up numerous times to vast my grandparents: his mother, and his step-father Terry. The house itself is three stories tall, with old lighting and bathroom fixtures from the 1930’s. The driveway, which leads to a two-car garage filled with junk, is more tar used to repair cracks than the original asphalt. The brick side of the old house is covered in green ivy reaching up to the third story windows that serve as something as a lookout from the house. Only one narrow flight of stairs leads up there.
My father used to tell me and my brother stories about his time growing up in that house under “the warden”, which is what they used to call Terry. He told me how Terry used to make him pick up sticks in the front yard for four hours every weekend before he could go out to see his friends. My father and his younger brother CJ used to break the sticks into smaller lengths to make it look like they’d done more work than they had.
When they did manage to escape, their adventures, which spread throughout Shaker Heights and into the city of Cleveland, made it clear why their step-father didn’t trust them much. I only know some of the stories, but there are still yet other’s that go untold, with my father promising, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” Unfortunately, when I did come of what I assumed to be a trustworthy age, my father was long since gone from my life.
My father and his friends used to shoot bottle rockets off the roof of the house when no one was home, and they would fly and explode under cars stopped at the intersection down the street. There was another episode, when my father spent the entire summer systematically shooting out the neighbor’s garage-windows with a BB gun, until one day the police showed up at the door of the house. My father, at first tried to deny any accusations. “Ballistics traced the shots to that third story window,” the police officers said, and pointed up to the sharpshooter’s hideout on the third floor which at that moment, might as well have the Texas School Book Depository. Then my father, as if overcome with a sudden realization, replied calmly. “I don’t own a BB gun, but my younger brother does.” CJ, in an act of brotherly reverence and sacrifice, covered for him, and spent the rest of the summer working to pay off the damage to the windows.
There were close-calls in the streets of Shaker Heights. Once, while throwing “dirt bombs,” which were essentially balls of small rocks and compressed earth, over some bushes to hit the windshields of stopped cars at an intersection, a man got out and came after them. My father, who hadn’t thrown that particular one, walked slowly away. When the guy caught him, he apparently, as my father told me “beat the ever-loving shit” out of him. When the police arrived, they let my father go because the beating he’d been given was so severe there was the possibility for him to file charges for assault.
There were strange moments, though those were only recounted to me late at night, probably because my father had been drinking and quieted his mind a bit. He told me of the night he and CJ and a few friends had found a man bleeding to death next to a shotgun in the driver’s seat of his car. My father told me the man looked him right in the eyes through the car window. They all ran away, and never found out what happened to the guy after that. There was another story, I remember my father told me outsider a restaurant in Cleveland when we were visiting as a family, that a friend of CJ’s one day decided to walk into Shaker lake with his pockets and book bag filled with stones and drown himself.
In fall days when the news was filled with mafia car-bombings in Cleveland parking lots, my father would steal American flags from police station flagpoles. He and his friends made a game of scouting them out, running up and taking down the flag, and then running away before anyone even knew it was happening. This went on, my father told me, for about a year before Terry found the garbage bags filled with flags in the third-floor closet and was furious.
Yet despite the cinematic quality of my father’s misadventures, he was also the first to admit to me many times, that he was, in his own words, “a fuck up.” He would recount to me stories that had a much sadder and foreboding message, like how his college counselor in high school didn’t even bother showing up to meet with him. He apparently didn’t think my father would be admitted anywhere. My father would tell me how he turned things around when he got lucky and got into Skidmore College, and then worked harder still to get into medical school, giving up weekends and afternoons while he was dating my mother, to study organic chemistry for his exams. He was finished with his residency around the time that he married my mother, and then they had me while living in a small house in Framingham Massachusetts. I’ve been to the old house once years ago when I was in town for a children’s-league hockey tournament. I was a terrible hockey player and athlete in stark contrast to the athletic prowess of my father, who always regretted not trying to go pro in one sport or another. The night we arrived in Framingham, we drove by the house where my parents first started out. It’d been taken over by a reclusive man who has boarded up all the windows and barricaded the front door with junk that sprawled all across the small overgrown front lawn.
I’ve seen old photographs of my young father. His friends used to call him “Robbis-Kid.” In the photos, he’s somewhere in the woods near Shaker Lake in a scene lit by a camera flash. He’s wearing a backward baseball cap covering his unkempt curly black hair and smoking a Paul Mall or Lucky Strike. In those scenes with him, there’s always a girl, one of his various girlfriends from back then. That’s what he’d tell me anyway, sending a joking and yet also knowing look to my mother if she was around when he was recounting such stories. He could list off a whole host of names, though the one that sticks out to me the most is Stacy, whose father everyone believed was in the mafia. The rest seem to fade into an amalgamation of youthful faces contained in film stock on drug-store photo prints. The athletes, the druggies, and the cool kids. Names with no set faces to match. Legends with no bearing on any tangible world except for the one captured in a camera flash.
There is one story that Rob and CJ told me of something tangible left behind. They once stole a gallon of mercury from the University School science-wing. Apparently handling that much mercury spooked them, so they buried it somewhere on the school campus. They never did come back for it, though CJ speculates that the ground where they buried it has been re-developed, and the fate of the gallon of mercury will forever remain a mystery. The rest of the signs and symbols of their Cleveland lives are in the form of burn marks on the carpet of the third floor room and fragments of glass not swept up from the side of the neighbor’s garage.
I used to ask my father when I was eighteen and about to graduate from high school, if he thought that he and I could have been friends if we had both met in our late teens. I’d sometimes bring this question to him while we stood in the kitchen at night when he got home from work around two or three in the morning. It was something I could not help but wonder after years of hearing stories of this other person my father apparently used to be. In my adolescent insecurity, I wondered if I would have lived up to the debaucherous expectations of my father’s former self. He could never give me a straight answer, not for fear of disappointing me, but because he couldn’t remember that older self on a personal level. He would look a little blank when I would ask him things like that, as if the stories were about some kid he had once known, rather than the person he himself had been.
Family friends have always told me that at least in appearance, I am like my father. Sometimes I think about the resemblance in the bathroom mirror. I too have curly hair, and though it has often been unkempt the way his was in photographs, I never wore a backwards baseball cap. My skin has always been paler, and I’m not very daring. I could never have run away from police stations waving a stolen flag to the cheers of a band of comrades in triumph. In high school, I only had a few friends and we did very little on weekends beyond playing video games and ordering pizza. I didn’t grow up in Cleveland Ohio, in the suburbs of the crumbling former steel city where the Edmund Fitzgerald made her last port of call. I grew up on Cape Cod to a loving father and mother who never beat me, made me pick up sticks in the yard, or treated me unfairly. These are physical barometers I can point to when I need to see what was different between us.
I always knew my own answer to the question I used to ask my father when we would stand together in the kitchen at night. I don’t think my father at my age would have liked me very much. I think he would probably have fucked with me if I ever got in the way of his adventures. But I don’t begrudge these imaginary crimes from Robbis. It isn’t really me who should come face to face with Robbis-Kid to share a Paul Mall in the woods by Shaker Lake on a summer’s night way back in the late 1970’s. It is my father who should look at the curly hair and placid face of his former self and think about the resemblance.
Shortly after my twenty first birthday, I was studying in Dublin Ireland for a semester. On an afternoon like many of the others, my mother called me on the phone. She told me, with the voice of someone who had been holding onto something for a long while, that my father had moved out of our house and was now living with a woman named Heather who he’d been fucking for a long while in secret. She’d wanted to keep this from me while I was away so as not to worry me, but my younger brother and my father had almost gotten into a fist fight, and she felt she couldn’t keep pretending like nothing was wrong. I told my mother on the phone that I didn’t really much care what happened to my father. I then explained my reasoning with sterility and objectivity. I was an entire ocean away on the cusp of moving out of the house completely when I finished college. What did it matter if my father had left my mother, and had carried on an affair throughout Christmas, and probably during thanksgiving and the beginning of my senior year? I mean, after all, my father and I were never terribly close. He only told his wild stories when my friends were around to hear them. They all loved him, laughed at his escapades, and I laughed along. What did I know, really, of Robert? What did I know of myself? I tried hard to believe this lie in a state of what I can only assume was shock.
Apparently, I knew very little.
The calls I received from him while I was in my tiny student apartment in Dublin were as sterile as the hospital where he worked. He through around words and phrases like “maintaining a relationship” and that he was proud of me for “being ‘adult’ about this” in comparison to my brother. My father had threatened to call the police on his youngest son when they almost came to blows. It must have been a dramatic moment that I missed, complete with raised voices and blood lust. As I listened, his voice droned on through the receiver. I repeated to myself a line of reasoning in my head. What the fuck did I care for stories like this? They might as well have happened to someone else’s father, another good doctor who grew up in Ohio. I’m sure that there are many. I kept telling myself that under my breath until three weeks later I was standing at my kitchen sink in my tiny student apartment, and everything came apart in me at once. I spent the night in the corner, pulling at my hair. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. What had happened to the well-meaning prankster of Cleveland Ohio? Was the spirit of the young man who’s stories had delighted me and my friends for years now dead, as my father had chosen to reinvent himself as the good doctor of another family? The thought went back and forth in me while I sat against the radiator in the kitchen and waited for the sun to come up over Dublin. I supposed then that the kid in my father had faded from him like ghosts disappear when the morning finally comes and the old house stops creaking. But like with all ghost stories, I have no way of knowing the truth.
I believe what was left of Robbis-Kid disappeared from my father when the first punches were thrown by my brother outside my father’s new condominium. I don’t think even ballistics could trace the legend of that child of Cleveland back to the present, even if there are physical signs of him still lodged in the wall of the neighbor’s garage. His spirit is maintained in the old tales that my father told my brother and me. There are whispers in us of his stories of the warden and of autumn afternoons spent picking up sticks. There are whispers in photographs of my father as a young man, whispers of just what began in that ivy-covered brick house by the patchwork tar-driveway, and of what ended in the good doctor decades later, with two children left wondering just who exactly their father was all that time.
I wonder sometimes when exactly the moment was, the exact day when my father looked at his own hands and was no longer the good doctor, or the father of Ryan and Cooper, but rather something disconnected entirely from his history. Suddenly, he realized he was fifty years old and was far away from the spirit of his friends from Cleveland and his stolen flags. His adventures, he realized then, were well and truly in the past. Of his former treasured self there were only stories left, which had begun to fade like the blood draining from the man in the car whose eyes met my father’s on some forgotten night in a forgotten year on some side street in Shaker Heights. I suspect it was that moment when he saw my brother and myself, the product of his age, that he realized he no longer knew himself. It was in that instant that he made the move to run out me and my brother’s lives like a bottle rocked flies when fired at a car. The impact of this trajectory then shattered my brother and I like shards of glass which for a whole summer collected on the ground at the base of the neighbor’s garage door. He struck out from the old house and the garage filled with useless junk and useless children and a useless family in order to find what he felt he’d lost all those years ago.