At the start of his final decade or so on this planet my father suddenly came back into my life. We didn’t have a daddy-daughter connection while I was growing up, and when I was 15 he left my mother to marry our neighbor, a woman named Pete, with whom he produced a couple of daughters he named Keely and Kelly after his favorite singer, Keely Smith. Then he left New York to go West and invent flexible, lightweight materials like himself for the aerospace industry.
Every few years like the Return of the Repressed he'd get in touch with me, then slip back into oblivion. He called his disappearances “going on the beach.” In a rare long-distance call he might say, “I was on the beach awhile,” and once during the '60s he scribbled “On the beach again — love, Dad” on a postcard from a topless shoeshine place in Haight-Ashbury. His beach gigs were occasionally interrupted by susceptible females who scooped him up and brought him home. Two nice women, well-endowed in both senses of the term, married him one after the other.
But when I was 45 my father reentered the picture and stayed there, leaning on me now because he lived alone and was broke and going blind. My life was pretty busy, but when he phoned to talk about nothing in particular I'd try to stifle my impatience.
Finally I flew down from Seattle to visit him in Playa del Rey. I ended up spending time regularly with someone who would have been better off living differently, but who wouldn’t, or couldn’t — in any case, who didn’t. It's probably part of what eventually led me, a righteous Change Agent even in my dreams, to start my Freestyle Volunteer project of having aimless friendly conversations at cafes with individuals roped off in the social ghettos of mental illness and homelessness.
After the first few years of my father’s staying in touch I began to believe he'd actually be where he said he’d be when we arranged to get together. Of course by that time, given the shape he was in, he couldn’t have gone much of anywhere else. He lived in a cramped studio that had mildewed walls, cigarette burns on the shag carpet, a lamp with a big slashed-price sticker still stuck to the shade, and a yellowing prayer, typed and taped to the refrigerator by an ex-girlfriend, that ended “Ahmen.” The top books on the piles in the corner were Encyclopedia of Physics and How to Make Love to the Same Woman for the Rest of Your Life.
One night Charlie Q, one of my dad's bar buddies from Moose’s near his apartment, called me in Seattle to say he was afraid my purblind father was going to set himself on fire while cooking in his kitchenette. Something potentially inflammatory must have happened at the Beach of the King, because his landlord called me the next day, too, suggesting that I contact Meals on Wheels. It was time for another visit.
As T. S. Eliot didn't say, in California you feel free. When I closed the door of my hotel room behind me in the morning, I knew that by the time I opened it again the bed would be made and the towels fresh and folded. Out past the pool in palm-tree shade was my very own for awhile shiny white Ford with unlimited mileage, seek-and-scan radio, air-con, and cruise control. In California I didn't track expenditures. The cash flow required for floating a weekend with my dad could seriously deplete a schoolteacher’s entertainment budget, but there was always plastic. As I drove through the flat, sunny landscape between the hotel and the beach, I slid the automatic windows up and down, glided from one radio station to another. I felt, as the self-helpers say, in charge of my life.
Outside the door of my father’s apartment the landlord had installed two fire extinguishers, one on each side. Dad hugged me and turned his milky eyes toward the refrigerator holding the Budweisers he’d waited all morning to start opening. He could always truthfully brag to pals at Moose's, graying together on their row of stools, that he never drank alone. As he entered the kitchenette he touched a towel hooked to the wall to orient himself, then the dish drainer, then the faucet. Coming back he touched the faucet, then the dish drainer, then the towel.
He fell back with his can of beer into his La-Z-Boy, pant legs ballooning then settling around his stick-like thighs. “I was happy you called last week,” he said, in the mournful baritone I remember from early childhood. Chatting up a pretty girl at Moose's or winning the football pool, my father always sounded like his best friend had died. “There’s not much to think about lately, so it’s nice having you to think about. When my mind goes blank, pretty soon...” he absently popped the top on his beer “...there you are.”
But he refused to consider ordering Meals on Wheels instead of cooking for himself. The drivers would steal things, he said, and he wouldn’t know what was missing because he couldn’t see. He worried about the jar of coins on the kitchenette counter. “They'll rob me blind,” he said, without irony.
I tried to boost his spirits: “How about that cooking class at the senior center? It's on the bus line. You could eat dinner there, too. You might meet a pretty lady who’s a great cook.” He growled, “A pretty lady who’s a great cook who’s an eye doctor with a million dollars?” His face stayed grim.
What would make him smile? A chorus of birdsong came from the dry wetlands outside. “Hear those birds singing out there, Dad?" "No."
After a while he pulled a handful of socks out from the chair cushion and held them up. “My socks.”
“There’s a pile on the table next to you, too,” I said.
“Yeah, blacks and browns. I'll wear a pair of these.” The socks in his hand were yellow, tan, and blue. He extracted two yellows. “Will these go with my shirt?” “Is my shirt blue or white?” “Does it have any spots on it?”
“They’ll go fine with your shirt.” “It’s blue.” “You’re nice and clean, Dad.”
He brightened. I kept forgetting that he was more likely to cheer up when I didn’t try to cheer him up. He liked it when I just sat with him while he put on his socks, or something.
While he bent to the task of donning socks and shoes beside me, I called the Council for the Blind and the L.A. Public Library and such to see if audiobooks with return mailers could be delivered to him. Each agency's recorded receptionist would say “Your call is important to us,” no matter how long the wait on hold or how dark the bureaucratic mysteries. Some staffers were eager to divulge information, while others seemed bound by a secret code, as if a question had to be phrased with precision to unlock a particular fact. It was an interesting challenge.
During periods on hold, music played: “If only you believed, if only you believed in miracles, so would I.” Humming the tune I held the receiver to my dad’s ear, and he hummed a few notes along with me. Despite my goal-oriented Type-A habits I was finding it possible, during each unremarkable moment with my father, to have nothing else I wanted to do with my time.
We drove to the local office of what my father liked to call So-So Security, where staff had advised him over the phone to add my name to his records next time I was in town. A roadside billboard advertising Jordache jeans was so big and splashy that even my father could see the man naked from the waist up nuzzling a woman who lay back on a furry rug, covering her breasts with her hands. Half to myself I said, “How does it make me want to buy jeans when they don't look like they're wearing any?” My dad replied, “Clothe the naked and so forth. You want to hurry up and get them some pants.”
At So-So Security we were told after a very long wait that to be added to my father's records I’d have to declare him incompetent. He winked at me, putting on his goofiest face, then thanked the official, and we headed out for our lunch date with Charlie Q. I described the passing scene aloud — a rhinestone-studded convertible, a tiny blond kid pedaling a bicycle way too big for him, barefoot as an angel. I didn't exaggerate much, but Dad kept saying, “No kidding!” Though our errand had taken two futile hours, I was doing, at each moment, only the thing I was doing at that moment.
Charlie Q was exactly my age and had been married seven times. The three of us sat talking at a sunny patio table outside a Marina del Rey restaurant, Charlie tending my father throughout the meal, unfolding his napkin for him and buttering his roll. On my previous visit to the beach the bartender at Moose’s had whispered to my dad as she placed his lunch on the bar in front of him, “I don’t have time to cut up your meat today, Jack,” and kissed his nose. My father’s friends admired him and thought him so brilliant they called him “Professor.” Everyone loved him, even his landlord.
By then I did, too. I’d caught a sunny, spacious California spirit, so different from the damp shadows of the Pacific Northwest with its schedules of earnest work and healthful play. In California nothing felt important except to enjoy the random hours with my father between sleeps until my plane took me back to Seattle. And next time I returned to the Beach of the King, he’d be there waiting.
Spending some peaceful, humdrum days with my dad during his last years let something new grow in me. As I adapted to his needs and oddball rhythms, I became less pushy and judgmental, and more accepting of others. Gradually this acceptance came to include me, too.