On my father’s last Valentine’s Day in this world I obeyed a sudden impulse to fly down to Playa del Rey and pay him a weekend visit. Of course, at the time I didn’t know it would be his final February Fourteenth. If you’ve read my earlier stories about him in these pages (here and here), you know it would have been hard for me to imagine Jack Horton slowing down, much less coming to a stop. He had been an active guy all his life, a true believer in the American dream that brains and a little chutzpah will get you what (or whom) you want.
For years during and after World War II, when American industries were multiplying, my father experimented with plastics, fiberglass, lightweight metals, and eventually graphite. Some of these new products were used in building jet fighter planes. It was my father’s favorite ingredients that went into the tail that fell off the Airbus that crashed in Queens in November, 2001.
The House-That-Jack-Built syntax of the preceding sentence is poetically apt. His unreliable character and reckless ways made the Career That Jack Built pretty shaky. Still, even when he got fired, which was often, he was proud of what he achieved in the field of engineering without a college degree. He brought a similar pride to the field of romantic conquest — and he made one romantic conquest after another.
My mother was one, of course. Dad met Mom while both were acting in community theater. Her father was a distinguished Presbyterian missionary to a Pima Indian tribe, who kept company with the likes of Will Rogers, Jr., and who met with President Coolidge to discuss Indian water rights before the Coolidge Dam was built.
Jack was a different kind of mortal: funny, earthy, Errol Flynn-handsome and lithe. On stage he’d extemporize to see if he could make my mother and the rest of the cast crack up and flub their lines. Once, in the walk-on role of a cop assigned just two sentences about a couple of his personal problems, he improvised a long litany of domestic disasters culminating in “Then my aunt got her tit caught in the wringer,” collapsing his fellow actors all over the stage in hysterical laughter. My mother, after 18 years on a bleak Arizona mission led by a hero with a halo, fell for my father’s irreverence, I guess.
Bad idea. By the time four children were born and growing, Dad was sleeping with our neighbor, a married woman named Pete who also had four kids and who got pregnant with his child. Ten years ago I tracked Pete down to find out how her marriage to my father ended.
“Women gravitated to Jack,” she told me, with wonder in her voice. “It was some kind of smell he gave off. So there was this girl used to come to the Captain’s Quarters” — a local bar — “in a fur coat with nothing on underneath? A nice girl, I thought, but a little weird, and suddenly Jack disappeared for days. When I found out where he was staying with her, I chopped all his ties off at the knot, poured molasses in his shoes, cut the legs and sleeves off his suits, and put everything with his unpaid bills in a couple of suitcases I drove over there and left on the doorstep. A few hours later he called me and said, ‘Petey, that wasn’t nice. I was just about to come home.’ Your father was a good actor, but once in a while people would get wise.”
Wife #3 had a beautiful house on the water in Newport Beach, California, with the biggest closets and bathrooms I’d ever seen. Being broke at the time, my father was pretty happy to have married Lorraine except for not being allowed in her designer kitchen. His culinary specialties were the kinds of things he liked to eat — barbecued spareribs, spaghetti with meatballs, corn on the cob with bowls of melted butter and lime juice. He was an enthusiastic cook, and probably when the honeymoon was over he had left splashes of spaghetti sauce on Lorraine's granite countertops, or put the marinade spoon down in a red puddle on her spotless stove. During my visit she served fish broiled with a touch of virgin olive oil, lightly steamed vegetables, and brown rice with snippets of herbs from pots in her window. The future of this union did not look rosy.
It ended when my father was making money again and met Florence, his last wife and true love. The day I first saw Florence she was wearing a yellow body-shirt printed with "Here Comes Trouble,” a miniskirt, and green suede boots up to her knees. She moved in a cloud of cigarette smoke. She had a frizzy red perm, bright turquoise eye shadow, false eyelashes, deep wrinkles, and a great laugh, kind of like Phyllis Diller's but with more real joy in it.
Florence was the sweetest and kindest of all my father’s wives including my mother, and I was happy the two of them were living in a beautiful condo in Marina Del Rey. My dad could finance their lavish lifestyle because he had invented an enormous machine that extruded graphite in strings, straps, and sheets simultaneously. He was wealthy at last.
After Florence died of pancreatic cancer ten years later, Dad never married again, because, he told me, he liked checking the “Widowed” instead of the “Divorced” box on his Medicare forms. For a while he lived in Burbank with Donna, a petite bottle-blonde who drank mimosas all day. On the wall of Donna’s apartment was a painting of Venice with dozens of tiny holes in the canvas, as if someone had shot it. At night, a light concealed behind the painting made Venice’s windows, street lamps, and gondola lanterns twinkle. Donna summed up my father as “a many-fauceted person,” which was not inaccurate. The profits from his invention had flowed from him like water, and he was broke again.
Finally he moved into a crummy studio alone near the Beach of the King. At the time of the Valentine’s Day weekend in question my dad was nearly blind from glaucoma treated too late. He could cover most of his expenses with the pittance from what he called So-So Security because my brother and I paid half his rent. Friday evening, as my plane descended toward LAX, the fragile lights below me seemed to be clinging precariously to the dark California earth.
Saturday morning I arrived at my father’s door just as he was fixing himself an enormous bowl of Cheerios. I hugged him hello, and he said, "That feels good.” Apparently he hadn't been touched in a while. I watched him scoop four or five big handfuls of cereal out of the box, pausing to feel for the depth of the little O’s rising in the bowl, and pour a can of chocolate Ensure over them. Sometimes he poured vanilla, sometimes a flavor called Orange Cream. He told me he never looked to see which kind he was grabbing out of the refrigerator, so that his day could start with a little surprise.
He ate noisily and with good appetite. Then he looked at me with his milky eyes and smiled, the missing tooth in his denture making him look vaguely piratical. “I wish I could put into words how it feels to have you here,” he said. “My feelings …” He trailed off.
“Feelings good or bad?” I asked. He winked and smiled his pirate smile.
That day as we sat together, I considered my father’s small heroisms. It must have often seemed too much trouble to keep going. Washing himself, getting dressed, even feeding himself must have been a challenge when just walking to the bathroom and back left him breathless from emphysema. A bath was a major project he wouldn’t undertake because he might end up helpless in the tub, but his resistance to letting a home-care aide come to the apartment was as stubborn as his refusal to move to Seattle and live with me and Bob. On this Valentine’s Day I asked my father if he wanted to bathe while I was there. Putting on an innocent expression he asked, “Do I smell bad, dear?” “No, Dad, you smell fine.” No bath.
Sunday morning there were quite a few Cheerios scattered on his apartment floor. He had already finished his breakfast and was sitting in his recliner. He turned to me sternly. “You said you’d call me when you got back to the hotel last night.” His breathing was labored and raspy.
“Oops, I’m sorry, Dad. I forgot.”
“So what did you do last night?” he asked.
“Read my book, called Bob, fell asleep.”
“Didn’t call me.” He was enjoying his little grumble.
My father slept in his recliner because it was easier for him to breathe sitting up. His first order of business in the morning was feeling around on the rug for the hat he’d worn to bed, because it would have fallen off during the night. This morning he was wearing slippers. “Are they airline sox, Dad?” “First class.” “Do you wear that hat to bed?” “Yeah, and find it in the morning.” “Your big adventure, huh?” “That, and you not calling.” He gave me a sideways pirate grin.
We spent our last day together at his kitchenette counter, comfortable on the padded barstools that had been his preferred style of kitchen chair all his life. In former years a television would have been on throughout the day tuned to sports events, like the TVs surrounding the bars at his favorite hangouts of old. Now the radio was on, its earphones lying on the counter and tiny voices buzzing through the wires. We drank Snapple and played rummy — he still played a mean game of gin — and talked or were silent together. I gave him a couple of mini-massages as he sat there, which delighted him, though he kept saying, "Don't wear yourself out, dear." He wasn't hungry at dinnertime, but each evening before I left he asked me to warm up a can of something.
My father’s totally unintended Valentine to me was himself. With his vision so poor, he couldn’t see how closely I watched him during his last years. I absorbed his gestures, his countenance, his voice, even the long, abstracted silences when he was mentally replaying an old tournament bridge hand or, right to the end, dreaming up some new gadget that would change the world. Watching him seemed to satisfy some pre-verbal hunger in me for the father who had been so remote when I was young and mostly gone when I grew up. Now I rested in the assurance that if a thought about me occurred to him, it would be a good thought. He’d awaken from his reverie, wink a clouded eye, pat my hand and say, “I’m happy you’re here.”