Whenever I stumble across The Creature from the Black Lagoon on a random cable channel, I think of my father. That movie was the one thing that we actually shared in a lifetime of misses. There was a moment between midnight and 3:00 a.m. in 1981 in a motel when he actually felt like a father.
He had taken me on a long haul trip with him. He was a truck driver. He usually took Patty, my older sister. Patty was his longed-for son in female form. That was the running family joke. She wasn’t boyish in any way physically, but she had a knack for liking what he liked. She was the one he would seek out to play blackjack, to roughhouse, to go pick up cigarettes at the 7-Eleven with him. I was the younger, bookish daughter who stayed out of his way. I was thrilled to finally be the chosen one, although in retrospect my mom probably made him take me. At 10, I couldn’t imagine anything more exotic than speeding down lost highways with a man who was, and still is, a mystery to me.
We left on a typical swampy Florida morning to make our way to Starke. We stumbled out of bed with a backpack of clothes for the three-day journey. I remember my father’s calloused hands hoisting me up to the impossibly high cab of his 18-wheeler. The truck was an older model, and the dash had a crack in the vinyl that extended from the driver’s side to the passenger’s side window.
As he hopped in beside me, the smell of my dad’s aftershave mixed with cigarette smoke, coffee, and last night’s scotch overwhelmed the small space. He didn’t talk much in the truck or at home, so I settled in to watch the scenery whirl by at 60 mph. I counted the black and white cows that dotted the landscape, looked for license plates from states that were mysterious to me, and read my borrowed Nancy Drew novels. He would occasionally ask if I was hungry or had to pee. Trying to be as helpful as possible, I said no when I often meant yes.
As the day progressed to late evening, we both got sleepy at the same time.
“Hey, I think I need to get some shut eye. What do you think, Ugly?” Ugly was a nickname I obtained early, but only he used. It started as a joke since I was the only redhead out of six siblings, so the insinuation was that I wasn’t his, therefore ugly by default. I never had the guts to protest, and everyone else in the family seemed to not hear it, so I gave up. He thought it was funny, I didn’t.
“Yeah, I could definitely sleep. That sounds great!”
“Ok, well keep your eyes peeled for a place that doesn’t look like we’ll get robbed,” he chuckled in his low gravel of a voice.
We searched for a hotel, passing by those that were full or especially seedy looking for what seemed like hours. We eventually pulled up to a yellow-lit hotel with a blinking vacancy sign. Debris was slinking around the parked cars and the smell coming from the front desk was of Lysol mixed with stale urine. Since we were so tired, we willingly overlooked those negatives.
Once we were in our room, we took turns taking showers with the thin bars of motel soap and scratchy, cheap towels. I’d only been in a motel once before, on a visit to my aunt’s house, but I was so young at the time that the memories were fuzzy. The showers seemed to wake us both up. That, combined with the loud highway noise, made sleep seem impossible. My dad started flipping the channels on the ancient TV. He eventually stopped on The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I was proud that he didn’t assume I was too young to watch it, and I maneuvered closer to him on the queen size bed we were sharing. I didn’t get too close, but I could feel the warmth of his legs on mine through the thin sheets.
At home, I would often try to insinuate myself into his field of vision. I tried liking what he liked: poker, tennis, Stephen King novels. This only worked temporarily and if he was sober. I tried complimenting his looks, which he loved, but only worked during the sweet spot between buzzed and hammered.
We watched the movie and barely spoke, but I felt a shift toward that intimacy that I had been missing with him at home. I always thought he felt the shift that night too. When the movie was over, he rolled over facing away from me and said, “Go to sleep, we have a long day tomorrow.”
I woke up first. By the time I had used the bathroom he was already out of bed, dressed, and smoking one of his Winstons. I hurried to get dressed too and felt a loosening in my chest that seemed to be tied to his affection. I didn’t want to break the connection I felt we had forged.
He called the other day. Ten years since our last disastrous meet-up. His coarse, whiskey-scarred voice echoed in my ear for a few seconds before I recognized it.
“Uh, hi.” I was in the middle of reading, so it took me a minute to register the voice.
“You know who this is, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I know.” I intentionally tried to sound nonchalant. I didn’t want to give away the surprise of finally hearing from him after such a long time.
“Don’t you have anything to say?”
“You called me.” I folded and unfolded the dog eared page of the book that was still in my hands.
“I wanted to catch up. It’s been too long.”
My initial reaction was to berate him for popping into my life only when convenient or when sober enough to remember that he left two daughters wondering what they did wrong, but I tried to make a connection. It takes time to learn lessons.
“You want to catch up? Where should I start?” Should I say that I was engaged to be married, working on my second degree, and teaching canoeing in my spare time? I wanted to mention the canoeing since he always said I was terrible at it during long-ago family outings, but I decided to let it go.
“Don’t be a smartass. You always had a mouth on you.”
“Apples don’t fall far from trees. Isn’t that what they say?”
“You’re right. Your mother has one too.” I think I heard a muffled laugh at his own joke.
“Let’s keep mom out of this, Don.” I was already deciding whether or not to mention this call to my mom. She still got teary when we talked about him. She didn’t let it interfere in any real way with her life, but it was clear that under the surface their relationship and its demise was a bruise that hurt even under even the lightest touch.
“Don’t call me Don. I’m your dad.”
“Hmmm.” Dad in name only, I think to myself. Sperm donor, mom abuser, the reason I have trust issues.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Forget it. Is there something specific you wanted to know?” I was getting anxious to get off the phone and not let him get into my head any more than he already had.
“I just thought it was about time.” Understatement at its finest.
“Have you talked to Patty?” Patty and I talked every week or so, and the subject of our dad would come up here and there. Our most recent conversation had been reminiscing about the time we stayed at the battered women’s shelter after a particularly horrible few months between my parents. We were discussing how cute the Jesuit boys who took us on field trips were.
“Yeah, I called her too. She sounds good. I can’t believe she has kids. Is she still pretty? I asked her to send me pictures.”
“Yeah, she’s still pretty. You know you shouldn’t call her if you don’t want to stay in touch. She’s sensitive.”
“I think I worry less about who calls me and who doesn’t than Patty does.” Patty always had a soft spot for him that I had given up on many years ago.
“Is that so?”
“Yep.” I put down the book and started folding the two-day old laundry that was on my loveseat, the phone cradled on my shoulder.
“Well, I wanted you both to know that I’m doing well. I went through rehab again, and I’m driving a truck. Being on the road was about the only thing that kept me sane. You know what I mean?”
“Sure. I know what you mean.” What I didn’t say was that the road provided freedom to have a woman in each town he visited, and to easily pick up and leave whenever he felt the need. These were details that I learned much later in fits and starts from my mom.
I decided I would go along with this forced connection and try to reminisce about that night at the motel.
“Don, do you remember that time when I was 10 and went on a haul with you? You had a truck full of citrus pulp. The smell was overwhelming. We made a stop at an orange juice factory, and you brought me a TAB and a stale granola bar from the truckers’ lounge. We stopped after driving for hours at some seedy motel and got sucked into watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon instead of sleeping. That was a good night. I remember the movie scared me a little bit, but I wanted to act like it didn’t.”
He hesitated. I could hear him taking a drag from his cigarette and the clink of ice in a glass. Maybe rehab hadn’t worked that well.
“I don’t remember that. There were so many hauls in those days. Wow, I had no idea you had such a good memory. I’m sure that’s how it happened. I just don’t remember. I know I’ve seen that movie though. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t with you.”
I didn’t have the energy to tell him that that was the only time I ever went with him. I wished I hadn’t opened my mouth. He always did have the ability to make me feel like he was there when he really wasn’t. All I wanted to do was get off the phone.
I laughingly say, “That’s fine. I was little. Good chat. I’m glad things are going well for you.”
“Yeah, Ugly, I’ll call soon. It seems like you kids have grown up all right.”
We have grown up all right, I think as I hang up the phone. He never called again. I found out he died a few years ago.
I wish I had never mentioned the movie.
Like glossy carpet, photographs lie all over my son’s bedroom floor. They’re spread out, poured from tipped over boxes. They’re stacked in piles. They stand in a line at the back of his desk. It’s the same boy over and over again.
There he is posed in his Astros uniform. There he is holding hands with a friend outside the Exploratorium. There he is, face pressed against his brother’s as they concentrate on something just outside the frame. There he is perched proudly in front of the 1000-piece puzzle he completed the summer before starting second grade. There we are, tongues out, eyes wide...