My father calls me on the phone. It’s been years since I last talked with him. He asks me how I am, asks how’s the wife, how’s our kid. He says he was watching TV and he saw an ad for a local college and started to think of me. I wonder if he’s a little drunk. His mood changes, he’s quiet for a long time while I talk, and then he tells me that all my education ever did was make me think I was too good for people.
When I was younger, right after my father left, my mother would make maps for me and my brother to go on treasure hunts. She would crumple up pieces of paper and soak them overnight in water with a little yellow food-coloring, then, when they dried out, she would draw a map of our neighborhood, changing the objects around us through the labels on the map: storm drains became dungeons, the cul-de-sac on which we lived became the Dead Sea, etc. The illusion, my brother and I discovered, could be kept up only so long as we didn’t find the treasure – because the treasures were inevitably something we didn’t particularly want or care about, a toy from a Crackerjack box, a piece of old candy, sandwiches wrapped in foil…
When I was twelve years old, someone broke into our house while we were away for the weekend, shattering the window downstairs and stealing, in addition to most of my mother’s jewelry, several of her dresses. My mother was convinced, for some reason, that it had been my father – even after the police apprehended another man, who had carried out similarly bizarre robberies in the area, and, as it turned out, whose fingerprints were found on one of my mother’s dresser drawers. Years from now, after my father has died and my mother is living in an assisted-care facility, when my wife and I visit her, my mother will speak in a whisper about “that time your father broke into our house.”
When I was in college, late at night, drunk, I would sometimes call my father. He never picked up. Usually I ended up talking to the machine, and I would spend the minute or so before it stopped recording telling it, point by point, the wrongs my father had done us: the months without responding to calls from me or my brother; the times, when we were younger, when he was supposed to pick us up for the weekend when he simply didn’t show; the forgotten birthdays, forgotten Christmases, forgotten Easters, etc. Once in a while my father’s new wife would pick up. She must have worked at night – she always seemed wide awake, even if it were one or two o’clock in the morning, and was always faultlessly polite. “I’ll tell him you called,” she’d say. “I know he’s always glad to hear from you. He talks about you and your brother all the time.”