Dad said that I’d scared her off. That I never should have bought an engagement ring and a house at the same time. It’s a lot to put on a bartender, he thought, and we should have rented first—just to see how things went.
I asked if he meant rent the ring or a house. He only grumbled at that.
It was almost funny to hear him talk this way. And despite the thicket of shit that was my life, he was making me feel better. Although the source of those warm feelings could’ve been the bottle of Maker’s Mark sitting on the table, sloshing around and catching the evening sun. But the drink and my father’s gruff, no-words-wasted tone were enough to get me through.
I sat at my cheap, pressed wood table that came from a box, knowing that Dad was sitting at that century-old oak table in his kitchen, missing Mom as much as I was. I had my liquor and cell phone, free to stumble about my half-empty house, while Dad was tethered to the kitchen by a phone cord, sipping a beer. I guess it was nice just knowing he was there.
But it wasn’t nice being a living, breathing county-western song. I’d lost my job and girlfriend in the same week. Toss in the seventy-pound slab of lab lying motionless on the floor, and all I needed was a dobro guitar. Sprinkle in a staggering 8,000 dollar gambling debt, and I had myself a hit record.
Eight grand. May not be the end of the world for some people, but for a recently unemployed bartender renting-to-own a house after being picket fence delusional enough to finance 3,000 dollar rock? Well, back to that country western tune.
But now it was Dad and me. And that comfortable hum in the silence between us.
We hadn’t spoken this much in the years since I’d left home. And maybe not even before that. My dad and I were never all that close—Mom always did the talking for both of us. Now here we were, closing in on an hour. We weren’t so much chatty, but we were connected. And there was comfort knowing that he’d already been through whatever I was going through. Tenfold.
A week after Mom’s funeral, Dad finally broke. He spent three days under the magnolia tree on the far end of the property. When I found him, a bottle in his lap, I thought he was dead, and I was pissed at how he held it all in and kept everything to himself. He never once cried while she was sick. Not at the funeral or when we got back home. Then he just went out to that tree to die.
It was a selfish thing to do. And I was angry as I shook him—maybe harder than I needed to shake him—screaming at him until he rolled over and slobbered. Then I laid him down in the back of his own pickup truck, drove to the house, and chucked him in bed.
Now I was the one looking for a tree. I’d made mistakes. I’d rushed out to finance a house and a ring to keep up with some fuzzy picture of my childhood in my head. I knelt. I proposed. She said yes.
A month later, Tab was having second thoughts. About a wedding. About marriage. About us. She said she was too young to be tied down. She loved me. Oh, she loved me, and she loved the house. Her shiny eyes stayed fixed on the ring. She loved that ring so much she kept it.
That was four days ago. Crazy to think how only days ago I was ready for a gift registry, a bachelor party, a honeymoon. Tab and I could do that awful joint Facebook thing. We’d get pictures done. We’d finish each other’s sentences. Mom and Dad got married just a few years out of college. I guess I figured that if Tab and I hurried, we could repeat my parents’ success.
On the phone, Dad told me to hang on for a second. I heard some shuffling, the hum of the old radio, the squeak of the woodstove door as Dad put another log on the fire. He returned, a little winded, clearing his throat. “Mason, why don’t you come out here?”
I stopped spinning my empty glass, unsure if I’d heard him correctly. “What, to visit?”
“Dad, I can’t. I mean, what about my house?”
It was almost laughable, considering the state of my house. The roof leaked. The heat pump was temperamental. The sofa was gone, along with the bed and the antique chest of drawers we’d bought in Farmville. Tab had even taken the mirror off the wall. At least she’d left me the dog.
Dad scoffed. “Explain it to the guy. He’ll find another sucker. If he doesn’t, walk away.”
“Sure. You’re young. Your credit will recover.”
I rubbed my eyes. This from the man who dragged me to the bank to open a savings account when I was fourteen. Who explained the benefits of mutual funds and IRAs. The shrewd investor, the guy who planned it all out and retired at fifty-five, only to spend his retirement alone.
“Look kid, she screwed you over. But better now than later on down the road when you got kids and all that. And the job, it’s tough. Not a banner week, Mase, but that’s okay. We’ve all been there.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. Winkfish County was what, population three? What the hell would I do with myself? But Dad’s voice was comforting, safe, as familiar as the radio in the background. I thought about my childhood room—my single bed, how the memory of Mom must haunt that house. How maybe Dad needed me as much as I needed him. Wrigley set his head in my lap, and I scratched behind his ear. “Are you sure? I have this dog…”
“Bring him. Look, I need a hand out here. I’m thinking of cleaning out the basement, maybe having a yard sale. Starting fresh. Do us both some good.”
Starting fresh. Dad had always been the strict, clean-cut, no-nonsense type. The guy who’d never missed a day of work in his life. He spent his weekends from sun up to sun down on the 100 acres of land surrounding the house, gardening, splitting piles of firewood, tinkering with the tractor.
This guy on the phone though, he wanted to talk. He wanted to start fresh. “I’ll think about it, Dad. I have some stuff to do around here first.”
Like I had anything to do but wallow in self-pity. I had no job and no fiancée. I was banished from my favorite bar. All I had was a rickety table, a third of a bottle of Maker’s, and a restless dog who kept sighing all night long. I think he blamed me for this mess.
But I had my dad—the guy I’d picked up off the dirt and carried home all those years ago. And now he was trying to do the same for me, telling me to think it over. I smiled, wondering what Mom would make of all this. The two of us living together, cooking, talking sports over dinner. It would be different than before—some things can’t be repeated, just like some things can’t be predicted. Dad needed me. I needed him.
Maybe this is what I’d been rushing toward all along—not Tab or the house or even marriage. Maybe that’s why I sat up and twisted the cap on the bottle. “So, you got enough firewood out there?”
He grumbled, but it was more of a laugh. “Some. Need to split the rest.”
“I’ll split, you stack?”
“Okay. See you tomorrow.”