The letter had no return address, but I knew it was from Daddy. He wrote with an unmistakable flourish, an odd combination of cursive and block-style, with random capital letters here and there in a sentence. He only finished the 9th grade. But he did advance quickly to the rank of First Sergeant in General Patton’s 6th Armored Division in World War II, earning a diamond in the middle of the insignia on his sleeve and a landing at Utah Beach in Normandy. Maybe what he did and what he saw with the Super Sixth is what messed him up. Let a bottle of whisky put its shiny boot on his neck, where no German soldier ever got the chance.
I’d only ever had one other letter from Daddy and that one was delivered to me during mail call aboard the USS Intrepid. He congratulated me for following in the footsteps of his father, my Pop Brewer who served aboard the USS Alabama in the first world war, and for avoiding the eyes of men I might have otherwise had to kill in the jungles of Vietnam.
But this letter was about another conflict. The simmering cold war we had with each other since I got too big to take a whipping from him. This letter was Daddy hoping for some kind of stand-down between us since my busted marriage was a man’s dose of some hundred-proof reality medicine that might help me see differently.
I’ve written some books that have been published, novels and such. And, damn right I have opened Word files to write about him and me. Got 40,000 words into Distilling Daddy. And ditched the project when I imagined myself standing on the fifty yard line at Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, maybe a homegame with Ole Miss—though by whose invitation to take the field I had not worked out—where I’d take the mic and ask who in the stands had a mean-ass daddy growing up, one who drank too much and hit too hard, who was gone a lot, and good-freaking riddance. Silence would fall. Dead silence. All but, like, four hands would go up. And those people would lower their heads, wondering how did they rate the slight, keen to know where were their crosses, what necessary wounding had they missed on the road to salvation.
So I would only blink, and nod, hand the mic back to a man in a crimson necktie, and walk off the field. And go to my computer and save the Daddy document to a file called Unfinished Manuscripts. Forty years ago, maybe I’d have put the pages in a Chiquita banana box with a removable lid and slid it under my bed.
I’m 71 now. Daddy died 35 years ago. I never answered his letter. But I’ve read it many times.
The letter showed up in my mailbox within a couple of weeks of the divorce from my first wife, the mother of his first grandbaby, my daughter. He held her on his forearm in a blanket, staring at her with wet eyes while I and my sister looked at the camera for the picture that I still keep in a doctor’s old black leather bag under my desk.
The man knew something about divorce. He pointed that out in the letter. For Daddy had been a good-looking man who could dance like the leading man in a movie musical, who looked a little bit like Clark Gable with his slick black hair, and who drove fancy cars. And all of that figured in the seven wives he had.
Talking about my own bust-up, he said in the letter that now I would know that life can “throw shit in the game” and maybe turn a man hard, maybe make him do things he’d not do on his better days. That’s as close as he could get to expressing something like regret for some of the action scenes that had played out between us, where there was no hero to bounce in and say pick on somebody your own size. Mama tried that one time and the outcome is one of those archived clips that plays in my mind when some surprise switch gets flipped. It did not go well for her. That was not mentioned in Daddy’s letter.
But I mentioned it, wrote it down, though it didn’t get a stamp and envelope. It’s a scene, with small changes, in a novel I wrote. A friend of mine, a lady here in town, told me on the sidewalk one day she’d not be reading my new book. Said she read a little bit of it and knew that boy and she was just not going there.
If I went to see a therapist and I took the letter from Daddy that I still have, she’d likely give me an assignment to answer it. I’d let her read the letter. He’s moved on, she’d say, and there’s no forwarding address, but if you’ll write an answer to him, maybe you, too, can move on. She might say for me to take my time and go deep on that part where Daddy said I was always his favorite, and he couldn’t understand why I’d always been so cold to him. Pushed him aside, he wrote. He allowed he could only hope and pray that maybe now, with me tore loose from childish senses and dropped into a man’s world of heartbreak and disappointments, things could get better for us.
A year ago, I wouldn’t on a bet or dare do shadowside homework. But today I’ve started the letter to my father at the top of a clean, white page. Dear Daddy, that’s all I’ve got so far. I crossed out Dear Casey because I have never called my father by his first name, not to him nor to anyone else when speaking of him.
Same way I start a novel, I’m thinking about what I’ll write before I get busy with pen and paper. That stage of walking around bumping into lampposts and stepping into potholes while noodling on the range and sweep of what to say. A newspaper friend said he’s got to get his lead in his head, got to get that nut ‘graph sharp as a spearhead meant for killing before tearing loose after prey in the open grasslands. That way, he says, he’ll meet his deadline in half the time he needs. And nail the story every time.
I don’t know that I’ll nail my letter to Daddy, but I’m thinking I’ll come pretty close to what I want to say when it’s done. Just like novels and stories, everything gets set right in the rewrite. And I’ll rework lines until they’re honest.
I’ll tell Daddy about this coronavirus isolation, how it’s at least put me in touch with the man he thought I’d conjure into when I got that divorce. I’ll tell him he was foolish to have thought I’d sit still with myself back then. And I’ll tell him he was just stone nuts to think I’d have invited him to sit with me, that I’d ever have asked him back then what kind of crap was he living with that wouldn’t let him be my daddy.
But now I’ve been solo in my cabin since March and some ghosts have come calling that Dickens could have sent my way, their stories too familiar to turn away from. Only now that I’m an old man and single again, however, do I have ears to hear. And probably only inside the walls of this pandemic could relevant nuances of meaning have surfaced in my psyche. In four months I haven’t been inside anyone else’s home, or inside a restaurant or Home Depot or O’Reilly Auto Parts. Four times I’ve sat outside with a visitor fifteen feet away. Twice I got together with half a dozen people in aluminum folding chairs under some big oak trees. I’ve consigned myself with purpose to this solitude like a Trappist monk who bites down without medicine on the toothache pain of separation from society, questing with singularity for some kind of spiritual light in a gloomy fog, bound and determined to see through the storied darkness of the soul, though prayers echo off silent walls.
But I won’t get into all that Thomas Merton stuff with Daddy.
I’ll keep it simple. I’ll tell him that just today I threaded his belt into my cargo shorts and wore it all day. Thick leather two inches wide with a bronze Mack Truck bulldog buckle that’s not my style and I kept it covered up under my untucked t-shirt. He would tell me the hand-tooled belt monogrammed with his name was meant for jeans and cowboy boots like a trucker might wear. Like the trucker he was when he ordered the belt.
And that would be my cue to tell him I never really fastened onto what it must have been like for him, how it must’ve opened some cracks to find himself driving a log truck for pay when he was only twelve, sunburned and shirtless, and staying here and there with uncles and cousins because my Pop Brewer and Big Mama had divorced and put a state line between themselves so they wouldn’t get in each others way while starting new families. Three half siblings on the Mississippi side of the line, and five half siblings on the Alabama side, and Daddy didn’t get in the way on either side.
He was not a son or a boy in that situation, he was odd man out.
Though he must have believed when he was three and took his mama’s hand as she left my grandfather and the pair of them walked twenty miles to catch a bus to start a new life that he was his mama’s only boy. When that dream came unwound, something in him started unraveling. I’m sure it did, know it’s true as well I know I share a last name with the kid he was.
I’ll write and tell him he has grandsons now, two young men who might have called him Pop Brewer, had they got to meet him. I’ll say I gave to my oldest boy the ring he gave to me, the one with the magic ruby star sapphire he bought on the streets of Bangkok. I’ll tell Daddy about my flash of insight when I was forty. There was a bright clear moment when I suddenly knew that his gift of the ring to me at my high school graduation was to replace the plastic gumball ring he made me throw out the car window when I was nine, telling me no son of his would go around thinking some damn penny ring was magic. In the letter, I would ask did he watch my eyes when he handed off the ruby ring to me to see did it make everything right with us. And if he were here now he could watch my eyes and tell his grandsons about how a real man can turn loose his grip on grudges, let love drag up a seat at the table.
And he could tell them how he made his own way, without anyone’s help, and finally got out of the log truck and signed on for a better paying job with the army, lying through his teeth with practice and a cockeyed grin about his age. No one doubted he was a man in full. No underage kid could fight the way he fought, learn to kill so clean. He was not afraid of the devil in any disguise.
I’ll write and tell Daddy that I was set back in my chair when I found in one of his keepsake boxes the yellowed and musty-smelling newspaper account of him taken prisoner of war by the Germans. I read of his escape after beheading a guard with a folding shovel and jumping from a rolling jeep to run into the woods where he dug a hole with that shovel and covered himself with leaves until he heard the voices of American soldiers three days later. I’ll put in the letter that, yes, maybe I can see Jack Daniels as an ersatz therapist for nightmares come groaning for him in nights that called back those memories.
I’ll even write down something about him losing my mama. She must’ve been a fight the soldier hated to lose, a failure that nearly broke him. Though he talked her into giving him another shot and they got married again. She was his wife number four and wife number five. And I’ll say something to Daddy about seeing clearly now how those Christmas Eve long-stemmed yellow roses presented to my mama cost him his wife number six. I’ll let him know I get that it was really a lot more than flowers for an ex that made him pack up and leave her.
Number seven didn’t last long enough for me to meet her, so I can’t bring her up. Nor numbers one through three, whose names I haven’t learned, though my sister discovered that we have a half sibling three years older than me, if he is still alive.
I will write and tell Daddy I could not see then that our troubles weren’t between him and me. I will tell him I’m not sure I could walk a mile in his hobnail boots. And if I could walk where he did, now that I better know the road he traveled, I’d say something about earning wages paid in the coin of a higher realm.
I will say in the letter that I can see the amazing grace in a thief on a cross being set free for eternity without baptism or any profession of faith, that it’s none of our business to justify that outcome, because we really don’t know a damn thing about what breaks or justifies another man. Such judgment is for higher powers.
In the letter to Daddy, I will not write that I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to get back to him. That would be a regrettable line. Hackneyed and dishonest and unfair. It’s me I’ve taken a long time to get in touch with, and that’s a letter I’m still writing.
Waterhole Branch, Alabama