My father—my real father, whom I rarely saw throughout my childhood, because my mother divorced him when I was two, and he’d moved to the Midwest to make something of himself—was tall, with a splayed, reclining stance that brought prominence to his round belly. His large, gold-framed glasses gave his eyes a tint of amber. They rested halfway down an unusually shaped nose like a seahorse’s snout, with an initial, broad bow rising up between the caruncles, then turning in briefly on itself before flourishing in a soft, almost square bump. His glasses seemed always to be falling off, to have gotten smudged; or one stem would be tucked cleanly behind his ear while the other had wandered up the side of his head; or else the plastic pads on the bridge piece would have bent, so that they sat at an angle on his face, giving him the aspect of a drunkard or the loser in a fight. They caused him a lot of trouble, and were as often in his hands as on his face. His long, flat fingers would polish the lens with a fold of shirttail, or slide a milky-colored nail into the screw; if it pulled away from the cuticle, my father would bellow and put it in his mouth, and the glasses would have to be sent off to the shop.
While away, he finished an advanced degree, the acquisition of which was a source of such pride that on his address labels and credit cards and even the message that greeted callers when he was away from his phone, the honorific doctor always preceded his name. Once or twice, to excuse his long absence, he complained of the poverty of opportunities available in the 1980s in the city of my birth. He had wanted more for himself, he claimed, among other things because he hoped to offer me more of what he called chances that he’d never had himself. But my mother always avowed that his disappearance had nothing to do with ambition. When I was a baby, the two of them had gone to a party, she told me several times, at the home of a musician friend of my father’s, and she had opened a bathroom door to find my father with his pants around his knees and a woman acquaintance in a similar state of undress. My mother turned and ran off screaming, and my father chased her, holding up his trousers and swearing that it wasn’t what it looked like. My mother would laugh at this stage of the story, which was one of her favorites, squeezing her eyelids into jaded slivers and blowing twin tapers of cigarette smoke from her nose.
I have only two memories of him from before he left. Once, getting me ready for day care, he tried to strip me of my favorite red corduroys, which I had been wearing all week, and to force me into another pair that I hated, of a dull moss green that even in the early 1980s had already fallen out of fashion. “Goddamn it, you’ll mind me,” he said as he held me down. Another time, attracted by its bright, mysterious tip, smoldering under a crust of white ash, I took one of his cigars from the glass ashtray, touched it to my belly button, and began to howl and heave as my skin cooked and welted. My mother yelled at my father for leaving me alone with it, and he protested that he’d been gone only a second.
He seldom returned home, and when he did, I might not see him. There were a few breaks from school when he pulled up in his small red sedan to take me away for a disheartening weekend with his parents. Otherwise I knew him only from the fairly affected-looking photographs, posed with some implement of the holidays—a paper turkey, a gleaming cardboard heart, or a white Santa’s beard that hid his face—that arrived every few years with a box of candy or a toy.
I visited him twice out West that I remember. The first time, he was single, and lived in an apartment with a private entrance and stairway on the second story of a family home with wooden siding painted a dull rust brown. He had a claw-foot tub of tarnished copper, and the water flowed into it not from the tap but from a slender plastic tube. Once it had filled to just over my thighs, he left me alone there to tend to his papers. There was something tempting in the sinuosity of that fluted white hose, and when I reached out to touch it, it leapt into the air and twirled in circles like a maddened serpent. I was horrified; I half-hopped, half-scooted backward, slipped and struck my head, and screamed until he ran back in to save me.
The second time he was living with a woman with cropped, curly hair who worked as a nurse in a hospital. We went there late one night to pick her up after she’d been called in, and I saw an insane person in the waiting area, both his hands wrapped in bloody bandages. It was a cold, dry winter then, and we hardly went outside for most of my stay, but one day a neighbor, a friend of my father’s, dragged me through the icy streets on a tire tied to the bumper of his truck. Otherwise I stayed by the fireplace reading and drawing pictures in a sketchbook while my father sat studying in an easy chair.
My mother sought, if not frantically, then with admirable persistence amid adversity, a replacement for him—I hesitate here to use the word suitable, in light of these men’s often-lavish imperfections. It was never clear which among these was a suitor and which a mere friend, and nothing remains of them to me but casual traits that have turned caricaturesque beneath the soot of memory: the man with the mustache whose image, when I call it to mind, I cannot think of separately from those novelty glasses with the attached bushy eyebrows and plastic nose that people pretended to find funny in the seventies and eighties; the one who drove the van covered in spray-painted squiggles denouncing fluoridated water or perhaps the IRS; the balloon artist with an unspecified cerebronervous affliction that caused him great difficulty pronouncing certain words; the radio repairman who lived with his father and had shot himself in the stomach as a teenager. This last had a cluster of sunken scars on his abdomen and couldn’t eat foods containing milk or butter. My mother was unlucky in love. It can’t have helped that her only avocation was throwing darts in a taproom within walking distance of our home that did not cater to what is known as an exclusive clientele. Her good fortune, if it was that, in meeting the man I would later take to calling the Weirdo lay in her decision to take me there at lunchtime on a holiday, to satisfy my craving for one of the flat, greasy, overdone cheeseburgers the place produced between the hours of eleven in the morning and four in the afternoon. The Weirdo was a teetotaler, and he was there only because he was laying tile in a tanning salon in the U-shaped shopping center with the mystifying name “Arcadian Village” that shared a parking lot with the bar.
The Weirdo was a surly-faced man, short and stubby, with a beard, twenty years or so my mother’s junior (I never knew his real age, which he concealed with reference to a hatred for birthdays, a hand-me-down from his Jehovah’s Witness parents; and unlike most adults, he had no box or file folder containing birth certificate, tax returns, or any other documents bearing indications of his past or provenance). Due to their difference in age, my mother called him her sweat puppy among the friends she would cease to see once their relationship began in earnest, and this term, which I had never heard another person use before and have never heard since, seemed to me, judging by the pursed lips of these women as they sipped their Sea Breezes and Harvey Wallbangers through straws, indicative of his sexual potency or endurance. Then again, he boasted of the same on one of their early nights together, when I was in my bedroom and presumed to be asleep, and he spent hours trying to cajole my mother into bed while he played the martial arts video game Karateka on the computer she had purchased for me on a whim ten years before computers could do anything useful: “I may not look like much, but I swear to God, in the sack I’m a stallion,” he told her. I don’t know why my mother was reluctant just then, but within days, he overcame her resistance. I remember my mother’s panting through the wall separating our bedrooms, like the heaves of a person on the verge of vomiting. The rhythm of it I didn’t understand, because, though my mother had answered me plainly when I asked her at age five where babies came from, she had used the unfortunate verb place—the man places his penis inside the woman—and for many years, I assumed the two lovers remained stationary after insertion.
The Weirdo had an incomprehensible surname, the sound of which, as he uttered it, must have little resembled its pronunciation in the land of his ancestors. “I’m Irish enough to get mad fast and Russian enough to stay that way,” he liked to say with unfathomable swagger. But judging from the profusion of consonants in his patronymic, I think he must actually have been Georgian. His father, a mechanic, had pulled his own teeth with a pair of pliers to avoid paying for a trip to the dentist; his mother, a white-haired, fine-toothed woman, had a horrible collection of paint-by-numbers clowns. I met his parents when he and my mother had been together for less than a year and were aping an ordinary courtship; the pretense was soon enough abandoned, and when they purchased their land—they were already talking about it during their first days together, and were soon gripped by the notion of the freedom it would supposedly bring them—their few social contacts withered to none.
The move to this land prompted the only serious consideration of living with my father I ever entertained as a minor. At first, the idea of a new home was hardly less invigorating to me than to my mother and the Weirdo. Their cow-eyed mentions of the property’s “fully stocked pond” never persuaded me of the charms of killing fish as a hobby; and the pride the two of them seemed to take in “having something we can call our own” struck me even then as a mere abstraction; but, since the Weirdo had moved in, seven months after they started dating, my room had been repurposed to house what we loosely called his tools—which ranged from dismantled televisions to heat lamps for the raising of serpents—and I was made to use the couch as my bed. I could not sleep there, because in the evening, the Weirdo liked to engage me in what he called “philosophical discussions,” most of them touching the morality of waging nuclear war against impoverished populations he deemed “useless.” A room of my own, in a house rather than an apartment, offered the promise of relief. What they did not tell me, minimizing the length of the drive as people do in places where a car is a necessity, was that the land lay an hour from town, from my school, and from my friends; nor did they reveal, before taking me to see it the first time, that the house there was only approximately a house. The roof was sunken in one place, and soil was visible between cracks in the floorboards, which had been set directly over the joists with no plywood or insulation in between. My room-to-be was in an unfinished A-frame garret on the second floor of the garage, where the previous owners had stored their children’s old toys and outgrown clothes. “This is cool, isn’t it?” my mother said. “We’ll clear this out and put in the Sheetrock and carpet and it’ll be like your own little castle.” I thought then of the small plot surrounding the trailer the Weirdo was sharing with his sister when my mother met him, with its scattering of projects in various stages of incompletion: the wreck of an apple-green sports coupe, its engine rusting alongside it; tires amassed for some obscure purpose; a basketball backboard without a hoop; a spike set in concrete with attached collar and chain for a dog that must have run away or died—and I doubted whether suðcient initiative existed to make this space adequate for me, and envisioned endless days of walking around the property, bored and alone.
That night, impulsively, I told my mother I wanted to leave, that I would ask my father to let me go live with him. For a moment, she said nothing. The smoker’s wrinkles tautened around her lips. Hunched over in the blue wing chair with the brown cigarette burn on the armrest, the Weirdo folded his hands and stared down into his palms. On TV, a man in black robes was adjudicating a dispute between neighbors, one of whom had borrowed the other’s lawnmower and was suing for damages after cutting o” half of his own foot. For viewers—and my mother was a devoted one—the judge’s charisma lay in his inexhaustible store of outrage at the contending parties’ allegations, often phrased in folky chestnuts like “That dog won’t hunt” or “Boy, you’re dumber than a mud fence.” It made me want to scream.
She next asked me simply, “Have you really thought about this?”
“The house is in the middle of nowhere,” I said.
“That’s the point, some peace and quiet. A place where we can do whatever we like. Plus, it’s a real house, with space. We can’t just buy something like that anywhere.”
“Nobody’s parents are going to drive them an hour to come see me.”
“It’s not an hour.”
“Yes, it is.”
Here the Weirdo intervened, reaching his crooked index finger as close to my face as he could, calling me “Boy,” and telling me to respect my mother. I objected that I did respect her, that this had nothing to do with respect, and that I had to wonder if they respected me. Neither of them had asked my thoughts about the move until the decision was taken. “Be careful,” the Weirdo said, cutting me off. “You’re soon to get out of pocket.”
I walked to the kitchen, where the phone hung on the far wall, stretched the cord into the pantry closet, and shut the door to call my grandmother. My father’s number I didn’t know, hadn’t known for years; I’d had no cause to speak with him; and from what I knew, he moved often, in and out of student housing and between smaller and larger apartments depending on the receipt or denial of grants and loans. My grandmother didn’t pick up, and I burst into tears. I was silent at first, then I sank down, pressed my feet into the back wall, and started stomping and lamenting—in words, I think, but I only recall making incoherent groans—until the Weirdo came in, jerked me in the air by my biceps, carried me down the hall, kicked me twice in the backside, and threw me onto the bed. My mother told me afterward he had cried through the night, but hadn’t known what else to do.
Excerpted from My Father’s Diet. Copyright (c) 2022 by Adrian Nathan West. Used with permission of the publisher, And Other Stories. All rights reserved