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Bradford Philen

Father Like Lion

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When I came home from studying at a friend’s house one night, Mom was in the kitchen cleaning up a mess that looked like a tornado made. Her face was swollen, but she wasn’t crying. She had a glass of gin near her. I ran straight to the garage, because I knew that’s where Dad would be. He was always in the garage drinking and fixing stuff. I shoved him and told him to pick on someone his own size. I was in the tenth grade.

“Clayton,” he said, “you don’t want to start a fight you can’t finish.”

That’s the best advice he ever gave me that he really meant and that line will stick with me forever. Don’t start a fight you can’t finish. Dad didn’t take too nice to me shoving him like I did, so he flung himself at me. I was already taller—and much quicker—than him. I bear-hugged him and then swaddled him in a full nelson. I told him if he hit Mom like that again, I’d kill him. I held him tighter and thought about going ahead and doing it.

He said, “Mercy, son, mercy, I can’t barely breathe.”

I let him go.

He coughed like he had a sponge stuck in his throat and then begged me to forgive him.

I pointed at him and said, “Don’t ever do that again. I mean it.”

That night I thought I was invincible.

Before my son was born, my wife asked me what type of father I wanted to be. She was very pregnant. It was after church where we had been holding hands and praying together to a God I wasn’t sure I believed in any more. I thought about her question and then thought about sin. I thought, first, I want to be a father who doesn’t get drunk. I want to be a father who doesn’t watch porn, except for when the wife wants to, of course. I don’t want to be a father who yells and screams at nothing. I don’t want to be a father who does bad, even if everyone else is doing bad too. It’s funny, I was thinking about fatherhood in the negative. All the things I didn’t want. All the things I was convinced I saw in my own father.

It wasn’t always like that.

When I was two or three, he’d scoop me up in his arms, cross one leg over the other, set me on the instep of his boot, and bounce me up and down like I was galloping on a horse.

“Hold on to the horsey,” he’d say again and again, bouncing me so I laughed until my belly burned warm.

There were the fishing trips that I can still see in my mind like it was yesterday. I didn’t like the messy worm-hooking. I liked just sitting there with Dad, being quiet on the bank of the lake. All the sounds and smells in the stillness. I liked it, too, when Dad took out the bucket of catfish feed and we threw out handfuls at a time and watched it sprinkle on the water. It was enough for me to just toss it out like that to the fish to eat for free.

My son doesn’t look like me. I’m white. He’s black. I’ve got blue eyes. He’s got brown. I told my wife that more than anything I wanted to be a fair and honest father.

“You’ll be more than that,” she said.

Growing up, I only remember playing ball with Dad once in the cul-de-sac. I told him I wanted to shoot some hoops before practice.

“You can’t just play ball all day,” he’d said.

I was on the way out the door, the ball already spinning in my hands, but Mom told Dad to hush and put some shoes on. He put on his work boots. I only remember Dad always wearing work boots or dress shoes. Never anything else. We were in the father-son Indian Guides program and I remember one year our tribe took a trip to the coast to look for shark’s teeth and to see the landmarks where the pilgrims and the Native Americans supposedly lived peacefully, for a time at least, and my friends and I laughed at Dad, even though he didn’t see us, because he still wore his polished penny loafers out on the beach even though he was shirtless and in his swim trunks. My Indian name was Running Deer. I can’t remember what Dad’s name was.

I don’t recall how old I was, but one day, Dad said my thumb-sucking had to stop. Every night from then on, before bed, he painted clear nail polish on my thumbs and told me only cry babies sucked their thumbs.

When I was in first grade, my best friend and I thought it’d be funny to make our own version of Ms. Buckley’s song she’d recently taught us, which was “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” We sang about the female body and all its parts. I don’t even know how we could’ve known those words then. That night, after Mom got off the phone with Ms. Buckley, Dad told me to lie across his lap and not squirm.

“If you do,” he said, “you’ll get more than what I plan on giving you.”

He had a Ping-Pong paddle in one hand and lowered my trousers with his other, so my buttocks sat bare and naked in the air. I could hear Mom crying in the background, as I yelled to Dad that I was sorry and would never say bad words ever again.

When my son was finally born, I started to believe in God again. I didn’t want to watch, but in the moments before he emerged into the world, the doctor propped a mirror in between my wife’s legs. I was by her side, yelling push, and letting her squeeze my hand like it was a stress ball. I saw my son’s head pass through the birth canal, and I couldn’t help but wonder how impossible it all seemed. He was almost seven pounds.

After that night I put Dad in the full nelson, Mom and Dad split up for good a few months later. They had already been legally separated for a while, even though I didn’t know. I always thought Dad was working—I knew him to be an accountant—but he was at the farm instead, living his other life, sleeping with his girl friend named Michelle who was much younger than Mom. To Dad, the farm was acres and acres of resurrection and Jesus Christ. He thought he could just start over and be a new man there. A new Dad.

Once Mom and Dad’s divorce was final, I didn’t visit him until college, and Mom never pushed the issue with me either. Dad still visited me when I was in eleventh and twelfth grade. He’d drive down on weekends every once in a while. He even made a few weekday trips down to Raleigh just to watch me play ball, despite his thinking that the city was all a “rat race.” I was on Varsity then, killing it, 3-pointer after 3-pointer.

I got an earring and Dad asked if I was a fag.

“A what?” I said.

It was a Sunday morning. We were at Waffle House eating breakfast. He was getting ready to drive back up to the farm, which was four hours northwest of Raleigh.

“A fag,” he said. “Are you one of these?” He flopped his wrist out into the air. “Are you tootie fruitie? A Nancy boy? A fudge packer? Do you like men like that?”

I laughed at him, and I’ll never forget the way he was looking at me. Like he was ready to say goodbye to me forever.

“Dad,” I said, “faggots wear them in the other ear.” I grabbed my right ear lobe.

He shrugged his shoulders and took a sip of his steaming coffee. “Well, I didn’t know,” he said. “I was just making sure.” He still looked at me hard like if he stared hard enough, he’d find something that would prove I wasn’t once one of his sperms swimming around in Mom’s uterus.

The thing is, Dad and I look just like each other, and I can’t help that. I have his nose and his hair and the mole that sits on the far left side of my cheek that I have to shave every few days. When I was a senior in college, Mom called and said Dad was in the hospital. I hadn’t heard her say “Dad” in a long time. She never asked me about him. We didn’t have reason to talk about him. I didn’t even think she had his phone number at the farm.

“He’s been in an accident,” she said.

Dad fell from the loft in the barn. I figured he was drunk—or had been drinking—but it was the floorboards that were loose. He stepped right through and fell more than fifteen feet directly on his back. He was lucky to be alive. At the hospital, everyone looked at me, like they were looking at a younger version of him. I could feel it.

Dad’s girlfriend Michelle stepped out to get him something, which I took as code to give us time to talk. I felt sorry as hell for him lying there on the hospital bed and all those tubes were plugged in him.

“Well,” he said, “I guess this is what you’ve been waiting for.”

I rolled a metal stool by his bedside then and sat. “What do you mean?”

“You hate me,” he said, “and I know it. Ever since—”

“I don’t hate you, Dad,” I said, even though I did. “You’re just hurting. How do you feel?”

He laughed then. “How do you think I feel?”

Being with Dad made me think about everything bad I had ever done in my life. He was like a reminder, to me, of my own sinning. At that time, when I was drinking my way through school, I had been dating this girl named Kelli who I could easily guilt into having sex with me. It was easy, because, you know, I’d say, lying hugged up with her like a pretzel in her bed or mine, we’ve already gone so far, Kell, and, you’re so wet, and having blue balls is real and hurts. She always drank as much as I did and even more some nights. I’d keep kissing her until she’d say okay or fell asleep and then I’d just penetrate her anyway, with or without a condom, I didn’t care. It was easy and I could get away with saying shit like, let me just put it inside you for a little bit, and then I’d just do it even if she didn’t say yes, and then I’d laugh about it the next day and tell her I was drunk and so was she, but I knew I wasn’t, and I convinced her it was all right. Better yet, I could convince her she’s the one who wanted it more. I wondered what Dad said to guilt Mom and what all he made her do.

I visited Dad every weekend when he was laid up at the hospital. I didn’t really have an excuse. My college was just an hour from the hospital where he’d been helicoptered in after the accident. I took Kelli a few times, and Dad spoke to her like he was a gentleman. One night, after we’d returned from seeing him, we were both real drunk, and she went on and on about how nice Dad was and how I looked just like him, and I shoved her into a wall and told her to shut the fuck up. She sat up, against the wall, and started laughing at me. I punched a hole in the wall then, right by her head, and before I stormed out of the apartment, said, “You stupid bitch.”

My son is close to two now. I like to take him on walks. It doesn’t matter where and, when it’s just me and him on a walk in the neighborhood, I let him lead me. He’ll walk a few steps, look back at me and smile, make some noise, like da-da-da-da-da-da, and maybe point to something around us, and then go back to walking. I do the only thing I can do, which is smile back and talk to him and bend down and kiss him on the forehead and follow him wherever he wants to go. I pick him up when he falls and distract him when he’s going somewhere he shouldn’t or can’t yet.

After college, I had to leave. Mom understood, which is the toughest part for me now when I think about my parents. All that time and all my energy—all my anger and hate—was geared toward Dad, when I should have given my Mom more of me.

The day before I left for the Peace Corps, she drove me to REI and spent way too much money on a pair of hiking boots I absolutely did not need.

“You’re going to Africa for two years,” she said, “you need a good pair of boots.”

She bought me a few other things too. A new backpack, clothes that were made of something synthetic and sweat-proof, energy bars, a Nalgene bottle. I called Dad the night before I left. He was back home at that point, moving slowly with his recovery. He was walking and all, but he’d have to take it easy for a long time. That meant, farm work was out of the picture. He went back to consulting on finances and taxes. He told me he and Michelle were going to get married.

“Congratulations,” I said.

“You’ll probably have a brother or sister when you get back,” he said. I felt even worse for him then, but I didn’t say anything.

After the silence was too much for him, he said: “I love you, son. Be safe over there.”

I said, “good-bye, Dad,” and hung up.

The boots were of no use, but I never told Mom that. I didn’t realize the Tropical Savanna would be so sandy. I was picturing high green grasses waving in the African breeze, red clay soil and magnificent mahogany forests, lions and elephants. Instead, I got village foot paths of deep sand and weak soil that was barely fertile enough to feed the village year round. I lived with a family on a homestead who harvested millet and drank goat milk at every meal. My room on the homestead was a thatched hut. I was a teacher at a small village school, but a teacher of what I wasn’t sure. I had never been a teacher, never taught anybody anything in my life. Every night I sat and watched the sun set.

The sun.

The son.

Is it any surprise it’s a homonym? At dusk, I laughed at the sun drooping below the horizon.

The son.

Tate Mundjego, the father of my village homestead, reminded me of Dad. Stoic and hard. Unwavering and determined. One night, after the sun had already set, he came to my hut, knocked on the door, and said, “Clay, Clay, Clay.” No one in the village had figured out how to say my name correctly, as I had yet figured out how to ask for simple things from them or make simple conversation with them, in their language. Tate Mundjego’s voice was hurried and loud.

I went to the entrance of the hut, and there he was standing firm and tall. He held a sturdy piece of rubber that must have been ripped from an old tire.

“Aeeno, Tate,” I said, yes, father. Mundjego was his last name.

Behind him, I noticed, was his son Pau. It was barely light out, but the sky was full of stars, and Pau’s face was bloodied and swollen. I looked at Tate, and said in English, without hesitation, “what’s wrong with Pau. Why is he bleeding like that?” I talked with my hands and arms too, so he could tell I was in shock and meant whatever it was I was saying.

When I first met Father Mundjego he’d told me he had been a freedom fighter. He said he was one of the first Sons of the Independence. He spoke German and Dutch and Afrikaans and a little English, on top of the seven or eight African dialects of his nation.

“He steal you. He steal you,” he said there at my hut that night and then he took my Sony Discman from his pants pocket. I hadn’t even noticed it was gone. “I beat him for you.”

I looked at Pau and then Tate. My heart sank then. Why had I brought a Sony Discman to a tiny African village anyway? So I could listen to songs of my past, close my eyes, and masturbate to all the girls I wished I could have sex with in my hut in the African wilderness? “It’s okay,” I said, which I quickly realized wasn’t the right thing to say.

“Yes,” Tate said. “Okay. I know, I know. You now. Your turn. You beat him leegi leegi.” He handed me the Discman, then pushed the rubber whip toward me and stepped out of the way from Pau, gesturing for me to beat him. I didn’t take the piece of rubber.

Pau just stood there, like he was waiting for it, expecting me to whip him, as his father had done to him. Pau stood there, helpless and still, waiting for me to take revenge. For me to take my rage and anger all out on him. He was silent, waiting. It was in that moment that I realized I did love my father. I had no choice, but to love him. He was my father. Despite it all, he was my father.

In high school, I used to steal shit from the mall. This was before everywhere had cameras and everything had sensor tags. Usually, I’d just steal clothing. My friends would make requests and even pay me, and then there’d I be, in some dressing room, layering my outfits with Tommy Hilfiger polo shirts and stuffing socks and fancy boxer shorts down my pants legs. The thing was, I didn’t give a fuck, and I thought that was being a man. That was my mindset when I walked out of the stores. I was just like Johnny Depp in Blow, walking through the airport with a suitcase full of cocaine. I stopped all that one day when I watched a black man get wrestled down to the floor in a JC Penny’s. I don’t know what he did, but I knew I was better than getting wrestled to the ground by a mall cop.

I didn’t have the words to tell Tate Mundjego that he didn’t need to beat Pau. I looked at Pau and said I was sorry. I repeated it, again and again, in English, “I’m so sorry, Pau. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I shouldn’t have even brought the stupid thing here.” He just looked at me, like he didn’t understand, like I was not one of him, but I was. I am too a son.

Tate Mundjego was confused. He was angry. He pumped his fists at Pau again, and Pau flinched, like his father was a starved lion. Tate looked at me, like I was weak, and I was.

I was nothing but weak and would be forever. He tried to make my hand take the rubber whip again, but I told him no. I apologized to Tate Mundjego. I said it again and again, “ombili, ombili, Tate gwandje,” I am sorry, my father. I yelled it. I yelled it again to Pau, ombili, ombili, my brother. I yelled it to the stars, “ombili, ombili, ombili,” twinkling above in the forever African sky, until they left me there alone at my hut.

I am Running Deer. I don’t know what demons Dad lives with, but I know mine. It was all a fight I couldn’t finish then, and I never will. When it’s just me and my son, walking in the neighborhood, when I pick him up, I kiss him hard and often, and I think maybe my black son will be gay and that will be the finest thing in the world, as long as he’s fair and honest.

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