“Who did you say you were again?” the man asked, giving the glasses on his nose a nervous push upwards. I sighed. I didn’t think I was intimidating, being shorter than most other men and having a wardrobe consisting of sweaters and wire rimmed glasses. Maybe it was the notepad in my hand, the photograph on the table, or the wide look in my eyes, all of which made me look like some vintage news reporter. Or maybe he didn’t think I was intimidating at all, maybe he just thought I looked like an idiot.
“Thomas. I’m Dave’s son,” I said. The man squinted at me, obviously searching for a resemblance that wasn’t quite there. I looked down at the photograph in my hand. The man in the picture was tall and thin, but could only be described as mushy. His eyes were a bit sunken in, his face was pudgy, his lips almost swollen, and his nose red. He looked like he was starting to melt out of the picture, like some Dali painting, if Dali was into drawing shitty fathers. He looked sick. Maybe he was, I don’t know. This was the only picture of him I could find in my house – my mom didn’t keep a lot of pictures of him.
I didn’t look much like my father. Where he was round, I was angled. Where his nose drooped, mine was a scalene triangle. The only thing we had in common was our hair, a muddy brown mess of a color.
The man seemed to agree, because after a long stare, he gave a “humph” and folded his arms across his chest. “I’m afraid there’s not much for me to tell you, son. God rest his soul, your dad was a… uh, keep to himself kind of man. He came in here most mornings before he was off to work, got a drink… uh, coffee, that is.” He cleared his throat. “He was a nice guy, overall. Always tipped well.”
I nodded, pretending to write down what he had said onto my notepad. I knew how to tell when I was being lied to, and I knew that none of the things he told me about my father were true. I had heard enough stories from my mother to know that. Everything this man was giving me was sugar coated nonsense.
“Well, thank you, uh,” I looked at the nametag pinned to the black button up he wore. “John. I’ll get going now.” I left a five dollar bill on the table to pay for my coffee and left the restaurant.
The house was one of those square, tan, adobe looking places. It was larger than I expected it to be. I looked down at the address I had scribbled onto the top of my notebook to double check the numbers and the street. This was the place. I made my way up the driveway and around to the front door, a large green painted door that didn’t quite match the rest of the house. Surely my dad didn’t pick that color.
I hadn’t called ahead, but I figured whoever still lived here might be expecting me. The letter that had been sent informing my mom of my dad’s death had this return address on it. I raised my hand and rang the doorbell. I could hear it chime throughout the house with such an echo, the house sounded like an empty cavern. I hoped they hadn’t moved everything out already.
I only waited a few seconds before the door opened. A woman that looked to be in her early 40s answered the door. Marlene, my dad’s wife, technically my stepmom, except I’d never met her. Her hair was stringy and blonde, pulled up into a high ponytail with a few jeweled clips to pin back her bangs. She had on a pink tank top and short shorts, revealing legs that seemed too pale and skinny to belong to someone in their 40s. Her eyes looked me up and down.
“Can I help you?” she asked. So she wasn’t expecting me, it seemed.
“I’m Dave’s son.”
“I know who you are. Can I help you?” she repeated.
I swallowed and gripped my notepad a little tighter. “Yeah, can I come in?” She stared at me for a few more moments before letting out a sigh. She opened the door just wide enough for me to squeeze through it.
The house was muggy and dark. Stacked movies, shoes, clothes, and other clutter lined the rooms, but the house lacked any significant items of furniture, besides a sectional couch and a dining table covered in mail. “How do you know who I am?”
Marlene rolled her eyes and kept walking, hips swinging and bare feet slapping against the cold tiled floor. “You look like your father,” she said. I raised an eyebrow.
She shrugged. “Oh, sure. You have that same wet dog coloring. And that look in your eye.”
I waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t. “Look in my eye?”
She nodded and gestured for me to sit on the couch as she proceeded into the kitchen. The living room was small and the couch was overly squishy. The whole place smelled stale and the air was hot and dry. I looked around as I waited for Marlene to return from whatever she was doing. There were a few empty beer and pop cans laying around the room, along with other trash. On the coffee table next to me, beside four TV remotes and a half empty glass of some brown liquid, was a framed picture. It was of Marlene, my dad, and some kid, all smiling together. My dad was still red faced, his nose looked weirdly swollen, and had yellow teeth, but his smile looked genuine and the bags under his eyes had lessened. He looked more together, happier, in this picture than he did in the one in my pocket.
“Do you guys have a son?” I called over to the kitchen. Marlene appeared a few seconds later with two glasses of pop. She thrusted one out to me and took a seat on the couch, though sitting far enough away that there would be no accidental touching involved in our interaction.
“That’s Alex,” she said. She forced a small smile onto her lips before letting it fade back into a resting frown. “He’s mine, but became Dave’s when we married.” So they didn’t have a kid together. For some reason that made me feel better. I looked down at Marlene’s hand. No wedding ring.
“You guys married?”
“Not officially,” she said. There was an awkward pause where I waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t. “So, why are you here?”
I took a sip out of my pop so I wouldn’t seem rude. In truth, I didn’t like pop and would have preferred a glass of water, but she hadn’t asked and I wasn’t about to. I tried my best not to cringe as the carbonation hit the back of my throat. “I’m just looking to know more about my dad,” I answered. She let out a sigh.
“What do you want to know?” she said in a way that told me she wasn’t in the mood to tell me.
I shrugged. “I haven’t seen him since I was nine. I don’t even really know who he is — or, um, was. I guess. I’m just looking to learn more about him.” I reached into my pocket to pull out my notepad, which produced a choked chuckle from Marlene.
“What are you, a journalist?”
I shrugged yet again. “Just trying to piece stuff together.” Sweat rolled down the back of my neck. Did she have the air conditioning on at all? It was insufferably hot.
She rubbed her hands together as she thought. “Well, there’s not much to tell. He worked for an insurance agency in town. It took him a while to work up to it, but he did, and I was proud of him for it. He loved football. He…” I could see her scrambling for something else to say. “He was funny. And a good father, for Alex.” She looked up at me and cleared her throat. “Sorry.” She didn’t seem too sorry.
I dismissed it with a wave of my hand, writing down on my notepad:
- Kind of boring
- Had a job
- Good father for his not-related son
I was a little bit surprised to find that he had a salary job. My mother had always talked about his inability to keep a job, always coming in late and usually drunk. But now it seemed that he’d gone from being a deadbeat without a job to a deadbeat with a job. Which was a little better, I guess.
I took another sip from the glass in my hand. “And, uh, how did he…” I wasn’t quite sure how to ask the question without sounding insensitive.
“Die?” Marlene filled in for me. I nodded. “Stomach ulcer. He wasn’t in the best health, but it still came as a bit of a surprise,” she said, though she didn’t seem too broken up about it. Either she didn’t really care about my dad, or two weeks was enough time to properly mourn and move on.
“Did they say what caused it?”
“His stomach had been bothering him for quite a few days, but he refused to go to the doctor. Kept insisting everything was fine. Turns out things weren’t so fine,” she said.
“Is Alex around for me to talk to?”
Her nose wrinkled as her expression faltered, briefly, as if recoiling at the thought of her son. “I’m sure he’s in his room,” she said, composing herself with a forced smile. “But I’m sure you wouldn’t want to waste your time talking to a teenager. They aren’t the easiest to talk to.”
Her reaction alone piqued my interest. Perhaps her son would have something more interesting to say about my father. “I used to be a teenager myself, not so long ago. I’m sure I can manage.”
Alex’s room was at the end of the hallway. Marlene knocked on the door, then opened it without waiting for a response. “Alex, this is, um.” She looked back at me. “What’s your name again?”
I frowned. So my father talked about me so little that she didn’t even know my name. That’s nice. “Thomas.”
“Thomas. Right. He’s Dave’s son.” I heard a loud scoff come from the room. “He wants to talk to you.” Marlene stood, waiting for a response that she didn’t get. She turned back to me with a sigh. “He’s all yours,” she said, then made her way back downstairs. I pushed the door open wider and entered the room.
It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. There were no lights on, and blackout curtains were hung in the two windows. The only source of light came from the laptop sitting on the bed. In front of the laptop sat a boy, his face illuminated by the screen. His hair was bleached a stupid looking yellow-ish white, with brown roots peaking out at his scalp. He was wearing a long sleeved t-shirt with some band on the front that I had never heard of. As my eyes adjusted, I took a quick glance at the room around me: crookedly hung heavy metal band posters, piles of laundry, stacks of CDs, a dresser with half of the drawers open, a game controller, and other things I couldn’t quite place in the darkness. Sometimes I forgot how messy it was to be a teenager, and was glad that I was past that.
I cleared my throat. “Hey.”
His eyes flicked from the computer screen with a glare. “You need something or are you just going to stand there?”
“I just wanted to ask you a few questions about your dad.”
“He wasn’t my dad.”
“Alright, step dad. Whatever. I just want to know a little bit more about what he was like.”
“Mom didn’t give you enough information?” I shook my head. “Typical. One bad word hasn’t left her mouth since he died.”
“Are there bad words to say about him?”
He let out what sounded like both a chuckle and growl. “Plenty.”
“Care to share?”
“Let’s see…” He pretended to go deep in thought before starting, “He was a drunk, he loved to bet away our money, he smoked like his life depended on it, he yelled all the time, he sucked at cooking, he would get into fights with Mom over stupid things, some nights he didn’t even come home – Mom said she looked at their account and found a lot of charges to some motel, so he was probably cheating too. He got laid off a month or so before he died because he stopped showing up. He would leave the house at 8, but instead of going to work he was going into the city for god knows what. You’re lucky he left you.” Everything he was saying brought a smile to my face. Finally, someone who wasn’t tiptoeing around the truth.
I crossed out the part about being a good dad on my list and added:
- Probably cheating
- Total dick
“What are you doing?” Alex asked, rising from his bed to get a peak at the notepad. I quickly swiped it from his view and stuffed it back into my pocket.
“Just writing down some stuff.”
“Is this for a school project?”
“No, nothing like that.”
I wasn’t exactly sure how to explain what I was doing. I wasn’t even sure exactly what I was doing. So instead, I asked, “Did your mom ever say what the name of the motel he was staying at was?”
“I don’t know, something trashy. Grande something.” He turned back to his computer, already losing interest in the conversation.
“Grande Vista?” I asked.
“Sure, sounds right.” That was the motel I was staying at. How convenient. And disgusting.
I took a long shower to clean away all the accumulated sweat from the aggravatingly hot day. Taking cold showers was never a practice I participated in, but after spending a day wearing a sweater in 75 degree weather, I was in need of a way to cool off.
I had stopped at a Walmart on the way back to the motel to buy myself a $3 white t-shirt so I didn’t have to spend the rest of my time here sweating. The shirt was thin and awkward fitting, but still a better option.
I laid on the springy twin bed for a while, mulling over Marlene, Alex, and everything else. Alex was the only one who seemed willing to give me the truth about who my father was. Everyone else seemed scared, but of what? Did my father hold so much power that even in death they were scared to say bad things? Were they scared of his ghost?
Alex had also said my dad stayed at this motel on multiple occasions, with one if not multiple mistresses. Which meant there was a possibility they had stayed in this room. On this bed. The thought made me want to vomit. I quickly peeled myself off of the covers.
To rid myself of the room where my father (probably) did gross things, I made my way down the motel hallway, which stunk of cigarettes and mildew, and approached the front desk. The man on duty was thin and almost weasel-like, with a long, thin nose, a small mouth, and an oddly tall neck. He was hunched over the desk, reading a Steven King novel. He looked up when I approached.
“Did you know Dave Wells?” I asked.
The man smiled, revealing a set of crooked teeth. “Of course I knew Dave Wells! It’s hard not to know him. Why do you ask? Has he got himself into trouble again?”
I frowned. He didn’t know. “Dave died a couple weeks ago. You didn’t hear?”
The man’s face fell. “Well that’s some terrible news.” He shook his head and let out a long, soft sigh. “What a pity. He was a good man.” Then, “Are you an investigator or somethin’?”
“No, I’m Dave’s son.”
The man furrowed his brow. “You look a little old to be sixteen.”
“Not that son. His actual son. My name is Thomas.” The man still looked confused, so I explained further, “Dave had a family out in Washington that he left when he moved here. When I heard he’d passed, I came up to pay my respects. I’m just looking around for some more about him, since I didn’t really get to know him when he was alive. Better late than never, right?”
The man nodded slowly. “I see. Well, Dave was a funny guy. Always good to have around.”
“He stayed here a lot?”
“Oh yeah, he was here at least once a week. He was half of the reason this place stayed afloat and I still have a job.”
“Did he ever bring any girls with him when he was here?”
The man looked almost offended. “God, no! He would never do that to his wife. What’s her name?”
“Marlene! He always talked about how much he loved her.”
“Then what was he doing here?”
“He’d come stay here when he was shitfaced. He’d stumble in, drunk out of his mind, and keep me company during my night shifts. He was too ashamed to go home so drunk, I think. It was always a good night for me when Dave would stumble through those doors. He was good company. There was this one night I was having a particularly hard time staying awake, when I was new to night shifts, and he stayed up with me until the sun rose, telling me different stories to pass the time.”
“He ever mention me?” I asked.
The man gave me an apologetic frown. “Sorry, I don’t think he did.” He shook his head again, crossing his arms. “Can’t believe he’s dead. Wow. What a shame. How’s his family doing?”
“Alright, I guess.” I never actually asked how Marlene or Alex was actually doing with the whole thing.
“Good, good. Give them my condolences. And condolences to you yourself. The world lost a good man.”
I doubt Marlene would want condolences from the front desk man at Dave’s favorite motel. “So he never brought anyone else here?”
“No. He wasn’t the cheating sort of guy.”
“I guess not.” No, he wasn’t the “cheating sort of guy”. He was just the “leave your wife and child and start a family with another woman” sort of guy.
The bar was obnoxiously loud, classic rock music emanating from the speakers. Coupled with the music were the yells of women and booming laughter of men, taking shots, playing pool, dancing. I instinctively shoved my hands into my pockets and hunched my shoulders, trying to avoid the attention of anyone unwanted. I weaved through the crowds, pushing my way towards the bar. The whole place was surprisingly crowded for it being a Wednesday.
The bartender was a short, stout man with a large mustache and beady eyes. I sat at a barstool towards the end of the bar and watched him make some sort of complicated cocktail for a giggling woman.
I tried to imagine my dad here, sitting amongst the others at the bar. Did he drink beer or did he prefer shots? Was he a giggling drunk or a sad drunk? Or an angry drunk? I couldn’t picture my dad getting into fights, but I couldn’t really picture him doing much of anything.
“Can I get you something?”
I looked up. The bartender was standing in front of me, peering down at me with crossed arms.
“Oh, sorry, no. I’m actually here to ask you a question.”
The man raised an eyebrow and waited for me to speak. Something about the curvature of his mouth and the bushiness of his eyebrows made me nervous. His entire face seemed angled down into a stern frown. It took a clearing of his throat for me to remember I was supposed to be asking him a question.
“Did you know Dave Wells?”
The man gave out a gravelly huff, his frown lines deepening. “Yeah. Unfortunately. You’re out of luck if you’re looking for him, though, the son of a bitch died a couple weeks ago. Before he could give me the money he owed me, conveniently enough. What did you need him for?” The way he spoke made each word sound like a threat, a challenge of dominance. Like if I told him I was Dave’s son, he’d hop the bar and strangle me.
“Uh, nothing. I was just wondering. Thanks.” I quickly turned before he could see the resemblance Marlene insisted my dad and I had.
“Heyyyyy,” a voice called behind me. Sure it wasn’t calling for me, I kept walking. “Skinny nerd boy.” I looked at the people around me: a group of middle aged women drinking and laughing loudly, a few burly men playing pool, and a stumbling man in a suit, which meant skinny nerd boy must be me. I turned around.
The man calling my name was a wiry fifty-something year old with leathery skin and blue eyes so light they looked like a huskey’s. He motioned me over to him with a waggle of one wrinkly finger. I looked once more over at the people around me to make sure it was me he was beckoning, then slowly walked over to his table.
“You looking for someone who knew Dave Wells?” he asked.
After deciding he looked relatively harmless compared to the brutish bartender, I said, “Yes.”
“Sit, then.” He gestured towards the empty chair beside him. I sat. “You some news reporter or somethin’?”
I shook my head. “No, I’m his son.” The man’s brow knit, creating deep wrinkles across his forehead. I sighed, tired of explaining who I was to the people in my father’s life. Maybe if he hadn’t pretended I didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be having to do this. “Not his step son, his real son. I’m sure he never talked about me. He left my mom and I when I was little.” This produced a small pout from the man.
“Well, I’d considered myself a good drinking buddy of your father. I dare claim I knew him pretty well, though not well enough to get an invite to the funeral, I may add.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t get an invite either,” I said. He gave an awkward chuckle and took a swig of his beer.
“So, what do you want to know?”
As with every time I’m faced with this question, I’m not quite sure what to ask. “Um, what was he like?”
The man gave another chuckle. “Quite vague, are we? Let’s see…” He tapped his chin. “How does one summarize the dead?”
It sounded rhetorical, but there was a long enough spanse of silence that I said, “I don’t know.” I thought for a moment more. “But glorifying them sure doesn’t do much good.”
The man nodded fiercely in agreement. “Agreed. But I can say with full confidence and honesty that your father was an excellent man.”
I tried to stifle a scoff. “Really?”
“He was one of the greatest and most interesting men I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Scouts honor.” He did some weird gesture with his hand and then crossed over his heart.
I tried to be polite, but I was getting tired of the lies. “You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, but I am.”
“But he was a drunk.”
“Being a drunk and a good man aren’t mutually exclusive, you know. You can believe what you want about your father, but you didn’t actually know him, did you?”
I crossed my arms. “No.”
“Mhm. Now, I didn’t know your father when he left you and your mother, so I can’t speak to that. But I knew who your father was in the years before his death and he was a kind person. He was frequently overtaken by impulses and couldn’t control his outbursts well, but I had never met anyone so charming and so passionate about those around him. He cared about people. I’m sorry if that’s not what you wanted to hear.” He raised his beer to his lips and finished it in one swift motion.
I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say anything. I got up from my chair and left the bar.
The cemetery was flat and sandy. The wind whipped across the plot, blowing around dust, making my mouth dry and gritty. The headstones were nothing more than sad little rocks sticking out of the gravel. It didn’t take me long to find his grave; it was the one with the upturned dirt and the cleanest headstone. The headstone itself was no more than a foot tall. Around the base of it sat a sad amount of fake flowers and one unlit candle.
There was only one person that I had yet to talk to about my dad, and that was the man himself. Of course, he was six feet underground, so that made it hard to have a conversation. All I had of him was the ugly slab of stone. The engraving on it read:
David N. Wells
June 4, 1973 – Nov 20, 2019
A man can be destroyed, but not defeated
The quote was an odd choice. Did my father like that quote? I didn’t even know what the quote was from. The bible? His favorite book?
I sat down on the gravel in front of the grave and pulled out the list I had made. The list looked awfully short. All the conversations I had were summed up with a meager lineup of eleven bullet points. As if eleven bullet points could sum up who a person was. Most of the things I had cared to write down weren’t even good. I didn’t write down the nice things.
I didn’t want to hear the good things about him. I didn’t believe there were good things about him. If he wasn’t a villain, then how could I justify him leaving my mother and I?
I crumpled up my list. It was useless. Only by knowing my father would I be able to find out who he was, and that opportunity was gone.
A harsh gust of wind blew through the cemetery, pelting me with little pieces of sand. I shivered. The sun was already starting to set, and now my thin t-shirt was failing me. The warmth of the day was quickly fleeting. The right thing to do now was go back to my motel and sleep, but I couldn’t seem to move. My body was glued to the ground, my eyes unable to break away from the grave. There was some part of me that still couldn’t believe he was actually dead.
When I was young, I had thought a lot about seeing my father again, fleshing out whole conversations in my head, figuring out what I would say to him and how I would say it. I would picture what he would look like, what he would say back. Sometimes it was heartfelt, him falling on his knees and apologizing for leaving me, but telling me he was too ashamed to return and face us. Sometimes I would picture finding him in some big house with a white picket fence, rolling in money with a barbie doll wife and two polo-wearing children. In that scenario, I would confront him and reveal who I was to his wife, becoming the scandal that broke up the family or something.
In all the scenarios I had imagined, never had one been like this. I never thought that my dad would die before I got to see him again. Before I got to confront him about what he had done to my mother and I.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I had some terrible childhood. I know my mom struggled to raise me on my own (I wasn’t always the easiest to deal with, I’ll admit) and we didn’t have a lot of money, but we made it work. I grew up with a roof over my head, had friends, and got into a good college. Sometimes I think I gave my dad too much credit, putting too much emphasis on what he did to us. I let what he did to us hang like a rain cloud over me my whole life. The thing that bothered me the most was knowing I would never have the chance to experience being raised by a good father, or even a father that was around. And for that, I always held a grudge against him. It was his fault that I didn’t get a normal childhood.
I stared at my father’s name etched into the stone. David N. Wells. What did the N stand for? I didn’t know.