All fathers are fictional.
In the end, my father took up such little space. This is what I can’t seem to get over. He’d never been large, but he’d always had a thick, bear-like solidity. My father was the sort of man who could block a doorway. It seemed an overly cruel joke to take away what little was left of his now tiny body. He wasn’t asking much by then. In fact, he wasn’t asking anything at all. Just a McDonald’s milkshake once a day, and my father didn’t even ask for that, I just knew he liked it. He’d fumble for the cup with both his hands and fall back asleep with the striped straw in his mouth.
I’ve had my share of father figures, including a great writer of fatherhood, Andre Dubus. When Andre died in 1999, I cried my eyes raw, and I remember standing in line at the wake and reaching his oldest son, Andre III, who pulled me close and whispered, “We just have to walk through the hole he made.” I’ve clung to those words for a long time. But my old, gone friend might have been have been the first to say: Ah, well there are father figures and then there are fathers. Fathers, Andre might have said, are a whole hell of a lot more trouble. He knew from his own experience. But now that I’m a bewildered father myself, I’d like to call him up in Haverhill right now and say, “Wait, wait, so what is a father?” I imagine Andre sighing into his beard and laughing and leaning back in his wheelchair, and thinking about this, drawing on the faith that sustained him in the worst of times.
“Let me get back to you on this one.”
My own dad was a LaSalle Street lawyer for almost 50 years. When he retired I’m not sure he even knew who he was anymore. After so many years of hustling — my father said the only way to accomplish anything in this world is to hustle and when you’re done hustling, start hustling — his whole being seemed to instantaneously retreat. He began watching a ton of television. At first I was relieved. I thought he might at last turn into a normal American, which wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. But TV became a kind of religion. He’d watch cable news endlessly, as if the frantic agitation in those voices brought him a little closer to the way things used to be at the office.
In my fiction, characters roughly based on my father haven’t had it easy. I’ve exposed family laundry that with the perfect mortality of hindsight (when you can’t change what you’ve done) I now regret. I will say this though: My father never gave me any grief about my work because he was a good and generous reader who understood the difference between nonfiction that tries to tell the truth and fiction that uses the truth to find something else. For me fiction is like holding up a mirror to life and then smashing it on the floor. Then I pick up a random piece and stare it at for days. Out of this: stories. I do the best I can with the limited gifts I’ve got. My father understood this too and, deep down, I think he knew that he — in his disguise as a fictional character — was one of those limited gifts.
The problem was being actually related to him. His rants would have made for terrific comedy if they weren’t directed at you. My father had strange, fastidious ways. When anything or anybody failed to meet his highest, impossible standards, he’d detonate. At home, at work, on the street. On vacation. For some reason vacations were the scenes of my father’s epically worst behavior. There are hotel staffs from Chicago to London who still have nightmares involving a certain irate man in a bow tie. All my life I wished my father was like other dads. Now my siblings and I shrug off the rage, and even miss it. Just after the funeral, after we’d poured three shovelsful of dirt each on the urn that contained my father’s ashes, my younger brother said, “Damn, for months, I just wished he’d start yelling about something, anything.”
In the novel Love and Shame and Love (the title sums up, among other things, my relationship with my father) I killed him off at the Brooks Brothers on Michigan Avenue. I have vivid memories of shopping there with my father. When I was little, he dressed me in sailor suits. He would say, “Look at the little admiral. A tiny Rickover, a miniature Lord Nelson!” To this day, I can’t stomach the Navy, anybody’s Navy. When I got older and it was time for me to wear ties, he’d noose them so tight around on my neck I could hardly breathe. This was all part of becoming a man in the city of Chicago. And yet my Brooks Brothers heart attack scene was written less out of revenge than warped affection. I wanted my father, as a character, as the loop lawyer Philip Popper, to go in a place that felt right.
Philip roams Brooks Brothers like a leopard in his own jungle. This particular hue of blue all his. Today, though, he’s not on the prowl. He’s come in for —
What has he come in for?
The salesman looks for a moment at Philip’s cordovans, then back at Philip’s face, as if he’s begun to understand. His eyes moisten slightly. There is comfort in our blueality. I know it. You know it. Nothing to be ashamed of. Here the harshness of the world is lessened.
It’s bad form to laugh at your own stuff; worse, infinitely worse, going to hell worse, when the subject is the last moments of a character inspired by your own father — but I couldn’t help laughing out loud a couple of times as I wrote the man out of existence in the carpeted confines of Brooks Brothers. Yet by the end of the scene, I stopped laughing as the point of view shifted entirely to Philip. The pain in his chest is rising slowly. He’s begun to lose his balance. It won’t be long before it is all over.
This is all very off. We stumble from late fall to early winter. Where did that come from? Did I read it somewhere? Dizzier now, discombobulated. Brooks Brothers Afternoon. Outside, the steam rises from the vents in the sidewalk, the underground boilers, a burbling cauldron beneath these streets. In here a sinkingness, a muffled feeling, not at all unpleasant. The salesman might be saying something else, but his voice is so far away now.
As I say my father was a generous reader, and he always had a good sense of humor. After finishing the novel, he called and said, “You know Brooks isn’t what it used to be. Now all the bastards make all their suits in Taiwan.”
You’d think that since I spent so much time choreographing a version of my father’s death, I’d be prepared for it when it actually happened. I wasn’t. I’m not. Never has fiction seemed so useless. The other morning, over a box of doughnut holes, I talked to a friend, a wiser human being than I’ll ever be.
“I’m baffled,” I said. “Totally baffled.”
“You don’t know what you feel,” my friend said. “That’s common.”
“At the same time I’m lonely. All the years I spent not calling him back. He’d call and he’d call. My kid was born and I didn’t call him back. Now I’m lonely?”
“You’re feeling guilty.”
“I haven’t cried once. Not a single tear.”
“Does that mean you aren’t mourning?”
I popped another doughnut hole. “Wait, I’m sad?”
My dad died on a cold April day in Chicago. Call it late, late winter. The day before we buried him, it snowed. His name was Ronald A. Orner. The A came later. My grandparents apparently forgot to give him a middle name. When he opened his own law practice in 1962, my father bestowed himself a noble middle initial. A young attorney on the make trying to increase his gravitas. The last time I saw him I kissed his sunken, unshaved cheek as he slept.
Peter Orner is the author of four books of fiction, including the novel, Love and Shame and Love, and the story collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, a New York Times Editor’s Choice book and named a Favorite Book of 2013 by the Wall Street Journal.