James Claffey remembers his father in an essay that is both heart-breaking and profound. An unforgettable read by a gifted writer.
A banging of fists on the steering wheel. “Ignorant boshtoon,” my father says, through clenched teeth. Spitting tacks is what my mother calls this state of agitation. No airbags back in those days, or seat belts in the backs of cars. We sat stone-like during these moments of road rage. Usually they took place on the way to our summer holiday destinations, the Old Man half-full of porter and whiskey. In the back seat we’d breathe on the windows and trace games of Xs and Os or Hangman in the condensation. He’d overtake several cars at a time despite the honking and flashing lights of the oncoming traffic. A neck as thick as a jockey’s bollocks. Terror. My nightmares were of death and twisted steel and Naugahyde seats sticky with young boys’ blood.
When I was sixteen, my older brother appeared at the door of my classroom, his scarf pulled over his mouth, bandit-style, and the dean of the year, Kevin O’Brien, at his side. I was called to the door, told to bring my stuff. Outside, my brother said, “Dad’s been in an accident.” All my fears of his death—the dreams, the dark hours laying in bed waiting for his breath to stop—came to fruition in my question, “Is he dead?”
“I don’t think so,” he said, as we got our bikes from the racks outside the main entrance and cycled home. And, no, he wasn’t dead, not yet. He’d been mangled in the wreckage of his Datsun Station Wagon, struck by a rich businessman’s son who was inebriated, at 8:30 in the morning. My father spent months in hospital recuperating. Poor nursing care led to a fist-sized bedsore in his back. Took years to heal. His shattered femur was jigsaw-puzzled together and held in place with a steel contraption like something Doctor Frankenstein might have cobbled together from torture implements. Our mother, when he arrived home six months later, bathed the coin-sized holes where the screws entered his flesh. The stink of the pus and blood is with me to this day. He forever walked with a limp after his recovery.
He went back to work, a commercial traveler for a sporting goods company, driving from small town to small town in the North-West of Ireland. Most weeks he arrived back on Friday nights. I was in bed the night he arrived in the door, stinking of drink, his briefcase in hand. He’d lost control of the car a half-mile from home, totaled it into a wall, abandoned it and hot-footed it for the safe harbor of my mother’s kitchen. I snuck out to the landing and listened as he sobbed in the kitchen. A broken man. He gave up the road soon after.
I think of him often, his gammy leg and the love he had of walking in the countryside near the house my parents moved to the year after I came to America. He was a terrible driver, really. His foot was leaden, and he burned out many a gearbox. When he taught my mother how to drive, his impatience crushed her confidence, and even though she managed to get her license, she never really drove much at all. He, for his part, crashed his car one last time, less to do with drink than his diminished eyesight, and he stopped driving for good in his early eighties.
Sometimes I echo my father’s impatience behind the wheel, cursing at fellow motorists, and getting my wife’s goat at the same time. In those moments of irritation it’s as if he descends from the heavens and settles into my body, takes a good grip of the steering wheel, and elevates the tension in the car to Code Red. I don’t drink and drive, have only had one significant car crash in my life, and still, I struggle to understand this man who was my father.
I’m into life’s second act, now, and I wonder who he was and what thoughts filled his head, and vow to myself to not become the man he became late in life, a tired, depressed soul with little ability to express himself to his children. And on days when the dark feelings flood me, I scrape about in my memory and find an image of him sitting in the kitchen of our old house in Dublin, newspaper spread out on the table, the wooden shoe-polishing box beside him, and his brown, leather brogues in hand. He polishes each shoe, rests it atop the table, and then takes the buffer and brings the leather to a glorious shine. In the reflection I see his eyes, and the love I long for, the missing words and stories—the answers to all my questions.
James Claffey hails from County Westmeath, Ireland, and lives on an avocado ranch in Carpinteria, CA. He is fiction editor at Literary Orphans, and the author of the short fiction collection Blood a Cold Blue. His work is forthcoming in the W.W. Norton Anthology Flash Fiction International.