There were times when my old man's eyes went somewhere without him. Somewhere back to the black and white years. Cars with Moby-Dick fins, hair with enough grease to power a McDonald's franchise, pouty lips with hanging cigarettes.
He was there now, slumped on my couch staring at a moist unopened can of Bud snuggled in his fist. An unopened beer in my old man's hand was as rare as Haley's Comet.
He stared off into the universe.
The play-by-play of a college football game murmured from a Sony flat screen in the corner.
"You thinking about Mom again?" I asked. My old man's attention traveled back to me. His eyes caught up with his body.
Then he gestured toward a referee on the football field. A lopsided smile swung up his right cheek. "Remember when you were a kid? The football game? The new TV?"
A river cluttered with detritus of the past, plastic-covered couches, Radio Flyer sleds, grass-stained Keds, flooded into my grey matter. And just like that, I was back in my house on Second Street, back in front of the old Magnavox, back filling my lungs with the lingering smoke of my old man's El Producto.
My father was the kind of man who could drink three cases of beer on a weekend, and still paint the house. The kind of man who once told off a nun.
You think your old man is tough? Summers's father told off a nun.
But the TV incident?
That was different. That was the brick and mortar and lumber and nails, from which sturdy legends were constructed.
I leaned forward, elbows on my knees. "Who could forget a Velcro memory like that?"
* * * *
The cigar in the ashtray was cool. The beer on the table was warm. My father was red hot.
On the TV, the Army-Navy game flipped like slot machine fruit.
I sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the insolent picture. My old man's slick forehead bobbed behind the ancient set. Occasionally, a calloused hand would toss aside a tube or a screwdriver, and grab something from an old box filled with a tangle of colored wires. The sweat progressed from beads to buckets. His heroic measures to save the terminal patient dragged on into the afternoon.
"Still rolling?" he asked as if it was my fault the sidelines looked like film flapping in a projector.
"Yeah," I answered, trying to sound as annoyed as him. After all, we were in this together. I wasn't the enemy.
The first quarter ended.
My old man smoldered.
I stood ready to bolt the maelstrom. My ten-year-old legs firm, my sneakers tied tight. He peered over the spastic picture, a pair of volcanic eyes building up steam. "One damn day off, and all I ask is to watch a football game and drink a beer." Back into the guts of dust and glowing bulbs. "What's it doing now?"
I winced. "Still jumping."
Another strung-together array of colorful words, mostly blue. Another look from my father, two smoking shotgun barrels. "What about now?"
"Son of a..." he slammed the top of the cabinet.
I calculated the time I had left before the eruption. I figured maybe three minutes, no longer.
I was wrong.
My father stopped adjusting and meddling. He threw down a pair of needle nosed pliers, and rose from the scattered parts like Godzilla over Tokyo, his shirt clung to his soaked body, his eyes ping-ponged around the room.
Then with a snarl he yanked out the power cord. A spark crackled from the outlet. A quiet descended on the house. A funeral home quiet. I could hear a distant car horn, the boiler in the cellar, crickets in a field on the outskirts of town.
My heart struggled to break through my rib cage.
He slowly bent and with a loud grunt lifted the floor model off the cheap linoleum. I expected to hear a snap, maybe see a hernia pop from his groin; a pair of kneecaps skitter across the floor.
He stood like a rock tower gripping the deceased, forcing large amounts of air through his flared nostrils.
I scrambled out of his way. He hobbled to the kitchen, tubes and tools clattering down, wires dragging after him. He swung right, through the dining room.
"Open it," he yelled.
I ran in front of him, but before I could reach my destination, his right foot shot out and kicked the storm door wide. He trudged onto the front porch and with a yell that rivaled Tarzan, pitched the dead TV. The carcass traveled out over the railing like a piece of space junk, like a suburban Sputnik, capacitors and resistors and transformers and coils and glass trailing after it like the tail of a doomed asteroid. The wounded television bounced once on the front walk, and rolled onto our lawn, leaving boob tube wreckage behind. An electronic debris field spilled across the grass like dropped take-out.
Another streak of cleverly paired cuss words-glorious combinations of imaginative profanity-boomed through the kitchen. The door slammed, the car roared, the wheels squealed on the driveway.
The old man was gone an hour, a silent, ominous, and foreboding hour that bred tension like a chainsaw massacre movie. Then, the car engine, the rap on the back door, my old man yelling for me to open up.
With a new TV pressed hard against his chest, and white knuckled fingers gripping its edges, he barged in. Veins in his neck bulged like rattlesnakes.
"Watch out," he grunted.
I cleared a path through the remains of the last victim. He settled the twenty-five inch newborn gently in its rightful spot, and without wasting time, plugged it in.
The picture popped on in crisp black and white, crystal clear players, and sharp refs.
I envisioned our new addition bathed in bright light shining down from the heavens, angels with harps singing sweet 'Alleluias', the swell of violin music.
My father stared at his prize like a man who had found salvation. I half expected him to fall to his knees.
"Damn," he said, running his trembling fingers over the large screen. "You can see the whole team on this thing."
He smiled, fired up the stogie, grabbed a fresh beer, fell into the recliner, and put up his feet.
The second half kick-off sailed toward a waiting player. The crowd screamed, the announcers swooned, my mother walked in.
My mother, the woman who could suck the oxygen out of an airplane hangar, the Bela Lugosi of oxygen suckers. She stood, huffing through the tobacco haze, arms and hands filled with department store bags, crouching panthers in her eyes, stoking up her oxygen-sucking turbines, ready to drain the room of my father's dream for the day. She dropped the bags, pointed toward the street, and leveled her lasers at him.
"Just what is our TV doing on the front-"
One look from my father, and her words backed up like our upstairs toilet. It was the kind of look that brought to mind a fuse disappearing into a pile of dynamite sticks. The kind of look that threw out warning lights and blaring emergency sirens. He pointed the cigar at her, his voice somewhere between a hiss and a growl.
"Don't say a damn thing until this game is over."
The glaring contest lasted only seconds, my old man the clear winner.
My mother stomped into the bedroom, where she stayed for the remainder of the game.
Contentment settled on my father's face. He swallowed some beer, threw the ref an obscene gesture, chomped the cigar, and drew in a load of carcinogens.
I drew in a breath of relief.
* * * *
"What ever happened to the TV on the lawn?" I asked my dad.
My father popped the top on the beer. "I took it to the dump the next day."
"You mean it stayed there all night?"
"And Mom was okay with that?"
"Did she like the new set?"
"Let me put it this way: at the Anderson's cookout, the following weekend, our new state-of-the–art TV was the first thing she threw in their faces."
Evidently my mother could also suck the oxygen out of cookouts.