Walking through the sticky mass of concrete blocks that make up the internal employee walkways, I couldn’t help but wonder what Tallahassee looked like when my dad was pouring concrete on the ground I walked on. What he was like back then. I wondered if they had expanded the mall since he worked on it, if the innards of the building were something my father’s hands had touched. I’ve seen photos of him back then, much slimmer and sporting a stringy pony tail. I’ve inherited his toothy grin, the way his whole face seems involved in a laugh. My round eyes squint like his, and the tops of my cheeks lift toward the ceiling.
There are very few photos of my father before he met my mother. His past is something I’ve had to piece together from the few times he left himself vulnerable and let a story of his childhood slip out.
I never saw a photo of him as a smiling child.
There’s one photo that’s outlasted his purges of the past. He can’t be more than four years old, wearing a pair of tattered overalls, and placing one tiny hand on a dusty cow. His mouth makes a straight horizontal line, and the grainy quality of the picture makes everything look dirty, even his usually bright eyes. Money was tight. The children got one pair of jeans a year. Once, when he was 8, my father helped his dad chop up a fallen tree. The blade slipped off of the tree and went straight into his lower calf. The whole time he lay there bleeding all he could think of was the inevitable beating he would get from his mother when he got home.
Sometimes I would get information from my mother. We would sit on the dense carpet of my room among my piles of clutter that drove her insane, and I would ask about his many siblings, his past two marriages, his navy life. It was always easier talking to my mother. My dad would sigh heavily if I probed too far, or he would start lecturing. If I asked him about his school, he would go off about Catholicism, nuns abusing children, and institutional religion. My mom just talked to me like a person. Sometimes I think I should have let his past die as he wished, and asked about my mother and her family instead. I knew a similar amount about their childhoods, but because my father’s was forbidden, I tried to eat all of it up.
When I was nine I asked my Dad what happened with his past marriages. He paused, still holding a half-dissected pineapple and a juicy knife. His eyelids wrinkled closer and he said “I caught one in bed with my brother, and the other in bed with a woman.” He resumed meticulously slicing the soft fruit, and handed me the tough core to chew on. I couldn’t help but wonder “he has a brother?”