I wouldn’t blame you for being surprised by this letter. I’m sending it to Uncle Lawrence’s because if I mailed it to the house then your Mom might not let you have it. That’s not to say that she would hide things from you, but me being gone for so long without a word gives her lots to think about. Sometimes people do things that don’t make sense, even if they mean to do right.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently. I know it’s been a long time since I left. I should have handled things better but I was never very good at that. There were probably times you wished I were still around to ask questions to but it’s probably best that I was gone. I know that I can’t make it up to you. But sometimes when you’re grown you just start thinking about things that you did and wishing you could do them differently. Maybe you’ll do that one day, but I hope not for anything big. That’s why I’m writing you now.
I know from Uncle Lawrence that you’re in high school now and even made the honor roll. I was never very good at school, but there are a few things that you might not learn there that I can tell you.
1. Ball up your fist round and tight to throw a punch. You’ll break your knuckles if you keep them flat.
2. Liquor before beer—never fear. Beer before liquor—never sicker.
3. A person who hurts another person on purpose may still have some good down in them somewhere. A person who hurts a dog on purpose is nothing but mean.
4. You can’t do the jumps and spin outs in a car that you see in the movies. They’re all done by professional stunt men, except for Steve McQueen in Bullitt, but he was in a 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback. We’ve always been Chevy people, so don’t even think about any of that stuff in a Camaro.
5. A Camaro is not a real animal, by the way. You probably already know that seeing as you were always smart, but someone might have told you it’s like a panther and I don’t want you saying that in school because everyone will laugh.
6. Ask Uncle Lawrence to show you how to saw a board straight, drive a nail right, and run a bead of caulk. If you can do all of that then you’ll be all right.
7. He’ll tell you to always smooth a bead of caulk with a putty knife but your finger works just as well, especially if you lick it beforehand. But don’t lick it afterwards.
8. Directions are easy to remember if you think of a compass in your head and remember this: Never Eat Soggy Waffles. I’d say that’s right because a soggy waffle is no good. That’s what your Aunt Peggy’s corn bread stuffing is like but don’t tell her that. I don’t remember much from school, but I do remember this. Just think of a compass in your head and then go around clockwise: Never Eat Soggy Waffles = North East South West. It seems to me the direction you’re going in is one of the most important things you can know.
9. Go up in the attic sometime. Do it before winter comes so it won’t be so cold. Take a good flashlight and wear gloves so you don’t get insulation under your skin because it itches like crazy. Up in the attic there’s a box of my things that I’m sure your Mom didn’t throw out. She always said that if I ran off on her that she’d burn all of my stuff, but I know that she wouldn’t because she really has a good heart. I put it near the back in the southeast corner. It’s easy to figure out which that is because the front of the house faces north. That’s the best direction for a house to face because then the sun doesn’t make it too hot in the afternoons, especially in the summer. Remember what I told you: Never Eat Soggy Waffles. So if you’re in the attic facing the front door then you should be able to figure out which corner is the southeast.
Open up the box when you find it but do it in the attic if you can. I don’t know what your Mom will think and I don’t want her getting mad at you because she’s mad at me. It’s hard to explain. I don’t want you to not tell her the truth because that’s what got me in trouble. But you can’t help it that I’m your dad. Sometimes things can be complicated.
You can have whatever is in the box. I don’t remember everything that’s in there, but there is a Big Boy bank and you can keep whatever money is still in it. My jacket from the army is in the box, too. It probably has some spots on it, but they’re not blood. I was in Germany in the army but not during any of the wars over there. It’s an important jacket, and I want you to have it. Our name is on the front. You’re probably old enough to fit into it now.
The jacket looks funny because Vietnam started up big after I got out and your Mom was into the hippie thing. She started wearing my old jacket even though it was too big for her and she sewed peace symbols and flower patches all over it. I wasn’t happy about it because I thought she was shitting on the army, and since I had been in it I guess I thought she was shitting on me. I’m sorry I shouldn’t curse in letters to you just like I shouldn’t curse if you were around. But that made me real mad, and I said a lot of mean things about it. She said some mean things too, and we kept apologizing later, but the truth is those things still hurt for a long time afterwards. Sometimes saying sorry isn’t enough and it won’t ever be enough. Even if you love the person. You shouldn’t have done what you did in the first place. That’s the only way around it.
That jacket started getting me in fights. People around town would say something to your Mom and I would defend her, because if a man says something to your girl then he’s asking for it. A lot of times it was guys we knew, who we had gone to school with, but it didn’t matter because once they saw that jacket they had to run their mouths. People will say nasty things over politics and do stuff even meaner. Most of the fights weren’t much, and they wouldn’t give me any more trouble after it was over. I’d see them on the street later and we’d nod and it was fine. People are weird like that, too. But some of these guys were strangers. And then there’s those who can’t let anything go and who carry a gun or a knife because it makes them feel big. Those are the ones that worried your Mom. She wanted me to promise that I wouldn’t fight anymore. And I made that promise.
I started wearing the jacket myself as a way of showing your Mom that I could do what I promised I could. Your Mom and I liked to go around to flea markets early on Saturday mornings. We’d even go a few counties over to a good flea market where we could get such great deals. By now most people had stopped talking about the jacket once they learned that I wouldn’t fight anymore. The others I had gotten good at ignoring. But at one of those flea markets there was this good old boy, you know the type who wears a starched white shirt he’s too fat for and is bald and always sweaty. He called me a pinko. That’s another word for a communist. Now you may think that I punched his lights out for calling me that, but I didn’t because I had promised your Mom. Instead I told him I liked the jacket, and I didn’t care what he thought. I called him an ignordamus. That’s a word your Mom would say. She knows lots of fancy words and I’m sure she’s taught you a bunch. The problem was I said it wrong. The right way is ignoramus. And this good old boy knew that. He said the word the right way and told everyone there that I was wrong, and real loud, too. It seemed like all of them were laughing and pointing and talking about me, but I couldn’t hear exactly what they said because it was one big noise. I was mad but I had to remember what I had promised your Mom. She was pulling on my arm to get me to leave, but I just looked at the ground the whole way so I wouldn’t punch the guy and so I couldn’t see all of those people saying things.
Flea markets are open early in the morning and your Mom was pregnant with you so she was getting sick. She had to go off to the bathroom so I waited outside by the car. As I was waiting there you know what happened? That good old boy walked right up and called me a hippie and a coward. I knew I wasn’t supposed to fight but he kept talking and then I started to tell him off. I told him I didn’t go to Vietnam to come back and have my words corrected by a fat man at a flea market. It’s not true that I was in Vietnam, but he didn’t know that and he didn’t deserve the truth anyway. I told him that if he wanted to have an opinion on how I was dressed then he could go to Vietnam and see what it was like for himself. I told him he wouldn’t last five minutes in the jungle because they’d hear him coming from a mile away like an elephant.
He said, “Where’s that little hippie girl of yours?” and I said she’s sick because she’s pregnant with my kid. Then you know what he said? I can remember it right now just like it happened. He said, “How you know it’s yours?” He was smiling about it too. My face got hot like the sun was burning underneath my skin. I couldn’t see right I was so mad. And then I lost it good. I started punching him on his sweaty bald head and he was punching me and before I knew it we were rolling around in the gravel. He got on top of me and he was real heavy and I started punching him in the side as hard as I could. I pushed him off and we both got up slow like you do in a real fight, not fast like they do on TV. When he stood up I thought that he was sweating on his legs and fast too, because he was getting wet in a hurry, but then I realized he wasn’t sweating. He was pissing his pants right there in the parking lot. He looked down and realized it too and he ran off as fast as he could, which wasn’t that fast. I started looking around for your Mom, because I knew what I had done. I was covered in dust and gravel. I took my army jacket off and it had a tear on the right sleeve and some of the patches had been scraped up. That’s why it looks like it does. But don’t worry, the guy didn’t piss on it.
So I put the jacket in the trunk. Then I stretched out on the gravel like I was making a snow angel without the snow, figuring that’d be a way I could explain why I was dirty to your Mom. That good old boy didn’t have any licks so I wasn’t bloodied up or anything.
When your Mom got to the car I was on the ground flapping my arms like a bird. She asked what I was doing on the ground, and I said I was stretching. She asked why I was doing it on a gravel parking lot, which was a good question because it was a pretty odd thing. I told her I wanted to see what it was like. She asked where my jacket was and I told her I got hot, which was true, but I didn’t tell her it was because of the fight. Then I got up and we left.
When we were driving away your Mom said we should go over to Elkin and look at the river since it was such a nice day. As we were driving she said something that I can remember like it just happened: “I’m proud of you.” It’s weird how two things said in one day can stick in your head forever, but that’s how that day was. She said it real soft like she says nice things. I didn’t say anything back. She was proud of me for not fighting that good old boy, but I knew I just had. We parked and got out and sat on the hood of the car overlooking the river. It was a real sunny morning but chilly and I was cold now because I couldn’t wear my jacket. We were facing south. The river was rolling along real nice. You could see the sun in the water even though the water was always muddy. It was like the sun was under the river but somehow still burning. It was such a pretty sight and I looked over at your Mom and thought about how much I loved her right there and then. I wanted to tell her but I couldn’t. It’s not that I didn’t—I just couldn’t. I’m sure there’s a school reason for the difference between didn’t and couldn’t. I can’t explain it in words but I know what it felt like and it felt real bad. It’s like the words got caught up in my mind like a fish gets caught on a hook so it can’t back out but it can’t go anywhere else neither. I wanted to say it so much. Then your Mom turned to me and said, “I love you” just like that. Like it was easy. She did it for me, but I just couldn’t do it for her right then like I wanted no matter what.
I stopped wearing my army jacket after that. I snuck it out of the trunk later that day while your Mom was taking a nap, which she did because she didn’t feel well being pregnant. I thought about taking it to your Grandma to get sewed up but she never liked the hippie thing anyway. So I stuck it in a box in the attic. When your Mom started asking why I didn’t wear it anymore I said it wasn’t warm enough for the winter or it wasn’t cool to wear those types of jackets anymore. Then you were born and she didn’t ask about the jacket again. I started working more and she started working more and we weren’t doing things like traveling around to flea markets or going to see the river. I never told her about the fight. But the thing is, once I hid that fight at the flea market it got easier and easier to not tell other things too. It wasn’t lying at first, it was just not telling. Soon enough all I was doing was not telling. And that can turn into lying real easy.
Once you started school Uncle Lawrence and Aunt Peggy agreed to watch you one Saturday so your Mom and I could go look for some furniture. We went to some discount stores and ended up near Elkin. We didn’t find any furniture, but your Mom said we should go look at the river. I didn’t want to but I didn’t want to tell her no because that would look funny. You can see the river from a lot of places there and this time we were facing west. All I could think about was before and how I couldn’t say I love you even though I really needed to. Standing there I thought I should maybe try saying it again, to make up for it, but I didn’t. This time it was for different reasons. It’s not that I couldn’t. It’s because I knew it wouldn’t be true. All the times I had spent not telling the truth had made the not truth into the real truth. That may not make sense to you but it did in my head. It’s awful when things like that make sense.
We didn’t say anything for a long time. We had gotten real good at that. Then your mom said, “I know you fought that guy at the flea market.” I tell you that hit me like I had been punched in the face. I kept looking at the water and I felt my face getting hotter and hotter like the sun was underneath it again. And then she said the worst thing I’ve ever heard anyone say. “I’m still proud of you.”
Sometimes when you try to do something you think is right it messes up everything else. But deep down inside you know it wasn’t ever right to begin with, so it’s like you screwed up double. And that’s what I had done. So after that I left her. I couldn’t stay anymore knowing what I figured out there looking at the river.
10. I told you I’ve been thinking a lot about things that I did and wishing I could do them differently. I hope you don’t ever have to do that. But I’ve also been thinking about what I wrote and here’s what I’ve thought: I don’t want you to have that jacket. You might have put down this letter and already gone up in the attic, because you’re a good kid. It’s not that I think you’ll mess it up or that it won’t fit. It’s that I’m afraid it will fit. I don’t want to give you a reason to start not telling. Leave that jacket up in the attic forever.
For a long time I thought that one day I would come back and explain why I left and maybe everything would be okay. But I was just telling myself that to keep from thinking about you and your Mom and the jacket and the river. Now I’ve done that thinking I see that once you know something you can never not know it again. So I thought about not sending this letter because you’d be better off never hearing from me. But you deserve to know why I left. Maybe knowing is better than wondering about it forever.
I wish I could say things better than this. I hope one day you can say what you need to when you have to. Remember the good things I told you, especially how to figure out what direction you’re facing. If it’s the same way as me, please turn around.