by Michael Ryerson
A captain approached me on the parade ground.
‘Your father is on the phone, you can take it in my office.’
Having only been back from Vietnam a month, I was surprised my Dad would know how to find me on base. Two young secretaries nodded and smiled at me as I walked through to the captain’s office.
‘I’ll pull this shut for you,’ he said and I glanced over my shoulder as he closed me in. I picked up the receiver and heard my Dad’s voice, ‘Can you take a day or two off?’ A persistent morning cough had grown to include most of the day. A long avoided visit to the doctor had resulted in a biopsy. He wanted me to come up and go with him to the doctor’s office to discuss the biopsy. The captain had the paperwork done when I opened the door. I drove up that evening.
It was eighty-five and a half miles from my barracks at Camp Pendleton to my father’s driveway. Eighty-five miles to think: eighty-five miles to let my mind wander over the years: eighty-five miles to fight the traffic, to cross the distance between what we wish and what we have.
My father was a grocer. He was the least affected man I’ve ever known. He went to work six days a week, fifty weeks a year for my whole life. He wore dress slacks, white socks and comfortable shoes. His short-sleeved white dress shirt carried a ballpoint pen or two and a pack of Camel cigarettes. Two fingers on his left hand were stained yellow.
You have to understand, when I was a young boy, it was a different world. If you dressed like a thug, you were a thug. Pool halls and bowling alleys were off limits to good girls. The growl of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle meant one of two things, either the police were nearby or you wished they were, and the only men who wore earrings were pimps. Tattoos were worn with some story of drunkenness or debauchery or both. If you were a don’t-give-a-shit kind of guy, you got your tattoo where a shirt couldn’t cover it up and you probably dated a girl you met in a pool hall or a bowling alley. You couldn’t buy pre-faded Levis and a guy riding a Harley didn’t have a crease ironed into his jeans. Everybody smoked or nearly everybody did and because ‘everybody’ was a smoker, ‘everybody’ thought it ‘looked’ cool, only ladies smoked the filtered kind. If you were a ‘Ford man’, when you made a little more money (maybe got a promotion) you moved up to a Mercury. If you were a ‘Chevy man’ and you found a little success you drove a Pontiac or an Oldsmobile. If the Ford guy got really lucky, a couple of promotions or his business took off, he ended up in a Lincoln. The Chevy guy was, of course, shooting for a Cadillac. Morticians and bankers usually drove Buicks. If you were thirsty, you drank directly from a faucet or a garden hose. If you had a bottle with you, it certainly wasn’t water and it probably slipped nicely into your hip pocket. Men’s shoes had shoelaces. Pigs were farm animals and if you called a policeman, a ‘cop’, you probably knew how to play eight ball. If it got too hot in your house, you turned on a fan and if it got too hot in your car, you unrolled a window. You learned how to add up a long column of numbers and if the room was quiet, you could do long division, sometimes. The nightly news lasted fifteen minutes, that’s all the news, including one minute for weather and three minutes for sports and the same guy did the whole thing. Banks were open from 10 am to 3 pm, four o’clock on Fridays. Mail was delivered twice a day, five days a week, once on Saturdays. If you wanted to talk to your relatives, you wrote a letter. If you got a long-distance phone call it was bad news. Last thing at night, your mom would put out the empty milk bottles with a little note and the next morning she’d bring in fresh milk and orange juice, and eggs if you needed them. Mid morning, the Helms man would sound his harmonic whistle and you could go out into his truck and buy fresh bread and donuts. When you bought gasoline, guy in a white uniform would come out and start the pump and wash your windshield. He’d always ask if you wanted him to check your water and oil and he’d lean back and eyeball your tires to see if they needed some air. It was okay if you wanted to pump your own gas, he’d come out anyway and do your windshield and the rest or he’d just stand there with you and shoot the breeze. If your hair touched your collar, you were down on your luck. Cup of coffee’s a nickel and every time you got it cooled down a bit, girl comes by and fills it back up. Bowl of soup’s a dime, soda crackers are free, chili 15 cents, soda crackers are still free, pork chops with corn, mashed potatoes and applesauce maybe 45 and you could find a steak dinner for 95 cents easy. Sold a lot of chili. When your car was caught at a railroad crossing gate, you would bet your little brother how many boxcars would pass before you’d see some men standing in a dark doorway, sneaking a ride. Sometimes he’d win, sometimes you’d win but you never saw a freight train without seeing those men in the doorways of the boxcars.
My father had served in the Navy during the war, his baseball days over because of a bad shoulder, which he had hidden from the Navy recruiter. My mother worked at Lockheed Aircraft Company installing radios in bombers. When I was born, my parents were poor. Not poverty stricken but not middle-class either. Not even lower middle-class. I think the fashionable term now would be working poor.
We lived in an apartment one block below Sunset Boulevard about a mile west of downtown Los Angeles. The Alfred Lee Apartments, a brick building, maybe six stories, on Descanso Drive. My father worked days at the Owl-Rexall Drug Store and at night, he drove a yellow taxicab. My mother kept house.
I didn’t know we were poor. I don’t think such a thing would have occurred to me. We were happy, I think, never missed a meal that I can remember and usually had money for an ice cream cone at the park where we walked on Sundays. But we also ate potato soup for dinner at least once a week or my mother would crush saltine crackers into a can of salmon and make patties.
At breakfast, my Dad would sleep as long as possible and come to the table at the last minute, but he would still have stories about driving the taxi the night before and then he’d leave for the drug store. When he would come home for dinner, before he had to go to the taxi barn on 3rd Street, he would stand in the doorway of the kitchen and tell my mother stories about his day, who he’d met, funny things that had happened at work.
One morning, he talked about driving a man all the way out to the airport in Inglewood. How this man had talked about going into business and how he was on the lookout for a smart young guy and maybe my Dad was that guy. Well, my Dad was easy to talk to and he was always hearing about some big scheme or another, so he didn’t think too much about this guy. But when this guy left on his plane, he told my Dad he’d call him when he got back from San Francisco and about two weeks later, he did.
My parents were surprised. This man came to our apartment for dinner. We had spaghetti. He seemed nice and had lots of ideas and talked a lot. The next Sunday, he picked my Dad up in his car, a Ford station wagon, and they went looking for a building. It took two weeks but they finally found a building they thought would work. They opened a grocery store and my father learned the grocery business.
He kept driving that taxi every night. A year later, my brother was born and we moved into a duplex on Monroe Street near Wilton Place. My uncle Bob, who had been in the Army in North Africa, bought one side of the duplex and we bought the other. My dad quit the cab company.
In these days, we would sometimes walk up to the little diner on Santa Monica Boulevard, across from Sears Roebuck, and have dinner. My favorite times were when we’d sit at the counter and watch the cook fix our dinner right there in front of us. Once when my Dad paid the bill at the cash register, he gave the waitress too much money and she tried to give some back to him: But he just smiled and nodded down the counter toward some old guy who was eating alone and she smiled right back at him and said okay. This old guy had a bundle of rags tied with a belt sitting under his stool and I asked if we could stay around and watch him when he found out he’d gotten a free dinner but my Dad said no, it wasn’t any of our business. When I asked him why it wasn’t any of our business, my Dad sort of laughed and said it just wasn’t. I had to think about that for a long time. I had to think about dignity and charity and why we do things.
I came back from Vietnam a hard man. Not a tough man but hard, able to hear bad news, to focus on probabilities and avoid panic. I had seen death and dying and learned not to let them in. It is a crude, necessary art. It is a dehumanizing art.
The doctor’s office was on the ground floor of a nondescript hospital squatting behind an acre of broken asphalt, a hard afternoon sun glinting off of glass and steel. The interior hallway was dark and cold. My father said I’m glad you’re home and I said I was too. The door was solid and heavy and closed silently on a stainless steel return. We sat down, the doctor took a breath: I saw it coming.
‘Six months’ he said. It hung in the air on hooks of disbelief. My mind raced, looking for another meaning in those familiar words. ‘Six months, I’m sorry.’
He said some other things but mostly I just heard, six months. And, oh yeah, he said, ‘Maybe, not quite.’
I didn’t blink. I felt my father glance at me and I know I looked focused, calm even, in control. I asked one or two surprisingly intelligent questions. I didn’t hear the answers. I felt my stomach opening up, hot blood pouring across my knees onto the floor. I didn’t flinch.
On the ride home, he said, ‘This is going to be hard.’ I glanced at him and he said, ‘No one’s to know. This is just between us, you and me.’ I don’t remember the rest of the drive.
We spent the next two months in a sea of casual excuses as to why we’d dropped in on rarely visited friends. As his body weight dropped, he went through a cruel moment when he was the picture of health. People would comment on how well he looked, that he was taking care of himself and how they wished they could lose some weight too. He’d just laugh and say to watch what you eat. Until finally, one Sunday morning, I came by to pick him up and he said, not this morning. His shirt seemed too big. He was looking drawn. He was becoming less sure of himself. We’ll stay home today, he said. We didn’t go visiting again.
I remember one time, when I was a kid, on our way home from my grandfather’s house, my Dad picked up a hitchhiker, an older guy with gray hair curling down over his collar, carrying a bundle tied with some rope. When he got in the back seat with us kids, I noticed his collar was frayed and stained and he sat on the edge of the seat, like he didn’t want to get the car dirty. My mother got real quiet and just sort of looked out the side window. But my Dad and this guy talked about traveling and the weather and work. Seems like they’d been a lot of the same places. Anyway, it was kind of late at night but we went out of our way to drop him off down by Union Station and the Terminal Annex building. At night, there wasn’t much of anything going on in that part of town, just the stockyards and the railroad switching yards. So he gets out of the car and says goodbye to us kids and my mom. And my Dad gets out too and they talk for a minute or two off to the side of the road and I see my Dad give him some money, maybe a couple of dollars. As we drove away, I watched him out the back window until he went down the slope toward the stockyards. I asked my Dad if he was a bum and my Dad said no, just a guy down on his luck.
In his last days, my father would sit in his room and gaze out into the backyard. I would sit near him and sometimes hold his hand. His favorite thing was when our two adult cats would chase each other, and tumble wrestling on the lawn. They were littermates and although they were fully-grown they took great pleasure in stalking each other and would spend parts of every afternoon, rolling and tumbling on the grass. He loved watching.
I sometimes think about the last time we do things. You know, sometimes you don’t know it’s going to be the last time and you don’t pay attention and later you’re sorry and wish you’d known you weren’t going to be in that place again or see that person again and, if you’d known, you’d have paid real close attention and gotten every bit out of that last time. I wonder when the last time was we played baseball barefoot on a summer day and didn’t know it was going to be the last time, or the last time I saw Mr. Ankrum walking to work at the studios. I wish I could remember the last time I heard my mother and father laughing together. I wish I’d told Ed he reminded me of my grandfather. They sold the grocery store. Strangers run it now. I wish I could remember the last time I sat on the counter with my Dad, drinking a cold soda. That’s the way it is with last times, they happen and you don’t know it and you just go on until, one day, you look back and they’re hard to remember.
We buried my father on a Tuesday. The cortege stretched out two miles. He was just a grocer.