“We’re going to look for John Jolly,” my father told me as he gripped the stick shift, put it in gear and bounded down the parkway towards the Triboro Bridge.
Throughout the years of my father’s cameo appearances he spoke to me of people whom I had never heard of, but mentioned them as if I knew them.
“I thought we were going to Hensonville,” I said.
“We are,” he said, and turned to me grinning. “I’m guessing that’s where he is.”
We passed by a store window on the way to the highway, and the reflection of us disarmed me: my dad in the driver’s seat and me next to him in a white VW Bug Camper he had unimaginatively nicknamed “Mr. Volkswagen.” Later, when we reached Hensonville, other Volkswagens would honk at us when we passed them, and my father would do the same.
I didn’t want to ask him who John Jolly was, and was a bit relieved when he started talking.
“As you know, John was a friend of mine on the job. We used to hang around together, pick up women—you know. Anyway, he bought pot for his girlfriend a few months ago and got busted. So now he’s thrown off the force, and I have a feeling he’s staying in his house up by where I am for the winter.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I never knew where my father planned on taking me when he picked up me for a random weekend. The last time, we had driven down to Florida where he was staying with a friend. I had no idea he had been living upstate or for how long. Usually we went to bars and he fed me coins to keep me distracted with pinball machines and Pacman while he picked up women and drank. I hadn’t seen him in two years until a few hours ago; he had showed up in front of the house, parked outside and waiting.
“While we’re on this trip I’m going to teach you how to fight. You’re not tough. You’re too soft from me not being around.”
I stayed quiet. The windows of the car were old, and the random stream of wind that hissed through the cracks made me shiver. Although I loved my leather jacket, I knew it was a foolish thing to wear in late January, heading further north, no less. I was proud of how worn and soft the leather was, not to mention the pins from all my favorite heavy metal bands that I had fastened onto the lapels. At thirteen, I had tested my mother’s boundaries of propriety and my hair hung long and straight passed my shoulders.
“Did Mom know you were coming?” I asked him.
“Sure she knew,” he said, without pausing. “I told her I had rented a house up there for the year and wanted to swing down and get you. Spend some time with you.”
I would find out later that no such phone call had been made; my father’s appearances were unexpected for both of us. As I grew older, I would never come to understand my mother’s blind openness and acceptance of these trips. I wondered why she never objected to his unpredictability. If I ever asked her, I suppose she’d say she never wanted to get in the way of me having a relationship with him.
We hit traffic on Route 95, and I noticed that every time he changed gears, he would clasp his left hand over the right and shift. He noticed me watching him.
“Broke my wrist a while ago,” he said absently. “Right hand gets stiff in this weather. Hear the click?” He moved his right wrist in circles, and I heard a slight popping sound.
An hour later, he took one of the exits headed towards the Catskill Mountains. The road was steep and narrow with no railings on either side. He guided the steering wheel effortlessly, talking with such ease that it made me anxious. The sun had just set, and the tree branches, glazed with ice, glistened under the glow of dusk. I felt a sudden stream of cold from the window again and zipped up my leather jacket.
“Smart choice,” he said. I could tell he was being sarcastic because he grinned harder and cocked an eyebrow.
I wanted to smoke a cigarette to ease my clenched stomach, but hadn’t bothered to bring a pack with me. My mother’s full-time job had afforded me the freedom to smoke and drink when I felt like it, but during these rare weekends, I felt locked down with my father and knew he would sense me going off to sneak a smoke. He detested smokers and found the habit to be foul, a waste of money and overall stupid.
After what seemed like an endless incline, the road leveled and stores appeared on the side of the road. Used-car lots, small diners that hadn’t bothered to light up their neon signs, a pizzeria. The first town we drove through was Tannersville. Then Hunter. I lost track until we drove past Windham, and as I expected, my father pulled up in front of a bar with a blue neon sign in the window: “Live Bait.”
It wasn’t the first time I had walked into a bar. The stench of stale beer and cigarette smoke was something I had grown accustomed to, just like the tackiness of the linoleum floor as I followed my father to the bar. There were only a few people sitting there, mostly men older than my father, nursing drinks quietly.
“Here are some quarters,” he said as he pulled up a stool. “Go pick some stuff on the juke box. No Frank Sinatra,” he added.
For two quarters I was able to get three songs. My father grimaced when the first song started. The electric chords jolted several of the men at the bar, and they looked around, trying to eyeball the culprit.
“Get over here,” my father yelled, waving me over. “What is this shit?”
“Guns N’ Roses,” I said. “You said no Frank Sinatra.”
He dug his hand in his pocket and deposited more quarters in my palm. “Go pick three more that are good. And don’t screw it up.”
As usual, I spent most of the evening playing pinball and Centipede.
I noticed women at the bar, mostly older than my father, just like the men. I wondered if this is where John Jolly spent most of his time and if my father was waiting to run into him. Finally, he stood up and walked over while I was in the middle of a game.
Despite being a cop, my father had no qualms drinking and driving, but this night he had overdone it. He started driving down the mountain until I said something to him.
“Are you taking me back home?” I asked.
“Why would I take you back home?” he asked, his eyes glassy, his chin slack.
“We’re going down the mountain,” I pointed out.
“Aw shit,” he said. “We are!”
And right there, in the middle of a single two-way road, he gripped the steering wheel and made a u-turn. I wanted a cigarette more than ever.
There were no trees to see, no lights. Just my drunk father, driving up an icy mountain road in the dark.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” he said suddenly. “I’m too fucked up to drive. We have to go to sleep in the back.”
We were on the side of a mountain. If anyone were to hit us while we were parked, we would be plummeted to our death. I didn’t know what was worse: insisting he drive up the mountain and back to his house or letting him sleep off the liquor. I figured if he thought he was too fucked up to drive, that was saying something. I almost admired him in a strange way.
We crawled into the back of the camper, wrapped ourselves up in blankets and lay down on the makeshift bed.
“I really love your mom,” he said.
I was too cold to sleep, but didn’t say anything.
“I tried to get back with her so many times.”
After a few minutes he said, “You can’t totally blame me, you know. I mean, listen. At the end of the day, I was wrong for sleeping with other women, but your mother wouldn’t have sex with me. If she just wouldn’t have been so cold towards me… She didn’t take the time to meet my needs, and I—”
“Dad, you’re drunk. Please shut up and go to sleep,” I said. I was scared. My brazenness sprung from the hope that when he woke up in the morning he wouldn’t remember our conversation. I heard him snoring, and relieved, I fell asleep despite the cold.
The next morning, we woke up early and ate at the diner that we had first driven past the day before.
“We’re going to find John Jolly today,” he said. “Hey, why aren’t you finishing your breakfast?” He tapped his fork at the corned beef hash on my plate. I hadn’t touched it.
“You ordered it for me,” I said. “I don’t like it.”
“I’ll let it go,” he said. “But if you were living with me, there would be no such thing as ‘I don’t like it.’”
We drove through towns for several hours. The sun was brilliant. It shone bright and clear in a cloudless sky. It wasn’t as cold outside, and from the vantage point of the passenger seat it seemed as if the sun was strong enough to change the cold weather altogether.
My father played Patsy Cline tapes and sang “Crazy” when it came on. Then he pulled out another tape and kept playing “The Day the Music Died.” Despite my die-hard adoration for heavy metal, I caught myself humming along with the song. I didn’t mind driving around and that he didn’t mention John Jolly or the fact that it didn’t even seem like he was looking for anyone.
By the afternoon the sky had turned dark and gray. Bellies of clouds hung low.
“Are we going to your house now?” I asked.
He stared ahead of him as if he hadn’t heard me. “Not yet,” he said.
He pulled in front of “Live Bait” again, and when he saw I didn’t follow him in, he turned around.
“What’s the matter?”
“I feel gross,” I said. “I haven’t showered in almost two days. I thought we’d go back to your house and I could take a shower.”
“Why don’t you go wash up in the ice chest,” he said. It’s where he kept his beer in the van. He went into the bar and left me standing outside.
It felt strange standing in the middle of the street, and then climbing into the back of the van to wash myself. It was only my hair I really cared about. So I sat in the back, took off my jacket and shirt and dunked my head in the cooler filled with ice and water. I was surprised to see a bar of soap by where the ashtray would have been, and I scrubbed my head as quickly as I could, the intense iciness numbing my skull.
When I got myself together, I walked into the bar and saw my father talking to this older plump woman, wearing a dark purple dress too tight and short. I thought she was a prostitute.
She went to the bathroom when I walked up to them. My father said, “Man, I’m going to get a piece of this. We’re going back to her house.”
I felt myself turn red.
“I don’t want to,” I said. I was still shivering from washing my hair.
“Well, I don’t give a shit,” he said. “We’re going.”
“This is Cindy,” he said, when the woman came back.
‘And this is my son, Jamie.’ Why can’t you introduce me? I thought. She smiled at me sweetly and lit a Pall Mall cigarette. Her nails were so long they looked like pink hooks, like the claws of a possum. I decided I was glad she didn’t know my name because she looked stupid as hell. After she finished her cigarette, we followed her to her car, and then pulled up behind her in the Volkswagen and followed her.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” I said to him. It was the first time I let him see that I was angry.
“What’s the big fuckin’ deal?” he mumbled.
You didn’t have to drive for too long to feel like you were nowhere. Her house was in the middle of a forest, it seemed. There was a single narrow path that led up a hill, and on it was a small house. I could hear the rushing of water when I got out of the car. The sky hadn’t darkened yet, and I could see a stream at the bottom on the other side of the hill.
“Would you like some tea?” she asked when we walked in.
“No thanks,” I said.
“Got anything stronger?” my father asked.
“Sure, help yourself,” she said and pointed at the two bottles of whisky that were half full.
My father walked around the house as if he’d been there before. He knew where the glasses were and opened up the freezer to get some ice. I was standing right next to the refrigerator when he opened the door. He leaned in, “If you play your cards right, maybe you can get a piece of this too,” he said under his breath. I pretended I didn’t hear him.
The three of us stood in the kitchen, not saying anything. Not once did she ask me my name.
She had very large breasts, and I was embarrassed when I noticed my father was eyeing them. I don’t know if she was too dumb to notice or was too embarrassed to say anything. She lit a cigarette. I could see her pink bra strap and looked away.
“I like your bra,” my father said.
I wanted to kill him.
“I’m going outside for a bit. I’ll be back,” I said, and left without waiting for an answer.
I started walking on the side of the hill where I had seen the running stream. The air was still and cold, and my face was getting numb, but I kept walking. I sat by the water and lay down on the cold ground. The trees loomed over me, their branches long and black against the gray sky. By the stream there were still patches of snow that hadn’t melted. I didn’t want to go back inside; I was scared of what I’d walk into. This is how people disappear, I thought to myself. If someone drove by and grabbed me right now, they’d get away with it. No one would find me. Once I start thinking that way, everything seems creepy. I sat there for so long that I was almost convinced I was trapped on this empty lot of land with nowhere to go. I wanted to get up and go back into the house because it was so cold.
Eventually I got up and went back inside. They were still talking in the kitchen.
“Do you want a cup of tea?” she asked.
“I’m okay,” I said.
“We should get going anyway,” my father said without looking at me.
“You really fucked that up for me,” he said once we got in the van and we’d been driving for a while.
I didn’t say anything.
“When you walked out, you made her upset.”
“Why? I didn’t do anything.”
“She could tell you were uncomfortable,” he said.
“I guess she’s not as dumb as she looks,” I said.
He didn’t say anything, and I stared out the window for a while.
My father never took me to his house in Hensonville. We spent another evening sleeping in the back of the van and he drove me home the evening after. We never found John Jolly, nor did he teach me how to fight, a moment that in the movies would have escalated into a classic father-and-son slugfest where they hug at the end and the father tells the son he loves him.
As he pulled up in front of my house, I could see my mom was awake because her bedroom light was on, and I knew he was going to drop me off and leave. I didn’t know how long it would be before I would see him again.
He got out of the car and walked me to the porch.
“Okay,” he said. He gave me a hug. “Tell your mom I say hi.”
“I will,” I said.
He gripped me harder. “I know it’s not supposed to be like this,” he said, and let go.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“Be good!” he said, as he walked to his car and got in.
I wanted to watch him drive off, but it felt like a childish thing to do. I waited for him to start up the van. He gave a short honk and waved. I waved back.
“Jamie?” my mother called out. She heard the creaking of the stairs as I climbed up them.
The first thing I did when I went into my bedroom was fish out my cigarettes from under my bed. I cracked the window open, stuck half my body outside and lit one. I could see the park across the street and how empty it was. There were some stars out, and it was nice to see streetlights for a change. I liked hearing the distant sound of a car driving by.
I wondered where my father was. I pictured him in his white Volkswagen shifting gears with both hands and singing Patsy Cline.