This article originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue playboy magazine.
Some final thoughts on our father on the occasion of his untimely and probably accidental passing.
The accident, had to look like someone else’s Dad. An idiot Dad. Some careless bungler. Not our Dad, who the first thing when you walked into his workshop told you die first lesson they teach in trade school is to never lean over a running engine with your necktie hanging loose. Even if it’s your millionth visit to his shop, that Dad, the stickler for detail Dad who was perennially all about work, work, work and who never stopped to smell the cocaine. That’s the Dad to keep in mind.
Every detail needed to suggest Dad was simply driving down a country road, Dad, enjoying the winter scenery. That would be Dad, appreciator of life’s simple pleasures, Dad, the avid watcher of paint drying. Driving along Dad with his hands at three and nine o’clock, when hark! He hears a noise the pushrods might or might not be making, Dad, the consummate grinder of cylinder walls and smoker of Marlboros and asker of “When did you last top off this brake fluid?” He pulls off on the snowy shoulder and of course he’s wearing a suit and tie, Dad, even on a drive home from visiting his oncologist. Dad leaves the engine running, and Dad gets out. Knowing Dad he slips off his suit coat, Dad, and folds it over the back of the front seat, a gesture so Dad, and rolls up both his shirtsleeves. True to form, Dad, our just-take-a-gander-at-that-glorious-snow, kids Dad, he’d tilt his head back and inhale a big, no-cost chestful of the best things in life, the chill breeze and the sun half eclipsed behind heavy clouds. Dad who always said to take off your hoodie before using the new table saw, due to the two ends of the drawstring hanging down and what would happen, Dad warned, if those two hoodie strings caught the teeth of the table saw and yanked you facedown onto the spinning blade, making you look like a stitched-up Frankenstein the rest of your life—provided you lived.
That fake Dad, who always looked on the bright side, the one who died—he wasn’t our Dad, who said never to wave our hands out the window of a moving car owing to Isadora Duncan, Dad, the most beautiful, the most accomplished dancer of her time, Dad, who climbed aboard a Bugatti roadster one time, a top-down sports car in Nice, France with all her friends watching and bid them, “Good-bye, my darlings, I’m off to glory!” thinking she was only going for a joyride with a handsome mechanic. Dad never got tired of describing the way Isadora Duncan wrapped a long silk scarf around her pale neck and tossed one end to trail in the breeze, Dad said, how dashing, how carefree, and how that flapping scarf-end wrapped itself around the spokes of the rear wheel and snapped her swanlike neck, Dad saying how the embroidered-silk noose jerked her body from the open vehicle and dragged her screaming and then dead down the cobblestone street within sight of the friends she’d only then bid good-bye. Dad, for whom the glass was always half full of poison, that story was Dad all over.
Dad acting like a stranger, the day in question, parked along that country road, he propped open the hood. The hood of his car, not to be confused with the hoodie that gets your stupid teenage face table-sawed in half. Head deep in the engine compartment, Dad being Dad, he has to notice the fan cowling is absent. The fiberglass shield, the cowling that protects stupid people from the spinning, razor-sharp blades of the radiator fan, Dad would note it not being there. A detail the officer at the scene and the medical examiner might overlook, Dad certainly wouldn’t. Those aluminum blades aren’t spinning, Dad would explain, due to the afternoon’s cool ambient temperature, Dad, who went to automotive trade school and never let anyone forget it. Dad who said, “That’s no way to treat a bicycle,” and told you to put the chain guard back on because the world was, to Dad, nothing except gnashing gears and sprockets merely lying in wait to take a bite out of someone stupid. That Dad would never have knowingly leaned over a running automobile engine, not even in January with the viscous fan clutch disengaged, not Dad, with his necktie flirting with disaster. Not the Dad who knew the tensile strength of silk.
Dad feeling the winter sun on his back, Dad, lying there, Dad, waiting for redemption, Dad, ready for karma and physics to take their course.
Nobody told the police, Dad, nobody ever mentioned, Dad, that Isadora Duncan was 50 years old, a washed-up 50-year-old dancer, scrounging money off rich, married lovers, Dad, who knotted the scarf around her own neck, Dad, so tight around her swanlike neck, and said such a gallows speech, “I’m off to glory,” Dad, so many elegant gestures ending as she tossed away the rest of her life as if by some stage-managed mistake.
Dad would impress upon you that even smart people die stupid deaths. Dad’s favorite being Tennessee Williams, the Pulitzer Prize winner, the Toast of Broadway, Dad always exclaimed, who wrote A Streetcar Named Desire and Suddenly, Last Summer and The Glass Menagerie. The way Dad always built him up, Tennessee Williams was smarter than any 10 regular people combined. Being a bookworm, he suffered chronic dry eyes, Tennessee Williams, and, as per Dad, was perennially squeezing drops. Poor Tennessee Williams. Dad’s point being that even dry eyes can kill you—genius or not—if you’re not paying your full attention, Dad. Tennessee Williams, for instance, would twist off the top of Visine and hold the cap between his lips for safekeeping while he tilted back his head and dripped the drops into each eye. Dad’s version is Williams had done so his whole life until, alone in a hotel room, the playwright hiccupped or coughed or maybe only forgot the hold his lips had on the Visine cap and let it drop straight down into the back of his throat where there was no getting it out, not by himself. Dad’s point being, one slipup could leave you just as dead as Isadora Duncan choked to death with everyone looking on. No, that Dad, Dad the worrier, Dad the pessimist, would know how a man’s necktie can dangle like bait, snaking down between the blades of a not-spinning radiator fan.
This Dad in particular would hammer into you how no machine knows the difference between butchering you and not just meat. Knowing Dad, he’d tuck his tie between the buttons of his shirt, like a military tie, like a soldier who knows better than to let something flap in the breeze Isadora Duncan–style, waiting for it to get snagged on an outbound bazooka shell or a dropped atom bomb targeted for enemy territory. No, Dad, our Dad would untie the necktie and leave it tucked like a pocket square in the jacket he’s got folded over the back of the front seat. That’s just Dad, disbeliever of the surgeon general. The same Dad, he says most folks have their death all planned out but just don’t know it. The Dad who’d never run the tank half empty for fear of drawing grainy sediments into the fuel line and glazing the piston rings he considers family.
Not that Dad could stand accused of being overly fond of family. Leastways not his own, least of all his own three children, Dad, not at the end. Our Dad who blamed the pain medication for his saying, over Christmas dinner, Dad, that Heather was too fat and sloppy to catch a husband, Dad, and neither was her brain anything special to look at. That Dad, that same dinner announcing Todd might not be in the poorhouse if he didn’t have babies with every drug addict he came across, and also vis-à-vis Dad, that Patrick was a lazy coward who couldn’t stick it out for even the first six months of automotive trade school. Dad, merry Christmas, Dad, our Dad who never said anything except to warn us away from hot stoves and exposed wires, the look that his eyes let slip was worse than what he’d actually said. Dad. Our Dad. The Dad of no do-overs. His eyes said, “Lo and behold!” His eyes recognized the way cancer would kill his kids, Dad, long before killing him.
Or New Year’s Eve, that Dad, that night Dad’s cancer killed Mom. Drugs saying everything he did or didn’t intend. Called his wife a cow, Dad, the mother of his kids, Dad, said she’d saddled him with three kids dull as dishwater, Dad, while other kids were walking on the moon and winning president of the United States, Dad, drinking his pain pills now with midnight swigs of champagne, Dad, Heather saying, Dad, “It’s the Demerol,” Dad, him calling Mom bitch and sow, Dad, through clenched teeth, hissing the words like the relief valve of a boiling-over radiator cap. Dad spewing venom, spewing bile. Dad called up, Dad, his head thrown back, looking up through the dining room ceiling, looking through the roof, raising his hands, Dad, in lamentation, in supplication, Dad asking, “God,” Dad, “why did you,” Dad, “bestow upon me such stupid children?”
Whether you wanted to know or not, Dad would explain that a radiator fan only spins when the block temperature reaches 156 degrees Fahrenheit. Above 35 miles per hour, the way Dad tells it, the ram air entering through the grille, it’s enough to cool the coolant. Dad, the expert on all things viscous fan clutch, Dad’s talk about silicone fluid can put you into a coma to rival death, how the fluid is held in a little reservoir, and minus that fluid’s release the fan clutch won’t engage, Dad droning on and on, until such-and-such a temperature. At that point, Dad says, it’s already too late. Dad’s all about there being no warning. No bell tolling. No do-overs. When that clutch engages, and here Dad would shrug to show his helplessness in the matter, those razor-sharp blades of the fan will activate at full spin.
Nobody talked about the possibility, Dad, that wearing a hoodie over a table saw is something you do, Dad, to spite your face. That’s why it couldn’t look like an intentional accident, Dad. His leaning forward, revving the engine, Dad, with his tie fishing for disaster and his stomach placed so hara-kiri close to the metal blades about to cut loose. Dad had to look stupid, Dad, to be punished, Dad, and have his life made a lesson of. Dad, our Dad had to die the most-stupidest death he knew of.
Heather would blame, Dad, his blood alcohol, Dad, and his painkillers, while Todd would blame the side effects of chemotherapy for Dad going against trade-school gospel. That engine running, Dad, the shadow of him helping keep things below 156 degrees, Dad, he had nothing to worry about unless the sun peeked out from behind a cloud, poor Dad, as he worked a thick thumbnail into the slot-head screw that adjusts the idle, Dad like a lamb led to slaughter, Dad, made low, Dad bent over the engine block like the chopping block it would soon become. Dad not being himself, not the man who’d want some pathologist to come across such a, Dad, bloody mess. Dad’s Cause of Death recorded as the sun coming out. The Death Certificate stating “Misadventure,” Dad, a casualty of some momentary lapse in the windchill factor.
Some force bigger than stupidity was at work here. Prometheus crucified, Dad, the engine block becoming both the rock and the eagle sent to rip out his guts. His punishment, Dad, for bestowing too much of his brand of fiery, Dad, truth upon the world.
Dad punishing a body that had betrayed him, Dad, intending a freak accident, his neckwear being his low-hanging bait, Dad, tempting fate. Killed by something we all knew better than to risk, Dad, his own blood offering. An uptick in ambient temperature, Dad, the silicone fluid released, Dad, his tie snaring him, yanking him down, Dad, holding him in place, Dad, choked and gasping.
At that, by automatic, Dad, without warning, the turning blades struck his stomach, Dad, curved blades, Dad, ripped through his shirt, Dad, scraping his belly, Dad, slicing, Dad, slashing, Dad, swiping out great scoops of flesh. Clean tissue and cancer alike, thrown aside, hollowing Dad into a husk. Cleaned like a fish, Dad, dressed like game. Eviscerated, Dad, but still alive, Dad, pulling away, meat, pushing with both hands, Dad, fingers spread open against the hot engine block, Dad, abandoning his own vital organs in his effort to escape. Dad, shoving back, Dad, blood, Dad, screaming, Dad, sprayed, Dad, clots and gobbets spewing, Dad, steaming in the winter air. Dad, his last meal half food and half shit. Dad, his bowels winding around the crankshaft pulley, scalding hot on such a, Dad, brilliantly bright, Dad, cold winter day.
Dad martyring himself, Dad, making himself the biggest idiot, held down, Dad, sizzling against the searing hot engine block, Dad, like Saint Lawrence, Dad, grilled alive by Vatican prefects for revealing too much. Dad making his dullard kids mental giants by comparison. Dad, tangled, Dad, tied down, Dad, knowing there’d be no life insurance if anyone caught a whiff of suicide, Dad, leading people to believe, leaving them without a doubt something this gruesome, something so agonizing, Dad, it had to be by accident.
Nobody telling the police that Tennessee Williams never in his life opened his mouth by mistake.
Dad, a worthy tribute paid, Dad, his earthly body already beyond repair, Dad, his necktie the tether holding only, Dad, his mortal remains, Dad, while the rest of him, Dad, the idiot, Dad, the fool, Dad, ascended, Dad, redeemed.