I told my girls I was once in jail.
It just came out. They were home from high school -- one is a senior, the other a sophomore -- and it was just this and that, and then the topic was being hungry and cold, and so I told them about not having a coat in junior high, and then the whole thing. Simply. The most grim things left out.
I told them how I went from advanced classes in 6th grade to failing 8th grade. Not having a winter coat that year, just a thin jacket. How we never had money for lunch and so I hovered around the garbage can in the lunchroom, asking for food. How we had no washer or dryer, and my mom never went to the laundromat, and how she was only home maybe four days a week. How we got evicted in October and moved out of the district so I was illegal, and had to walk 3 miles to and from. In the grey cold of Kansas.
I told them how I failed gym that year because I couldn't afford proper gym clothes, nor keep my makeshift ones clean. How Trudy Fowler declared me too smelly to sit next to. How I stopped caring about classes and homework.
How my mom sent me to live with my dad in St. Louis, and how we ate nothing but TV dinners, for lunch and dinner. And sometimes my older brother and I would shoplift hot dogs. How my dad watched only what he wanted to watch -- "my house, my rules" -- and would leave us notes instead of talk to us.
How we lived in nowheresville: no mall, no movies, just a Der Wienerschnitzel 4 miles away.
How we moved to north St.Louis, into a poor Italian/Polish working class neighborhood with a dead-end school, and how I began skipping. A lot. They were quiet at this point -- a rare thing indeed -- and eyes wide, and I needed to do this so I took a breath and kept going.
I told them how I stayed at home and listened to Donovan and Bob Dylan and Ian & Sylvia and Phil Ochs, and watched Dick Van Dyke on TV, instead of going to school. And how I started running away. Often.
To Kansas City. To the plains beyond. To the Ozarks. Always trying to find someone to save me: hippies, college students, a truck driver and his family, a diner waitress in Beatrice Nebraska, Pop. 421.
And always it was getting arrested, giving up, coming back. This started when I was 13; I turned 14 that September. The next to the last time I ran away I came back to find my posters, albums, clothes and guitar all torn and smashed, but carefully packed into a box on my bed.
Then I told them about the last time. Almost killed by psychos with guns, deep in the Meramec woods. Sleeping in the airport for days, looking for someone to fly me to San Francisco. In 1968 it was still shangrila to midwestern boys like me. Then I slept in the cold atrium of a Washington University dorm.
Before giving up and finding junkies to live with, and getting busted that very first night, in a drug raid by three St. Louis detectives.
They were so still and quiet. This is not who they thought I was.
I told them about being beaten senseless that night and burned on the leg by one angry detective. Being dropped into adult lockup to languish for 3 days before being sent to County Juvie for 6 weeks.
I did not tell them what happened in those places, except to tell them that my father did not get me out, that he campaigned for my commitment to a state facility at Booneville until I was 21.
I ended it good, for their sake. Described how my mom got me out, got custody again. How I worked that following summer at a community theater in KC. I told them this saved my life. Maybe it did.
So here it is, 4:16 a.m, and I lie here, in terror. What have I done?
Why did I tell them this?
And how do I tell them the most important thing, that my arms and hands feel like thick bricks, and have ever since they became that age: 11, 12, the age when I lost my parents and family and all guidance and consolation.
I am pure clumsy, and I cover it up. I was a good man when they were little, but I fake this father-of-teenagers part.
My father beat us, over anything at all, and often. I was raised on make-do and barley water, the accidental nutrition in what others threw out. My blood is barley water, still, and I don't know how to do this for them. I fake it. I reach back for Good Dad, Natural Dad, Genial Fellow, and find memories of bloody lips and indifference. I reach back and get only the grainy Father Knows Best reruns, and guns, and drugs, and cold prairies, and back yard sheds, and no where to go.
So I fake this. When they were little I was a Good Dad. Now I am in the construction business. Devising what I know they need from dead branches and weak paste and picture postcard pretense. "Wish You Were Here!"
I wish I had what you have, daughters. My skull aches from envy over what I muster for you.
How do I tell them I prepare a play, every day, and I enter from stage left, hit my marks, look them in the eye, and tell them a truth i don't know, a truth no one ever told me:
You are loved. And I will be here to tell you this every day.
I endure their selfishness, and bratty, bright disregard, and their annoying, giggling hilarity, with a practiced patience. It is all pretend. I don't know how to do this. I watch my wife's family and imitate. I pick up clues from books and movies and TV. I look weathered and sturdy; I am at all times knocked-together and propped up.
And I wonder every day if I am doing this right. When things go wrong I swallow panic and rely on calm declarations of my love for them to get us right again; if that fails I listen, afraid to take charge.
Why did I tell them this, today? Do they see me now? Thru me? Do they know now how little I understand, how much their secure happiness is a mystery to me? How do I explain my hole life to their whole ones?
Have I made a dreadful mistake?
It is such hard work, to be Good Dad. I pick up the tools every day, and fake this, and for them it works. Their walls are covered in ribbons and trophies, they are diligent about school, their happiness is iridescent. They plan college and lives beyond with ferocious intensity.
But today I told them my secret. I am no natural force, I only act as if I am good at this. Since 11 I have been my own lookout, and a poor one at times. And now they know. Have they figured me out now, as a fraud? Did I crack their rudders?
They never interrupted me today. This is maybe a first, ever.
I got through to them. Jesus. What have I done? Will they process this in some deep place, decide foolishly to find a boy like me, and save him? Have I doomed them?
I want them to leave me and my abomination of a family behind, utterly. To find solid, true boys who become whole men, who had and have fathers who were also good and true.
Why did I tell them this today? What is it I need them to know?
self-portrait, by my three beautiful daughters