It is August in South Carolina and all is muggy and humming with cicadas. The inky highway to the motel on the edge of my father’s hometown affords me an excellent view of the white streaks of lightning lashing dangerously close to the trees. In the long drives down foreign highways and the quiet motel room showers I have had plenty of time to further consider why exactly I have chosen to come here, what gnarled mystery is so worth solving.
Columbia, South Carolina is stunningly green. I imagine the sound of swamps gurgling alongside me but I have no evidence to support this geography, just a tingling sinking sensation. Enormous pick-up trucks blaze by and I am reminded of a similarly-sized SUV I saw in Oregon; strapped to the top was the head of a deer, entrails flagging in the wind. My partner and I watched it speed past us like a proud captain or a lost soul, depending.
I am here, in part, to see my father’s brother, John. His big old house had been my last stop in a flailing day of family research. First, I spent hours at the state archives, sorting through microfiche and careful census records which laid out—in perfect, looping script—my father’s family tree all the way back to the colonies. Then I get lost and then here I am, standing in John’s doorway, resisting an urge to turn around and take myself out drinking, anything.
Though I had not seen him in twenty years, John—a big man with a round, slightly ruddy face and an easy laugh—takes his wife and me out to dinner at his favorite restaurant—an old railroad station converted into a moderately expensive, wood-and-brass, dimly lit depot filled with USC students out to dinner with their parents. It is called, interestingly, “California Dreamin’.” I imagine California Dreamin’ would not be very successful down the street from my house in Oakland, but I appreciate the sentiment, the odd choice to give the whole joint an East Coast cigar-bar feel. John drops Holly and me off and goes to park the car, and Holly walks slowly to the podium because her bad hip is flaring up. She is round and rascally regardless, the sharp-tongued, kind-eyed daughter of a Baptist preacher. We took your mom here when she came down to visit, she tells me, and I imagine my mom in a mahogany booth, her laugh pealing in that easy way it does and people turning to look, disinterested and automatic.
Holly and John are regulars and they order easily: salad with grilled chicken for her, french fries and fried chicken for him. Is this okay for you? John asks so warmly, so I nod but mostly I am just glad that his girth and broadness relieve him of any similarity to his leaner, balder brother—the man I grew up thinking was my father.
I drink my soda and John holds court in the way of big, rooted men. He is the product of generations, proud and slow moving. He is frail around the edges but still alive in his eyes which are a deep, liquid brown like my father and my siblings. You know, when our mama died and we got around to dividing out her things, all your daddy wanted was his shotgun. John laughs, tickled. I try to imagine a different outcome: a paternity test that confirms this legacy as mine, but I already know what will happen; I know because time can become a rubber band and then we are left with that odd physics that gives us premonitions.
Is there anything lonelier than being the lie among friendly strangers that think they are family?
On the way to the car, John gestures back toward the enormous brick expanse of California Dreamin’. He says, During World War II, they unloaded bodies here. They stacked coffins on the tracks like cordwood. I look at the bustling entrance but all I see is something glamorous: sharp men in flannel suits clutching fedoras as they run to catch the midnight train, going west like I did. I imagine the men dodging the coffins. I try to think of something solemn and respectful but my head is full of dreamy absurdities. John and Holly and I stand for a respectful moment and they both have a faraway look. Well, John says, and so we turn and he opens the door for Holly and gently helps her into his sedan.
I consider that I’ve exploded something inside, something sensible and hard that I’ve spent my whole life hooked into, but I don’t want to spend too much time with that thought and anyway, the moment’s gone and we are winding past the State House, heading home.
And then I am inside, settled onto a beige couch, sifting through enormous array of photos of my siblings and me, trips down south that I don’t remember, all buttoned up in church clothes in their yard out front.
John comes down from his study with a hardcover genealogy book outlining my (his) family’s epic history, a project undertaken by some cousin’s husband. There they are: the great-great grandparents that are maybe mine, on a ship bound from Germany, sea-whipped and salty. The land grant, the Manifest Destiny, the years of cotton and then the Great Depression and the poultry farm. And: my grandparents feeding railroad workers between shifts at their little restaurant, my eccentrically sinister great-uncle bearing candy, my no-good cousin and her trashy boyfriend parking their trailer on the family farm.
John has a welcoming presence, but he does not know that my father and I are estranged or that his brother is a child molester: my monster, my father. Just an old man now, a huddled mass in Oregon; we both got older and now I sit in his brother’s living room of my own will and he stays far away from me.
I am unclear as to my obligations of truth but, to be fair, I am kindly stonewalled from any real intimacy by John’s endless ribbing and folksy digressions. The conversation is both intimate and removed, marked by a familiar, apparently familial, jocular distance. However, his similarity to my father ends there. There is no cruelty in this fork of the bloodline. I am here to scavenge evil, to pin it to some cardboard and study the cold comfort of its shape. Of course I will not find it. The map is not so easily drawn.
On the way back to the motel, I roll down my window even in the rain because I cannot get over the heavy, heavy air. I love the way it holds me and the moon and my rental and the highway litter and the billboards and the possums skittering across the road. This is atmosphere: it makes itself known; you have to wade a little in its fullness. Smells and sounds linger. The air is like linen, wrap yourself in it. The sky, the stars, so bright and low. I can see how this landscape could shape itself into a home.
Why am I in South Carolina? New theory: my visit with my father’s monster trail is an attempt to soothe—and now I realize, lose—that tiny, bewildered self I’ve locked away for years. That self has amplified in the shaky months since the man who mugged my partner and me in April was caught and charged with multiple mugging-related homicides, and since another lunatic with a shotgun unleashed his rage on Highway Patrol at the freeway exit down the street from our house and had us holed up in the dark bedroom, unsure of where the threat was coming from, Oakland Avenue hushed except for the arrhythmic shotgun blasts. Both incidents combined into a wrecking ball, demolishing the story I’d told myself about my new life, my grand escape.
Moving to California—the classic reinvention scheme—hadn’t worked for me. I’d written essay upon oblique essay about the monster as some sort of wild metaphor, looking for something I could name and release, looking—I guess—for what made my father different from me. I ended up all the more lost, knees-to-pavement one April night, staring up at a gun. There I found myself wormholed back in time, frozen, and I woke up running away. I woke up alive, a racist cop taking my statement, trying to make every black man walking home on 40th that night our guy.
Carl Jung wrote that the great spiritual task of every person is to know the evil that exists in the shadow of his own heart and find a way to integrate this knowledge, to find a way to live with it. I know where my monster lives. I am here because I am not afraid anymore.
At the scuzzy motel, another shower, another inquiry. The soap is scummy on my body; it never quite washes off. The glass is all fogged up, and I am blurred in my reflection. You cannot will a ghost to appear; you cannot demand meaning. You cannot find the words directly; you can only identify the negative space and draw the lines around it. It’s about sitting tight in a very wobbly faith—not a hope for something more or better, but the animal understanding that the only reason to know the contours of the life you have is that it’s the only one you’ve got.
There is mold in the grout in the corners. I am naked before myself. Once, several years ago, I stared drunkenly at my reflection in the dirty bathroom of a karaoke bar in Los Angeles and felt, with weird certainty, that I did not recognize my face. It just stared back at me, a collection of features.
There are no heroes here, only maniacs who look like men and those of us who’ve seen their faces. Even more, there is only me and all the selves I contain watching the spill of light crawl beneath so many flaky, wooden doors. At least I recognize my face; at least I do not spook myself into a cold panic. I towel off, taking what I can get.
It is hot like my freshman summer jaunt to D.C., like my early childhood in North Carolina: inland, humid misery that calls for swimming holes and air conditioned movie theaters and ice cream melting down your hand. It is hot like short shorts and basketball shorts and back sweat pooling darkly on grey t-shirts. It is hot like cold beers and iced coffees and no socks. It is hot like a memory of hot: my sister and brother and I summering off the coast of Wilmington, swimsuits and sand dollars and my father showing up separately with his fishing equipment. I stand aside, wanting to learn, watching him bait; there I am, ten-years-old with a broke-open secret, all alone on the periphery, running like a bull into the enormous Atlantic.
There is only me—here, now—as I find the flowered graves of the grandparents that aren’t really mine in a white, white church in the backwoods where the heat descends and hangs. Here are the Baptists and the green fields and the yellow-plastic strip mall signs that scream TATTOO and GAS. There is only this depressed landscape, dotted with trailers and ramshackle plantation houses. There is only the present, fifty years after my father left this place behind, and only me—haunted, haunting—moving silently through a world I don’t recognize.
Columbia’s marshy humidity makes everything feel oppressive and relaxing simultaneously. Desperate looking black men hover on the edge of the student district my first night in town, huddled together across from the sorority girls with “Cocks” shirts drinking beer and playing pool.
In the daylight—which rapidly cycles between glaring and diffused so that I am always removing and returning sunglasses to my face—the clouds are enormous and at sunset they are tinged a spectacular salmon pink. The landscape is lush and the sky leaks out the occasional patter of rain and then torrents gloriously cooling thunderstorms. The Allman Brothers rotate through the classic rock station over and over. It is my third day in and earlier I heard the same station play “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits as I rolled slowly through the college campus, and for the first time, I really heard the lyrics: See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup/Yeah, buddy, that’s his own hair/That little faggot got his own jet airplane/That little faggot, he’s a millionaire. The song’s menace made me roll up the windows, turn the AC on. My queerness, my trans-ness, edges me into air-conditioned isolation. I pull my baseball hat down low. I force myself to look gawkers in the eye.
I have gone the wrong way. Long-haired blond girls jog by in gym shorts and pristine lycra tanks, colonial wooden houses cast longer and longer shadows over trimmed green lawns. I happen on a natural foods store and wander through the aisles, among the hippies and yuppies. I could be anywhere—Oakland, Boston—wherever, but I am here in the middle-of-nowhere south, led by my odd brand of blind faith. I ask the women at the register where to get a decent cup of coffee and they answer in dreamy unison. The cuter one maybe checks me out or maybe not but I blush stupidly anyway, just in having to make conversation. I stand out wildly, my tattoos and Ray Bans and white t-shirts, my not-quite masculinity.
If I look deep enough in myself I know that I am here because I want to believe that there is a reason for what my father did to me and that I can find it. My body battlefield, the time lost in his bedroom or mine. If I look even deeper, I know that this mission is impossible but that something else is snarling on the edges—that I have chosen to unearth whatever lies at the heart of my family’s madness, at any cost.
I find the coffeehouse and I’m surprised to find it full of hipsters, darkly-lit and clean, the espresso sweet and perfectly poured. Everyone is in beards and thick glasses, the girls with interesting haircuts. I relax a little but I don’t stay long. Comfort is a matter of degree. I am almost thirty, lost looking for something I’m coming to realize I’ll never find. I prowl around my dad’s hometown like it matters. He used to be a monster but now he’s a ghost, and if I really believe that then it’s important to note that ghosts don’t care for corporeal affairs unless they’re the ones doing the haunting.
He’s no longer here and that’s the whole point; what haunts you cannot be haunted and you are a fool if you, like me, think otherwise.
My uncle’s house: let’s go back to that night. I sit in his living room, looking at pictures of people I don’t know and then myself, my father, my mother, my siblings: everyone young and dark haired.
Their living room is comfortably middle-class, worn-in by children and grandchildren now, neat but not sterile. There are framed photographs everywhere of vacations and senior portraits and professional baby pictures. There is a lot of tan and a cozy couch and wall-to-wall carpeting. There are two cars and a boat in the garage and a tidy yard. My aunt pulls out one of many photo albums to show me myself, standing on her front porch as a child from our one visit here, long ago. My dad’s hair is almost black and my mother smiles with shimmering joy. They are both impossibly wealthy and successful and my siblings and I pose dutifully with our cousins, this mysterious family with their religion and their house that smells like potpourri.
I always note my proximity to my father in pictures, as if that might reveal something useful—some date when the abuse started. Here I am five or so and I hold my mother’s hand but not my father’s. It could mean something or it could mean nothing at all.
John launches into an elaborate story about a nutty uncle, the man my father was named for. The uncle owned half of Swansea—the now-depressed, once vibrant town where they all grew up—but mostly wore stinky hobo suits and a wild beard. He bought a Model T in straight cash. He took a special interest in my father, bringing him candy and visiting him frequently—something that strikes me as creepy, but my uncle seems to interpret as a lucky break on my dad’s part.
At ten-thirty, I make to leave but my aunt and uncle won’t have it. They bring out a beat-up cassette tape—their son interviewing my Uncle George about World War II and Korea. Uncle George, the family suicide. It seems important that I listen to the interview, though no one says anything like that.
Uncle John fiddles with the cassette and finally fits it into the stereo, which crackles awake. My cousin, Tim, is in middle school and he plods through his assignment questions: Where were you stationed? What was it like? Were you ever wounded in combat? Uncle George sounds contained and clipped on the tape, in the way of newscasters and movie stars from the forties. I listen for clues to his suicide but, like everything else on this trip, nothing is revealed in their short exchange.
On the tape, he describes storming Normandy. We were wet for days, he tells Tim, his voice a little quiet. When they finally brought us new clothes, it was a mad scramble. There were crates of pants and shirts and you had thirty seconds to find something that fit you and that was it. I imagine him in pants too large, searching, bare-chested, for a shirt. John looks at me proudly and I nod approval, though I’m not sure what I am acknowledging exactly, beyond the quietest sort of sadness and the way that one’s pain is everyone’s, in a family.
I can’t stop imagining the whole town on fire. At the State Archive, the librarian had helped me trace the census records back to the year the Union burned down the capitol. Can’t go back any further, I’m afraid, she said. All that paper, gone. Now there’s a yuppie grocery store in the old Confederate printing plant down the road. Driving past the State House after dinner that night, John points out the stars that mark the litter of Sherman’s cannonballs. Sherman tried to set our farm on fire during his march, but it wouldn’t burn, he tells me; he’s a man who believes in miracles. I don’t question his faith and he doesn’t ask me about mine.
Why am I here?
I should admit that, in some ways, my mother is the reason. Earlier in the summer, I’d flown to my hometown, Pittsburgh, and interviewed her about my dad and his family. What she knew of my father’s life was a patchwork of vagaries, striking in its incompleteness. I cannot imagine knowing so little about my wife, but this was the eighties research boom, and they were two self-made executives in Research Triangle, severing their roots and constructing houses with jacuzzis and stone floors and glass ceilings that reminded them that the sky was the limit. My mom says none of this, just sips her scotch and soda in her modest rented condo and makes her eyes wide when I ask questions that edge too close to any of her many raw nerves.
He is definitely your father, she tells me, that nerve wild and exposed. I don’t know why I ever thought otherwise. I look at her and know that I will contact him, that I will ask him to take a test, that she will be proven wrong and that I will love her regardless.
You can be whoever you want. We are fundamentally trusting creatures, what with our pedestrian crosswalks and passenger planes. This is how I understand how easy it was to track and trap my father’s lies, barely a hunt at all.
Several years ago, the winter after I graduated college, I was holed up in my Boston apartment when my mom called me one cotton-mouthed morning and told me my father might not be my father after all. She muddled through a story involving a custody trial between herself and her prior husband. Your father—I mean, Lew—and I both thought he was insane but then his paternity test was inconclusive and I think it poisoned his mind, she told me. I’d just wanted to get pregnant at that point; we’d barely been dating.
I was twenty-two and mostly aware of a lifting sensation, a clearing in my chest. This was the solution, the severing of my father. I could reject him like a foreign organ because he did not belong to me. Back then I thought solutions were easy, that monstrosity was inherited, that anything was possible if you just were willing to believe.
Years later, she’s changed her mind. You looked exactly like him when you were born, she says during our interview in Pittsburgh, brusquely, like it was silly of her to get swept up in any other sort of story, like she’d been carried away. Or, more accurately, like she needs me to stop digging stop asking stop pushing. But we know each other well and I like to think that a small part of her is relieved by my insistence, by the inevitable approaching.
I try to imagine that I am a scientist, like her. I write little observations in my reporter’s notebook: her bottomless scotch and sodas, the issues of Newsweek piled on the side table, the stillness of the house now that both her cats are gone, the huge old home-stereo speakers towering over the living room like the artifacts of another life. This isn’t the home I grew up in but it has the same smells. I like the carpet under my toes, the coffee waiting for me every morning, the way she insists on making little breakfasts of eggs and English muffins for me. I want to keep things warm or—failing that, clinical—but my chests tightens in sparked fury when she brushes off the question. I am inconvenient to the story. Our narratives intersect but never overlay.
In the hotel room in South Carolina I remember her pleading, sharp eyes as I watch True Blood and feel my heart beat anxiously in my ears. Like the moment where the song ends and you’re left shouting over silence in the bar, I feel exposed and absurd. A month before my wedding and I just want to HURRY AND WRAP THINGS UP ALREADY. Some terrified self says to me in a foggy motel mirror: thisisyourlastchance and then everything falls—was always falling—apart.
Earlier in the night, I drink a half bottle of Food Lion wine and look out my window at the streetlight and the trembling fence and the dumpster bulging over. There are swamps nearby, I’m sure of it, alligators or something. There are things in the night: sirens, creatures swooping across the sky and divebombing the highway. There are animals under the water somewhere, moving steadily toward their prey. Tomorrow, I will leave the relatively safe metropolitan area and drive the half hour to Swansea, to see the dirt roads and the fields my father grew up in. He was just a regular old country boy, my uncle shrugs, as if I would know what that means.
Fifth grade: a friend and I look out the window by our garage and see eyes glowing red in the lightless night, staring out from the woods back at us. We freeze, then scream until my mom appears but by then the eyes are gone. Skeptically she says, It was a deer, eyes caught in the light. Neither of us believes her. My childhood bedroom: a brass lock that I was never allowed to use, a bed too big for such a tiny person.
There he is, a warm body thick with blood, sucking scotch from between his teeth. He has always been bald, a shiny dome with a circle of silver hair, neatly trimmed, like a halo. He is in khakis and a short-sleeve polo, neutral spring colors. He wants to belong but circles, a loner dressed up in rich man’s clothes. He is older than my mom by seven years and it’s always shown—his face is wrinkled, old man-ish. His brown eyes are the color of shit and that is exactly how he describes them. He is fit and trim and full of self-loathing; you can almost smell it rising off him. The ice clinks alarmingly against the cup but the bottom of the glass seems to compensate as it is muffled against the placemat. No one looks at him as he sings himself some boozy Sinatra—he’s got high hopes—his face transformed by the failing light and the scotch and the unveiling of his secret, the pitiful tenor of his song.
In the hotel, the bearded rednecks staying down the hall with their coolers full of catch suddenly seem more ominous, regular old country boys that I know they are. I check and re-check the deadbolt on the door before finally turning in.
My father disappeared one day from the family farm to take a job in North Carolina and literally never looked back. John, a bear of a man in his seventies, says, Are you writing a family history? and I feel a sharp stab of guilt. I never meant to mislead them or guard a secret and yet I did both, out of a sense of decorum maybe but also, perhaps, I have to finally admit that what led me to scrimp and save and travel eight hours on two planes and stay in a seedy motel near a suburban mall in central South Carolina is, in part, a sense of revenge. I imagine John saying brightly, innocently, Your kid was here, asking about you. I hope my dad’s skin crawls a little at my invading presence, at my insistent personhood, at my refusal to disappear despite all his best efforts to erase me.
I have looked for the line between myself and my father, I have attempted to pinpoint the exact place where he ends and I begin so I can reassure myself that I will not become him. Not sleeping, I consider that the facts might allow me something different: a story with answers as well as questions, a story that privileges the body over the places it’s been.
The road out of Columbia is mostly empty. I stop at a record store and buy some Nick Drake from a properly surly college student, taking control of my soundtrack after so many days of Skynyrd. It’s a beautiful, bright day even if the landscape quickly alters into doublewide trailers, weedy concrete strip malls and rough bikers selling their wares at impromptu roadstands.
As I arrive at the edge of town, the rain starts up again, and I am thankful for the excuse to avoid interactions with locals. I drive by Wise’s Bait, Tackle & Ammunition; I kick up clouds of red dust on the back roads. The fields are endless but I can’t see if anything worthwhile grows. I stop to take a picture of a dilapidated plantation house.
I stop at the high school and watch the football team run drills. I cannot imagine my father jogging two miles to and from football practice and even if I could, I don’t know which direction since I’d declined my uncle’s invitation out to see the old farmhouse and I don’t have the address. I get out of my car when the sky clears again and just watch the fields and the cars speeding past and try to feel something other than hopeless.
My father and I, our stories intersect in this moment. Now he is here, now I stand in his place and the world keeps spinning. There are deer and creeks and sweaty sodas on back porches. There are huge swaths of time between us, there are buildings sliding off their foundations and there are days, long past, that I’ll never see even though they changed my life and they are, then, still alive inside me. My grandfather, Lee, is here and he is a child chasing frogs, and they sing endlessly towards me now. They do not know their forbearers, only the cool marshes that shade them and it is so beautiful, the way they contain untranslatable epochs in their throaty chatter.
In Columbia’s tiny airport, I go over John’s most animated description of my dad: A little shy, a good football player. He was spoiled, being the youngest. Mama had him grow his hair long, of course, until the first grade when Daddy took him to a barber shop and had it all cut off. They fussed and fought over that!
When I ask what he was like as a kid, a teenager, in college—John looks confused and doesn’t answer. Maybe the not-knowing is the answer. The answer is the emptiness and the dirt road and the quiet kindness of John and Holly, who I know I will never see again.
That’s the thing about ghosts, I guess. You know that they’re there, you feel them raising your hair but then you turn on the light and—a little like me, boarding the plane back to San Francisco—you look up from your life and they’ve disappeared all but for the chill.
I can blow through my father’s landscape, interrupt his story. But it’s still his story; I’m just a spectre in it, keeping him up at night with low whistles.
I have the blur of memory: my own and my mother’s. They have become one stumbling monster, a narrative so rough it is barely stitched together. I am no longer afraid of this fragile fortress. Let it collapse.
I have an aisle seat back to California, land of Janis Joplin and Charles Manson. Reinvention has its dark side but I have only ever become more myself among the waving palm trees and foggy winters. Something snaps loose in me, like a tooth worried into freedom.
At my wedding, on a windy ocean bluff that September, my friend’s new husband says, Don’t be afraid to jump.
So I do. We return and my now-wife says: Write it all out. After the champagne, the glorious Pacific, the friends with bright eyes, a house is still a home. Ours smells of candles, garlic, fresh air and sun-warmed furniture.
A place is not an answer.
The answer is what catches up with you when you’re out hunting. I can’t sleep because I am still the same person. The story comes together in ways that I have just begun to understand. It is about reaching an edge, about the boundary of skin and time collapsing.
Last night, anxious, I envisioned myself afloat on my back. I knew that sharks moved nearby, that tsunamis loomed, that saw-toothed prehistoric fish awaited me below. I imagined an ocean, unconcerned and ambiguous, a projection and a phantom and a relief. No one saved me and no one could have saved me if a shark rubbed its sandpaper body along mine at that instant, and I did not feel safe or loved but beyond love, beyond safety, beyond my body and its history, beyond time even. The water was warm and infinite and meaningless, and I have never felt more alone than I did then or I do now, out here on the edge of what I know to be true.
This piece is excerpted from a larger work, a memoir-in-progress called This Fragile Fortress.