We want so many things from family.
Usually impossible things.
I call my father on my morning walk to Handlebar, a simple coffee shop on Canon Perdido, about a 30-minute walk from my front door. When I arrive, I’ll order an espresso and a croissant with strawberry jam. I order this every day. I’ll stare out from my small table to the Santa Ynez mountains, shaded by an umbrella from the sun. American crows will caw from the red-tile shingles of the coffee shop’s roof and I’ll worry about possible dangers in my future. My father’s mother was superstitious, sitting on a front porch and counting to a hundred with her toothless mouth every time we forgot something and had to go back for it. The crows sound like her, her voice and her cadence. Her demands rang guttural in my youth, and now, while making my way to breakfast and work, it occurs to me that I’m not sure how my father bore the burden of her his entire life.
I don’t call my father often. I call my mother less. Calling either of them on the regular requires a singular effort beyond the strength I may have cobbled together by 7:45 am in the morning. It takes a staunch will to hear my mother talk about her goddamned cats or the latest manifestation of her hypochondria. Talking to my father isn’t much better. It takes a delicate touch to talk about unimportant things, shallow things like the weather or my upcoming vacation to France or my job as a software engineer. These small conversations are sweet little dances that carry little to no risk. Simple topics that act as a ground wire for our attitudes and tone, a connection to the earth that protects us from each other in the small possibility that one of our mouths becomes unrestrained, words striking the other like lightning from a storm.
This morning, I talk to my father about California’s drought, reciting statistics I’ve gleaned from The Atlantic and NPR. I talk about how almond farmers are compounding the effects of the drought by drilling wells and wringing the groundwater from the bedrock. That the farmers can’t plant more drought resistant crops because trees are an investment. And I may have used phrases like “catch-22” because it’s more in tune with his vernacular, so he might understand the economic repercussions of stopping almond farm production weighed against the fact we could very well run out of water. Period. And what happens to a community, a county, a state that doesn’t have any water? It’s easy to see how difficult this problem is when California will probably take the economic hit regardless of whether almond production is curtailed or not; and I’m only five minutes in, but I’ve already stopped myself from saying about 43 obscenities because my father is a religious man of the fundamental type. I do my best to be something of the son he might remember, but I’m not. I’ve been lying to him for 15 years about who I am and what I believe and up to this moment, I’ve been certain we had an unspoken understanding about what conversation topics are appropriate. I am, as usual, a fool.
My father says, I don’t think the drought is a climate thing.
My father says, I think it’s a sin thing.
My father is a simple man. He works with his hands, a skill I don’t possess. Where he sees order and structure in rebuilding an LS6 454-cubic-inch Big Block V8 in his 1972 Chevelle, I see only chaos. My father is a Sam Elliott doppelgänger, his mustache having been around since 1981. I was two years old the last time he shaved it off and I remember it like yesterday. I was convinced that it would have grown back by the time he came home from work the next day, and I still remember the confusion I felt when it wasn’t.
I am confused even now.
Every tendon, joint, ligament, and sinew is burning with adrenaline at the implication of what he just said. My voice goes silent, with shock or anger or both, it’s all muddled together. I know what’s going to happen next and I’m powerless to stop it. Arguing with my father, especially when the topic is Christianity or Sin or the End of Days, is like talking to a man who believes, with all of his heart, that he has built his house on a rock. My father is this man, convinced his foundation is solid and trustworthy, but blind to the painfully obvious slope in the house’s frame due to the capstone sinking into what everyone else can see is the goddamned beach. My father is this man—tunnel-visioned and absolutely certain—but I am silent. Frightened. It feels like an eternity before I ask him, What do you mean? My words are not much more than a whisper. I am a veritable prophet when it comes to what my father is going to say.
My father talks about the prophet Elijah (how apropos). How Elijah told King Ahab there wasn’t going to be any rain for a few years because of Ahab’s idol worship, among his other sins. Because of Jezebel. And my father tells me California has always been the most sinful state. That if I had kept track of its history, I would understand California was where “free love” first began in the 1960s (it’s not); followed by the rise of gays and lesbians in mainstream America (nope). My father thinks homosexuality can be cured. That it’s not a natural phenomenon which occurs in nature or something which has been consistently documented since the dawn of modern civilization. God is punishing California by withholding rain. I should know this is true because Arkansas is drowning in water falling from the sky. See? It’s all so clear. The confidence in his voice is grating. I don’t have the heart to bring up Oklahoma and how the seismicity rate is 600 times greater than observed before 2008. How all those earthquakes are probably caused by Oklahoma’s sins and not the oil and gas waste wells that result from fracking, (sarcasm included). I don’t have the heart to say that Elijah and Ahab didn’t have the goddamned Weather Channel app on their iPhones, so the amount of knowledge they had about the world was infinitesimally small compared to what humanity has learned since the beginning of the Common Era. And more importantly, I don’t have the heart to tell my simple father I don’t believe in his god. I can’t just spit out with simple words how there are a billion Hindus and a billion Muslims and a billion Christians and guess what, I’m betting they’re probably all wrong, since no one has a firsthand account of what happens when we die. Sunnis are killing Shiites and Pentecostals would rather condemn Catholics to hell instead of embracing them as fellow believers (I should know, my mother’s parents were Catholic), but none of this comes across as primitive to my father.
So what is it that we can talk about? I don’t know.
My father doesn’t use Google. He doesn’t have an email address or Internet, which is why I have to make the effort to call him. Why I’m stuck on this fucking phone call talking about Jesus magic and the end of the world. Talking about things like the Rapture and Jesus’ return riding some gigantic white horse in the sky. My father is certain he doesn’t sin. He tells me he is more pure than all the sinners in California. He interprets the Bible correctly. He is convinced he’ll be caught up, like 1 Thessalonians 4:17 says, to meet the Lord in the air and everyone else will be left behind like all the suckers in a Kirk Cameron movie. I tell him he is making broad assumptions. I can barely get a word in edgewise. My father doesn’t see it that way and while he continues his phone call sermon, I am dangerously silent in my desire to scream at him. In my want for him to know how simple I think he is. In my obsession to hurt him like all the years he hurt me.
These feelings are meteoric and travel at the speed of light. I was not, until now, aware I wanted to hurt my father. I was not, until now, cognizant that large portions of my pain were due to him.
This the 300th perfect day of weather in Santa Barbara. Ryan, a homeless guy I know, holds his dog Spokane on a wooden bench by the curb of State street. I suddenly remember how I used to hold my own dog, propped up against a round hay bale in the back yard of our two-story house in Kansas. The large ones that took a tractor to move. My father, sleeping or having sex with my new stepmother after church on a Sunday afternoon. We were usually left alone to our own devices. I spent most of my time staring at the sky and wondering why my father loved his second wife more than his children. How she asked him to choose her over his kids and how he let her. How he believed her batshit crazy “Holy Spirit revelations”, which were mostly about us. How he vilified my mother and made us all feel like we weren’t good enough. Forget that I’m 36 and also love naps on a Sunday afternoon. Forget we were poor and how he worked terribly hard and how life was already difficult for all of us. Forget we weren’t allowed to question any sort of doctrine without being accused of having a spirit of rebellion. Forget I carry these weights like a millstone around my neck. They’ve always been there, but he makes me remember how heavy they are. I want nothing more than to free myself of their weight, to drop them on the street and leave them where they lay. Instead, I drag them across the brick sidewalk, across De La Guerra Plaza, and through El Paseo. I feel the ache in my throat. It is sore and constant.
I feel all the years we spent in Hallowell, constricting my heart still.
I swallow all of this bile while he talks. I say nothing because it would be cruel. We haven’t had any of these conversations. My anger would be a surprise. A disappointment. Instead, I tell him I’ve arrived at my coffee shop and I need to go. He tells me he loves me.
You can hear the victory he feels in his voice.
My silence has given him this mercy.
I say I love him too.
It’ll be months before we speak again.