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Your Father

All of this is occasioned by a telephone call from my dad:

I sit down on the couch, flip on the tube, and descend the cable channels to the low double-digits, where I find the red-jowled faces of men trapped inside too-tight sport coats going on at length about this player or that, and I know I’ve landed on the run-up to a baseball game. I have an immediate gut reaction to these men because, as it happens, I’m under imminent threat of getting my face slammed into my own locker by letterman-wearing jocks who, no doubt, will become less successful versions of the men I’m watching here on the tube. They look like they’ve been in the sun too long, a piggish tint to their sandpapery faces. It’s also maybe the first time I’ve confronted the fact that my dad was, forty years ago, the type of guy inclined to kick my ass, and now reveres those types of guys. The phone dings again on the coffee table and I see Your Father—my mom’s name for him since the divorce—appear on the caller ID.“Do you see me?” he says when I answer.

“It hasn’t started yet,” I say.

“I’m right behind the batter’s box.”

“Do you think I know where the batter’s box is?”

I hear him trying to get a hotdog in his mouth. While he chews, I turn the volume down low. My dad says, “It’s next to home plate, dummy.”

“I’m still watching these dickheads talk about the game,” I say.

“Dickheads? Those dickheads are patriots and sportsmen. They’re decorated veterans—”

“Dad—”

“What?”

“I see you.”

He’s wearing a pair of overpriced shades and a fitted ball cap, and right there on the tube he’s discarding a red-checkered hotdog sleeve with one hand and holding up his cell phone with the other, which in a strange way means I’m on the tube, too, I guess. Looks like there’s some pretty significant lag time between the broadcast and real life, and I watch his face get real serious. What I’m seeing here is my dad discovering through me that he’s live on broadcast television. He straightens his back. I watch him scan the fourth wall. His eyes wander every which way, looking stunned.

“Can you tell where the camera is?”

I shake my head and mutter something.

“Let’s extrapolate from your vantage point, kiddo. Can you see the pitcher’s mound?”

“I think so.”

“You think so? What kind of a kid have I raised thinks he sees the pitcher’s mound—”

“I think I see it. It’s just there’s no pitcher so how can I be sure?”

“Forget it.” He’s stopped his searching, looking off stage left now. I get the impression he’s trying to look at me, wherever he’s staring. I see he’s got his jersey tucked in, unbecoming for the belly.

“Do you know what this means?” he says. “The implications.”

“You’ve got good seats?”

“It means your father is going to be on TV every at-bat. Anytime you’ve got a batter at the plate and a pitcher on the mound—which, by the way, is more or less the whole game—you’ll be able to see your old man right there on TV. I’ll have more screen time today than most actors.” Static interrupts the line. “I’ve got to make phone calls,” he says. I can barely hear him. “I’ll call you back.”

“Dad—” I say, but the line goes dead and I’m left watching the slowed-down visual of my dad talking to me on the phone some-odd seconds in the past. When he hangs up, a look of grief comes over his face—not what I was expecting. Some seriousness of endeavor, him judging the weight of being on TV as though there were not thousands of other people on the tube all day long and even in the middle of the night, like the ghosts of lightwaves. Nobody watching, but still the people going on and on.

He clicks through the contacts on his cell phone. He stops then, drawing a bead straight up along the center of the tube and looking directly into the camera lens. I see his telephoto mug compressed into a flat, featureless blob of a face, his shades and stupidly parted hair most prominent, jersey tight around the neck. But somehow he looks scared, like the gravity of being on TV has just set in. As if looking into the television camera were a roundabout way of looking into something much deeper, more troubling. I imagine the gun of the camera, its barrel pointed outward, operator mounted in an automated seat that swivels and lifts via foot pedal.

Then—and I have no idea how to explain this adequately—I have the odd sensation of seeing the past and future at the same time. In the lens of the camera, beamed out into the rear-projection big screen in my mom’s living room, in the psychic feedback loop concocted here, all of adulthood is arranged before me: the follies of my dad’s life, the predetermined fuck-ups of middle age, the time I turned on the porch light and found him slamming my stepmom-to-be on his back patio and actually saw the thrusting muscles of my dad’s bare ass. All of that’s contained here in this false sightline of a vector mind-fuck, and the television is all that’s between us, which is somehow less tenuous than real space. Looking at this guy through a fleet of satellite dishes pitched toward the sky, all the distance and static of broadcast muddle, I’ve gotten my clearest look at him yet and achieved, like, total awareness that I’m destined for this same cycle of mediocrity.

I think, Your Father is on TV.

The phone rings.

“Son,” he says. I watch him open his cell back up and click through the contacts, lift the thing to his ear. Phoning me from the past. “I’m going to sing the National Anthem.”

“But I can see you,” I say, like it might freeze him right there on the tube forever.

“I’m going to stand up and sing it. Usually I just stand up and mouth the words. Today, I’m going to sing it.”

I hear the booming echo of the stadium announcer. It comes in broken up on my end, then fuzzed out by the roar of clapping. The broadcast cuts away from my dad. They’ve brought a notable performer to the field, someone I thought for sure was dead. The performer opens her mouth but her voice sounds so small. I look for my dad. He starts wailing on the phone:

“Oh say can you see . . .”

The camera pans across the bleachers with a cultish double-exposure of the rippling flag superimposed over the crowd’s transfixed faces—

“. . . by the dawn’s early light . . .”

—and then I’m singing in the living room of my mom and stepdad’s place, mesmerized in a way beyond my understanding—

“. . . what so proudly we hailed . . .”

—and the camera cuts back to the mound now, and I can see my dad behind home plate—

“. . . as the twilight’s last gleaming . . .”

—and I hear the time-shifted singing on the phone, and I’m with him but ahead of the tube, and I say, “I see you, Dad, I can see you,” until the camera pans across his face and I realize he’s not looking at me or anyone else. He’s looking at himself. He’s imagining the invisible beam of the camera and the light coming off his face and going out there into the tube. He’s looking at me looking at him on TV, and I think in a day or two I will get my ass kicked in the front yard of the school, I’ll get my underwear strung up on the flagpole and afterward move through the halls like a wraith huddled beneath a cloak of shame, and my dad will be in Tampa rewinding the tape he set to auto-record before he left for the ballgame. My stepmom will be drinking chilled white wine from a fucking fish bowl and he’ll be watching one more time his face on the TV, watching his face under the flat plainsong of baseball banter and he won’t even be thinking of me—

“. . . whose broad stripes and bright stars . . .”

“You fucking asshole,” I’m saying now, over and over again.

Then I hang up, shut the tube down, walk out the front door for no reason at all, and find my stepdad standing on a stool washing his maroon Ford F-250. It’s parked halfway on the grass and halfway on the driveway. A gray stream of suds crawls toward the drain at the end of the gutter, and I watch it dribble down. My stepdad’s got one of those big goofy sponges, wiping away a layer of foam dispensed from a glittery-blue bottle. And every time he wipes away the suds, there appears his own face gleaming off the hood. After a while, he notices me watching.

“Wanna give it a whirl?” he says.

I take the sponge and step up on the stool. The truck’s paint job has a sheen to it, with no grain or fuzz. I cover my reflection in soap then wipe it clean. The glare of the sun composes my face in refracted yellows and reds. It’s satisfying to make those gray bubbles go dripping down the drain.

“You’re a natural,” says my stepdad.

I wash his truck for a long time. Sickening heatwaves radiate off the hood, and my eyes sting with sweat. The shine makes me look like a mirage, someone far off haloed by a chemical rainbow. I picture myself aged forty years. Flesh hangs loose around my grimacing face. The hood begins to resemble a warped TV screen, like when our old set got struck by lightning and the colors went bad. My stepdad whistles the National Anthem.

Then my mom appears with the cordless and holds it out to me:

“It’s Your Father. He wants to speak with you.”

She and my stepdad share a look.

“Hello?” I say.

I hear the roar of a ballgame and crack, the sound of a line-drive just rolling off a wood bat.

“Do you see me?” he says.

 

Daniel LoPilato is a fiction writer from Atlanta. He earned a BA from the University of Georgia and will begin pursuing an MFA in fiction this fall at Florida State University. He has worked as an editorial assistant, a development officer, and, most recently, a popsicle vendor. This is his second published story.