My father died in the spring of 2005, a year-and-a-half after my mother died, and a week after he visited my wife and me in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 95. She was 97. My niece was with my father when he died in a hospital room in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She told me at his funeral that he had awakened from a coma and began shouting for me, “Patty! I have to call Patty!” Then he died.
My father’s visit was my brother George’s idea. “To connect with Dad one last time,” he said. Actually, he’s my half brother. We have the same mother but different fathers. His father left him and our mother a few years after my brother was born. Then my father married our mother and raised my brother as his natural son, although he never adopted him legally. I came along 14 years later.
I went to the airport early to meet Dad. My brother told me to get him a wheelchair. I said, “He’s too vigorous for that. It’ll embarrass him.” He said, “No, he likes the attention.” I pushed the wheelchair to the gate and asked one of the exiting passengers if he remembered an old man on the flight. “He’s bald, with a white mustache,” I said. The man said, “You’re the writer! He talked my ear off about you the entire flight.” I said, “That’s him.”
Finally Dad came hobbling out of the jetway, clutching a small bag in one hand and, in the other, a paperback book. I hadn’t seen him since my mother’s funeral. He looked the same, only more halt. He wore a navy blazer, rep tie, and gray slacks. His con. “I always dressed Ivy League,” he once said. “The suckers bought it.”
“Curly!” I said. He looked up with his opaque, gray-blue eyes. We kissed on the lips as did all the men in our Italian family. “I got you a wheelchair, Pop. But you won’t need it, will you?”
“I’d like it,” he said in a weak voice. I settled him in the wheelchair and began pushing him through the crowded airport. He arranged the paperback book on his lap so that its cover showed. Kafka’s Metamorphosis. People smiled down at him, and then up at me, the dutiful son, also an old man with his white beard.
I leaned over him and said, “How does it feel to be 95, Pop?”
“Not like I felt at 80.”
We stood outside in the hot sunshine and disorienting traffic. “Wanna wait here while I bring the car around?” I said.
“No, I can walk.”
A sheriff’s deputy stopped traffic so Dad and I could cross the street to the parking garage. It was dark and cool in the garage. I sat him down on a bench near the elevator. “I’ll get the car,” I said.
As I walked toward the car, I called Susan. “How is he?” she said.
“The same,” I said. “Only older.”
When we got home Susan greeted Dad at the front door with a kiss. “Wait here, Dad,” she said. “I’ll put the dogs in the backyard.”
“That’s all right,” he said. “I want to see the orphan.” He meant Matthew, our mutt, the one we’d rescued. Our other five dogs were thoroughbred Shiba Inus we’d bought. Matthew was always deliriously happy. Our Shibas were aloof. They thought we were lucky to have them.
He gave his money away, to his cronies, his wife, his sons. It was the con he loved.
Dad had never met Matthew, but he identified with him from the first moment we got him. “An orphan, like me,” Dad said. Dad never knew his mother or his father. His mother was a 16-year-old girl from Italy who gave him up to an orphanage the moment he was born to her in a strange land. Dad lived in the orphanage for 15 years, then he got a job sweeping out a pool hall. He slept on the green felt tables. Over the years he became a great pool shooter for money, and then an expert with dice and cards, and every form of gambling. That’s how he made his living. His secret, he said, was that he always looked for the edge. Marked cards, shaved dice, and an affected intellectualism that was a masquerade. He would hustle the Palm Beach swells for inside information at their private club box at Hialeah Park racetrack during the Flamingo Stakes, flaunting a Jay Gatsby-esque manner of speaking and a superficial knowledge of the Greek philosophers, without any notion of what they meant, except to use them in his con to separate the “suckers” from their money. But he gave his money away, to his cronies, his wife, his sons. It was the con he loved.
Shortly before I was born, Dad went to a judge to get his name legally changed from Pasquale Giordano to Pat Jordan so I would be born “an American.” The judge said, “That’ll be $17.” Dad said, “I don’t have the money.” The judge felt sorry for this poor Italian, with his lowered eyes and deferential slouch, so he changed my father’s name for nothing. What the judge would never know was that my father had over a thousand dollars in his pocket in that courtroom. Dad’s con gave him his sense of worth as a human being. Every time he conned the “suckers” out of money, or love, or intimacy, it was proof in his mind’s eye that he was someone special, smarter, better. Dad’s con was the most important thing in his life.
Matthew was a con, too, but in a more elemental way. He ran out of the North Carolina woods one night and up onto the porch of our cabin with his two brothers. They were straggly, starving, flea- and tick-infested mountain puppies no more than 12 weeks old. We fed them all. Matthew’s two brothers wolfed down the food and ran back into the woods. Matthew stayed. He tried to climb into our laps. He licked our hands. He lay on the deck on his back with his legs spread, his pink belly and tiny balls exposed. So, we adopted him. Our Shibas resented him at first, this interloper, until he conned them, too, and they accepted him into the pack.
Susan opened the front door wide and Dad stepped inside. Our dogs came running. Our Shibas sniffed at Dad’s shoes and pants and then lost interest. Matthew leaped up on Dad with his paws, whimpering and wagging his tail, as if he had been waiting for Dad all his life. Dad giggled. “See!” he said. “My fellow orphan loves me.” I didn’t tell Dad that Matthew loved everyone; that was his con.
We got Dad seated at the dining room table. Matthew stood up on his hind legs and draped his front paws over Dad’s knees. He stared up at Dad with his huge brown eyes filled with such love that Dad was almost moved to tears. “He loves me,” he said, and petted Matthew’s floppy ears. I made Dad a drink, a Tanqueray martini. “You remembered, son,” he said. He sipped his drink. Matthew lay at his feet. Dad smiled down on him. “He won’t leave me.” Susan brought a tray of cheese and crackers. Matthew perked up. Dad took a bite of cheese and crackers, and a crumb fell to the floor. Matthew licked it up.
We put Dad’s bag in the guest room. Susan set the table for dinner. I heated up the sausage and peppers I had cooked in the morning, and served it to Dad with hot garlic bread and a glass of red wine. Dad ate methodically, silently, and when he finished, he said, “I’m tired. I think I’ll go to sleep.” He went into the guest room as Susan cleared the table.
“So far, so good,” she said.
“So far,” I said.
Susan went to sleep in the bedroom with the dogs. I lay down on the sofa in the Florida room where I could see into the house in case Dad woke and didn’t know where he was. I watched TV late into the night, glancing toward the guest room, until I fell asleep.
“Patty! You awake?” I opened my eyes to an old ghost hovering over me, his stale, old man’s breath inches away from my face.
“Dad! Jesus! What are you doing up?”
“I couldn’t sleep. I want another martini.”
“You taught me some great things, Pop. Never quit. Take care of the family. Only a fool or a child believes in perfect justice.”
I got up and made him a martini and myself a Jim Beam and ice. We sat at the dining room table, across from each other in the darkness, sipping our drinks. Dad said, “I was never a good father to you, Patty.”
“Of course you were.”
“I didn’t have the time. You came too late. I was tired after raising your brother.”
“Pop, everything I am I owe to you.”
“Some things, maybe, but most you did yourself.”
“You taught me some great things, Pop. Never quit. Take care of the family. Only a fool or a child believes in perfect justice.” I thought, if there had been perfect justice in this world, Dad would have had a mother and a father.
“I didn’t know how to be a father. I played it by ear. Sometimes I got it right, sometimes….” He shrugged.
“I always admired you, Pop. Despite the orphanage, you were never bitter.”
He looked at me with his gray-blue eyes and said, sharply, “I had no one to be bitter at.” I felt tears in my eyes. “It wasn’t so bad,” he said. “There was no affection, but there was none of that molestation crap you hear today, either. They fed you and clothed you and sent you to school. I had some teachers who loved me. Mrs. Hennessey. Mrs. O’Brien. I stayed after class to help them.” He smiled. “I was their favorite. They called me Patsy, not Pasquale.”
I changed the subject. “How do you like it at the assisted living place?” It was an upscale old-age home with a fireplace in the lobby and wood-paneled walls.
“I’m surrounded by old people. They’re always complaining. Some of them, they lost their marbles. So I help out the staff.” He smiled again. “This one Haitian nurse, Desiree, she calls me chéri. She loves me. Whenever someone comes to check out the place for their parents, Desiree introduces me to them. She tells me ahead of time that someone’s coming so I get dressed in my good clothes.”
I laughed. “Like an ambassador.”
“They put me in the newsletter.” He looked at me. “You’re not the only one, you know.”
He sipped his drink and looked down at the table. “I began my life institutionalized and that’s how I’ll end it,” he said. “But I have no regrets. I lived my life the way I wanted to. I didn’t answer to anyone.”
We drank and talked late into the night. I could hear Susan stirring in the bed, listening.
Susan and I woke before Dad and made his breakfast. When he came out of the guest room, Matthew ran to him and leaped on him. Dad giggled. “He missed me, my orphan.” The other dogs were outside chasing a possum walking on top of our privacy fence, except for Kiri, our old female, who was blind, diabetic, and epileptic. Kiri was sleeping underneath the dining room table while we ate breakfast. Matthew lay alongside Dad’s chair, waiting for him to drop crumbs from his toast, or, even better, a piece of bacon.
After breakfast, we cleared the table and Susan began washing the dishes. Susan said over her shoulder, “There are towels in the bathroom, Dad, if you want to take a bath.”
“I don’t think so.”
Susan glanced at me. I shrugged. Dad sat at the table, petting Matthew at his feet. I heard Kiri whimper, a pitiful cry, and saw, under the table, that she was having an epileptic seizure. She stiffened and her eyes rolled back into her head. I got on my knees under the table and tried to comfort her. “Shooosh,” I whispered, stroking her forehead. “It’ll be all right.” Dad was petting Matthew and talking to him.
Kiri’s fit lasted only a few minutes, and then she came out of it. When she stood up, a little wobbly, I noticed she had wet on the floor. I got some paper towels and kneeled down to clean the floor. Dad saw me and said, “Doesn’t she know enough to go outside?” I explained about her epilepsy, her age, her blindness, her diabetes. “I want to go outside for awhile,” he said. He got his book and went into our backyard and lay down on the chaise longue in the shade of a carrotwood tree. Matthew lay down beside him. The other dogs snorffled through the liriope grass. Dad lay there, the book on his lap, staring off as if thinking, or maybe remembering.
“Isn’t he ever going to take a bath?” Susan said.
“I think he’s embarrassed,” I said, “that he’ll need help getting in and out of the tub.”
“You can help him.”
“That’s what would embarrass him.”
“That’s ridiculous. You’re his son, for Godssakes.” But I was more than his son. I was his only blood relative. The only one he had ever known. Susan looked at me. “That was nice last night. You and your father talking.”
Late in the afternoon, Dad got dressed for our drive to Jupiter, where his great-grandson, my brother’s grandson, was scheduled to start as shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers in a spring-training game. Tony was 28, a career minor-leaguer, and this would be his last chance to make the Dodgers. He had been in the minor leagues for seven years because he had no financial considerations. His father, Harley, and my niece, Beth, were multimillionaires in the Midwest. Tony was already a millionaire himself. So he played, year after year, while other minor-leaguers dropped out, got married, took a job back home on a construction crew. I had never seen Tony play, despite the fact that I had been a $50,000 bonus pitcher in the Milwaukee Braves organization in the early ’60s. Hank Aaron, Joe Torre, and Phil Niekro had been my teammates. My brother lived his life through my career until I no longer had one. Now he lived his life through Tony’s career.
Dad sat in the front passenger seat of my 1989 Taurus SHO that I have cared for, lovingly, all these years. He looked around at the leather seats and through the windshield at the new paint job, and said, “You always took care of things, son. You were never wasteful.”
“I still use the same 35-year-old typewriter,” I said.
“I never took care of things. I always thought they were disposable. Something broke, I told you mother, ‘Call the man.’”
“I like old things,” I said. “Susan’s two years older than me.” I thought he’d laugh, but he didn’t.
“Your mother was three years older than me,” he said. “I wanted a wife and a mother.” I glanced at him. He wore a navy windbreaker with “Los Angeles Dodgers” written across the chest and a Dodgers baseball cap, both of which Beth had sent him.
“I’m sorry I got mad at you over Tony, son,” Dad said. “You always tell the truth. People think that makes you a bad kid, but I try to defend you. I tell them, ‘He’s just too quick.’”
We drove north on I-95 in the late-afternoon sunlight. Dad said, “Tony’s a good kid.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing him play.”
“He’s a good kid.”
“He’s a handsome kid.”
“I know.” I had been a handsome kid once. Dad, too. His con. My brother looked like his father. His nickname was The Moose.
“Tony’s crazy about me,” Dad said. “He thinks I’m the greatest.”
I said nothing.
“He’s always saying how smart I am. He tells everyone that his great-grandfather is the smartest.”
“You are the smartest, Pop. I learned everything from you.”
Dad looked at me, as if annoyed.
At the stadium, I sat between Beth and Harley. Dad sat beside Beth. “There he is,” said Harley. The Dodgers were doing calisthenics in right field before the game. I picked out Tony in his tight-fitting uniform. Harley said, “He looks great in his uniform, doesn’t he Pat?” I thought he was talking to Dad. Harley looked at me.
“Yeah, great,” I said.
“Wait ’til you see him hit,” Harley said. “He murders fastballs.”
I looked at the centerfield scoreboard to see who was pitching for the Florida Marlins. Josh Beckett.
I said, “There are fastballs, and there are fastballs, Harley.”
He looked at me as if confused. Harley had never played sports. But now he had a Lear jet that flew him to wherever Tony was playing. Sometimes, Harley would send the Lear jet to pick up my father to fly him to Tony’s games. “Imagine,” Dad told me once, “how much they must love me.” This spring, Harley and Beth were renting an apartment with Tony in Vero, where, after the game, they would bring Dad for a few days so he could spend time with Tony.
Before the game began, Harley and I went down to the concession stand to get beer and peanuts for everyone. Harley said, “Dad’s the greatest.”
“Dad.” He meant my father.
I paid for the peanuts and beer and we went back up to our seats. I watched the game for a few innings. I tried to talk to Harley, but he heard and saw nothing except his son on the field. So I talked to Beth. She asked me questions about the pitcher, Beckett. I told her, “If Tony can hit his fastball, then he’s a big-leaguer.”
“You should know, Uncle Patty.” She always called me Uncle Patty, even now that she was over 50. I looked across at Dad. He just stared out at the field as if he were not seeing it, but something else, something beyond it that only he could see.
Tony struck out twice, swinging at Beckett’s 98-mph fastball. He had one fielding chance at shortstop. He charged a ground ball, almost getting his feet tangled, then lobbed the ball to first base barely in time to get the runner. At the beginning of the fifth inning, I stood up and said, “I’ve got to be getting back to Susie and the dogs.”
Dad said, “You and those damned dogs.”
Two days later, in a driving rainstorm, I met Beth in a hotel parking lot off I-95 in West Palm to pick up Dad and bring him back to Fort Lauderdale. I held an umbrella over Dad as he changed cars. Then I went to Beth in the driver’s seat of her Mercedes. “How was he?” I said.
“Fine,” she said. “But I couldn’t get him to take a shower.”
“We couldn’t either.” Then I said, “You gonna be all right driving back?”
“Yes. But first I have to go shopping in Palm Beach.”
I drove slowly in the rain, past construction on I-95. My air conditioner was broken, so the car windshield steamed up quickly. I had to wipe off the mist with my handkerchief.
“Use the defroster, for Crissakes!” Dad said.
“Can’t you afford a decent car?”
We drove in silence for a while. Then Dad said, “Look at these.” He pointed down at his shoes. “Beth and Harley bought them for me. They cost over $200.”
“They’re nice,” I said.
“They treat me like a king.” I didn’t say anything. Dad stared ahead in silence. Then he said, “What’d you think of the kid?”
“He looks like a ballplayer in his uniform.”
“He’s got a great body for a ballplayer.”
“Yeah. He just doesn’t have any game.”
I stared straight ahead through the rain. “He can’t play, Pop. He’s got a slow bat, no arm, and lousy footwork at short.”
“How do you know such things?”
“I played. Remember?”
“Yes. But you never made it. You weren’t good enough. All you know how to do is criticize.” He glared across at me. “He’s my great-grandson, for Crissakes!”
“No, he isn’t.”
“Why do you always have to be like that?” We drove in silence for the rest of the way.
When Dad got back to our house, Matthew greeted him effusively. Dad snapped at him, “Down! Down!” Matthew sat down and looked up at Dad. Dad went into the guest room.
“What happened?” Susan said.
“Not now,” I said. I poured myself a glass of Jim Beam. When Dad came out of the guest room I said, “You want a martini, Pop?”
“You drinking already? You drink too damned much.”
“He doesn’t drink that much, Dad,” Susan said.
Dad smiled at her. “Oh, aren’t you the good wife. I wouldn’t want to cross you.”
“Then don’t cross me,” Susan snapped.
Dad giggled like a mischievous child. “Oh boy. You’re hard on an old man.”
“For Crissakes, Dad,” I said. “Do you have to play these fucking games?”
He grinned at me, with his eyebrows raised. “What games? What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
We ate dinner in silence. Then Susan washed the dishes and went to bed with the dogs. Dad and I stayed up, sitting at the dining room table.
“I’ll have that martini now,” he said.
“You stole everything. That’s why I always resented you. You stole all the gifts I should have had.”
I made his martini, and another Jim Beam for me. I sat down now in the rocking chair, a few feet away from him in the darkened room.
“I’m sorry I got mad at you over Tony, son,” Dad said. “You always tell the truth. People think that makes you a bad kid, but I try to defend you. I tell them, ‘He’s just too quick.’”
Dad sipped his drink. “I was just protecting your brother. Tony means so much to him.” Dad looked at me. “I always deprived you of affection and gave it to George.”
“He needed it more. He was never as equipped as you. Poor bastard! What did he have?”
“He had you.”
“He always tried hard, but he wasn’t smart. He was like his father.”
“That wasn’t my fault, Dad.”
Dad looked at me angrily. “Yes, it was! You stole everything. That’s why I always resented you. You stole all the gifts I should have had.”
“Ma told me,” I said.
Years ago, my mother told me a story. Dad was on an airplane when the stewardess matched his name to an article she was reading in Sports Illustrated. She asked him if he was the Pat Jordan who had written it. He said yes. She got on the loudspeaker and introduced Dad, the writer, to the passengers. He stood up and they applauded him.
The next morning I drove Dad to the airport before Susan left the bedroom. He was silent, staring out the window in that old man’s way. I got him a wheelchair, he arranged the book on his lap, and I pushed him to the gate. I went over to the woman who would check tickets at the jetway.
“Could you keep an eye on my father?” I said, with a head fake toward Dad. “I have to get home.”
“Certainly, honey,” she said.
I went back to Dad. “The flight will board in a few minutes,” I said. “I’ve got to get home, Pop. The girl over there will take care of you.”
“That’s all right, son,” he said. “Get home to your wife and dogs.” He grabbed my hand with his hand and squeezed it tight.
“What’s this?” I said, looking down at the three hundred-dollar bills he’d put in my hand.
“A few c-notes,” he said. “I won’t need them.”
I kissed him goodbye on the lips and then walked back toward the terminal. I glanced back and saw Dad talking to the woman who would take tickets. She was smiling down at him. She picked up the book on his lap and said something to him. A few days later, Dad called. “How’s the dog, son?” he said.
“Matthew misses you, Dad.”
“No. I mean the one who got sick.”
“Oh, she’s fine. Listen, Dad, I really can’t talk now. I’m on another line. I’ll call you back.” But I didn’t.
[Photo Credit: Bags]