When I was young, my father was full of aphorisms, some of which made sense.
Such as the time I was seven and got kicked out of school for fist-fighting a redneck named Jaxton. My mother quoted Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, insisting that, when faced with the task of defending oneself against public school sociopaths, it’s best to turn the other cheek. My father, with no less authority, waited for her to leave the room then quoted himself.
Fighting rednecks is like playing a carnival game, he said. Even if you win, what’s the prize?
Or the time I was nine and missed a shot that cost my basketball team the game. It was night, and we were driving home, and as I leaned my head against the window and looked out at the darkness rushing past us, I was trying not to cry. Sensing this, my father punched me in the arm. This did what a good punch should do—it delivered me from that other, deeper pain.
Listen, he said, Some people love to win because a loss would crush them. Your job in life is to not be one of those people.
His ideal medium was the proverb, but sometimes he condensed his message into a single word.
When we complained about our school work: Submit.
When a politician appeared on television: Wolf.
Anytime “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart came on the radio: Quiet.
The strangest thing he ever said was at a used car lot. My sister had just turned sixteen and was attempting to buy her first vehicle. A sale price had been settled, the manager had drawn up the bill, and all that was left was for my sister to sign the papers. But before she signed, my father examined the bill and noticed several hundred dollars in hidden fees. He questioned the manager, who was a large-gutted white man with a pencil moustache and pear-colored ascot. They argued until my father threatened to cancel the sale, at which point the manager broke down and removed the fees. As we stood in the lot and watched my sister drive away, my father put his arm around me and said, Never trust a man with a pinky ring.
His counsel, however strange, was never careless. If he had no serious thoughts on a subject, he didn’t pretend otherwise. I got nothing, he would say, flashing his palms in apology. This was my favorite thing about him—that when he spoke, he gave you one or the other, either nothing or everything, but never some moderate banality, and never (thank God) pretense.
Do you believe in love? I asked him after my first serious breakup.
I do, he said. But only in the same way I believe in ice cream.
Any advice on parenthood? I asked him after my own son was born.
Cover your sockets, he said. And go easy on yourself.
Not everything was palatable; and yet, when he said something controversial, you sensed it had been tested against the plain facts of his lived life. For example, the time he said, utterly unsolicited, Steer clear of people with thin upper lips. Especially men.
When I was old enough to understand that not all fathers speak to their children like this, I asked my mother for her perspective. That was when she told me that his greatest fear was that we would get lost in the world.
He’s not trying to give you advice, she said. He’s trying to give you a map.
As we got older, music became an increasingly important part of the map.
He taught us that popularity meant nothing, that taste was everything, and that anyone afraid of becoming a snob had the spine of a jellyfish.
Not all country is created equal, he said. There’s Waylon, then there’s Willie, after which it gets pretty bleak. Most of these new guys are assholes from Ohio who learned how to drop their g’s.
He liked the blues better than country because he thought blues singers drew from a lived pain rather than a fictional one.
When Howlin’ Wolf tells me, ‘I asked her for water and she brought me gasoline,’ I believe him.
We were not allowed to listen to bad music because, according to my father, a proclivity for bad music reflected a more serious defect in the soul.
I can’t prove this, he once said. But I’m pretty sure there’s a connection between people
who can’t tell a shitty song and people who can’t tell a shitty attitude. ‘Discernment’ is a word
you’ll want to learn.
The majority of his canon was composed of songwriters.
Dylan is better Waits, and Waits is better than Cohen, he once said. But Prine is better than all of them because Prine wasn’t afraid to take on the corniness of existence.
Another time, after playing us Born to Run, he said, Take Springsteen for what he is—a cheerleader.
When we asked, What’s wrong with being a cheerleader? he said, You exist for the crowd.
His judgments were harsh, but his mind stayed open, and we loved that about him. Take the time my sister was listening to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain on her walkman, and my father borrowed her headphones, and we both watched his face for some sign as the opening riff to “Elevate Me Later” leaked in muffled thumps through our living room. He listened until the song was over then returned the headphones to my sister.
It’s not for me, he said. But tell me why it’s for you.
My sister thought about this for a moment, then she said something that I would think
back on for many years to come.
Because it’s new, she said. But at the same time it’s very old. Possibly older than the stuff you listen to.
It did not surprise us when we found him in the garage later that week listening to “Cut Your Hair” as he changed the oil in our mother’s minivan.
Stay loose, seemed, as much as anything else, to be at the center of his map. It’s a crime to take yourself too seriously.
At his funeral, we told all his favorite jokes. They were no longer palatable (if they were ever palatable to begin with), but grief demands your honesty, not your correctness, so we told them in their original versions.
A man, his wife, and their two kids are stuck on an island. One day, while they are walking along the beach, the family discovers a magic lamp. They rub the lamp and out pops a genie.
The genie looks at the family and says, “You know how it works. I can grant you three wishes, after which you’re on your own.”
Before anyone can talk, the two kids blurt out in unison: “We want off this island! We miss our toys! We miss candy!”
The genie snaps his fingers and—poof!—the kids vanish in a cloud of smoke.
No sooner has the smoke cleared than the woman speaks up.
“I want off too!” she tells the genie. “Let me go home to my television and my wine.”
The genie snaps his fingers and—poof!—the woman disappears.
More alone than he has ever been, the man looks around at the empty island and begins to weep.
“Don’t fret,” the genie says. “You still have one wish. Simply tell me what your heart desires.”
The man knows the answer immediately. He dries his eyes and says, “I just want my family back.”
We told as many of his jokes as we could remember. The one about the old bull and the young bull. The one about the blonde, the brunette, and the redhead. We told them as he would have told them—immune to decorum and thrilled as a child by the sheer weirdness of people.
Eventually, someone told his last joke, the one he saved for the night we gathered together in his hospital room. It was, as much as anything else we have, his final contribution to the map.
Hey kids, he said. Here’s one.
We leaned in and looked into the face which, by then, was a grey and wasted shell of the face we once knew. We held his hands, which were cold and trembling.
He said, What’s the difference between cancer and your ass?
We said, What, Dad?
He squeezed our hands with all the strength that was left inside of him.
I couldn’t beat cancer.
Dan Leach has published poetry and fiction with Copper Nickel, The Greensboro Review, and
storySouth. He holds an MFA from Warren Wilson.