Since I can remember, and it might even be safe to say since graduating high school thirty-eight years ago, my father has only read two books: The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons, both by Dan Brown. He liked the books because my father likes to pretend to be a Catholic, and he understands the Catholic references. My father doesn’t harbor extensive knowledge about many places or things, but he knows about the Church, and he knows about Italy. He has been both places more than once. I also think that he is able to relate to the suspicions the books propose against the Catholic Church. They make him feel less guilty about failing to practice his religion. I’m sure that if he tried to read more, he would be able to find many more books that he could relate to — books about John Bonham, his true deity, or books alluding to places in New Jersey he has visited. But when he read those two books, the white pages looked so out of place turned by his round, peeling fingers.
A nail-biter myself, I always fear my hands might turn out looking like my dad’s. His fingers crack and bleed in the winter, and during all the other months of the year they are still dry, rough and hard to touch with my own young skin. They are often adorned with purple blood blisters or poison ivy from working in the yard. But it is his finger nails that are most difficult to look at. Those thick, curled-under horns of things could only be the product of a particular combination—incessant biting and years of construction work.
After high school, my father did not attend college. He would have never made it through all four years had he tried, if by some miracle he were accepted or had even applied. My father never could lasso that kind of intelligence — the kind that requires test taking, memorizing, expanding. He is not that way.
He is, however, handy, as they say, more so than most. “I want the kitchen expanded. I want the cathedral ceiling leveled and a second floor on top of that,” my mother said, and he did it. In a couple of month’s time it was done. By one man. He had to hire roofers and someone to come nail on the aluminum siding, but for the most part, it was my father who got it done.
He is constantly going, working, weeding, cutting the grass, fixing something or another, buzzing in and out of the house to retrieve his hammer or a contraption I’ve never seen before and banging, clanking the steel ladder against the house at nine a.m. outside of my still sleeping window. He is one of those people who doesn’t know how to be quiet. Everything, breakfast in the morning, is a parade, with silverware dinging and screaming its departure on the way out of a drawer and sliding pantry doors rolling on their tracks and then slamming into each other. “The elephant woke me up,” my sisters and I used to say, though he resembles nothing of an elephant except for the heavy steps.
He is skinny. Always has been, always will be. He is tall, dark-haired, and goateed. He is graying now. He wears glasses, and he always tucks in his shirt. He wears jeans and flannel shirts, and sometimes sweaters that he has owned for fifteen years. He changes nothing with the trends or the times. White sneakers are his only shoes, whether his slacks are jeans or khakis or black. “I’m fifty-one years old, what does it matter if my shoes match or not?” he says to me every time I try to suggest a pair of black shoes or loafers. Several times I have tried to explain that matching isn’t always a matter of picking up chicks, that it’s about looking presentable and prepared. He’s out the door before I’m finished.
Once, my cousin Gilda was visiting from Italy and my father, my sister, and I took her to New York City. It had rained that morning, and my father spent the whole afternoon marching around the city carrying an unnecessarily large umbrella in one hand (never the kind that folds into a neat little package and could be easily placed in my purse), his brick of a cell phone strapped to his belt, and a camera around his neck. When you are twenty years old and live forty-five minutes or less from New York, the last thing that you want to look like is a tourist. My father did just that.
For these reasons, I had a lack of understanding of my father for most of my life. We didn’t connect on any level, though I tried. As the only male in a family full of girls (three daughters, a wife, and a female golden retriever), the man needed a son. I played sports that I resented and failed at for years, attempting to be his boy and giving him the opportunity to coach. Still, even after the winning games, he’d fall asleep on the couch without a fulfilling conversation.
My father’s one and only hobby is music. He owns a motorcycle, but I wouldn’t call that a hobby because he only rides in the springtime, and never outside of town or above thirty-five miles an hour. Biking and drumming are the last two activities that my father’s clean-cut, white-shoed, nerdy appearance would seem to allow, but these are the only two things that keep him from the work, veg, work, veg monotony of his everyday life.
One night this past November, I surprised him and showed up at a gig he was playing in Kearny. This was the first time I was able to see him play outside of our basement, because I was always too young to enter the venue, or too uninterested, but on this night, I decided that I would drive the three hours from school to make an appearance and have a weekend at home. I knew that a couple of my older cousins were stopping by, and I knew they would buy me beers and it would be a dancing evening at the least.
My father was already in his element, playing in his home town, with so many missed, familiar faces showing up. But once he saw me, he lit up like a firefly, propelled by the wings of pride for both me and for himself. He introduced me to every nostalgic alcoholic of his adolescence and to all of the round, bald, and divorced cocky jocks of his past. It wasn’t until that night that I knew how it felt to be a daughter, to feel like daddy’s little girl.
When my father plays the drums, he is flying. His face arranges in an expression I’ve never seen him make under any other circumstance. His eyes, constantly scanning over his endless selection of possible beats, his mouth agape in a smiling-while-humming combination, his head sliding and bopping in the only way an occupied musician’s body can dance, but the expression is not just of his face. It permeates from underneath his flushed, yet hardly tired cheeks. It is an expression of focus, freedom, and one of pure joy. It is during these times, within the rhythm of Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick,” not the flow of Melville’s novel, that he truly exists.
My father could have been great. He was offered an opportunity to tour with his music. I have been told this many times, not by my father, but by my mother, his two brothers, and by strangers. But instead, he married my mother. He chose us, and I could tell on that melodious night, surrounded by people who love him and his jams, that he has never regretted it.