Another One of His Punishments

New Haven Review

My son and I meet in the City—dinner and talk. And drink. More and more drink as time goes by. He is quite the drinker, my son is, Old Overholt Rye on the rocks—a drinker’s drink. None of those blends that people call Rye. Who am I to talk? When I was his age, twenty-seven, I was out drinking every night and my poison of choice was Tequila.

But it’s not the same. Sometimes I think he needs his golden anesthesia to tolerate our time together. We hug hello and goodbye and he never acts embarrassed to kiss me when he sees me. We never have a bad time, not like the old days, which were rocky as all Hell. That’s okay. Fathers and sons should have a little conflict to make them stronger and bond as more than just parent and child when they get older. By now we should be bonded at the hip, but I worry that he’s getting the Irish disease—which is even worse for a Jew than for a Mick. I should know.

I can’t say Mick in front of him. That’s another thing I have to watch around Mr. P.C.—my mouth, my slang, my made-up nicknames and even my everyday garden-variety vulgarity. Especially in mixed company. Mixed company—that’s a term you don’t hear much anymore.

Fuck. Cocksucker. Mother Fucker. The Holy Trinity of my normal conversational vocabulary. The kid can’t handle it, although his friends of both sexes speak the same way. With me though, I get the look or worse yet, no matter how full his glass is he orders another. He punishes me by drinking to excess in front of me. He knows I worry about whether he drinks the same way when I’m not around. That’s what he wants from me—worry. It’s payback for some real or imagined childhood that lacked the father he wanted. The one he thought all his friends had. Little did he know.

I played ball with him often but I never went to his ballgames. I spent my time after work in bars instead and often with fathers of his teammates. I once told him, after I staggered in and had to endure his mother complaining that I missed a big game, that if his team were any good they’d have been on the tube and I’d have seen them at the bar.

Another night in my bleary wobbly state I tried to explain that I hated Little League Baseball because I got cut from the team when I was young. Too bad you can’t hold your liquor as well as you hold a grudge my wife said. You don’t drive me to drink I told her; I drive myself to get away from you. And those were our pleasant conversations.

I don’t drink anymore. I quit on my own without going to those coffee guzzling, smoke filled meetings. It was the day after my divorce bender celebration that I scared myself sober. I don’t remember getting in the car but I do remember driving on the sidewalk and the look of terror on the old lady’s face as I swerved back onto the road to keep from hitting her. I remember she wore a hat—a large brimmed bright green one and she had rouged up cheeks and rimless glasses. I stopped the car, looked back, and saw her lying on the ground. I somehow made it home and haven’t had a drink since. I’ve never shared this story with anyone. Truth is—every time I look at a bottle, I see her face on the label. The fact is unlike those other “Friends of Bill” I don’t ever crave a drink except for an occasional real cold beer on a sweltering day and that’s not for the alcohol but for quenching thirst. But it’s never hot enough for me to relieve my thirst that way.

Most probably, like everyone else, my son thinks I quit drinking because of the divorce. That’s okay by me. I’m not proud of leaving that lady on the sidewalk and he doesn’t need any more ammunition to use against me. He’s never asked nor discussed my drinking or non-drinking but when we meet for dinner we’re just as likely to sit at the bar and have our meal as we are to sit at a table. His choice—it’s another one of his punishments.

I still live on the Connecticut Shoreline, on the outskirts of New Haven, where my son grew up and now hates to visit so I take the Metroliner into New York and visit him when he can fit me in his busy fucking schedule doing God knows what. There are rules to our visits that have developed over the years and most probably more rules to come. I can’t mention his Mother, my former wife, divorced the week after he graduated from college. Nor can I speak of her parents, his grandparents, or any other relative on her side, and that goes for her neighbors, too. He doesn’t seem to realize that they were my family and neighbors for twenty-five years too. My son doesn’t want to know about my social life and not that I want to, but I could never bring a woman into the city to meet him. It makes little sense, especially since his Mother is remarried for the second time and most likely heading for a third. That’s my fault too; but that’s for another time.

I can’t say, “Remember when?” and then go on to tell a story because it depresses him. I can’t ask personal questions like “What kind of computer programs are you writing these days?” or “Who’s the lady in your life these days?”

He’ll tell me what he wants to tell me and only then am I free to discuss the topic.

Also, I never get to pick the restaurant. What do you know about New York restaurants he questions? I live here, he says, with an air of authority. Sometimes he’ll pick an Indian or Ethiopian restaurant because he knows I hate the food but I’ll suffer through it, picking away, while without even looking at me for my reaction, he does extra lip smacks.

These dinners aren’t all painful. We have many things in common and laugh a lot too. It’s a strange relationship.

We don’t look alike as much as resemble each other. He’s about four inches shorter than my six two and I know he’s waiting anxiously for my shrinking days to begin. We both have naturally curly hair and I keep company with a mustache and he a beard. We drum our fingers, tap our toes and are both whistlers. It’s not uncommon for us to be walking down the street and to both start whistling at the same time. It’s almost never the same song, but every once-in-a-while after he’s had a few we’ll whistle a duet. We both love hats but neither of us wear baseball caps. I’m partial to a fedora and he to a pork pie he bought off some street guy a few years back when we were walking in the Village. I wanted to have it cleaned before he wore it but he just looked at me and popped it on his head. Cooties I said to him. I hope so he answered. Cooties are the only pets I’m allowed in my apartment. In colder weather he wears a lint-covered knit hat that he loves, holes and all. It’s like watching an adult carrying a teddy bear.

I hadn’t seen my son for a couple of months; he’d been too busy the last few times I called so I decided to not call for a while. One evening I got home from the movies and he’d left a message on the machine. Lets get together he said. Pick the food and I’ll pick the restaurant. I should’ve been happy to hear from him but his attempt at not slurring his words only made me sad. I called and got his machine and left a one-word message. Sushi, I said and hung up. The next day he left his message, Wednesday, seven-thirty at Tokyo Rose, Broadway, upper West Side, near 80th. Okay, my message said in return.

He was sitting at the sushi bar drinking sake when I got there fifteen minutes early. We hugged and he asked if I wanted a table or the sushi bar. The restaurant was big, noisy and I sized it up and pointed to a deuce off by itself near the swinging doors to the kitchen. He threw some bills down and instead of heading for the table he walked out of the restaurant with me following him. I caught up to him and his sadness enveloped me. I threw an arm over his shoulder as we walked. He didn’t shake it off.

How’s this he asked after five minutes stopping in front of a steak and chophouse. Fine, I told him, I’d rather have cooked food tonight anyway. He nodded and looked as if he were trying to smile and walked in. It was a man’s restaurant, dark paneling, red leather banquettes, long bar filled with pictures of famous Irishmen. The hostess told us it’d be ten or fifteen minutes and asked if we’d like to wait in the bar. She never took our name but I had no doubt in her ability to remember and find us.

We found two stools separated by a loner and I started to ask the loner if he’d mind moving one-way or the other when my son tapped him on the shoulder and jerked his thumb towards one of the empty bar stools. The man didn’t like my son’s action and I chimed in jokingly and said we’d hate to talk at each other with you between. We wouldn’t want to put you through that. Would you mind? I asked. He shot my son a look and slid his cigarettes and drink over a stool. The bartender had been watching and instead of coming over to serve us walked to the other end of the bar to talk to a waitress. Finally my son slapped his palm on the bar a couple of times and the bartender looked up with 86 in his eyes and slow walked over.
What’s a guy have to do to get a drink around here my son demanded with a practiced degree of belligerence? You’ll never know the bartender said and walked away. I got up and said let’s blow this joint the food probably sucks anyway. My son followed me but not before scowling at the bartender.

On the next block we wandered into a Blarney Stone and the bartender was right there with a cheery hello as we sat at the half-empty bar. Old Overholt on the rocks for me and a Shirley Temple for the old man my son said. Make it a Coke, I said. The bartender returned with our drinks and apologized to me for being out of umbrellas. He and my son got a big kick out of that. An hour and three doubles later my son was sleeping on the bar and we still hadn’t ordered any food. I tried to rouse him but he was unrousable. I drunk walked him out to the street and hailed a cab. Even though I’d never been to his apartment I knew the address by heart from sending him notes and news clippings from back home.

We pulled up to his apartment house and after I got him out of the cab I fished his keys from his jacket pocket and somehow managed to get his dead weight into the building. The doorman had this ‘here we go again’ look about him. I cut off any snide comments by telling him I was his father. He helped me load my son into the elevator and rode up to the third floor with us. He even helped drag him to the apartment door before saying goodnight and leaving ten bucks richer for he night.

I deposited him on a comfortable looking chair and then I returned and closed the door. His apartment was spotless to my surprise. There were piles of books and cds all around but they were neat in a non-filing sort of way. There was a large folding table with several computers and a tack board with boxes from computer games and how-to programs. There were many computer-generated pictures. I studied the living room and noticed that all the walls were barren as if he were a transient. I looked into the kitchen and got a Coke from the fridge. Then I opened his bedroom door.

His bed was made, his shoes lined up neatly under the bed and there were framed pictures everywhere--pictures of him with me and his mother, some of just the two of us, and others with just him and his mother. On the desk was a pile of letters all with my handwriting and postmark from Connecticut. I opened the scrapbook that was in the bookcase and saw pictures and articles about me winning sales contests, doing something in the realm of civic responsibility and even earlier pictures and articles about me in high school and college playing baseball.

There are times in our lives that we are rendered dumb and this was one. I tried to think if I was better off knowing or not knowing about his personal life. I had no answer but finally I got up from his bed and walked into the living room where he had fallen half off the chair. I hefted him up and started to drag him to the bedroom and heard the familiar sounds of first retching. I deviated to the bathroom where I bent him over the bowl and let him be. I eventually wet a towel, wiped his face off, helped him up and into the bedroom where he passed out as he approached the bed. I took off his shoes and pants, pulled off his shirt and pulled the covers out from under him. I tucked him in and right before I walked out of the bedroom I saw his blue knit hat. I slipped it under his arm, smoothed the blanket and kissed him on the forehead wishing him a goodnight and a soft landing in the morning. Then I went back to the bathroom and the all too familiar task of cleaning up.
And now, for the first time in years, I knew what it was like to want a drink. If a waitress walked into the apartment I would have ordered my tequila shots and kept on ordering them until she cut me off.

I took my shoes off and lay down on the couch waiting for my son to get up in the morning and find me in his privacy—not knowing what to expect, but hoping for his pain to go away.

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