Dan is a clinical social worker, adjunct college professor, and writer. Originally from Chariton, Iowa, he now resides in Hickory, NC, with his wife, two daughter, a dog, and a one-eyed cat. His short stories have been published in INNER WEATHER, SN REVIEW, and TURKS HEAD REVIEW, among others, but he spends most of his free time trying in vain to write the next great American novel.
DON’T HUG WILLIE
The wood-paneled station wagon came to an abrupt stop in my grandparent’s driveway. Within the dead air of the vehicle, cigarette smoke twirled and danced like ghosts.
Every home in the neighborhood was a shrine to the Christmas season—decorated trees in the windows, large colored lights draping the rails of front porches, lawn ornaments of reindeer and Santa Claus nestled in two feet of snow. The streets and driveway had been cleared of any remains of white flakes that still filled the lawns, as icicles—both large and small—hung from overhangs and gutters on nearly every home. Although it was sunny, it was obviously freezing outside. The top of the snow was hardened, a reflection of the sun nearly burning your retinas if you looked too long.
My mom held my baby sister, Becca, in the front seat on her lap, managing to silence Becca’s crying by holding her for the last 60 miles of our 150-mile trip. The heater was still blasting hot air, and I was sweating and wheezing from the combination of heat and the wafting smoke of cigarettes, the result of which nearly burned my eyes as badly as the reflecting sun on the icy top of the snow outside the car.
I waited for Dad to open his car door first. I always waited for him to go first.
But instead of opening his car door, as I had expected, he turned around, cigarette dangling from his mouth, looking at me. I was confused, startled. Dad rarely said anything to me.
He took a drag, removing the cigarette out of his lips, speaking without exhaling—the smoke floating out of his mouth slowly, like the smoke atop a cauldron of witch’s brew.
“My Uncle Willie will be here today,” Dad said, looking at my forehead above my eyes. “You don’t know him. You don’t want to know him. Just don’t say much to him. And when we leave, it’s fine to hug your grandma and grandpa. But don’t hug Willie. You got me?”
I didn’t have a chance to answer. Not that I would have anyway.
Dad quickly turned around after he spoke, opening his door. As the cold, fresh air rushed inside the car, it blew out the thick smoke that had permeated the car for nearly three hours. It felt invigorating.
As far as I can recall, my mom didn’t say, or do, anything while my dad spoke. I would have to assume that she found this comment to be strange, coming from my dad and all. I was only six years-old, and even I found it strange. I was a somewhat inquisitive child, and to any other adult giving me an order that I didn’t understand, I may have asked “Why?” But nobody ever asked my dad “why?”
Not his children. Not his wife. Nobody.
But as a child, I found this strange. Why would a father tell his child not to hug a family member? What could possibly be the reason?
I had not thought of my Great Uncle Willie in many years, his memory fading into the foggy abyss wherever such memories go.
Last week, I learned that my Great Uncle Willie was accused of molesting two, possibly three, boys. Likely more, I suppose. It reportedly happened 15-20 years ago, when he was a janitor at an elementary school. First one young man, then another, recently came forward. I’ve since heard a third has also come forward. I just happened across this information due to a story in an online news outlet about the increase in reports of pedophilia in recent years. It was odd reading what I thought was a completely random piece of news on my computer, only to come across my own surname—a relative, no less—so serendipitously. And for him to be accused of such a heinous crime, I was mortified.
I hardly knew Willie, only occasionally seeing him over the years at a few family gatherings, mostly funerals. When I did see him, my memory was somewhat jarred into recalling what my dad had said—”don’t hug Willie.” The comment was peculiar enough to make a lasting impression, yet innocuous enough that I would soon forget it once Willie was out of my sight.
But after reading about the accusations being brought against Willie, my foggy memory took me back to that Christmas day in the station wagon outside my grandparents’ house. I could still practically feel the cigarette smoke burning in my nostrils as the memory came flooding back to me.
It took nearly a week of contemplation before I finally allowed my mind to question the obvious: Did my Dad somehow already know that Willie was untrustworthy with boys? Did he, in fact, somehow know that Willie was a pedophile? And, if so…
I could hardly even finish the thought.
My dad was--is—one of the toughest men I’ve ever known. He performed back-breaking labor for over 30 years before finally giving his body a rest and reluctantly taking a desk job. He has only once, to my knowledge, gone to a doctor—and only because his work required it. He never called in sick to work, despite developing a slipped disk and severe muscular pain from his work in factories, mines, and by assembling heavy equipment on concrete floors over the years.
To me, it seems as though my dad was never a child. Now that I think about it, I don’t ever recall even seeing a photo of him from when he was young. I honestly can’t even picture him as a child in my mind, let alone a child who may have…
What if he suffered in silence? What if his entire personality—his quiet anger, his sullenness, his lack of affection towards others, his constant isolation—can all be traced back to an event, or several events, of trauma from his childhood at the hands of his uncle Willie? What did boys in the early 1960s do if they were traumatized by an adult male relative? Could they tell anyone? Would anyone believe them? Did families force it “under the rug” like nearly all the other family dysfunctions that occurred in the “good old day,” like when a wife was beaten by her husband?: “Oh, clumsy me, I fell down the stairs.”
I have never seen my dad cry, nor shown any emotion for that matter. Growing up, he was the most distant, most reticent person that I, or any of my friends, had ever known. Some of my friends’ dads would talk to us, listen to music with us, joke with us, play basketball with us. Not my dad. He smoked, and he isolated, and my friends were somewhat scared of him, but were also somewhat fascinated by him as well—like they’d be of an exotic, yet dangerous, animal in a zoo. When I was a teen, I’d come home around curfew time to find my dad sitting alone at the kitchen table in the dark, chain smoking, the only light being the red glow of his cigarette. The only time he’d say something was when I arrived slightly past curfew, which wasn’t often. And he’d only mutter two words: “You’re late.”
My dad had no social life, but neither did he have any real hobbies. Perhaps he read the newspaper, and occasionally he watched westerns on TV. He listened to a little transistor radio in a small, encased room of our unfinished basement as he chain-smoked after work. No one ever knew what he was thinking. And no one ever dared to ask. I once asked my mom why Dad almost never spoke. She thought for a moment, then somehow managed to think of an old proverb that may or may not have truly explained anything: “Sometimes, silence is golden,” she said, leaving it at that.
I’ve always been able to talk to my mom, but she could never provide any more insight into my dad than anyone else. She seemed just as perplexed as my sister Becca and me. But she’s always loved him—I’m just not sure if even she understands why; or, at the very least, I highly doubt she can explain this love, nor define it. But isn’t that true for nearly all forms of love?
I went to visit mom and dad last night, just me—not my wife and kids. I had told mom in advance that I was planning to stop by, but she still acted as though it was a pleasant surprise when I actually arrived.
Dad had the volume of the TV turned up very high, his hearing nearly gone from years of working in loud environments, making it difficult to even make small talk about such benign topics as baseball, the weather, his grandkids.
My mom stood. “I’m going to get a soft drink,” she said, much louder than her normal speaking voice, adapting, as usual, to her environment. “Do either of you want one?”
“No thanks,” I said. “Dad?” I called loudly.
“Do you want a something to drink?”
Mom went into the kitchen. The TV was so loud I could hear a buzz even when there was otherwise no noise coming from the movie—no dialogue, no horse galloping, no gun shooting.
“Would you, I don’t know—want to go out for a beer or something?”
He looked at me, probably for the first time since I’d gotten there, his face contorted—like when my mom would try to put something healthy in front of him to eat. Like quinoa. Or salad with fruit and nuts and a raspberry vinaigrette.
“What?” he asked. But this time, he had heard me. “Why?”
“I don’t know. To talk.”
“Well, talk!” he said, his hands raised slightly.
I smiled, shaking my head. Not in anger. But because this was exactly as it had played out in my mind.
I sighed, knowing I couldn’t say what I really wanted to. “Just wondering if you thought the Cubs had a chance this year.”
“It’s the Cubs,” he said, his attention back on the TV. “They’ll find a way to fuck it up.”
I went to the kitchen, mom sitting at the table with a magazine, the same kitchen table my dad would sit at alone at night, smoking cigarettes end-to-end in the dark. I opened the refrigerator.
“What’cha need?” she asked, standing.
“Don’t worry, Mom. Just seeing if you have a beer.”
“I would have gotten you one,” she said, moving me aside. She found one behind the milk, handing it to me.
“Thanks.” I popped the top and sat down at the table with her. There were several burn marks on the tabletop, dad’s cigarettes from over the years. If those cigarette burns could talk.
“Do you remember Dad’s uncle Willie?” I asked Mom.
She didn’t look up, but she stopped looking at the magazine, laughing nervously it seemed.
“Why would you bring him up?”
“Did you hear about him? He got arrested.”
She looked over my shoulder towards the kitchen entrance. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but stopped herself.
“We don’t really talk about him,” she finally said, her voice at a whisper.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, you know,” she said, flipping a page in a magazine that she no longer was looking at. “He just had a lot of problems, you know. Drinking mainly. When he was a teen, he wrecked your grandparent’s car. He was drunk, hit another car, a family in it. Thank God no one was injured.”
“So, yeah—well, anyway, he got arrested recently. Willie. Did you hear about that?”
She shook her head. “I don’t really--; no, I hadn’t heard.” She looked again at the kitchen entrance.
But she stopped me. “Can you lower your voice?”
“Why?” I asked. “The TV is turned up as loud as it can go.”
“Oh, he still hears things,” she said. “His hearing’s not as bad as he makes it out.”
“And what if he does hear this?” I asked. I probably sounded defensive, maybe even angry. Which I don’t know why.
She shook her head. “There’s just no...no reason to discuss this.”
I sighed, trying to calm myself. “He was arrested for sexually abusing boys, Mom,” I said. “At the school where he once worked.”
Mom nodded slowly. “Well, hopefully he can’t hurt anybody else then.”
I looked at her, my eyes narrowed. “Is that all you have to say?”
Now her eyes narrowed. “What? What do you want me to say?”
“I don’t know,” I said. And I didn’t know. “But, I mean—who else might he have done this to?”
“Well, how would I know?”
My eyes grew large.
“Doesn’t it concern you?”
“I just don’t—I mean, what are you wanting from me? Did...did Willie ever do something to you?”
“What?” I asked, incredulous. “No.”
I sighed. She wasn’t reading through the lines as I had hoped. “But what about dad?”
She looked over my shoulder again, making sure Dad wasn’t there. “What, you think your dad would tell me if something like that happened?”
“But—do you think it...it could have happened?”
She looked into my eyes for probably the first time during this conversation. “I don’t know,” she said. “And I’m certainly not going to bring it up to him now.”
I nodded slowly, my lips pursed. Then she added, “And neither are you.”
I shook my head. It figured. So typical of this family. Don’t talk about it. Silence is golden. All that.
“What, you don’t want to know?” I asked.
“For what purpose?”
“Well, I mean—it might explain a lot.”
She laughed in jest. “Really? Like what? What would it explain?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Just, you know, how non-nurturing he is. Why he always isolated. Why he was so anti-social.”
“OK.” She shrugged, learning in, her head cocked sideways. “Let’s just say that it somehow explains all of that, every bit of it. Your dad is 59 years old. What would he do with the information about the arrest now?”
I put my hand to my face in frustration, finishing off my beer.
“Do you remember when I was probably five or six—we went to grandma and grandpa’s at Christmas once when Willie was there. And Dad turned to me—I was in the backseat, and you were holding Becca in your lap up front—and Dad said to me: ‘My Uncle Willie is here today. When we leave, don’t hug him.’ Do you remember that?”
“Oh, Honey. I don’t know. That was, what—over 30 years ago?”
I shook my head. “You really don’t remember that?”
“I don’t know, Ronnie. Not really. What is this all about?”
“God, Mom,” I said. “This is about...this is about us. About our family never talking about anything. Becca was a mess in high school. She’s still a mess, she can hardly even be in the same room with dad. Doesn’t that bother you?”
“Sure, that bothers me,” Mom said, somewhat loudly. She lowered her voice. “But, I mean—what does that have to do with Uncle Willie’s arrest?”
I could feel my heartrate increasing, my neck getting warm. I’m not sure why.
“Look, Ronnie,” Mom said. “If you think that something your great Uncle Willie might have done to your father—like, 50 years ago—is the reason that a 59-year-old man and his 32-year-old daughter don’t get along—well, then I don’t even know what to say.”
I sighed, frustrated. I guess I seemed angry with her, but really I wasn’t. What I was angry about was the situation, the feeling of helplessness. I was frustrated that I would never know what my dad went through as a child, how he suffered in silence. I would never know if it changed him, how it changed him, how it altered his life. I would never know what type of person, or husband, or father, he might have been had it not happened. I guess, in the long run, I felt gypped. I felt like Uncle Willie—this evil man, who was practically a stranger to us—took something from Dad. From all of us. It likely effected Dad’s potential to nurture, to show love. To me. To mom. To Becca.
Mom went to the refrigerator, retrieving the last beer for me. She patted my shoulder as she set it in front of me.
“Ronnie,” she said, rubbing her lips together. “We all have a history that makes us who we are. Your father is your father. He has flaws, as do we all—but he is a good man. He’s worked hard his whole life for his family. He’s protected us. And he’s loved us in the only way he knows how.”
I nodded. Mom’s words calmed me down a bit, but I still got a little defensive.
“Well, he’s never told me before that he loves me.” I didn’t say it entirely in anger. Just as a matter-of-fact.
“I know,” Mom said. And she looked at me. “Have you?”
I looked at her through narrowed eyes. “Have I what?”
“Ever told him that?”
I took a drink of beer, not giving an answer, ashamed. I had made this all about me. It wasn’t.
I went out to the living room, watching the rest of the movie with dad, feigning interest in Robert Mitchum and Jan Sterling. A new movie started, one I couldn’t stay for. I waited for a commercial, then another, not saying a word.
Finally, Dad got up to the use the restroom. And I nervously sprang into action.
“Well, I’d better go,” I said, standing, stretching my arms, my back.
“OK, Buddy,” Dad said, trying to make his way towards the bathroom. But I blocked him.
“Dad?” I asked. He had nowhere to go, nowhere else to look, except right at me.
I could actually feel my heart beating faster, could feel a shortness of breath. Christ, I thought—I’m 37 years old. Just do it. For God’s sake, just say it.
“I love you, Dad,” I said, finally. The TV commercial was blaring, but he was looking at me. He heard me. I could tell by the way his face changed.
“Are you dying?” he asked.
I laughed. “No. Are you?”
He pursed his lips. “We’re all dying,” he said. “Slowly but surely.” And he smiled.
My mom put her hands to her mouth, a proud moment for her. I was glad she witnessed it.
“I guess...I guess I just thought it was time I told you,” I said. I swallowed what felt like a small rubber ball in the back of my throat, fighting back tears that I wasn’t expecting.
Dad sighed, a sigh that seemed impossibly slow for a lifetime smoker, for a man whose lungs hardly worked anymore.
“Me too, Buddy,” he said, nodding. “Me too.”