The Story of A Father

Henry knew from an early age that his name, and therefore he himself, was ordinary. He could not have told you, nor really himself, that ordinariness was his lot, but just the same, he experienced precisely that. At ten, Henry was short and slightly stocky, the term his mother generously offered to describe his plump physique. By the age of thirty-six, this and other handicaps would be gone, but at twelve they were present as tinnitus might have been to an older man: an infuriating nonstop noise ceaselessly punishing him invisibly.

“Oh yeah, big gut,” shouted Stuart, the apparent alpha male of the small locker room where the fifth grade boys prepared for their twice weekly soccer workout. “Oh yeah, then what’s he do anyhow? I bet he’s a drugged out bum since no one has ever seen him.” It was perhaps by then beyond Henry’s imaginative capacities to wonder why Stuart should have decided to assault his father in front of the other boys slowly pulling on shorts and long soccer sox that afternoon, but Stuart was like a mongoose with a snake; both quick and relentless once interested in his prey. It had been Henry’s fate more than once to be Stuart’s prey and he dreaded it. He had never felt able to produce the sharp cutting replies he searched for until he was laying in his bed hours too late for them to be of any use. Today, however, he felt suddenly able to pluck something from the ether along with sufficient boldness to utter it.

“He works for the Special Forces if you have to know, Stuart. I’m not allowed to tell you more no matter what because it’s top secret.”

“Oh right. Sure. The Special Forces. I’m sure.” Stuart’s acid sarcasm, which he had learned from his brother, five years his senior and a constant thorn in his side, was more advanced than the defenses prepared by most of the fifth grade boys. They therefore tended to look at it as a sort of military superiority and submit to its power. Stuart had a sort of thuggish quality, which is to say his verbal sport was not so much deft as blunt. It resembled being hit with a club more than pierced by a dart.

“He’s deployed so I can’t say anything to anyone, but he’s saving the American Way of Life,” Henry said deciding impulsively to throw himself entirely into his story. “That’s probably more than your father is doing.” Henry frightened himself at this point having pressed his advantage farther than he was confident it would go in protecting him, but feeling hopeless had made him oddly courageous. This exact moment, with its many unpredictable elements, proved a pivotal one for Henry. Ed Thackery, a splendid soccer playing boy whose genial manner off the field had made him hugely popular, was suddenly moved to enter the dispute.

“I think Henry’s dad is a great guy. He’s protecting America for everyone. And besides, everyone with a brain knows the Special Forces are the best of the best. Henry’s dad is the best of the best.” Ed’s grandfather, a Vietnam vet had been visiting the previous weekend and had imparted that precise view which Ed had taken to heart having never heard of the Special Forces before. He was fond of his grandfather and very slightly intimidated by his vehemence, particularly about military matters, which no one else in the family had strong opinions about. Ed had some sort of magical quality that seemed associated with his great physical gifts. He was graceful as a soaring bird when he ran on the soccer fields. That grace seemed a part of him nearly everywhere else. More than that, Ed was the sort of boy almost magically unconcerned with the opinions and preoccupations of others. Whether he was liked or ignored seemed of nearly no interest to him, whereas to nearly every other boy, these were matters of unending concern. Ed had always been friendly to Henry, but hardly in a way which would have distinguished that friendliness from the warmth he generally dispensed to most of the boys. Henry would have thought it presumptuous to consider Ed a friend although he would have liked to. So that sudden, unexpected declaration in support of Henry’s invention, at the very moment it seemed to Henry most vulnerable to exposure, seemed to him like the intervention of a god, more in a Greek sense than a Christian one, as though Apollo had decided to intercede for you at a critical moment.

Not much more had been said after that and it is likely few of those boys had given much more reflection to whatever it might be that occupied Henry’s father’s time. But it is a curiosity of being ten years old that a boy may give a great deal of pondering to things other boys may pay scant heed to. So Henry gave the matter very considerable thought. He did so for several reasons. Most particularly, it was the result of the unexpected remarkable turning of sentiment that afternoon in the locker room. Henry had only supposed he was waging a usual and relatively futile defensive action against Stuart’s bullying. But Ed’s unanticipated support had changed everything. Now, Ed had declared, his father was the “best of the best,” and no one had disputed it. No one would. Ed’s carriage somehow made dispute pointless. Henry was suddenly in the penumbra of greatness, of real significance. It was as though the very color of the world had altered in a moment, a pivot so startling Henry had trouble imagining what it might mean. Certainly he felt differently than he had moments before. And he was not alone. Daryl, an athletic kid who had never said a word to him previously, slapped his ass not long after he made a pass down the wing. “Nice pass man,” he had said. Henry couldn’t remember if anyone had ever said “man” to him before either, but he liked it.

He also gave it all considerable thought because it wasn’t true.

Of course, this new life also felt intimidating. It was as though he had been chosen for the lead in the play and suddenly realized he would be required to perform, something he had not entirely thought through in the tryouts. That night, his mother, always sweetly attentive to him, wondered if there were something wrong, and perhaps excepting the time he had stolen the Snickers candy from the Walgreens, he felt he was experiencing something he could not share with her. “No Mom. I’m just kind of tired.” He quite willingly agreed to go to bed early that night. It was not something he would ordinarily agree to but it served to confirm his mother’s acceptance of his explanation, and had the additional advantage of ending her inquiry. Henry needed to think. He had the part and he needed to prepare. He sat down at his computer and entered “Special Forces” in the search function. After reading a moment, he quickly pulled up the book report he needed to write for his LA class in case his mother came in to check on him. Then he returned to his research. Which branch of the Special Forces? And what would his dad’s special capabilities be? Of course, nearly all this information would have to be classified, but Henry felt he needed to know as a precaution.

Henry continued on through his school years

following a path not much distinct from his peers,

but Henry had the constant companionship of his

secret. It loomed large of course, in his own mind while

it occupied next to no space in anyone else’s. Every

other boy was far more preoccupied with his own

secrets and concerns, leaving scant energy for

investigations into Henry’s life. So, by the time Henry

was to enter the new high school, the beautiful and recently rebuilt high school, he was, like the rest of the boys, unrecognizable from the cautious fifth grade student he had been. Everyone, of course, was bigger and had apparently moved uneasily through puberty, or at least had begun to wrestle with its complexities. But Henry was surely the most altered child in his class, perhaps in the entire town. His father was now known to many of his classmates and admired by nearly all who knew of him. It turned out they had not forgotten what had taken place in the locker room years ago. The legend had survived somehow. Since Henry’s mother worked demanding hours as a nurse practitioner in a downtown clinic, she often returned home tired, a circumstance that afforded Henry sizeable privacy. By the ninth grade, he realized that he had one complex problem he would have to assert all his ingenuity and courage to solve. Ed had somehow remained a stalwart ally of his. Henry still did not quite think of Ed as a friend precisely. Ed served more like his older brother, reliably looking out for him without wanting to hang out with him. And mention of his father rarely occurred, so any explicit intervention from Ed had also never been required. Once in a while, a boy might say, “How’s your Dad doing?” Or, “Where’s your Dad now? Oh, I know you’re not allowed to say. I just wondered.” These occasional comments stimulated Henry’s worry that he was still vulnerable to an unmasking. He was cocooned within his lie. But cocoons give birth to something. Lies create prisons whose doors we hope will never open. The hangman of unending shame lay just outside the prison door. Naturally, this was a vivid possibility in his own mind. So Henry lived in that year with his mind filled with all sorts of dreadful consequences. It was as though he lived with the scary music of “Jaws,” playing for his ear alone. It may have been unlikely that many of his peers would have thought much of anything one way or another about his old deception. But that is not the way falseness sits in the mind of the bearer, especially when the bearer is fifteen. Worst of all, worst of any apprehension, Henry feared that Ed would learn of the lie and dessert him. Ed’s certain disgust would wound worse than any other opprobrium he could imagine, and his dread of that was the eye of his discontent.

Even though his mother mixed little with the other parents and mothers in the town, he imagined she would surely hear rumors of his father’s activities sooner or later. Ed’s mother would see her and say how difficult it must be to have her husband overseas and in danger. Her shock and confusion would spill out immediately. He had to prepare her. On Saturday morning, the last Saturday morning of August and the Saturday morning prior the Tuesday morning when school would begin for nearly 480 new high school students, he asked his mother if they could have breakfast together. A little surprised, but equally pleased and intrigued by her somewhat secretive son’s request, she readily agreed, but could not help asking him for a preview of his concerns, but whatever brought him to ask her would have to wait; he would only tell her he wanted to discuss something important with her. She thought it was unlikely drugs or sex would be the topics, but it did cause her to realize she had come to accept that there were areas of Henry’s life she probably knew nothing about at all, and the realization alarmed her. She may have been so preoccupied with the logistics of their life that she had forgotten to pay enough attention. She spent a restless night and was up early anxiously waiting for her meeting with her son by the time he was up and downstairs the following morning.

“Henry, my dear. You’ve grown up almost without my noticing! I love you so much, and I’m looking forward to our chat this morning. I’m so glad you asked because you can always, always ask me for anything no matter what it is.” Although she knew her speech was a bit rehearsed, she also believed it entirely.

“Thanks, Mom. I know. But listen, I’ve got something really, really important I really need your support on. I mean, you’ll think it’s a little weird. Well, you might even think it’s wrong or, I mean, that I’m wrong. But I’m not. But I’ve got to talk to you about it, or everything in my life could change in a really bad way.”

“Oh my goodness, Henry. Are you in some sort of trouble?”

“No. No. It’s nothing like that.”

“Well, then just tell me what it is,” she said with some alarm, which put some pressure in her question as though she were impatient.

“Ok. I am telling you, Mom. That’s why we’re here. Calm down, Ok?” He paused and gathered himself. This was probably the biggest presentation of his life, but at least he hoped it was to a sympathetic audience.

“Ok. Here’s the thing. You know, I mean, it obvious it’s just been you and me, right? And that’s been fine. I mean it’s been great, really, because you’re a great Mom. The best. Really.”

Henry was now hesitating, gathering himself for his final push, like a lawyer preparing for his critical closing.

“So I need your help, ok? I really, really need it and I hope you’ll be ok with it.”

“Whatever is it Henry?” his mother interjected, slightly alarmed and impatient.

“Well. OK. A while back I told a few people at school that my dad was in the Special Forces. I didn’t really think very much about it. It just sort of jumped out, but then almost everyone seemed to have heard about it. And I couldn’t just say it wasn’t true. So now everyone thinks that… that it is true, and so if anyone says something about it to you, will you just not say that it isn’t true? Please Mom. This is really important to me.”

Henry fell into a nearly helpless silence, uncertain how his mother might respond; knowing she would disapprove of any lie, but also knowing she would want to be on his side. He looked away, but then turned to look pleadingly into her face. This was just like jumping from the high diving board for the first time when he was six and still fearful of the plunge.

His mother was looking straight at him, her kind face seeming unable to formulate any expression, or even to properly record what Henry had just told her. Her own mind pin-wheeled back to the father Henry had never known, and who, truth be told, she had hardly known. He had been the only sexual partner she had ever known, and to say she had known him would be to grossly misjudge their association. She had been a terribly naïve young woman from a small, energetically religious community in central Pennsylvania who had gone initially to a community college where she had shown such promise as a student of history and most everything else she had studied that she had been urged on to the “Happy Valley,” the mother campus of the prestigious Penn State University. By her senior year, she felt being a virgin was a nearly impossible burden to her. With a bit of help from more worldly friends, she had gone to a party and had enough to drink to have lost any inhibitions. Instead she had unprotected intercourse with a young man she had met about ninety minutes before and conceived Henry. She could not have picked the boy from a lineup two weeks later, which would have actually meant ten weeks later, when she learned she was pregnant, he may just as well evaporated into the ether of her disquieted dreams.

She had endured considerable adversity, strong recriminations both internal and from her family. Her pain, a shame that had haunted most every minute and caused her to live as though her life consisted in its entirety, of amends for that one night. She had managed to say very little to Henry about his father. Neither of them had fully appreciated the burden that secret had imposed on them. Perhaps she had unwittingly transmitted to him some of that same burden. Perhaps they had jointly been, like an overweight person, not entirely aware of the difficulty of living every day with the extra weight they had to carry everywhere.

But Henry now had confessed to having solved the problem, or his at least, however it had lain upon him, and in an entirely different and unanticipated way.

“Henry, dear,” she tried to begin, “I don’t know what to say to you. You want me to say your father was in the Special Forces? But Henry, he was not.” She knew she hadn’t solved anything yet, but Henry’s response forcefully let her know how far she was from any resolution.

“Jesus, Mom! You know you have never, never, ever told me anything about who my father was! Or is! What do you expect? What do you want meto do? What am I supposed to tell anybody? That he’s a ghost?” Henry was, for the very first time, visibly angry with his mother. It startled them both, but his mother more so. Each of them, sitting at the kitchen table without a morsel of food on it, felt tears forming in their eyes.

Feeling something he had not felt before, a kind of power perhaps drawn from his long fantasies of the powerful, brave, forceful father he had constructed, but something that filled him with energy and force. And there was something beyond that because he could see clearly his own power would exceed his mother’s, and that recognition enriched the fuel he was burning.

“All I want you to do is nothing! Just don’t change anything. Don’t say anything different. Just say you can’t say anything about where he is. That can’t be so hard, Mom! You owe me this!”

And then, in the manner of fights between men and women, his mother began weeping. She pulled a tissue from her purse to soak up the tears which now, quite suddenly, released themselves down her cheeks. Henry’s tactic now seemed less clear, but he could not stop.

“Mom! Don’t cry! You don’t have a right to cry. This is my problem and you made me have it. And you have to help me.” His mother acquiesced, filled with far more confusion and worry than she had felt since learning she was pregnant 15 years earlier. Henry, perhaps at that very moment, felt released from ordinariness. Of course, he had lived for the prior five years as the son of a heroic warrior, but it now took on the trappings of something true, or something he could nearly believe was true.

The man born in a spasm of his young and somewhat desperate imagination seemed now to have become almost a real being, unable to be eradicated or challenged. Over the years, he had modified and embellished the person he presented as his father, mostly to reduce the exaggerated stature he had in his early incarnations and to reduce curiosity from anyone interested enough to be asking about him. The extent to which he had modified his fictional father, like a sculptor tending to the lines of his work, were greatly exaggerated in his own mind, for this had only happened on a few passing occasions. Each modification was to Henry like the beating heart of Raskolnikov’s landlady secreted below his floorboards, reminding him of his guilty secrets.

His mother was never required to act on her ambivalent promise to Henry and their world seemed more or less to forget about his creation altogether. High school passed Henry through its gut discharging him to the state college his mother had attended 18 years earlier. Henry had grown into an attentive, and even an interested student, perhaps to protect himself against depreciating judgments, but whether this was the reason or not, being a good student had come to be important for its own sake. Like many high school students unsure of what the world might offer them as they moved into an adult world, Henry had decided he would enter medicine. In a curious parallel evolution, Ed also believed he was destined to be a doctor, and he also attended Penn State. They remained friendly still without being genuinely close. Both did well and both were earnest students, and both were accepted to the Hershey Medical School, the Penn State school built with the wealth made from the sales of chocolate. By this time, their constant proximity had slowly dissolved the distance between them and they had come to think of one another as genuine friends. Each of them settled in the comfortable farmland area that surrounds Hershey. Ed had become a surgeon at that Medical Center, and Henry developed a practice specializing in adolescent medicine and consulted to Gettysburg College and the Franklin & Marshall College in nearby Lancaster. Both men married and had families, and the families now visited with each other frequently.

The entire fiction had become so distant that Henry rarely gave it any thought. He scarcely considered it a deceit at all. So Ed’s casual remark while they sat having a beer on his back porch discussing a plan to fish the boundary waters with their sons caught him completely off guard.

“He wasn’t real, was he?” Ed asked, a question so lacking in precedent that Henry was shocked by its abruptness. He knew its reference immediately however.

The remark penetrated Henry like freezing steel plunged from the back of his neck down to his pelvis. There could be no doubt of what Ed was referring to.

“No.” It was all Henry could say.

“I didn’t think so, H. I never did.”

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W. Nicholson Browning

I’m a practicing psychiatrist with a recent interest in writing poetry and short fiction.