That hot June in Lafayette, Louisiana, I was sixteen, I would be seventeen in August, I
weighed one hundred and five pounds, and my ruddy, broad-chested father wanted me to have
a summer job. I only wanted the dollar allowance he gave me each week, and the dollar and
a quarter I earned caddying for him on weekends and Wednesday afternoons. With a quarter I
could go to a movie, or buy a bottle of beer, or a pack of cigarettes to smoke secretly. I
did not have a girlfriend, so I did not have to buy drinks or food or movie tickets for
anyone else. I did not want to work. I wanted to drive around with my friends, or walk
with them downtown, to stand in front of the department store, comb our ducktails, talk,
look at girls.
My father was a civil engineer, and the district manager for the Gulf States Utilities Company. He had been working for them since he left college, beginning as a surveyor, wearing boots and khakis and, in a holster on his belt, a twenty-two-caliber pistol for cottonmouths. At home he was quiet; in the evenings he sat in his easy chair, and smoked, and read: Time, The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Reader's Digest, detective novels, books about golf, and Book of the Month Club novels. He loved to talk, and he did this at parties I listened to from my bedroom, and with his friends on the golf course, and drinking in the clubhouse after playing eighteen holes. I listened to more of my father's conversations about politics and golf and his life and the world than I ever engaged in during the nearly twenty-two years I lived with him. I was afraid of angering him, seeing his blue eyes, and reddening face, hearing the words he would use to rebuke me; but what I feared most was his voice, suddenly and harshly rising. He never yelled for long, only a few sentences, but they emptied me, as if his voice had pulled my soul from my body. His voice seemed to empty the house too and, when he stopped yelling, the house filled with silence. He did not yell often. That sound was not part of our family life. The fear of it was part of my love for him.
I was shy with him. Since my forties, I have believed that he was shy with me too, and I hope it was not as painful for him as it was for me. I think my shyness had very little to do with my fear. Other boys had fathers who yelled longer and more often, fathers who spanked them or, when they were in their teens, slapped or punched them. My father spanked me only three times, probably because he did not know of most of my transgressions. My friends with harsher fathers were neither afraid nor shy; they quarreled with their fathers, provoked them. My father sired a sensitive boy, easily hurt or frightened, and he worried about me; I knew he did when I was a boy, and he told me this on his deathbed, when I was a Marine captain.
My imagination gave me a dual life: I lived in my body, and at the same time lived a life no one could see. All my life, I have told myself stories, and have talked in my mind to friends. Imagine my father sitting at supper with my mother and two older sisters and me: I am ten and small and appear distracted. Every year at school, there is a bully, sometimes a new one, sometimes the one from the year before. I draw bullies to me, not because I am small, but because they know I will neither fight nor inform on them. I will take their pushes or pinches or punches, and try not to cry, and I will pretend I am not hurt. My father does not know this. He only sees me at supper, and I am not there. I am riding a horse and shooting bad men. My father eats, glances at me. I know he is trying to see who I am, who I will be.
Use of this excerpt from Meditations from a Movable Chair may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing, or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: Copyright © 1998 by Andre Dubus. All rights reserved
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