On My Father's Business Print E-mail

MC_Escher_single_lizard_tile(Great River Review Number 22, April 1993)

Newly dead, an old lizard lies on a napkin on my desk, just as I found it in the yard, on its back. I don’t know why I spotted the pale underbelly in the brown grass. At rest, its tiny forelegs are slackened, and its miniature webbed fins, bent ninety degrees at the wrists, seem poised. The forelegs thus cocked suggest that the lizard held something to itself as it died.

Turning it over to its familiar scaly back and prehistoric skin, I see what helped it thrive in the canyon below our house—an armor, formed by evolution and drought, which guaranteed no one except its kindred species got close.

Resignation in this animal is frozen within. The bumptious eyes once eager to spot danger are gone to glass. Before this moment, I would not have ruminated on a skittish lizard, which darted away at the first sight of me. To gaze at anything requires of the object some acquiescence—shyness is especially nice. This lizard, though, never knew anyone’s nearness and received no advantage for having been seen, studied, or admired.

But to see the lizard whole I must turn it over and over, flipping it by its stiffened tail. There are two lizards: one preyed-upon, sun-baked, shielded; the other abashed, lightened, cowering. Death reveals the weakness the lizard protected, the side unshone.

I am attracted to these dueling skins. I want to explore them because these moments in which the hidden and the revealed inter-depend are few. So few that they require unpacking, slicing open, parsing to the bone. For too long something has caused me to pull away from such enigmas. Like the lizard, I am skittish about contact with mystery. I’ve had good reason. The trouble with dualities takes me back to my father and other conflicts. To brothers, to boyhood friends, to the porous hide of memory.


The summer I was eleven my father would remind me on most Friday nights to wash the car the following morning. Sometimes, leaving the house without breakfast and racing bike-crazy to the lake where my friends and I fished, I escaped, pretending to myself I’d never got the reminder or I’d forgotten. This seldom worked. The following week I get the instructions at first light.

One time my older Steve—I supposed to taunt me because I had inherited his job—flung dirt on the hood of the car I had just cleaned. He laughed and bounded away around the side of the garage, poking out his mousey haircut-head and rolling his devil-stewed eyes.

I picked up the hose and crammed my thumb over the hole, shooting the spray at him. I chased him to the side yard, but he sprinted for the clothes tree, hiding behind Mother’s freshly hung sheets. I aimed the hose to get him, which it did. But the spastic water also drenched the wash.

My father appeared the moment water doused the bright whites.

“Tommy, drop the Goddamn hose!”

He grabbed the brush and bucket, directed the cobra-like spray, and finished washing and hosing the car off—in two minutes flat. I stared. His doing my chore meant one thing: I wasn’t responsible enough to finish it. That was punishing. His intent.

Moments later he ordered me to sort through a bed of geraniums and pull out the withered flower heads. These, buried in the thick-leaf green, resembled miniature rotting umbrellas. He instructed me to drop them in the bucket, the red car-washing bucket, which he had emptied in the gutter and now dropped at my feet. (He enjoyed making me look stupid.) Wisps of suds lined the insides of the bucket like low clouds. In the bottom lay brown water and flecks of dirt. I was there, removing dead flower heads for an hour.

I simmered, worried that my anger would boil over, that my rage might spill into the bucket. But I was surprised when none came. Instead, the anger I felt for being wronged by Steve stayed inside, and a shell began growing, shielding me from the indignation I felt for my brother.

I finished the picking and felt I’d done a good job. The bucket held a brown mass, thickly piled, to show my accomplishment.

In the house, my mother was sitting in the living room, the newspaper up before her, my father at his desk, writing checks. Absorbed, hurrying, he was noting down amounts and signing his name—John J. M. Larson—with exaggerated flourish.

“Are you done?” he asked.


“Is the bucket full?”

“I got all of them.”

“How full is full?” He hadn’t bothered to look at me.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I muttered under my breath. It was, I think now, a line I learned from him. “It’s done,” I spoke up. “My friends are waiting for me.”

“If you’re finished and the job is done—and it better be—you can go.”

I turned to leave, but abruptly he said, “Wait.” He closed his checkbook and stood up, walked toward me slowly. My father was a big man, but not a child-devouring ogre.

He came up close, looked right into me. “If your brother bothers you on Saturdays, you stop what you’re doing and tell me.”

“Why didn’t you say that before?”

“I’ve said it before.”

“So you knew he threw the dirt on the car and made me chase him?”

“He didn’t make you do it, Tom. No one makes you do anything. You do it yourself.”

“You made me pick through the flowers.”

“That’s true. But you did it because you understand the rules we live by in this house.”

I hated that shit about rules. Do your best. Be prepared. Don’t talk back. Follow the rules or else suffer the consequences. He must have thought I learned a lesson because I obeyed his orders. Hah. “I hate Steve,” I said instead.

“Tom!” Mother said.

He shushed her. “You hate what Steve does,” he said.

“I hate a lot of things around here.” I stared at him and looked away.

“Come on,” he said. “You’re better than that.”

He softened a moment, and then said my name, Taaahhmmm, which poured out in a half-whisper, a dark motherly voice. The sound tapered off with a faint growl like a cat’s warning.

His feeling shown, he would say no more. He wouldn’t argue with me. He wouldn’t discuss why he did what he did or ask me how I felt. Yet his affection, a sort of high school counselor’s patience, lingered. It said, in the breathy pronouncement of my name, you’re angry, yes, but you don’t really believe what you said about your brother. You’re better.

Something flashed in my mind: the times he would soundlessly open the door of my room and check on me. On the evening I destroyed my green and white model roadster, pounding into the pillow my rage at a plastic piece of crap that refused to glue together with any elegance, I discovered my father watching me. The door was open a little, and my eye caught his blue stare. He stayed long enough for me to see him there and then the door quietly closed, as if to say his watchfulness remained, endured, ever-present, a force beyond the confines of my room. It was the same sort of restlessly mute reassurance with which he held me there at the front door.

He got as close as he could to saying what I wanted to hear: that I had a right to strike back. And I nearly said to him what I should have: that he liked asserting his way, that he was unfair, that he loved me. Incapable of such expressions, we stood there like two generals, waiting for the other to surrender, each clinging to his pride.

The moment I experienced up close the distance between my father and me fell into the next moment, my leaving the house without a word.

I pedaled fast to where my buddies were fishing. The street on which we lived dead-ended into the municipal airport parking lot. I rode by the terminal and the weather station, out toward the fence line, which bordered the runway, and along the dusty path to the west end.

There they were—poles propped up, lines curled, bobbers floating on the quivery Wisconsin lake: Tommie, with straight-up butch-waxed hair, and Milton, with the fake eye. I told them I was busy doing some stupid-ass chore for my old man because my equally stupid-ass brother got me in trouble, and they nodded. Dropping my bike, I was reminded of something about Milton and the marble-like ball that filled the hole where his right eye had been. I had seen the ball out many times: he would show it to us when we spent the night at his house. The false eye was a hard rubber egg, light gray in the rear, a clear plastic covering a blue dime in front. On the dime was a black spot for the iris. His eye socket, though, was more intriguing. It was dark and sinister, and Milton let us see in it only twice, and only for a second. There was a gauze bandage in there, which he said soaked up leaks and which he constantly had to change. That fact kept me from asking any further. Milton would usually keep his head down and place his hand over the socket whenever he’d take the eye out.

One day Milton dropped the eye in his back yard, and all of us—his family and half a dozen neighbors, me included—searched for it. I remembered that his father, Mr. Olenberger, cussed at him over and over that afternoon, saying awful things in front of us, like Milton, you are the dumbest one-eyed child I’ve ever seen, or why the hell can’t you be more like Dale (his older brother), or I’ll be Goddamned if I’m going to spend another month’s pay on one more doctor’s visit for you, you ungrateful bastard. I remember wondering whether Milton’s empty socket still had its tear duct, or was that gone too. His old man kept swearing and his wife kept shushing him and saying, to no avail, Karl, Karl, until finally Milton screamed, “Here it is!” He held it up, as if it were a crown jewel. Milton bushed the eye off and crammed it back in the socket. He looked whole again.

I looked at Milton from my seat in the weeds, and asked him whether he remembered that day his old man got so mad at him for losing his eye in the backyard.

“Yeah, he was going to kill me.”

“He just kept yelling at you and wouldn’t stop.”

“My old man is full of it. He locked up my kid sister Trudy once in the coal cellar when she broke one of Momma’s prune jars.”

“Did he say anything to you later about losing your eye?”

“Yeah. He said, ‘Where does a dumb shit like you come from?”

Milton laughed and laughed at this. He always had a smile on his face, making him appear as though he thought everything was a joke. What’s the big smile about, I wanted to ask. But I forgot. Milton smiled not because he was happy but because of the accident—the skin on his face was pulled and tucked up around his lost eye so he had a permanent grin. Sometimes I thought he got that smile etched on his face because he was unhappy. Because he hated his old man. His was the smile of hate, smug and secure, deserved.

I gazed over at Tommie. He head was down; he poked a stick at the water. There was nothing but calm.

Suddenly, his bobber wobbled, shook, dipped under, and was gone. “Fish!” Tommie shouted as his pole jumped toward the water. He grabbed it, screaming, “Muskie! It’s a Muskie!” He dug in his heels at the shore, pulling the line out from his reel and then pulling the rod back quick and hard. “Oh boy,” he yelled. He ran by us for a new angle, dropping the pole toward the water and reeling furiously.

Two minutes of such reeling brought a shape out of the dark water. It scissor-swam violently in the shallows, splashing the surface, growing visible little by little. Finally it stopped. Tommie called out once he recognized it. “Walleye. It’s a Walleye.” We laughed. That was a name we sometimes called Milton. Milton, with the one bad eye, often walked into walls.

And then, like a strong breeze, we picked up the distant, steady soft noise of an incoming plane. A wobbling mass of riveted steel with twin props and a pug nose was heading right toward us. As Tommie reached into the water to net the fish, the belly of the big plane, like a giant silver arm, smoothed through the space above us, eclipsing the sky. We waved our arms and danced about like crazy old prospectors. We spun about and cheered, our calls drowning in the plane’s roar. Tommie held high his prize. Look at the big fish we caught!

Tommie laid the walleye out on the muddy shore. First it flopped, curving a U in the air and flipped over. It stopped. Then it flopped and stopped. Flip-flopped a few more times. Then it stopped, exhausted, panting, beaten, resigned. On its side, quieting, the dark green top half of the fish glistened brightly beside the lighter bottom, which also gleamed in the sun. Its gill sucked in the deadly air.

I turned to see the plane’s tires touch the runway, lift up, touch again, and stay down. The plane landed, firmly and safely, and the fish was dying, top and bottom revealed at once.


I take the lizard outside and lay it in the sun, topside up. I turn it over so the pale bottom shows. The light half of the lizard is beneath. It is lightened by the dark ground while the brown top has darkened under the pitiless sun. The sun darkens, the earth lightens.

The lizard’s duality, discovered in my hand only after its life ends, resonates with the out-of-water fish we rushed home to Milton’s mother for cleaning some thirty summers ago. While she was washing the skin of its slime, the scales—the invisible tiny flecks like an alien skin—fell away as she scrubbed. She held out a wet, scale-covered hand to us and said, “Your fish, boys, is only half-grown.” Those scales protected it from the currents of water, which pummeled the fish’s tender young skin. How quickly that fish, taken from the underwater pressure of the lake, had lost its shield.


And my father? I have little idea how to locate him—he died, seventeen years ago. I wish he were alive so that I might have his duality cover me yet again. But instead I have only those few intimate, unsettled moments we shared, the twin faces of his anger and compassion, always appearing together, both vying for dominance, each claiming that the anger or the care, one above the other, should be remembered first

And the lizard? Looking for a place to show itself and to hide, it finds my skull. Circles the bone twice, rests, pants, presses, sits and surveys. Skitters away and plays in another chamber of its new home. Gets winded and pokes its head through the hole in my eye,