~This story was previously published in Post Road (2010).
~Selected by Kenneth Fleming, assistant editor of Redux.
The Cumulative Effect
In April, one month after my father went off to war, leaving my mother and me behind, my mother made me dress in a button up shirt and one of my father’s ties and she took me out on a date. That’s what she said: “We’re going on a date, mother and son.” I was seventeen. The invasion of Iraq came and went and then the hunt for Saddam Hussein began. I imagined my father hunting him, hiding in remote locations or marching for days through the desert. We lived in Rochester, New York in a house on the east side. My mother worked part time as a waitress at a little diner around the corner from our house called, The East Ridge. My father would never have allowed us to eat at a fancy restaurant. In fact I couldn’t remember ever eating out before that night, so I was shocked when we went to a swanky restaurant in the arena district.
I pressed my mother about that. “How can we afford this meal?” I asked.
“Combat pay,” she said between bites of her 16oz steak. “It’s the one good thing your father ever did for us.”
“Does Dad know about this?”
My mother set her fork down and wiped her mouth on the cloth napkin. She rubbed her chin like she was thinking about something and then she picked up her fork again, waving it in front of her while she spoke.
“What he doesn’t know won’t kill him.”
I wasn’t comfortable being in a restaurant. Mainly because I had only been in them on our infrequent visits to my mother’s parents. I wasn’t really sure how to act. But also I felt like we were betraying my father’s wishes. I picked at the steak my mother insisted I order.
“Do you think he’s coming back?” I asked.
My mother put her fork down again, this time making eye contact.
“Honey, we aren’t that lucky. He’ll be back.”
My father was a brutal man. At times I hated him, but I was conflicted about his leaving, or more conflicted than my mother seemed to be.
By brutal, I mean that the man was strict. Rigid. He was a military man as was his father and his father’s father and so on. I was expected to follow in the long line of Fitzsimmons men who had joined the military and made careers of it. There would be no college for me save West Point.
A few months before my father went off to war he said, “Tully, I’m just trying to make you a man.”
My bed was to be made the same way every morning and I was to report to breakfast, on school days, by 0800 hours. A mislaid sheet, a minute late to eat, an untucked shirt, all of these resulted in boot camp punishments.
“Drop and give me fifty,” my father would shout.
“Dad, here?” I looked down at the kitchen floor. “On a school day?”
“Now,” he’d say, dressed in full uniform, prepared to head to the recruiting station where he worked.
He also built a mini-obstacle course in our backyard. It was complete with monkey bars, a six-foot scale wall, and eight tires he had laid on the ground side by side in columns that we ran through. On weekends we’d go out at seven in the morning and drill for hours at a time. My father would set up his antique victrola and play Semper Paratus over and over again.
“Do you know what it means?” my father asked.
“The title of the march?”
“No,” I said.
“It means always ready, Tully, which is what I’m trying to make you.”
My father timed me as I ran the course and then I timed him. We compared our results. With each pass he’d add in new wrinkles, smoke grenades or small booby traps, to keep me thinking on my feet. The ultimate goal was for me to surpass my father’s times.
For my mother the punishments were different but they had the same cumulative effect. Meals were to be served at 0800 and 1700 hours respectively. The house was to be vacuumed, dusted, laundry washed and folded on a set schedule, one that she could not deviate from. My father punished my mother by withholding things, mostly money, though he would sometimes lock her in the laundry room until she’d done the laundry she forgot, or lock her out of their bedroom until she finished vacuuming and dusting.
“Vacuum at midnight?” my mother said. “Are you crazy?”
“Every soldier must pull their weight,” my father said.
“Freedom,” my father had once told me, “will make a man think he can live his life without discipline, Tully. But it is discipline that ensures his freedom.”
I should have seen, the night we went on our date, that my mother was changing. We hadn’t talked about my father after she assured me he was coming home. Most of the meal she spent quizzing me about school, the girls I liked, the subjects I was taking. She had always taken a serious interest in me, felt the need to try and offset the discipline my father was working to instill.
“Love,” my mother said. “This is what life is about.”
“Do you love dad?” I asked.
My mother looked away. She was strikingly beautiful, even at thirty-eight, and the men in our neighborhood said, when she was in school, that her beauty was such that men would bend to her every demand. Her dark hair, her pale skin, her big blue eyes, they had the effect of making her look both stunning and unapproachable.
My mother and father married when they were eighteen. I was born two years later. My father joined the military the year before I was born and had been gone, off and on, for the first six years of my life, beginning with boot camp and then the first Gulf War.
“He was so handsome in that uniform,” my mother said, as if she could picture him, at age twenty-five, returning home from the war to be with us. A young couple walked by us on the way to their table. My mother blinked rapidly like something was caught in her eyes. I was tall like my father, had the same dark hair and brown eyes, the same athletic build. My mother often said I was as handsome as my father but had gotten nothing of her beauty. “Look at you,” she said. “You are so your father’s son.”
We sat there for a few minutes in silence. I was thinking about that, about what it meant to be my father’s son. I knew she meant I looked like him, but I wondered if she knew something about me in that moment that I had yet to realize about myself.
My mother wiped her mouth with her napkin. She folded it into a neat little triangle and looked up at me. “How could I have known what kind of father he would be?” she asked, but I sensed that the question was not intended for me.
“Those early years without him,” my mother said. “That was when I missed him and loved him most.”
“Yeah,” I said.
My mother looked right at me. “Don’t be afraid to fall in love, Tully,” she said. “At least your father and I can say we had that.”
My mother was coming unhinged. The years of structure had driven her slightly mad. Our dinner should have been the first clue, but I didn’t fully appreciate the changes until they became more obvious. With each passing month, my mother was trying her hand at new freedoms. At first it was more dinners out with me. But then there were other things. She stopped packing my lunch and handed me five-dollar bills when I left for school.
“Eat good,” she said. “It’s on your father.”
By then she had quit her job and stayed home full time. She gave up all of her domestic duties, instead returning to sleep after she drove me to school, waking at noon to chain smoke and watch soap operas and then Oprah. My mother would talk to me all through supper, which had become frozen pizzas or microwave dinners, about the characters in her shows and what was transpiring in their lives. For those first few months, my mother’s life came to revolve around me being the only man in it.
My father’s absence was the chance for me to be a kid. I did, as my mother had, let go of the chores and routines my father had begun to ingrain in me. I started to dream about a different future, one where I was a superstar athlete or a doctor or even a janitor. The point was, in these lives, my job had nothing to do with the military.
That being said, my status in the neighborhood and the lunchroom at school depended heavily on my father. In April when Baghdad fell, news footage of the city was played in the cafeteria. I remember the video of American soldiers taking down a statue of Saddam Hussein and I remember the way people came up and clapped me on the back or shook my hand. It was almost like I was a soldier and my classmates were paying homage to my service.
On the east side of the city, where we lived, no other fathers were military men. Some had been drafted into Vietnam, but none of them considered it a lifestyle. Those men were at least a decade or two older than my father. Those who hadn’t served were slightly younger, in their early to mid-forties, but they were still older than my father and none of them would be fighting in this war. Most of the men in our neighborhood were blue-collar men, working at the Genesee Brewery or fixing machines at Kodak. Many of them didn’t even have jobs as good as that. Maybe because so many of them might one day join the military, or because their fathers’ lacked war stories, all of the guys in my neighborhood were hungry for mine. And, in this way, my father became a kind of legend, the way I spun him.
Before he left my father had been respected. He was a kind neighbor, though people were uncomfortable around him because of his clean-cut look and reserved manner. He didn’t participate in any of the neighborhood activities: barbequing, watching football games, or the neighborhood watch. Instead he came and went from our house as if it were a military outpost, a place he would visit for R and R between battles or diplomatic engagements.
This, his mysterious lack of presence, was what I cashed in on. I described my father as the consummate solider, which he was, having come from a long line of men who had gone off to war and come back whole. He believed in his country. He believed in war. Above all else, he was a man who lived his life without fear. All of this was true. But the war stories I told, the letters I claimed he wrote, all of that was the stuff of my imagination. At night when I was left without school to preoccupy me, I’d sit, watching CNN and MSNBC, hoping to catch a glimpse of my father in action.
I told tales of him during the invasion, flying over Iraq in a fighter Jet, of him leading heavy artillery into prolonged battles. And once we’d taken the city, I spun new tales. “My father is taking a special forces unit deep into enemy territory,” I told a lunch table full of freshmen girls. “They are hunting high level officials and secret operatives. I’m going to sign up as soon as I turn eighteen. I’m going to fight right beside my father.”
I’d even convinced the girl I had a crush on, Emma Bardsley, during gym class when we were square dancing, that my father was on his own special assignment, sitting in a foxhole on the outskirts of Baghdad, waiting for his chance to assassinate Saddam Hussein. “He taught me how to shoot,” I told her. “He’s going to end this war once and for all.”
Though I’d been a fairly popular kid, handsome and clean cut, athletic because of the training my father had put me through, I found the circle of people around me growing with every week that the war carried on, with every month that my father was gone.
On May 1st of that year, President George W. Bush gave a speech on an aircraft carrier that was televised on every major news channel. I sat, just over a month left in school, hoping he would offer me something worthwhile to bring to my classmates, and in a way he did, though at the same time he got me asking serious questions about my father that I had never thought to ask before.
That day, standing in front of a crowd of service men and women, the president declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. I knew then that the next day at school would be a kind of hero’s welcome for me. People would be happy for me, happy for my father, they would think that we had won the war and that my father must be coming home.
My mother and I hadn’t heard from my father since he had left for the war, which by May 1st meant we’d gone two months without any news. This worried me. If the war had been won then where was my father, why hadn’t he tried to contact us to share the good news?
“The funny thing about war,” my father once told me, “is that there is nothing predictable about it.” That didn’t strike me as particularly profound until two weeks after the president’s declaration of victory when a military man knocked on our door to inform my mother that her husband had gone MIA.
For days I read and reread the letter, trying to understand it, searching it for a story that could fill the void that was just now opening in me. I carried the letter in the back pocket of my jeans, and at school I would read it every half-hour, searching for some new detail to make it make sense. I couldn’t, remembering the disciplined man who’d left us, imagine my father being lost. It didn’t seem like something he was capable of.
The next day at school I told a few of my friends, and before the day was out everyone knew. Emma Bardsley came up and hugged me, and though I missed my father immensely just then, I was happy to have her holding me. I was happy, in the coming weeks, because she stayed close to me, perhaps sensing that I needed her.
The rest of the school year was like that. People were, and it is the only word I can think to describe it, tender toward me. By then I’d told dozens of stories about my father and his heroics. Everyone, in the last weeks of school, was in mourning, and for this reason I was almost glad when the summer hit.
For the months of June and July my mother mourned our loss, treating my father’s MIA status more like a KIA. For days on end she would cry and then suddenly come out of it, declaring her hate for him, her happiness that he was gone and she was forever free.
“Where did all that disciple get him?” she said. “Nowhere but dead, gone. All those push-ups and sit-ups, the running around in the backyard, none of it any good.”
My mother lived in her room, curtains drawn, empty bottles of Seagram’s and 7up scattered about in small piles. I would go to comfort her, sharing the food I’d prepared or bringing her a new box of tissues. Sometimes we would lie together in her bed and watch old movies. Other times the door would be locked and she would ask me to leave her alone or she wouldn’t answer at all.
Throughout the summer, while my mother was locked inside, I would be on the streets with my friends, playing baseball or listening to the radio, smoking cigarettes on someone’s front porch. There, in the heat of June and July, we would speculate aloud about my father and where he had disappeared to. My friends had sort of adopted him because of the stories I’d told and because, I think, they sensed my growing worry.
“I don’t believe he’s lost,” they said. “Probably on some secret mission, kind of shit the government has to keep way under wraps.”
“I bet it’s something like that,” I said.
“Or maybe he has Bin Laden and Hussein in custody and he is interrogating them right now, getting them to reveal the next terror plot,” they said. They talked torture techniques and made up long-winded confessions.
This was how it went all summer. We’d talk through different scenarios, pinpoint my father’s mission, his location, the people he was with, and the reasons why we had to be lied to about his whereabouts. And in this way it felt, at least for awhile, like nothing had changed.
In September, just before I went back to school my mother started seeing another man. I wasn’t prepared for this. Her sister, who was a secretary at the University of Rochester, had set them up. My aunt thought it would be good for my mother to get out of the house and be chased by a man.
His name was Neil. He was what my father would have called a “Flaming Liberal” or a “New Age Hippie.” He was into protesting the Iraq War and the Bush Administration and he claimed to be a feminist though I was pretty sure he only said that so he could get laid.
Neil had an extensive record collection. Every day in September he would bring more and more of his records to our house. One night he took me down to the basement, where he had set up my father’s record player, and played me his favorite one.
“See,” he said, “this is Jimi Hendrix. He’s playing at Woodstock.”
Neil talked to me like I was a little kid.
“I think I’ve heard of it,” I said, trying to be a smart ass.
“Of course,” he said. “I’m just saying is all.”
We stood there, two boys really, listening to Jimi play. I knew Neil liked it because he thought it meant something about overcoming “Big Brother” and about ending war, which it did. But to me it was about more than that, it was about a deep oppression that Neil knew nothing about, something he could never learn or understand. I only knew it because I lived in a neighborhood that still dealt with it. Most of the boys I’d told war stories to were going to go off to war soon, not because they wanted to or because their fathers were making them, but because this was what the world had made them for. They didn’t have the privilege to say no. There weren’t that many jobs to be had without a college education, and most of them weren’t going to go to college. They were blue-collar kids who wanted to stay blue-collar. They really didn’t have that many options. This was, in fact, why my father stayed here and did not move us to a suburb. “These are the men you will be serving with,” he said. “These are the men we send off to die in our wars.”
That night in the basement I was thinking about this, about the difference between the boys fighting in this war and the ones, like Neil, who were protesting it.
“What do you think?” Neil asked when the song ended and the record stopped.
“Pretty cool,” I said. “I think he really hit it on the head.”
“You’re not messing with me are you?” Neil asked.
I looked at him then for a long second. I wanted to be mean, to say the things any boy would want to say when a new man had come to replace his father in his mother’s heart, but I didn’t have it in me. Neil was good to my mother. He was affectionate in ways my father had never been, touching her face, and hugging her, and calling her pet names. On the one hand it made me sick, but on the other it made me happy for my mother. She was smart and interesting and beautiful. She deserved to be shown some attention.
“No, man,” I said. “It’s a really good song.”
When my father left I didn’t miss him. I was certain he would return. Now, with his disappearance lasting indefinitely and with my mother seeing another man, I yearned for his rules, for his uniform, and clean-cut hair. In this way I began to miss my father’s discipline, began to long for it.
That night, after Neil played me his record, I took my father's clippers and shaved my head clean down to the scalp. I laid out my clothes for the next morning and set the alarm for seven a.m. so I could shower and make the bed. The next day was the start of school.
Across the whole of September and into October, I would return home on weekdays to do push-ups and sit-ups on the living room floor while I watched CNN and CSPAN, following the war closely, hoping that there might be news of my father. On the weekends I spent my time doing the chores my father and I would have done. I raked the leaves, painted the shed and fence, and covered the air-conditioning units. I did everything I could to avoid my mother and Neil and to keep telling myself that my father was coming home. I stayed late at school and spent my time near the river fishing.
At school I tried my best to stay focused, to stay optimistic. Most people avoided me now, whereas before they had wanted stories. Who could blame them? Time was passing and their lives were moving forward toward graduation. The war looked more and more like a long-term thing.
During Halloween that year my school held a haunted house for charity. We could go and pay a quarter to bob for apples or to have our fortune read, or pay a dollar to go into the haunted house.
There I saw Emma Bardsley. I hadn’t seen her much over the summer, but since school had started back we’d been hanging out again. She had long dark hair and a small frame, “Like a baby bird,” my mother said when I pointed her out once. Emma was working as a fortuneteller. She had put on a black dress and dark makeup. She wore a ring on every finger. I walked up to her and laid my hand on her crystal ball, running my palm over the smooth cold surface of it.
“Hey, Tully,” she said. “What are you supposed to be?”
“Just me,” I said. “I actually only came to see you.”
Emma blushed. I had never been so forward with her, even after my mother suggested I ask her on a date, saying, “It will be my treat. You can take her anywhere.” But I never asked. Emma and I were friends and I was afraid to ruin that.
“I need you to tell me something,” I said.
The hallway where Emma had her booth was quiet. She had wanted it this way, saying that she couldn’t concentrate on answers with a lot of noise.
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
It wasn’t that most people had forgotten about my father by then. They hadn’t, but I talked less about him, and it had been almost five months since that letter had arrived. I wasn’t shocked that Emma hadn’t seen this coming, but it made me a little sad, too.
“Will my father come home?” I asked.
Emma reached her hand across the table and laid it on top of mine, the one that was rubbing the crystal ball. Her skin felt warm. It reminded me of the cookies my mother would bake when my father was still home. I could tell by the way she laid it there, in that delicate way, that Emma didn’t want to answer the question.
“I need to know,” I said.
She looked up at me then. She had this pained expression on her face, kind of like when someone winces, but it looked more thoughtful somehow. I imagined, looking at her big dark eyes, that she knew the answer, but I sensed that she was about to tell me what she thought I wanted to hear instead of the truth. I knew, though, I could see it in the initial expression, that the answer was no, that she thought my father was never coming home again.
I looked away for a second, blinking back tears.
I drew in a deep, hard breath.
“He’ll be back, Tully,” she said, squeezing my hand. “I promise.”
I looked at Emma and her eyes were really wet the way I imagined mine might be just then. I leaned toward her, squeezing her hand. I kissed her, for the first time, pressing my lips against hers and closing my eyes. I stayed there for just a few seconds. It felt like the right amount of time. Then I stepped back, letting go of her hand.
“Thank you,” I said, and I turned to walk away.
That night I went home and strung up Christmas lights in the backyard. I worked feverishly, pulling them from the storage totes in the basement and stringing them haphazardly around the edges of the obstacle course. I was sure I needed to start training on the course again, that this is what my father would have wanted in his absence.
When I was done with the lights I went down and retrieved my father’s record player and one of Neil’s old records, the one he’d played for me with Jimi Hendrix doing “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. I set the thing where my father had when we were running drills, and I turned the volume all the way up. I stripped down to my underwear. Jimi struck that first chord and I began to run.
Jimi was halfway into his rendition when Neil came out. He was in flannel pajamas, wearing a pair of my mother’s slippers. I had just completed my first pass through the course.
“Tully, what are you doing?” Neil asked. “It’s one a.m.”
I stopped and walked over toward him. He was a short man with shaggy hair, a fluffy beard, and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. He looked like a man who knew nothing about war.
“Jesus,” he said. “You must be freezing.”
Neil was not a bad man and I had no real hate for him. He was not my father. That was his only crime.
“0100 hours,” I said.
“You said one a.m. It’s 0100 hours.”
Neil looked at me with a confused expression, his eyes narrowing and the skin on his forehead wrinkling. “Seriously, Tully, we’ve got to get you inside.”
That was what did it, I think. His concern. Or maybe it was his fingers touching my elbow and my thinking that not so long ago those same fingers had been touching my mother. My own father had never laid a kind hand on me, and maybe in the end that is why things came apart the way they did. I guess I’ll never be sure. But in that instant, when Neil’s flesh pressed up against mine, all I could think to do was to start asking questions. I wanted to beat the piss out of him, drag him into the street and stomp him until he was tucked into the fetal position, crying and bleeding all over the road. But that wouldn’t have given me the answers I so desperately needed.
Neil looked at me, almost like he was pleading, like he sensed something in me was about to come unglued. He started to guide me inside by my elbow as if I were some kind of child who was lost.
I pulled my arm away very gently. I stood there looking him in the eyes.
“Does she ever talk about him?” I asked.
Neil flinched. It was almost like I had thrown a punch.
“Tully?” he said.
“Does she ever talk about my father,” I said.
Neil reached out to touch me again, but I stepped back.
My mother appeared then.
“What’s going on?” she said. Her robe was pulled tight around her, to ward off the cold. “Tully, what’s wrong?”
A wave of relief came over Neil’s face. He was not going to have to answer my question.
My mother walked toward us and as she came I sat down very slowly.
Neil and my mother exchanged a glance and then he walked away, leaving us alone. She bent to sit with me in the grass, our shadows blinking on and off with the Christmas lights.
“He isn’t coming back, is he?” I asked.
My mother reached for me then.
“You don’t have to lie to me,” I said.
She pressed my face into her shoulder.
“He isn’t,” she said.
In the morning I woke up and went to the local recruitment office where my father once worked and I enlisted. Through the winter and into the spring I trained, running that obstacle course like my father had taught me, adhering to the tenants of discipline that he’d set out to show me. In June, just before I went off to basic, we got news that he was dead. Then, I went off to war.
But that night, sitting in our backyard, my head in my mother’s lap, the Christmas lights blinking: one, two, three, one, two, three, one, like soldiers marching, Jimi Hendrix reached the part, right at the end of the song, where he’s holding that last distorted chord, stretching it out like it might go on forever. But it didn’t go on forever. The record ended, and everything went silent.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I wrote this story as a kind of response to Ben Percy’s piece "Refresh,Refresh." I really enjoy that story, but when I read it, I wondered where all the mothers were. So, I knew Tully was the son of a Marine and I knew the story was about him and his mother, what their life looked like during his father’s absence, but I didn’t know much else. Writing this, draft after draft, was about finding out how Tully felt about his father’s absence. I didn’t know, at first, anything about it and I certainly didn’t know that Tully was going to end up reversing course. Early in the drafting process I wrote the scene, near the end, where Tully asks the girl he likes if his father is coming home. Somehow, before I even got a strong opening, I had that moment. Once I saw what I was writing toward, then it became easier to see who this character was, what kinds of complex and contradictory responses he might have about his situation. This story taught me something that I knew but had yet to really experience as a writer. Not knowing is the best part.
ABOUT JON CHOPAN
Jon Chopan lives in St. Petersburg, FL where he is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Eckerd College. His first collection, Pulled From the River, was published in 2012 by Black Lawrence Press. His work has been published in magazines such as Glimmer Train, Post Road, Epiphany, Hotel Amerika, Drunken Boat, Redivider and elsewhere.