There were stories I had intended to tell my father about Red, stories I knew he would enjoy, mainly, even if he resisted hearing them. There was one in particular that I was eager to retell, a memory Marty had shared with me about the only time he recalled Red ever getting out of hand while drinking.
"Now let me tell you a story about your father," I would have said. I'd tell him a bit of background that I'd learned, setting up a scene involving Red and Rounette's mother. They had gotten into an argument one night while Red was drinking. I'd sit in the wheelchair at the foot of the bed to play the part of the mother.
"You'd better shut up, Red," I'd say in my best--if slightly exaggerated--Southern accent before continuing on with the scene. "Of course, Red kept running his mouth, and the old lady had had enough, so she said 'If you don't shut up, I'm gonna put my foot up the crack of your ass!'"
"Then your dad," I'd say, already cracking up at the story, which would prompt my dad to begin laughing, quietly at first, but building. "Your dad was just fuming, so he stormed over to her, bent over in her face and told her to take her best shot!" I'd mime all of this for effect, and my dad would begin this wheezy, high-pitched laugh that used to embarrass me at the movies or in crowds until I realized that I had inherited this same trait. I'd be breathless with laughter at this point, too, but I'd have to finish the story.
"She could barely move, mind you, but she hoisted up her leg to try to kick him." I'd sit down in the wheelchair again and try to play the mother's role, grabbing my leg and struggling with it. "Take that! Hi-ya!" We'd be laughing to the point of tears at this, in such hysterics that the nurses would come to peer in at us to see what the commotion could possibly be about. They'd see me draped over the arm of a wheelchair holding my chest, my father trying to hold his stomach hole closed, the both of us laughing seemingly at nothing.
When we'd begin to catch our breath, I might ask him if shit ever spurts out of his stomach like a geyser, which would start the process all over again, just the two of us, laughing at the absurdity of things. I can picture it all so clearly that I can almost convince myself that it happened just this way. Thin is the line between memory and imagination.
* * *
By the time Red left, Lillian had been accusing him of physical violence toward her in her divorce petition, a claim my father could corroborate from his early memories of Red. There were violent outbursts and broken furniture, reasons enough to fear the man. Red would have known he was an unfit father. His own good father might have tried to steer him gently toward recovery.
Get your house in order, Red, then come back for the boys.
It would be twenty years before he would be ready to return.
* * *
In April 1981, Red drove to North Carolina with Rounette to connect with his family, and if he had expected the prodigal son's welcome, he did not receive it. He returned to his childhood home only to discover that his older brother Alvin had died just two months before. His father and sister Anna were gone. His mother had disowned his sister Mary, discarding any evidence of her existence in the process.
When he asked after his boys, he learned that John had become an ironworker and was married and living in Pennsylvania with his wife and young daughter. David still lived at home with Lil and her husband Dutch and worked for a tree service, where he refused to climb with a harness, the kind of risk taking that had become a pattern of behavior for him. And Craig, the young one he had barely had a chance to know by the time his marriage had dissolved, Craig had just killed himself while in a drug induced stupor the month before.
Whatever hopes Red had carried with him on that drive from South Carolina were snuffed out the instant he learned of Craig's suicide and his father's death. At this point he was barely able to speak from his accident, but even if the words came easily, what could he say?
It's not clear that Rounette ever knew about the family he left behind before her. If she did, she kept it a carefully guarded secret from the rest of her family. If she knew nothing of this other family, Red's position during this visit home was complicated even further. He would have to risk losing the woman he loved or bear the weight of his son's death completely alone.
This image, one of a man rendered mute by circumstance, tears at me. It would seem that Red wanted to make amends. It would also seem that, in the end, he chose not to. No matter how justified this decision might have been, it was a decision, with all of the attendant consequences: He would never know what kind of men John and David had grown into, would never lay eyes on his grandchildren. He would never be able to apologize or, perhaps worse, to even feel worthy of forgiveness. Instead, he chose what might have seemed to be the honorable path--to spare his wife the knowledge of his past and his sons the pain of his return. He chose to suffer alone with the memory of his regrets.
* * *
Stashed in a box in my office, I have a photograph of Red sitting on a porch swing with his favorite dog. On the back, Marty had written a note to me: When this dog gave birth, one of the puppies wasn't breathing. Red gave it mouth-to-mouth. FYI.
I wanted, desperately, to tell my father that Red had returned for him, that he wanted to save him just as he had saved that puppy, that he wanted to help him as he had wanted to help everyone he met. Those were the lines that Marty had fed to me, ones I wanted to spoon feed to my father until his hunger for his own father's love could finally be sated, until his emptiness could be filled. But really, all I have is this story in my head, the one that tries to see the intent behind Red's return, though I can no more know his intent than I can truly know anything else about him. All I have is this hope for a different narrative, one in which love was the impetus for his journey home, and love at the heart of his decision to walk away yet again. All I have is this hope that, in the eternal view of a story, it's never too late to be forgiven.