The author's father on a road trip, with pine trees and mountains in the background

The author’s father, on a road trip

My father’s first lover after my parents split: Darrell DuBois, a tall, thin, long-nosed, long-fingered, red-bearded, balding queen who, when he danced to The Who’s Tommy, moved with a rock star’s unhinged pelvis and the hand movements of Indian sacred dancing. He rolled his eyes and gave a look of mock surprise to create a coquettish affect. “I’ll tell you how it is, honey,” he was fond of saying. He had a beautiful tenor voice that never cracked or sounded a distinct falsetto. He never, in all the time I knew him, spoke harshly or cruelly to anyone. He had bred horses, acted, hit bottom, climbed back up, and sang in the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus, whose initials, PGMC, appeared on the really tight T-shirts, coffee mugs, and posters throughout their apartment. Dad sang in the chorus too—it was de-rigueur for gay men of a certain age who had come out not so long ago. All this was somewhat secondary, from my point of view. Darrell had a male Doberman named Court Jester who went by Courtney—a girl’s name, which confused me, but what wasn’t confusing in those days? Courtney weighed about 95 pounds and could cross the park so fast that when I turned to run from him, I would find myself flat on my chest with a growling attack dog on my back before I even reached top speed. It seemed an act of teleportation. He had other tricks, too, like the way you could be walking him in the evening, where his black coat gave him an indistinct glossiness in the shadows between streetlights, when suddenly your wrist would burn. You could look down to discover the leash you’d looped around your hand had gone from slack to just gone, leaving behind a burn from the nylon. If you caught up to Courtney in time, you could see him vigorously shaking a rag doll that used to be a cat. If you got there too early, you’d hear a surprisingly loud cracking and popping as he shattered the cat’s bones in the first ten or fifteen shakes. When Courtney was done, he would raise his head as if he’d just heard your calls. He would fall back into heel position as if nothing had happened, as if he hadn’t just demonstrated that your hold on him was a matter of his own choosing, that his goodwill was a pose of politeness that he could abandon to reveal his true nature as an attack-trained killer. I loved that dog.

Courtney: He allowed me a place to look, a chore to perform, a creature to talk to in my own terms on the painful, court-ordered quality-time weekends I spent at Dad and Darrell’s apartment. If I felt sad or out of place, not knowing how to be in this space that seemed to be tricking me with its apparent normalcy when I knew—was, in fact, sure—that all manner of depraved sexual and drug activity hid in the shadows behind each potted plant, it was always okay to talk to the dog. And as far as Courtney was concerned, I was pretty cool, given that I actually liked wrestling with him, even when he could raise up on his hind legs, put his front paws on my shoulders, and tip me over backwards like a wooden boy divested of animus, no matter how I tried to resist. To a certain degree, Darrell played the same role. When he and Dad picked me up for that first weekend visit, it was Darrell I recognized first. They drove up in the tan Nova the Episcopal Parish of Sts. Peter & Paul had given Dad as his official priestmobile. My father kept it when they forced him out of his pulpit, and when he climbed out, I didn’t recognize him. He had shaved not only his beard, but also his trademark mustache, the focal point of his face, the bushy center of so many of his gestures. He had all these signals, twirling an end in laughter, combing it down with his thumb and forefinger in thought, tugging at a gray hair in frustration. Now his face was smooth and wet, pink looking, and eerily familiar, like a distant relative I was supposed to know on sight and thank for the lovely Christmas present of last year. It didn’t strike me until years later, looking at a photograph of those times, that part of my discomfiture may have been the fact that his uncovered face looked so much like my brother’s face, my sister’s, my own. In any case, I stared without full comprehension as they put their arms around each other’s shoulders and walked up the drive to the steps, and the door. On the left, in a tan leather coat like my father’s, with a flannel shirt like the one he wore on his Mondays off, walked a man who seemed impossibly cheery, full of bright news and intent. His blue eyes were fixed ahead. On the right, the taller man with the stretched face and tight jeans seemed mostly sad and worried. When he saw me watching through the door window, he smiled warmly, but briefly, and with a haunted look. The clean-cut man in my father’s clothes seemed to me entirely dangerous, unknown, and false. Throughout the brief conversation on the steps there, with my mother crying and asking about the support checks, Darrel looked around, looked for someplace to put his eyes where they would cause no shame or anger. Dad was still Mr. In Control, saying my mother’s name, “Margaret”, so that one could hear each letter, as if it were a title. In his fixed smile I recognized danger before I recognized the man. In Darrell, I saw someone as clearly uncomfortable as I felt myself. We hit it off right away.

Unbearably difficult moment made right by Darrell, #1: Their apartment was a rundown two-bedroom off Alberta Avenue long before the neighborhood became trendy with good art and great burritos, back when it was just blighted and poor and segregated, and full of unfashionable crimes like prostitution, drug dealing, and mugging. One afternoon we could hear a woman’s scale of moans of uhhhs and yeah babys through the living room wall. Three times that day she had strutted up the walk in her short skirt and overcoat with a man close behind. She looked old to me, as old as my parents, and neither she nor each of the furtive men who accompanied her to the door smiled. The idea that sex for money was occurring on the other side of the patchy plaster had no veracity for me. The woman looked as distant from the forbidden pleasures I imagined as did the secretary at my middle school, plump, affected by gravity in evident ways, and persistently pissed. Dad was not amused; he fumed, spilled his coffee, swore, and pounded on the wall. After a while, it came to me that he was ashamed about the neighborhood. At thirteen, my own moral scale of sin and shame made this seem unreasonably bizarre. Whores, poverty, bad furniture—trifles. Actually letting the world know that you took it up the ass and were moved to tears by show tunes, International Male catalogues on the coffee table—in my adolescent code of ethics, that deserved shame. At thirteen, what was shameful was crystal clear in a way it has never been since.

Darrell sauntered over to the stack of records leaning against the wall and pulled out an album whose cover was a bulging, blue-jeaned crotch. The Rolling Stones—Sticky Fingers. I knew the Stones. My brother was a fan of the British invasion, and I knew the Stones were basically cool. I also knew that my father disapproved of Rock & Roll, though he had a soft spot for ABBA and the folk music of Nana Mouskouri and Gordon Lightfoot. Darrel was laughing to himself as he put the needle down and cranked up “Brown Sugar.” He danced around the living room in his tight jeans and T-shirt, snapping his long fingers, matching Mick Jagger’s range with his own. He laughed and laughed. Racist jokes, comments, or TV programs were, like Rock & Roll, also explicitly banned from his hearing, but Dad didn’t stop Darrell playing the song twice, loud enough to make the speakers distort to a rumble on the heavier bass notes. Then he put on “Bitch” and belted out the lyrics. A few minutes later the neighbor left for the rest of the day, with a door slam her goodbye to us. Darrell was in a good mood for hours after that and kept the stereo humming with his favorites. I petted the dog and listened as he and Dad bantered in the kitchen.

The author's father with a big sky and rolling hills behind himWinter of Great Rice: The new apartment was in more up and coming NE Portland, very near Lloyd Center, an aging shopping mall on the verge of recovery. Their apartment complex was built in the early ’50s, with a three-story Tudor façade facing Multnomah Ave. You entered the place through a gated breezeway into a neglected courtyard where ferns and rhododendrons competed to engulf a moss-covered sculpture of some saint. To my eyes, it was a magical garden, a secret shrine. Dad and Darrell’s place was on the east side. It was smaller than the Alberta place—one bedroom with a galley kitchen so tight you couldn’t turn around with a drawer open—but to me it was a huge step up. Just north was Irvington, where classmates of mine lived in arts and crafts bungalows and had access to their parent’s liquor cabinets. Just west was the vast labyrinth of Lloyd Center, with its open-air ice rink, endless music shops, and movie theatre. Best of all, to the south, Sullivan’s Gulch beckoned. The gulch was, basically, an old railroad easement in a dried-up creek bed. The vast majority of it contained I-84, six lanes of stalled traffic behind concrete walls 40 feet high. From the highway, the walls seemed like guard rails, but they hid the valley behind them, where a rarely used track still ran and the hoboes camped. The creek itself had long since been diverted into culverts and concrete pipes way upstream, and this was before the city built a high-end municipal light rail system that gleamed itself through the gulch at 55mph. In the mid-’80s, the gulch was forgotten real estate, a place for the homeless, for graffiti artists, and for kids like me, scholarship students at elite prep schools across town who imagined themselves serious urbanites with angst, heavy angst. It helped to have an attack-trained Doberman at your side. With Courtney, I got no shit in the gulch, as I wandered up and down, past modern camps of blue tarps and tents, past survival shelters built of rotting wood and thatched weeds. In the fall of 1984 and winter of ’85 I went often to stay with Darrell and Dad. They would feed me a big meal and then turn me loose on the town. I was in eighth grade by then, both monstrously young and old.

We ate this great lemon chicken just about every weekend, usually with broccoli and heaps of rice on the side. Or else we had stir-fry, or beef with rice, or rice with butter and soy sauce. Rice pudding became conspicuous as dessert, as did fried rice at breakfast. Veteran of the great oatmeal month of 1979, I became suspicious. In ’79, after moving to the first and last house my parents ever owned, in the rock-bottomest days of my dad’s alcoholism, when my mom tried to keep up with him, our family had an unusual number of emergency room visits, each with its concomitant financial blow. Joseph’s rake tine through the foot (it didn’t spring up and hit him with the handle like in the Three Stooges, it just punched through his white sneakers and there was a whole lot of bleeding), Carolyn’s migraine, my stitches after the wrestling match on the night of the earthquake. Or maybe it was other expenses—the dog’s prostate surgery; the new furnace; the architect who drew up the fantastic scheme to remodel the unfinished attic into an adolescent’s paradise with a spiral staircase, skylights, pocket doors, and our own shower; Dad’s asthma attack so severe he spent a week in the hospital cranky for cigarettes and whisky; who knows. It’s a little hard to pin down, but there was a day when we had oatmeal for breakfast, for lunch, and then, impossibly, for dinner. As I dipped happily into the sugar and reached for the milk, I had a “just wait a second, buddy” moment, when I realized I’d been eating a whole lot of oatmeal lately. Mom laughed off my accusations that we were starving. She pointed out that we still had a lot of government surplus peanut butter and cheese, so what was I talking about, starving. Honestly.

But the rice, the rice was a challenge. Life at Dad’s was frugal, but it wasn’t until the Winter of Great Rice that I realized how little of that fiduciary discipline was optional. We baked bread in coffee cans, saved all our vegetable scraps for soup stock, ate almost no meat, took the bus or walked to the grocery because the truck (the Nova had expired by this point) slurped gas and had expensive breakdowns regularly. The luxuries of the house were cigarettes, coffee, and huge quantities of marijuana, which no doubt ate into the budget, but made them deeply content with meager quality food in large portions. Of these luxuries, I was allowed the coffee, as much as I liked to drink. My Dad’s cheerful ability to live on nothing always gave me a sense of pride and security. While my mother’s financial struggles seemed to produce squalor, desperate measures and depression, Dad’s produced a military tautness. Everything was swept clean and scrubbed whenever I was there, because Dad felt he could afford no disorder. The knives were sharp, the houseplants watered and fertilized, the walls freshly painted with Dad’s labor and the landlord’s dime at the paint store. My reaction, even to the fifty-pound sack of rice next to the fridge, was to see how a man should react to adversity—like a monk, like a hermit, with attention to the little things.

Of course, I didn’t know the half of it.

What Courtney could do: Sit. Lie down. Fetch. Take a running man down, even my older brother the track star, without hurting him. Unhinge his jaw to open his mouth all the way. Wait as long as you told him too without going too far. “Stay” exactly where you told him to, even if what you’d meant was “wait” because you were catching a bus downtown and wouldn’t be back for hours and didn’t expect to find a very sad looking dog sitting in front of the door when you came home, a dog who didn’t come lick your hand because, you see, you had told him to “stay.” Completely destroy the quiet order of the house if you tried to vacuum while he was inside, by vomiting and shitting all over the carpet. Kill cats. Lick wounds vigorously—which my father let him do to a scabbed knee repeatedly until Dad, wondering why the damn thing wouldn’t heal, found out the dog had given him a staph infection. Chase cars. Theoretically, go for the femoral artery or the jugular on command, a thing his sire had once done when, in Darrell’s drinking days, a totally stoned buddy had broken in to startle Darrell where he sprawled semi-comatose with vodka, only to have his femur crushed by the 100-plus-pound guard dog dangling from his thigh. No barking, of course.

Death sentence: Dad was diagnosed as HIV positive after a bad flu in February of 1985. “Darrell brought the damn shit home from the baths,” he always said, but who knows. They were both scared and sick in the beginning there. Things became tense in the Multnomah apartment. I spent a lot of time walking Courtney in the gulch. The last dinner of the winter, the last dinner we ate together before Darrell moved out, was my favorite lemon chicken. We three stood around the table in the little nook off the kitchen. Darrell’s terrible synthesizer music spun its trancy web in the living room. The rice steamed before us while Dad said an unusual blessing, unusual in its gratitude not just for the meal and the day and the weather, his usual formula, but for extended friendships, for loves that have been, for goodbyes. We squeezed hands and said amen, and then I looked over at Darrell and saw a drip on the end of his long, long nose. “Just a tear,” he said, with a hoarse voice hard to understand. This was how I found out that Dad had asked him to leave. Courtney was hit by a car down by Lloyd Center that same week, but I didn’t find out about that for a long time, when one of my “whatever happened to…” queries was answered with the reply I’ve learned to associate with truly bad news. “Oh, didn’t I tell you?”

 

The author's father looking at a guide, with a big sky and plateau in the backgroundBank robbery: Of all of Dad’s friends who struggled with HIV and got sick and died, or got better for a while and then died, Darrell was the one I worried about the most. I still saw him at the PGMC concerts that Dad still dragged me to over the years, where bearded men in tiaras wept at sweet renditions of “The Rose” and “Somewhere.” Darrell, who used to appear in drag, or in a state of affected hilarity, or with black pants so fitted it was as if he’d sewn them onto his body, now appeared wholly cadaverous. Still the center of attention, he was often surrounded by well-wishers who, like me, were shocked at his thinness, the rottenness of his skin, the yellowing of his eyes. There was always talk of who could put him up, give him a decent place to die in, but Darrell had become a little private for that. He kept working clerical jobs intermittently as his health allowed and ended up in a low-income housing project, across the highway from the hospital. Year after year, as I graduated high school, went off to college, went to graduate school, I’d ask for news of him. It was always the same—he was always just about dead, having lost all his belongings, having just spent a month in the hospital, having lived on the street for a few days and gotten sick again—without a lot of hope. Dad had moved several times, working through a string of lovers until he ended up with Joe, and ended up in the little house on 14th Avenue, not far from the Alberta apartment that was slowly being surrounded by a gentrifying neighborhood. And Joe had ended up dying in December of 1992, and Dad was getting sicker and sicker himself. One day, in my first year of graduate school, in the days when I called home often to keep in touch with the man who was so clearly headed downhill, he told me the news about Darrell. Darrell had robbed a bank.

He robbed a branch with three other dying HIV patients, all without health insurance. Their plan was to steal enough money to get down to Mexico where they could buy treatment and live a few more months, or get caught and become wards of the state, receiving full medical care in jail for as long as they could live. They had fake guns and ski masks. Darrell drove the getaway car, except they never got away from the curb in front of the bank. The state saw it as the stunt it was and plea bargained them down to the point where none of the men did any significant time. That’s the story Dad would tell anyway, over and over with a kind of exasperation and respect.

In my second year of graduate school, when Dad was fading pretty perceptibly month to month, getting IVs full of drugs dissolved in lipids through a catheter in his chest, saving sputum for the home health nurse to check, unable to rise from his bed for days at a time, he gave me some other news about Darrell. Darrell had had a remission. A total fucking remission. White blood cell count climbing, weight rising, steroid treatments helping him build muscle mass. He was still in the wheelchair he’d started using fulltime when he’d dropped below 100 pounds, but there was light at the end of the tunnel. He might soon be strong enough to take the DDI, DDC, AZT cocktail that was helping people stay alive. Dad had grown too weak for the drugs; he would never survive their toxicity. I visited him in March after he called and said it might be best for me to come home while we could still talk. That May, I was putting in a raised bed for an Iowa City widow who paid me as much for my company as my gardening, when I got the call that I needed to get home. He died less than 24 hours later, drowning in the foam of his lungs, while my brother and I held his hands. In my other hand, I was punching the morphine pump as fast as I could, and it beeped distractingly while Dad tried to give up the fight. It went just like the doctors had told us it would, in terms of the Cheyne-Stokes breathing, the convulsive efforts to sit up, the sudden coldness of the extremities right at the end. What they couldn’t tell us, of course, is that we would find ourselves able to keep looking. They didn’t warn us that our throats would knot so painfully and our faces tense like drum leather, and words that had no meaning—encouragement, assurances—would squeak out of our mouths between breaths.

Darrell came to the funeral. I didn’t recognize him at first. He was huge, bloated on the steroids to well over 250. Where before he was tall and thin and long-featured, impish and quick and animated, now he was ponderous, grave, stentorian in his speech, and walked very slowly with a silver-headed cane. As I got a cup of coffee from the caterer’s silver tea service and walked it over to the chair where he sat in his black mock turtleneck and trousers, I discovered that I hated him brightly and deeply, without justifiable reason, without an ability to hide it. He eyed me warily as I served him, and I withdrew. It wasn’t just that he’d lived, and Dad had died. It wasn’t just the possibility that his promiscuity had brought the disease home—a possibility made irrelevant by the fact they were both fucking around and it was only a matter of time that one of them would bring that deadly gift to the other. And it wasn’t just the fact that Darrell had let Courtney get killed, had let him run around loose because he was too lazy to walk him. At bottom, I think I hated him for being false, for not really being the steady friend I’d seen him as when my father was changing so fast I couldn’t keep up, for not being the disciplined trainer and breeder of German dogs who carried lethality with their friendliness, for not really having been on the edge of death after all, or so it seemed. And I hated him for taking all the sympathy and attention from the many guests who knew them both. When I got a minute alone in the kitchen, leaning against the sink, I shook with it, my anger. But when evening came and Darrell got to his feet to leave, I walked him to the door. I even gave him a hug and felt the tears rise back up, just when I thought I was done with them, while I put my eyes against the fabric of his sweater. His eyes were wet, too, when we let go, and he nodded his now-massive face, heavy with flesh, before turning to the stairs, placing his cane ahead of himself with each step.

One more version: It would be kindest to leave him there, I suppose, in his tragic stature, the weeping young man behind him. But, in fact, I ran into Darrell one more time. It was the summer after my Dad died, a hot, dry afternoon beginning to cool as the sun edged lower. Outside the Safeway on Weidler, not a half-mile from the old apartment, which still stood squatly amid the toney condos and mixed-use developments, I recognized the big man in the wheelchair. Darrell looked even paler, and more bloated than I’d remembered. He rolled along the concrete with slow purpose. His eyes moved back in the flesh of his face, mostly hidden by that beard, and I don’t remember a thing we said, only that it was strangely uncomfortable and that I couldn’t tell what he thought of the person I’d become. I balanced my groceries on one hip, probably inquired about his legs. I do remember trying to say something pleasant, but really, at that point I wanted him to vanish, to be annulled from history and let me alone.

Two years later I spent a few minutes staring at his picture in the paper, not on the obituary page or the rap sheet, but on the society pages, smiling broadly, standing tall at a fundraiser for a hospice house whose services he no longer needed. I didn’t know what to feel—relief or happiness for him I suppose would have been kindest. But I thought about who and what survives, and strangely, I thought of that dog running in the park, pounding hard at the earth under his feet, his whole body free and in motion.

 


Cris Harris headshotCris Harris spends the school year teaching writing and experiential education at an independent high school outside of Cleveland. He devotes his summers to growing vegetables and fixing up a century-old barn in rural Ohio. His poems and essays have appeared recently or are forthcoming in The Flexible Persona, Alice Blue Review, Skylark Review, The New South, Rogue Agent, TheGambler, and Cleaver Magazine.

All photographs, of the author’s father, courtesy of Cris Harris

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