Jan/Feb 2009 Nonfiction

Numbers and the Summer and the Father

by Michael Catherwood

In the late spring of '94, after my first year of grad. school, I drove back to Omaha to live with my girlfriend E__. We had managed to keep the relationship intact for the year I spent away, meeting on holidays and planned trips to Kansas City. But soon things became warped and sad and distant. The details and the sudden break up, after six years, all came down in the sandhills of western Nebraska on a camping trip. We wound Highway 2 back to Omaha, stopping and fighting and crying. Then we would get back in the car, drive another twenty miles, stop and look into the empty sandhills, the six years of living together winding out in great spools like barbed wire stretching and folding across pastures.

We got home, carried in the camping gear, and went upstairs to bed. Sunday afternoon and we were shagged from the trip. We lay there like two lumps, two universes spinning away from each other. I reached over, grabbed the phone, then called my dad.


"Hello, Dad."

"Yeah," there was hesitation, "Who's this?"


"Oh. When did you get in?"

"About a week ago."

"Oh." He cough up some smoke from the other end. I saw his yellow fingers grip the receiver.

"Dad, I need a place to stay. E__ and I are having problems."

"Sure." He laughed. "You could stay in your old room" Then he just hung up.

I grabbed my suitcase, not quite unpacked, told E__ I would call her, and after six years, left that house for good.

When I got to my parents house, Mom and Dad were sitting at the dinner table, each reading a book, eating dinner. My dad looked up from his book, a large Civil War pictorial. "Well, who is the son of a bitch?" I put down my suitcase. He chewed some food. "Well, you gonna fuck him up?" Then he looked back down at his book, dipped his roast beef into some gravy, then continued to read on. "These guys would have done something about it," he said, not looking up. I didn't know what to say, so I said what I shouldn't have. "I wanted to marry her." He never looked back up.

The next day I started work for the City of Omaha "Weeds and Liter" department, as I did the summer before. I showed up at least twenty pounds heavier and with hands soft as cake, but ready to work. Things hadn't changed much in "the bunker" from the year before. They called it the bunker because they wouldn't let us mix with the other crews. We always smelled of insect spray and trash and garbage. There were a few new faces, but generally the same guys with their same lives, and me waltzing in at $12.50 an hour, a buck and a quarter more than they earned.

"Hey, it's Mike the professor," T. said. T. was shop foreman. "Gonna work on the weed crew, I hear." Terry held his hand eye-level, looking at a domino, then slapped it on the table like a gunshot. I was in the right place.

"Yeah," I said, taking my old beat up wicker chair.

They were going to stick me in the blue zone, the ghetto-end of town, where most of crew lived when they weren't working. To earn my position the first day, the foreman stuck me on the hill behind the district station, by myself. I went into Property, signed for a whipcycle, a corn knife, and a weedwhip and a quart of two-cycle oil. Working the hill toned you up for the hell of the summer. The hill surrounded the district station and ran about a mile, all three sides figured. After a number of attempts, I decided I had to just scale the embankment, on my knees mostly, hold my arms above my head, start the weedeater, then take small bites out of the hill, all the time sliding down the hill on my knees or feet. When the machine ran out of fuel, I nearly saw God. This lasted ten days.

If you weren't in shape, the job could be dangerous. Also, there was no room for timidity. I knew from the year before that some jobs were monstrous in size and complication. One could stand there for days just whining and figuring a job, and some did. But I was going to be the foreman and I would have the work orders, which were really citations. The only way I remembered to get something done, most of the time, was attack. The city gave out citations to landowners throughout the city, those who failed to keep up and maintain their properties. But sometimes this pissed off the landowners, and they would call up the mayor and complain about city-owned land that was also in violation. A favorite target of the poor Italians in South Omaha was our district yard, the hill I was working. In the course of three days I had lost a girlfriend, moved back into the bedroom I had as a child, and began the hardest job I'd worked in years.

In some ways the job was my savior. Working hard calmed my nerves. My father didn't understand what it was I did in Arkansas. And he never asked. Catherwoods either joined government service in some capacity or left the country they lived in or fought in a war. I wrote poetry that didn't rhyme, the great sin of time. Those old primers my father studied from in the orphanage still clogged my father's head, those ancient texts they called education in foster homes. He never talked about those days much. "Old man Dixson was a prick." I think he said that once.

So everyday I came home stinking of sweat and insecticide, great gashes torn in my shirts and pants. It gave my dad some comfort to know they shoved me into the worst jobs, in "nigger town," as he called it.

"Fuck, they ought to give you a flame-thrower and just let you burn the whole fuckin-shittin' thing down." Then he would pull on his cigarette, flick the ash into the cavernous ashtray brimming with butts, then go back to his book on the Doughboys. Some days when I came home he'd be sleeping on the couch, arms crossed, glasses askew, barely breathing. I stared into his face. It was my own. His hands rose and fingers fidgeted. Everything was mine, except for the nicotine stains.

Something needs to be explained about my father's relationship with books. My father read voraciously, in great torrents, at least ten hours a day. And he read quickly. He had a special grocery cart he pulled once a week into the Florence Library, unloaded, loaded, then pushed back out to his car. I couldn't count the times he would get halfway through a book and would discover he had read it twenty years earlier. He read essays by Menken and Einstein, stories by Twain and Ford, memoirs by Speer and Churchill, and anything by Shakespeare... Mostly, he would stick to one subject for about a year or go back to it after a few years, while the books piled back up on the subject. The Civil War, one of his favorite subjects, represented all the things he cared about: blacks were the root of evil; death was good, if caused on a battlefield; and women should cook and pine while MEN fought and courageously followed orders. To him I ran away to grad school to avoid work. There was some odd connection between all these things. War and laziness and machismo and school—I was guilty of something. You always owed the world your sweat. You didn't sweat much in classrooms and behind computer screens.

I began a routine. I finally graduated from "the hill" to foreman of a crew. This meant I had a helper, D., fresh on probation for selling crack. Each day my foreman would give me a stack of violations and send me on my way. They gave me a new truck and new Gravely Bush-hog. Basically, we went into "the blue zone" and surveyed the situation. This meant I had to confront some residents. I never knew what it was I was going encounter, and I didn't care. They could have shot me and did me a favor. D. the crack dealer was horrified by my indifference.

"Man. That's a Crips' crib. You can't go up there at eight a.m. and pound on their door." D. would wait in the truck, pulling his dark goggles over his eyes, scrunching down in the seat. I would pound away, flashing my city credentials, "City." Rap, bang, slap.

Somebody would show, fresh out of bed. Gangsters slept too.

"Hey, you guys need to trim those thistles." They would follow me out into the yard.

Well, it almost always turned out they didn't own the house, just rented. And when I told them the landlord had to pay, they would come out and give us a hand. Sometimes they would give us crack. I didn't care. Crack, coffee. Those days I needed a boost.

Most other places we just unloaded our equipment and mowed the weeds and thistles down. Some places hadn't been mowed in a year or two, so the weeds could be as high as ten to 12 feet. We did what we had to to get the job done. After a day of this, I would come home, shower, eat a quick sandwich, then go straight to the bar. There I would stay until two each morning, actually rather pathetic, then drive home drunk, argue with my dad, who was up reading, then go to bed. The alarm would go off at six a.m. Then I went to work. This went on for five or six weeks.

All this was connected to my father. In some sense I believed he was right. I was ducking into the university to hide and drop out. I always worked when I went to school. I did my entire undergraduate degree at night while driving a truck during the day; it took 12 years to get a BFA. Instinctively, I knew the job had to work, had to give me back something. Work made sense.

What I remember most about those months is how I reduced everything down to numbers. My life centered around numbers, and that's what worked. Rise at six. Work at seven. Lunch at eleven. Quit at 3:30. Drink at five. Sleep at two. Cut two swipes in and circle three along the fence line. I looked for addresses to empty lots. At 3123 Patrick there was nothing, just weeds. If there was a house at 2958, 3123 would slide in here, I figured. Often we cut the wrong lots. Then we would unload the Gravely Bush Hog, cut out the wire from the previous job, then attached four or five blades, then attack.

I was an automaton, and the world slowly sank away. I didn't bitch, but I wanted to. One night I came home ready to fuck one on my father, to blame him for my rather shabby life. My idiocy bloom red in my face with Bushmills.

I waltzed in around two, right on time. My father slept days and stayed awake most nights reading. Fewer interruptions he'd say, but really a habit of working the night shift for 36 years at the Post Office. There he was I remember, reading Rick Bass, smoking a Pall Mall.

"You read this?" He looked up over his silver rimmed glasses, his curly hair hinting finally at white, his small frame crooked and pulled forward, his face falling away to some awful end I didn't predict.

"When do I have time to read Bass?" I grabbed a beer out of the ice-box. My mother now made sure there was beer around. It was her way of being on my side. My father quit drinking the day he retired from the Post Office. This occurred to me later, I confess.

"SHIT." He laughed, "You're drunk every night. You're gonna end up in jail again. And I'm gonna have to come down and get you out again. E__'s not gonna do it no more."

My eyes blazed. And all the numbers and the faces and the days ran together. They swirled above my father's head, spun into the past when as a boy he got me out bed to rub my head for luck during poker games. I saw the years flash in a knife in the kitchen 20 years before. I felt my brother hit me with a bat while my father urged him on. I sat the beer on the table. "You're right." Then I went to bed.

There was no romance in our relationship. My father and I were always at odds. I wasn't much of a son and he didn't like being my father. I caused my father a tremendous amout of grief growing up. The police would bring me home many nights, my face and hands bloodied and my soul sloshing around in my head. I was a drunk and very bad at it. Occasionally, I ran into my father in taverns after he got off work. Mostly me seeking him out. I always wanted some acceptance. It never occurred to me I didn't deserve it. After work, about 11 PM. he went to a Polish bar where some of his P.O. pals had a few beers before going home. I would walk in and he would be at a table by himself doing a crossword. First it would be ok, we'd get along, but eventually it got ugly.

Those days came back to me often, while staying at my parents' house. I thought about what he said. No more jail, at least not at that time. As it was I hovered over the edge. A deadline approached at the end of July for an award I was up for. In the shit and pathetic mire I made for myself, I forgot I was nominated for a national poetry award, the prize being 15,000 grand. For the second round I had to polish up ten poems by the end of the month. This I didn't tell anyone. After I got home from the weed-wacking and trash hauling hell each night, I began to wean back off the booze and start working on those poems. Sometimes my father would peek in and ask me what I was doing. "Poems," I would say, then I'd go back to work. The going was slow, being I bruised my brain with a self-inflicted lobotomy of booze and ignored sleep. But gradually the words came back. They floated up out of the clouds of mosquitoes and I found them buried under heaps of trash. And the words were like a discovered and known friendly space, blanket-like, where a comfort creeps into you, a space in time you hit when you enjoy the world from a distance, staring over a deep ravine, where perspective is it own means. I wanted back in that space.

Instead of drinking every night, I saved the bafoonery for weekends and took cabs. I made good money and began to see a few women. I'd forgotten how to date. I'd forgotten many things. But most weeknights I stayed home, worked on poems after dinner for a couple hours, then would read and watch TV with my dad. His TV viewing was as eclectic as his reading. He enjoyed British comedy and any travel show. Bevis and Butthead made him belly laugh. Science and sex seemed connected for him. He went through the channels like I went through empty lots with a corn knife.

There was a shift. I still can't pinpoint it, but there was a general movement on both our parts to reconcile. That we could sit in the same room together and watch TV was a huge accomplishment. And we did not sit silent. My father had conversation with the TV announcers, correcting their grammar, their facts, commenting on their hairstyles. I could see our connection pleased my mother. On weekends Father and I had breakfast together at Harold's Coffee House, he smoking and eating waffles, (at the same time), and me scratching my beard and gargling coffee. These would be our best days.

The poems were shaping up, nicely I thought. This new work kept my mind off E__ and out of the pubs. I'd lost 25 lbs, regained the pads of calluses to both my hands and feet. I sent the poems off to Chicago and thought I hadn't the slightest chance to make the final cut. I think a professor told me 60 universities participated and they only picked ten as finalists. It was a good exercise, I figured.

That Friday we got paid. My check was huge, 20 hours overtime for working a couple of weekends hauling trees after what the locals called a tornado but the official word was straight-winds. The summer had burned and slowed down all the weed growth and D. and me were well caught up. Fridays we went back to the yards early to clean and maintain the equipment, which I considered important. I believed you had to treat the machine well to get it to perform. There was some balance involved. D. never liked this, but I was the boss, so we did the menial labor of changing all the blades in the Bush Hog, restringing the Weedeaters, and sharpening the blades of the whips and corn-knives. I received great pleasure in this— a strange quirk in my character. So we hosed and scrubbed and cleaned off the machines. D. usually wandered off and fudged his way back into the bunker, making some excuse to use the phone. Most of the crew did not hang out in the shop and thought me odd for this routine. But I was right. My Gravely and Weedeaters stayed up more than any other crews. What the others crews gained in down-time we gained in effort. Our machines worked better, and therefore we didn't work as hard.

As I was bolting on a blade, my hand slipped and my forearm caught a jag of metal. The blood came up and stood like Jello. My foreman had some butterflies and we made a quick patch job. Driving home that day I thought in two weeks I'd be back in Arkansas teaching. Christ. I took the long way home down along the Missouri River, past the automobile boneyards and factory sweatshops, past the trailercourts filled will kids in their plastic blue pools, past the Go-Go Lovely signs and small parks and dim restaurants. I pulled down to the Missouri River and parked and watched the current churn up logs and trash. I sat there for a long time. I figured my father was dying. He had a lot of health problems: diabetes, heavy smoker, his veins were full of muck. I guess we both knew he was dying. My bleeding arm earlier recalled my father's sleeping hands, rising and falling.

I parked in front of my dad's house and noticed him sitting out on the porch in the heat. He hated the heat and he never sat in the porch swing. My guess was he never sat in a porch swing. I grabbed my lunch cooler and walked up the driveway. My dad stood up and began clapping, a smile full of teeth.

"New York called. You're a finalist. You're supposed to call this lady at the Artist Center Cooperative." He turned then walked in the house and I followed. He rushed over to the phone, then he handed me a piece of paper. "Here, she said to call her right away."

I smiled and dialed the number. My father sat down next to me and waited. Things were looking up.



In the course of writing this essay I discovered I forgot a few things:

I left out most of the Stuff about E__ because that's another essay.

I also left my mother out because that's another essay.

I also forgot about many small things Dad did for me during that summer:

I couldn't sleep, so he bought me sleeping pills. I developed a benign cancer polyp on my nose from working in the sun all day long... My father told me to get it frozen off.

My father died less than eight months later of pancreatic cancer.

My father had diabetic glaucoma very bad and found it increasingly difficult to read.

My mother and father were not getting on real well. My mother had just retired and didn't think my father should "lay" around so much.

My brother in law was in town this weekend and he told me my sister had clinical depression. I told him I had always thought my father had clinical depression. He agreed. My father suffered throughout his life from a horrible childhood. He told me a short story about growing up on a foster farm. "Every morning I road out to check the fences for breaks in the barbed wire. This time was my time. I loved my horse and it got me out of that man's terrible reach. One morning I recall very vividly. My shoes were held together with wire, which I had to steal off the stingy bastard. My gloves were holy socks I would no longer wear. I rode out this one day in the snow and felt nothing special about it. Just cold Iowa landscape and sky. My hands were freezing and hurt. I got off my horse and warmed them in my horse's breath. I knew then that survival and beauty were the same thing. The next week I ran away, lied to the draft board that I was 17, when actually I was fifteen. Then I got to sleep in to four each morning."


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