Apr/May 2001  •   Fiction

Cantos de mi Padre

by Thurman Hart

"I was born in Saginaw, Michigan."

Dad's fingers shook slightly as he pressed them against the fretboard of his old guitar. I sat rock still in the marbled green chair in his kitchen watching him, absorbing every movement, every sound, every smell around me. To this day the stench of stale cigarettes so thick that it covers your tongue reminds me of that night.

He tilted his head a little to one side, the right corner of his mouth twitching upward toward the blue gleam of his eye like he knew a secret that the whole world was waiting breathlessly to uncover. His voice was rough and cracked in all the wrong spots, years of cigarette smoke singeing his throat and robbing it of any smoothness that had been there in his youth. It was a voice only a choir director could hate sufficiently. It was beautiful.

I sucked at the hot black coffee in my cup as Dad wound through the song. Almost an hour now he had played for his solitary audience. The rest of the world had ceased to exist, suspended by some magic come to life though Dad's fingers. His unsavory voice filled my ears and seeped through my consciousness, binding me to him. This night, after 14 years of waiting, I was truly becoming his son.

He ended the song with a soft flourish of flat pick on rusty strings. The twitching corner of his mouth jumped, pulling the rest of his lips upward until a broad grin split his weathered face. His high forehead wrinkled as his eyebrows woogled. I felt a sly smile spreading over my face as I looked back at him.

"Well," he reached for his cigarette fuming in the ashtray, "what do you think, son?"

"I like it."

He squinted one eye as he sucked hard on the cigarette, his head still tilted to one side. The end of the cigarette glowed brilliantly between his thumb and forefinger, then dulled as it was covered with new ash. He crushed it to nothingness in the ashtray, blowing smoke from his nose as he reached for his coffee cup, picked up a beer instead.

"Yeah, me, too."

Somewhere behind me, back in the living room, I could hear my brother moving around, mumbling something to Louise, Dad's girlfriend. That didn't matter, though. All that mattered was the nearness of the man in front of me.

He breathed out heavily, as if he had held the air in his lungs, considering if it was wise to let it go or not. Twice he blinked, drawing the pick over the strings. I looked from his hands to his eyes and back. Somehow I knew what he was going to say, just like six months from that night I would know before Mom said anything that he was dead.

"You sure were looking at that Indian girl pretty hard today." His throat bobbed. "Pretty little thing, wasn't she?"

Damn, I thought, I wish he wouldn't do this. My eyes flicked up to meet his, then fell to my coffee cup, rose to his hands.

"I guess you're about the age that you should be noticing girls like that. Ain't nothing to be embarrassed about or nothing. She's a pretty little Indian girl."

"Yeah," I mumbled because I knew if I didn't say something he'd just sit there saying how pretty she was.

He stopped strumming the guitar long enough to rub his face. I could hear the whiskers rustling against the calluses of his hand.

"Well, you probably don't need me to tell you this, but I don't know if anyone else is going to be telling it to you or not."

He was silent for a few seconds. It felt like a whole hour had dragged by.

"When I was your age, we called it 'making out.' I'm sure you younger people have something else to call it now. Anyway, it don't hurt nothing, but don't do no more than you're willing to handle."

I felt my face burning. I shifted slowly in my seat, forced my eyes upwards to meet his. He was struggling with himself, trying to find a way to coalesce fourteen lost years of fathering into one short talk. His fingers roamed aimlessly over the guitar.

"Don't be afraid to talk to her, son. Don't be afraid to grab what you want the most in life. But don't grab it just because you can. You respect the women you keep company with, or you won't be worth respecting yourself."

I nodded. I wanted, more than anything, for him to shut up and play the guitar more. I hid my face behind the coffee cup, letting the bitter fluid splash down into my stomach.

As I lowered the cup, our eyes met, locked. Never in my life have I ever seen as much naked humanity as I saw that night. Long years of wondering, hurting, aching were rising in his eyes, an echo of the pains that I had endured. I ached to rush to him, throw my arms around his chest and bury my face against his body. I wanted to feel his arms around me, his rough beard brushing against my cheek, the musky smell of hair oil, cigarettes, beer, and hot metal shavings competing for my attention. I wanted to tell him that all was forgiven; that he was my Dad and always would be. I wanted to tell him I loved him.

I did nothing, though, but sit there and blink back at him like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.

He looked down at his hands, holding them out in front of him. He sighed as he watched them tremble. Then he reached for another beer and cracked it open. He took a long drink and squinted at me again. He tilted up one corner of his mouth and nodded. Then, slowly, and with simple dignity, Dad played a gentle song of love.

When he was finished, Dad got up from his chair, his guitar held in one hand. He scooted the chair back under the table with his thigh and smiled at me sadly. One of his hands patted me on the top of the head, the rough skin rubbing on my scalp. Then he said goodnight and left me sitting there.

I don't know how long I sat there, staring into the bottom of my coffee cup. It must have been quite a while, though, because my brother, Will, came in and stared at me.

"What the Hell's wrong with you?" he asked softly.

I shrugged.

"This coffee tastes like shit."

"I wouldn't know,he laughed, I never ate shit before."

"Asshole," I mumbled. "Hey, Will, does Dad play his guitar much?"

"No, not really."

I nodded.

"I think Dad really wants you to come stay here, man."

"Yeah," I stood and stretched, "I think so, too."

"You going to?"

I thought about the words of the last song Dad had sung to me...

If it brings you happiness
then I wish you both the best
It's your happiness
that matters
most of all

...not knowing it would be the last song he ever sang to anyone. I shook my head at Will and sang the words back softly as I walked down the hall to room we were sharing that week.