And he believed in angels.
He also saw them.
I first noticed this phenomenon when I was five years old. Dad and I were walking back from the public library. It was late November and a harsh winter gale coughed down from
"What were you doing with that old lady over there?" I inquired. My thin button eyes popped open, astonished that my father would talk to someone he didn't know; someone whose tattered garb and rank scent reflected the lonely squalor of the streets.
"She wanted to know if she could have money for coffee." Dad quickly responded, not wanting to discuss the incident with his knee high progeny.
"You gave that old lady money?" I asked again. My father again nodded very quickly in response, his chin wobbling as if his entire conscience were involved in a balancing act.
"She needed money for coffee." Dad said, adjusting the tempo of his gait, insisting his five year old son walk only on his left side, the side furthest from the hustle and skid of oncoming traffic.
The summer I turned twelve, Dad planted an aluminum fence into the thatch of earth surrounding our backyard. Being the father of three, he was careful who his kids talked to. Over the fourth of July he yelled at older boys hurling firecrackers at cats in the alley.
This angel was wearing a tank top and crooked glasses. He limped over to the side of the fence to speak with my father. A red handkerchief was gauzed around his denim pant leg like a tourniquet. He had a tattoo of a gloss-eyed Virgin Mary on his right shoulder and a tattoo of a blue skull on his left.
Dad was watering one of his hostas in front of our house. Twice a week Dad had to replant hostas because they kept being uprooted by dropouts down the block. The angel looked at Dad and told him that he was a vet who hadn't eaten in three days. Dad sent me further inside his caged lawn. Dad and the angel talked for a long time and then Dad went inside our house to confer with Mom. He came back out and handed the vet a wad of green bills. Dad then invited the stranger to our church on Sunday.
An hour later Dad and I went to the corner gas station to fill air in the back tire of my Schwinn. On our way home we spotted the angel sprawled out on a bus stop. The angel was taking swift gulps out of a brown paper bag. The angel was smoking cigarettes, talking very fast with his hands. The angel and Dad exchanged a distant glare before the angel lashed out in a raucous chorus of vulgarities. Dad shielded my ears with his calloused palm and told me that we had to get home.
The next morning Dad was once again bent over, his back hunched into the earth like a question mark, replanting uprooted hostas.
Apparently Dad cried at his own father's death.
When my grandmother died in '98 all of her children, their spouses and children tearfully slumped around her hospital bed. I got the call at work that my grandmother was dying.
I left work, picked up two boxes of donuts and a thermos of coffee and headed to the hospital.
"Why are the interior of hospitals always so white?" I thought to myself en route to the hospital. "Why does the building where we enter and exit this planet smell like bleach and disinfectant? Why does the sum total of ones earthly experiences seem to circulate around the sliding-doors of the hospital wing and in our untimely relationship with them?"
When they arrived on Grace's doorstep a black lady in curlers sharply answered.
"Ain't no woman name Grace ever live here!” The woman verbally barked, perhaps thinking that my father and uncle were creditors.
"Sure she does," My father said. "She was in St. Francis last week."
"That's weird," Uncle Larry confessed to my father, turning around from the closed door, a bouquet of chrysanthemums slowly wilting near his waist.
I was living at home. Both my sisters were younger but were away at boarding schools or colleges. I worked two jobs, went to a community college and tried to write whenever I could. To assuage my sense of failure and lonliness I started to drink after work. I can only imagine what my father thought of his only son, smelling like stale yeast, a cobbled row of alcoholic stubble dotted along his chin as he lumbered around the house, a copy of On the Road tucked under his armpit, sounding like he was perennially prepping for his SAT verbal.
There was a drifter angel Dad would assist every summer. He was a black man in a white undershirt with bad teeth who wore a crooked fishing cap. Every summer the angel appeared on our front lawn like a garden gnome and Dad would assign him very menial yard work and pay him rather sufficiently.
I was up in my bedroom slamming down shots of Jameson and thumbing through James Joyce when I heard the black man whistling outside, hunched over Dad’s garden. I worked commerce days and drove a fork lift thirds on weekends. I had been swamped with querulous customers all day. My boss had left me in charge of inventory while she screwed the Manager of Eddie Bauer’s in the breakroom. I was livid.
Dad was quiet. He could smell my hard breath. He could see that I was tired from working. That I was just tired from living.
A week before the local paper did an article about my youngest sister Jenn. She was somewhat of a violin phenom and father later said that the one thing he was most proud of in the article was that Jenn "Gave God the Glory" when the journalist asked her about her talent.
"You care more about these people than you care about your own son." I told him. Dad lips remained still. He could see tears hatching from the agitated white of his son’s eyes.
"I can't even get you to co-sign on a college loan for me and here you are helping out total strangers." I pleaded.
"They're not strangers," Dad said, very quietly, pushing up his glasses into his forehead with his index finger.
"Neither am I." I pelted back slamming the front door as hard as I could, cursing back at my father, damning his skewed belief system. Damning his god. Damning everything he ever held as being important.
As I walked outside en route to the discount liquor store I saw the angel whistling to himself. He was padding the bottom of a hosta. The angel looked up at me with his gaping smile, formally tipping the ruffled bill of his cap in acknoweldgement. I made it an overt point in looking the other direction, pretending that he didn't exist; that the angel didn't exist at all.