The Father They Didn’t Know

by Christina Hart


Joe aged with about as much grace as a brick. He was still sturdy, strong, and a bit rough around the edges. He was a man who fulfilled your expectations and sometimes, by not fulfilling them at all. The passing of the years brought grey hair and a violet rim around his brown eyes. The bluish-purple hue was an appropriate touch, adding to the softening of his eyes over time. Once a hard unforgiving man, the aging process became a favor to him. He learned how to be more thoughtful and a little less angry.

He climbed out of bed with all the regrets he carried. He sat up for a moment, looking at the closed blinds. He preferred to go to bed late in the nights and sleep in through the early mornings, all while having darkness surround him. He didn’t think he deserved the light.

He looked at the phone on the nightstand and wished it would ring. He hadn’t heard from either of his two sons in almost three years. The only one of his children that spoke to him anymore was his daughter. He told her that even while growing up, she had always been easier. He proclaimed that he liked females best, whether it was humans or dogs. He said they were sweeter, more loyal, and had a friendlier disposition than the opposing gender.

“Yeah, the opposing gender usually sucks,” his daughter would remind him.

He remembered back to when his children’s cries or laughter would rouse him, or even his ex-wife softly nudging him awake. The soft nudges turned to harsh shouting and then to silence when she started sleeping on the couch. He didn’t blame her for leaving him. He couldn’t. It was his own fault. He cheated on her, he hit her, hit the kids. It was all he knew. It was the way he had grown up, watching his stepfather behave, and being beaten himself. His stepfather was the only man he’d known after his real father left. It was the one piece of dignity he held onto: he never left them. He stayed. And he would have stayed had his ex-wife not thrown him out.

He stared at the phone a moment longer, shaking off the memories of the past that he longed to go back and change. He no longer had a wife to wake him. He no longer heard the voices of his children, or even the voices they had today as adults. He walked, slowly, to the kitchen. His legs still carried him well, but as he passed the mirror on his desk he looked at his reflection. The flesh beneath his altered eyes was now sagging. His skin had lost most of its elasticity. He was still strong, but his arms were ghosts of the athletic, young form he had before. He lost weight in his old age, but he still could move. He dropped down in the hallway and did his morning pushups. When he reached 50, he stopped, briefly wondering if he’d make it to 60 years old. He was only three years away. Yet somehow, it seemed far away and perhaps impossible.

He was a dog trainer in the past. He had a scar on his lip to prove it. But he had a dog once that was his own. Before he met his wife, before the kids, before his life unraveled before him in ways both untidy and perfect all at once. Her name was Jessie. She was a Rottweiler he trained himself since she was a pup. As she aged, he remembered her body moving slower. Her face changed. Her legs grew tired. Her eyes changed color. And before she died, she was ready. She had a strange look about her that silently declared she was done with life and all that was in it, including him. He denied her request as long as possible, until she lost control of her bowels and went limp. He looked in her eyes, unable to deny her bid any further.

He was living in New York at the time. Manhattan, the city that never sleeps. He grew up bouncing around the state. He went to high school in the Bronx where he was often bullied for being a white boy, until he knocked a few guys’ teeth out and enforced his reputation in the streets. He picked Jessie up since she was unable to walk. He carried her out of his apartment and 12 blocks to the animal hospital. As she lay on the bed in the cold quiet room, she looked into his eyes. He was 27 at the time. He stayed strong for her, holding her paw in his tough hand. He nodded to her and bit his lip, stroking her to comfort her with his free hand. He couldn’t look while the vet put the needle in her. He couldn’t.

As he watched his best friend slip away from life, he stayed strong, unwilling to cry in front of the woman in white.

“You did the right thing,” she said.

He wouldn’t look at her. He had to leave the room. But here, today, as he stood in his kitchen making coffee, alone, he remembered that moment. It was a day he had never forgotten. It was one of the most painful moments of his life, and the only moment someone ever said to him that he did the right thing. He could still hear her voice. He wanted to hear it again. Anyone’s voice would do. He regretted his age for several reasons. He wanted a dog, another dog like Jessie, only he didn’t want to die on her like Jessie died on him. He realized as he got older how human beings should behave, and it was the exact opposite of what his stepfather had taught him. Only, it took time to learn. Too much time.

The phone rang. His eyes widened as he put his coffee down and walked to the bedroom.

“Hello?” he asked.

“Hey pops,” his daughter said.

“Hey angel, how ya doin’?”

“I’m good, I’m good. How are you doing?” she asked.

“Eh, I’m all right, hanging in there. How are your brothers?” He sat at the edge of the bed, feeling an ache in one of his knees that seemed to persist these days.

“They’re good. I think you should really call them. I can’t stand that you guys don’t talk. You and I are so close, you’re like my best friend. I’d hate to think that something would happen and you guys…”

“Oh stop. There’s still some life left in this old dog yet,” he said.

She laughed. “I hope so. You still have to write that novel.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” he said, laughing followed by a cough. He lit a cigarette.

“Well, get to writing. Please. It’s not gonna write itself. I’ll call you later. Let’s get together this week.”

“All right angel. It’s always a pleasure to hear your voice.”

“You too pops. I love you.”

“Love you too angel.”

He took another drag of his cigarette and listened for her to say something else, but all he heard was the sound of the call disconnecting. He placed the phone back on the receiver and put his cigarette out in the ashtray that was full of butts. He dumped it into the trash can and walked over to the desk. There were few items, including an old photograph of him and Jessie. There also laid a tablet that his daughter gave him for Christmas. She made him promise that he’d write his novel on it. She bullied him about it, unwilling to hear no for an answer. But the truth? He had far too much to say to know where to start. There would never be enough pages or words to cease the restless thoughts. The regrets were piled up far beyond where he could see. The things he wished he’d done were outweighed by the things he wished he hadn’t done.

Silence filled his apartment yet again. And again, he waited for the phone to ring. He wanted to hear his sons’ voices. One of them. Both of them. He wanted to hear them say they hated him. Maybe he wanted to hear them say they loved him. He wanted an apology from them for missing his birthday three years in a row. He wanted an explanation. He wanted a conversation. He wanted the truth. At this point, he wasn’t sure if it would kill him. But he was certain of one thing in life. Death comes for all of us. Now his days were spent waiting, with cigarettes, coffee, whiskey, and pushups. There was no dog to greet him when he got home, so he hardly left. He got up from the desk and decided to take a nap. He closed his eyes, thinking maybe he’d start writing later.

Category: Short Story