Two decades after his death, my father still troubles me. He remains a mystery and a contradiction—the man my mother loved, who sat each night at the head of the table, silently carving the roast. The man my brothers and I barely knew.
Dinners were somber affairs; I can still hear the muted sound of silverware against the plates—Mom saying politely, “Boys, chew with your mouth closed,” while my father said as little as possible. He might speak to my mother, momentarily, about household concerns. But then he would disappear again right in front of us.
Occasionally I’d heard him laugh with other adults at some party. The sound of his laughter fascinated me—it was so unlikely. My father never laughed with me, let alone smiled. In fact, over the course of my entire life he spoke so little that his few words are preserved in my mind like miraculous artifacts.
After dinner, I’d watch him in his leather chair, smoking the cigarettes that would someday kill him. I can still see his hard square jaw, eyes the color of the summer sea. He was at the center of my world, but only as a block of silence. As a child, I accepted this. I believed my father’s silence to be like the silence of God—full of secrets, even wisdom.
My mother, by contrast, was a blur of chatty enthusiasms. I adored her mania, her grand schemes and romantic notions. Once she bought a blue gown to match my father’s eyes—and one spring, inspired by the lilacs, she painted the living room the palest of purples. She decorated and dressed up, explained the importance of raw silk or red lacquer to anyone who’d listen. Perhaps her monologues were a way of making up for my father’s reticence, her words circling an abyss that none of us could quite comprehend.
At fourteen, I followed my mother’s example. Tall and swishy, I tied ribbons in my long hair and danced in my daisy shirt, wearing just a hint of perfume. Mom seemed to enjoy the show. But it was too much for my father. He wouldn’t even look in my direction. But after my brothers and I were in bed, sometimes I could hear him, drunk, talking to my mother.
“Norma, that little faggot will cut his hair, or I’ll throw him out the goddamn door.”
“Charlie, don’t be vulgar. What possible difference does his hair make to you? And even if he is a homosexual, whose fault is that? A boy needs a man to look up to, not a drunken slob.”
• • •
My father was, by the early 1970s, a successful contractor, building churches and missile silos, shopping centers and town halls. As business boomed, he was drinking more than ever, as well as cheating on my mother. His abiding pleasure, though, was hunting. In our basement, he’d assembled a substantial collection of firearms—shotguns and rifles. The weapons were displayed on the wall, and between them hung his trophies: bucks with proud antlers and glistening eyes.
His face assumed the empty expectant look I would sometimes see at church. As he cleaned each chamber and barrel, the whole house felt oddly purified.
At the start of hunting season, Dad would carefully clean each gun with ramrod and rag, the smell of #9 oil filling the basement. My younger brothers and I would sometimes watch. The ritual seemed to soothe my father. His face assumed the empty expectant look I would sometimes see at church. As he cleaned each chamber and barrel, the whole house felt oddly purified.
I was not yet against guns. Once, when the house was empty, I snuck into my parents’ bedroom and got out the pistol in my father’s nightstand—a black Berretta, heavy as a rock. While wearing my mother’s mink coat, I swung the pistol around, a secret agent in drag. Even unloaded, the gun seemed terribly decisive. I could not help but imagine the weapon in my father’s hand—imagining, somehow, he’d always protect us.
• • •
One November morning, I woke to my mother shouting at my father. She was saying ridiculous things. “Charlie, the bond between fathers and sons is sacred! You can’t ignore them forever!” My dad was preparing for a hunting trip that weekend, and she demanded he take us boys along. My father brushed her off, but my mother was firm, and eventually he gave in. My brothers Michael and Steve, thirteen and fourteen, were thrilled. I was fifteen and far less sure about my father’s company. His drunken comments about my sexuality had not let up.
The next day, Dad drove us south. His hunting lodge was on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake. From New Jersey, the ride seemed endless. Dad, soused before we even left, sulked and swerved, chain-smoking until my brother Steven got carsick. When Dad refused to pull over, Steven barfed in his gym bag, which my father then chucked out the window.
Assuming Maryland would be ugly, I was confused as we approached the lodge. The land was lovely, golden with fall, and in the late light the bay glowed an astonishing blue. That Dad had something this beautiful, something he did not share with his family, impressed me. Somehow, to see him there, in his secret world, made him seem human.
The lodge was an old barn he’d remodeled into a warm and comfortable lair. I’d already told my father I wouldn’t hunt—and so the next morning I slept in, ate breakfast alone. Eventually I put on a jacket and wandered outside.
Dad said everyone had to wear an orange hat when in the woods, and I attempted to don mine with mannish style—though with long yellow hair, I must have looked like a scarecrow. As I walked about, the day grew warm. Settling into the shade of a hedgerow, I smoked a joint and fell asleep.
Ka-boom! The first burst of buckshot missed me by only a few inches. A second round scattered in the hedge; my tangerine hat took a direct hit.
I screamed. Screamed again.
My brother Michael said, “What . . . ?”
“Stop shooting! I’m right here!”
I found him on the other side of the hedge, sporting the same useless hat I had on myself. Behind his thick and filthy glasses, my brother’s eyes were wild. A shotgun protruded from his waist.
He tried to blame me. “Why were you lying on the ground? Were you touching yourself again?”
“No, idiot, I was asleep. Why the hell are you shooting into the bushes?”
I stormed back to the lodge and found my father already there. He’d started drinking but was not yet mean. I watched him gut the geese he’d killed that morning. He meticulously cut livers from the iridescent goo, carefully placing them in a plastic container.
He said, “These livers are for your mother.”
When my brothers drifted in, Dad made all of us sandwiches. In the kitchen of his secret lodge, he seemed content. I relaxed a little and showed him my tattered hat, mentioning the mishap with Michael’s gun. Dad did not chastise my brother but rather scolded me.
“It’s time you learned to shoot.”
After lunch, he took me outside. He nailed a dead duck to a piece of plywood, its head hung low. Leaning the crucifixion against a tree, he handed me his shotgun.
“Shoot it,” he said.
I told him no.
“Shoot,” he demanded.
“I prefer not to,” I said, upping the literary caliber of my refusal.
“Pull the goddamned trigger.”
I pulled the trigger.
It was painful—and pleasurable. I could feel the power of the gun vibrating through my entire body. I pulled the trigger three more times, watching the buckshot shred the beautiful blue wings. I put down the gun and studied the creature, clotted with blood.
What am I doing? I thought. I love birds.
Dad was already gone, back inside, drinking his fill. I leaned the gun against the barn, went to the bay, and threw stones in the shallow water. Leaning down to look at my reflection, I was ashamed.
• • •
The next summer, I went west with a backpack to escape him. On a drunken tear, Dad had threatened my life—and there was no taking it back. Leaving was difficult, but even my mother said I had to go. Before he kills you, she whispered.
I was sixteen. I ended up in Tucson, hiking and camping, selling pot to survive. I stayed away for longer than I’d planned. Weeks turned into months. I became homeless, but was too proud to ask anyone for help.
In my tent, stoned and alone in the desert, my father would often appear in my dreams: a mask howling in hate. By day, I tried to calm my mind. Softened by weed, I attempted to compose a story of kindness about my father. When I was little he carried me to bed if I fell asleep in front of the TV . . . and once he picked me up from school.
Carefully, I collected the broken pieces of our story—enough to prove he loved me.
Carefully, I collected the broken pieces of our story—enough to prove he loved me.
• • •
At nineteen, I washed up on my parent’s doorstep, drugged and unwell. The official conversation with my father took place by the pool, where I was sitting on a chaise, shivering after a swim. Six-foot-two and terribly thin, I had a blue towel draped around me like a dress. It was morning, and Dad came out with a scotch, the first of the day—his happy drink, as Michael called it.
“What are your plans?” he said.
I found myself stuttering. “I-I’ve been thinking maybe I’ll go back to school—”
With a flick of his hand, he dismissed the notion. “No more school. If you have no prospects, you’ll work for me.” He finished his drink, threw the ice onto the lawn, and walked away.
The following week, I started work at one of my father’s jobsites. I was a lowly laborer, mixing cement. Now and then I’d glimpse Dad walking around, blueprints in hand, directing the crew. He knew things, knew how to build things. But he would never acknowledge me, standing there, looking at him, looking up to him. We had returned to our old routine: silence.
At this same time, my parents’ marriage was beginning to fail. Dad was drinking, gambling, and fooling around. My mother was miserable, and by this point even she had stopped talking. Sadness overtook the house.
As the building I was working on neared completion, my father fired me without warning. After contacting a drug dealer I’d met in Tucson, I began to sell cocaine out of my parents’ basement. I was now sleeping there, on a couch below my father’s guns. My parents never came down to “the dungeon,” nor did they comment on the parade of shady characters dropping by to see me.
Then the thefts began. My customers, often total strangers, would hand me money and leave with a bag of powder—quick transactions under dim light. I was less than careful. Cash and product disappeared; someone walked off with my brother’s skis.
One afternoon, I was in the backyard, in my old tree fort, when Mom called me in. A red-eyed wreck, stoned on Hawaiian, I tried to act nonchalant. My father was waiting at the kitchen table with my mother; like me, he was a mess—drunk and disheveled. Apparently he’d gone to the basement and discovered several valuable guns were missing, including a rifle that had been in his family for decades. I barely reacted when I heard this. I knew nothing about my father’s people; his past had always been a forbidden subject.
“Who in God’s name steals guns?” my mother yelled. “You call those people your friends? You tell them we want those guns back! That Browning belonged to your father’s grandfather.”
My mother was teary. Was she crying, I wondered, because my dad could not? “Those guns are memories, Chris. They’re very important to your father.”
When I finally had the nerve to look in his eyes, he didn’t seem angry; he just looked tired and defeated.
“People like that don’t return guns, Norma.” He sighed. “It’s over.”
Once again, the silence fell, and this time it did not lift.
• • •
Thirty years later, on a visit home, I asked my mother, “What do you know about Dad’s childhood?”
“Almost nothing,” she said.
“You never talked to him about it?”
“He never let me.”
By then my father was dead, and I had begun to realize how little any of us knew about him. Mom seemed annoyed by my questions. “Your father never spoke about his childhood. I knew it wasn’t good—but we made a better life. People didn’t used to talk about that stuff!”
I recalled that my father’s brothers had both died young, in car crashes. I asked if he ever spoke about them.
My mother shook her head. “After the funerals, your father never said their names again. Chris, it was long time ago. Let it go.”
She asked me if I wanted something to eat.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “There has to be more.”
“If there is,” she said, “he took it to the grave.”
“And why do you care?” she continued. “Why do you care about things that don’t concern you?”
“Don’t concern me?”
I didn’t bother to explain that I was trying to forgive him.
• • •
When I was in kindergarten, my father had hunting rights at a dairy farm, and one day he decided to take my mother and me there for a visit. Maybe he thought it would be educational for a five-year-old to see the cows, to see another kind of life.
It was a few weeks before hunting season began. I remember feeling anxious in the car, unable to understand where we were going. It had something to do with hunting, but this only worried me more.
Is Dad going to shoot a gun?
It was a dazzling fall afternoon. I can recall the farmer guiding us into the barn to show off his prize animals. Overcome by the smell of manure, I was sure I would suffocate.
In my memory, the moment is as gilded as the edges of a storybook.
Next, I remember my father taking me into the woods. This now seems entirely bizarre. Had I ever been alone with him before? In my memory, the moment is as gilded as the edges of a storybook.
Together, my father and I walked down a trail leading to a shallow ravine. Above us, trees swayed in the breeze, surging like waves on an ocean. I was enchanted, certain that the forest was trying to communicate with me. The trees were talking. My father, of course, said nothing.
Yellow leaves fell from the canopy, fluttering like butterflies across the hillside. Then I saw a terrible beast: an ancient oak, toppled by a storm, lying across the trail. It was a crushed and broken monster, already decaying. Frightened, I followed my father around its awful body. Upended roots rose ten feet into the air, gripping in their dead fingers bits of rock and gravel.
Underneath, there was a deep crater, the opening where the tree had stood. It was a cave, full of mud and moving things. It was horrible. When suddenly I started to cry, my father froze—I don’t know why. And then for what seemed like minutes we just stood there, staring into the earth. I couldn’t stop sobbing. Eventually my father took my hand.
“Quiet now,” he said. “Quiet.”
When my tears finally stopped, he lifted me into his arms, kissed me, and carried me back to my mother.
Chris Rush is an award-winning artist and designer whose work is held in various museum collections. The Light Years is his first book.