Stay Away From The Riff-Raff – Short Story

My name is Charlie Dorr, and I need to tell you about my father. I want to tell you about myself, but I made a promise to Dad once, and he’s dying now. If I do it well, I’m a writer, like everyone else telling their father’s story. If I don’t, I’ll apologise to my mother, a lot.

Dad, Carlyle, or Carl to his friends and wife; my father, was someone I thought I completely understood because I kept being told I was exactly like him, usually when I did something bad. As he drifts into senility now and I shake off the sheltered childhood he made for me, I can see that I don’t understand him at all – I probably shouldn’t write about him then, but I’ll just make some stuff up if it gets a bit too “real” (I don’t want to end up learning about myself, do I?… woah! Fuck off, hand me a beer and put on some music).

So, I know he had a lot of hate whenever he spoke, although he’d learned to soften it as disdain around most people. The hate was tiring more than terrifying to me because it was so constant and commonplace. Until I was twelve I assumed that racism was the natural state of things, and until I was called a racist for repeating his views at my first week of high school, I had no idea it was a bad thing to be, let alone a word. Racism was undeniable and powerful for a kid like me. All over their different faces was proof that the world was bigger than I could ever understand or cope with. And sometimes they smelled funny and spoke too strangely to understand at all. If this was how my Dad felt, then it made life easier and I loved him. This was something we could have in common; if it wasn’t hurting anybody. It also felt ridiculous anyway because my mother had dark olive skin and black curly hair. It was something we always ignored because she was from two Irish parents just like him. Her maiden name was O’Connor, and her mother’s maiden name was also something Irish, but I can’t remember that – let’s say Flynn. At some point someone told me that there was probably Spanish blood in her because the Spaniards and Irish had a strong connection over hating the English and being Catholic.

He also hated poor people and gays, but I didn’t understand or care about them because they never entered into my life. I knew that he hated poor people because he and my mother both came from rural poverty and were powerfully prideful of the suburban excess they made for us. I didn’t like money and didn’t want to think about it. Someday I’d be rich too, really rich, but only so that I never had to worry about it. TV taught me that he hated gays because he was old.

He was forty-five when I was born, and having nothing good to say about much of his life before my mother, he rarely mentioned it. That is another reason that I don’t know or understand him; in another fifteen years maybe I’ll begin to. Having a much older dad makes you worry about, and misunderstand the frailty of your father. In fairness to him, he held on to his strength, vitality, and dark brown hair until well into his fifties.

As a teenager I didn’t notice the aging until he began suffering from heart problems at sixty. We were sat at the kitchen table, dinner may have been coming or going or not there at all, I just remember sitting in that part of the house, with him leaning forward over the table and the window behind him. He’d just been in the hospital for a few days. He hated hospitals and was only a patient in them 3 times in my life (it may be more by now, but I haven’t kept in touch a lot). Every time, he’d blame the staff and say the whole thing was ridiculous, that they treated him like crap and didn’t really know what they were doing. It stank too. I think he just got scared, and mad that he wasn’t allowed to drink while he was in there.

By now, I’ve learned that we all act a little differently when we become the victims of physical breakdowns – looking at death is nothing compared to suddenly feeling it inside of you. He was ruffled by this last visit, sixty meant enough as it is for him and this really did hurt him. The last of his kids had just finished primary school and he must have felt weaker than any monstrous hangover or bout of flu could have ever done to him. He was stronger than anyone, he had a hundred stories ready to rattle off about being strong and able and smart on construction sites going all the way back to the reckless days of teenage labour in the 1950s, where worker safety wasted valuable profits. I didn’t know any of that was happening to him, all I knew was that other people seemed concerned about this, but I didn’t think he was worried or affected even, until he said,

“Well Charlie…” He always said my name in a booming voice, slightly louder than any other words he was saying. “The heart works like this…” He held out his thick fist, opening and closing the fingers, “To pump blood through your body. What makes it pump in a steady, measured rhythm, are electrical signals that are sent from somewhere in there.” He pointed to his chest. “My signals, are just firing at irregular intervals. So, I need to take medication to correct that, so that the blood keeps pumping properly, and to thin my blood a little so that there’s no strain.”

I’d heard of pacemakers, and knew vaguely about the electrical signals, but it didn’t make sense for his situation, “Ok. How long will you have to do that?” I was asking when he’d be alright again.

“I’ll have to take these pills… for the rest of my life.”

The rest of his life. Then he’d die. He was going to die, and how soon that was could be measured as simply as that. It’s a simple enough thing to have to do something for the rest of your life, but you don’t say ‘I’ll have to wear these glasses for the rest of my life’ or ‘I’ll have to shave these whiskers for the rest of my life’. Taking medication ‘for the rest of your life’ equals illness, and it sits you down with death, and death won’t let you leave the table.

His death weighed on him, maybe even more than it did on me. For him, there were unprompted comments about the futility of life and the “nothingness that awaits us.”

“Ok Dad, shut up, we’re watching ‘Friends’. It’s a repeat and I’ve only seen it once.”

It was like my father had cancer, but he actually didn’t, I was just paranoid and uninformed. I saw the idea of his death more than I saw him. I saw, I dreamt, I feared wholeheartedly, that he would die on me. He’d do it without telling me how to live, and how to deal with my faults, because they were his too. I still didn’t know so much. If I was like him, why wasn’t I strong and tough like him? How did he trick people into thinking he was such a tough guy? He had to be soft like me. He had to actually care about other people. He had to have more love than he could manage, didn’t he? I had the time to ask, because he was busy, but he was there. I could have asked and he might have answered. He looked at me differently than my brother and sister, I know he did. It was our secret, that the two of us were separate from the others. They didn’t know the bond we had, and neither did I, not literally.

He wanted to talk to me, but whenever he tried, I didn’t understand most of the things he said. We were so much the same, but too far apart in age. He would go off on long tangents about things I was too young to understand, and saying everything as though it were something I should quote him on.

So we settled down, the two of us and death. High School got more intense, as it does, and as much as I thought about my father being close to death or what that meant for my own need to live life fast and make him proud, I thought about love. Sex was always there throughout any day and night, but that was an impulse which wasn’t connected to my world yet. Love was easy, and lasting. I could jerk off and be completely enveloped in that ecstasy with not one other thought in my head, then it would sag in a white flash and everything would seep right back in – the acne, the bad grades and shitty teachers, the guys who gave me shit, and the lack of hope in anything. All the while, my Dad could see the rest of his life in prescription slips, and I might never know him. But love was the real goal (someone tell the songwriters of the world).

It was love that bothered me and threw me around. I was depressed and mad because I wasn’t in love. Worrying about Dad became too much, so I put everything about him aside in dealing with love and sex. He seemed to be doing fine and staying strong, so I had to be my own man. Then, a few years later, I was all full of youth and being my own man when I saw him change in an instant. It was just like it was with the heart problems. In that same room. School was over and I lived in the city, drinking, trying to womanise and getting into trouble that wasn’t really trouble – if the cops don’t chase you, you’re just being assholes, not criminals. I had come back to visit. My parents lived alone now with their dogs. Dad sat on the couch as Mum and the little dogs rushed over to hug me when I walked in the unlocked front door. Mum then went back to the kitchen or whatever else she was doing for the time being, and I looked down at Dad on the couch. He had a white moustache, flimsy waves of light grey hair and his arms and legs were now obviously thin compared to his barrel of a chest, but the skin was marked here and there by age spots while it had the horrifying texture of tissue paper. He didn’t say anything to make me see him like this, I was just looking at him now, because I needed him. He told me to grab a beer and sit down with him. I grabbed one and coming back he held up his wine glass,

“Top me up will ya Charlie? There should be an open one in the fridge.”

He asked me how I’d been, I summarised my life in short sentences which said nothing of how I felt. The truth was that I was fighting depression and loneliness every single day, barely scraping by, doing nothing interesting and developing an obsession with drinking. If I told him that I hated to be around other people, but I felt so bored and sad by myself, he might have understood the feeling, he might have told me that was the curse we both shared, or he might have just told me that he loathed most people too, and that I was like him, better than other people. We didn’t need them, he’d say.

He talked over what was on the TV, exaggerating the dumb things dumb people said, surprised by them and disgusted, but never choosing to watch anything actually smart. This was how it went at every visit. We’d watch documentaries and he’d switch channels as soon as he couldn’t outsmart the narrator, or he’d moan about a country and the race of people there.

“Stinking hot there, disgusting place. They wipe their asses with their hands!”

“America! Gone to hell, full of those damned…”

“Look at that China! Ought to cut the balls off the lot of ‘em.”

If I had just asked him about it, he’d have gone on about his long life and how far he’d travelled, while his whole family along with all of the people he knew in his youth had never done anything, or been anywhere. But not him, he’d say. Not him. He struck out and did this, or that, saw this, touched that, drank here, there anywhere, talked to them, or them and told him to fuck right off. But, he never really truly told me what he had done or who he had been. We just watched dumb TV, and he asked me if I wanted another beer. I said sure.

“Top up the old man will ya, Charlie?”

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