FOUR DAYS IN ILLINOIS WITH MY OLD MAN
My dad got lost on the way to the airport the weekend we flew to Illinois to watch my little brother play basketball. He got lost within five minutes of picking me up from my apartment. He’s lived in this city for seventeen years and he can’t remember his way around. He missed George Bush and I said it was fine we’d take 635. He said I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I’ve lived in Dallas for seventeen years.
It was snowing the day we left, a Thursday. Dallas shuts down in the snow so the roads were empty. The ice was patchy but not really dangerous. I watched the traction control light flicker on and off. Our flight had been delayed but we’d decided to check in early and eat dinner in the airport.
I have some ideas what might be wrong with my dad. Two years ago he got a new job and had a nervous breakdown. The doctors said that prolonged stress can cause permanent damage. My dad’s feet still burn from the adrenaline. And even though he’s never said anything about it (nobody has said anything about it) he seems different to me now. He seems, and this is the only word that really describes the way he seems — fried.
Something was wrong at the airport. My dad had bought our tickets through some sort of frequent flier mile program and now the lady at the counter was saying his ticket had been refunded. He couldn’t get on the plane. My dad asked who he should talk to and the woman said he should talk to whoever he asked to refund his ticket. He said he didn’t ask anyone to refund his ticket and the woman said well then I don’t know who you should talk to.
Somewhere between British Airways (who he’d booked the ticket through) American Airlines (who had issued the ticket) and American Eagle (the airline we were flying on) someone had fucked up. We stepped out of line to call customer service and while we waited on hold we drifted away from the counter until we were backed up into a corner with our bags around our feet. My dad’s face had become a wax figure version of my dad’s face. He paced in circles and rocked back on his heels. Every ten minutes he turned the phone away from his mouth, looked out into space, and said Unbelievable. Or In all my years of flying. Or I’ve never. When someone finally answered, my dad took the pity angle. He said he was all packed and ready to go on a trip with his son to Illinois and was British Airways going to help him make that happen?
Getting customer service people to do things they wouldn’t normally do is one of the things my dad is good at. He’s so good at it that members of our extended family turn to him as a last resort. A few years ago he got Panasonic to fix my cousin’s video camera even though it was out of warranty (and, as it turns out, not broken). He’s gotten rental car companies to drop fees they don’t have to drop. He’s gotten insurance companies to cover things they don’t normally cover. And actually this trip we were on now wouldn’t be happening if my dad hadn’t sat on the phone with British Airways for two hours convincing them to transfer a ticket under my mom’s name to me, something they legally can’t do. My dad’s power over customer service people was one of the myths I’d grown up believing about him. On a 1-800 line my dad was a god.
He’d been on the phone for an hour and a half when he asked me what we should do if this didn’t get fixed. Did I want to go to Illinois without him? For whatever reason my ticket had worked just fine. I had it in my bag right now. I said that I wasn’t going to Illinois without him and that I knew he was going to be able to fix this. He nodded and drank some of the lemon lime Gatorade I’d bought for him when I noticed he was sweating and pale.
I was lying of course.
I didn’t think this was going to work out, I didn’t think he was going to be able to fix this, and I was already planning how I was going to spend my weekend at home. I guess what I’m saying is that I’d stopped believing in the myth of my dad, or at least I’d lost confidence in it. He was sitting there with a file folder open in his lap jotting down confirmation numbers and customer service people’s names but to me he looked like a desperate old man confused and overwhelmed by the world.
We did end up getting on the plane. British Airways came through at the last minute and after one more delay and a rushed, greasy dinner at the airport Fridays we were on our way to Illinois. I sat next to the window and listened to Bombay Bicycle Club and read Wuthering Heights for a Victorian literature class I was taking and a few rows behind me my dad was watching a Rachel McAdams movie on his iPad and drinking a Diet Coke. Halfway through the flight I looked behind me and saw that he was sleeping.
His breakdown had happened quickly. Maybe that’s how breakdowns always happen. I had lunch with him a week after he’d started his new job and already he had shriveled up inside his own skin. His eyes looked smaller. I could barely hear what he was saying he talked so quietly. Three months later I was sure he was going to die. I called him one Saturday morning and I didn’t recognize his voice. He sounded one hundred years old. He said he was working through the weekend to show people that he was a hard worker. When I got off the phone with him I told my wife he was either going to die or he was going to kill himself but either way he wasn’t going to survive.
I asked him once what was going through his mind and he said he didn’t know what he was good at anymore. He said any college intern could do a better job at digital marketing than he was doing. It was just a matter of time before his new company realized how worthless he was and let him go.
I did a Google search one day to see if my dad’s life insurance policy covered suicide. I was worried about what he might be thinking.
The temperature was minus eleven when we landed in Illinois. I could feel the cold through the jet way walls. I was wearing a cotton jacket from Target and fingerless gloves. It was late now, 11pm, and the woman at the rental car agency had stayed late waiting for us. See that, my dad said. That’s customer service. She handed us the keys to a midsized Ford something or other and then put up the closed sign. There was snow on the ground outside and the wind cut through my cotton layers down to my bare skin underneath. That jacket isn’t going to be warm enough my dad said and I said it was going to be fine, it was warmer than it looked, which wasn’t true. We walked through the rental car lot clicking the unlock button on the car keys. Our breath was thick white and it didn’t rise. I was so cold I thought I was going to die. When we found the car my dad asked Siri for directions to our hotel and then suction cupped his phone to the windshield. When he turned out of the airport he drove the wrong way down a one-way street.
Champaign is a college town a few hours outside of Chicago, home of the University of Illinois where my little brother is a sophomore on the wheelchair basketball team. Two days before we got there they got two feet of snow. It was piled up on the sides of the road and on the medians. The buildings looked dug in, like they’d been here for awhile. We passed a factory churning out light grey smoke and the smoke stayed fifty feet off the ground. Smoke doesn’t rise here I said and my dad said look at that. We were driving twenty miles an hour down an empty road. I said maybe it was because the air was so cold. Maybe the air cooled the smoke and kept it from rising. Could be my dad said, that would make sense.
Our hotel was on the outskirts of town next to a Circle K where we stocked up on granola bars and peach o’s and pop tarts. The woman at the front desk of the Comfort Suites handed us two miniature bottles of water and said be careful, the air was dry and people were getting dehydrated. It was midnight before we were laying in our full sized beds and my dad said I’m glad you’re on this trip with me, Geoff, and I said I was glad too, and then neither of us said anything else until we both fell asleep.
When I was a kid my dad used to lay in bed with us for hours and tell us stories about growing up. Telling stories was one of the things my dad was good at. Now I know his stories better than he does. I know the details and the surprises. I know the punch lines to all his jokes. Sometimes me and my dad have nothing to talk about.
I got up early the next morning and drank coffee down in the lobby. When the front doors opened the wind blew down the back of my neck. It was minus ten out there and getting colder. Tomorrow it was supposed to snow. My dad came down an hour later and we ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant. His face looked puffy and creased and I realized it had been five years since I’d seen my dad this early in the morning. I couldn’t decide if he looked like an old man or like a child. The waitress asked if he’d like some coffee and he said no thanks he didn’t drink coffee. We ordered omelets and my dad said if we hurried we could play a few games of ping-pong before the first basketball game started.
Campus was a few miles from our hotel and my dad looked up directions on his phone. He asked Siri for directions and she didn’t understand him so he asked her again. I said why don’t you type it in and he said I don’t need to type it in I have Siri. Then he said watch this and he asked Siri if she was Her from the movie Her. Siri said I’m sorry, Allan, I am not Scarlett Johansson. My dad said Siri are you sure you’re not Her and Siri said I’m sure, Allan, I’m not Her. I didn’t laugh and my dad looked at his hands and said he just thought that was kind of funny.
Champaign looked different in the daylight. The snow was glowing white as if the light were coming out from inside of it. The buildings looked dirty. We passed a Gyro stand and I said it had been years since I’d had a Gyro, we should try that place this weekend. My dad said he’d never had a Gyro were they any good?
I said you’ve never had a Gyro?
He said no, he’d never had one, were they good?
Sometimes I can’t believe all the things my dad has never done.
We got to the gym an hour and a half before the game and we asked the girl behind the counter if there were any ping-pong tables we could use. The girl pointed us around the corner and handed us two ping-pong paddles and a ping-pong ball. She said be careful, someone went through the glass last week. Around the corner there was a private room with a ping-pong table in the middle and a giant glass window looking out over the swimming pool. My dad said could this be any more perfect, buddy? I spun the ping-pong paddle in my hand and said prepare yourself old man for today I destroy you.
Ping-pong is a thing in my family. For as long as I can remember my parents have had a ping-pong table in their garage, and for as long as I can remember my dad has been better than me. He controls the table. He drops the ball in front of the net and then puts it away in the back right corner. He teases you with lobs. He’s a natural with a racquet. He grew up playing tennis in southern California and now he plays racquetball every week with some of the best players in Dallas. Being good at ping-pong was something that mattered to my dad. But recently it had become something that mattering to me too. My office bought a table and I’d been playing two or three times a day. I’d been getting good. And when I picked up that paddle in the University of Illinois Gym I knew that this was going to be the day I destroyed him. I didn’t just know it, I needed it. I needed to destroy him. I’m not a competitive guy but something came over me. I felt furious every time he won a point, every time he teased me with a lob, every time he dropped the ball in front of the net and then put it away in the back right corner. I felt furious every time one of my shots went long or clipped the net. I felt furious every time my dad said the score with that casual smack of superiority in his goddamn voice. Inside that ping-pong room I hated my father, and if I didn’t beat him I was going to throw him through the plate glass window.
I did beat him, though. Not every game but most of them. My forehand started hitting twenty minutes in and I started pounding everything that came at me. I started moving him around the table like he was my own little puppet. Sweat was dripping down my forehead in big salty drops. It was getting in my eyes and my eyes were turning red. My dad stretched his shoulder between games and tried to catch his breath. When he lost a point he pushed out his jaw and stared out the window.
Why was it so important that I beat him? Why was it so important that I take one of the few precious things he was good at and prove to him that I was better, prove to him that he was nothing special, prove to him that all his doubts and insecurities about his worth were true? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that out. We played for an hour and a half and when we walked down the long hallway toward the basketball courts my dad put his hand on my shoulder and said you played really well in there buddy, I was giving you everything I had.
The next morning I woke up to the loudest fart I had ever heard in my life. I laid awake and stared at the ceiling. I felt sad and ready to go home. I went down to the lobby and drank coffee next to the front window. It was dark outside but I could see that it was snowing. The snow was light but it was enough to cover up the tire tracks and footprints. I read Wuthering Heights while I waited for my dad to wake up and then we ate breakfast together in the restaurant. We’re breakfast people, me and my dad. Bacon and eggs people. Pancake people. We took our time at breakfast and we didn’t talk a lot. A year after his nervous breakdown things had started to get better for him. He started sleeping again and he started feeling like himself. His boss complimented his work and his co-workers asked him to go out to lunch. This past Christmas he got a Christmas bonus. And I say all that because at breakfast that day I wondered if my dad really was different now or if I just saw him differently. Was he really fragile, lost, old — was he really fried? — or did I just choose to see him that way? My dad was a great dad when I was growing up but now something very deep inside me needed to push him away.
It snowed all day, the most snow I’ve seen in my whole life. Everything is different in that much snow. You can’t see lines in the parking lot so you have to guess where to put your car. You can’t see the curb and you can’t see the road. Everything looks like a continuation of everything else. My dad drove five miles an hour everywhere we went. He leaned forward over the steering wheel and squinted his eyes. He made sounds with his mouth that I don’t think he knew he was making. He chews his bottom lip like a piece of gum.
Our last night in Illinois we went to a barbeque place in Urbana with my little brother and all three of us ordered the spicy jambalaya and the hot buttered rolls. I ordered a nitrous carbonated two-step-pour beer and my dad said so you’re getting into beer now? And I said yes, and whisky too. He said he’d always loved the idea of whisky but he’d never tried it. My little brother said he couldn’t wait until he was twenty-one and we could get beers together and I said I couldn’t wait for that either. My little brother is one of the best people I know. We ate fast because we were catching an 8pm IMAX showing of Gravity and the roads were still covered in snow. We were the only ones in the theater and we sat in the exact center. After the movie we took my little brother back to his dorm and he said he was glad we came and we said of course we came, we wouldn’t have missed it.
We left the next morning. There wasn’t a coffee shop in the airport so I walked around until I found a coin-operated coffee machine chained to a particleboard folding table and I asked my dad if he had any quarters on him. He said how many quarters do you need and I said I needed four quarters. He dug through his pockets and then he dug through his luggage and then he opened up his wallet and handed me a dollar bill and said does it take dollar bills? I don’t remember if it took dollar bills but I remember that standing there with my dad handing me a dollar out of his wallet made me feel like I was thirteen years old again and that right then that wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing.
Our plane was small, one of those American Eagle planes that are three seats across. While the flight attendant went over the emergency evacuation procedures I looked behind me and saw that my dad was already sleeping against the window. He looked old I thought, but not bad. I listened to the War on Drugs on my iPhone and looked through the Skymall Catalog for a TV remote shaped like Harry Potter’s wand. My wife’s been wanting one of those for awhile and we’re coming up on our anniversary. The plane rattled in the air and I wondered what was holding this piece of shit together.
GEOFFREY GEOFFREY is an advertising copywriter. He and his wife live in a tiny little 3rd floor apartment above a pub and a bakery. On Saturdays the hallways smell like strawberry cake.