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by Peter Kessler

Surprise Party

A gift of the liberal policies of the Dukakis years permitted my mother, recovering from addiction, to receive training as a nurse.  Many mornings she stood before the mirror in her bedroom, adjusting her white outfit against her shoulders, applying her blush, singing old Elvis songs to herself, loving the promise of what she had painstakingly worked herself into becoming.

She had spent just enough time outside of society to view it wryly.  Her addiction had required intervention, but it had not been so protracted that it deadened her sense of humor.  I never understood why we watched the evening news only for her to hurl invective at the classically appointed Walter Cronkite, whom she hated with a fervor that bordered on derangement; nor did I understand why she remained smitten by the brash and opinionated sportscaster Howard Cosell.  Yet this was how she carried herself, and how she computed her private calculus of loves and hates.

I was fourteen when my mother sat at the kitchen table, parsing the magician’s cups and balls, her amber hair now fully past her shoulders, intricately curled at its tips:

“Now pay attention,” she said, placing a puff ball under a little cup.  “It would be better if a father taught you this trick, but then, it would be better if cows had eight udders, too, and if America were a free country.”

I watched her manipulating the cups, observing how the ball shifted position.  As with all such routines, on the big reveal, the ball was gone, secreted in her palm.

“Where’s my father?”  I asked.  I had already heard her response dozens of times, though I noted carefully when a variation crept in.

“Honey, if I could answer you that, I would be the next messiah.”  She sighed darkly and folded her hands like origami cranes into her lap.  “His whereabouts are known but to God.”

“I wish I could show him our tricks,” I said.

“He would have liked that very much, I’m sure.”  Once again she manipulated the cups – once again the ball should have been under the center – once again the ball had disappeared.

In the weeks to come, I myself tried to learn the routine.  I demonstrated it to her at the end of each day – and at the end of each day, she said the same thing:

“Do it ten thousand times, and it will be yours.”


As a teenager in the mid-sixties, she had toured Vietnam.  There was a photo in her bedroom of her, much younger, in a glittering tube dress standing among several soldiers somewhere on the edge of a copse of bamboo.  Sometimes after a midnight shift at the hospital, she lay in bed late into the morning, and I sat in the chair by her pillow while she stirred, and she spoke to me of that earliest job, of how she had flown Pan American to Vietnam, and how she’d eaten a full meal with a complimentary bottle of wine, and how she’d been given a deck of playing cards gratis.

“And that’s where you met my father?”

She rolled over in bed so that her back was turned to me.  She seemed to be figuring, for reasons that remained out of my reach, and when she took a breath and rolled toward me again, her conclusions remained hidden.  “He was a wonderful man,” she said poignantly.  “A true American hero.”

“And he was a warrior?” I asked, though I already knew the answer.

“Noble and full of great virtue,” she said.  Again, this air of nostalgia.  She exhaled deeply.  Within herself sat a well spring of torment, touching not only the memory of my father, but some other wound that lay deeper still, that delivered her every Tuesday night to her AA meetings.  “I curse that he chose to be a soldier, because sometimes the noblest among us are the first to fall.”

I had learned enough from her to see the lineaments of my father: a ghost humping forty pounds of gear through the jungles of Vietnam, brushing leeches from his calves, consigned for all eternity on a perpetual mission to search and destroy.  “I’m the child of a hero,” I said.

“A man, and every bit a hero.  And I see the same heroism, the same marvel, every time I look at you.”  She smiled wanly as she rose from the bed.  She was still wearing her nurses’ outfit, and she put on her slippers.  She was almost out of the room.

“What really happened to him?” I asked.

Stopping short, it required an odd exercise of strength to answer me.

“Honey, I wish that I could tell you good news, good things, about what happened to your father.  But the world can be a cruel place.  Sometimes people can do bad things to other people, and all the while thinking that they are right, and under cover of their prayers, their justifications, they hurt one another in the worst of ways.”

In previous iterations, she told me that he’d been shot in a rice paddy.  “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” and she drifted away now, out of the bedroom, away from my inquisitions, her voice returning to its crispness, to the comfort of certainty.  “I mean that Vietnam was a hell storm, and some people never came home.”


Sometimes she stumbled, and she had to be careful, and sometimes in the morning it was as though she had been crying.  This life was so much different from what she had promised herself when she was a girl.  I knew that however much I might offer her, I could only ever be her son.  Some children are wanted more, and some children are wanted less.  I had sensed that from birth.

Sometimes she would return from her AA meeting and go upstairs straight to bed, and she would fall asleep with her clothes on, the tension seeping out of her into the darkness.  And other times I would curl up on the sofa, and she would, too, and we would watch television right up until it was time for me to sleep.  She was beautiful, and she lived like a nun.  Even as I lived with her, watched her perform it every day, I failed to understand the precariousness of her high wire act.  Nor did I understand how much of her hurt was my father’s doing – and beyond that, how much of it was America’s to bear.

I love this country and I hate it, too.  Anyone truly patriotic – anyone who has pledged allegiance on an empty stomach in white-knuckled fatherless mourning – will know exactly what I mean.


I still remember that it was spring, perhaps a month later, when she stood upright in the kitchen and lectured me on being a man.  She leaned forward to gesture, a ladle gripped tight in her fist, the dirty linoleum squeaking underfoot.

“You will learn showmanship.  It is important to be able to stand on your feet and charm a crowd.  If you want to get somewhere in life, you should have a little flair.”


“That was what your father was like.”

“He was a showman?”

“He was a manipulator.  He manipulated me.  You don’t think he did?”

“I don’t know.”

“He played me like a regular glass armonica,” she said.  “That’s what this world is.  We don’t worry about eating anymore, or feeding.  But you still have to figure out how to keep somebody else under your thumb if you want to get somewhere.  And you’ll keep a lot of people under your thumb if you want to get rich.”

“I don’t want to live like that.”

She laughed sardonically.  “Everybody lives like that.  We live in the greatest country in the world with the greatest system in the world.  That’s capitalism.  And some day you’ll meet a nice girl and you’ll hold her heart in your hand.  And then someday, you’ll tell her about yourself, you’ll share with her what you feel, and you’ll stay with her whatever the weather, and you’ll be an honorable man, and you’ll build a life with her.  And you’ll make her do whatever you say, but you’ll treat her well, too, because that’s how it works between a man and a woman, and in a capitalist society, too.”

“What happened with my dad?”

“Sweetie, maybe I’m not fair to him.  But your father was never the same after Vietnam.  And now he’s gone.”

“He made it home from Vietnam?”

She rolled her eyes for me, again began calculating.  I could see the thoughts like sparrows flickering across her face.  “He died there,” she said hurriedly.  “His bones were never recovered.”

“But you just said –”

“Sweetie, you’ll never see him topside again.”

“But you just said –”

“He should be forever gone from your heart.”

She’d had enough.  Waving me off, inured to my entreaty, she went upstairs to her bedroom and closed the door.


It was a summer derecho, the wind speeding up without warning, rifling empty trash barrels down the road, knifing through the trees, their leaves a tattered wedding dress.  Years later I remember it as historic, the Derecho of ’86, though no one else I’ve ever met has the least recollection of it.  But it was a day later, in the wake of the wind – with the municipality clearing limbs from roads, stacking cordwood on the sidewalks, and the power company frantic with bucket loaders, restoring lines all up and down the lanes – that along came the second derecho, who strode right up to our front door in his crimson dungarees and loose plaid shirt and pushed the bell twice and, when I answered, wryly introduced himself.

“I must be your father,” he said.


“Looks like it’s the truth,” he said.

He was not what I imagined.  He was two inches shorter than me, and he had a limp and a lazy eye.  In those ways we differed.  Yet on closer inspection, his was the face that stared back at me from the mirror, albeit twenty-odd years more advanced – the same elongated, almost equine jaw, the same nostrils like the entrance to a cave, the same disappearing upper lip.  We had the same wispy peanut colored mop, the same hairline like a seagull floating in the wind.

He had a familiar way of smiling.  It was uncanny until I realized that his smile, too, was my own.

“I thought you were dead,” I said, and I opened the door to let him in.

“She told you that?”  He shook his head, but then he laughed easily, and even his laugh was my own.  “That’s not right.  Even if I haven’t ever come by, that’s still not right.”

My mother walked down the stairs.  I might have expected an outburst, but she remained lucid, uninflected.  “It isn’t far from the truth,” she said, and the hardness in her voice signaled to me that she had been anticipating this visit, if not so much for hours, then for years.

“Technically so, but it also isn’t true,” he said.  He took a flask from his back pocket and gestured up to her with it.  She shook her head.  “My blood is still pumping!”

“Vietnam might as well have killed you.”

“But it didn’t,” he said fiercely.  “I have concluded, in fact, that it was Vietnam where I learned how to live.”  He drank from his flask.

“Alright, I’m going to bite my tongue,” she said, and she addressed me almost plaintively.  “My dear,” she said to me, “this is your father.  I wish I could have told you before now, but I didn’t think that you would ever see him.”

“You’re seeing me now!”

She groaned.

Much in the way that after you fall on the ground, it takes a full minute before your knee cap really lets you know how badly you’re damaged, it would be a lie to say that I even knew what I felt, beyond that I was keenly alive, and that this man was standing firmly, unimpeachably before me.  I was discomfited by his presence, his smoldering aura.  I didn’t know if I should laugh or weep.

“I want to take you some place special,” he said, turning on me, and again I noted the similarity of his vanishing upper lip to my own.  “Can I?”  he asked irrelevantly.  “Where’s a playground?”

“There’s a playground at the school,” I said. “It’s a five minute walk from here.”

“Jeepers!  Let’s go!”

“I’m too old for playgrounds,” I said.  “I’m fourteen.”

“Nonsense.  Are you too old for fun?”

“No sir,” I said.

“Then we’re going to the playground!”  He bounded down the steps into the sunlight.  He stood waiting for me beside a little pile of sticks that had become snaggled by the derecho on the edge of the front yard.  “Come on!”

“I’ll be here,” my mother said bluntly.

I came out the front door, and my father let out a little laugh, and we walked together toward the school.  It was an easy walk, and half way there, he took a pack of Marlboros from his back pocket and held them up to me.  “You want one?” he asked.

“No, thank you.  I don’t smoke.”

“Wow, you’re shiny!”  He got a far-away look, then added quickly:  “And you don’t drink either, I hope?”

“No sir,” I said.

“Shiny and clean!”  He lit a cigarette.

It was a dilapidated, really shitty little playground, made moreso by the derecho, which had knocked the sign in the entrance off its moorings.  The swings were tangled and dangling, and the monkey bars were too low to the ground.  The slide was cracked at the bottom, liable to tear someone’s pants.  I hadn’t used the playground in years.  My father ran toward the sandbox, the cigarette bobbing from his lower lip.  “I love playgrounds!” he hooted.  “Look over here.  You want to go down the slide with me?”

“Dad, I’m too big for the slide.”

“Alright.  Well, I’m not too big for the slide,” he said, and he scrambled up the ladder and perched on the top.  He slid down faster than anticipated and landed square on his butt, and the ash from his cigarette skittered into his lap.

“Ouch,” he said.  He got up, rubbing his legs.  “I won’t do that again.  You want me to push you on the swing?”

“I’m a little big for that, too.”

He stepped onto the swing and stood upright, holding the chains on either side.  He began to sway back and forth, fully upright.  The swing set was rusty and it groaned under his weight.

“What’re you doing so big?”

“It happens.  She feeds me well.”

“You’re going to be a giant,” he said, marvelling.

He was swinging hard in his upright position, and I was concerned that he would lose his grip and fall backwards in mid-air.  At last he grew tired and allowed the swing to return to a more normal cadence, and thereafter he leapt from it, landing with a few stumbles but remaining more or less upright, surprisingly spry.  I really didn’t know how old he was.  His cigarette tumbled to the ground and sat burning in the sand.  “World’s biggest ash tray,” he said, laughing again, now with a smoker’s ack-ack sound.  He reached into his pocket.  “Look here, take this.”  He handed me a quarter.

I didn’t know what to do with it, so I made a fist and held it tight.  “Thank you,” I said.

“But look at it,” my father said, gesturing.  “The money’s not the point.  Look!”

I obeyed him.  The quarter was typical, George Washington in bas relief.

“You see?” he said proudly.  “That’s the father of our country.  I thought when I came, what if I gave you a thousand dollars?  But I didn’t want to cheapen you with money.  Because money is just money.  It’s not a message.  A boy has a father, and he wants to have a message.  So I wanted to leave you with wisdom, and that wisdom is all right here, in this man’s unfurrowed brow.”

“We studied Washington in school.  The Cincinnatus of the West.”

“I’m sure you did.  Cherry tree and all.  This is the greatest country in the world, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.  A man can be his own man in this country.  I’ve been in the tundra and the desert, and the high mountains and the plains, and the lakes and the oceanside, and I’ve been hiking through thick pines and into squid black mine shafts, and sometimes, I’m not ashamed to say, I’ve slept in alleys, and on forgotten mattresses putrifying with mold, and I’ve slept in abandoned cars, or cars that were soon to be abandoned, and through it all, I’ve always thanked God that I was born an American, the greatest land on earth.  That’s what I mean to tell you.”  He exhaled after his speech, because it had taken effort from him, and he had delivered it with a bold sincerity, so that I understood that he believed deeply, or at least wanted to.  He took the flask from his back pocket and stole a swig, offering it to me insincerely, returning it to his pocket, and then we walked together out of the playground, angling again toward home.

He strode fondly beside me, neither fast nor slow.  For all his flaws, he was my father, and for so long I hadn’t dared to believe that he existed still.  I felt within myself an upwelling of love.

“Why didn’t you come before?”  I asked, because among all the other questions, this was the one that I most wanted him to answer.  He ignored it.

“You have your mother’s eyes,” he said. “Do you have your mother’s tears, too?”


“Of course you do,” he said off-handedly.  We walked the remainder of the way in silence until we reached the house, and we stood outside by the doorway.  “Ok.  You’re a great boy, and I’ve got to be going soon, but I am so very glad to finally meet you.”  He bowed to me and performed a theatrical flourish.

“But where do you live?”

“Houses are for suckers,” he said.  “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.  You get it?”

“I get it.”

We went inside.  My mother was waiting for us, ringing out a dish towel until her hands were blotchy.

“Life means nothing – nothing – if you are not free to be you and me,” he said aloud, no longer just to me but also, it seemed, to my mother.

“But why now?” I asked.  Too late I realized that the question sounded different in front of my mother – that it was a booby trap.  His expression flittered darkly, and then he was himself again.

“Shouldn’t I have come a long time ago?”  he answered.

“Yes,” said my mother.  “You should have.”

He looked to my mother.  “Do you mind if I smoke?”

“You can do what you like, I could never stop you.”

He lit up and puffed out an easy blue mist.

“How about you join me?”  he asked her.  “It’s been too long.”

“I can’t believe you’re saying that,” she said.

“Ok, that’s not what I meant,” he said hurriedly.

“I can’t believe you,” she said.

“You never could.  Yet here I am.”  Again he exhaled, and the smoke filled the foyer and mixed about the ceiling.

She turned away from him.

“You’re still young,” he said.

“That has nothing to do with it.”

“I’ve come to talk with you about the boy, and for you to open a path to me.  That’s why I’m here.  And I have things to say to you.  Why do you deny me?”

“I don’t,” she said neutrally.

“When did I ever lie to you?”

“Wrong question.”

“I mean about something important.  And now I’m asking you.”  He held his hand out imploringly.  He dropped down on one knee.  “I’m asking you.”  He was abasing himself, his head hung low.

Absently she touched her hair.  “Alright,” she said mildly.  “If that’s what this is about.  I’ll go with you if you refrain from embarrassing yourself.”

“Alright then,” he said.  He stood up again.

“Alright,” she said again more firmly.  “Alright.”  She grabbed her purse.

“God is smiling on me today,” he mused.  He grinned beautifully.  “You’ll need to bring the cash because I’m kind of light right now.”

“Alright,” she said, shrugging.  “Honey, don’t stay up too late, alright?”

“I won’t,” I said.

“That’s my boy,” she said.

“And a fine job you’ve done,” he said.  “We had what I can only characterize as a really special, really important time at the playground, and I don’t want to presume except to say that I had a lot of things that I needed to say to him, and I think, if I’m not wrong, son, that you heard me say them?”

I nodded obliquely.

“This may be the happiest day of my life,” he added.

“I’ll be back soon, honey,” she said.

“Alright,” I said.

“But not too soon, I hope,” said my father, and he winked at me conspiratorially, and because he was my father, and because I was stunned, and because I was hungry, I winked back at him, though I didn’t even know why.

When they were out of earshot and beside the road, my father gestured widely at the expanse of sky before him.  He had no car, so they walked back down the driveway and got into my mother’s little compact.  She drove them out of the driveway and took a left, in the direction of the highway that would take them into Boston.

I went to sleep that night without seeing her.  When I woke the next morning, she still wasn’t home.

All told, she didn’t come back until the morning of the day thereafter.  And when she did come back, she was alone, and her eyes had guttered, and there was a rug burn on her chin and there were needle tracks were on her arms.


It is strange at that age to see a parent fail.  Strange at any age, really, but in the teenage years, everything is a potential mortification, and the failure of a parent emphatically so.  Even as I was embarrassed for myself – a teenage reaction –  I also regretted my own selfishness for feeling embarrassed, and thus layered guilt on top of worry, and sorrow on top of guilt.  Those of us who have been through such things will recognize the contradictions, the muddiness – the way the shame stays with you, how the cocktail of humiliation and dirtied love even years later rises like bile to the throat.

She came home with a rug burn on her chin, and she called in sick to work.  She called in sick the day after that, as well, and she remained in bed for much of the coming week.  During waking hours, she seemingly did not leave the home – at least, I never saw her out of bed.  I would go out into the world – mostly to school – and I would come back to find her in her bed, except that by some act of stealth, she would be wearing clothes where before she had been in underwear, or she would be in underwear instead of clothes, and as often as not she would be blissed out in an addled haze.  In the mornings when I departed, she would be dead asleep and wouldn’t rise until the afternoon, after I’d come home, but then at five a.m., I might wake to a noise, and I would go to her room and find her again in her bed, wide-eyed, covered in smears of her own make up, her elbows worn raw and her fists slicked with her own tears.  I knew then that she had to be leaving at strange hours, but by her own design I never caught her at it, which I think was the last vestiges of her heroic effort to protect me.  For all her apparent languor, her body was not at rest.  Her cheeks very quickly became taut and sallow.  This pattern persisted for perhaps half a month.

Toward the end, I was able to rouse her early one evening, and my first question was so obvious as to be silly, except that I did not know how else to ask her, to establish the truth of what was plain.   Under the covers she was wearing blue jeans and a black Rush t-shirt.

“Did you relapse, mommy?”

She glanced at me lazily, one eye not quite in synch with the other.  “No, honey, I’m fine,” she said, in a voice thick with exhaustion.  “Every day in every way I get better and better.”

“What can I do for you?”

She sniffled, ignored my question.  “The best thing about heroin was that it kept me thin,” she said.

“You’re fine, Mom, just like you are.”

“No, honey, I’m really not.  I’m grossly overweight.  But some men like it that way.  They think – I don’t know what they think.  They think they’re wolves and that I’m a fat lamb.  That’s how they think.”

“Are you hungry?”

“I should try to keep something down,” she said.  But her eyes shuttered again, and she was asleep.

I made myself a dinner of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Hi-C.   I made the same for her.  I brought it upstairs to her on a wooden tray.  She woke again, shivering, rubbing her arms to get warm.

“You are a wonderful, generous son to cook dinner for your mother,” she said, and she ate her way into the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  “Oh honey, I hate it that you see me like this.”

“It’s alright,” I said.  It was my duty to say it.

“No, it isn’t,” she said.  “It’s just how I am right now.”

“I love how you are,” I said – but even now, I wonder if that was a mistake.  Do you give them your full support, the entire measure of your love, even as they drive themselves to ruin?  Would it be better to withhold?  “You are the best mother any son could ever have.”

“But don’t,” she said.  And she closed her eyes into a squint.  “I want you to break the cycle.”

“I’m so proud of you,” I said, because again, it seemed like the proper thing to say, even as it was the most sardonic, the most wrong thing of all.  She stared at me, and I understood that some distant part of her was afraid for me, for how ill-equipped I was.  And then I allowed myself to understand further without reservation, to really understand, that she was collapsing before my eyes, that this would last much longer than a week or two.  I had not permitted myself that understanding before, because facing it was to accept the warm-blooded anxiety of being a teenage orphan, cast out to rely upon chance and neighborliness.  People do not know how paralyzing it is to dwell in fear.

“I won’t begin the cycle,” I pledged.

But she was asleep again, a half sandwich beside her on the bed, her brain shut down under a pharmaceutical influence whose power I couldn’t fathom – and to this day, mercifully, cannot fathom.  I left her room and shut the door behind me.  It would have been better if I could have locked it.


I would like to say that I hated my father for bringing us to this.  But I could not conjure up a feeling that intense for him.  The man I’d met was so far from the father of my dreams that I could not accept him as my father, even while I knew that he had sired me, and knew even better that the forces that my mother contended with were independent of any other person, were themselves a species of weather over which I certainly had no control, to which we could only submit as reluctant victims.

When I woke the next morning, she was out of her bed, with a suitcase packed beside her.

“Honey, I need to go away for a while,” she said.  “Seeing your father kinda pushed me over the edge.  We used to do this together, you know, and it brought it all back.”

“Will I see him again?”  Within me all was mixed.  I wanted to see him again, to yell at him.  I wanted to share with him how proud he should be of her – and how well we had done in his absence – and how little we needed him.  I wanted to return his quarter.

“He said he’d come back, but I don’t think he will.”

“He has a way of surprising you,” I said.

She shrugged.  “Yes, but it’s never been happily.”  She glanced down at her bag.  “So I need to check myself into rehab.  You deserve better than this.  We deserve better than this.”

“I just want you to be well,” I said, and I was bracing myself.

“Ok!” she said.

I helped her carry her bag downstairs.  There was already a taxi idling outside.  I carried the bag down the front steps, with her weakly swaying behind me.  She stood still beside the taxi, like an expectant sparrow, her nose twitching, and she rubbed her cheek with her sleeve.

“I wish I were older,” I said.

“You and me both,” she said, and she wiped her brow with her sleeve.  From behind the wheel, the taxi driver looked at us expectantly.  “When you can’t stand it, when you really can’t, here’s a trick I’ve learned,” she said.  She let her arms fall limp to her sides.  “First, you put on a pair of red shoes, ok?  And then you close your eyes and click your heels three times like this.”

She demonstrated, but the effort of clicking almost made her stumble against the car.  A summer wind blew around her, swaddled her, dragged her hair like corn silk across her face.

A month later I’d be in foster care.

“Now you try it,” she said.  She moved away from me and opened the taxi door.  And then she was in the backseat, facing the road.  She tapped the driver on the shoulder.

“Mom?” I said, though already she wouldn’t hear me, and the taxi was pulling away, and it bore her down the road into the rising heat of summer.

The hot wind blew upon me.  I let my arms fall limp.  I closed my eyes, and I clicked my heels three times.  “I want to be old,” I said.  “I want to be old.  I want to be old.”  The light shifted all around me. I braced myself for opening my eyes.


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