Photo: Rob Howard
My father called me one day last summer. “Um, it’s your father,” he said. “I shot a bear and now it looks like I’ve got to go to court.” I replayed his message a few times. His voice is nasal and gravelly and full of flatness and diphthongs. I hadn’t heard it in a long time. He asked me to call him back and left his number.
His wife, Pat, answered. I realized I had forgotten her name, so I just introduced myself and asked for my father. “He’s out back with his bees, but I’ll call him,” she said. I heard her Marjorie Main voice sail out the back door. “Charles!” I had never heard him called Charles before—it was a bit of a surprise. Back when I knew him, everyone called him Buck, the nickname his mother gave him as a child. He couldn’t sit still, just like a buck, the story went. I think of bucks as being majestic, many-antlered royalty of the woods, so his nickname never quite made sense to me, until I realized that the reference was most likely not to a buck but to a bucking bronco. Regardless, his nickname suited him. It is the name of someone who doesn’t want to be a Charles.
My parents were married for 22 years. They had four children. We were raised on a crumbling dairy farm on the fringes of a tiny village in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. The landscape I know is one of crags, waterfalls, and glacially formed lakes alongside low hills called drumlins, tumbling and overlapping. It is sprinkled with tough-looking villages scarred by severe winters and ringed by farms and trailer parks strung along beside unruly creeks. Homely as it is, the countryside of my childhood brings tears to my eyes. I love it beyond my understanding. When I see news reports about heartbroken Albanian refugees who can’t wait to get back to their muddy villages, I understand.
Several years ago, after living in various cities, I bought a little house on Main Street in my hometown, and my daughter and I now divide our time between there and Chicago. My extended family, who make up about half the population of 450 in our village, laughingly deride us as “summer people,” the joke being that this is a place no one comes to on purpose—my hometown is the kind of place people dream of leaving.
I have a persistent vision of my father making his way across the field in back of our barn. Going somewhere! His step was springy and enterprising. He drew his bucket from a bottomless well of energy and cultivated a tough restlessness that got him into trouble. He loved shortcuts and windfalls and wayward moneymaking projects, sometimes involving other men like him, who, when things went sour, tended to punch each other in the nose. He was handsome like a B movie star, in the manner of Glenn Ford, but with the ego of a Caribbean despot. I loved to watch him but not, I think, in the way daughters commonly love to look at their fathers. He was like an animal. Unpredictable. He would crouch beside the belligerent Holsteins in our barn during the evening milking, a hand-rolled cigarette hanging between his lips, urging milk out of their udders and calling them goddamn filthy bitches when they shifted their weight and threatened to crush him. He would hop around on his haunches. He had springs in his work boots.