What happens when you find out your father has a second family? Can you accept him? Can you still see the good in him? In “Insurance,” we find complicated people trying to deal with simple yet complicated truths, that all lives end in death, that love doesn’t come in one shape or form. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
When I pulled into my father’s driveway, the car’s headlights illuminated him standing behind his work table, his Labrador, Scotty, stretched across the table’s surface. My father’s left hand gripped the end of one of Scotty’s forelegs, bracing it off the table’s edge, while his right hand held a hacksaw. He looked up at me briefly, surprised, like a criminal caught mid-act before his face rearranged itself into a picture of determination and he looked back down at the spot on Scotty’s fur where the saw rested.
My father did not believe in excitable tones, so as I craned my head and shoulders out of the car, I tried my best to be calm.
“What are you doing there, Dad?”
“Keep the car on. I can use the light,” he replied, scoring the saw lightly over Scotty’s leg.
I killed the engine, but left the lights on as I stepped out and went over to my father and Scotty. Scotty’s tongue lolled out of his mouth onto the table. His eyes stared, wide-open and glassy. My father concentrated on the leg and the saw, but didn’t move. The car dinged behind me, warning me about the lights, that I’d forgotten something.
“I’ve been standing here for an hour,” he said. “It got dark.”
“Uh-huh,” I replied. It was rare for my father to volunteer anything, and when he did, it was best to just encourage him to continue.
“The vet said it was probably a tumor, but I wasn’t going to pay $2000 bucks to find out, especially because if he was right he said there wasn’t anything they could do anyway.”
“He was pretty old, right?”
“Isn’t that like 80-something in dog years?” I said.
“What’s your point?” My father had just turned 78 the week before.
“Why are you here?” he said, not taking his eye off Scotty’s leg or the saw.
“Janie’s piano recital. You said last week you wanted to go. It’s tonight. I left a message on the machine this afternoon.”
“I’ve been busy,” he said.
“I can see that.”
“He hadn’t been doing good. Wouldn’t eat, drinking all the time. Pissing all over the house. Vet said he thought the cancer was in his spleen, said if it ruptured, then he’d bleed out. I asked if that was a bad way to go and the vet said not especially, so I took him home. I found him like this after I got up from my nap.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I know you loved him.”
“Best dog I ever had,” he said. My father wiped the back of his sawing hand across his eyes. “Is your mother going to be there?”
“At the recital. Is she going to be there?”
“Yeah, but we’ve made arrangements.”
Every time there was a family event, my father asked if my mother would be there. I was never sure which answer he was hoping for, probably a mix of both. My father had led a complicated life. For 30 years he had kept two families, his job as a casualty insurance field agent providing a convenient excuse for frequent travel between the two. The truth was that the vast majority of his business was conducted by phone. We—my mother, my older sister (Pam), me—were family number two. Family number one was in Ohio, also a wife, a son and a daughter. Wife #1 had a different name than my mother, having come with her own, but those kids were James and Pam as well. I’d never asked my father why he gave us the same names, whether he just liked them, or if it was a matter of convenience so he’d never slip up and use the wrong one.
When he retired it became harder to cover his tracks and he slipped up pretty quickly and Wife #1 gave him an ultimatum, “us or them.” Not liking ultimatums, my father chose “them,” meaning us: mom, Pam, and me. But once Wife #1 had finished telling my mom about what was going on, my mom didn’t want him. I was grown and out of the house, married, (but no kids yet) so it wasn’t up to me, but I certainly understood her position. He bought a house near us anyway, bringing Scotty home from the pound a couple of weeks later. Since then he’d orbited me and Dani and then Janie’s lives without ever exactly making an attempt at landing. At Janie’s soccer games he’d be down the sidelines, cheering and whistling, but offering just a wave and a “nice game” and a hug for her at the end. Four or five times a year he’d ask permission to spend the day with his granddaughter and we always granted it, though neither of them told me where they went or what they did. Six months ago he failed the vision part of the driving test, and four months ago the state impounded his car after his third time caught out without a license, so since then he’d had to rely on me for transport when he wanted to join in the family fun. He said “yes” more often than not when I asked if he’d like to come.
“I’ve got to do this and then we’ll go,” my father said.
“What is it that you’re doing, anyway?”
“They’re cloning dogs now. Read it in the paper. I just need to preserve a tissue sample. They didn’t say what or how much in the article, so I thought I’d err on the safe side.”
“But Dad . . .” my voice trailed off. I was about to say that we both knew he wasn’t going to be around long enough to see any dog through puppyhood, let alone a cloned one. My father had some cancer of his own going on. It was a tumor that was causing the vision problems, a big one that pressed on the optic nerve as it grew.
“What?” he said, looking up, indignant. The frequency with which I reminded him that he was dying was a point of contention between us. The problem was that his behavior didn’t seem to reflect this fact and it bugged me. Nothing was settled. His affairs were not in order. “I wasn’t thinking for me. I thought maybe you’d want him. He was a great dog.”
“Scotty hated me, Dad.” It was true. The second I got near the door, I could hear the growling, a low, menacing rumble. I’d never even been inside my father’s house because Scotty made it clear I wasn’t welcome.
“Somebody then. He was a great dog.” My father started crying openly then. As though the dripping tears were the signal to start, he began the work and in a dozen or so strokes had cut through the skin and muscle and tendon and bone. The amputation was bloodless. It was a cool early Spring evening, heading to a cold night, and Scotty had been dead for awhile.
Gripping the severed limb in his hand, my father returned the saw to its proper spot on the pegboard and faced me. His skin looked blue-gray in the car’s headlights. “Throw Scotty in the car. We’ve got to drop him off at the vet for the cremation,” he said. “I’ll be out in a minute.” He disappeared inside.
I stroked a hand along Scotty’s still soft fur, the first time I’d ever touched him, before hefting him into my arms, heavy, cold, dead weight. The trunk, as always, was cluttered with junk, so I rested him in the backseat, buckling the seatbelt across his body to hold him in place, then I got back behind the wheel and waited for my father.
“So, what’s on the program tonight?” my father said. He adjusted all the vents so they pointed directly at him and turned the thermostat higher. He’d been doing it since he’d gotten sick, complaining the only time he could get warm was in the car.
“Janie likes ragtime.”
I nodded. “She’s going to play ‘The Entertainer’.”
My father laughed. “How’s that been going at home?”
“Let’s just say that it’s a spirited rendition,” I replied. Janie was a serious child, too serious to my mind sometimes, particularly for a ten-year-old, and for the last three weeks her little hands had been clomping around the piano at home just about any free moment, trying to get a handle on the ragtime rhythm. She’d gotten it to the point where the tune was at least recognizable, but that didn’t mean it was good. Unfortunately, Janie knew this and it stressed her out. There’d been vomiting that morning.
My father laughed again. “God. I can remember that, I’ll tell you. Listening to you make that trumpet squeak, man.”
“I played the sax, Dad.”
“Right, whatever. You thought you were a regular Louis Armstrong.” He smiled and gazed out the window, shaking his head at the memory.
Actually, I wanted to be Charlie Parker, or Sonny Rollins, but he was right that I fancied myself a future legend. Over the years these little mistakes were how I learned about family number one. Before we knew his secret, I thought my father just had a bad memory for details, recounting the time I broke my leg when in reality I’d sprained an ankle, or talking about that terrible sunburn from the vacation in Phoenix when we’d actually been in Taos. Now I knew, though, that the other James had gotten chicken pox on his tongue, had caught the winning touchdown pass in the conference championship game and, apparently, played the trumpet.
“I was pretty good,” I said. “Played through college. Still do.”
“I know that,” he said, gazing at me seriously before looking back out the window. “You missed the turn.”
“We’re going to be late if we stop. We’ll deal with Scotty afterwards.” My voice was hard, anticipating the protest, but my father just nodded.
“You’re the boss,” he said.
The entire audience in the cafetorium squirmed in their folding chairs, but none more than my father. In public he’d started wearing adult diapers, and I could see that they’d become thoroughly bunched. He complained about how uncomfortable they were and how they made him look like a fat ass, but his vanity decided it was better to be an old guy with baggy, rather than wet, pants. We were midway through a 20-kid deep performance list, with Janie not up until the last quarter. The going had been slow, each child receiving a standing ovation and taking multiple curtain calls from the riser up front acting as the stage. My father and I sat on the leftmost aisle, midway back. Because she was pretty much deaf, my mother sat up front on the right. Dani was next to her. My mother leaned forward in her seat, angling her better ear toward the stage. Dani searched over her shoulder until she found me and we made eye contact. She gave me her “whadaya know” smile. Seeing me smile back, my father followed my gaze until he saw Dani and then my mom.
“She looks good,” he whispered to me.
I didn’t ask who he was referring to, Dani or my mom because he could’ve been referring to either. My mom had gone silver, and there was the deafness, but she remained slim and stylish, retaining every ounce of her former catalog model self. I’d never asked my father why he’d done it, why he’d decided he needed or wanted a second wife. I always figured he’d just simply fallen for my mom and at some point she insisted he make an honest woman of her, and so he did, and then, next thing you know, children, not only a second wife, but a second family, multiple casualties.
As we stood in tribute to the latest performance, my father leaned over again.
“How many more?” he asked.
“Two more, then Janie, then four after that.”
“Can we leave when Janie’s done?”
“No, there’s a reception afterwards. We have to congratulate her.”
The next piece was from Kenneth Jackson, an 8-year-old flautist. When the MC announced that he was playing “Freire Jacques” a slight groan escaped the crowd.
Kenneth launched into his number and my father tugged at his pants waist. His face got tighter and tighter as he squirmed until it relaxed as a sigh passed his lips. His eyelids fluttered.
“Feel better,” I said.
His spine stiffened. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Two more standing o’s and finally it was Janie’s turn. She wore a simple, flowered dress, and white stockings with black buckle shoes. She’d insisted that Dani tie her hair in a severe ponytail to keep it from falling in her eyes during the performance. Even at only 10 almost all the baby fat had gone from her face and her cheekbones stood high like her mother’s. After bowing at the front of the stage she situated herself at the keyboard, her toe reaching for the piano’s pedals. I looked over and saw Dani’s face knotted with worry and recognized that look as my own. Next to her my mother’s smile beamed. She was going to enjoy it no matter what, she was deaf and a grandmother.
After two false starts, Janie paused, squeezing her hands together over the keyboard and cracking her knuckles. I held my breath. My father sat upright and nodded and smiled. “It’s going to be fine,” he whispered.
“How do you know?” I asked sotto voce.
“I got a feeling,” he said, half standing out of his chair. I took his arm, but he shook me off. “You can do it, Janie honey,” he shouted toward the stage. Nervous laughs filtered through the audience, but it was as though a spell had been broken and Janie’s hands fluttered on the keyboard. The performance gained confidence and verve throughout and she even added in some flourishing triplets at the end that I’d never heard before. The applause was relieved and maybe even a little bit genuine.
“Told ya,” my father said, pounding his hands together before whistling through his thumb and forefinger.
Driving to my father’s vet’s clinic after the reception I could see that he had red fruit punch stains at the corners of his mouth, remnants from the reception. Most of the time he and I had spent together since he’d lost his license was in restaurants, and food and drink always seemed to end up somewhere on his body, crumbs down his shirtfront, spinach dangling from his chin. When I was a kid, he used to lecture me on manners, the customer service man in him telling me how important impressions were. With his stray food problem and diapers, he was giving off the impression of an old man.
“That went well,” he said.
“I agree.” Janie had done nicely after the initial hiccups and when I told her that she was the best one, it was something close to the truth. Plus, we’d successfully executed the family dance afterwards, making sure Janie could see both grandparents without them seeing, or at least having to speak to, each other.
“She’s a great kid,” he said.
“I agree with that, too.”
“You’re a good father.”
“That’s nice of you to say.”
“You two ever think about having more?”
“We think about it all the time.”
“And what is it you’re thinking?” he said.
This was the father of my youth, filled with questions. Dinners were friendly interrogations: “Who are your friends?” “Who’s your best friend?” “Why is he your best friend?” “What’s your favorite subject?” “Who’s the meanest teacher?” I would answer each as my food grew cold until finally my mother waved him off and he turned his attention to her or Pam. I think we all loved the attention, the interest. When he was home, he was present, involved. When he got up in the morning he whistled through the house, summoning Pam and I out of bed for the breakfast he’d already begun. He would grab my mother and dance through the kitchen to the tune in his head and she would at first lean back, but she was laughing and eventually, she would nuzzle close into his neck before he’d unfurl her in a twirl. He was fun. We loved having him home.
Evenings, he sat at the table and wrote in his journal and once I asked him what he was doing.
“Getting it all down, buddy. Got to get it all down.”
“Because each day is a gift and it’s nice to remember your gifts. Now, let me get to it before I forget something.”
That was also the father of my youth, filled with questions, but empty of answers. I’d ask him about work, about the places he’d travel, but he’d always put me off saying it was “grownup stuff,” or “uninteresting.” Of course, it was all a dodge, and the gift business was bullshit to boot. After the truth was revealed, I realized a lot of things, one of which was that his journal was his cheat sheet, his way of making sure that he knew where he was.
“I’m thinking that our plates feel pretty full,” I said. It was true. Even with just one child, each day felt scheduled to the brim. Neither Dani nor I saw how there could be room for more without risking damage to what we had. My father looked at me like he thought I should have more to say. “Are you sure the vet’s going to be open?” I said.
He looked back at Scotty. “They’ve got a 24-hour emergency clinic. They said to drop him off any time. I’ll get the ashes next week.” He looked out the front and then rubbed his knuckles in his eyes.
“Everything’s got a halo around it now,” he said. “It’s kind of pretty, actually.”
“Looking on the bright side,” I said.
“Got to,” he replied. “Got to.”
When we arrived at the clinic, my father sat unmoving in his seat. “I’ll help you get him in,” I said, unbuckling my belt.
“Wait.” He gripped my arm.
“I don’t want to do this.”
“He’s gone, Dad, and you’ve got the leg in the freezer. It’s time to let go.”
“No, I mean cremation. I don’t want him cremated. It isn’t natural.”
This was too much. “Not natural? And cloning is?”
He looked at me, exasperated. The look said that in his head it all made sense and that I was being thick for not understanding. But I didn’t understand. “I want to bury him,” he said. “Seems like the least I can do.”
Pissed, I sat back heavily in my seat and rebuckled my belt. “Fine, we’ll take him to your house and bury him out back. It’s late and Dani and Janie are waiting for me at home, but that’s what we’ll do.” I squealed my tires backing out of the spot.
“Not home,” my father said. “The soil’s too hard. It’s all clay. We’ll never get him deep enough.”
“Well, he’s not going in my yard.”
“I’ve got another spot in mind. Turn left here.”
Strangling the wheel, I drove, not knowing the destination, just following my father’s directions as we wound our way through town. Eventually, he told me to make a final left and we pulled in under the cast iron entrance of Greenlawn Cemetery.
“You want to bury him in the cemetery?” I said. “I think you need permission for that kind of thing.” I moved to reverse out of the entrance, but he clamped his hand on the shifter.
“It’s fine,” he said. “Drive in. I’ll tell you where to stop.”
I steered down the path, the headstones brightening in the car’s lights before being swallowed again by the darkness. After a couple of hundred yards my father told me to stop and got out of the car and walked off the path onto the lawn.
I followed, once again leaving the lights on to show the way. My father had stopped at a small patch where two gravesites stood side-by-side. One of them had a headstone with my father’s name on it at the top, then a blank spot where the inscription belonged. At the bottom was the year of his birth with the current year beside it.
“That’s not looking at the bright side,” I said.
“I bought the plot last month. The stone was finished last week. I didn’t have anywhere else to put it. It’s cheaper the less you have to have engraved afterward. Let’s just say it’s an educated guess.”
“I know I saw a shed around here somewhere. There’ll be shovels there,” he said, looking around. The car’s headlights gave off just enough light to reach us. Beyond was darkness.
“You want to bury Scotty in your grave?”
“No, next to me. I bought two, one for your mother, but she doesn’t want it.”
“Who would’ve guessed?” I said. “And how were you going to find out anyway?”
“I don’t remember you being such a smartass.”
“Maybe you can look it up in your journal.” I let the last word drip from my mouth.
“Look,” he said. “I get it. You’re pissed, but you don’t know everything, alright? You especially don’t know everything about me and your mother.”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing,” he said, turning back to the car. “You’ve got an emergency light in the trunk, right? You’re the sort who would have that, aren’t you?”
He was right. Next to the emergency tire inflator and the first aid kit and the battery recharger was a flashlight that ran by cranking the handle for thirty seconds to give it juice for half an hour. We used it to find the shed my father remembered, which was conveniently open and had a full array of earth moving tools, including shovels.
My father tried to keep up with my pace, but he was old and sick and I was younger and angry. The digging actually felt good. The muscles in my back burned and I stripped off my jacket when the sweat began to pool there. After awhile my father stood to the side, resting his arms across the top of the shovel, and for the first time maybe ever he talked.
“Did I ever tell you about my very first case? The Des Moines crash?”
I grunted in response. We both knew that he’d never told me anything substantive about his work. Even after the jig was up he hadn’t spilled any of the secrets that had accumulated over the years. I always figured it was force of habit.
“It happened the day after I finished my training. Verna and I had been married about a year. The other James had just been born. I wouldn’t meet your mom for another couple of years. The plane went down in a cornfield short of the runway, plowed into it like a missile. 222 dead. One survivor.”
“Someone lucky,” I said.
“Maybe, maybe not,” he replied. “There were so many casualties they took any warm body for the assessment work. Half my training class was there. They took us right to the site and it was our job to document the dead, where they were, how they died, impact, smoke inhalation, burning. Those things make a difference in insurance, you know.”
“They do. Pain and suffering they call it. Most of them were still in their seats, twisted like if you just threw a rag doll on the floor, crumpled by the impact, but you could tell that others of them survived the initial crash. They were facedown in the aisle, like they were trying to make a break for it, but got overcome by the smoke.”
“Oh, it was. It was.” The lantern died and my father paused to give it another 30 seconds of cranking. I didn’t think I was six feet down, but it seemed deep enough for a dog. I slowed down and began squaring off the grave sides.
“So, the survivor,” my father continued, “22 years old mother of a 6-month-old, on her first flight ever, going to show her child to the in-laws for the first time. Husband and baby died in the crash. She was thrown free into the field on the plane’s first impact, broke a leg. 32,000.”
“The death benefit from the airline’s insurance, 32,000 dollars. That was actually quite a lot in those days. 30,000 for the husband, 2,000 for the kid.”
“It seems like they got those numbers backwards,” I said.
“You’d say that. You’re a father.”
“So are you.”
“That’s right. I am. I was.”
“Do you ever talk to them?”
“Verna, other Pam, other Jim?”
“Nope, not for a long time. You’ve got to understand that it was different for them. They were first. To them it was like I was saying they weren’t enough. That I had to go looking for more.”
There wasn’t any more digging to do. My arms tingled and as the sweat cooled, I shivered when I looked up from the grave at my father. “But we weren’t enough either, right?”
“I’ll tell you what I told anyone when they asked about how much insurance they should get, ‘you can never have too much.’” He scraped his shoe over the ground, like a bashful kid, “Now, that looks good enough for an old dead dog, don’t you think?”
I nodded and he retreated to car and returned cradling Scotty in his arms. He leaned over and handed him to me and I laid the body gently in the bottom of the grave. My father extended his hand down to me and I gripped it hard as he hauled me out. Together we made quick work of covering Scotty and when we were done stood side-by-side looking down at the fresh, smoothed-over dirt.
“Should we say something?” I asked.
“Here lies Scotty, best dog I ever had,” my father said.
“Wasn’t he your only dog?”
“Doesn’t change the sentiment.” My father took the shovel from my hand and walked off to the shed. While he was gone I looked at his headstone, at the blank spot for the inscription. When he returned I asked, “What are you going to put there?”
“I figure that’s up to you, sonny boy.”
It was well past midnight when we arrived back at his house. I felt melded into the car’s seat, spent, exhausted. When I stopped in the driveway, my father told me to wait a second, that he’d be right back out. I was going to tell him that with Scotty gone I’d be able to go inside, but I suppose it was another force of habit, or maybe Scotty wasn’t the only one who didn’t want me seeing what went on in there.
After enough time that I was ready to just go in uninvited, my father appeared in the headlights, cradling an armful of leather-bound journals. He opened the passenger-side door and dumped them on the seat. “These are for you,” he said, and then, before I could get a word out, he gave me his usual sign off, the one he’d left me with my whole life, “Have a good one.”
By the time I arrived home, the whole house was asleep. I would’ve appreciated a greeting of some kind, some acknowledgement that I’d been gone and had now returned. I had to settle for the refrigerator’s hum. I thought about asking Dani in the morning if she thought we should get a dog. I drank straight from a carton of orange juice, knowing Dani would killed me if she saw. I carried the journals upstairs to the spare bedroom and tucked them in the corner of the closet. I don’t know why, but I didn’t read them until after my father died, less than six months later, well within the window to make the headstone accurate. The first journal dated from his freshman year of college, long before he had one family, let alone two. I read it in huge gulps, skimming forward then flipping back for parts that I’d missed. They were as he described them, his way of remembering the good stuff, and some of the bad stuff too. There was no remorse, no apologies, no acknowledgement that he’d done anything wrong. The Des Moines crash was in there, one of the longest entries. I discovered quite a few things, not the least of which was that for the last 10 years my mother and father had been having sex every Wednesday afternoon. One of the last entries was him recording my mother’s refusal to take the other gravesite.
Afterwards asked Millie if she’d join me for all eternity. She thought I said something about “joining a fraternity,” so I made her put her hearing aids back in. She was nice about it, but said no, said “what will the children think?” I told her I didn’t give a damn because I’d be dead and that made her start crying, so I shut up about it.
Oh well, tried my best.
Mom and Pam came to the funeral. Verna, other Pam, and other James weren’t interested. Verna told me, “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” over the phone. We didn’t have anything for the headstone inscription by the ceremony, but a few weeks later, after reading through the journals I met the engraver at the site and handed him what I wanted written on a slip of paper.
“You sure?” he asked.
“Won’t take long,” he said.
So I watched as he marked and measured the space and then went to work with his grinder and polisher. Soon it was all there, complete.
Daniel Foster Yates
Tried his best
b. 1929 – d. 2008
—photo Flickr/sidewalk flying