I read a piece more than a month ago that appears in the Best American Short Stories series for 2012, and I’ve been thinking about it since. Whenever I finish something I’ve read, whether it be a short story, a novel or a poem, I struggle to explain my exact feelings after the fact, but this story, for me, felt dreamlike — as though I had previously experienced the events it contained. The story itself follows a father and son as they struggle to connect by means of a video game, the father investing more interest in the game than in his own finances or hygiene. Over the course of the narrative, the reader witnesses the father’s process of deterioration through the eyes of his young son, who fights to overcome the embarrassment he feels on behalf of his father.
Let me begin by saying that my mother and father have been divorced for almost the entirety of my life. After age five, I spent weekends with him in countless apartments, in different locations and in the houses of women with whom he decided to live. He allowed me to watch movies well-beyond my years, eat the food I wanted — provided he could afford it — and stay up until he fell asleep on the couch, as he often did. These memories I have arranged and stored, succinctly, mechanically, leaving them to suffer from their own irrelevance to my daily life. I do not speak to my father, I do not think of my father, but this story seemed to so adeptly capture the complete awareness I experienced as a young child. Like the story’s protagonist, I employed the inevitable reverence I felt for him as a means of combating the knowledge of my own shame. My naïve understanding of the world operated on the assumption that adults know what’s best, that I could put my trust into their opinions despite how dysfunctional or careless they might have seemed. And this is the paradox the author made so clear to me upon reading his work: Although my young age lent itself to a smaller range of understanding, I carried the burden of recognizing the faults within my father when even he could not.
My mother tells me of a time when I cried because I was worried where he would stay after his then-girlfriend kicked him out of their apartment. This sense of concern I felt for my father seems illusory to me now, although worrying is a trait I have carried into my adulthood. I do not worry about him anymore, but sometimes I find myself wondering what he looks like. There is a moment in the story during which the child painfully debates whether or not to tell his father that he has “cheese-puff dust” in his hair, and as I see my father now, he is probably playing a video game somewhere with that same orange dust sprinkled across his beard.