But there were moments. I do remember moments. Judy says you add them up and get nothing. She says every child is entitled to make up her own burdies. And I say if the memories are real and you add yours up, you’ll get a sum. One and one make two.
I remember as a little boy being with my father in Uncle Raymond’s furniture store. It was just possible my father had been working there for a while, perhaps selling used furniture out of the dusty, dimly lit back of the store while Uncle Raymond worked out of the shiny and wax-scented showroom up front. It’s possible my father had taken me to work with him that day. Anything is possible. In my memory I am crawling around on the floor, exploring among the old dining room tables and chairs and somber dark chests while my father waits for his customers in an easy chair, like a bear sitting back in his lair. I must come on him unwittingly for when he says, “Where do you think you’re going?” he takes me by surprise and I don’t have an answer. The light is so dim back there that he seems to be part of the chair. The armrests are massive and end in what look like an animal’s claws, with deep grooves between the fingers. The chair’s fabric has a staleness about it I’ll later associate with the staleness of caves. My father sits there, almost daring someone to come in and give him reason to rise. One foot is planted squarely on the floor, and there isn’t another, of course. His hand briefly grazes the top of my head. “Where do you think you’re going?” may be the first words of his I remember, a rhetorical question, for surely he knew the answer. I was going to him.
The memory continues. My father insists he didn’t hear me and asks the question again, but before I can even attempt an answer he has picked me up and sat me down in that gap his missing leg provides, and there is nothing spooky about it, nothing to be kept out of sight—as though in the darkness at the back of a store—and I remember in that instant it being the most natural fit in the world. My father lost a leg fighting for his country, and I sit there in the space provided making up the difference.
The second memory is more complex. I am older. More is at stake. And it all takes place out of doors. Even with that loss of a leg my father remained an outdoorsman. For a while he had a few friends left he hunted with, but he never took me out with him then. I saw him come home with game, quail and rabbits, mostly, and I saw the breached shot gun and could smell the spent shells, and I especially remembered the muddied end of his crutch, red mud, the stain sometimes a foot high. Because I’d seen the implacable way he hurtled around town, I could easily imagine him out in a cornfield, moving down rows as he flushed out quail. He’d hammer the crutch home and in the second half of the motion raise his shotgun and fire as the quail whirred up before him. His hunting companions might be stumbling over clods of dirt and stumps of corn stalks and get off slightly delayed shots, but it would be unfair to compare them to my father. It was not just his powers of concentration that were fierce; his powers of compensation were, too. He’d lost a leg and made of his crutch a fulcrum for any activity he wanted to undertake. In comparison, his two-legged hunting companions would seem under-equipped. It wasn’t their fault, and they wouldn’t hunt with him long. Others would, men my father came to do business with. And then they wouldn’t either. And I, of course, never hunted with or without him a day in my life.
But he did take me out of doors for I remember walking through the shadows of a pine forest and then emerging into the open of an overgrown field of some sort, corn or cotton, abandoned now. I remember coming out into the light, an unsunny gray day but a great expanse, and the light under those clouds seemed equable and clear. We were not alone. Another man was standing on the other side of my father, whom I didn’t know. I remember he was not dressed for the forest or the fields. Perhaps he had a suit on and a pampered sort of plumpness to his cheek that would have led you to believe he’d spent most of his life indoors. Now, I have reason to believe he was a bank official of some sort, but in my memory he simply stood on the other side of my father, and when my father raised his free arm and with a visionary authority divided up the field, I assumed he was doing it for me, that there was a lesson to be learned, man subduing nature, that sort of thing. My father and the man exchanged some words, and then my father raised his hand again and, altering its line, divided the field differently. His tone of voice was more patient than normal, but still instructional, and even though he wasn’t expressly addressing me, I believed the lesson to be learned was mine. I nodded and tried to stand up taller. My father and the man continued to talk, and the word I heard again and again was “future.” The field, I began to realize, would not always lie so low to the horizon and that lid of clouds would not always be there to take the harshness out of the light. Something would have to be done to accommodate oncoming events, and that was what my father was explaining to the man and marking off with that hand. The future. Then the hand fell on my head for perhaps the second time in my life. A large hand, perhaps as large as a preacher’s, but with a burly, root-like strength in each of the fingers. In the dimness of the used furniture section of the family store, he might have placed his hand there once before, but this was out in the open, there was a witness, and in the name of the future my father and I stood together, hand to head, bound by a common cause. I believe the man made some sound or motion to indicate that he understood. I don’t remember ever meeting his eye. The truth is I disregarded him. He was a mere accessory to whatever my father had brought me out there to do. And I have to believe the man disregarded me, or regarded me as a mere prop for the show my father was mounting to get what he wanted from the bank, which was a loan, of course, to buy the field, which would be divided up according to the dictates of his hand once he’d raised it off my head.
But I was not a prop. The town banking man was wrong. I was an accomplice, and with his fingers spreading out over my head my father is telling me to play along, to look out over that field and see what he sees, an expressway passing by, with its off-ramps, overpasses, clover-leafs, shopping centers, neighborhoods of curving streets and handsome houses with glistening front lawns and cars glistening in the drives. Schools and ballfields and boys with their balls. The fingers breathe, vibrate, send out their code. We make up a team, son, you and I. This fellow standing at my side is a lifetime minor leaguer, but we’ll use him to take a step up. Don’t worry. We won’t be seeing him again. And I don’t have my hand on your head because I need you to be my crutch. I need you to stand there and smile and nod and look like a boy who wants to ride a bike down one of those streets, and who wants to jump off in front of one those houses, and who wants to be there when his father drives up one of those drives. You could be that boy, couldn’t you, son? And if your father were coming back from a war, you could be standing there like a little soldier yourself waiting for him, couldn’t you? At attention, like a little soldier? Without blinking your eyes? For however long it takes? Sure you could, son.
* * * *
The story of how my father made his fortune I did not have to go to Hugh or Aunt Louise or any other family member to get for I observed it myself. For all practical purposes, my father’s career as developer began in that field. And one field ripe for development led to another. How my father learned where various expressways and roundabouts would be built, instantaneously converting barren land into very valuable property, is another story, and a darker one, or perhaps its darkness is nothing more than the last light left from the Bob Langley legend, what not just the town but that whole area of the state felt it owed the man before the curtain came down and the debt was paid in full.
LAMAR HERRIN is the author of seven novels, including The Lies Boys Tell, House of the Deaf, and Fractures; a memoir, Romancing Spain; and numerous short stories, which have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review and Epoch, and elsewhere. He has won a NEA fellowship, an AWP Award for the Novel, and the Paris Review’s Aga Kahn award for fiction. He is a professor emeritus from Cornell University and with his wife, Amparo Ferri, divides his time between Ithaca, New York and Valencia, Spain.
Adapted from Father Figure, by Lamar Herrin, Copyright © 2015 by Lamar Herrin. With the permission of the publisher, Fomite Press.