"13 Ways of Looking at My Father in His Bathing Suit," by Jim Daniels

Jim Daniels

Jim Daniels

Jim Daniels’ new book, Birth Marks, was published by BOA Editions in 2013. Other books published in 2011 include Trigger Man: More Tales of the Motor City, Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry, and All of the Above. In 2010, he wrote and produced the independent film "Mr. Pleasant,” which appeared in many film festivals across the country. He also published From Milltown to Malltown, a collaboration with photographer Charlee Brodsky. His poem "Factory Love" is displayed on the roof of a race car. A native of Detroit, Daniels teaches at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

13 Ways of Looking at My Father in His Bathing Suit

1. A shock the first time and every rare, rarer time after. Shy, shyer, gray, grayer. Unafraid of the cold, cold water. He could not save us, but he did.

2. Never shirtless at home. Yellow stains spread under his arms as he painted white walls in summer heat and called it vacation. We weren’t allowed to climb his magic ladder.

3. He held my hand as we waded in Burt Lake. I squinted up, afraid of pale skin exposed. He who never hugged, who shook our hands because his father could not swim and did not love him: Squeeze. Squeeze harder.

4. Is that true? My Uncle Jerry became a ghost at age fifteen and thus, my father leaned against the ghost, hoping to be seen through his parents’ grief, to be allowed to swim. They only let him stick his toes in.

5. He had the care and patience and silence of a great chess player and the poker face of a man with a losing hand.

6. He taught me and my brothers poker at Burt Lake State Park, betting with match sticks while rain drummed on canvas in a rhythm that stopped time.

7. Cold Michigan lakes can baptize anyone into the religion of paying a price, but coming from Detroit, we already knew.

8. The army taught him how to swim and swear and to guard the tight lid of his heart.

The factory offered dark heat and sputtering sparks and the solid brick of a regular check. Thirst like dry syrup for the sweet or alcoholic. The squint into daylight despite the soul’s sunglasses.

9. He stubbed his toe trying to balance overtime with a life, a family life. Or he fell off the ledge, or off the high wire and into Niagara Falls where he emerged at the bottom, putting the finishing touches on his barrel.

10. If he lied, I never caught him. I never caught him as he swam away from me, far out into the lake. Burt Lake, and who was Burt, and did he have an old Plymouth for sale cheap, transportation special?

11. His washed-out green bathing suit sagged with the dried-out elastic of the American dream. His only lesson was to toss me out of the rowboat in the middle of the lake where he’d anchored us. When he jumped in after me, I clutched him. I held on.

12. He didn’t have a trucker’s tan or a magician’s tan or the tan of flakey Hollywood. He had not time for movies or anything that wasn’t true. He was tanned by grease and darkness and the red-hot hands of the time clock.

13. He stood gaunt and white with dark swatches of hair, and we saw the mysterious red spots on his chest. Our mother called them wisdom spots. He might have blushed, or else the sun was having a word with him.

14. If you could see him in his pale, crooked suit, hands on hips, forcing a smile, you might pity this 2D man in a 3D world, beach balls exploding around us like fake laughter on the crowded sand. Do not pity him.

15. Methodical executioner, he drowned rats in a garbage can, or pumped exhaust in through the hose.

16. He built cars and greased his hair on Sunday and ushered at church. I loved him as an Act of Faith. Getting ready for school, I smelled his cigarettes and shaving cream, his shit and his toothpaste, mornings in the bathroom after he was gone, long gone.

17. Summers we cut the grass with the push mower. We took off our shirts. We ran in the sprinkler. We waited through dusk and into darkness for him to come home. Home, we moaned like wind.

18. I point my pointer at the diagram of the nearly naked man. From a distance, he looks like a large rock. Eroded, but rock nonetheless. Raccoon without the hiss. Caged polar bear with dignity intact.

19. Close cover before striking. Strike when there is no choice. Offer no excuses. Shut your trap. Avoid traps. Everything’s a trap. Do the smell test. A rat is a rat is a rat.

20. Vacation is a concept passed down from the rich and famous. If you must go on vacation, be wary of maps, fake Indians, and eating out.

21. The birds and the bees, another concept handed down from the rich and famous.

Hand-me-downs. Hand-me-downs, and God.

22. Pack light. Don’t stare.

23. If you wait long enough, it will stop hurting. If it still hurts, don’t tell anyone.

Don’t wash your hair, and it won’t fall out.

24. Fishing is for the dull, the insane, the already caught. Don’t drown worms or purchase needless equipment.

25. He showed us the knot in his arm from high school curveballs. My father threw curveballs? I nearly fainted, but fainting was not allowed.

26. He wore his towel like Superman—his only joke.