James M. Chesbro’s essays appear in CT Review, The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and Stymie Magazine. His essay “Night Running” was listed as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2012. He is the co-editor of You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person (Welcome Table Press). He teaches at Fairfield Prep and Fairfield University. He lives with his wife and three children in Connecticut.
The brown and red writing had faded on the old white mug that said Dad with a Capital D. My sister and I had given it to him for Father’s Day when we were kids. The rim was cracked. I thought drinking from it would be a way to have a cup of coffee with my father in the morning, but the crack irritated my mouth. The coffee tasted bitter. I felt like a fraud. I’m not my father. This was his mug. And he’s dead.
Eleven steps led up to the attic of my house. I shimmied my father’s old bookcase through the doorway. My hands reached around to the sides, but couldn’t find a grip. My fingers slid up and down the wood that he had painted white. I stood next to the damn thing and grabbed hold of a shelf. Bang. First step. Bang. Second step. I turned my palm up, wedged my bent arm into the opening of one of the five shelves, and bore the brunt of the weight on one shoulder. Standing on the attic floorboards, I considered lowering my shoulder and tipping it over. I leaned on my knees with stiff arms instead. The bookshelf was my offering to the graveyard of cardboard boxes. Disturbed dust particles descended in the light, landing on the duct tape and permanent black marker in thin layers. The cobwebs connecting the boxes together wavered in the shifting air of the unfinished attic.
I’m old enough to wonder which art and photography books were his favorites. What did he turn to for inspiration as a sketch artist, or as a teacher? We were friends when he died. I would have asked him, eventually, if we had had more time.
In the black-and-white photograph, my father stands in his classroom holding a camera. I had kept the framed image in my own classroom for a while. I was throwing a foam football around to generate discussion with my all-male high-school students, and one of them tossed the ball too low, and it hit the frame on my desk and broke the glass. In the picture, four of my father’s students sit on stools along a rectangular table. Three heads bend down, and over my father’s shoulder, one of his students looks out the windows of the room, and it’s hard not to presume his imagination was at work.
After the frame broke, a fine, one-inch line scarred my father’s chest, above his heart. His right hand grips the top of the camera. His left is turned under. His thumb, middle, ring, and pinky fingers cup the lens. He is wearing his ring and a watch. His hairy arms are exposed in his sleeveless, button-down shirt. The collar is open at the top. His lips are parted, as if he is about to speak. The smile lines around his mouth are ready to press into action. Black framed glasses rest on the bridge of his nose. His eyes stare out over them, into the camera and I like to think, at me.
The desktop was five feet long and over two feet wide. The wood was dull beige, hard and heavy, fortified with some industrial synthetic resin. I could see a reflection of myself on its shiny surface. I was twenty-four. My father had died, and I was moving it out of his house in New Jersey to my apartment in Connecticut. In the years the desktop spent in Dad’s classroom, the house he rented, my two apartments and the house I bought, not a scratch, dent, or nick marred its surface. I drilled the first, second, and third long thick screws out. The fourth jammed. I tipped the desk on its side. The wood creaked. I wrenched free the two drawers with both hands.
I carried the desktop down the stairs, avoiding walls and moldings. I lifted it over my head and slid it over the metal ridge of the dumpster. The walls echoed behind me as I walked to the garage in pursuit of a sledgehammer.
Old kitchen chairs, a mattress, an air-conditioner, clothes, shoes, and pieces of Dad’s orange wingback chair shifted under the report of the metal sledgehammer head. The mismatched décor of college leftovers and Dad’s old furniture had filled the empty space in the apartment I shared with my best friend.
The stubborn desktop broke into parts under my feet, and I repositioned myself after each blow. I pounded the desktop until the parts splintered and cracked. Broken fragments bounced into the air over torn wood fibers.
The tailor removed material from the back and then the bottom of my father’s black overcoat. The sleeves came to my wrist, the bottom of the black wool draped around my knees. The shoulders however, were big, linebacker-shoulder-pads big. I looked as if I was equipped to shrug my shoulders, cast the coat to the ground on the sidelines, strap on a helmet and enter a football game. I looked as though I was wearing my father’s coat.
The brass base and neck of the desk lamp extended to a ceramic green oval shade. While painting a model airplane at my childhood desk, my father loved to walk in, turn on the lamp over my head, and say, “Why don’t you shed some light on the subject?” I don’t need to keep his desk lamp to remember him saying this corny line to me. After seeing this same lamp at an office supply store on sale for $14.99, I trashed it. I’m not discarding my father. I’m chucking a cheap lamp.
Three pairs of my father’s wool slacks hang in a plastic zipper bag in the same closet as our coats by the front door of our home.
I like the blue-green-and-black plaid with red and yellow intersecting lines on his wool tie. My students sometimes say they have the same tie. And I tell them my grandparents bought it in Scotland for their son-in-law over thirty years ago. My wife says that it looks like her Catholic grammar-school skirt. If I am in defense of prolonging a memory, a picture in my mind of my father in a blue blazer and charcoal slacks at Christmas, then why do I wear it? I tell myself his fingers slid along the red and yellow lines, that the wool brushed against his buttons when he breathed. I loosen the Windsor knot around my neck after the last bell of my teaching day, and it’s a relief to remember, in a moment between the student’s voices emptying from my classroom and echoing against the metal lockers, and before the announcements thunder through the ceiling speaker, that I belong to him too.
I imagine the blank board in my father’s hands as a student at the University of the Arts. He probably brushed the dark stain into the grain first, and then painted the white border. Every line of the flags of the International Code of Signals remains straight and even. He must have drawn and then painted: flags alpha to zulu, pennant one through zero, and the club flags first, second, and third substitutes. Some brush strokes are perpendicular, but most run parallel with the grain. The rope wraps around the border of the board and is tied in a knot. On top of my father’s old dresser, I edit my writing, under lamplight and the International Code of Signals.
Three sets of colored pencils remain in the box that sits on my bookshelf in my home office. My father gave me five boxes of colored pencils and a stack of drawing paper. “Here,” he said one day when I was with him in his art classroom, “Use’em for projects.” And I did. My freshmen broke them. I found them on the floor between the metal desk legs. But I don’t teach freshmen anymore and I’ve never had the courage to ask the upperclassmen males to illustrate the scenes we study.
My son, James, can hold crayons, markers, pens, and pencils between his index finger and thumb. He likes to rotate his hand and watch the color appear on the page in overlapping lines. I give him a box of colored pencils. He draws green, red, blue, yellow, and black circles on the drawing paper. James doesn’t know they are from his grandfather. I’m not saddened when they snap, when the lead color flies out from between each of his fists. I give him more pencils so he can draw circles. I wonder if he is holding what his grandfather held, if the real gift is not the pencils, but in the discovery, that one day James will hold up a piece of paper and say, “Look!” And we will see in the unbroken lines that he can draw.
From the rust and sawdust at the bottom of his metal toolbox, I lifted a white pencil with ’81 Buick printed in red. Below the Buick logo, an eagle spread its wings across the pencil. As I examined the details between the dull lead point and the worn pink eraser, I heard my father say, “Whatever you do, I don’t want you going into the car business.” We were in his car. I had just told him my plans to major in English and that I was thinking about becoming a teacher. I’m following in your footsteps, Dad, I thought as I said it. You’re flattered, right? Don’t become a car salesman? Dad, I said, teacher. I’m going to teach high-school English.
As I rolled the wood between my pointer finger and thumb, the memory in the car unfolded. Dad had more to say, but not much. “Can you imagine where I’d be now if I quit teaching and accepted your grandfather’s offer to sell cars full-time?” he said.
I didn’t want to sell cars and I was never invited to do so.
“Why not, Dad?” I, simply asked.
“Just promise me. All right? You can do better,” he said. “You really want to be a teacher, huh?”
“Yeah, I like my English courses. The long papers intimidate the hell out of me, but once I get started, I actually like thinking about the characters and all that.”
“Well, it’s better than selling cars.”
Every time he looked for a screwdriver, hammer, or drill bit and flicked the pencil out of the way, my father made a decision not to throw it out. Every September he walked into room A-10 and his vocation as an art teacher. The white pencil is a relic, a reminder in the back of my office desk drawer, of what is worth keeping.
My father’s cotton and flannel plaid shirts hang in James’s closet. I bring them to my face in hopes of detecting the familiar trace of his musty house and Zest soap. The sleeves brush against each other when I free one of my own shirts from its metal hanger. They all hang together, like formless arms shifting enough to sway back and forth, as if they deliver a single wave to the dust on the floor.
On the other side of the closet wall is Mary’s room. After Mary falls asleep and before James gives up on prolonging his bedtime routine, he runs around his bed and into his closet. I chase after him. He giggles and climbs on his hamper. I grab him with both hands under his arms. My fingers press into the fleece pajamas around his torso. Through the faint light from the hallway, he reaches for his grandfather’s shirtsleeves, pulling him toward us.
I had his white plastic laundry basket. It stayed in the rotation for seven years, until the day the crack on one of the side handles scratched my arm. I walked down the driveway, lifted the lid on the trashcan, and dropped it in. The white plastic echoed in the large green container. I don’t think my father would want me to be weighed down by his stuff. Each time I throw out a mug or a lamp that was his, I am lighter. He did not raise me to hoard his old junk and pretend to be him. He raised me to put out my hand, look someone in the eye, and introduce myself with the name he gave me.