Thursday, June 4, 2015

My dad's scarlet letter

There is nothing quite like the glint of fake jewelry soaring through the hot Nevada air toward their demise to cement a memory.

My dad was a baseball player. Actually, he was a man-of-all-sports, but baseball was his true love, the one that could have taken him to college and beyond, had the motivation been his and not just the talent. Raising four fairly girly daughters kept him from tossing the ball around in the back yard. Since girls didn't fit the definition of "ball-tosser-arounders," it's likely it simply never occured to him to attempt it. When grandsons finally showed up after six granddaughters, it didn't make a difference. He was out of practice, but some talents never leave us.

I wonder if he realized the irony that two of his best pitches, the ones that clearly demonstrated that even rusty, the man had an arm that was meant to throw, were fueled by defeat. Part of the events that had brought us to that moment are second hand; I had spent the night with my best friend at her mom's house in West Las Vegas, while my parents trolled the Strip. Sometime before I returned, but after their morning breakfast buffet of thinly sliced prime rib and sugary pastries, a desperate man approached them, jewelry in his hand, deceit in his heart. He was losing badly at the tables, and needed to shed some valuables to get back in the game. The  flash of gold, the promise of value beyond the price contained in the watch and the necklace, sunk deep into my dad's heart. And possibly my mom's too, as, in her own words, "I pulled out my hundred, too." I imagine the deal was over almost as fast as it began.

It was after that moment that time began to stand still. By the time I had rejoined them, doubt and regret had started to eat at my dad's heart. Both were emotions he knew well; doubt was always right behind all of his schemes to get something more from something less. The wooden duck decoy business. The reverse osmosis laundry ball. The myriad of real estate deals that never panned out. Oh, how he wanted to be a success. To finally edge away from his regret over his blue-collar lay off and his inability to provide for his family in the aftermath. What he didn't realize was that being laid off is generally more forgivable than spending your entire life afterward in a funk of desperate regret. 

They had already started to bicker as I climbed into the car at our rendezvous point. Dad was trying to convince himself and his wife that the item's imperfections implied that they had value. Mom was blaming him for his impetuousness. Both were dreading the inevitable. I don't remember much as we drove to the hotel where my uncle was a security guard to find a jeweler. I know there was a long walk through the casino, trays of necklaces with tiny tags, and expectations that were predictably dashed. The finality of the jeweler's eyepiece as it dropped back to his chest, swung a few times, then lay still.

It is impossible for me to leave Las Vegas without remembering. The air in the car was thick with blame and regret and guilt and shame. Words didn't help, nor were they easy to find. To keep talking about the event made it worse. Small talk was crowded out by past and present and future.

Just after you climb out of the valley of sin, the desert stretches north. Somewhere in the midst of all that nothingness, we suddenly stopped. I watched my dad climb from the car. The necklace and watch were ceremonially cast away, as far as my dad's once-golden arm could get them as his wife and daughter looked on. He hoped that by casting them away and then making a pact to never talk about the event again, it would be erased. The fingerprints would bake away in the sun. The rust that had already started to eat away at the necklace would be helped by the wind and rain. The watch would run out of time.

But the ache of that morning lives on. The attempt to erase acted like cement. Knowing my dad was trusting and too-hopeful and eager to get something for nothing became a rust that degraded my faith in him. Oh how I wish it hadn't. The glint of defeat that is my last visual memory of the jewelry was never erased by any subsequent success my dad could show me. He couldn't process it for himself, so I neither could I. I could neither side with him or against him, because to do either was to go against one of my parents, and that didn't feel right, even though it was the general way that things were played in our family.

How I wish I could tell him that I forgive him for being hopeful and eager. Assure him that those aren't bad qualities. Joke about the glints of flying gold to take away their power. What I understand now is that it was never about the loss of a few hundred dollars. Those few hours and cheap items became a glowing symbol of all the ways he failed those around him, instead of a moment of poor judgement.

He wore that necklace and watch, and all that they implied, on his heart until the day he died. Only three of us could actually see them, but I regret to say that almost everyone could feel them.