Ricky Ginsburg - For everyone's dad

We were waiting for a second round of drinks in celebration of his seventieth birthday, the first one we'd spent together in years. I'd rolled my eyes when he insisted on cocktails before dinner at his favorite bar, a place on the beach in Ft. Lauderdale where a glass of water was five dollars and a buck extra for each ice cube, regardless of size. I knew he would ask, no, demand that we go there. "You can't find a drier martini in the Sahara," he'd exclaimed. I'd mouthed the words on my end of the telephone line along with him, having been dragged into the place over the years for every other occasion he'd been able to guilt me into buying. The long, silent pause before I agreed to what was certain to be a four-hundred dollar dinner, on my already overspent credit card, conveyed the sentiment clearly, at least in my mind.

Anyhow, we'd found great seats at the bar - he could see the Dolphins eat sand on seventeen high-definition televisions, thanks to the Chicago Bears, and I had a clear view of the cash register. The first round of drinks, bone-dry as advertised, went down in chilled gulps for both of us. Nice to know we were on a level playing field. I'd just asked the hostess a third time if our table was going to be ready this century, invoking the usual "What's your hurry, Jacob?" from him. And then without another word, he spun his barstool around to face me, reached over and took my hands in his - something he'd never done before - and said, "Listen to me, we need to talk. No, I need to talk and you need to listen." Tightening his grip on my hands, he leaned in closer and said with that same firm, commanding voice he'd used for every word he'd ever spoken, "Don't call me Dad anymore." He nodded twice and continued, "From now on, I want you to call me 'Pop'."
"Yeah." He smiled. "Pop."
"As in soda?"
"Don't get wise with your old man."
I shrugged. "Whatever you want... Pop."
"Good." He dropped my hands and swiveled back towards the nearest television, punctuating his pleasure with another, "Good", and a solemn nod.
"There's a reason?" I asked casually, not really certain where this was headed. But then again, he was turning seventy.
He held up a hand to shush me and pointed at the screen. The Bears' quarterback twisted away from an incoming tackle and dove over the goal line, putting the game a kick away from the win. A collective moan went up from the assemblage in the bar. Dol-Fans, as they called themselves, seeing another losing season about to collapse in high definition and stereophonic sound. My father, Pop, who considered the team from the city of his birth deities, stood up from his barstool, hoisted his empty martini glass, and shouted, "Ditka is God!"
A shroud of a dull silence, funereal in its darkness, fell over the bar. Someone muttered "Asshole" and I was certain I heard the ratchet of a 9mm off to one side. "Pop. Dad. God dammit, sit the hell down. Jesus, are you crazy?"
He winked at me, waving his arm over the crowd. "A round of drinks on my son if the Bears win," he boasted.
"What?" I grabbed his arm and pulled him down to where my words hit his ear dead center, "Say you were only kidding. Tell them or I'm walking out of here right now."

And that's when it happened. My father, the man who hadn't shown enough affection for his only son in forty years to fill a greeting card, turned and kissed my forehead.

From the day I was born, although my memory only goes back as far as a bloody nose I suffered learning to ride a bicycle on my sixth birthday, my father was as normal as white bread - plain and room temperature out of the bag, never warm and toasty. He took me fishing, but only when several of his cigar-smoking cronies came along. When I won the position of place-kicker for my high school football team, he bought me a life insurance policy with him as beneficiary. My best friend at the time, who was selected as punter, got a motorcycle from his folks.

What skills I didn't pay to learn in college, came from my mother's side of the table. Cooking, picking up after myself, choosing a ripe melon in the supermarket, not a single subject ever passed on from father to son. He never had a shop with a workbench and tools hung on pegboard for me to explore. If it broke in the house and my mother couldn't fix it, she paid someone who could. When some form from the school required a signature, it was her flowing script that rode the dotted line. According to him, I was "her son" regardless of whether it was an accolade or an epithet.

Ten years ago, when my mother lost her battle with some invisible brain tumor that drove her over the cliff of reason, I considered offering him the guest cottage at my beach house. That's to say, I considered it just long enough to spit. In the years since we buried her, phone calls between us dwindled from daily to weekly to "I don't remember when we spoke last" opening lines. He withdrew and I did nothing to hold him up.

For his part, I had never been a consideration, an impediment to his lifestyle. If he wanted to hop a flight to the Bahamas on my birthday, he'd go and leave me home with my mother. Bowling league and gin rummy took precedence over helping me with my homework; I got A's just to spite him. He saw me kick in a football game only once in three years before I abandoned the sport in my freshman year in college. I shanked the extra point; the ball hit one of the uprights and bounced into the stands. Even though we went on to win the game and I kicked a field goal while he was in a line waiting for beer, he refused to talk to me on the drive home other than to occasionally shake his head slowly several times and snort.

Yet here I was, sitting in a bar with the man I'd come to regard as an annoying customer, who had, without warning or provocation, begun tossing affections as though he was dealing cards. Instinctively, I put two fingers on his wrist to check for a pulse. I had no idea where to touch or what it would mean if I actually found it, but the old memory of doctors and nurses checking my mother's wrist when she started to fade was the first to surface. The malignant elephant in her head was what my mother called the tumor. She said it was stealing her memories one by one and that when she died, we should cut it open and set them all free.

I looked deep into my father's eyes, wondering if he had a tumorous pachyderm in there looking back at me. "Pop, what the hell's going on here?"
"What do you mean, Jake?"
Jake? In my life, he'd never called me by anything other than Jacob. "See, that."
"You don't like I should call you Jake?"

I blinked at him a couple of times and was about to say something when the bartender interrupted my thoughts with a pair of fresh martinis. I ordered another round as he set them down in front of us. Our discussion was further delayed as the point after kick was stopped by an official in the booth; the Bears' quarterback might not have broken the plane of the goal line and they were reviewing the tapes. The Dol-Fans broke into cheers and applause loud enough to bring the less fanatic back in from the parking lot.

In a flash, all seventeen television sets flared into a Ford commercial. I figured ninety seconds was all I had before Pop turned my credit card into a winning lottery ticket for the twenty or thirty local fans in the bar.
"Did you screw up your pills this morning?"
He shook his head. "No. Six at six and this afternoon, five at five."
"Pop, what's going on here? The hands, the kissing, the Jake thing, is this what I have to look forward to when I hit seventy?"
"What are you talking about?" Sipping his drink, my father narrowed his eyes. "You're not smoking that silly stuff again, are you?"
"That was twenty years ago, Pop." I dumped half the martini into my mouth, swished it around, and swallowed. When my mother began losing pages, the doctors would ask her questions. Always the same questions, but not always the right answers. Near the end, it was simply, "Tell me your name." A test she passed, even on the last day. I folded my arms across my chest. "Tell me your name, Pop."
"What do mean?"
"If I had to introduce you to a total stranger, what would I say?"
He looked at me and grinned. "This is my Pop."
I took the drink out of his hand, splashing a few drops on my wrist. "I'm not kidding, now. Look at my face and tell me the name on your driver's license."
"You don't know?"
"Of course I know. I want to know if you know your God damn name."
A puzzled look came over his face, not the worried one you'd expect from someone trying to sweat out an answer, but it lasted only a moment. "You think because your old man is seventy he can't remember his name all of a sudden?"
"Prove me wrong."
"You're wrong." He reached for his drink, but I pulled it away. "I'm your father and I'm simply telling you that you're wrong. Now give me my..."
His last word was flattened by the screams and hoots of the home team fans, the call on the field had been overturned; it was fourth down and goal to go on the one-foot line. The place-kicker walked off toward the sideline, a network camera capturing an odd grin on his face as he passed the quarterback. Silence as sharp as an ice pick fell over the bar. The Bears' coach let the clock run down to three seconds and called his final timeout. For the moment, my credit card balance was safe.

My father recaptured his drink during the commotion, taking down half of it before placing the glass on his right side, away from me. I followed his hands, no longer thinking about cutting him off at two martinis, despite the temptation, but watching for a tremor, a shake, a sign that he was disconnecting. Rock steady they were; the same hands that left deep bruises that night outside our garage when I cursed him out for missing my field goal. True to their target, as they were three times when he slapped me, bellowing the word, "Shanked!" Their strength had faded with the years, the memory had not.

With seventeen scantily clad blondes selling either aftershave or sex on the screens around the bar, most of the patrons rushed for the restrooms. Those first in had a shot at seeing what could be the last play of the game. I had a minute and a half to put an end to this or drag him out the door.
He half-turned toward me, one eye still on the blonde, who seemed to be about to fall out of a bathing suit top far too small. "What?"
"You're scaring the shit out of me, Pop."
"Marvin Fishkin." He pulled out his wallet and dug around for his driver's license. "Sorry, Marvin L. Fishkin. Named after your great-grandfather who lived to be one hundred and one years old."
"And 'Pop'?"
"What? It's such a big deal?"
I massaged the bridge of my nose for a moment and answered, holding my chin, "Has anyone, in your life, as best as you can remember, ever called you 'Marv'?"
He shook his head. "No."
I felt like what's his name on Law and Order. "And have you at any time in your entire life ever called your son by any name other than 'Jacob'?"
A smile spread across his face, the wrinkles around his eyes bunching together. "When you were very little, just after you'd been fed, you would roll over onto your back and blow bubbles." From where this was going, I expected to see tears welling in the corners of his eyes, but, like the martinis, they were as dry as dunes. "One of your aunts, Sarah or Jolie, I don't remember which, would say, 'Oy, look at Jakey mit de bubbles. Just like Pez popping out of his mouth.' For years, I called you 'Pez' whenever it was just me and your mother in the room."
"A candy? You called me 'Pez'?" I laughed and he joined in; again something that happened as often as leap year. "So this is what, a late-life crisis? What do you do next, buy a walker with racing stripes?"
"I had lunch with a buddy whose son manages a Ferrari dealership in West Palm." He coughed twice and washed down the phlegm with the balance of his martini. "A nice red one, with a convertible top."
"You don't know how to drive a stick-shift," I complained, playing along with this charade. He nodded. "Yeah, but this one was an automatic."
"An automatic Ferrari." I closed my eyes and tried to imagine my father, his bald head gleaming in the sun, speeding down the Turnpike in a sports car. The image ended with a State Trooper pulling him over and me having to cover his bail.
I was about to tell him he'd be better off in a Camry, when the sex spray commercial ended and live action at Dolphin Stadium resumed.
"Look," I told him, "you've got to tell these guys that win or lose, I'm not buying a round of twenty-dollar drinks for anyone."
"Why not?" he shouted over the din of banging chairs and clapping Dol-Fans. I wondered if they really thought the team could hear them from fifteen miles away.
"Because I'm not made of money!" I screamed back at him.
"Are you sure?"
He leaned over and yelled in my ear, "I said, 'Are you sure?'"

The clatter of mugs slamming into tables, feet stomping on the floor, whistles and cheering made it impossible to hear anything else. I waved at the bartender, who stood several feet away from our end of the bar, our third round of martinis half constructed in front of him. His attention, as with everyone else who could fix their pupils on a television screen, was locked onto the twenty-two football players, seven officials, and two dozen cheerleaders waiting for the snap of the ball. My thirst would have to wait three more seconds.

Windmilling his arm and blowing his whistle simultaneously, the Referee started the action. A close up of the center's hands on the ball, rotating it, moving it back and forth, and then the camera pulled back quickly, the ball shuttled between his legs and into the quarterback's waiting hands. The Bears' quarterback spun away from the line, tucking the ball into his gut as he bent low to avoid a tackle. Two steps back, three, he's looking left and right, cocking the ball to throw. Another defensive player rushed toward him from his blind side only to be smashed into the ground by a guard. The quarterback leapt over the falling players and pointed at someone in the end zone.

A camera, high above the action, showed the players jigging back and forth, ants on a green carpet with no obvious plan or direction. And then another close-up - the quarterback's eyes, now locked on a target to his left. He let the ball fly and the camera, an anxious puppy following a stick thrown over its head, paned with the arc of the ball, up and then down as though it had been shot out of a cannon. The receiver, one hand waving wildly in the air as if he was trying to flag down a taxi, stretched out and grabbed the ball off the fingertips of a Miami player. He was tackled immediately by three other defenders, but they were too late - touchdown Chicago; tie game.

In the bar, there was booing and a table was overturned. A bouncer escorted two drunken fans through the doorway and out to the parking lot. My father folded his arms across his chest and smiled.
"Tell them," I urged him, "Tell them no drinks."
He looked around at the crowd and shrugged. "Looks like a rowdy crowd. Are you sure you want to disappoint them?"
"With you as my father, disappointment comes naturally."
"That hurts."
"The truth always does." I finally got the bartender's attention, who nodded quickly, stuffed a few olives into our drinks, and brought them over.
"Must be thirty-five fans in here." The bartender, a man large enough to play for either team, gazed around the room once. "You got enough cash to cover a round for the house?"
I took out my wallet and fanned through the bills. "There isn't going to be a round for the house," I told him. "If there is, then my Pop is buying it, not me."
The bartender's gaze shifted to my father. "Is that so?"
Pop put a hand on the bartender's shoulder. "I wouldn't worry about it." He cocked his head toward me. "Jake's loaded."
I shoved the wallet back into my pocket and turned toward him. "Oh?"

The Dolphins used their final timeout in a desperate attempt to "freeze" the place-kicker and the network took advantage of the pause to air another truck commercial; this time it was Toyota splashing through the mud. My father sucked the olives off the toothpick and washed them down with most of his third martini. Then, in answer to my disbelief, he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a crumpled envelope that he placed on the bar in front of me.
"Open it," he demanded, tapping the envelope with the toothpick now relieved of its fruit.
"What is it?"
"A surprise." He winked at me. "Don't you like surprises?"
"I thought we were done with them for tonight."
"No." Tilting his glass, he swallowed the remnants of the drink, and waved the empty glass at the bartender.

I lifted the envelope, weighing it as though I expected a singing fat lady to stick her head out of one corner. The flap was tucked inside, the glue never used, and I bent it open, shaking the printed piece of paper from inside.

The document was an insurance statement for a policy with my name imprinted at the top. I'd read plenty of these over the years, still had the one from my mother's policy that left with me a small chunk of change and my father with the bills. The inception date, from twenty-four years ago, and the face amount - fifty-thousand dollars - were both circled in red ink. "I don't understand."
My father scratched the back of his head. "Smart fella like you, can't you read an insurance policy after all these years?"
"Yeah, I can read it, but I still don't get what's going on here."
He took the paper from my hand and laid it on a dry spot on the bar. "See this number, the 'Cash Surrender Value'?"
"That's all yours."
I read the number and swallowed hard. "That's almost a quarter of million dollars, Pop."
"Yep. I've been paying the premiums and buying additional coverage at the original inception rate every year." He pointed at a phone number on the bottom of the sheet. "All you have to do is call these folks tomorrow morning and ask for the money. They told me you'd have it in your checking account in less than forty-eight hours."
"And this is mine?"
"Every penny of it."
"But why? I mean, why now?"
His face grew dark, deep furrows folded the tanned skin on his forehead. "Because you never know when a malignant elephant is going to start stealing your memories and I didn't want to forget about this."
"Do you? Have you been to the doctor? Is there..."
He turned back toward the television where the Bears and the Dolphins were lining up to see if the game was about to end or go into overtime. Everyone in the bar had gone silent. I didn't know if he was going to answer me or not, so I reached over and touched his elbow.
"Not now," he whispered and pulled his arm away.

Again, the referee blew his whistle to resume the game. Even in the stadium, the noise had dropped to a hush. The ball was hiked. The holder placed it, spinning it just slightly to get the laces lined up, and then the kick was away.

I held my breath along with everyone else watching the leather egg rotate through the air. Seventeen televisions with the same picture - the ball, elevating as though on a wire, reaching its peak and then heading for the goal posts. A gull in the foreground swooped out of the way, even though it was ten feet from the tumbling projectile.

And at the last possible second, when it looked as though it would clear the goalposts and the Bears would win, a gust of wind seemed to come out of nowhere and nudge the ball off track.
"It hit the upright! No good! It missed!" The cries of the Dol-fans and their banging on the tables washed out the voice of the television announcer. Over and over again, the instant replay showed the tip of the football striking the goal post and bouncing back toward the camera.
My Pop threw his martini glass to the floor, smashing it into a myriad of sparkling shards. "He shanked it. Son of a bitch!"
I pulled a hundred from my wallet and laid it on the bar. The game was headed for overtime, our escape was now or never. "Let's get out of here," I urged him.
"God damn it." He slapped his hand on the bar. "He shanked the kick."
Folding the insurance statement, I stuffed it into my pocket and grabbed him by the arm. "Happens to the best of us, Pop."

The rest of Ricky's website.