Dads Behaving Badly

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That’s really wonderful to hear, the father said. Why, he was only one generation removed from the Ukrainian peasant himself. “There is no alternate reality,” he told me on one of my visits to his house which by now by mutual consent had been reduced to once or twice a year, “and I’m tired of all this nonsense of people trying to prove that there is.”
 
Junot Diaz, “Edison, New Jersey,” 1996
I went to her house and her parents asked me how business was, as if I balanced the books or something. In exchange, the dads agreed to try to take an active interest in their children’s lives every once and a while, and to keep the drinking to weekends. All these my mother studied avidly, a pastime my father in his heyday had nothing but contempt for. Sometimes, on the computer, I would hit refresh, refresh,   refresh, hoping. Later the parents go to the den to watch the Giants lose and she takes me into her bathroom.  
Benjamin Percy, “Refresh, Refresh,” 2005
My father wore   steel-toed boots, Carhartt jeans, and a T-shirt advertising some place he had traveled, maybe Yellowstone or Seattle. “But what about the Americans it works on? The light, its taxi yellow gone matte from pendulum-years above some polluted intersection and crackled like a Ming vase’s glaze where bolts had been overtightened and then eased, sat to one side of the coffee table it was meant to replace as soon as my father found an ­appropriate top. He would tell me about the heat, the gallons of water he drank every day, the sand that got into everything, the baths he took with baby wipes. (Angrier, I should say—dads, as a class, have always been hotheads.) Feeling unappreciated, they began to abuse their already capacious tendencies for pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. In October I received an e-mail that read: “Hi Josh.  
When you’re living in a patriarchy, every day is Father’s Day. We had shelf after shelf (built by my father on a long ago Sunday when it had seemed likely that my parents would be rejoined or at least that my father would continue to receive the sexual favors of my mother) filled with 15C specials—remaindered paperback books purchased in drugstores and Woolworth’s with the covers ripped off and on special sale—books about girls murdered in Chicago, in Michigan; a series of disease books; young boys who were autistic, aggressive or retarded; priests who were eaten alive by their congregations in Papua; mothers of five with brain tumors, who had to have part of their skulls removed and a metal plate inserted that continued to bulge as the tumor grew; all true, all real stories. Don’t worry. If I had your eyelashes, I’d be famous, she tells me. To appease the dads and curb the worst impulses of their droit du seigneur, greeting-card companies some years ago brokered a “Father’s Day,” on which the dads consented to have their rings kissed by family members and to delight in an array of fun new gadgets and scotches presented to them at beery ceremonial barbecues. My mother had made an art out of finding cheap books. (There are exceptions, of course, but these tend to be the same dads who say they don’t want “a big to-do” on Father’s Day.) If you want to knock your old man around a little bit, try reading him one of these short stories in lieu of giving him an Apple Watch or whatever. For millennia fathers got by without such a day, looting and pillaging and reigning with such impunity   in their workaday dad lives that to set aside a special occasion for it   seemed like gilding the lily. I’m OK. They would traipse around their homes with their potbellies hanging out of ill-fitting “World’s #1 Dad” T-shirts, hoping to be noticed. Then the reservists shipped for Kirkuk, where insurgents and sandstorms attacked almost daily. He laughed a lot. His belly was a swollen bag and his shoulders were broad, good for carrying me during parades and at fairs when I was younger. Once when I asked him how he thought acupuncture worked, he said that the Chinese peasants had very primitive minds and it worked on them as a mild sort of hypnosis. He drank too much beer and smoked too many cigarettes and spent too much time with his buddies, fishing, hunting, bullshitting, which probably had something to do with why my mother divorced him and moved to Boise with a hairdresser and triathlete named Chuck. Love, Dad.” I printed it up and hung it on my door with a piece of Scotch tape. In fact, the traffic light would follow us up the Hudson, to Darby, to the house with the empty room. As friends. At first, after my father left, like all of the other fathers, he would e-mail whenever he could. Weeks of silence passed between them.  
Jonathan Lethem, “The Empty Room,” 2011
Earliest memory: father tripping on strewn toys, hopping with toe outraged, mother’s rolling eyes. He looked like someone you might see shopping for motor oil at Bi-Mart. Do your homework. You betcha. Short stories about bad dads from our archive.  
Tama Janowitz, “American Dad,” 1981
Though we had no furniture, we did have books. I still love you, she says and I’m embarrassed for the two of us, the way I’m embarrassed at those afternoon talk shows where broken couples and unhappy families let their hearts hang out. Business is outstanding, I said. But the powerful never tire of celebrating themselves, and when the dads saw that mothers had a day   of their own, they became angry. He would tell me how safe he was, how very safe. Utilities, he says, is nothing to be ashamed of. They now pretend not to notice their cultural senescence, and chuckle agreeably when commercials depict them as primitive morons. For my father had toys himself. The Giants start losing real bad. His brown eyes blinked above a considerable nose underlined by a gray mustache. He might just blow his stack! Also there was the psychic phenomena section of the shelves—hundreds of Pate magazines to which my mother subscribed, the Life of Edgar Cayce, strange and incomprehensible phenomena that had transpired on the face of the earth that no one could explain—frogs dropping from the air, an inexplicable rain of slices of meat and blood, a hole in the Russian tundra that appeared mysteriously and was believed to have been an atomic explosion from a UFO. Like me, my father was short and squat, a bulldog. A little-known Father’s Day bylaw, legal scholars have argued, makes it possible for you to give your father something he does not actually want—he is powerless to protest, since by obligation he has to “enjoy” his “special day.” Short fiction is one such thing, generally. He liked game shows. The e-mails came less frequently. And the Europeans?” As a neo-Freudian my father believed the primitive mind was widespread. Happy Father’s Day to one of the best! Dads are not so keen on it. There it never escaped the garage. She puts on her makeup because we’re going to a movie. He asks me to help him mow his lawn and while we’re dribbling clear gas into the tank he offers me a job. He once brought a traffic light home to our apartment on the thirty-somethingth floor of the tower on Columbus Avenue. This was when he was stationed in Turkey. To hide his receding hairline he wore a John Deere cap that laid a shadow across his face.