This is the story my father never tells.
It is August 1973. My father, Theobald Dunn, is twenty-four. For the past three years he has been stationed at a US Army base in Alaska, listening for the first stirrings of a Soviet missile launch. Before that, he spent a year studying for the priesthood at a seminary in Boston. Before that, he attended college for three semesters. Now he is back in Wiltwyck, New York, the town where he was born and raised, working at my grandfather’s hardware store.
My grandfather, Patrick Dunn, is sixty. He is a naturalized citizen, a registered Republican, and the past president of the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce. He buys a new Cadillac every three years; when he trades in the old car for the new, the older car is pristine. Like the cars he buys, he has a defiantly angular appearance: chin like the grille of his ’72 Fleetwood, his body a wedge of folded steel and knife-edged chrome. In four months—two weeks before Christmas—he will suffer his third heart attack, the one that finally does him in, while shoveling snow in his driveway.
His hardware store, Dunn & Sons, sits on Main Street in Wiltwyck. He named the store when his sons were still in grade school, an uncharacteristically sentimental act testifying to his faith in the future—the “& Sons” a promise that the generations would work hand in hand to guarantee the availability of tools, paint, and plumbing supplies in the middle Hudson Valley. My grandfather is fond of saying that he gave the boys their good looks and the names of Irish patriots to carry into the world—what they did after that was their own business. But the name of the store suggests that “their own business” already has an address, an ad in the yellow pages, and a team in the Wiltwyck little league.
My grandfather has a regular tee time at Wiltwyck Country Club—Saturdays at two, just late enough for him to close the store, drink a gin and tonic in the men’s grill, and change into his two-tone golf shoes. He rarely asks his sons to play with him, but that Saturday in August, he invites my father and my uncles Eamon and Michael, who work full-time at the store, to play eighteen, an opportunity they do not pass up. It is not the chance to spend another four hours with my grandfather that draws them; the course is the attraction. They grew up playing here, but now that they have reached adulthood, none of them can afford the membership dues.
My grandfather’s invitation to his sons is not motivated by nostalgia. He has something he needs to tell my father, but it has never been easy for him to talk to his middle son. Theobald—Teddy, at my grandmother’s insistence—has always been a sourpuss, a worrywart, the only boy in the neighborhood who had to wear a mouthpiece to bed to keep him from grinding his teeth to dust. Skittish and nervous—those were words that fit my father in his youth, and if my grandfather ever asked himself how he got that way, he probably laid it at the feet of my grandmother. She must have babied him; the other boys never needed a nickname. My grandfather hasn’t noticed that years spent listening for sounds that never came—a calling from God, a jagged rainstorm of Russian missiles—have calmed my father, although the time away from home has done little to brighten his personality.
* * * *
By the time the starter sends my father, uncles, and grandfather to the first tee, the sun is hammering at their backs. The air is gauzy and damp. The rain the night before should have softened the course, but the fairways are as stiff and brittle as the head of a broom. Pouring out of the trees that line the first fairway, the sheet-metal rattle of the cicadas grows louder and more shrill as the temperature hikes into the nineties.
“Ah, Jaysus!” my grandfather says, slipping into the exaggerated brogue he uses when he is angry, or immoderately happy, or delivering the final line of a story. “Are we golfing or swimming?” He is plucking at his shirt, which sticks to his back and dampens wherever his fingers make contact with the fabric. He hates the sun for glaring at his defenseless Celtic skin; hates sweating through his shirt before he reaches the turn at the ninth hole. He is not a prim man—no man his size could be called prim—but he is fastidious: his golf shirts are pressed, his irons glint in the sun, and at the end of the round he will take a toothbrush to the underside of his golf spikes.
“Too hot for you, Dad?” Eamon says. He cranes his head and stage-whispers to my father and Michael: “He’s already looking for excuses for the hundred he’s going to shoot.”
My grandfather jerks his driver out of his golf bag and eyes his oldest son. “That’s awfully big talk for someone who can’t break par at New Paltz.”
“Break par?” Eamon opens his arms wide, as if staggered by my grandfather’s words. New Paltz is a public course, a short-yardage span of scorched grass and sandy tee-boxes. “I shot an eagle last week.”
“Likely a bald eagle,” my grandfather says. “If your brothers were still in the army, they’d have to arrest you.”
Before Eamon can respond, my grandfather cuts him off. “Now pipe down. I didn’t bring you here so you could run your mouth all day.” But that is exactly why he brought Eamon and Michael to the golf course. My grandfather needs to work himself into a talking frame of mind and for that he needs an audience. A natural showman, he prefers the stage of the hardware store, the barroom, or the golf course—places where men gather to trade stories rather than confidences.
At the store, a circle of older men come in every Saturday morning to spend three dollars and thirty minutes on the week’s news. While my uncles fold their arms and laugh with the other men, my father tends the paint mixers at the back of the store. He hears the bursts of staccato laughter from the front, but the words are drowned out by the thudding of the cans blending pure pigments into flat colors.
* * * *
From the first tee it is clear that it will be a long day for my father. His swing is rusty and his short game is a shambles. Each time one of my father’s tee shots slices into the dense woods or a chip shot lands squarely in the open palm of a sand trap, my grandfather, usually not a sympathetic player, dispenses pats on the back and kind words—Hang in there, Teddy, you’ll get it together. My grandfather is keeping his instincts in check: his first impulse is to ride my father about the way he’s playing, to establish a laughing, back-and-forth patter with this young man the way he does with other men. The problem is that my father will not meet him halfway, or any way at all. With each hole he grows more frustrated by his inability to put the ball within fifty yards of where he wants it to go, and when he gets frustrated, my quiet and occasionally sullen father becomes quieter and more sullen. My grandfather is looking for the lever that will open his son’s rigid jaw: what he has to say will be easier, he believes, if his son isn’t giving him that sad-sack stare all day. He has made up his mind that a soft touch might be just the thing to put his son at ease, but my father will not respond and the effort is chafing at my grandfather. He keeps at it like a man camped in front of the nickel slots, expecting the next pull to be the one that lines up the cherries and disgorges the jackpot. He has already invested a pocketful of his patience, and he is beginning to consider other games where his bluff confidence can bully the table into submission.
My father is the last to tee off on the eighth, where the fairway pushes through a stand of pines before veering sharply toward the green. The safe play is to lay-up on the turn and hope to reach the green with a long second shot. My father blasts his drive high and to the right, trying to shoot over the trees, cut the angle on the dogleg, and leave himself a short chip to the green. Eamon and Michael are laughing before he finishes his backswing.
“I think you spent too much time with the Eskimos,” Eamon says. “Maybe in the North Pole left is that way, but back here it’s still this-a-way.” He hooks his arm to the left to indicate the direction of the fairway, which my father has completely misplayed.
“I hear in Alaska you have to use a dogsled instead of a caddy,” Michael says. “It must be throwing off your concentration not to have a bunch of dogs licking their balls between shots, right Teddy?”
“Forget the dogsled,” Eamon says. “He’s going to need a bloodhound to find that ball.”
“Kiss my ass,” my father says.
“Come on, Teddy,” Michael says, “do you really think that’s going to help your swing?”
“Alright, that’s enough out of the both of you.” My grandfather has his hands raised, palms out, like a referee in a boxing match. “We don’t need the crude talk, and I won’t have you mocking your brother for the time he spent defending this country from the communists.”
“Communists?” Eamon says. “Dad, he was in Alaska.”
“And did the Russians invade while he was up there?”
“Well nothing. I say he must have been doing a mighty good job of it.”
“We’re just having some fun,” Eamon says, “aren’t we Teddy?” Before my father can open his mouth, my grandfather finishes the conversation.
“It’s not the kind of fun I want to be hearing today.” Without looking at my father, he grabs his bag and stalks down the fairway. Michael and Eamon exchange a look—eyes rolling, a quick snort with the nose—and follow. My father is left to collect his bag and consider what has happened. He looks out at the retreating figure of my grandfather and sees a man who still thinks of his second son in the most damning terms for a family of boys: moody, delicate, sensitive.
* * * *
“So what’s next?” Michael says. He and my father are deep in the rough on the ninth, far from my grandfather and Eamon. They scan the thatch for their wayward Top-Flites, tasseled grass brushing their knees. “What’s the next stop on the Teddy Dunn world tour?”
“Since when does Anchorage qualify as the world?” my father says.
“It’s more than most people around here have seen,” Michael says.
“Not more than you,” my father says. “And you’re still here.”
“I’ve seen enough of the world.” Michael locates his ball and kicks it from the tall grass to the edge of the fairway. “This place suits me just fine.”
This is the closest that he and my uncle will come to talking about Vietnam for the next twenty years. Michael is twenty-two, and only one year removed from his hitch as a gunner in an air cavalry unit. Although he has always been the one who holds nothing as sacred, the kid who made the other altar boys crack up in the middle of a funeral mass, he doesn’t talk about anything he saw or did in Vietnam. Michael and my father had been close as boys—Eamon existed in his own world, breathing the rarefied air of the firstborn son and the natural athlete—but sharing a bedroom was one thing, and finding words for the rough edges of experience was another matter entirely.
“So what about you?” Michael says. “I never thought you were all that crazy about living here.”
“I don’t know,” my father says. “I was thinking of giving this place another chance.” Until he says it, he hasn’t been thinking of giving the town another try—not for any longer than it takes him to make a little money and figure out his next step. Army buddies have offered to help him find jobs in Texas, Arizona, Illinois, practically anywhere that isn’t Wiltwyck.
But as quickly as the words are out of his mouth, they are embraced with the force of revelation by my father. For a month he has seen the way that Michael and Eamon talk to my grandfather—not about their lives and what they want out of them, but about little things such as when to have a sale on lawn mowers and what that jackass Rinaldi the grocer is up to—and suddenly he recognizes a yawning gap that his brothers have crossed without him. When my father left Wiltwyck for college, Eamon was at war with the Old Man over late nights and booze on his breath and Michael was practically a kid, a joker who earned smiles of mock disapproval from his mother and his teachers, and who willingly courted my grandfather’s anger to earn himself a moment’s attention. Now they talk like adults, if not exactly like equals, and my father cannot shake the feeling that he is still seen as the prickly teenager who flinched whenever my grandfather spoke. The remedy to this, which my father accepts quickly and completely, is to remain in town and in the store, where my grandfather will, eventually, recognize the change that has come over his second-born.
My father may even believe that this moment of recognition by my grandfather is already underway. Maybe that’s what was going on at the eighth tee: the Old Man was trying to send a message that he was in Teddy’s corner. He understood that after three years in the military, his middle son had started to come into his own, and he couldn’t keep quiet when Eamon, who had never served his country, tried to take him down a peg.
My father is still thinking this through when he tops his drive on the tenth. In the short seconds of silence that follow, the seal on my grandfather’s frustration cracks. He is putting himself out there for a kid who can’t even hit a goddamn golf ball. “I swear to God, Theobald,” he says. “If you lose one more ball, it’s coming out of your paycheck.”
The sun is bearing down on him and his sweat-soaked shirt clings to his back. The things he needs to tell my father swell within him, but once he has started needling my father about the way he is playing, he cannot stop. He is the same way with alcohol and cigarettes: he can delay that first taste, but once the glass is filled or the match is struck, he hears the starter’s pistol and the race is on.
“Are you sure you’re not left-handed?” he says, as my father digs in his pocket for another ball, then stoops to tee up. “Maybe you’d have more luck if you turned the club backward.”
Eamon, two years older than my father, married and the father of twins, senses that it is open season on his brother. In high school, he was a three-sport star pursued by willing girls and eager college recruiters. But during the winter of his senior year, he rolled his car and cracked two vertebrae—an injury that kept him out of sports, out of college, and out of Vietnam. More than either of his brothers, he has modeled himself after the Old Man: to this day, he drinks only my grandfather’s chosen brand of whiskey and smokes the same cigarettes. He is most comfortable at the head of the table, or with his glass raised to deliver a toast, all eyes turned his way. Eamon also has my grandfather’s way around an unkind observation. When my father shanks another drive on the sixteenth tee, he doesn’t miss his chance: “I’d suggest you hit from the ladies’ tees, Teddy, but that’s not going to straighten out your slice.”
* * * *
The group approaches the seventeenth green, where, three years earlier, my grandfather was shot while standing over a putt. A teenager named Richie Landgraf fired his father’s deer rifle at a can of Genesee he had set on top of a fence post, missing the can but hitting my grandfather squarely in the backside. My grandfather couldn’t sit comfortably for a month, but otherwise he emerged from the incident—“the assassination attempt,” he called it—unscathed. He was back at work the following weekend, and the store was packed with well-wishers eager to hear the story from the man himself.
Although he was somewhere in the Mekong Delta when it happened, Michael is always the one who tells the shooting story at Dunn family gatherings. Much of his version is an impersonation of the way my grandfather told it: Richie Landgraf’s pose as he fired the gun, the look on my grandfather’s face when the bullet fragments pierced his madras pants, the slow-motion way he toppled to the manicured grass. The capper is Michael’s way of doing my grandfather’s brogue: “Like a hot poker it was, right up me arse.”
Like all of the stories my family tells, this one is subject to a strict code: it does not belong to the person who lived it, but to whoever tells it best. What does it matter if it was Teddy who backed the silver Eldorado into the side of the house? If Eamon tells it better—mimicking my grandfather’s sputtering reaction, my father’s face going aspirin white, and the sound of the side-view mirror snapping off against the clapboard—then it becomes his to tell during a lifetime of Thanksgiving dinners. The same rule applies to all of our family lore—especially those stories that conjure my grandfather’s spirit like a genie rising out of a bottle: the Old Man cruises the streets, high beams on, looking for Eamon in the early morning hours after the junior prom; he drags his frostbitten sons deep into the wilds of the Catskills because men, he tells them, cut down their own Christmas tree; he emcees the annual talent show for the Knights of Columbus, his act getting bluer as the hour grows late and the glasses of Jameson’s pile up.
We tell ourselves that these stories are important because they connect us to our shared history and prevent the dearly departed from ever really leaving us. But the endless catalogue also keeps at bay the need to talk to each other; we are great at talking about, but we have never mastered talking to.
Standing on the apron of the seventeenth green, Michael calls out to his brothers: “Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” He removes his cap and bows his head. “A moment of silence, please, in honor of our father’s celebrated buttock.”
Eamon falls in line next to Michael, his head down, his hands folded in prayer, barely able to stifle a laugh. My father stands midway between his brothers and his father, and it takes him a moment to put the pieces together—time enough to feel like an outsider among the people who should be closest to him.
“Oh for Christ sake,” my grandfather says. “No manners in this bunch.”
“Honestly, Dad.” Eamon says. “I can’t believe they haven’t put up a plaque yet.”
“For posterior’s—I mean posterity’s—sake,” Michael adds.
When did they learn to do this, my father wonders. How did they figure out how far they can push? And what does Dad see in them that makes this possible? The questions, and his lack of answers, make him acutely aware of what he has missed during the years spent away from the family: the seemingly insignificant moments, the accretion of inside jokes, and the common points of reference that are the closest most people ever come to intimacy. On the green, listening to the volley of comments from his father and his brothers, he feels the weight of every time he’s had to ask Eamon or Michael to bring him up to speed on some story, some event, some minor local scandal that has transpired in the past five years, and to which someone in the store, or at home, or at church has made a passing, heavily freighted allusion.
“That’s enough,” my grandfather says, as the blood rises in his ears like mercury. “A man likes to concentrate when he’s showing his sons who’s boss.”
Even my father recognizes that they are pushing their luck, and that one more word will ignite my grandfather’s temper. They fall silent, holding their breath, barely shifting their feet on the buzz-cut grass. My grandfather leans over his putter, the rise and fall of the green as familiar to him as the layout of the hardware store. He taps the ball and it disappears into the hole. “Put me down for a three,” he says, “and give the lot of you—what? Sixes?” He mutters something about manners and respect and the rules of the game. “That kind of foolishness,” he says, “is why I don’t ask you to play here.”
Eamon and Michael wait until my grandfather storms off the green before they start laughing, and for the first time on the course my father smiles, and he and Eamon and Michael are three kids having a laugh at their father’s expense, eager to finish their round and beg dimes from their mother for ice-cream sandwiches at the snack bar.
* * * *
On the eighteenth tee they are hot and tired and ready to finish their round. The store opened at six in the morning and the four of them have been together for close to twelve hours—far beyond any reasonable limit for family togetherness. My grandfather’s shirt is glued to his back and all he wants is the air-conditioned refuge of the men’s grill. Maybe it can wait until Monday. But then he thinks about my father shambling into the store at seven, that black cloud hanging over him, and he knows it has to happen today, before they reach the clubhouse.
“Teddy, I’ve been thinking about the store,” he says. My father and grandfather are right of the green: my father in the sand trap, my grandfather on the stiff grass. Michael and Eamon are waiting on the green, out of sight and out of earshot.
My father is eyeing the flagstick, barely visible over the lip of the bunker. He is practicing his swing before stepping on to the sand, taking metronome-quick chops with his sand wedge. He turns and squints into the sun, which rides above my grandfather’s head. “Aren’t you always thinking about the store?” he says, and the smile returns, sly this time, gently prodding my grandfather. So this is how it’s done, he thinks. This isn’t so hard.
My grandfather appears to ignore him. He is moving the face of his pitching wedge into and out of the shadow he casts in front of himself. “What I’ve been thinking is, working there probably isn’t the best thing for you.”
Like smoke rising from a pile of burning leaves, that’s how my father would remember my grandfather’s tousle of white hair rising from his sunburned face. “You don’t want me at the store?”
“I’ve just been thinking there are probably other things you’d rather do.”
“What other things?” His voice is strained. There is no breath behind it.
“I don’t know, Teddy,” my grandfather says, perhaps more sharply than he intends. That sun, this day; it’s too much. “You can do anything you want.”
“You don’t want me at the store.” It’s a statement, although my father’s voice falters at the end and it sounds like a question, or a plea.
“Listen, Teddy, there are plenty of other things you could do, and I think you should.” He ends it there, with should. He nods, a quick, curt bob of the head that my grandfather uses to signal the end of a conversation. All right, then, it seems to say. Enough of that. “Now are you going to take your shot?” He points the head of his wedge at my father’s ball.
“Dad.” My father swallows hard. He is not thinking about the ball sitting in the sand trap. He is focused on the golf ball lodged in his throat, and the sharp pain it creates just below his Adam’s apple. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Jesus Christ, just hit the ball,” he says quietly, almost to himself.
My father says Dad again and it isn’t a plea or a question or even a name. It is just a word and it hangs there between them, neither man able to make that short, fat syllable mean what he wants it to mean. My father wants it to be a splash of cold water that brings my grandfather to his senses and makes him realize that here, standing in front of him, is his son who has been out in the wilderness and is ready to come home. My grandfather hears it, hears the way it is said, and thinks of my father as a toddler on some distant August afternoon, covered in chocolate ice cream, desperate to be picked up and held. He remembers the way he shrank from the smeared face and sticky fingers, diverting the boy’s chubby, clinging hands into my grandmother’s lap.
My father wants to kick himself for so badly misreading his father’s kindness on the front nine. The Old Man was setting him up; he wanted to find something kind to say to sweeten the pill, but all he could come up with was a joke about his son keeping the Russian hordes at bay. He could already hear his father telling that one at the front of the store, and all the men laughing.
My father tries to lock his eyes on my grandfather, but what he sees is the face of the fat orange sun. My grandfather looks down and threshes the dry turf with his club, willing the moment to pass, silently begging my father to turn around, take his shot, and relieve the pressure that has built like a vise around his heart.
* * * *
My father has never told this story—never this way, never this much, never all at once.
When my father alludes to the events of that day, it isn’t so much a story as it is a parable, compact and instructive, compressed into the hard certainty of a pearl—and like a pearl it cannot be easily pried loose. In my father’s version, there are no unanswered questions, no jagged unknowns. One day everything was fine—my father was stocking shelves and preparing for the switch from lawn mowers to snowblowers. The next day my grandfather told him that he could do anything he wanted, as long as it wasn’t in the store—not in so many words, but the message came through loud and clear. When my grandfather gave him a week to get his bags packed and hit the road (again, not in so many words), my father did him one better and left in two days.
As my father sees it, the events of that day illustrate two points. One, that my grandfather was a hard man, comfortable in a crowd but closed like a fist with his wife and children. And two, that when my father took a job outside Boston, started telling people to call him “Theo,” met and married my mother, and built his own residential construction company, he proved the Old Man wrong. The day that the Boston Globe ran an article about my father’s success in renovating historic homes, he held up the front page for all of us to see. “Not bad for a guy who wasn’t good enough to work in a hardware store,” he said.
My uncles were left to draw their own conclusions about his abrupt departure in the days after their round of golf. Teddy moved on to something else, like Teddy always did, and when my grandfather’s death put the store in their hands, they were too busy to ponder why Teddy did the things he did. “Your father was always the lone wolf,” Uncle Eamon once told me, and maybe it had been true for my father’s whole life, or maybe it just became true for having been repeated so often in the years that followed.
Over the years I have detected in my father the slow drift of certain facts—my uncles, once cast as villains for being chosen to continue my grandfather’s legacy, are now seen as victims forced to keep the business on its feet as a tribute to their father’s memory, despite the slow fade of Wiltwyck’s downtown and the unwelcome appearance of a Home Depot just outside of Newburgh. But to my father, these are minor shadings and do not alter the fundamental truths of that day.
I am not so sturdy in my faith.
Perhaps my grandfather saw in my father’s brief stints in college, the seminary, and the army evidence that his middle son was in pursuit of something he would never find in the hardware store’s stockroom—and that looking for it there would only make him bitter long before his time. Maybe a month of watching my father at the paint mixers, straining to hear, or to blot out, the laughter of the men at the front of the store was all the proof he needed. Or maybe it was as simple as this: my grandfather knew that the store could never support himself, his sons, and their families, but admitting this—particularly to one of the sons embraced by the enameled dunn & sons sign—was more than his pride could take. So without the words to explain any of the financial and emotional calculus brewing in his head, he turned to my father, the son he believed stood the best chance of success, and tried to send him into the world with a vote of confidence: You can do anything you want.
If my grandfather had known that he had only four months left in him, or if he had lived to be eighty, he might have been able to explain himself to my father, and my father might have seen his departure from his hometown as something other than an exile. But expecting the Old Man—who emigrated alone at fifteen and who didn’t set foot on Irish soil again until his own father died twenty years later—to open his heart to one of his sons would be making him into someone he never could have been. Even in a family comfortable with the elastic properties of the truth, that kind of invention goes beyond embellishment and into the realm of make-believe.
Lately, the time I spend with my father is weighted with silences: during holiday visits, we drive to see how a cedar-shingled roof has weathered its first ice storm; we watch football games between colleges we don’t care about while my mother and sisters tackle the after-Thanksgiving sales; we sit among the crumpled wrapping paper late on Christmas morning, staring intently into our coffee cups when we find that we are the only ones in the room. I know there is a razor-straight line that can connect the mute longing of my grandfather’s fragile heart to my father’s and even to mine, but whenever I start with the what-ifs and couldn’t-it-bes, I am stymied by his you-don’t-knows and you-weren’t-theres. He folds his arms and sets his jaw and says these things as if they matter—as if he owns this story and the right to tell it. But it’s always Michael who tells the shooting story; only Eamon can mimic the sound of the Eldorado’s mirror scraping the side of the house. For all the bitter drama of my father’s memories of that day, there is so much that he doesn’t know, or has failed to imagine. He doesn’t see what I can see: that the story just might save us if it is ever told the right way.