Not until I was seven did I know a single thing about my father. Yes, when Aunt Sue read the children’s book Where Did I Come From? my cousins and I sat at her feet, as thick glossy pages displayed trickling sperm. The ethereal drops were white against dark blue, a night sky mixed with white stars. But even then I already knew about sperm and conception—these illustrations did not enrich my self-knowledge. What—or who—I still did not know was my father, and I still had no story that explained exactly where I came from. I knew somewhat about Tommy Ward—that there had been sperm, but there was no narrative to explain why Tommy Ward’s sperm landed on Mom’s egg. What had led up to this event?
I could not visualize the occurance, unlike the kids who repeated dreamy stories: “Mommy met Daddy after college and they got caught in a winter blizzard together and fell in love.” Stories that made me see snowy-eyed kisses, flakes wet against a woman’s long and shiny dark hair; a broad-shouldered man keeping her warm in his embrace. Now, at thirty-five, I’ve developed my own narrative, one built, I admit, on mostly myth and intuition, as I have little else to work with, and will be filling in the missing details. So here is my story, one that is not at all snowy, not very romantic, or, of course, wholly true. The setting is a dive bar in Naugatuck, Connecticut; the year is 1975.
On the night of my conception, Mom had already downed two shots before Tommy Ward made his way to her end of the bar. She and Tommy were neither strangers nor friends. Both had attended Naugatuck High. Tommy was a senior, Mom was a freshman. Now here they were, both young, and both alone. The bar was not crowded, but not empty either. Each already knew which way the wind blew in life, and this part of the story is absolutely true: they knew already that as each of their lives would go on they would work, they would have partners and lovers, they would have children, they would have debt, they would have legal problems, they would possibly even spend a night or two in jail, but they—they being Mom and Tommy Ward—would do very little of this together. And, although they couldn’t have known it quite yet, sooner or later each, in their own way, would abandon me.
On the night I was conceived, Tommy was already married to another woman, already had a kid. He was working construction; he was exhausted. As Tommy and my mother drank together that evening at the bar, she hummed Dylan songs between sips of draft beer—of course I want the song to have been “Simple Twist of Fate.”
They ordered another beer. Mom drank hers down fast so fast Tommy Ward said, “Easy, Tiger.” He touched her shoulder, she pulled back, but he kept his hand there anyway. And she liked how he seemed to already care about her. Mom did have Gina, her best friend—and sometimes lover—but sometimes Gina was off with a boyfriend, and sometimes Mom was left to herself, and she needed the feeling of having some company. Plus she liked the experience of laughter and beer, all that throaty action, along with smoking, too. She never had wanted to be alone. Was it then that he told her he was, besides anything else, a writer?
He was a writer? But how long should she let this evening go on—she too had work in the morning, at the Naugatuck Training School. She had the first shift, which meant she fed breakfast to children with minimal motor skills. These mornings at school were tense, but by the afternoon she was high on these kids, who, with their silly grins, were just goofy and harmless and, after all, made her laugh.
It was a Connecticut spring night: April. Mom had been out of high school almost a year. She’d earned a partial scholarship to art school, but she’d let it slip by. There was so much going on in 1975! She was busy drinking at dives like this one, listening to juke-box music, sketching horses on wet napkins, downing fistfuls of peanuts, eating really nothing but peanuts. She was thin and tough-looking with blue eyes and tan skin. Yeah, she was busy. Mostly she was busy trying to free herself from her mother, and from farm life—yet, somehow, no matter what, she kept circling back to her mother.
At the bar, Tommy let Mom do much of the talking. She made him laugh. And Mom liked his jolly, red-faced laughter. When she saw this Tommy Ward laugh, she thought, I could listen to this sound all night. His was a deep laugh, scratchy, it moved and went on and on like the gallop of a good horse. When, at the bar, he eventually stopped laughing, she gulped for air. She thought, well, I’m gonna fuck him. After all, he was friendly and seemed to desire it, and she had a habit of wanting to please people, and if pleasing people didn’t cost her too much time or money, she was game.
They left the bar. Tommy had to steady her; he reached for her elbow as he opened his passenger-side car-door, and, while he guided her in, Mom did feel how large his hands were, but, also, at the same time they were soft. She was laughing at her own joke about Reagan the Cowboy—damn it, she would not pass out! Windows down, he drove Mom to a quiet spot a few miles from the bar. Mom was not scared and Tommy was not menacing; they seemed to drive in a space without color or sound or light.
She felt nothing, or nearly nothing, and she even forgot about her love for Gina, despite Gina’s wild red hair and freckles. Mom had met Gina at a summer lake-party. When introduced, Gina placed her hand in the air, and invited Mom to start kissing her. Now, Mom and Tommy Ward did their own kissing, in the car. Then she straddled him. His knee bumped into the gear shift. They both smelled all the spring flowers. The air was light. Mom still felt nothing, except she did keep hearing his laughter in her head from back at the bar. And perhaps it was Tommy Ward who gave me this one great thing: a knock-out laugh of my own—one today that both unnerves strangers, and, paradoxically, lures new friends into my life.
Mom of course knew by this time that he was married, had a son, a family, a house, but she went ahead with it, no matter. In fact, it quite intensified the transaction. And Tommy Ward might not be an easy seduction, not that she wanted to seduce him, but more loved the feeling of she the one being seduced. Like that night—after three free beers, she could hear nothing but Tommy Ward’s laugh, how it continued, as if the laugh of all laughs had started, and she knew, or she at least hoped, that this laughing really had no end.
They had parked close to a lake. After, she looked out the window, took in the flat black lake and said, “Work tomorrow. How about you?” She buttoned up her flannel shirt. She spit out the window.
“Yeah, back to it!” His now-forced cheer was not at all like his laughter, no, his forced cheer made her feel suddenly desperate. Then she heard a sprinkler go off in the distance: tick, tick, tick. Mom motioned for Tommy to start the engine. He, for whatever reason, paused. She, for whatever reason, smiled. He turned the ignition, and, somehow, she has said to me more than once, she knew then that she was pregnant with me—one of the few things, she also says, that she got right that night.
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