Fiction by Rich Barnett
“Don’t forget the olive,” my father instructs, his watchful eyes monitoring my every move as I finish mixing our Bloody Mary cocktails. He’s a firm believer in the olive garnish. All a celery stick does is fill up the glass and leave less room for vodka.
My father’s Bloody Mary recipe is simple, but specific. Based on the number five it’s also easy to remember. Take a red plastic go cup and add a five-count pour of Clamato juice. Spice it up with five dashes of Tabasco and five squirts of real lime juice.
The fourth ingredient is the vodka, poured while counting to five very slowly, but only into my cup now that dear old dad is “on the wagon.” Nine months ago, he slipped off a bar stool in the kitchen after one too many before-dinner cocktails and knocked himself out. My father is a big man, so when all three hundred pounds went down, it shook the kitchen like that Virginia earthquake did a few years back.
I wasn’t there for the incident. My brother called me with all the juicy details.
“The dog wouldn’t quit barking and Linda (my stepmother) was crying. An ambulance came and the neighbors gathered out front. Once he came to, it took three EMS guys to carry the old boy upstairs and get him into the bed. When they pulled back the covers, an empty bottle of Smirnoff rolled out!”
Not seven days later, my father checked himself into a top-notch rehab program in Williamsburg and he’s been sober ever since.
The fifth and final touch to the perfect Bloody Mary is a single, fat, pimento-stuffed Spanish Queen Olive.
My father lifts up his red cup, inhales, and then takes a deep swig. “You know, son, I don’t even miss the vodka.”
He’s fibbing. You don’t end a fifty-year relationship without some regret. I keep my mouth shut, though, because he really did need to quit drinking. Even before the big fall, my father had gotten into the habit of taking a Bloody Mary along with him when he drove his daughter Ashley (my half sister) and her friends to high school in the mornings. A drink certainly might have made that particular chore easier, but, hey, it was his decision to have a second round of children later in life. One of the girls tattled.
“Son, let’s go out on the porch. We need to talk about some things.”
“Is your drink okay?” I inquire.
“It’s perfect. Bloody shame there’s no vodka in it. But that’s okay.”
We carry our red cups out onto the screened porch. My father settles into a cushy rattan chair, and I take the rocker. He’s driven eight hours to have this conversation with me. It’s part of what Alcoholics Anonymous calls “making amends.” The point is to apologize to your family and friends for things in the past and, in the process, restore trust and repair damaged relationships. I find it odd, almost perverse, that such a talk is occurring over a cocktail. But he insists…
He stares at me through large, outdated, gold-framed glasses, and I brace for the unknown. The old man wasn’t a great father. He was mostly absent, preferring to go off and build golf resorts than spend time with his family.
My father is quiet, but I notice him fidgeting. I wait, sipping my Bloody Mary, listening to the hum of the ceiling fan. This is his show. He starts to say something then stops. Finally, he speaks, going into an exaggerated apology for getting mad at my inability to fly cast during a trout-fishing excursion on the New River. I honestly don’t recall the incident.
“I’m also sorry, son,” he says, “For laughing that time you punched your arms through the glass front door.”
That, I remember. Only it was my brother, not me. He still has the scars on the belly of his forearms to prove it.
I bite my lip. That’s all he can come up with? What about the times he forgot my birthday or how he belittled me because I excelled at tennis and not punt, pass and kick competitions? Little Lord Fauntleroy, he used to call me in front of his friends. Then one day he just walked out on us.
Through AA he has come to believe that all his poor choices and bad behavior were a result of drinking. It’s a premise that seems way too convenient to me, sort of like a “get out of jail free” card.
I start to sweat when he begins talking about a homosexual experience with a work buddy back in the “swinging 70s”—he actually uses that phrase. The old boy can’t be coming out of the closet, not now at the age at seventy-two. I briefly envision him cruising about in his big pearl-white Cadillac with a hustler named Danny, asking me, the writer son, for assistance in crafting his lewd and alluring personal ads for that “Silver Daddies” dating site.
Luckily, he just wants to say he’s sorry for never talking to me about my being gay or about what it was like for me coming out.
Is he kidding? This kind of personal conversation isn’t something we have in our family. We’re more comfortable talking about hurricanes, fried chicken, and SEC football. Yet again, I remain silent. This is about him, not me, and the process is straightforward—his confessions, my absolution. It’s not meant to be reciprocal. Even if it were, what would be the point? I’m not the one making amends. And I’m positive my father wouldn’t want to hear about the first time his son sucked dick. Or worse, learn he helped facilitate it.
Back in 1984, I was a college student needing funds to go to Ft. Lauderdale for Spring Break. It was back in the day when a quarter million kids took over the beach, seeking sunshine, suds, and sex. I’d squandered almost all my money on new Lacoste shirts and pot in preparation for the trip, and my mother refused to give me one more dollar.
I thought about pawning my college signet ring, but the paltry seventy-nine dollars it would fetch wasn’t going to get me very far. Just when I had resigned myself to subsisting for ten days on all the Doritos, Slim Jims, and Diet Cokes I could charge on my Shell gasoline credit card, a roommate suggested I simply ask my father for the money.
Despite the fact that my father and I had barely spoken in the ten years since my parents’ divorce, it wasn’t a totally crazy idea. He was wealthy. If I could fabricate an emergency, a situation in which I could only turn to him for help, it might work.
A little later, with inspiration from a lot of bourbon whiskey and some of the most clever college boy minds in the South, I found my father’s phone number through directory assistance and called him to ask for $500 to pay for my girlfriend’s abortion.
“Yes,” I acknowledged, “it is a lot of money.”
“Of course,” I assured him, “we have thought it through.”
I waited for more prying questions, whose answers I’d rehearsed, but they never came. The entire conversation lasted no more than two minutes and ended with him saying how touched he was that I had come to him in a time of need.
The money arrived at the Western Union desk in the university student center the next day, just in time for the nineteen-hour drive from central Virginia to south Florida, the trip where I planned to hook up with drunken college girls and banish all thoughts of sex with boys.
A few days later, I was in a cheap Ft. Lauderdale hotel room on my knees in front of a big, drunk, redheaded boy wearing a Notre Dame t-shirt. He said he was a football player. I had to chug two beers afterwards to wash away the taste of shame.
Naturally, my father knows nothing about any of this. In the thirty years since, we’ve never spoken about that phone call, though I’ve often wondered if he remembers.
I remind myself that it was a good lie because it broke the ice between him and me and my brothers. I give the old boy a smile and decide to let sleeping dogs lie.
“How about another Bloody Mary?” I ask. “It’s your turn to mix.”
Rich Barnett shuttles between his work for an environmental think tank in Washington, DC, and his writer’s life in Rehoboth Beach, DE. He writes the popular “Camp Stories” column in the magazine Letters from CAMP Rehoboth and is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town: Rehoboth Beach Stories. Other work has appeared in Saints and Sinners: New Fiction from the Festival 2014; Shore Life Magazine; The Beach House: Rehoboth Beach Reads; and No Place Like Here: An Anthology of Southern Delaware Poetry and Prose.