I sat half-naked on an exam table in my dad’s infirmary at American Motors. One hand gripped my arm. The other pressed a stethoscope to my chest. It burned. My shoulders jiggled involuntarily, goosebumps frosting across me in a wave. Breakfast curdled in my gut, rearranging.
His breath made me gag. A dead animal inside him. He’d lost all his teeth in the war—malaria or malnutrition—and his ceramic dentures didn’t make up for the putrid smell, nor did the incisive blue eyes or the meticulous grooming of his white mustache and hair.
A beige ceiling fan wheeled and wobbled dizzily above us. It was early June, and I was sweating. And chilled.
“Sit up straight, Walker.” Like I was still a little boy and not a college student. At that moment, maybe, I was.
* * *
I’m on a plane accelerating up a runway at Washington National when that tableau of my dad poised over a bare-chested, teenaged me flames up yet again, an ember in a thirty-year-old fire that won’t go out.
When Piper called my cell earlier this morning, and told me Dad had been in an accident and I needed to come home, that triggered it, brought it all back. 1974. That exam room. That summer job. The meat hook. The Camarasas. Their disappearance. The girl I loved, gone.
For years, I’ve meant to make him tell me his side of the story. Hell, if I’ve been wrong all this time, set me straight. But here I am at forty-nine, a few years younger than he was then, and my sister is telling me he’s in a coma, and I might never talk to him again.
I can’t get it out of my head. The details have banged around inside there so long, I’m sure they’ve dulled, stones rounded by years of repeated bashings against a beach. But back then, as I sat on that exam table? It was razor-edged.
* * *
I shivered as he moved the stethoscope, here and there, around my chest, each touch a circular freeze burn. With both hands, he felt on either side of my neck, under my ears. That breath right in my face. Another gag.
“Come on.” He cocked his head. “You can’t get sick on your first day.”
“I’m fine,” I said, struggling to keep my breakfast down.
With a grimace, he lifted my eyelids, one at a time, shining a light, blinding me. Something came to me from years before. Mouse hole. Cozy Couch. Tiny TV. Mouse hole. Cozy Couch. Tiny TV. A mantra from when I was a kid and he chased me around the house, cat and mouse, like in the cartoon, Tom & Jerry. If only I could find a way back to my mouse hole behind the mop board, watch my tiny TV on my little couch, warm and cozy, while Tom fell into one of my traps. Exploding. Electrocuted. Burnt to a crisp, dissolving into a smoldering pile of black ash.
Finally, my father backed away, jotted something on his clipboard. I could breathe again, mouse hole dismissed. I straightened.
“Go weigh yourself.” He nodded toward the corner. I climbed down off the table and stepped up onto the scale, its plate shifting around. “One twenty seven?” He had his chin up, white eyebrows raised, awaiting confirmation.
“Five,” I said when the needle settled.
“Even skinnier than I was. Back here.” He waved me over. “Arms at your side. But taller, right? Five ten?”
“Yes. You know all this stuff.” I stood in front of him. “Why do you need to examine me?”
“Some defects hide,” he said. His precise words. Then he grabbed my hand and stopped what it was doing, an old habit of mine, clenching, unclenching, like gasping for air. He gave me a pointed nod and scribbled something on his clipboard.
“You’re putting that down?” Stupid hand.
“Relax.” A chuckle as he wrote. “You remember that pitcher who had tendonitis before the Cubs signed him, that reliever—” Something like that as he ticked little boxes, precise blue check marks. “Didn’t make it through spring training, and they were stuck with his contract? Same deal here.”
“It’s not like you have a roomful of Mickey Mantles with bum wings out there.” I’d never seen a scruffier bunch than the other new hires waiting their turn with me in the outer room.
“A hernia, here. Heart problem, there. Adds up,” Dad said. “Can’t make a good car with broken parts.”
I saw myself reflected in a cracked windshield, a dented chrome bumper. So sensitive, my dad.
I’d never been in such a place, let alone worked, so they did look like broken parts. That mutton-chopped guy in torn army fatigues at the water cooler. That black kid with the comb sticking out of his off-kilter Afro. That grizzled old broad, gray hair hacked short, wearing elastic-band jeans, flipping through a Life magazine, Richard Nixon on the cover. Will he resign or won’t he?
But then, no one in that room had a name as pretentious as Walker or Frazier or Piper. No good Catholic gave his children names like that. No, these folks had first names for first names—and real callouses, not little bumps on their middle fingers from taking notes in auditorium seminars.
That old woman smirked at me, shaking her head. I got it. My Chicago Cubs t-shirt was too clean, my blue jeans too blue, my new steel-toed work boots too shiny. I wasn’t fooling anyone. This scrawny bookworm, china in a shop full of bulls.
* * *
The engines roar and I’m thrust into my seat. The plane lifts, tilting me back. We bank, and I’m canted toward the window. We circle D.C. like a kite tethered to the bright spike of the Washington Monument at high noon. With heavy snow cancelling so many west-bound flights, I wasn’t sure this flight would ever get off the ground. But here we are, climbing, leveling out. Could I still get there in time? If so, for what? I don’t know. A final, desperate appeal? It’s bound to get bumpy, especially that landing at O’Hare—if they don’t divert us first.
Maybe the memory always starts in that exam room because, in the four years we’d lived in Belford, I’d never been there before, seen him in his new role, wearing that name badge:
Dr. Michael Maguire
What a shock it was! What a comedown from the days when he had a nickel-plated eagle on his chest instead of a plastic rectangle. Colonel Maguire, Hospital Commander at Chanute Air Force Base. That factory office was a demotion, too. One big room with two examination areas enclosed by curtains, no air conditioning, his papers spread out over a drawer-less table in the corner. So much for the hand-crafted oak desk he’d had in Chanute, the family portrait enveloped in the warm light of the brass lamp, the Persian rug, the wood paneling, the two leather sitting chairs around a cherry coffee table—furnishings that might have come right out of our comfortable home on Senior Officers Row.
Here, it was white walls and linoleum, harsh overhead lighting, beige-painted metal chairs and file cabinets. That wobbly ceiling fan, liable to unscrew itself and behead someone. Not a stick of nice furniture or a family photo in sight. Maybe he didn’t like being there any more than I did.
* * *
As he ticked off another box, Dad said, “Okay, so, pull down your underwear.”
“What?” I froze.
“It’s required, Walker.” He finally looked up, but not at me. Around me. The wall behind, the ceiling. “I have to check for hernias. Company policy.”
Not even the mouse hole could help with this. I stood, trembling, and peeled down my jeans in little jerks and shimmies. Then my briefs.
“For Christ’s sake, Walker. It’s a summer job, not a death sentence.” As if all this pitiful quivering was about the job.
Shaking his head, he moved into me, almost a hug as his chin hovered over my shoulder. Warm, calloused fingers poked into my pelvis, above my pubes. My eyes watered as I held my breath, my heart hammering. Then he prodded up into my crotch, under my balls.
“Enough!” I said, shoving him away. “Just write something down.” I pointed at the form.
He exhaled, as if about to speak, then grabbed the pen, shaking his head. He wrote.
I’d pushed him away! Take that, Cat! More and more, I’d done that. I was eye to eye with him now, the same height. Sure, he still had thirty pounds on me, but maybe I could finally take him. If not for how that noxious breath withered me, that is, those twists of disapproval in his voice minimizing, making me fifteen again, eight, four, cowering in cold sweats. “It’s my job,” he whispered, an apology of sorts. “You can get dressed now.”
Shakily, I zipped up my jeans as he continued writing. I pulled on my shirt.
At the end of the room a set of double doors awaited.
Plant personnel only
No visitors past this point
I stood there, my arms folded at this new challenge, my fist, hidden, clenching, unclenching. I’d planned on spending my summer out in the sun with my best friend, Kurt Swanson, washing cars at his father’s car lot, not building them inside that goddamn sweatshop.
Dad stopped writing and looked up, regarding me, a re-examination. “Look, Walker. I know you don’t want to be here.” The words came out quietly. “But it might actually do you some good. Places like this—” He waved at the door. Though this administration wing was the size of the White House, it was nothing compared to the assembly plant outside that door, waiting to swallow me up, an endless corrugated-steel edifice as big as the National Mall. “This is the kind of life people have who don’t make it through college.”
“You ended up here.”
“You know what I mean. You’ll work with your hands. Your body, your mind going to waste. Your co-workers a bunch of—” He searched for words, shaking his head, then seemed to think better of it. “You’ve been given so many opportunities. A chance for the best education, a successful career. Is that the kind of person you want to be? Like your brother?”
“He doesn’t work in a factory.” At that time, Frazier lived in Chicago, cooking at a diner.
“Just as bad. Maybe worse. No stability, no prospects.” As if my dad had nothing to do with Frazier’s situation. Like someone else had disowned him and cut him off. [ Frazier]“And the way you’ve screwed around at school? I thought you hit bottom when you got arrested last summer, but now I don’t know. Do you want me to think you’re a bum? Is that it? That you’re wasting your life? Is that what you want?”
I shook my head. Always with that arrest, like the judge hadn’t let me off. But no, the good Maguire name had been tainted in the newspaper’s police log, a minor in possession. Boone’s Farm Wild Grape and a six of Bud. Scandalous!
He grabbed my arms. “I’m serious! Is this how you want to end up?”
“No!” I cringed, leaning back, shoulders squeezing together. “Then prove it.” He shoved me away. “Show me you can do something for once. Apply yourself. Pay attention. You screw around here, people get hurt. So you have to do what they tell you, follow the rules. You think you can do that?”
“Yes, I can do that!” I straightened. I could yell, too!
“Okay, then. And maybe, if you see what this life is like, you’ll think twice about where you’re headed.”
Dad bent over my paperwork.
Where I’m headed! Years of medical school. Poking at people. Really great career, Dad.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t like college. I loved the courses and the professors, too. Just not my courses. I’d sneak into lectures on the British Monarchy, Charles Darwin’s Voyages of the Beagle, Chinese Philosophers, 20th Century Classical Symphonies, The Geography of Rivers, The History of Indigenous America. I was a wedding crasher, dancing with all the exotic women. I’d sample the ethnic music and strange gourmet dishes before they tossed me out, uninvited, unworthy. Back to the tunnel-vision world of Pre-Med. Biology. Chemistry. Microscopes and slides. Germs and atoms, always reminding me how small I was, how insignificant. That’s what he wanted for me. Play the game his way or, like Frazier, not at all.
“Walker,” my brother had said when I’d called him the day before, “tell Dad to go fuck himself and come live with me in Chicago.” Yeah, right. And sleep on the floor of his tiny, roach infested studio. And how was I supposed to pay for college?
“College is bullshit. You don’t need it.”
“I’m not dropping out. That’s your bag, not mine.”
“Then you’ll figure it out,” he said, “as soon as you get back on your feet.”
For four years now, ever since he’d decided there were more important things to do with his life than finish college, Frazier had been getting ‘back on his feet,’ making latkes and Reuben sandwiches at a Jewish deli. He didn’t care if he had to scrape by, [ Mark Guerin 4/23/19, 11:22 AM]as long as he could run his theater company at night, hang out with all those starving actors Dad would never approve of. Not to mention the plays they did, industrialists turning bombs into gold, soldiers bayoneting babies. If getting ‘back on my feet’ meant walking in Frazier’s shoes, why let myself get tripped up to begin with? It was a goddamned summer job. I could handle it, couldn’t I?
“Before I forget,” Dad said. “I ran into your girlfriend’s father in the plant last week. What’s his name?”
“Norm. Norm Ditweiler.” Ex-girlfriend’s father, but he didn’t know that yet.
“Yeah, that’s him. How come we haven’t seen her? What with school out, I’m surprised she hasn’t been over to the house.”
So Norm didn’t tell him? Or maybe, Norm didn’t know about the ‘Dear Jane’ letter I’d sent her.
“She’s been busy,” I lied. “Working in her Mom’s hair salon. They’re open evening hours now.”
“I get a kick out of her, a new hairdo every time we see her. You never know what she’ll come up with next.”
“Well, anyway. When I told Norm they were sending you to the loading dock, he offered to take you under his wing.”
Fuck me. I didn’t like Norm to begin with, even if he was sweet to Gayle. Always with a can of beer in his hand, throwing his arm around my shoulder. “Walker Maguire!” That big, drunken grin and boozy breath, like I was some kind of prize. The doctor’s son going out with his little girl. Now, the jerk who dumped her? Perfect.
“Okay,” I mumbled.
“‘Okay’? I thought you’d be happy to have someone keeping an eye out for you.”
“Sure, Dad. That’s great. Thanks.”
“Well, then—” He signed his name at the bottom of the form. “You get a 1-A, fit for fighting.” He nodded at the double doors. “You ready?”