The Cast of Characters: Dad
Wednesday, September 02, 2009
Dad stretched to call himself five feet eight inches. A Golden Gloves Bantam Weight boxing champion, he was wiry, athletic and smart---long torso, short legs and low-slung ass. His white blond hair and crystal clear blue eyes completed the image of the bon vivant. He dropped out of high school and joined the Navy but was discharged after a diagnosis of rheumatic fever. With carpentry skills learned from his father, he expanded his knowledge enough to build whatever needed building. There are gorgeous limestone homes and tall office buildings in Evansville, IN built by my Dad's own hands and overseen by his intellect. The word-on-the-street was that he could read a set of architectural plans and bid a job better than any contractor in town. Mom once pointed out to me that my Dad had the same occupation as this man in our church that I thought was "rich folk." To say that he blew a successful career and a brilliant mind on wine, women and song would be a generous interpretation of Dad's career path.
The house on St. Joseph Avenue in Evansville, IN provides my earliest memories of Dad. I must have been about six, brother, Bill, eight and Bonnie was a baby. It was one of the only houses where I actually remember him living with us. We got our first black and white TV at that house. Dad hooked it up in the small living room of the shot gun house and it almost seemed like we were a 'normal' family---whatever that means.
It's the same house, however, where I cowered in the corner of the bedroom as Mom and Dad had a violent fight over whether to buy me new shoes. I had been chosen to be the ring bearer on the Princess' float in the Westside Nut Club's Fall Festival Parade. I had to have a princess dress and a new pair of shoes. Dad evidently didn't grasp the importance of this occasion and a fight ensued. I caught the combs from Mom's thick chestnut hair when they flew my direction as he whipped her around the room. Memory fails me about the outcome of the fight except that I did ride on the float in a new dress and shoes. It seemed to be one of the hundred times Mom and Dad separated and got back together again.
Funny, I seemed to have a memory from each of the four rooms of the house. That bathroom is where I first saw a man's penis, my father's, and consciously thought, "oh, that's different and maybe I shouldn't be seeing a man naked like this." And the kitchen memory is of "the guys" taking care of the children one night while the women were elsewhere. To occupy an obstreperous three year old, Dad and his buddies put molasses on the boy's fingers and gave him a feather. It was typical of Dad's relationship with children. More child than adult, Dad was always game for the teasing and the fun. While playing with babies and making them giggle, he would invariably say, "You ain't good for nuthin' but it sure is fun whittlin' you out."
I can't begin to piece together memories of Dad chronologically---they are disparate, fragmented and fuzzy. He came and went in my life and I longed for him in ways I couldn't name. I guess that's why fragments of memory poke up through my psyche like ragged edge shards of glass. One summer I lived at Grandma Sims' house and worked at Helen's Restaurant as a waitress where Grandma was cook. After a long day at Burdette Park, I got severely sunburned. The next afternoon, I was lying in the front bedroom coated with lotion, trying to find a position that didn't hurt so much. Dad came in to see me and actually showed real compassion for my dilemma and said---out loud---in real words---that he was proud of me for putting on the stiff nylon uniform and working my shift at the restaurant last night. But that was the same summer that I was sunning in my bikini in the back yard and I saw him look at me with lust and thought, "that is not right for a Dad and daughter."
When he fell from a three story scaffold and practically pulverized the bones in his feet, he sent me the money to come home from college to visit him. I spent the money on a navy blue pleated wool skirt at Seymour's in Georgetown, KY. Just a wee bit passive-aggressive.
It was during his recovery from the accident that he threw his wheelchair down the steps of his second floor apartment then worked his way down after it on his butt. He moseyed on over to The Super Inn and proceeded to spend the day getting plastered. In his drunken state he started the trip home. Unfortunately, the wheelchair got stuck on the railroad tracks. With a train coming. Of course, he later loved telling the story on himself and how he wiggled the wheelchair loose just in the nick of time.
Dad came to visit me once on campus at Georgetown College---I think. I'm not positive. I have no idea if he was proud of the fact that I was the only college educated of my generation of the Sims family. I do remember when I asked him to help me with money for a trip to Europe with the speech choir, his answer was, "Who the hell do you think you are? We don't go off to Europe."
At some point in my life I heard the phrase "lower class immediate gratification." I knew immediately the phrase applied to my family. I remember times when Dad would cash his paycheck on Friday night, party with the best of the red-necks at Dog Town all weekend and deposit whatever was left of his cash on Monday morning. But when Dad was in the room, everybody had a good time. Even his enemies wouldn't deny that they liked him
I feel great sadness about Dad. He lives alone, perhaps lonely, isolated on his glorious Ohio River. That river may be the one thing he has truly loved in his life. He grew up on the river when his father ran a ferry boat taking people and cars to and from the Indiana side and the Kentucky side. He boated, skied and fished that river whenever time allowed.
Mom pointed out to me during my second marriage that I had remarked about every guy I ever dated, "something about him reminds me of Dad." Even toward the end of her life, she encouraged me to call him, go see him. "If anybody can reach him, it's you." Reach him for what? Reach him how? I have stopped by to see him twice in the last few years, mostly because of the insistence of John, Husband Number Five. John wanted to meet Dad and take pictures. So we stopped by.
Dad had not mended his ways nor his shirt, but there he sat at The American Café. He appeared to be relatively sober. He was facing the window so he watched as John and I emerged from the P.T. Cruiser. John found a spot near the edge of the gravel parking lot for Spratley to pee and burn up some energy. I walked on into the café.
His eyes did not leave me as I walked through the door and toward his table. I finally said, "Do you recognize this face?"
"Well, I'll be god damn, where did you come from?"
I explained we were traveling to Minnesota and introduced John. Since he eats two meals a day at The American Café, they didn't seem to mind that their regular customer had company arrive just at closing time.
His skin, now, is grizzled, scaley and cracked but Paul Newman eyes shine through decades of boozing. That-Clarence-Sims-shit-eatin'grin works its magic in spite of no teeth. The charm that captured even his enemies still rested just below the surface of the larger-than-life personality. But for all intents and purposes, the infamous womanizer is petered-out.
We stopped at your house. Nothing was locked up so we went through and called for you. I wanted John to see the picture of you with cameos of all six wives. And I knew he would get a chuckle out of the refrigerator with the keg and the outside spigot. The river is still rolling. How are you doing?"
"Hell, I'm ok, just old."
"Dad, did you know…" I start to ask with tears stinging my eyes.
"I know, hon."
And that was all that we said about the death of my son.
The reality that Dad is relationally retarded in spite of his considerable intellect is most notably evident in the nine marriages. He married Jerri Harrison, Wife Number One, at age sixteen or seventeen because she was pregnant with half-sister, Carol Sue who famously became a Go-Go dancer in downtown Evansville, IN in the Sixties.
My Mom was Wife Number Two, Three and Nine. Mom and Dad met at Camp Reveal, a religious camp for underprivileged children, when she was twelve and he was fourteen. She loved him all of her life, hated him at times, but never got to the point of indifference, though that was her goal toward the end. I suppose he loved her too---she would always say, "he loves me in his way; he just don't weigh enough." She would scream at him, "You can think more and say less than any man on the planet."
Shortly after my birth they divorced for the first time….only to re-marry again soon. My brother, Bill and I were the products of the first try; sister, Bonnie came along during the second try. They divorced again when I was six and re-married for the third time when I was in my thirties. There were even a couple of times that Dad came back into our life but they didn't marry again. Once was when Bonnie was in the hospital with sclerosis of the liver and baby, Normi (half sister from Mom's third marriage) was down the hall with spinal meningitis. Stepfather, Norman, couldn't handle the stress of two sick kids so he made an exit. I awakened one night during this period to discover my Dad on the couch with Mom. It must have been too much for him also because he didn't stay but Norman returned.
Mother's engagement ring, a stunning, unique setting of rose gold with rubies and diamonds, carries its own part of their story. The last time Grandma rescued it from the pawn shop she announced to Mom, "You're not getting it back. Brenda gets it when she turns sixteen." So I did. But even I could not let go of the fantasy that Mom and Dad belonged together, so when they re-married the third time, I had the ring re-sized and gave it back to its original owner. Mom was kind enough or angry enough to return it to me when the seemingly inevitable divorce came after the third try.
Wife Number Four and Five, Marilyn Manona Pinkerton, was the affair he had in his second marriage to Mom. She was a gorgeous, high school senior at the time and pregnant with my half brother, Denny. I have no idea how many times they broke up and got back together but they married each other twice. Greg came along sometime during the back and forth making two children from the on-again, off-again dance. Mom always said Nona was more successful in relating to Dad because she fought him like a man. She once almost killed him with a telephone over the head. It's hard to imagine what he called his "classy pussy" fighting with him physically and I never personally saw the bouts but the stories made good family gossip.
Wife Number Six, Rita, was his secretary at Sims Brothers Construction Company. I learned on a visit back to Evansville during my high school years in California, that Dad has just provided her with money for an abortion because he was allegedly trying to get back together with Mom. But he finally married Rita. They had no living children together.
Fortunately, for all concerned, reality TV series did not exist in the Sixties, because Dad's story with Wife Number Seven, Jeanette, would have been a good one. Jeanette was my sister, Bonnie's good friend in high school and my brother, Bill's fiancé. Bill went off to Vietnam; Dad stole his girl and married her and had half brother, Brian. I'm not making this up. Of course, the marriage didn't last long and Jeanette and Brian moved back out West. Brian recently found us on the Internet doing genealogical research. He has not contacted Dad as far as I know.
Wife Number Eight was Ada. I did not get to know Ada and have no memory of the character of their marriage. My sister, Bonnie says it was founded upon their drinking together---a reasonable speculation.
And then we are back to Mom for Number Nine. God knows how many other women were squeezed in before, during and after these nine marriages. And thank goodness, God isn't telling.
The longing to know him, to be loved by him still has the power to blind-side me.