Friday, October 7, 2011

My Dad Who Wasn’t Jack

First published in Writer's Bloc3

Dad stood a few feet from my brother Nick’s casket talking to Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson. He tilted his head down, looked over the top of his sunglasses, and, speaking with a breathy rasp he thought made him sound like his idol, rattled off a favorite movie line. “We live, we die, and the wheels on the bus go round and round. Jack Nicholson, The Bucket List. Great movie.” It was what he did next that reminded me why I didn’t come home more often.

He pinched Mrs. Jefferson’s ass, then reached up and stopped her hand before it slapped his face. His thin lips parted showing a single row of cigarette-stained teeth, and a guttural laugh burst into the room. A knot formed in my stomach at the sound, and I felt sorry for those kind enough to come for visiting hours. The only reason people put up with my dad was because he owned the biggest construction company in the county, and they depended on his business.

He moved on to the next group. This time it was Stacy Morgan’s turn. “Do you think God knew what he was doing when he created woman? Jack Nicholson, The Witches of Eastwich. Great movie.” The look. The laugh. Pinch and parry.

Dad’s given name was Robert, but he insisted everyone call him Jack, including his family. He combed his hair back, exposing a pocked forehead, and always wore sunglasses, even inside. There were pictures of his idol in every room of our house, and most evenings Dad walked around wearing a bathrobe. Jewish boys celebrated a bar mitzvah when they turned thirteen. Nick and I watched our first Jack movie. When my turn came, I sat in the den with Dad and listened to him recite Jack’s lines in unison with the on-screen character. After my initiation, Saturday became family movie night. Every week we watched a Jack movie. Over and over and over.

The only time I remembered seeing my dad angry was when the police showed up after Nick died of an overdose in the local no-tell motel. “That’s a lie,” Dad said, spittle projectiles launching from his mouth. “And you know it.”  Dad, bright red scalp showing through his thinning hair, stood and tugged the cuffs of his shirtsleeves. “You can’t handle the truth.  Jack Nicholson. A Few Good Men. Damn fine movie.” Nose in the air, chest raised, he marched out of the room.

Nick was Dad’s favorite. Star athlete. Prom king. A real BMOC in high school. I was none of those. After high school, Nick joined the Marines. I enrolled at Harvard on a full scholarship. He fought in the first Gulf War. I went to medical school. Nick returned home minus his right leg, and Dad threw him a party. When I came home for a visit before beginning my internship at Boston Medical Center, Dad put an arm around my shoulder and asked me what I thought of my brother the war hero.

I thanked the last of the mourners for coming and joined Dad at the front of the room. We stood in silence before Nick’s coffin. It reminded me of when the three of us stood over Mom in this same room. Dad bowed his head, mumbled a prayer, crossed himself and, the rasp gone, said, “You make me want to be a better man.”

“As Good As It Gets,” I said and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure Nick knew that.”

Dad removed the sunglasses and slid them into the inside pocket of his sport coat. “I was talking to you.”

Now, ten years later, as I stood over my father’s casket, another Nicholson quote came to mind. “Jack is dead, my friend. You can call me… Joker. And as you can see, I’m in a lot happier place.” I looked down and attempted a smile. “Jack Nicholson. Batman. Damn fine movie.” I closed my eyes. My own son’s image appeared, and I did smile. In eight years, he’d see his first Jack movie. “But only one, Dad. Only one.”

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