My father was a quiet, weathered man. Ignoring conventional rules you find in writing manuals, it would be accurate to use the old cliché that he was akin to a closed book. He was reclusive, but pensive. He had been places. More accurately, as he used to tell me, places had visited him. He did not leave too much of himself to those places he had travelled through or lived in, nor would he argue that he left too much of an imprint on the people he’d met throughout his life.
“It’s the bits of ground from the lands you tread that get lodged up in the soles of your boots, boy, that make you what you are. The ‘how ya doin’s’ and handshakes you receive from those out there beyond your quiet, those are what’ll make you something. It’s the others you build yourself from. Other places, other people, that’s what you become.”
That kind of wisdom fell from his lips only in rare occurrences, usually when I was in my jumper pajamas with the built-in slippers with the duct tape enforced soles and he sipped from a coffee mug next to our fireplace. He didn’t give up too much about those he’d known or where he’d been, but I acquired ways to learn about the old man. The easiest was to open the cabinet and pull down the coffee mugs he’d accrued over a lifetime. The oldest few had been salvaged from my Pap’s kitchen when he went to the grave, but the majority belonged to my old man. His mug collection was practical, not something he forbade anyone to touch. He was never uptight, my old man. At lease one of them was used every morning either alongside or acting as breakfast. After dinner, one of the ceramic vessels filled with coffee cut with a cascade of what he’d always call his golden cream, which by the time I could read was Kentucky whiskey, would sit on the end table by his recliner. Dad wasn’t the type to tell you how he felt. His fountain pen was his tongue, the insides of moleskin notebooks his audience. The mood he was in was discerned by the cover of the book he was reading at the given moment. His bookshelves bared his soul to my young eyes; it fed my curiosities and furthered my wonder. What I knew about my father did not coincide with the way he presented himself in when he’d dispense the momentary wisdom by the fireplace.
That vagabond philosophy hadn’t been learned from years spent in a dusty study scribbling notes and drinking tar-black coffee. My father’s boots must have tread some grit layered paths, his hand waved back to strangers’ greetings, shook with friends at bittersweet partings, glided down the backs of fleeting lovers. I was never allowed to hear about the man who lived before I was born, but it hadn’t kept me from piecing the coffee mugs’ treasure map together in some semblance of an explanation.
It had been seven years since I have been back in this house. As I stepped past the gate just ten minutes ago, I felt the breeze through my shaggy hair. This was the first of many falsities of memory I experienced in the moments after stepping foot on my father’s former property. My hair has not been more than an inch long in half a decade. I heard a chain jostle and pull taught as I traversed the lawn, then remembered Stag was put down a few years prior, his remains buried a few feet from his old run-post. Propping the screen door with my shoulder and fumbling with the key I’d taken from my meeting with his lawyer, I opened the front door of my father’s house, what he’d called his sanctuary, and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee flitted below my nostrils. A deep inhale proved it another misfired synapse triggered by nostalgic memory. It led me to put on a pot and open the cabinet to the coffee mugs. He never would tell me in his living years, but I desperately longed to piece together the life of the man who left so much of his thumbprint on my own. I emptied the cabinet and arranged the mugs on the kitchen counter, choosing one to fill with the dark, earthy brew. I selected another to begin piecing together his story. At the same table he sat and ate eggs in a basket every morning at sunrise for the second half of his life, I began writing the first half.