Central Florida is home to a special subsect of fathers. Thin, white, and poor, these men stock prescription pills in bowls that once held bananas, tuck bottles of vodka behind freezer-burned cartons of ice cream. While their ability to stay alive is a constant amazement to doctors, documentation on these fathers remains sparse, a likely result of their low-class bracket. What we do know is that while their numbers have certainly taken a sharp rise within the current opioid epidemic, these fathers existed long before then.
These fathers pose serious emotional, financial, and physical threats to themselves as well as their surrounding ecosystems, and measures must be taken to curb the spread of their impact — a task that requires great innovation given the remarkable resistance they exhibit toward traditional measures of intervention. Below, you will find one attempt at employing such innovation.
Appearance: Gaunt, with clothes decades-old or bought at the juniors section in Walmart, these fathers differentiate themselves from others by their lack of focus. With the line between sober and intoxicated permanently blurred, they always appear to be on the verge of falling, lanky arms swinging side to side in conversational gestures that resemble a child trying to stay afloat. They avoid eye contact, turning their heads away or closing their eyes entirely, and even when they look at you, it is as though they aren’t, their glassy eyes a reflection of a world that you cannot see. While such disorientation is a logical result of decades of alcohol and other brain-altering drug use, it also offers a tool for manipulation, a means to end any conversation in which these fathers do not wish to participate.
Behavior: At a young age, these fathers tend to be athletic and charismatic, traits which make it easy for them to locate individuals who wish to nurture them. They perceive themselves to possess a high sexual appeal, a perception they carry with them decades later, and they are often found flirting with the paramedics who carry them out of the house, the nurses who change their catheter.
Relationships: Most live with a caregiver, typically a mother or wife. Regardless of how these caregivers feel about their duties, because they lack financial and communal support, they likely cannot see a way out of them. Some see these relationships as clearly parasitic; but these fathers view them as mutualistic.
Diet: Many of these fathers exhibit great distrust or disinterest when it comes to homemade meals. They prefer to sustain on discount beer and off-brand vodka, a snack pack of cookies or Wheat Thins, an occasional Hot-N-Ready Little Caesars pizza.
Origin: Unknown. While substance abuse does appear to run in their families, due to the fathers’ avoidant communication style, it is difficult to say how much this affects them. What we can say with certainty is that the low-class status perpetuates their dependence: drugs and alcohol offer an escape that would prove otherwise inaccessible.
I conducted this case study on an annual Christmas visit home. On my final day, I attempted to recreate a fond evening with my father remembered from a prior holiday celebration. Because of the strong association known to exist between the olfactory system and memory, I rely largely on scent to trigger this memory.
At 67, my father is nearing the end of his expected lifespan, with his need for sponge baths, bedpans, and hospital visits becoming more routine than irregular. Retinopathy, neuropathy, osteoporosis, alcoholic hepatitis, a broken jaw, shoulder, two broken wrists, two hip replacements, two fractured vertebrae in his back — his list of conditions and operations runs as long as his daily medications. His age and location — rural Citrus County, Florida, where he and my mother have resided for the past 15 years — may limit the implications of this study.
I have recorded the selected memory as well as my attempt to reproduce it below. They take place in two separate rentals, my family having relocated several times within Citrus County to more affordable housing as a result of my father’s job losses.
Selected Memory: Inverness, Florida, November 2005:
The house is warm with Christmas lights, a pre-heating oven, the scent of peanut butter and vanilla. It’s a hot night made hotter by its contrast to the hours spent just before with fluorescent lights, sticky linoleum floors, the scent of toilet water, and my breath soured from tears. I cried there in the bathroom, my back pressed against the door as if I might block out the next day’s arrival.
Grandmother was sick. Sick enough that my mother and I needed to leave tomorrow, in the middle of my fifth-grade year, to care for her. Sick enough that my father would stay behind to look after the house and pets. Sick enough that we would only take a carry-on and come back for the rest. My father sat in the chair while my mother told me all this. He didn’t say much.
I didn’t want to leave. Not again. Didn’t want to deal with a fourth new school in three years, the awkward lunches trying to figure out where to sit, the inside jokes I had to listen to but never stayed long enough to build myself. Behind the locked bathroom door, I cried the only thing that didn’t feel selfish to say: What about Christmas? Dad’s going to be alone on Christmas?
When I’d finally exhausted my tears, I walked out to find the Christmas tree plugged in, its embedded fiber optic strands switching from red to blue to yellow and back, our two Tupperware bins full of decorations open on the ground beside it. Although we hadn’t yet celebrated Thanksgiving, there the three of us stood, peeling off the layers of protective tissue my mother wrapped the ornaments in each year. The nicest of these were from my grandmother — a collection of cherubs painted inside gold-trimmed glass globes — that we spaced out evenly across the tree.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Tree fully decorated, my mother and I thwacked peanut-butter-cookie batter onto the tray while A Christmas Story played in the background, a DVD we bought after our lack of cable rendered our annual TBS marathon impossible. Neither my mother nor I liked peanut butter cookies, but I insisted. They were my father’s favorite.
With the cookies in the oven, I took 10 minutes to walk our dog with my father. It was a nightly tradition I hated to put on pause.
“Top five movies with a dream sequence,” I said in a rush.
As we took turns listing off our picks and getting pulled by our black lab into the weeds and tangles of dry Florida lawns, the night felt very much like a dream itself, the November air hot enough to heat the asphalt and warm the thinning spots of my flip-flops. By the time we got to number one — A Nightmare on Elm Street for me, Vertigo for him — we were back home where our winter celebration foreshadowed the real snow I’d be met with tomorrow.
I hugged my father then. Hugged him right there in the doorway before he had time to slide off his shoes or unclip our dog’s leash. Hugged him when he gave an oof at my squeeze and rubbed his knuckles on my head for a noogie. There was so much in that moment I wanted to hold on to.
Recreated Memory: Beverly Hills, Florida, December 2019
With the butter, sugar, peanut butter, and vanilla creamed to the consistency of frosting, I swiped my finger into the bowl. Not enough peanut butter. I threw in another scoop and looked over the counter to the couch where my father had spent the entirety of my stay, where, according to my mother, he now spent all his days. The blue hoodie I bought him was stretched wide around the cast on his arm. He frowned in his sleep.
“He’s going to love these, sweetheart.”
I smiled at my mother. We were both exhausted. Every night that past week, I’d chased rest on an air mattress in my old bedroom while my father moaned in pain from the living room. He talked to himself as though he was gearing up for a race, telling himself he could do it — he could make it across the slippery tile floor to the mini-fridge or bathroom. He showed a poor record, 0-7, and every time he fell, he called to my mother to help him up, get his pants back on, clean the glass he dropped or the urine he’d drenched himself in. With every part of his body damaged, it would take my mother at least an hour to figure out how to lift him up without breaking something new. On my first morning back, I asked if I could help, but she insisted it was something I shouldn’t see. I didn’t push it.
I handed my mother a fork, and we pressed the utensils’ backs onto the cookies, first one way, then the other, until a gridded pattern appeared on each. With my father’s body too fractured to walk, and his mind too spent to remember most of the films he’d seen, there was no recreating our evening stroll. Still, at least quiet had found the house in my final hours there, interrupted only by my father’s occasional pained sleep mumbles, the cat crunching across the wrapping paper still littered beneath the tree.
Cookies in the oven, I walked over to the coffee table and grabbed the remote. Once I moved out, my parents could afford cable again, and the last run of A Christmas Story played muted on the television my mother Dad-proofed by gluing its base to the stand. When I clicked on the volume, my father stirred.
He blinked awake and reached an arm behind him to where his walker lived. Without a word, he slid it to his side and pulled himself up, snatching the blue solo cup from the coffee table to take with him. Its plastic rim pressed between his fingers and the walker’s handle. He skidded across the tile to the Florida room — an uninsulated space we used to keep closed before he fell and broke its sliding glass door. He turned his back to us and filled his cup with vodka before hobbling back to flop on the couch.
“Mumsy,” my father yelled out, realizing what he forgot. “Could you fetch me a pop?”
My father is not English. Has never lived in England. The accent began years ago, when his health had declined enough to earn him a disability income, but not enough to keep him on bedrest. There has not been intimacy between my parents for as long as I can remember, but at least then there were jokes, silliness. My father would adopt the English accent, and my mother would try to as well, the two of them stepping into a make-believe land that offered them more than reality ever would. It’s an accent my father now slips in and out of, even when he’s talking to nobody but himself, an accent my mother no longer takes part in.
Behind me, my mother let out a sigh and dropped the butter knife she’d grabbed for toast onto her plate.
In a pathetically small gesture of support for her, I grabbed my father his Coke Zero.
“Cookies are almost done,” I said, handing him the bottle.
“Oh, I don’t think I could eat.”
“They’re peanut butter.”
He nodded, but said nothing, fixated on twisting the cap off with his casted wrist.
That’s your favorite, remember?
The cookie you always ask us to bake?
The one we make just for you?
After a minute of watching him struggle, I held out my hand in an offer to open the Coke.
“Have you eaten anything today, Dad?” I asked. It was five in the evening, and he’d been asleep since we opened gifts at eight that morning. A roast beef sandwich my mother prepared him sat untouched on the coffee table.
When I returned the bottle to him, he accepted it with his good hand and waved down at himself with his other. “I tell your mother all the time how I hate being like this,” he said. “Stuck here on the couch every day, can’t do anything for myself.”
“One sec,” I said, grateful for the moment the timer chose to go off.
In the kitchen, peanut butter and vanilla spilled out. I smiled. I could picture the crisp edges on the cookies, how they’d crunch ever so slightly when we slid the spatula beneath them. Once the scent reached my father, he wouldn’t be able to resist.
“Oh, dear,” he said. “Oh, dear. Oh, dear.”
I slid on an oven mitt, its beige material crusted brown on either side from years of use.
“Mumsy.” My father inched his back up the couch’s armrest in an effort to sit. “I may need the bucket.”
While my mother abandoned her toast to grab an old blue bin that used to hold our bathroom’s garbage, I continued to tend to the cookies. She passed me, her clenched hand in the air, shaking with frustration toward my father.
“Here, here.” My mother thrust it at him.
An alignment so perfect you’d think it had to have been rehearsed, the second I opened the oven door, my father vomited. Again and again, liquid sloshed up and knocked against the bucket’s plastic walls until he had nothing left but dry, throaty rasps. “There’s not even anything coming out!” He cried and heaved. Cried and heaved.
The couch was far enough away that I knew I shouldn’t be able to smell his vomit over all the heavy kitchen aromas. But I could. It was all I could smell. The cookies in front of me reeked, every bit of peanut butter and vanilla replaced by the sting of bile and stomach acid. I wanted to throw the whole tray of them out. Instead, I carried them over to the kitchen table. If I tossed them, he’d complain that no one made him any.
“I’m sick,” my father said, voice hollowed by its echo in the bucket. “Oh god, I’m sick.”
An unwanted centerpiece between my mother and me, I pinched the edge off one of the cookies. He is sick, I thought, smashing it to sand between my fingers. But not in the way he means.
When his body finally calmed, he lay back onto the couch and fumbled for the television remote. He changed the channel to MSNBC, turning off our marathon an hour early. “What an idiot,” my father called out in response to some news story. “Oh, just ignore me,” he said when neither my mother nor I responded. Another minute passed in silence. “Is Sam still sleeping?” he asked as though it were morning.
“I’m right here.” I’d meant to humiliate him, to make sure he knew his daughter was there while he emptied his stomach — and our Christmas along with it — into a bucket, but he showed no sign of shame.
“Oh, good,” he said. “Good. Good. Good.”
“It’s like this every night,” my mother mouthed to me. “Every night.”
“What can I do?”
It was a question my packed bag made easy to ask, and my mother knew it.
“Nothing,” she said after a minute. “Nothing.”
I took her for her word.
Later that night, I wheeled my suitcase to the door where my mother stood, her demeanor cold, mind fast-forwarded to a time in which I was already gone.
“I’m leaving, Dad.”
He nodded from his spot on the couch and fiddled with a pack of store-bought cookies.
“To go home.”
“Home?” He turned to look at me, ripping the bag in half as he did. “Already?”
I bent down to hug him.
“No, no. I’m going to stand.”
When he reached a shaky arm behind him for the walker, he spilled the cookies off his lap. Unable to focus on anything but picking them up, he tried with all his might to collect the tiny crumbs that had dumped out of the package’s corners and into the crevices of his sweatpants and hoodie, crumbs too small for his clumsy hands to handle.
I bent down to pick up the cookies that fell on the floor, my mother’s impatient stare hot on my back. I wished my father could feel it, too, wished he could just let these cookies stay put while we said our goodbyes. But his eyes shined so slick with lost time they threatened to slip out of his head, every direction a possibility for where the past week went.
“Christmas is over already?” My father asked, his voice small.
With no words to offer, I held out the cellophane bag, the two of us fumbling to collect what so clearly was already gone.
The aim of this study proved unsuccessful. Rather than creating a memory with positive associations, this experiment has triggered an additional, rather unwanted one that suggests this experiment was set for failure from the onset. I note it in detail below.
Triggered Memory: Inverness, Florida, January 2006:
The moment I opened the door, a stench, thick and sour, hit me. The odor had weight, as if a fog of it had settled inside. Halted on my quest to the bathroom, I fiddled with the keys on the porch while my mother collected our things out of my grandmother’s car, my father next to her, calling our dog out from our two-door Chevy.
How bright the car’s red had seemed when my father pulled up to save us from the dreary Michigan winter. My grandmother had passed a few days before, and I ran out to welcome him, flakes of snow hitting my cheeks and arms and his Florida-thin black coat. Back in the Southern sun, however, the car looked more orange than red, its polish having faded on the drive down.
When I finally walked into our house, I kept my steps slow, fearful I might find something worse than the beer bottles overflowing in the garbage can, the mess of cat vomit and feces I already saw. Without the air conditioning, the heat had baked the odor into the carpet and walls. One of my cats began yelping, the sort of scraggly, drawn-out meows I’d only hear again years later when he’d die at age 19, and I followed the noises into the bathroom, where he huddled in the bathtub, his once plump shape shriveled to a skeleton that threatened to snap should I pick him up. Litter and urine covered every surface of the space. Afraid to touch the toilet, afraid to touch anything, I went back out to my mother. Furious, she stared at my father.
“JM was supposed to look in on the cats while I was away,” my father said, his words enough to make me hate this co-worker.
Too young to recognize this sort of neglect as a build-up of months, not days, I believed him. My mother let me. Gifted me with that ignorance for almost five more years before she’d tell me truths I would try my best to forget: how my grandmother’s death had been a surprise; how we hadn’t stayed those months in Michigan to care for her, but so my grandmother could help my mother re-enroll in school, get a job, leave my father; how it hadn’t been our dog but another one of my father’s drunken falls that caused the cherub ornaments to be absent on our tree from then on.
The introduction of familiar stimuli can trigger a spontaneous retrieval of memories — peanut butter turns to stomach acid turns to sunbaked cat vomit — a chain reaction that can threaten the stability of any one link. Due to this fragility, I argue some memories regarding these fathers should remain free of scrutiny. Their role is too pivotal if the surrounding ecosystem is to sustain.
Sam Risak has work published or forthcoming in Writer’s Digest, Lit Hub, AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle, Terrain.org, CRAFT, TAB, Entropy, Barrelhouse, and Crab Orchard Review. She is the editorial assistant for Interviews and Art & Marketing at CRAFT Literary.
Featured image: "Peanut Butter Cookies" by Brian Schwenk is licensed under CC By 2.0.