Mike Elliott’s father disappeared when he was 13 years old. Not disappeared as in vanished mysteriously. Disappeared as in left and never came back. Some 27 years later, on a rainy afternoon, Mike drove through Pinellas County, Florida (1100 miles from his hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey), in search of an address that might or might not belong to his father. He vacillated between hope and fear that whoever answered the door would be the man he was looking for. He decided that, if it was his father, he would give him a good “Fk you” and maybe a quick, hard fist to the jaw.
“As I’m driving,” Mike tells me from the safe distance of 13 years, “I’m trying to find this place, and the thing that sticks in my mind is that my father would be living in a good area. I remember his selfishness. So as I drove through these trashy little towns and trailer parks, I said, ‘He’s not going to be here.’ And then, sure enough, I pass the last big road, and then it becomes a really beautiful area. As soon as I saw all the beautiful palm trees and the nice houses, I said, ‘Aw, shit.’”
Mike sits at the edge of a cream-colored leather loveseat in a clean, light room with wooden floors. The decoration is sparse. On an end table, ice melts at the bottom of a blue highball glass that he filled with Tanqueray a half hour ago. “To loosen me up,” he’d said as he poured.
To fully appreciate that particular moment in Mike’s story, the one where he’s driving down an unfamiliar road, looking for an address he doesn’t want to find, it’s important to get to know Mike.
The 53-year-old business systems analyst rides a grumbling Softail Deluxe Harley that awakens his neighbors at 6:00 a.m. Yes, he’s apologetic about the early morning noise, but still, he’s that guy.
Then there’s his chest-up, tough-guy walk, and his heavy brow. Everything most obvious about him suggests that he’d have a grittier interior design aesthetic than the Zen-like sanctuary of this City Heights condo. Potted plants stand in every corner. On the kitchen stove, a whole chicken floats in a stockpot full of mushrooms, celery, and carrots. Tonight, when his girlfriend Huong comes home, they’ll have homemade chicken soup for dinner. For now, however, it’s Tanqueray on ice, and maybe a few sips of the Fat Tire on the end table next to his glass.
Mike is perched at the edge of the loveseat, but a half-hour ago, when this story began, he was sitting back with his legs splayed, as if the particulars he was sharing were of little consequence. Outside, a rare San Diego storm was beginning to brew. He’d already pulled the plants off the balcony, bringing them inside to protect them from a wind that was whipping up the trees in the canyon behind the condo.
“In my town, fathers gravitated toward the bars,” he said. “That’s what we were famous for in Bayonne. A bar on every corner. We were all in the same boat. All the fathers were either missing in action or they lived at home and were drunks. I remember my friends’ fathers coming down the block and stumbling off the sidewalk, drunk out of their minds. To us, if you had one, it was, like, ‘Who cares?’ A father wasn’t something to respect.”
As Mike shared tales of his father’s comings and goings throughout his childhood years, his tone of resignation and slumped posture gave me a glimpse into the kid he once was, and the attitude he’d had to adopt. Even good memories are tinged with disappointment.
“They had just started a Little League team in our town,” he said, beginning the story of his “best memory” of his father. “This was back in the early- to mid-’60s. They had basic tryouts. Then somebody would contact you, give you your uniform, and you’d show up. My father took me to my first game. Brand new Little League field. Brand new Little League gear. The coach had never seen any of the kids, so he had no idea who could play what. He puts me at catcher, and my number was ten.”
He raised a hand to demonstrate the way a catcher would hold up his mitt.
“I’m sitting there, catching, and the ball kept hitting my glove and falling out because I wasn’t strong enough to close the glove. And I made a couple of mistakes on the field…. Anyhow, long story short, we’re on the way home on the bus, and I swear to you, my father says to me, ‘Who was that catcher?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘That catcher stunk.’ And I said, ‘What catcher?’ and he said, ‘Number ten.’ I said, ‘I’m number ten.’”
Mike shook his head and reached for his drink.
“He didn’t even know that was me. The best part [of the day] was that he had come with me. The second part is that he also bought me one of those little Italian ices. That’s the only time I ever remember him giving me something.”
Then there was the time his father came around to show off a new car.
“Guess what kind it was,” Mike prodded. When I couldn’t, he said, “An MG Midget.” He paused for effect, then looked with incredulity over the rim of his highball glass. “He’s got five kids. It’s a two-seater.”
Mike wasn’t the kind of kid who asked questions. He didn’t know where his father spent his time, only that he wasn’t around much, and that when he was, he and Mike’s mother often fought about money. His mother was always asking for some.
“It wasn’t for her. It was for milk and food. [We were] five kids living in the projects,” he said of himself, his three brothers — one older, two younger — and his baby sister.