The fight started right after the bars closed. I was thirteen, sleeping alone in a new travel trailer, on the Tompkins Street side of the courthouse square, when I heard my dad shouting at someone. At first I wasn’t sure it was real. The trailer was a brand-new Holiday Rambler and its formaldehyde smell burned my nose and made me dizzy. My parents owned the debt on the RVs that ringed the square and were staying in a motorhome on the Jackson Street side. Their sales lot was only a mile away. These RVs had been open to the public all day and would be open again after church, when a DJ from the AM-radio country music station would come down and do a remote broadcast. Why this seemed like a good promotion for their dying dealership, why the city blessed it with a duly-notarized permit, or why we were staying the night on the courthouse square for security, who knows? This was in 1974, in Broadnax, Florida.
I opened the aluminum door and saw a stringy-haired man shove my dad, who was much larger, back against his own merchandise. It was a twenty-six-foot Georgie Boy that we used as a demo and had taken on vacation to the Smoky Mountains. From inside it, my mother screamed. A half-dozen bystanders laughed. The man was the kind of wiry barfly no one should ever fight: drunk, angry, and willing. He was wearing a keep on truckin’ shirt and cut-off painter’s pants. He shoved my dad again, taunting him now, calling him trailer trash and fucking pussy and big guy.
Remember that kid you went to high school with who was six-four and bad at sports, afraid of the ball and his classmates’ ridicule, a congenial but friendless galoot who was dying inside because his own father never got around to teaching him the useless skills that end up mattering? That was my dad. You don’t grow out of being that kid. Probably, you don’t grow out of being any kind of kid. I understood some of this at the time, but it didn’t yet break my heart, as it does now, as my dad lies in his own guestroom in a rented hospice bed—cancer-ridden, thumbing the button on his morphine drip, and about to die. At the time, what registered was the patty-cake, comically awkward punch my dad threw in self-defense. The man struck back, fast as a snake. My dad’s shattered glasses flew off and he crumpled to the sidewalk. Ashamed of him, I tugged the door silently closed.
The stringy-haired man laughed like hell. A woman’s voice—not my mother’s—called the man a drunken goddamned shitbird and they left my father on the sidewalk and took off.
Later that night and well before dawn, I told my parents and then the cops that I hadn’t seen anything, that I’d slept through the whole ugly scene, and I spent twenty-seven years sticking to my story. Sometimes, in recent years, I’d tell a version in which I’d smuggled a red-headed girl into my trailer—the smartest person in my class, in fact—and when I didn’t come to my dad’s defense (when, in other words, she saw what a coward I was), she put her shirt back on and opened a window on the side facing the street and crawled out and wouldn’t talk to me after that, all of which really happened, only much later, in a different trailer and another context.
How futile to confess this to my dad now, to admit being ashamed for having ever been ashamed. What crappy, trifling gifts we hand out on Father’s Day.