Fragments About My Father That Are Actually Pretty Damn Cohesive After All When You Read Them and Think About it a Little or Hello Beautiful World Without Overly Much Fire (in reference to the essay contest that estranged us for so many years)

In many ways my father was a good father, a wise father and a male father. But in many other ways he was not.

When I was in the third grade I came home and told him I lost the Fire Prevention Essay Contest.

"You did fucking what?" he roared. Red, swollen face. Spittle. Etc. "We don't fucking lose fucking Fire Prevention Essay Contests in this fucking house." My mother stood nearby with her eyes growing wet and bright, her hand covering her mouth.

Essay synopsis: First get rid of the matchsticks. Actually, the matchheads. I proposed a tiny guillotine-like device. With such a device all matchsticks might be rendered useless. Tiny baskets would collect them so that they might be carted off somewhere and safely disposed of. Goodbye matchheads. Hello beautiful world without overly much fire.

My father bit his lips until they turned white as he read the essay. He took a red carpenter's pencil from his shirtpocket. He carried it there because he was a carpenter.

A carpenter!

"Nothing wrong with being a carpenter." he often told me, as if he thought I silently accused him. "Jesus was a carpenter."

Actually Dad was a carpenter who was also a failed writer.

Actually we don't know if he really failed or not because he simply gave up, claiming there was no reason to go on after William Gaddis "stole" his title. The abandoned manuscript sits on his desk.

Mom put soothing words in his ear. "It's not the like it's the entire book or anything. It's only the title. " Dad said, "Only? Only? Only? Only? Only? Only?" And so on. Then she tried to calm him with their old joke. She would begin stroking his hair and singing quietly, If you were a carpenter and I were a lady, but her voice broke apart as he continued to seethe and she got all chokey sounding before she could finish.

The carpenter's pencil is a flat, squarish kind of pencil. You have to use a pocketknife to sharpen it.

Sawdust in the hair of his forearms.

He squeezed the pencil in his fist like a child and began viciously marking on my cover sheet. From my angle it looked disturbingly masturbatory but I didn't tell him that. He was almost gouging through the pages. Finally he turned it around for me to see. It looked vaguely elliptical and hirsute. An expressionistic football? Some bizarre bird's nest? "Son," he said, shaking the paper. "Do you know what this is? It's a pussy! And that's what you are!"

The cover sheet with Dad's scratchy, pencil vulva remained on the refrigerator for many years. With a banana magnet honest to god.

Even from my bedroom I could hear him taking his beloved piece of needlepoint from the wall and smashing it. The needlepoint was a line from the Faulkner Nobel Prize acceptance speech about the human heart in conflict with itself and good writing and agony and sweat.

Don't even get him started on all that "Chuck. Chuck. Chuck. Of the Adze." business in As I Lay Dying.

He finally spoke to me again this year. He came into the kitchen with a small box of wooden matches in his hands, shaking them. He spilled the contents of the box onto the table: headless matches. We laughed and hugged. Then he said, "Hey wanna go out in the yard a toss a few around?"

Years ago he fashioned these two things like enormous, low birdhouses. They sit a few paces from one another in the front yard.

The neighbors marveled when he built them. And called them "the big birdhouses." So that's what we call them: the big birdhouses.

He unlocked each of the padlocks on the big birdhouses and opened the hinged lids. Inside each big birdhouse was a special waterproof container that contained a new edition of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary with magnifying glass. We flipped a shiny new quarter for the first turn.

"Heads or New Jersey?" I asked as I slapped the coin onto the back of my wrist.

"Whoa. Given those choices I'll always take heads." We laughed. This was one of his few instances of irony. We actually lived in New Jersey and he loathed the endless jibes from simpletons.

Often he would pull the car over and make everyone get out and admire Jersey's verdant hills. He would throw his arms into the air and shout, "Goddamn this is green!"

"Heads it is. You first."

We read words and definitions aloud at random. The sky was achingly blue. Then the sun lowered and the white slats of our house turned orange. In the grass the crickets did their crickety things.

About the author:

Bill Spratch will sometimes uncontrollably yawn when he reads aloud. Even if he's not at all tired.