by E.H. Jacobs
I don’t know when the nickname “Pelican” completely replaced my father’s given name, but that’s what he’s been called since before I was born fifty years ago in a community hospital in Brooklyn, a hospital whose name has disappeared into the chasm of memory. My mom, his second wife, the one who stuck with him long enough to procreate, called him Pelican–not honey, or dear, or even asshole, which was how I heard his third wife refer to him. The first time I remember actually hearing his name was when I accompanied him to a doctor’s appointment and the assistant called out “Earl?”–and I looked around to see who was being summoned–before she called out “Earl Roberts?” and I saw him stand.
One day, when I was about 10, Pelican and some of his hunting buddies were out on the deck grilling burgers and drinking Old Milwaukee. One of them, an 18-wheeler of a guy named Billy LaCrosse, told me that, when he and my father played football in high school, Pelican was famous for his method of forcing a fumble. Once the guy running with the ball was hit, Pelican would run over before the play was called dead, jump into the air, and come down almost vertical, diving onto the player with such force as to dislodge the ball. If you ever watched pelicans fish, said Mr. LaCrosse, you’d see. They fly low above the water and, once they see a fish near the surface, they dive straight down real fast, leading with their beaks, and catch the fish unawares.
When I was 11, Pelican took me and my mom on vacation to Key West. He said that one of the most famous fishermen had a house there. I don’t remember what Hemingway’s house looked like, except for a lot of pictures of guys on boats with big fish, and pictures of Hemingway and all his wives and, the strangest thing, more than 50 of these freaky six-toed cats, descendants of the ones that Hemingway raised. We were in a room listening to the tour guide, Pelican holding my hand, about a dozen other tourists there with us. After the guide talked about Hemingway’s four wives and his cats, Pelican chuckled and abruptly shouted, “I guess the guy really liked pussy!” The room froze. The air stalled. Tourists transformed into statues, staring with marble eyes. Pelican laughed so hard, I think he forgot I was there, but he still gripped my hand while I looked for an exit. I saw the cavern of the tour guide’s open mouth, wide and dark. Then she looked away and down at the floor, and, like someone hit the PLAY button, the statues shuffled and moved out of the room.
Wife number three had it right. He was an asshole. I don’t know why the third marriage ended because, if it was that he was an asshole at the end, well, he was the same at the beginning. It was somewhere between wives three and four that I stopped speaking to him. It wasn’t like I had a decisive moment when I cut off contact. I was a young adult then, and my visits with him had become progressively less frequent over the years since my mother divorced him, and his periods of incapacity, whether they involved his drunkenness or his arrests for DUI or disturbing the peace, or whether he just “fell off the face of the earth,” as my mother used to speculate, had become more frequent. I accepted the fact that this relationship, like so many in my life–friends, lovers, confidantes–seemed to just fade away, with my awareness, only in retrospect, that the last chapter had been written without my having read it.
One Saturday night, when I was weighing the possibilities of going to bed early or staying up late to watch a movie, I got a call from Lucy. I usually took an unlisted number on my caller ID as a sign to ignore the call but, I guess with my limited options for entertainment, I picked up. The woman on the phone identified herself as “Lucy, the wife of your father,” and, before I could end the call, I heard her say plaintively, “Please, don’t hang up.” There was something in her voice that, at the moment, I didn’t consciously identify, but which might have been steadiness, kindness, empathy or all of those traits, that stopped my thumb a split second before hitting the OFF button.
Lucy thanked me and told me that she had been married to my father for five years and that she might understand why I no longer had contact with him. She made it clear that she was not calling to ask for anything tangible, like money or help, but just to see if I might be willing to come visit him. She told me that, about a year prior, my father had suffered a stroke and, while he was still aware and able to communicate, he was physically limited and had difficulty speaking. They were bearing up all right. She had a degree in nursing and had cared for several family members over the years, so she wasn’t complaining, and financially they had enough to make do. She repeated, at least once, maybe twice, that she was not calling to ask for anything material, just if I would consider coming to see him. In spite of the grim situation, and, I assumed, the awkwardness of making that call, Lucy sounded cheerful and guileless, like the kind of person you could talk to and who would actually listen. I joked that five years was a long time with someone so difficult, and, expecting a rough silence, Lucy surprised me by laughing and indicating that she knew what I meant. Lucy, the last in a series of five wives, maybe six, if he married that woman he was with for several months when he just disappeared, described herself as “the end-of-the-line wife,” though I couldn’t tell if she really liked that moniker. She was the one stuck minding this way station between survival and death, rather than the one between drunkenness and heartache, as the previous ones had done. Still, despite his difficulties, she loved him and was dedicated to staying with him. What I wasn’t brazen enough to ask her was, “Why?”
I wasn’t sure what I was feeling as I flew west to Arizona to see Pelican. I had called my mother to tell her, and her response was a non-committal, “That’s interesting.” I tried to read on the plane, but the highlight reel of the most embarrassing and disappointing moments in my life with Pelican kept playing in my head. There was, of course, the Hemingway house fiasco. Then there was the time I brought my college girlfriend home to meet my parents, at her insistence, in spite of my repeated warnings that were so urgent as to sound exaggerated. My girlfriend was from a family in which the dinner table was set with linen and candlesticks each night, people waited their turn and spoke one at a time, and both parents were college professors. We sat at the table as my mother proudly brought in a roast she had made on a faux-silver platter. She smiled as she handed the platter to Pelican to pass around. A smirk slowly formed on Pelican’s face, as he said, “That’s a bigger piece of meat than I’ve gotten in a long time!” He looked straight at my girlfriend and winked. She sunk down in her chair and looked like she could disappear under the table. I couldn’t look her in the eye for the rest of the visit.
Still, with the distance of time, I felt a certain remove, as if I were, indeed, watching a film rather than reliving my life. It was in the taxi to their apartment that the old family force field asserted itself. I felt my stomach and shoulders tighten. A loneliness and emptiness, and underneath that, a shame that hadn’t touched me in years, seeped into me and locked itself in.
Lucy greeted me at the door. She smiled and extended her hand, though I could tell that she was the type who would want to hug. I nodded in a cordial way, my body unable to unstiffen. She had long, dry, gray hair–not at all what I had imagined on the phone, although, before that moment, I had not realized that I had imagined anything at all – and was slightly overweight, with the kind of round, open face that can make overweight people look younger than their years. Her fingernails were painted with chipped, shiny, pearl-white nail polish that looked like it hadn’t been refreshed in a while. I carried a small duffel bag, in case I decided to stay the night at some motel near the airport instead of catching the last flight back, and looked for a place to put it down. Lucy took it from me and set it down against the wall in the hallway, near the credenza that was adorned by one framed picture of Lucy, wearing a below-the-knee off-white dress with her hair tied back, holding a bouquet of white and red roses, arm in arm with my father, who wore a dark suit. Both of their faces were beaming. The hallway was covered with pale yellow wallpaper with dull, red roses that looked like it had been left over from some grandmother several tenants ago. There was that faint cooking smell that seeps into plaster over time.
Lucy motioned to the kitchen and I walked in and saw Pelican sitting at the table. His eyes locked onto mine with a softness I had not remembered. I was suddenly self-conscious, like I was looking at myself standing there. He smiled with one side of his mouth and said softly, “Hello, son.” I sat across from him and greeted him with, “Hello, Pelican.” He chuckled and nodded. The kitchen was small, but neatly kept. The cabinets were an oak veneer, and the kitchen sink below them shone like it had just been cleaned, its silver, plastic knobs standing ready for action. A light brown water stain pressed against the corner where the wall met the ceiling over the cabinets. Lucy came in and asked if I had eaten lunch. I told her I hadn’t, but I could pick something up on my way back to the airport. She said that was nonsense, and she would love to have me join them. She brushed some crumbs off the table into her hand. The plastic tablecloth smelled faintly of the ammonia that had probably wiped it clean several hours before.
Pelican leaned his elbows on the table, his face a fleshy-jowled, gray-stubbled forest. Lucy held a plate of potatoes, over-cooked carrots and soft meat, pulverized to near-pulp. She scooped up some of the vegetables, tipping off the excess and balancing the spoon, careful not to drop any onto the floor or onto Pelican. Pelican looked at the small offering hanging on Lucy’s spoon and opened his mouth. His eyes, a watery pale blue, glistened with anticipation. What Mr. LaCrosse had not told me that day on the deck, was that, after several years of diving so violently into the water, the pelicans’ retinas detach, and they are rendered helpless in their old age, no longer able to see the fish and feed themselves, and dependent on people to throw them food or on other pelicans to discard their catch.
Despite being overcooked, the food was more than palatable. I commented on how lucky Pelican was to have married such a good cook. Pelican nodded and told me, in his halting and broken speech, how he could no longer cook for himself and that, if he had to depend on anybody to feed him, he was lucky to have found Lucy. Lucy got up to get something to drink and rubbed his shoulder.
I asked Lucy how they met, and she told me that she was on a date at some cheap burger place with her boyfriend at the time and, while her boyfriend was on line to place their order, he backed up into Pelican and accidentally stepped on his foot. Pelican reacted like a rattlesnake who had suddenly found its neck in the jaws of a wild boar and, rather than backing down, her boyfriend reacted like that wild boar. They all were expelled from the restaurant. The argument to nowhere resumed outside and, after the police arrived and calmed everyone down, they all realized they were hungry and decided to get a bite to eat and a beer together. Some months after that incident, after Lucy had broken up with her boyfriend, she ran into Pelican at the same burger place. “And the rest,” she said, raising her voice an octave, and with a flourish, “is history!”
Lucy went to the sink to rinse the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. She said that she understood that, when I was growing up, Pelican wasn’t around much. From what Pelican had told her, he was a lousy person and, probably, an even worse father. I looked at Pelican as she was saying this, and he lowered his eyes and pressed his lips together.
Lucy asked me to tell her about some of the times Pelican and I had spent together, even if they were few and far between. I remembered there was a period of sobriety, when I was around eight or nine, when he actually went outside with me to practice catching and batting in my valiant attempt to stop leading my baseball team in strikeouts and errors. He even took me and my mother to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was in a good mood most of the time during that trip, with the exception of some intense arguments about his driving when I was trapped in the back seat feeling like a prisoner.
I suppose something in me rebelled against what I thought was Lucy’s attempt to create some bonding with my father that had never existed. Caretakers can have a way, hidden behind their masks of humility, of sneakily trying to be the hero. In retrospect, I was probably underestimating her, but I then asked Pelican if he had ever told Lucy about our trip to Hemingway’s house. Pelican responded, in his disembodied voice, “No,” and waved his hand dismissively. Lucy asked me to explain, and I swallowed hard, suddenly realizing what I had bitten off and being unable to swallow it. I told the story, hesitatingly, barely looking at Lucy, while Pelican kept his gaze fixed on her. During the story, Lucy finished putting the dishes in the dishwasher and turned to face me while I finished. At the end, she let out a hearty “Hah!” flicked the dish towel at Pelican’s back and said, “You rascal!” Then she asked if I would like ice cream for dessert.
Lucy sat down next to Pelican and spoon fed him some vanilla ice cream, gently wiping his chin after each small bite. She smiled each time she removed the spoon from his mouth and asked him if it was good. When Lucy got up to get another napkin, I asked her, “What happened to that rattlesnake you met the first time you saw him? Did you think you could tame him?” Lucy was opening and closing cupboards, still searching for that napkin.
“Oh, heavens, no,” she said. “You don’t tame a rattlesnake. But, sometimes, old rattlesnakes lose their venom.”
“And, without his venom?”
Lucy turned and smiled. “Oh, he still has his rattle.”
I played with my spoon and pressed the back of it into the mound of ice cream in my dish, the ice cream going soft from sitting there uneaten. Then I pressed the spoon’s edge into the ice cream, making three parallel, shallow cuts. I looked at my watch and saw the afternoon slipping by, as time usually does, unnoticed. I turned around in my seat and looked into the hallway at my duffel bag and at the door waiting at the end. I calculated that I still had time to make it back to the airport and get home at a reasonable hour. I cleared my throat, readying an excuse to leave. I looked up at Pelican. He looked back at me and smiled. I suddenly noticed that the force field had dissipated and a stranger one had replaced it. I found myself unable to stand and take my leave as I had envisioned. As I imagined myself walking down the hallway and out the door, I lifted a small amount of ice cream with my spoon, leaned forward, and brought the spoon to Pelican’s lips.
E.H. Jacobs is a psychologist and writer whose work has appeared in Storgy Magazine, Streetlight Magazine, Aji Magazine, and Smoky Quartz. He has published two books on parenting and papers and articles in psychology, and was a book review editor for the American Journal of Psychotherapy. He served on the clinical faculty of Harvard Medical School.