10 Dad Stories

Steven Markow


I. The Lava Mask

Every now and then my dad wears The Lava Mask. He says he bought it at a local crafts fair, but we're pretty sure he made it in his workshop in the basement. He says The Lava Mask is like glasses, it helps him read, but he already has regular glasses, so why? The Lava Mask is a sort of black beret on top of a ruby-like facial screen that is filled with what appears to be actual lava. Not the chill lava lamp kind, but the coursing, volcano kind. There is a very tiny slit, off-center, near where his eyes might be, and an asymmetrical square-ish shape where his mouth is. His claim that it helps him read is challenged further by the fact that he never has any reading material in front of him while he sits at the dinner table with The Lava Mask on. Maybe he's reading something invisible to us, obscured by some arcane dad magic to anyone not wearing The Lava Mask.


II. Baseball Mummy

Underneath sheets of old newspaper, covered in what appear to be warning signs drawn in a desperate scrawl, my dad keeps baseball equipment, mostly mine from when I played as a child. It's as if he's mummifying the me that played sports. When I quit, he took it personally. He was athletic as a teen, and may have even played recreationally through college. When I stopped playing team sports to pursue writing and making short films, he started building the sarcophagus in which my baseball mummy now lies, sleeping, possibly cursed. I've only opened it once and for several years after I was bedridden with paralyzing depression, but maybe that was because my dad does stuff like mummify baseball equipment. Hate to put all the blame on him, but that must have a little something to do with it.


III. During a Hurricane

Have you ever woken up from a nightmare during a hurricane, and the morning sky is a violent, dark turquoise? And the wind is slashing through the suburbs. And the basement has flooded because the sump pump gave out. It was not my dad's fault but he took the blame, for all of it. And after the small town calculated its devastation, my dad had to pay for the damages. Still though, he says the greatest regret of his life was letting me go to an expensive liberal arts college.


IV. Sleep Paralysis Mailman

Our mailman only comes to us during my dad's sleep paralysis nightmares. The letters are always open. Mostly bills. Sometimes they're birthday cards, and from the looming black mass, like the shadow of a bat bigger than a house, we hear a reverb-drenched, sub-bassitone voice saying, "Happy birthday." Rising from the ground are tentacle-like whips that snap around the cul-de-sac, making it difficult to get the letters. The sleep paralysis mailman always watches us pick up our mail, I think it likes it. Hey, there's nothing wrong with taking pride in your work. At least all the letters get here, every time my father goes to sleep.


V. Our Old House

After I graduated high school, we moved from a small, middle class suburb to a more affluent area, even though we were doing financially worse than before the move, and even though we sold our house at the worst time, during the housing crisis after prices had plummeted. My dad just wanted some woods in the backyard, for privacy he said. Recently, I happened to take a detour off the highway and had the opportunity to drive by our old house. I was shocked at how badly it had rotted. It looked like it had been dragged up from a primordial pit. The walls were covered in a frightening mold, large enough to see the bacteria colonies writhing. But to their credit they also removed the above-ground pool, which made the backyard a little bigger. It's none of our business what they do with their new home in any case, although it did make me a little sad that I'd never get to walk through our little kitchen again. I think it's important to revisit places from your past, not to romanticize them, but just to get a sense of the progression of your life, and then maybe you'll sense you haven't come far enough, that you've only gone from one rotten place to another. 


VI. Gas Mask Day

My dad went through a period of time where he was trying to be a fun dad, so he started cooking cherries jubilee and playing Patsy Cline at dinner. He also instituted Gas Mask Day, which would be one weekend every month, whenever he got bored with his Lava Mask. On Gas Mask Day, we all had to wear gas masks. My dad said he'd flooded the house with carbon monoxide. We obviously never knew if it was true or not. Sometimes I think, in a past life, my dad must have been a plague doctor.


VII. His Friend, The Worm 

My dad needs more friends. At one point, he built one from bread and spit that resembled his college buddy, Ed. But eventually it started to mould so my mom surreptitiously threw it away. My dad didn't mention it. He was used to and content with going out alone, usually to the hardware store or Walmart. But I guess he got lonely one day. We walked through the front door, my sisters, my mom, and I, back from the movie theater, and we noticed a large black worm coiled around the rooms of our house. It wasn't a snake, or if it was, it didn't have the head of a snake. My dad had put a hockey mask over one end of it, but we could see through the face-gate that there were no eyes underneath it. I just remembered it was my birthday and I thought at first that this was some kind of present for me. My dad interrupted that thought saying, "This is my friend." And the worm wriggled around, too large to move very much through the house, or not interested in doing that. And the worm stayed for days. We'd hear my dad talking to it, or to himself near enough for it to overhear what could've been said directly to it, my dad's preferred means of communication. Mostly he complained about me not trying hard enough to find a decent job. The masked worm said nothing, but maybe its wriggles were replies of a kind. I had to crawl over it its ribbed opal back to get to my bed. After about a week, the worm left. It smashed through the wall of our living room, crushed our backyard fence, and disappeared into the woods. My dad never explained why it left. He was, as I said, used to being alone.


VIII. The Handstand

My dad is in pretty good shape for his age. He's in his sixties but still runs for miles every week. But ten or so years ago, he was in remarkable shape, for any man. We were impressed, but our admiration was tempered by how critical and insulting he could be. He'd constantly attack us for either not eating healthily enough or not exercising enough. He'd call us "fatties," really drive the barbs in, like bamboo under our fingernails. One time, to show off what great shape he was in, my dad did a handstand and stayed in it for hours. His head started to swell up and turn purple, like a plum, but I guess out of pride he refused to stop. "You fatties couldn't do this," he choked out. Eventually his skull popped and whipped cream spilled out everywhere. It was the diet kind, no fat, zero calories. But my dad held the pose until his skull warped to the point where he could no longer balance in that position, and he slumped to the floor, as behind him, through large glass doors, a muddy sun started to set.


IX. The Bench

My dad found a set of weights in the garage before we moved from Bound Brook to Hillsborough. He bought a bench and set up the bar above it. He started lifting before and after his long runs. I confess that I'm self-conscious about how thin I am, especially my arms, and go through phases of wanting to bulk up. So I started using the new bench as well. After about a week of using it off and on, my dad said I was making the basement smell. I think it was some primitive thing, the scent of another male encroaching in his territory. One time when I was down there getting in some reps, he walked over and pissed all over me. I ran away and showered off, but when I went back downstairs to confront him, he had replaced the bench with a black rectangular cube, similar to the one at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the one that turned the monkeys into men. I never touched it, having learned my lesson not to mess with his equipment, and as far as I know, my dad never touched it either. It remains in our basement, like an ominous memorial to something we briefly shared.


X. Birthday Cake Head

My dad never acknowledges my birthday, or very rarely. At least not on my birthday. Every now and then, though, he'll make some gesture that deals with birthdays as a motif. An example of this is Birthday Cake Head routine, which is when he comes home from work with a sloppy, melting ice-cream cake on his head. Clumps of it fall to the floor. It warps his face like some primitive mask, another in his vast collection. I can picture him with his one eye showing through the frosting, studying my reaction, a grimace made from pink icing smeared across his mouth. On my actual birthday, my mom usually gets me a card and says it's from both of them. I'm sure it isn't.