If it was supposedly commonplace in the mythic suburban dream of the sixties and seventies for fathers to teach their sons how to throw a ball or how to make a fist to defend themselves, my father not only didn’t know it but he also would have regarded such things as useless and petty. I grew up on a farm and by the time I was barely out of the cradle what he had taught me was this: how to weed and hoe a garden; how to collect eggs from the chickens; and how to clean, trim, and bunch scallions—hundreds of them—to get them ready for the market. If I yawned with boredom or shirked my duties by running away to play, my father would point a finger at me and with the fearsome look of one whose own life had been forever shaped by difficult circumstances remind me that hard work was something I’d never, ever forget. “’Cause that,” he’d say, poking me in the chest, “is what’s gonna make a man outta you.”
My father’s name was Herbert Mueller, though to most people he was known simply as Bert. He had immigrated to Canada from West Germany in the late fifties, and after wrenching his back in the local iron and brass foundry he turned to the only other thing he knew something about: farming. He raised laying hens—Rhode Island Reds and Leghorns—and every week he sold the eggs, both white and brown, at the farmers’ market. He sold other things too. Fruits and vegetables, both home-grown and bought wholesale, whatever happened to be in season. But eggs were our family’s main source of income and what he was known for at the market.
Most mornings my father got up at 5:30 but on market days, Fridays and Saturdays, he got up at five to eat a large breakfast of—what else?—fried eggs and bacon before loading up the van and setting off. It didn’t matter if the roads were covered in snow and ice and barely navigable, or if the sky thundered and rained torrentially; without fail he would go. Until he retired, I never knew him to miss a single week in the forty-plus years he went to the market.
“Your poor fatuh,” my mother would say in her German accent (she had followed him to Canada a few years later), expressing this remark on those Saturday mornings when the weather was especially inclement. Still in pyjamas, I’d be watching cartoons, while outside the trees might be bent in the wind hurricane-style as the rain lashed the windows. “Poor Fatuh,” she’d say, peeling potatoes for lunch while gazing out the window with that faraway look she often had then, as if she herself could see him being pummelled by sleet and hail. “Probably no one’s at the market either.”
At the time I regarded these words as simply an expression of pity for my father who, invisible to me at any rate, would be experiencing the brunt of these weather conditions. But in the philosophical way that children perceive the world, I understood this to be a choice and that nothing prevented him from coming back inside if he wanted to. What I was not yet capable of was reading between the lines, for what my mother also meant was that he wouldn’t be bringing home much money that afternoon. That realization wouldn’t hit me until much, much later.
◊ ◊ ◊
My father usually came home in the early afternoon, around one o’clock or so, when the market wrapped up for the day. I would still be in pyjamas, still watching TV, only by this time I’d have moved on to whatever sports program that was usually broadcast at that hour. But it wasn’t so much the football game or tennis match that held my attention (I had no interest in sports) as it was the athletes themselves. Their tall, lean, muscular bodies, so fascinating and mysterious, were such a contrast with mine that I jealously longed for the day when my own puny, boyish body would in some way approximate theirs.
“Daddy’s home!” I’d excitedly run to tell my mother when I spotted the ’72 Ford van through the picture window pulling into our gravel driveway. But that initial joy turned to dread as I slowly developed an aversion to the kinds of stories my father would tell when the three of us sat down to lunch—what he insists to this day on calling, in that old-fashioned, rural way, “dinner.” His stories were of a single variety. Often told in a raised voice, his hands balled into tight angry fists, he invariably played the role of innocent victim, while the surrounding cast of characters—antagonists, all of them—pointed fingers at him and accused him of selling less-than-grade-A potatoes or apples (which may or may not have been true) or of charging more for a dozen eggs than the grocery store (which he certainly was). “Then go to the grocery store! See if I care!” was the kind of thing he’d bellow during these re-enactments, followed by a fist landing on the tabletop with the unassailable conclusiveness of a judge’s gavel. Even as a child I sensed, though I would not have had the words for it, that my father’s stories were one-sided, full of generalizations, omissions, misunderstandings, prejudices, specious theories and, above all, a deeply rooted cynicism. “Y’see,” he’d say when the talk turned to politics, rubbing thumb and forefinger together in the universal gesture for money, though in this case it indicated something much more nefarious. “Y’see how dirty the government is? All they do is take take take.”
My mother, whose role was to play captive audience, said little during these conversations except to frown and shake her head obligingly, while I looked away, the word dirty filling me with an unaccountable sense of shame.
“‘C’mon! That’s impossible!’” I remember my father once shouted during his retelling of an argument he’d had with a woman who was convinced she’d found the veiny, pulpy mess of a chicken fetus in one of the eggs he’d sold her the previous week. “‘I’m tellin’ ya, I’m tellin’ ya,’” he said, his voice now approximating some kind of falsetto-like impersonation of its speaker. “‘That’s what I found. A little bloody thing, tiny beak and legs, its eyes still closed.’” Based on these words, my father gathered some sort of life lesson worth my paying attention to. “Y’see, Tommy?” he said, turning to me. “Y’see how the Italians are? Dirty buncha liars. I told her, ‘Get outta here and don’t ever come back!’”
“Why’s it impossible?” I wanted to know, less bothered at the time by the bigotry (that would come later) than by his easy dismissal of the woman’s claim.
It was quite likely the only time I’d raised my voice to ask a question; and my father, astonished that I’d deviated from anything other than mute, obedient listener, silenced me with this:
“’Cause I only got a couple roosters, and I keep ’em separate.”
How old was I then? Seven? Eight? His response told me nothing. Yet, like so many things that were shrouded in secrecy then, I sensed the answer had something to do with mating, which I’d often witnessed between the many insects, wild birds, and barn cats that claimed our farm as home: some kind of brisk necessity, as far as I could tell, for the purpose of procreation. But if I had only the vaguest idea what mating was, sex, on the other hand—that notorious word I often heard bandied about on television—I understood to be a useless, recreational activity that, just like the government, the Italians, the Hungarians, the French, the Jews, the blacks, and everyone else my father censured, was dirty.
◊ ◊ ◊
The summer I turned nine my father expected me to also get up early and join him at the market on Fridays and Saturdays. I didn’t want to, of course, and neither did my mother. I was too young to be getting up so early, she argued, but my father was resolute. He couldn’t stand the sight of an able-bodied nine-year-old being coddled by his mother, while he was “Out there!”—shaking his angry fist with the passion of a man who only wants the best for his children yet is resentful when they actually get it. “Out there, trying to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table!” This would then be followed by my father once again reminding me of the value of hard work, particularly at this highly impressionable time in my life. “Y’know, when I was your age, during the war…”
And so began another variety of story: that of his boyhood growing up in that slab of Europe that once belonged to Germany but is now part of Poland. He said that at my age he didn’t own a single pair of shoes or boots; that in the winter months, while tending the cows, he had to stand in fresh patties to keep his feet warm; that he and his brother—my uncle—had only one coat between them and they had to take turns wearing it. He spoke as if hypnotized, as if having been cruelly forced to return to a time and place he’d rather not revisit, and was only scratching the surface of all that he’d seen and experienced.
Even if I wanted to, I knew enough not to ask any questions—such was the mysterious power of his words—yet at the same time his stories seemed fantastical to me then and difficult to imagine, more closely resembling that ancient world of black-and-white film footage than anything remotely related to the man my nine-year-old self knew to be my father.
◊ ◊ ◊
As it turned out, going to the market wasn’t all bad. I loved the quiet of the early morning hour as my father and I drove into town, the grass sparkling with dew, the roads fog-covered and mostly deserted, the houses still asleep. It was as if we were ghosts, unseen and unheard, floating into town. But that illusion vanished as soon as we reached the market itself, where already there was a hubbub of activity: trucks and vans pulling into their spots, the legs of collapsible tables being snapped open, and fresh produce—still wet and crisp—being unpacked and neatly arranged, as the “early birds,” as my father liked to say, were already out buying.
My father had a designated parking spot under the market building’s overhanging roof and was bookended on one side by a man who sold blueberries in the summer and apples in the winter. His name was Felix, also a German immigrant, and was one of the few men my father got along with. On the other side was a man who raised flowers year-round in a greenhouse. He sold carnations and lilies, roses and baby’s breath, all sitting in pails filled with water. He was a life-long bachelor, and my father for some reason only ever referred to him as the Old Dutchman. He also didn’t like him.
“He’s a funny man,” my father once whispered as we were unloading the van. At the time I assumed this epithet was due to some quarrel they must have had, as he had with most everybody, still too young to know that funny could have yet another meaning (though how he meant it I still don’t know). “Whatchagot today?” the Old Dutchman would ask, even though it was plain to see. “How much is a quart of tomatoes going for, Bert? How much is a 4-quart basket?” But the Old Dutchman never bought anything; and my father, I now understand, must have suspected him of being a spy, likely sharing this information with farmers on the other side of the building who’d then undercut my father by perhaps as much as a dime or a quarter.
◊ ◊ ◊
One Saturday morning, when I got out of the van to direct my father as he backed into his parking spot, I noticed a white plastic shopping bag lying on the tarmac, something inside it preventing it from being blown away.
“Don’t just stand there, Tommy,” my father said, as he leaned out the driver’s side. “Pick that up.”
My father likely saw this as more evidence of my laziness. But I had a reason for not picking it up: I wanted to see him run it over, hoping that whatever was inside it—perhaps some darkly overripe fruit—would explode in a gory, violent manner. What I discovered instead when I picked up the bag was a magazine. I probably would have thrown it out except that as soon as I looked at the cover I sensed something different about it; that this was not the sort of thing my mother sometimes brought home from the grocery store: the copies of People and Us, even The National Enquirer that she never actually read but had purchased solely to gaze longingly at the pictures of Jackie O, Lady Di, “Randy Andy”; no doubt seeing something far more fulfilling in all those opulent and complicated lives than in her own.
No, what the cover of this magazine depicted were two similar-looking, bare-chested youths in their early twenties. They had tanned smooth bodies and long feathered hair typical of that decade, and they were posing nearly, but not quite, chest-to-chest, as if leaving a little room for a third to enter their warm embrace. Behind them was a vast sea, the water shimmering in the sun, and they seemed to be staring straight at me in a manner I would now describe as seductive or beckoning, and the effect struck me like a physical blow, viscerally and immediately.
Pulling back the cover, I discovered the entire magazine was full of something my mother and I both appreciated: pictures. Page after page of them. Only in this case the subjects consisted of not just these two models but of other men as well, sometimes singly, sometimes in two’s or three’s, even four’s. I’d never seen a man naked before—a real one, that is, not a drawing or a painting—and what I saw were things I’d never before contemplated or thought possible and which I instinctively knew were, to use my father’s word, dirty.
“Tommy!” my father shouted, leaning out the door. “Look where I’m going, will you. How close am I?”
I felt a deep overflow of shame, and also a powerful and irresistible pull, an odd combination of feelings that was new and strange and frightening. In a dislocated daze, I resumed my circular arm movements then told my father to stop. “What’s that?” he said when he got out of the van, snatching the magazine out of my hands.
How easy it would be to say that my father scowled or otherwise roared with disgust as he riffled through the pages, the kind of response he would later make whenever anything related to homosexuality or the AIDS crisis or, later still, same-sex marriage came on TV. But that’s not at all how I remember it. Instead, his eyes betrayed only an opaque neutrality. It’s what he did right after that I now think of as strange and inexplicable but at the time seemed completely natural and right, as do all the actions of one’s parents. Instead of throwing the magazine into a trash bin, he put it into one of the many bags of paper bags we kept in the van for serving customers and never spoke of it again.
◊ ◊ ◊
We went on with our morning. We unpacked the eggs, laid the table with six-quart baskets of peaches, quarts of tomatoes and green beans, bunches of scallions, and continued to serve customers as if nothing had happened. The Old Dutchman asked how much the peaches were going for, and Felix told my father a joke that made them both laugh but was impenetrable to me. From time to time I would gaze into the shadowy interior of the van where the magazine lay hidden and think how easily within reach it was yet impossible to look at. And more than anything that was what I wanted to do, to look at it again.
“Wake up, Tommy,” my father said, as he bagged a 4-quart basket of green beans while a woman waiting to buy eggs eyed me crossly. “Get your head out of the clouds. Can’t you see someone’s waiting?”
“When are we going home?” I started pressing him late that morning when the crowd began to thin.
“Whatsamatter with you? We got a while yet.” He was oblivious to the crisis brewing inside me. But, to be fair, he had his sights set elsewhere, which was on turning a profit. And although he was the most short-tempered man I’d ever known, my father could also be more patient than I ever would, easily whiling away an hour or two if it meant earning another $1.25 from the sale of a dozen eggs.
That afternoon, when we at last pulled into the driveway, my mother emerged from a mass of white sails that wasn’t the Onassis yacht she must have imagined she was aboard but bed sheets she was hanging to dry on the line, and came out to the barn to help unload the van of its unsold eggs and produce. Everything except the egg cartons and the plastic and paper bags went into the cold storage room. For lunch on those hot summer days my mother often made crêpes, although what she called it was palatski, its Polish equivalent. Topped with blueberries that would have come from Felix’s farm, and sugar, I expect that’s what we ate that day too. Who else but my mother, lost in her dream world, would think to serve dessert for lunch? But it was a quick and easy way to fill stomachs and a welcome respite from the endless stream of work that forever awaited her.
As always, my father grumbled about his day at the market and recounted the conversations he’d had, speaking of things I took no notice of or even remembered. And he seemed like a stranger to me then. How could nothing have changed in his world, I thought as I watched him gesticulating, the balled-up fists hammering the tabletop, hearing only the angry tone of his voice but not the words. How could nothing have changed in his world while everything had changed in mine?
“I’m going to lie down,” my father declared long after he’d finished eating but had only just come to the end of listing the day’s offenses. It was my parents’ habit to take a short nap in the afternoons; and after depositing his dirty plate and cutlery in the sink, my father went up to the bedroom and shut the door, while my mother chose to put her feet up on the kitchen table and closed her eyes. I lay down in my own room too, but sleep would not come to me now. What drifted toward me instead were the images I’d briefly glimpsed, already distant and fading, yet no less potent in eliciting that strange and bewildering heat.
Naturally I had experienced similar feelings before, though not nearly to the same degree. Certain images were apt to ignite it, and an old encyclopaedia of art that had been passed down to me from better off, town-dwelling cousins was an especially rich source: the black-and-ochre, two-dimensional depictions of unclothed sailors, soldiers and athletes that typically adorn ancient Greek urns; a half-naked, arrow-pierced man I’d later learn was Saint Sebastian, arms bound behind him and gazing heavenward with what seemed less like agony than ecstasy; not to mention all that Roman and Renaissance statuary and its endless procession of male nudes. It didn’t matter if hands or arms were missing, or if the genitals were disproportionately small or broken off altogether. They—as in all these images—were naked and they were beautiful. Like those athletes I’d admired on television, they had the kind of body I also wished I had, and when I stared at them I misunderstood what I felt for envy. I didn’t recognize its counterpart, the genesis of desire.
I could stand it no longer. I slipped out of my room and past my mother, her head tilted far back, mouth agape and emitting a rattling sound. “Tommy, where are you going?” she loudly whispered just as I reached the screen door. “Can’t you lie down? You’ll wake up Fatuh.” But I was already out the door and loping toward the van parked in front of the barn.
I don’t know how long I sat cross-legged on the floor of the dusty van with the magazine in my lap, slowly turning its pages, but it couldn’t have been that long; my father, after all, only slept twenty minutes or so. But I remember the strange, heady feelings those pictures evoked (insatiable, in the sense that I was still too young) and the unforeseen difficulty of a new problem presenting itself: Now what? I sensed danger and confusion, shameful secrecy. A life of depravity. Had I been a few years older, I likely would have squirreled away the magazine somewhere in the back of my closet. But I was just a kid, and what I feared most of all was being ensnared in something from which there was no turning back.
And so I snatched up the magazine, slipped out of the van, and snuck into what we called the “egg room” in the barn, a large, poorly insulated room where my mother washed and graded the eggs after they’d been collected. The old-fashioned wood stove that stood in the corner hadn’t been lit in months, so when I lifted the iron lid with the steel gripper I found the firebox crammed with bits of cardboard, soiled old egg cartons, and other garbage ready to burn. I stuffed the magazine inside and lit a match from a pack that sat on a shelf beside the stove. Careful not to singe myself, I touched the flame to the pages and soon witnessed a pair of naked thighs curl and burn.
I was certain my father would see the plumes of smoke rising from the tin flue that poked out the side of the barn and that he would come out yelling, demanding to know what the hell I was doing starting a fire. Did I want to burn the whole goddamn barn down? I wouldn’t have been able to explain to him what I was doing or why, except that it was something I had to do. And although I’d destroyed the thing that had come into my hands, I had not walked away entirely unscathed. Something had changed inside me. How could it not? I couldn’t undo what I’d seen, nor would that lingering sense of guilt and shame—of dirtiness—ever entirely leave me whenever desire made itself known.
◊ ◊ ◊
Until the end of high school, I continued to go to the market with my father, both on Fridays and Saturdays during the summer vacations and sometimes on Saturdays during the busy Christmas season. In that time, my father taught me how to drive the tractor and operate the front loader. He taught me how to trim the beaks on the chickens so they don’t peck each other bloody. He taught me how to mix feed and how much to pour into the feeders. But when I turned eighteen and my university application was accepted, I was finally able to put those things aside like a set of tools I no longer had any use for and move away from home.
I went to school in Montreal, a big city that appealed to me because it was in another province, one where French was spoken, which seemed exotic to me then, and was the closest I could get to living in another country. “I am in Québec,” I remember saying to myself the first night I lay down to sleep in the same thrilled voice one might use to say “I am in Paris” or “I am in Japan” or, as I would indeed later say, “I am in New York.” And so the kind of life I had longed for but would not have known how to articulate began opening up to me. At last I was living far away from the farm and meeting the kinds of people I couldn’t have hoped to meet in that small Ontario town I’d come from.
Eventually I forgot about that magazine and so must’ve my father. As it turned out he never noticed the smoke that afternoon, nor did he ever mention the magazine’s curious absence. I also forgot about all those hours spent at the market—put it out of my mind, more like it. I was interested in building my own life, exploring who I was and the kind of man I wanted to become.
But I must have been 21 or so, in my second or third year of university, when I took the bus home for a weekend and came out to my parents. To my mother it was no surprise; she’d always known, even before I did. For my father though, it was a complete shock.
“What’d you say?” he shouted, jumping up from his chair like a startled cat. “What’d you say?”
How surprising, I thought, for a man who noticed every little thing I did, all my failings and shortcomings, to not see what was so plainly obvious.
“It was because of that magazine,” he said.
“What magazine?” But as soon as I said it, I remembered it and those images drifted back to me. It was the only time my father had ever acknowledged it, and in doing so made real what had otherwise become a foggy memory for me, something I’d convinced myself had either come to me in a dream or that I’d imagined it. And it struck me as curious, I thought on the long bus ride back to Montreal that night, that a gay men’s porn mag should even be found in the small town I came from. (Although why shouldn’t it? The greater mystery was what it was doing in the parking lot in the first place.) For even when I was well into my twenties, I couldn’t shake the idea I was the only one in that rural backwater who was gay.
While passing all those twinkling Ontario towns in the middle of the night, I wondered for the first time why my father had decided to take the magazine back home with us in the van. The answer may have been that he was simply curious about its contents, having no other opportunity to view such material, and that maybe at some private moment, while my mother was in the kitchen and I was off at school, he wanted to flip through its pages: a burning curiosity satisfied before disposing of it for good, perhaps even in the same way I had.
Or maybe the simplest explanation was that it was the quickest and easiest way to get rid of the thing without drawing attention to himself, particularly from that nosey life-long bachelor, the Old Dutchman, whose own sexuality, I now understand, was in question with that one word—funny. “Whatchagot there, Bert? A little reading material?” Sometimes I think this is the best explanation; sometimes I think it’s the former. Then again, as far as these things go, the answer probably lies elsewhere.
And so the years drifted by, decades even, before the past unexpectedly returned to me. It was winter, nighttime, and I was passing the Chinese fruit market in the trendy neighbourhood where my husband and I had recently bought our first home together, a condo, now at the same age my father was when I was nine. I was living in Toronto then—I’d left Montreal long ago—doing the kind of work my father would have considered idleness and which largely involves sitting in front of a computer. It was cold out, my head bowed against the bitter wind, and I noticed one of the owners of the fruit market standing outside, heavily bundled up and protectively eyeing the oranges and apples stacked in their neat little pyramids. God, how does he do it? I thought. Standing out here in the cold. But when I glanced up again I saw my father in place of the Chinese man, wearing his winter parka and shuffling his feet from side to side to keep warm. For the first time I felt a wave of pity for my father. Of all the hodgepodge of emotions I had for him, that had never been one of them. And it hit me how poor we really were back then, only I never knew it: my imagination was too rich to discern the reality. How incredible, I thought, that my father had managed to eke out a living from what I now know couldn’t have been more than five hundred chickens or so, some poorly tended patches of onions and potatoes, and the handful of nails, bits of plywood, and tarpaper he’d used to build those cobbled-together chicken coops. All on a mere seven acres of land—a vast empire in my childhood daydreams. How did he ever do it? “When I was your age, during the war…”
A tiny man is how I sometimes see my father now and that’s how I saw him in that moment. A tiny man in the cavernous halls of justice, angrily shaking his fist at the invisible judge far above him, a man who all his life alternately toiled, struggled, rallied, and fought against the larger forces of the world that, just like the night I came out to my parents, consisted of one letdown after another.
“Take a good look ’round here,” he had said that night so many years ago as I stood in the doorway with my suitcase in hand, my mother at the stove crying, dinner ruined. “’Cause you ain’t never gonna see this place again!” And that’s when the balled-up fist at last slammed down hard on the kitchen table with all the violence he had long tamped down.
Even as he said it, even as I was heading out the door, I knew my father didn’t mean it. I knew that, given time, he’d get over it. And he has, at least insofar as can be expected given the where and when of his upbringing. And while he may have been wrong about what made me the way I am—that had been determined long before I’d set eyes on any magazine—he was right about one thing: that there were things that would forever leave their impress on me and would shape me in unanticipated, everlasting ways, much like the kinds of things that had similarly left their mark on him as a boy growing up during the war and which can only be guessed at now. Ours was a household in which I had been taught not to ask any questions, and, like the early morning fog we used to drive through, much remains hidden. Even now, long after I too became a man.
Ron Schafrick’s fiction has appeared in The Journey Prize Stories 27, Best Gay Stories 2015, The New Quarterly, The Dalhousie Review, Plenitude, and elsewhere. His collection of stories, Interpreters, was published by Oberon Press in 2013. He lives in Toronto.
Another Schafrick story filled with deft and heartbreaking insights. 🙂