**Author’s note– If you’re just tuning in, check out “Tales from a Shot Glass” Part 1 from last week before reading this week’s post. Enjoy!**
I envy how easy it is for Dad to tell this story. The words flow smoothly from his chapped lips. He paints immense pictures with minimal effort. If I could tell stories this well, would I still be able to write them? Maybe not. The few stories and poems Dad wrote and shared with me – forced rhymes and scraped together fiction – never compared to his verbal tales. I would much rather listen to him spin sorrow from a wispy trail of smoke and an amber shot of liquid courage. Perhaps, in time, my oral storytelling will be as fluid as his – only after I’ve ripened into a fifty-year-old and lived through my own struggles.
Oral storytelling should be left for personal events, because of how the voice can share details with the listener as much as the words themselves. The story teller’s voice forms the connection between listener and narrator. That’s why I found myself sitting in a cloud of smoke and in a jungle of beer cans for most of my childhood, finding a connection with Dad through his stories.
Dad takes another can from the fridge, pops it open, downs half before continuing. “Thomas edged his way out to the bridge. He was maybe at the halfway point, when he stopped to look at the river. I followed, stopping on a sagging plank a step or two behind him. The board he was standing on was drooping so low that water lapped onto his shoes. He and I stood there watching the river take loose chunks of ice from the banks and collect them in the middle, where ice still reached from shore to shore. We were waiting for the others to stop horsing around, so we could continue across the bridge.”
I sat on the edge of my seat as Dad lit a cigarette and took a puff. I couldn’t believe my father had once done something so reckless as a kid. It was difficult to put the two images together; the rash, adolescent boy and the mellow old man drinking nightly beers in his garage.
“As Tom and I looked out towards the river, the little voice in my head was shouting at me. ‘Get off the bridge! Crazy shit will go down the longer we stand here!’” He took another puff from the cigarette. The smoke leaving his mouth was like the crystallized breath he might’ve seen on the day his story took place. “One of my buddies behind us had broken free of the roughhousing group. He must have decided it would be a fun idea to take the high jinks out on the bridge. He pushed past me to tackle Thomas.” Dad took a quick pull from his beer to cover up the slight crack in his voice. “There was a sound like fabric tearing as three rotted planks gave way to the gnashing river. A shout escaped Thomas. Cold droplets speckled the air before landing on my face. My legs were drenched. Thomas dangled from the plank under my feet. Fear colored his eyes, bleached his pale skin.” Dad thought about that moment, shrugging his shoulders.
“Or maybe his skin lost its color because the water was so fucking cold. I dropped to the my knees and tried to grab his arms, but they were slick. One of my friends tried to help. Just before we were able to grab his t-shirt, he vanished. I shot towards shore hoping he’d pop up along the bank. His head bobbed up, but he was in the middle of the river. It was impossible to reach him with out being swallowed by the current. I watched as Thomas was sucked under and taken below the large patch of ice. Our rowdy group stood silent for the first time,” Dad chased his story by pouring himself a shot of whiskey.
He never actually explains why he tells me these memories, maybe he doesn’t even know himself, but I always find meaning in them. As a child, this story taught me not to act on my reckless urges. Instead, I allowed my wild imagination to unfold in the safety of the backyard where I could only get scratches and bruises. Now, at twenty, the story of Thomas’s death teaches me to cherish my friends and family because they could vanish without warning. Maybe it’s not just about teaching me. Maybe Dad tells me these memories because he hid from them for so long – gaining the confidence to share his stories only after the sharp taste of alcohol. It’s a kind of confidence I don’t want to inherit. Early in high school, I decided to push myself, to learn to be secure, hoping that I’d be enough, but those four years of struggle in high school was founded on a life-changing moment.