When my dad went bankrupt, it occurred to me he might kill himself. I rang, asking with more emphasis, more scrutiny than ever before — So, how are you, Dad?
-Oh, I’m not going to off myself or anything.
Good to clear that up.
He’s lost everything. He grows a scary beard. My dad, the pirate. Someone stole his treasure, so he’s hiding out on the high seas. Sharing a ship with his ageing father. Grandpa plays the part of the parrot, offering long periods of silent companionship, broken with sudden piercing commentary, repeated over and over.
Dad limps back and forth, keeping watch for the bailiff. He doesn’t know when to expect the marauders, swooping in to steal off with everything he owns. Not that there’s anything much of value. The laundry machine is as old as me. The record-player, a relic. His wardrobe, a series of flashbacks. His favourite saying: do you think money grows on trees? And the debt-collectors are coming, riding their apocalyptic horses, Irony, Karma, and Bad Fucking Luck.
He detaches from it all, shaking out his pockets, stripping off his clothes, mentally shedding his worldly goods in anticipation of the surrender. But one thing is too precious to release, a coin collection.
The thought of the bastards getting their hands on that, that one precious thing, a constant in his life from age seven to fifty-one, riles him. He cannot allow it. Will not.
He wraps the coins in a bag. He will stand his ground here. They can take everything else (he gets out the shovel), his career, his business, his income (x marks the spot, by the pawpaw tree), his routine, his retirement (breaks the soil, digs down two, three feet, creating a neat mound of dried out earth to the left of the hole). But not this. (Is a hole empty or full? Empty is open is nothing left to lose.)
He buries his treasure.
Way back, before he left, I was having trouble at school. A lightning-rod girl, conducting through a whip-thin frame all the stress and static of an eight year marriage unraveling, of mortgage payments and interest rates hitting 13%, 14%, when it’s going to stop? Her social-immune system low. Not wanting to go to school. Seven years old, empty-stomached (lunch stolen), a hair ahead of the black-caped, yellow-eyed boys who chased her to the school gate every afternoon.
Here is my memory of the last stand of parental solidarity. The last time it was “them”, my folks, the pares, mumanddad.
Crying in my sleep. Sadness swarms up in the dark, pulls you underwater, tastes like salt, warm and sticky, is hard to breathe through, except in great ragged gulps.
The bed sighs, bows under the weight of one of my parents, the other stands guard in the doorway, to catch and squash any monsters that try and make a getaway. All tender concern for the little girl who cries as if the sky is falling. And maybe it grieves them even more because they know what is to come for her. They know what lies ahead when this family ends and she sifts through the wreckage. And maybe they feel like crying, too and wish for a safe dark place to sit with their sadness, let it circle around on their laps, needling and clawing at their thighs, looking for the perfect spot to settle, and the fat hot tears come at last.
Or maybe they think, She’s only seven. What could she possibly have going on that could make her this sad? Here’s one that must be fixable. Here’s one we’ve got to be able to fix.
-What’s wrong? What’s wrong?
They shoosh the hiccoughs.
-Take a deep breath. Stop crying. Come on now.
-What’s the matter?
I have no friends.
It seems this is the problem
Quite a doozy.
It’s dark. They leave the room after calming me down. They must go and talk about this. Maybe share a bottle of wine. Do they bicker? Hug? Does my dad place his hand on the small of her back as they tiptoe out of my bedroom and down the stairs?
Some time later, a shadow in my door.
Noone else for the rest of my life will call me this.
-You awake? Got something for you.
A treasure, they bring. A talisman.
A brand new yoyo. It’s 1982, this is rock-the-kasbah stuff. Red, shiny, emblazoned with the curlico script of classic Coca-Cola.
-You can practice tricks and the kids will think you’re really cool and
–they’ll see what you’re doing and want to know how and come over and
– they’ll want to play with you.
And if not, at least the girl will have something to keep her occupied, will have a prop to ward away the loneliness.
They put the yoyo in my school port. Next to the lunch box that has been feeding some faceless bullykid for the last few weeks, emptied out every day before I get to the port-room when the lunch bell rings, emptied and kicked across the floor.
They wrap up all their prayers and powers in a yoyo.
And I can see they loved her.
That little kid and her pillow of sorrow.
And I think ‘everything I possibly can’ is what you would do for your children.
But it’s not much.
I guess, this is what family is, the people who watch quietly as your heart breaks and then sit down with you at breakfast the next day.
My dad calls. He has bad news.
(Grandpa? The bailiff? Jail?)
His coin collection.
(Seized? Pawned? Stolen?)
He dug up the one artifact of his life, the coins wrapped carefully in a couple of layers of grocery bags and hidden in a hole in the ground. The moisture, the fetid earth, the rains, the ferocity of compost, the way nature seizes with aggression everything that is broken, breaks it down more, wants to claim it finally, to reuse it. Nature takes his treasure, eats away at the display cards, the packets, the sleeves, eats away at the buff finish of the coins, tarnishing, staining them.
They are ruined.
And I watch his sadness from the door. Five steps to the bed. Ready to squash any monsters that try and make a quick getaway. But the monsters are holding fast. Five steps, five hundred miles and an eighteen hour flight. Same difference. Shh. Shhhh. “Everything you can” is what you’d do for the people you love.
And usually, it’s nothing at all.
But watching as their heart breaks. And sitting down to breakfast the next day.
For the egg to become, anything, it has to crack apart. Yellow yolk, new day, quiet hand on our backs. These are the treasures. The chest is wide open.