This is a nonfiction story of the first time my father told me a story.
I never figured out why he took me all the way up there. I always suspected some ulterior motive, somewhere within my head creases. I mean, he was out of his mind, high on bad thoughts and mania. What business did he have, bringing his daughter to an amusement park in Pennsylvania Dutch Country?
It was pink, a pink outdoor castle. There were carnival rides, slides, and games. I wore a puffy jacket that made swishing noises when I flapped my arms. He watched me play coin operated games and stood at the bottom, while I rode down a pink tube on a potato sack. I was in hog heaven, lips stretched ear to ear.
He was distracted, like his attention was fully elsewhere, and although I tried to get him to play with me, he seemed like he would rather watch from afar. This was before cell phones, but the feeling he was busy talking to someone else persisted. Maybe that’s how he always was.
I was six.
The mood flipped on its head. It went from reckless abandon to pestilent in an instant, so much so, that the color drained out from the world around us, leaving it bleak, black, and blue. He sunk to meet my gaze, with his hand on the bottom of my chin.
“I’m going to tell you, what my father once told me.” He smirked and then forced down the corners of his mouth into a frown.
His eyes swallowed me.
He was like a big, brown bear, sat snugly in a striped sweater, leaned over, and inches from my face.
“When I was a little boy,” he began, in a sickly-sweet falsetto, “I was a spoiled boy. I always wanted more from my father, more, and more. It was never enough. Then, one day, when I was pitching a fit, bitching and moaning, about not having enough tickets to ride the damn merry-go-round, and my father takes me and turns me by the shoulders.”
I shuddered, as if he grabbed mine from nowhere.
He continued, “And when we turned, I saw… Now, this was in downtown Baltimore in the 1960’s, so you can just imagine what that was like. My father, your grandfather, then pointed, at this little boy, with a handful of crumpled tickets, and my father said to me, ‘Son, those tickets mean more to that boy than anything in the world’ and I was just taken aback, I looked and could see his eyes, then I noticed the little boy had holes in his feet, his shoes, and I felt so bad, for asking for more when all that other little boy had were those crumpled up tickets.” His voice turned into a rambling singsong. His cheeks were wet.
There was a silence between us, as he seemed both satisfied and empty.
In a tiny voice, I asked, “Did you give him your tickets?”
He tilted his head with an exasperated expression, and as if I had no right to respond, and blurted, “I don’t think you understand the meaning of the story, and that makes me deeply sad.”
His words and emotions went in, but they didn’t have an effect. Instead of guilt, I felt confusion; instead of shame, I was closer to stunned.
More cautious than ever, I tried to clarify. “I asked if you gave him your tickets, like a nice thing to do, since he didn’t have any.”
The air hung like suspended pennies, my chest tightened, and ghosts lingered in the peripheral.
From my perspective, the only logical, moral end to the story was obvious. I was just a kid, but I knew adults wanted us to share stuff, so much so, that it was repeated in classrooms and media all the time.
I guess he couldn’t stand to be outdone. Or maybe, he hadn’t thought that far ahead yet, choosing to get swept up in emotion rather than having a point. Either way, my father had a contingent lesson to instill: blatant, relentless sadness was virtuous. So, be sad. Feel unworthy. Hurt people.
Eventually, he taught me this over and over, through parables of intense emotion. His wording, the high tone of his storybook voice, his eccentric hand motions and little jabs at my character, all said the same thing to me: I could never be sad enough to win him over.
My confusion then, escalated.
Directly after his morally draining story, we entered the park’s souvenir shop and he told me to pick something. I thought it was some kind of test, so I didn’t, and that upset him further. I hemmed and hawed. He increased in moist, red-faced exasperation, and the clerk was staring holes into us. I hated being the kid of the crazy adult.
I got a cheap, resin cast ring. It held a pastel rainbow, suspended in clear blocks, and my little kid fingers were so fat, I could only wear it on my pinky. It was almost pretty and made in China.