Some were secrets. We hardly ever saw them. We knew nothing except that they were so-and-so’s father—and the less evidence we had, the more mysterious and James Bond-like they seemed.
Sightings were clues. They led to theories and speculations, fueling our imaginations and vague suburban yearnings. We tracked these dads like endangered species. We knew their cars, their jobs, their schedules. Summers, when we stayed outside for as long as possible, savoring every last minute of freedom and daylight, we’d wait and watch them drive past, then follow on our bikes, taking shortcuts and pedaling faster to make sure we saw them pull into their always-immaculate driveways. The garage doors opened automatically. Then closed. We looked for a tie, a briefcase switching hands, a glance in our direction, something.
Other dads—our own, for instance—were the opposite. Everyone knew them. No mystery at all. They were always there—working in front yards, mowing lawns, firing up barbecues, cheering at ballgames, tossing footballs around, running errands, talking with bank tellers and grocery store checkers. But we wanted one of those other dads. Those who caused rumors and whispers. Those defined by their absence.
Thanks to geographical proximity, our carpool included Megan Beck. Mornings and afternoons we were chauffeured by moms to and from school. The summer between sixth and seventh grades, Megan developed serious breasts. This did not go unnoticed in the fall.
One day Megan’s mother was driving us home. Which meant that Megan was in the passenger’s seat. Which also meant her breasts were very far away. We consoled ourselves by staring out the window and contemplating our shoelaces. Megan’s father was a mystery dad. Or had been. A few months earlier, he had shot himself in the head.
The conversation somehow turned to stupid names. Names that you wouldn’t want to have. Grandma names. Grandpa names. Retard-o names.
“George,” someone said, without really thinking. “Now there’s a dumb name. I’d hate to be named George.”
Megan and her mom got quiet. It wasn’t until later, after we had been dropped off and said goodbye and slammed the car door shut and spent the rest of the day consuming reruns of Gilligan’s Island and Bewitched, that we realized: Megan’s father’s name was George.. The one who shot himself in the head. Who worked in real estate and traveled a lot and drove a four-door cream-colored Cadillac Seville and had a big, bushy mustache (it was the ’70s) and once rescued a neighborhood cat from a tree. There had been an article in the local paper. Megan’s mother kept her out of school for three weeks. We’d never talked to him or even seen him close up. He was gone but in some ways, he was never there. His car remained in the garage. After Megan returned to school, kids asked what happened to her dad. She said she didn’t know. She only cried sometimes.
These fathers were doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, chemists. Some workaholics. Some probably alcoholics. Some probably just anti-social. And some you just didn’t know. You wanted to ask their son or daughter: Hey, what’s your dad like? Why is he the way he is? What’s he like when you’re home or driving somewhere or just sitting and watching TV together? But we didn’t ask, especially after the name thing. We were more careful. Because there was always the possibility that they wouldn’t know either, that the fathers were mysteries even to their own children, unknown and unreachable and disappearing right before their eyes.