What My Father Said — Zach Chitwood
One of our first assignments for junior year English was to write a poem using only phrases or sentences we heard or remembered hearing, which I kind of thought was lame. But it did make me pay attention closer to what people said, and I guess that was more or less the actual point of the assignment – to learn to listen. I eavesdropped on the gossip I heard walking through the hallways in between classes. I wrote down some of the jokes my friends told at lunch on cafeteria napkins. But for whatever reason when I actually tried to make a poem out of the things I heard, nothing felt right. Not to say I’m some sort of incredible poet or even a poet at all, but I did want my poem to be somewhat good. Meaningful, I guess. Most of the stuff I’d written down was generic high school garbage about hookups or dirty jokes. So I decided just to make something simple out of stuff Steve, my father, said to me growing up.
We had to present our poems the day they were due. Some were funny, like Lexi Murphy’s poem constructed of lines overheard from her sister’s phone calls to her college boyfriend. Some were secretly funny, like Mac Dooley’s poem made of sentences his buddies said stoned. And some were sappy, morbid, or both. Like Kendra Singer’s poem about her dead grandma, or Cam’s poem about stuff he heard on Fox News. I didn’t feel like my poem was anything really; I thought it was pretty boring compared to everyone else. But I liked it fine. I thought it had to be enough to get a half decent grade. I mean, all the lines I put in still remain pretty vivid. That’s something important about poetry, right?
When it came for my turn to present, I stumbled forward to the front of the class and unfolded my poem, which looked even less impressive on paper. Only eight lines, it didn’t even take up half a page. Maybe I should have made some stuff up. Oh well.
“Well, here’s my poem,” I said. “It’s about stuff I remember my dad saying to me.”
What My Father Said
By: Vincent Johnson
Keep that elbow in, son.
Do your chores by the time I get back.
Respect your Mother and help her with laundry.
Sit up straight in church.
Never forget those who love you.
Don’t forget to leave a tip.
I’m proud of you, son.
I love you, Vince.
We got grades back a week later, and I got a C-. Which seemed real harsh, even though it was kind of short. Mac got a better grade for his trash poem about pot smokers. Towards the bottom of my poem, Mrs. Tigani wrote in looping red ink, Thanks for the openness, Vince, but I think you could have gone a bit deeper and given us something a little more original.
More original? I thought Mrs. Tigani was a bit presumptuous to say something like that. What could possibly be non-original about my poem? I tried to go back through the lines and see if I was missing something.
“Keep that elbow in, son,” my father said at my first basketball game. I was eight, I think, and just missed a free throw terribly to the left. I looked over nervously to see Steve grinning wide while standing at the end of the bleachers. His legs got scrunched when he sat down in the wooden rows because he was so tall, and standing let him both stretch his legs and avoid talking to the other parents, none of whom knew anything about basketball; they just wanted their kids to play a sport. I knew how happy he was to have a son playing basketball. My Reeboks felt boxy like cardboard, but they looked cool like the ones my father wore. I remember I use to wear his UCLA jersey for Halloween because my biggest dream until high school was to dunk a basketball like my dad could. That first year playing rec league got me hooked on the sport. Sometimes when my parents went to sleep early, I liked to sneak out of bed and go down to the garage to scroll through the pictures and newspaper clippings he kept away in his old photo books. The dark azure of the Bruins jerseys became my favorite color. When I started playing basketball, Steve did everything to cultivate my passion for the sport. He would even let me stay up late to watch the Lakers play when they were on ESPN.
It was also the first of maybe a million critiques my father offered me about my basketball game. That first one though – keep that elbow in – is the only one that resonated. Ingrained into my subconscious in a sense because the only skill still worthwhile about my basketball game is my jump shot.
“Jumper like that will get you some college offers, Vince.” My father said for the first time after I just dropped twenty-five on Mater Dei. I was one of two sophomores on the varsity team, and it was my first game as a starter. I liked to analyze the games with my father on the car rides home. He always started with what I did well and was never overly critical about my faults. After the Mater Dei game, he said I needed to be quicker on the weak side rotation during pick-and-roll coverage. Cover faster on the roll man. As he was talking, I caught a glimpse of my mom’s reflection in the mirror of the passenger sun visor, and she looked real sad. And I was going to ask her what was on her mind, but to be honest, I didn’t think much of it. I thought my parents were better at the time.
“Do you chores by the time I get back,” My father said before he left to cheat on my mom the second time. Well, really it was for a business trip, but I can’t remember what business he was supposed to be doing. I was twelve, and that’s what happened that weekend, apparently. Our mother told us at the dinner table Sunday night.
“Your father is going to stay with a friend for a while,” Nancy said. She had the same face I saw years later in the sun visor mirror on that car ride home. When she told us the news about our father, I noticed her blonde hair was tied up, and I thought she was so pretty—a natural kind of pretty, unforced. In middle school, I started to notice the way other dads looked at her.
It’s still hard for me to believe that my father cheated on my mother that weekend. My brother Kenny and I were playing basketball in the driveway during the summertime. Steve just put in a new concrete hoop the week before, complemented with a glass backboard and hand crank so we could lower it down to eight feet and dunk. I liked to pretend I was Kobe Bryant and fist pump the way he did after he dunked. I even scribbled 24 with a Sharpie in big block numbers on the back of my old white T-shirts. I still wear his signature Nike sneakers as my game shoes.
My dad walked outside in his business clothes. He was handsome and wore slim fit dress pants, a white button-down, and black tie. He smelled like how I thought a man should smell. Kenny and I were taking turns throwing each other alley-oops on the lowered rim. He smiled. I loved my dad. He was truly my hero at the time. Tall and funny and some days he even took us out of school to go watch matinees at the dollar theatre.
He put down his briefcase and jacket and lifted his hands toward his chest, which signaled for me to pass him the basketball. I did, and he took two sharp dribbles – one to the right and then a quick crossover back to his left – before taking a step back shot from the way deep corner of the driveway. Swish. I thought my dad should be in NBA. He said he had a chance at one point, and I thought that was amazing.
“Do your chores by the time I get back,” my father said right after he made the shot. He had this poise in the way he said things. He picked up his briefcase and left, and that was the last time we were allowed to see him that summer.
“Respect your mother and help her with laundry,” my father said a week after he moved back in the house. It was mid-September. Tryouts for the middle school team were coming up. My father was finicky around my mother, desperate to get back in her good graces. He did the grocery shopping and cooked spaghetti for dinner on Friday nights. I went and helped with laundry like he told me to. I could tell my mother was a bit on edge. Guarded. I think she wanted to believe he’d changed. He said that a lot: that he’d changed. I didn’t really know what that meant then. He came into the TV room one day when Kenny and I were watching SportsCenter.
“Boys, I want you to know what I did was wrong. I was weak and made a really poor decision. And I’m never going to do it again,” my father said. And he didn’t. He looked back and forth between us, and I nodded my head because it felt like the correct thing to do. “I’ve changed.”
“I believe you,” I said. And I did. My father was so good at everything. Everyone loved him. It seemed okay that he made a mistake, and I knew it was a bad thing, like a monumentally bad thing, but he never tried to hide it from us; he was always honest about what he had done. I wish that would’ve been enough.
“Sit up straight in church,” my father said as we walked into church service. I was fourteen. For the most part, my parents held their marital arguments behind closed doors, but that morning was different. I read somewhere that fights are healthy sometimes in relationships, but I don’t believe anything my parents said that morning could be considered healthy; it was vile. My father complained that morning about how Nancy forgot to pay a bill.
“I asked you to do one thing, Nance,” my father said. He paused. I think he was contemplating if he should say the next sentence. “You clearly don’t give a damn about anything I ask you to do.” This did not please my mother.
“Really, now,” she was agitated. “You want to have this conversation today?”
Kenny and I sat at the kitchen table and ate eggs and toast. We didn’t speak. My mother was strong. Strong enough to let my father come back into our lives. Strong enough to be a mother. When she felt attacked, she did not back down. That was against her upbringing. She was a warrior, raised in south Chicago where learning how to fight isn’t an option. They went back and forth, verbalizing failings that each had on mental file, ready for fire in this type of warfare.
I read some marriage books after my parents divorced to see if the stuff those books said were actually true. One of the main lessons that literally every book mentioned can be summarized as don’t keep score with your partner. I wonder what those authors would’ve said about my parents because I don’t think either knew how to stop keeping score.
“At least I can go away for a weekend and keep my fucking legs closed.” Steve didn’t say another word. No one did. The car ride to church was silent. My father didn’t say anything until we were walking into service.
“Remember, sit up straight in church.” And I did. The message was on Colossians 3:13.
“Never forget those who love you,” my father said driving me to school on a rainy Thursday. I was a freshman in high school. It was one of two times I’ve seen my father cry. One of his best friends from college died in a car crash the weekend prior, and he arrived back home from the funeral last night. That morning, I was admittedly being kind of dickish. I bitched about how Coach was making us go to the elementary school on Saturday to shoot hoops with some of the younger kids. I thought that was dumb. I didn’t want to wake up early on the weekend. When I got in the car for Steve to take me to school, I doubled down on my asshole-ness.
“Half of them don’t even like basketball,” I said.
My father had yelled at me before that day, in the way that fathers do. I think the first time he yelled at me was when I told Kenny he couldn’t ride bikes down to the pond with my friends and me. I was berated vehemently for that. He yelled when I broke our neighbor Mrs. Doyle’s front window because I was seeing if I could throw a baseball over her house. But those were expected yells. Deserved yells. But after I said that sentence complaining about having to volunteer with elementary school kids, my father lit into me like a forest fire whipping across the California valleys we’d drive through on family road trips.
“VINCENT, I JUST PUT A FRIEND IN THE FUCKING GROUND,” my father said. He was teary-eyed, cheeks puffed and blushed. He gyrated like a small animal was rattling against his insides trying to tear its way out of his body. He didn’t look at me; his eyes stayed transfixed on the road as if he looked anywhere else the car would swerve off. His shoulders were tense, traps compressed forward, and the veins on his forearms pulsed because he gripped the steering well so hard. “AND YOU WANT TO COMPLAIN ABOUT PLAYING FUCKING BASKETBALL!”
He scolded me for the entire ten-minute car ride, his tone fuming. He started crying, but I’m not sure he noticed. He lectured loud about the importance of giving back, of staying humble, and the value of life. I sat and didn’t say a word, keeping my head tucked and my body nudged against the passenger car door. I felt terrible, guilty, but I don’t think that’s what my father intended to do. Or at least not the only reason. He yelled when he needed to vent, when he needed to be heard. Slowly his monologue diverged from teaching a life lesson to some sort of emotional escape, words ricocheting in the car interior like firecrackers, like grenades. He yelled and he cried and he fired away sentences like bullets, each word penetrating into my budding sense of right and wrong, and he made it very clear that I was wrong. As he whipped around the school parking lot to drop me off, he left me with a final sentence at a normal volume.
“Never forget those who love you,” my father said. I did not say anything back. We did not make eye contact. I shouldered my backpack and walked brisk to the school entrance and did not look back. The rest of that day I thought only about what my father said, and really less because of the content and more how he looked. Drained. Frustrated. Lost. When I got home that evening, Nancy told me my father was staying in a hotel for the night. I showed up early to the elementary school Saturday morning and had a wonderful day.
“Don’t forget to leave a tip,” my father said as he dropped me off at Whitney Riggins’ house. I was fifteen and just made the varsity basketball team the week before. This was my first real date. Like her and me kind of date. We were going to walk down to the bistro together and get sandwiches, and then I was going to see if she wanted to get ice cream afterwards. I was nervous, and my father could tell. He seemed excited for me though; I think he was just happy I got a girl to go out with me. He told me to be a gentleman and open the door for her at the restaurant. He smiled as I got out of the car.
I hear it’s pretty common for kids to go through a stage where they hate their parents. That never happened for me. I think it might’ve been because they already hated each other. I guess hate is too strong a word because they were good parents by social standards. My mother helped coach the JV cheerleaders. My dad was tall, successful, and still athletic, so he never had a shortage of other less impressive dads who wanted to be friends with him. They went to all our basketball games.
To be honest, I think half the reason I stuck with basketball was because that’s when my parents felt the most unified. They loved basketball and they loved their kids. My father always stood near the baseline corner and watched out games intently. Nancy sat with the other moms and shared small talk for a while. But she was probably more competitive than Steve was, so towards the end of close games she walked down and stood by my father. And that’s my favorite way to remember my parents together. Sometimes when I shot free throws, I glanced toward them for a moment. They looked so healthy, like true partners. You could tell they were in love at some point. I prayed sometimes in those moments that they would fix everything. It was really the only thing I went to God for. I thought He was the only one who had a chance of pulling them back together. They made their social rounds as a couple after games, and they looked normal talking to other parents, even happy sometimes.
I hit my growth spurt over sophomore summer, blossoming to a solid 6’3”. I spent the fall offseason working out with my father on our driveway hoop, getting hundreds of shots up every night. Beads of sweat wetted the driveway like raindrops. He ran me through his college workouts, and we’d always finish with a game of 1-on-1. My father was still exceptionally skilled when it came to basketball. He beat me every night for years. He was still a couple inches taller than me, so even if I played picturesque defense, usually he had enough room to get a shot off over me. Whenever he scored the winning bucket, he bounced the ball towards me.
“Alright, finish with 10,” my father said, referring to free throws. He went out back and started grilling burgers. We ate and drank Gatorades and watched the Lakers play.
I met Whitney in my history class, and she was beautiful. We sat next to each other and shared homework answers. We kissed the first time at Cameron’s house party, but she was different. I wanted to keep kissing her. I was so happy walking back home that night through our neighborhood streets. The sky was clear and the stars seemed a special kind of bright. That was the night I found my mother crying.
After we kissed at Cam’s place, we spent the next couple weeks flirting and made out a couple more times at the parties we went to. But I wanted to hang out with just her. I had never felt that way about a girl before. I mumbled my way through asking her out to dinner one day after school. The entire last period, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I would say to her.
“Hey, so would you want to get something to eat tomorrow night?” I said.
“Yeah, that’d be nice.” Her golden hair flowed like the Salinas in autumn.
I didn’t have my license yet, so my father offered a ride over to her house. He didn’t ask questions about her, which I appreciated. Most of the ride we listened to the old rap station on the radio and talked about if the Lakers had a shot at the title that year. Once we got closer, he started to get more fatherly.
“Make sure you say hello to her parents,” my father said. “And look Mr. Riggins in the eyes when you shake his hand.”
“Ok, dad,” I said. “Do you think I’m good looking?”
“Son, you got your looks from your mother, so I’d say you’re pretty well off.” He smiled, and I didn’t say anything back. As I got out of the car, he hollered one last piece of paternal wisdom. “Don’t forget to leave a tip.”
The date went well, and when I ordered food, I made sure to have enough cash left over to leave a good tip.
“I’m proud of you, son,” my father said during a game of 1-on-1 during the summer between my sophomore and junior year. I had a real good sophomore season and piqued the interest of several college scouts. I played travel ball with this well-known AAU team during the spring. And honestly, I didn’t know much about my parent’s relationship with each other at the time. Most of my thoughts were about basketball and Whitney. I knew they didn’t fight in front of us anymore. I knew I hadn’t heard them yelling in their bedroom in a while. I thought those were good signs.
I was up on my father 10-9. We always played to 11, win by two. I still had never beaten him. He checked me the ball at the top of the key and played tight defense on me in a low position. I hugged the ball toward my hip. Both us are layered with sweat and breathing heavy. I waited for a moment before catching up relax his defensive stance. I jabbed with my right foot which he bit on, overextending to that side. I blew by him on the left, took two powerful dribbles, and rose up to finish. Then I realized mid-flight that my left hand with the ball was above the rim, so I swung my arm down instinctively, making a crisp clash as I hung for a second on the orange circle. It was my first dunk. I dropped back down, bending my knees to absorb the shock of landing on the concrete. My father looked at me and smiled wider than I’d ever seen him do. And I smiled too.
“I’m proud of you, son,” my father said.
“I love you, Vince,” my father said when he needed me to say it back. He said it after my parents got back from the lawyer’s office. He had this worn look on his face. I tried to tell him about the scout from UC Santa Clara who came to one of our summer practices and talked to me afterwards about going to their recruits camp. I thought that would cheer him up. He looked at me with soft eyes.
“I love you, Vince.”
He said it to me a couple months later when I called at halftime of the Lakers game. I was sitting in the living room. I just spent the past two hours in the driveway by myself going through the drills my father taught me. Corner to corner jumpers. Rip-throughs and hesitations, finishing at the rim with a combination of layups and floaters. Form Shooting. Pump fakes and jab steps and crossovers and pull-ups. And, as always, I finished with 10 free throws. I went in and made a grilled cheese and watched the Lakers-Bulls game. I called Steve at halftime to see if he was watching, which he was. We talked about their transition game, and he told me to watch the way Kobe initiates contact with his defender in the mid-post. I asked if he was doing alright with everything. He didn’t say much about it and mentioned it was about time for him to go bed. He finished the conversation with a final sentence.
“I love you, Vince.”
“I love you, Vince,” my father said after my first basketball game. He said it when I mowed the lawn one time without him asking. He said it when I bought Nancy roses for Mother’s Day. He said it when I recited a verse from Proverbs we learned in youth group. He said it when I told him I made varsity sophomore year. He said it when I got back from my first date with Whitney when I told him it went well. He said it because he meant it.
“I love you, Vince,” my father said. And I always responded-
“I love you too, dad.”
I held my folded poem as I got into his car when he picked up Kenny and me from school that day. It was his weekend. He had two glass Coke bottles in the center counsel for us. We used to drink them in the summers over by Venice Beach while we watched the pickup games. My father played sometimes, and even though he was older than most of the guys running, he was still by far the best. Kenny and I sat with our mother on the concrete benches next to the blacktop courts, her fair-colored hair whipping sideways with the beach winds. And we watched my father torch defenders, using the same moves we practiced for hours in the driveway. He was a lanky forward in college but towered like a giant playing pickup. I loved the way my father played basketball. He was graceful like a river drifting up and down the court, weaving in between defenders when he went to finish. He played with an elegant rhythm, a steady tempo of moving and cutting, soulful and in control like a jazz musician. My father played basketball like a poet.
When I got in his car that day after school, he asked what paper I was holding.
“It’s this poem I wrote,” I said. “Actually, it’s about things you used to say.” I’m not sure why, but I never thought to show my father what I wrote.
“Well, is it okay if I read it?” I handed him the poem, which he read and reread and kept reading until the car behind us honked at him to start driving.
“Thanks, Vince.” My father said. It was the third time I saw him cry.