Chapter 8 – So Close Yet So Distant
There was this one gutter cleaning season back in the days when I was away at college when my dad was going through a really bad depression. He was too fucked up to do anything or to face anybody. He couldn’t get off the couch to go clean anybody’s gutters and it got so bad he actually had to lay up from the firehouse as well. He wouldn’t open up to any of us about what was goin on with him. The only thing he’d ever say about his current state when we asked him about it was that, “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody” or “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.” Of course, the drinking didn’t stop and it was just one of several long and ugly depressive episodes we’d gone through with my dad during this era. It was actually during this time – my years in high school and college – that I feel we started losing Dan/Dad and where the man I know as Miles started to take his place, but that’s another story. What I wanna talk about right now is the aforementioned gutter season.
So, even though Dad called all these three-hundred something customers of ours back in October and had told them he’d be out there with his crew to clean their gutters that fall, like I said, he just simply couldn’t do it. I mean, I don’t remember if he did some of the jobs then said fuck it or if he was too depressed right from the start or what happened – the point is that the season was interrupted by mental health issues and the majority of the jobs didn’t get done. So, about a week or two into December when me and my brother came home from the respective universities we attended for our Christmas break, I remember us trying to get out there to do as many of Dad’s gutter jobs as we possibly could. I remember setting up a day’s worth of jobs and calling my dad’s fireman buddies and going out to work and payin ‘em and running the business as he normally would. I mean, Dad worked hard to establish a good reputation for his business and we wanted to uphold that. And my mom said we needed that gutter money for tuition, so like…it just had to get done, ya know what I mean? But despite our most valiant efforts, we couldn’t quite finish ‘em all off by the time we were due to go back to school. As it happens, come March, the rest of the jobs still remained undone. Dad didn’t touch ‘em while we were away. And so, Danny and I each had these week-long spring breaks, right? The thing is, however – unlike our Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks – our spring breaks didn’t fall on the exact same dates, but they did briefly overlap. On the days we were both home from school, of course we worked together to get ‘em done. On the days where just one of us was home, however – so we wouldn’t be out there working by ourselves – we recruited friends to lend us a hand and help us get these jobs done for my dad who still wasn’t really functioning that well even after those couple months of not doing anything. For whatever reason, we didn’t reach out to any of my dad’s guys to help us out at this time.
Some customers – one customer in particular, actually – was outraged that we didn’t get to her gutters in the fall and then had the gall to show up at her house in March to clean ‘em out. It was me and Danny that day. We rang the doorbell and nobody answered. We put the ladder up and saw they hadn’t been done, so proceeded as we normally would when customers who’ve hired us aren’t home – we were gonna clean the gutters and then leave a bill in the mailbox instructing them to mail a check to my dad. So we go ahead and start and the gutters are absolutely loaded, and about half-an-hour into the job when we were about halfway done, the lady comes out and starts yelling at us that ”It’s too late!” and that we missed our chance to clean her gutters and that she’s not gonna pay us for the work we’d done. So, we just packed up and left. Although upsetting, I wanna make clear that that bitch was the exception and not the rule. When talking to the customers, instead of selling our dad out and sayin somethin like, “Oh sorry, our dad was too mentally fucked up to work and that’s why we’re only getting here now and why he’s not with us,” Danny and I just made generic excuses like, “So sorry for getting here so late. We got hit with all that snow so early this season and weren’t able to finish our jobs in time. But yeah, we definitely didn’t forget about ya and are here now to take care of ‘em for ya, so…” And most of the customers were understanding and had a “better late than never” attitude towards clean gutters and were happy to see us out there.
So, a little background info here real quick… After we moved to our new house in Edison Park in 1995 when I was seven and my brother was five, there was this kid named Matt who lived across the alley from us. Matt was in the grade between me and Danny over at St. Juliana – so he was a year younger than me and a year older than my brother. Not during high school too much when we kinda went our separate ways for a few years, but when we were kids and then again when we were in college, Matt and I were really good friends. When we were kids we’d always be playing sports together in the yard or out in the alley, and when we were in college – we went to the same school – we’d always be getting fucked up together the way our dads used to. Even though his parents still live across the alley and Matt’s got a house no more than a few blocks away, as I sit here and write this, I haven’t seen the guy in five or six years now. It’s probably been seven or eight since we’ve hung out. We didn’t have a falling out or anything like that, we just grew apart after college. He called me when he heard my dad died and we reminisced about our childhood for a bit and I congratulated him on his recent marriage, but that’s about all the interaction we’d had in the past half-decade. But anyhow, I’m only bringing this guy up right now because he’s the guy I had help me out with my dad’s gutter jobs during the part of my spring break that one year when my brother wasn’t around.
So, it’s kind of a funny story… On one of these days when he and I were both in town from Marquette University up in Milwaukee, me and Matt stayed up until like four or five in the morning getting wasted at my parents’ house. We went to bed for a couple hours, woke up still shitfaced and drove a half-an-hour out to Evanston where our first gutter cleaning job of the day had been located. I tell Matt to get the blowers out the back of the truck and to make sure they got gas in ‘em while I went to go let the people know we were there. Never in my life had I felt more like that drunken clown from Uncle Buck trying to ring the doorbell with a shaky hand as he showed up late to perform for a group of kids straight after doing an “all-night bachelorette party.” They open the door, and with my booze-stinking breath and flaming red eyes, I tell ‘em who we are and give ‘em the “Sorry we’re only here in the spring” spiel. As I’m talking, I hear Matt call out to me from the street. “Yo!” was all he said and I turned around to have a look. He nodded at the roof of the truck and shrugged. We’d forgotten the ladders in my garage. I apologized to the customer and told ‘em we’d be back in an hour. So we drove back to my house, got the ladders then drove back out to Evanston and did the job. I think it was for the best that the ladders were forgotten. That extra hour spent driving around drunk wasn’t enough time for us to get sober, but it bought us some time to wake ourselves the fuck up before doing an activity that could result in serious injury to ourselves or others if performed while under the influence. See what I did there? I’m just fuckin around. Not only was it stupid to be walking on those roofs drunk, but I also had no business getting behind the wheel of a car that morning. You live and you learn, I guess.
So anyway, way back in the day, Matt’s dad Mike used to take part in the window washing and the gutter cleaning as well. My dad started taking me out to work with him on weekends and breaks from school when I was fifteen and Mike was no longer on the crew by that point in time, but’d been a regular part of it for several years before that. There were two stories I always heard from the other guys about Mike during his tenure with Lally Worldwide Window Washing Incorporated. One was that he had a ladder slip out on him and he took a nasty tumble while trying to step back onto it from a steep garage roof he’d just cleaned the gutters on. The other was of him doing the second floor windows of this house covered in ivy and how he’d unknowingly set the top part of the extension ladder onto a beehive that’d been concealed beneath said ivy. He remained unaware of this disturbance he caused until he’d already climbed up to the top of the ladder with his sponge and squeegee in hand ready to wash the window when a swarm of bees started mercilessly attacking him from all angles. Legend has it he was so freaked out that he practically slid down the ladder and then took off running down the block while trying to brush the bees off his head, neck, torso and arms as the rest of the guys howled with laughter at his expense.
My dad and Mike weren’t exactly what I’d call friends. Like the rest of the guys on my dad’s window crew – minus Jimbo the mailman – Mike was a fireman. They had that in common. And they both liked to get really drunk all the time, so they also had that going for ‘em. I wouldn’t say that they disliked each other or anything like that – even though I did hear from Jimbo about a scuffle between the two that took place when all the guys were drinking in the alley one time – I’d say it’s more that they were just kind of indifferent to one another. It’s like…they weren’t friends, but they’d still hang out a lot anyway to talk sports, to talk fire department, to talk bartender tits and to get really loaded every chance they got because that’s what drinking buddies do. That’s what all the firemen on my dad’s window crew would do…that is, all the guys except a sober AA guy named Paul who the rest of the guys would always rip on for being a pussy.
Now, I don’t think they thought Paul was a pussy specifically because he didn’t drink – though it certainly didn’t help his cause – I think it was just that his sobriety and pussiness were two unfortunate personality traits that happened to coincide in him as he worked among a group of guys who had no tolerance for either. Like, Paul came from money. He grew up on the north shore and had a bunch of opportunities my dad and the rest of the working class schmucks on his crew that’d been born unto similarly uneducated blue-collar fathers never had. Like, my dad said that back when he was in high school and his school’s basketball team would be playing Loyola Academy up on the north shore, after the game him and his buddies would get into his car and then go cut donuts on the lawns of “those rich cake eater pussies” who lived around the campus up there. More likely than not, they weren’t even the houses of his opponents, they were probably just the houses of random people that lived around the school whose lawns he chose to destroy and then would go on to brag to me about when I was a kid all those years later. Confusingly enough, however, my parents would actually end up sending me to that very same high school because they wanted me to have an easier life than they had, so – I don’t really wanna get into it here – but I always felt emotionally mixed up being there in school alongside a bunch of rich kids who I was raised to resent. I mean, I identified too strongly with my dad’s image of working class pride and what it means to be a man and our financial struggles, seeing my mom cry sitting at the table in our dining room as she looked at a pile of bills this big that we were gonna hafta refinance our house again to be able to afford. And so, going to school up there made me feel like a fish outta water. But anyway, like, even though that Paul guy was one of their fireman brothers, right away – because of his background – to the guys he just kinda felt different and unrelatable.
And on top of that, I think Paul’s tenure on the crew was so short-lived because nobody wanted to hear some spoiled fuckin candy-ass from the north shore talking about his struggles with alcohol and his journey of self-discovery while working the 12 Steps and surrendering to his Higher Power and getting in touch with his inner feelings and all that typa gay-ass shit, ya know what I mean? Like, my dad’s best buddy on the crew – this dude named John – he would lose his mind with this Paul guy. Like, if John was working off a six-foot ladder doing the first floor windows and Paul was doing the second floor windows above him off the extension ladder, for example, and if any water happened to drip off Paul’s sponge or squeegee and land on John below, he’d flip his shit on the guy. He’d say, “You drip on me one more fuckin time, my man, I’m gonna fuckin kill ya.” And my dad would tell me that the rest of the guys would laugh hearing that, kinda half-hoping to see it happen. Like, there was just no patience for this guy. What he was all about was just too different from the core values all these guys grew up believing in and held dear. Ya see, the rest of the guys…well, they were tough. They were old school. They were stoic. They were guys who’d regularly carried charred corpses out of burnt-up buildings and pulled mangled bodies from car wrecks and took pride in being able to do these unpleasant tasks without feeling any emotion. In fact, the only emotion the dudes on my dad’s window crew liked to feel was that of inebriation. Those guys not loved, but lived to drink. They’d go to the bar literally every day after window washing and drink ‘til they had their fill and – to put it in the words of Nick the bartender from It’s a Wonderful Life – didn’t need any sober-ass cake eaters like Paul hangin around ‘em and talkin about his feelings “to give the joint atmosphere.”
Although he was always a big drinker, I’d say the era of excess in his mid-forties was the beginning of my dad’s downfall. He was slipping into one of his first major depressions – one of the first that I’d known about, anyway; one that I could see happening before my eyes. He was feeling worse and worse all the time and recognized it and went to see somebody for help, but whoever that somebody was didn’t do anything for his mental health beyond writing him a prescription for antidepressants which proved to be like dumping gasoline on the fire. Like, I can’t speak as to what these other firemen on my dad’s crew did when they went home after the bar every day, but more often than not during this classic era of unbridled intoxication, my dad would come home and continue drinking until he passed out. And like, dude, with those pills in his system, he’d get so fucking fucked-up while drinking fifteen-plus beers a day. And lemme tell ya – he wasn’t a fun drunk either. He’d never come after me or my siblings – unless I intervened, that is – but he’d sure lay into my mom. He’d call her the filthiest filth I’d ever heard. It was ugly. And my mom would be frightened and would use me – her oldest child – as a shoulder to cry on about her shitty marriage and how she was trapped in it and had nowhere to go because both her parents were dead. At fuckin eleven or twelve years old, I had no choice but to be a man to help hold things together on the home front and do my damndest to make sure my siblings – not so much my little brother, but definitely my little sister who was seven years younger than me – were exposed to this shit as little as possible.
My mom had no idea what to do about our ever-worsening situation around here. We’re a proud people, ya see. We’re the descendants of hard-headed, self-reliant, piss-poor German and Irish folk that immigrated to the US around the turn of the 20th century where they had to fight tooth and nail for everything they had. In our culture, we don’t like askin for nothin from nobody. Like, going to outsiders for help with personal problems is an extremely shameful sign of weakness and should be avoided at all costs. I guess that’s kind of why it’s so surprising to me that my dad’d even gone to get help from a doctor for his depression in the first place. It seems so out of character. I mean, my mom didn’t want people outside our house to know “our family secret,” so when I was falling into a deep depression of my own and got sent to see my high school counselor during my junior year at Loyola Academy after my grades had dropped from A’s and B’s to D’s and a couple F’s in all my classes, I knew better than to bring any of this shit up to an outsider and kept my fuckin mouth shut like I was supposed to. But, I dunno…I guess at one point, my mom felt like she had no other choice than to break her own rule. She decided it was for the best that she go behind my dad’s back and beg his fireman buddies to stop getting him so loaded every day. She told ‘em that he’s not doing well. She told ‘em that he’s going through a seriously fucked-up time and that he’s losing his will to live and that he’s on medication and that he shouldn’t be drinking – like, not at all. Like exactly zero beers a day and nothing more. Please, help us out. At the very, very least, she begged, don’t bring any beer over to our house anymore.
The guys didn’t really give a shit about what my mom had to say. I mean, maybe they did give a shit deep down, but were just too caught up in their own alcoholism to do anything about it. Because, honestly, what were they gonna do? They weren’t gonna quit drinking and start going to AA meetings and be pussy-ass faggots like Paul just for the sake of my dad. They weren’t gonna stop going to the bar on their days off from the firehouse. And after a day of window washing when they’re all chatting about what bar they wanna head over to today, what were they supposed to do? Were they gonna try to hide their plans from my dad? Or were they gonna tell my dad that they’re going to the bar but inform him he can’t go with because his wife said so? Yeah, right. I don’t think so. So, in spite of my mom’s desperate plea, the heavy drinking kept on and dad kept getting worse and worse.
One afternoon my dad came home drunk from the bar whereupon he and that guy Mike from across the alley got to work on a fresh case of beer. The hours passed and they got more and more wasted. My mom contained her outrage for as long as she could and when she could no more, she started bitching at both of ‘em. She bitched at my dad to stop drinking and bitched at Mike for bringing booze into our house again in spite of her petition not to.
“That bastard,” she still says twenty-something years later. “I told him Dad was fucked up and asked him not to bring beer over to my house anymore and he just sat there laughing. He was laughing while Dad yelled in my face. He’s the reason I got my second black eye.”
Yes, that happened. My mom was punched in the face that evening and I was right there to witness it. Ever since that day, my mom has nothing but hatred in her heart for the man across the alley. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not particularly fond of the guy either, but I’ve always had a problem with blaming him specifically for my mom’s black eye the way she does. I mean, I gotta hold my dad responsible for his own actions to some extent. Sure, it’s easier on the psyche to reason that my dad was some benevolent family man that was tempted and led astray by the devil across the alley, but that’s not the case. My dad was a complicated man who definitely had a great, fun, loving side that we all adored, but he also had a lot of demons that often got the best of him and brought out the worst in him. The hard-to-swallow truth is that no one forced my dad to start drinking that day and every other day that horrible shit happened in our household or when he’d get his ass kicked at the bar or get in trouble with the police or whatever else. No one doubts that he was going through a terrible time. I mean, we all felt bad for him and wanted him to get better, but I can’t ignore the fact that as a grown man he had the choice – and responsibility – to accept those shitty emotions that plagued him and manage them in a way that’s healthier than getting blacked out every day, treating your wife like shit, terrorizing your children and turning our house into some sort of fucking side show act. That behavior can’t be blamed on any one of my dad’s degenerate drinking buddies, no matter how shitty of friends they were to him over the years, especially at a time like this when Dad really could’ve used their help and support. That black eye, as much as I hate to say it, was all his doing.
Wow, what a rant. So anyway, now that that’s outta my system, I actually still see Mike pretty often around the neighborhood. In fact, I’d see him almost every day back when I was in the habit of getting out the house by 6am and heading over to Ebinger public school a couple blocks away to run laps on their track and do pull-ups on the monkey bars. This coincided with Mike’s time to get out and take his dog for a morning stroll. He’d always have his coffee in one hand and the leash in the other every time I saw him. Even though my mom hates the idea of me interacting with this guy in any way, shape or form, every now and then I’d stop and bullshit with him for a couple minutes when we’d be walking past one another. This was the case when I ran into him in the beginning of January 2020. He asked me how my dad’s doing and how gutter season went. I told him about my dad’s hip surgery and told him we did 340 jobs that year. I asked him how his son Matt’s doing, I asked him what his plans are for retirement from the CFD and whatever other small talk shit that came to mind. He answered then asked me what my plans were until the start of the following window season in the spring.
“I’m going to Spain in a week or so,” I told him. “I’m gonna walk the Camino de Santiago. Well, like, I never knew this until recently, but the Camino de Santiago isn’t just a single route. It’s actually a series of routes that lead from different areas all over Spain – as well as from Portugal and France and other places in Europe – and all end up at some cathedral in the city of Santiago de Compostela in the northwest of Spain. The route I chose to walk is called the Via de la Plata. It starts in Seville in the south and runs north for 600-something miles ‘til it hits Santiago. Guessing it should take me about five or six weeks to walk.”
He said “oh cool” or whatever, and we chatted for a few more minutes. As the convo drew to a close, he wished me luck on my walk and we went our separate ways.
At home, between Christmas and my day of departure, interaction with my dad had been minimal. I still did my morning duties of bringing the jumble down and making sure he had milk and Wheaties and bananas and all that shit, but didn’t really talk to him all that much. He was depressed without his truck and without the “loaner” promised to him by that greasy meatball of a tow truck guy named Dino. Unable to get his miles in the woods, and pick up his chicken sandwich for lunch from Nick’s, and top off his tank and pick up his daily pack of smokes from the BP gas station on Milwaukee, and go to Charlotte’s at night where he’d have his “couple beers” and get his lousy take-out dinner, and to check off the rest of the mandatory items from his daily agenda, Dad spent most of his day just layin on the couch in the basement. To be honest, it actually reminded me a lot of the depressions of yore. I felt a lot like he’d shut us all out again and was too lost in his own world to care about what was going on in any of ours. So, because of this and because of the anger I still held towards him that’d started with the drunken bullshit the day of his hip surgery and’d been exacerbated by his blowing us off on Christmas and then getting in that car accident, I just didn’t wanna tell Dad about my plans to go walk the Camino de Santiago. I didn’t wanna tell him my plans because they were important to me and I was excited about them and I didn’t want my bubble burst by his depressive lack of enthusiasm for something I viewed as positive happening in my life. So, I didn’t. At least not until…
“Should I go say goodbye to Dad?” I asked my mom on the morning of my departure. “I haven’t told him I’m going anywhere. I feel guilty, but I’m excited about this. And I mean – well, you know as well as anyone what I’m talking about here – I’m just so tired of sharing intimate pieces of myself and feeling shot down by someone who’s incapable of giving a shit. It fuckin’ sucks.”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “But don’t you think not telling him that you’re leaving the country might make him even more depressed? Don’t you think that might make him feel like you don’t care about him?”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “I guess you’re right. It’s just…I mean…Dad loves getting his miles in the woods every day, right? And I’m about to go get miles all day every day walking this trail. And I can’t help but feel that if things had been different over the years – if there hadn’t been all the depression and the pills and the drunken violence and all the ridiculous bullshit we’ve put up with; if Dad didn’t turn out so goofy and I could’ve had some sort of adult relationship with the man I’ve seen in all our home videos from when I was a kid – like, this is exactly the sort of thing I’d have liked to go and do with him, ya know? Like, one of those gay-ass father/son bonding experiences you see in the movies and shit like that. I dunno. Nevermind,” I said. “Forget it. It’s fuckin stupid.”
And on that note I went downstairs and told Dad I was going to Spain. I didn’t tell him what for or for how long. I just told him that I was going. I don’t think I got much more than an, “Okay, have a good time,” from the couch before I went back upstairs.
When I got back several months later, Dad was in a better mood. He had a new truck and was getting around better on his new hip. We eventually got back to work and were in the garage one day unloading the truck after having done a couple window jobs when Mike happened to be in the alley. He and my dad started shootin the shit while I was hanging up the ladders. At one point, Mike turned his attention to me and asked, “How was that hike in Spain? How long was it again? 500 miles?”
“It was 600,” I replied. “And it was good. There was hardly anybody out there. It was chilly, but nothing like a Chicago winter.”
“You got 600 miles this winter?” my dad asked incredulously.
“Yes I did,” I said.
He was genuinely impressed. And I suddenly became flooded with this overwhelming sensation of guilt. Like, I had no problem telling my plans to Mike – a guy who showed through his actions over the years just how little he cares about my dad and my family – yet couldn’t afford to offer even just that one little piece of myself to my dad before having taken off on my trip? What the fuck is wrong with me? I started to feel dizzy and just wanted to go lay down. As soon as I was done unloading the truck, I left the two of those guys chatting in the alley and retreated to the sanctuary of my childhood bedroom to spend some time alone.