“Wrestling With Angels”
By Brandon Kidd
I was raised by an evangelical atheist. My father’s Bible was the newspaper, his morning cup of coffee his sacrament. Before they removed The Lord’s Prayer from public schools —about bloody time in my father’s opinion— he would ensure that I missed it each and every day by dropping me off at school fifteen minutes late.
My father wasn’t born an atheist or even raised as one. He came by his “religion” the same way as many of his fellow atheists, by accident. And by accident I don’t mean happenstance, I mean the beast of twisted metal and broken glass that claimed the life of my mother before I turned two years old. After that day my father posted the timeless question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” to the big man upstairs. When it came back marked “Return to Sender” my father unceremoniously flipped the bird to all things religious and has never though twice about it.
I am my father’s only child and, as he sees it, all he has left of the great love of his life, my mother. A photo of her sits on our mantle in a large, golden frame, never collecting a speck of dust. My father dusts it each and every day at five o’clock on the dot. I only wish he was that meticulous about the rest of the house.
My name is David Allgood and I am seventeen years old. Unlike my father, my picture of my mother is far less crystallized. Occasionally memories of her float to the surface of my mind like old pieces of driftwood —a certain smell, the sound of someone’s voice— but I am unable to put any words to them. Maybe one day I will, but not today. Today I have other things on my mind. Today my father is finally meeting my girlfriend.
Her name is Carissa. Do you know what that means? It’s Greek for “the beloved one.” I looked it up. What an awesome name. She didn’t even know what it meant when I asked her. I thought it was kind of cool that I was the one who got to tell her. It was almost like I was giving her that name myself.
Hammarskjold High is your typical big, institutional, suburban Canadian high school surrounded by enormous sports fields which, for half the year, must be content as hockey rinks. Carissa and I met in English class one September. Carissa, unlike a lot of the other girls at school, wore plain old blue jeans and sweaters most of the time. Her make-up was chap-stick and her wardrobe was not by Donna Karen New York (more like Value Village). She was —and is— only five-foot-two but seemed a lot taller somehow. Also unlike a lot of the other girls, she smiled —a lot, all of the time for any reason at all. And her smile was perfect.
That’s how I saw her. What she saw in me, however, remains a mystery. I’m not overly down on myself or anything, but I’m aware of the fact that I’m nothing special, just a six-foot-three pasty-white bag of skin and bones with a thick head of poofy black hair. Poofy, that is, until I discovered the miracle of hair gel one summer. Hair gel did, without a doubt, improve my self-image more than any of the hyperactive motivational speakers I’d been subjected to over the years.
And that’s me. But today I’m writing about my dad. Last week he discovered via the parental grapevine that I had a girlfriend. Cari and I had been dating for months. And that’s not to say that the parental grapevine in Thunder Bay is particularly inefficient, it’s to say that dad’s connection to it is dial-up speed at best. Since he found out, dad has been arming and firing his considerable stock pile of reasons why dating is a bad idea for me: “You’re too young! — It’s just your hormones! — Why bother, you’ve only got a year of high school left! — She’ll get pregnant!”
That last one made me laugh. If Cari was pregnant it would have had to happen via saliva exchange. And if that was possible we would have already had triplets.
Dad has used these arguments since my cootie days and I’m ashamed to say that, for the most part, they’ve succeeded in keeping me single for a number of years. What can I say, he’s a lawyer and he’s good at it.
Dad hasn’t so much as held another woman’s hand since mom died. And I’m sure it’s because he doesn’t want to dishonour her memory or something like that. We’ve never talked about it, but I’m pretty sure mom would not want dad to be miserable and single for the rest of his life. Dad’s always been kind of grumpy for as long as I can remember.
“I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist!” he often says in defense of his take on life. Should anyone ask “How are you?” the answer is always “Fine” with a clear, unspoken understanding that you shouldn’t press any further. And that’s my old man. But I suppose after mom died instead of reaching for the coffee pot he could’ve picked up a whiskey bottle. My life has been far from perfect, but I’m also grateful (and slightly amazed) that I haven’t turned out to be way more fucked up.
When I agreed to introduce Cari to my dad, I had reservations, but I was convinced that once he met her he’d change his mind, and not just about me. Part of the reason why I wanted dad to meet Cari, was so that he could see me happy with someone and maybe get a bit closer to seeing himself like that one day.
The night arrived. I was chopping chives when Dad came into the kitchen.
“When’s she coming?” he asked.
“I said six o’clock, but she’s usually a little late.”
My father grumbled like a grizzly bear.
“You need any help?” he asked.
“No. I’m fine,” I said over my shoulder with a smile.
Dad grumbled again and stalked off to his den where he picked up a paper (one of three that arrived daily) and started reading. Then at six-twenty the doorbell rang. I sprang from the kitchen but dad sprang faster. I got there just as he opened the door.
“Hi! Mister Allgood? I’m Carissa.”
She stood there in the snow with a smile on her face and her hand outstretched.
A strange look spread over my father’s face. The hard line of his mouth relaxed, his eyes widened and he looked at her hand as one might contemplate a potentially live electrical wire. He said nothing.
“Carissa,” I said tentatively, “this is my dad —”
“Josh,” my dad interrupted. “You can call me Josh.”
Dad seemed to remember his manners and took Carissa’s hand. I could tell she was a little thrown off, but she was still smiling.
“C’mon in,” I said. “Dinner’s ready.”
“Yes, please,” said Dad. “Come in.”
Dinner was the opposite of fun. Dad barely said a thing. Most of the conversation consisted of me stating facts about Cari and I while dad grunted vague sounds of acknowledgement.
Cari kept throwing me looks that asked, “What did I do wrong?”
I didn’t know. I expected Dad to be grumpy but never, not in a million years, would I have expected him to be rude. He barely uttered a complete sentence for the entire meal and he started at Cari almost constantly. I was getting madder by the second, mentally rehearsing a thousand different ways to lay in to him the moment Cari was out the door.
After what felt like twelve hours of slow torture, dinner was over. For dessert I had bought some Persians from the bakery, but decided to keep them a secret instead. I gave Cari an out as soon as I could.
“Well, Cari, thanks for coming over, but you probably want to get a good night’s sleep. You’ve got that meeting before school tomorrow, right?”
“Oh… yes. I probably should get going. I was nice to meet you, Josh.”
Dad just nodded and couldn’t even manage a smile.
As I saw Cari out the door, dad was behind me in the living room. I mouthed to her the words “I’m so sorry” before she turned to go.
I shut the door and inhaled three sharp breaths, giving Cari time to get out of earshot, giving myself plenty of oxygen for what I was about to say. I whipped around. Dad was sitting on the sofa, his head in his hands. I didn’t care what came out of my mouth. His behavior justified anything I might say.
“What the fuck’s the matter with you?!” I shouted, my voice cracking, tears forced to the edges of my eyes. “Just because you want to be miserable doesn’t give you the right to —”
“Jesus Christ, David! Couldn’t you see!?” said Dad, rising to his feet. He had tears in his eyes as well. My train of thought had been completely derailed. I had no idea what he was talking about.
“What?” I asked perplexed.
“She looks exactly like your mother!”
Dad’s gaze never left my face, but the index finger of his right hand was thrust toward the mantle. I followed it. I looked at the photo of my mother. He was right. Subtract the wrinkles and make-up, add in a second-hand t-shirt, and it could have been Carissa’s angelic face in that golden frame.
I sat down. My mouth was slack, my eyes never leaving the photo.
“Oh, my god,” I said quietly.
The happenings of that night took much longer to digest than our meal. What did this mean? Was there somehow a part of me hanging on to my mother as hard as Dad was? If there was, was there anything wrong with that? From what I’d been told about my mother, although she may have looked a lot like Cari, she was a very different kind of person. After a few days of soul searching I was able to continue seeing Cari until we broke up six months later. I never told her about why my father was so strange that night. I wanted to, but I never figured out how.
If I had been in my dad’s shoes that night, if I had opened the door to see a sixteen-year-old girl, the spiting image of my dead wife in her youth, I don’t think I would have been able to keep it together at all, never mind sit down and try to have a civilized dinner. I never knew just how strong dad was until that night. And afterwards, my father’s atheism made a new kind of sense to me. Wrestling with your demons is hard, but it’s nothing compared to wrestling with angels.