Fiction: Families are Always Rising and Falling in America

“My dad was the only one who went out. He drove out to west Iowa and walked up on a low old ranch house in the middle of a cornfield. Peggy answered the door and told him that his dad was in the living room. She was nearly crying. He went into the living room and there the big old man was, just the same but different”.

My father was born in the 1940’s. His mom and dad were both catholic and they lived on the west side of Chicago. It was worse to live there then than it is now, but they were alright and even proud of themselves for at least not living on the south side. My grandpa (my dad’s dad) was a real big drunk and when he wasn’t trucking he was getting loaded down the street, and sometimes, he would take my dad with him and make him sweep up the bar in the morning with the only advantage being he could keep whatever pocket change he found lying around among the broken glass and beer and hair and dust and piss. He (my dad’s dad) used to get so drunk that when he would come home my dad would hide under an old desk they had in the living room which is to this day standing in our family garage. He used to go find my grandma (dad’s mom) or uncles or aunt and beat them up. Pretty severely sometimes. He never got my dad though, he always hid.
This all went on for years, their entire childhood pretty much. Then one day, when my uncles and dad (who was the youngest) were a bit older, they changed it. My uncle Mike said he had had enough, said he didn’t even decide to do it that day, he just did it and then, before he even really knew what he was doing it was done. That day my grandpa came home loaded and grabbed my grandma like he usually did. But this time my uncle (Mike) grabbed him instead. He and my other uncles, and my dad to the extent that he could, pushed him off my grandma and dragged him outside into the yard. They ganged up on him and beat him until he couldn’t stand up. They say (my uncle that is) that he (my grandpa that is) was swearing at them, calling them ungrateful sons of bitches and all sorts of mean nasty ugly things. Saying that when he got up he would kill them all, bleeding all over the grass and spitting and he may even have pissed himself out of the sheer pain and fear and on account of him being so drunk. Then my uncles and dad told him if he ever came around again they would kill him and bury him right where he lay and that nobody would ever come looking for him because they were his only family and he had no job and nobody would ever miss him. Then they left him lying out in his own blood and vomit and piss in the yard.

After that they didn’t see him until one day they got a package from somewhere in Iowa inviting them all to come down for some sort of reunion. He was a born again Christian now and had a wife (named Peggy) who was encouraging him to get in touch with his family and thus his past. At this point my grandma (dad’s mom) was already dead but my uncles decided they would sooner dig her up and ask her permission before they would go out to the middle of nowhere Iowa to see a man they swore they’d kill if they ever saw again.

My dad was the only one who went out. He drove out to west Iowa and walked up on a low old ranch house in the middle of a cornfield. Peggy answered the door and told him that his dad was in the living room. She was nearly crying. He went into the living room and there the big old man was, just the same but different. He got up and gave my dad a hug and called him son and they sat at a kitchen table for a few hours drinking iced tea and talking about what could have been and how he could never forgive himself for what he had done and how he was so sorry that he never got to apologize to his (my dad’s) mother. But now he had the lord by his side and he knew that if he lived well and did right by his family, old and new, then he would be given access to the kingdom of heaven and he might, just might, have the chance to see her (my dad’s mother) again. During all this Peggy was working around the kitchen and puttering in and out doing a whole lot of nothing, probably just trying to listen in on them. And my dad couldn’t stop thinking, I wonder how she feels about all this, given that they were talking about his (my dad’s) mother and all and wishing he could see her again in the goddamn almighty. Maybe she (Peggy) was even thinking well what the hell about my almighty? Where am I supposed to go? Me, Peggy for godssakes! The one who nursed you (my dad’s dad) back to humanity! Now all I have to look forward to is this divine love triangle you’re wishing for. And my dad was thinking all of this and also couldn’t help but think, my God how does a man like this consistently surround himself with people that put up with him.
He told his dad he had a hotel but it was a lie and he pulled out of the driveway and waved goodbye and promised to stop in for breakfast before he headed home in the morning which was also a lie. He turned down the road that led back to the highway and took the ramp for 88 and drove straight back to Chicago. He never heard from him again.

He went through his share of hard times after all this. By the time he met my mom in ’72 he was deep in debt and trying to work his way out of it. Going to night college at the same time and doing whatever he could to make her life bit by bit better. She got pregnant with me first and they lived above a garage in a fancy suburb so my dad could mow the lawns in the summer and plow the driveways in the winter. He would do this and then take the train into the city to work another low paying job. He never got any education and when I came around he said he wouldn’t name me some dumb low name like he had so that I would become a ditch digger like him. He named me Oxford because he read about it in the paper one day as the best place for school in the world. He said if he named me that I would never forget it and I would think about going to college from the day I could even think at all and then I would never end up being some low son of a drunk like he was. Which was impossible in its own right since he never drank a drop of booze on account of the fear of it. I grew up and then I had a sister that they named Harvard because it was second best.

All the kids I knew used to give me a whole bunch of shit for my name until finally one day I joined the football team and the coach started calling me Ox. I was 230 pounds and the fullback and the team went all the way to the state finals in Champaign. After my football days and into college (in Kansas) I always went by Ox. People still thought it odd but not nearly as weird and pretentious as Oxford. From then on, on the first day of every class I would wait as the teachers approached the O’s then cut them off and say, “I prefer Ox” or “Just Ox, please” which they always obliged but were obviously confused by.

I graduated college and started working in a bar in Lawrence. I worked there every Tuesday Thursday Friday and Saturday. I worked enough to have some money and never wanted for anything. When my dad died, I went to the courthouse back in Chicago and had them legally change my name. I met a nice girl down in Lawrence and if we ever have kids best believe I’ll give them some good strong ditch digger name that nobody will ever remember.

Lawrence Sievers