My Dad died four years ago. He wasn’t the best father in the world. In fact, he really sucked at it, but I don’t think he had an evil bone in his body. He just wasn’t really wired to be a dad, but that didn’t keep him from trying sometimes. I was going to post the Fool’s Gold story that Nailed Magazine published, but instead I am posting a part of my upcoming book, The Wax Bullet War. This scene really happened when I visited my dad right before I went to war.
My dad was charismatic and handsome, and his luck was in not only surviving the near-death experiences but actually benefiting from them. In Oregon, he was run down by a tree that snapped off the choke, and it crushed his leg. A piece of machinery dropped from a great height, severing the end of his left thumb right there in the oil fields. My dad was given a string of settlements and set up with a new profession. He decided he wanted to be a nurse, but during his vocational rehabilitation program he got drunk and had sex with another student on an operating table in a hospital and somehow contracted hepatitis, rendering him unable to work in a hospital. So he moved to Whittier, California, with his wife and became the handyman at a Korean high-rise retirement complex in the middle of Koreatown, LA.
He named me after him. Philip Sean Davis: my full name. It bothered him that I had stopped going by Philip after grade school, and he mentioned it sometimes. He and my brothers still called me Philip. My mom didn’t have a problem calling me Sean.
The morning I got to Dad’s place, he woke me up and we drove to a market to buy the best steaks they had and a fifth of Johnny Walker Black Label. He told me that since there was a chance I wasn’t coming back we were going to spare no expense. I laughed and said that they couldn’t kill me; I had the strange luck just like he did.
Dad loved baseball, so I watched Giants games with him on his big television. He took me down to Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, and a bunch of other places you saw on TV. In those couple of days, it was like we weren’t at war at all. I heard no one talk about it, and there was little mention of it on the news. In LA, nobody gives a shit about anything but LA. A ridiculous thought crossed my mind: maybe the war didn’t exist. Maybe I could just stay there or drive down to Mexico and forget about all the training, the weapons, the equipment, the men. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go to war, but the fear was there. I was never the kind of soldier that couldn’t wait to fight in combat, but I had a talent for it, a knack for the military. I knew I would be a good leader of men, but it still scared me.
Only a maladjusted person would want to fly thousands of miles from home to kill other human beings he didn’t know or understand, right? Maybe the U.S. government was banking on the fact that I was mad. Maybe I was, because the patriotic fog I had been in when I joined up had dissipated, and I still wanted to go. I needed a purpose. Without a purpose, I would end up driving in circles, cleaning up roadkill with twenty-seven years left until retirement. This scared me more than the thought of combat.
My brother Keith drove down on the last night before I was to head back, and we all smoked cigarettes and drank whiskey in Dad’s living room while his wife barbecued steaks on the patio. Every few minutes, Dad broke from our conversation to yell at the television.
Dad’s wife called through the sliding screen door that dinner was ready, and we filed out to fill our paper plates with meat and grilled potatoes. The steaks were so good that no one spoke. The sports announcer filled the gaps between the clashing of knives and forks. The food settled in my stomach and leveled out my whiskey buzz. Dad lit another cigarette, crossed his legs, and looked across the shag rug with heavy-lidded eyes. He surprised me by saying we should go for a walk. I said it was dark and I didn’t trust the dirty streets, but he told me that the people knew him there and he was well liked. He got up, staggered a step back to catch himself, and said, “Come on, son. I have a surprise for you.”
“Seeing you is all I want, Dad,” I said.
He didn’t say anything else, and walked out the door into the lobby of the tower. I looked at Keith for some help, but he only smiled and shook his head. We both knew whatever he was up to wasn’t any good. This is how it’s always been. I followed him mostly out of obligation, although I did have a flicker of curiosity.
We strolled through the garbage and graffiti of Koreatown at dusk. All the driveways were fenced in, all the store windows barred. Everything smelled like car exhaust, burnt fish, and sour cabbage. The indecipherable scribbles and words painted on the buildings started getting denser and more closely intertwined as we walked.
“Come on, you’re going to war—don’t let the gooks spook you.” Dad laughed and said, “Spooked by the gooks.”
After ten minutes of winding through the dilapidated blocks of old houses and convenience stores, he stopped outside the unmarked door to a stuccoed warehouse and knocked heavily on the steel plating. He looked at me and smiled for a few seconds. The door opened and a big Mexican in a black tank top leaned out. He had more tattoos than I’d ever seen on one person, and each one looked like a saint off a church candle.
Dad smiled. “Eddy, Eduardo, this is my hijo. The one going to Iraq.”
Eddy or Eduardo stepped toward me but kept one foot against the metal door to keep it from closing. He nodded quickly and stuck out a big, callused hand with the word “VERITAS” tattooed across the arch between his thumb and pointer finger. I shook it. He turned back to Dad and said, “Fifteen minutes?”
“Maybe thirty, let’s see how he does,” Dad said with pride.
The warehouse smelled as though someone had tried to drown the smell of five-day-old body odor with a floral spray. “What’s going on, Dad?”
“I rented you a whore.” He patted me on the back, trying to move me toward the door.
Eddy scanned the street and moved to the side to make room for me to go in first.
Dad motioned for me to head down the hall. “Come on, son. Don’t embarrass me.”
The hallway turned to shadows ten feet in. I looked back to Dad.
Eddy jutted his chin toward Dad. “Are we going to do this?”
“Thanks, Dad, Eddy, but I just got back together with Jaime. You remember Jaime, Dad. I meant to tell you before—”
“Phil, I’m closing this door in thirty seconds.” Eddy’s neck muscles bulged, and I swear Saint Anthony winked at me.
“The girls are clean, son. I come here almost every Tuesday. Come on. Live a little. Besides, I already paid for her.”
“You already paid?”
“Well, I’m going to owe either way.”
“Okay, that’s it,” Eddy said, and started to go back inside.
“Hold on,” Dad said. “Son, I’m telling you, these girls are worth the money. There’s one in there that knows just what she’s doing. She has this move…” He put both his elbows together, fists up, and gave a couple of drunk pelvic thrusts into the night.
“Why don’t you go, Dad? I mean, you’ll owe either way.”
Somewhere in the distance a dog barked.
“You’re sure, son?”
“One hundred percent.”
“I don’t give a shit which goes, but they go now.”
Dad went in and the heavy metal door slammed shut. I walked a few steps in the direction we had come from and sighed at the dark streets. The sun had set and the flickering streetlamp lit up a dancing piece of newspaper scuttling along the broken pavement. That’s when I realized I didn’t know how to get back.
I walked half a block and sat on the curb under a billboard advertising Coca-Cola in a language I didn’t understand. The sky had turned a bright orange and I breathed deep, but the air tasted stale and metallic. Every person who drove or walked by gave me a look like they wanted to do me harm, even the children. I would leave for Oregon the next day, and if this was the last time I saw my parents I figured I had spent the appropriate amount of time with each.