My Face in His Mirror
The Marines notified Mother a month after Daddy had cut off our allotments. A copy of her letter went to Daddy’s address.
“I ditched him in California, so now he’s getting back at all of us,” she had said. She stored the letter in the hall closet, inside a Buster Brown shoebox that was our family archive for photos, birth certificates, expired driver’s licenses, old Christmas cards, anything we’d never throw away. “I don’t know why it’s such a wonder to me. He’s zapped our allotments before. The Marines sent him to Hawaii the year you were born at Balboa Naval Hospital. After he got there, he decided he needed more money. Zap. When you were seven, he got stationed in Japan. There went your ex-daddy, and zap went our allotments.”
“He’s not my ex-daddy; he’s your ex-husband.”
“I know,” she had sighed. “Don’t let me turn you against him. It’s my fault, anyway. I called him two months ago. I wanted him to know his sons were okay. I told him twenty-five dollars was all I made a week at Casa la Bello. And I said Vin helped us get by. I thought maybe I could shame him into supporting his sons.”
So that’s what happened. Instead of feeling obligated, Daddy had convinced the Marines that some other guy was supporting us. Swell guy.
“When he enlisted,” Mother shook her head reluctantly, and I knew I was about to hear a piece of family history, “he had to show the Marines his birth certificate. That’s when Olivia told him she didn’t have one. He was a bastard. She never told him before because she never cared about her own son. Rory was supposedly his stepfather, but he always thought Jonathan was in the way. I’ve always thought that’s why he doesn’t care about y’all.”
“How old was I when we left California?”
“Biggy was eleven; you turned nine the day we started back. Back then, Marines could get thrown into the brig for not paying car payments. They made them support their wives and kids,” she had said. “But that was the old Corps. They don’t care about families these days.”
I went to the Buster Brown shoebox and laid it on my bed. Inside was the sepia-toned photo Mother had shown me of a boy about four years old, dressed in a short suit.
“You know who that is?” She had asked.
I hadn’t recognized the clothes. “It’s not me?”
“No, but it looks just like you, doesn’t it? That’s how you looked when you were four.”
“Who is it?”
“That’s your daddy,” she had said.
If we had looked that much alike then, maybe he still sees my face in his mirror. I knew so little about Daddy. My last memory of him was from that year, 1959. He’d been getting dressed for the base: a tersely ironed khaki shirt, khaki tie, forest green coat, and worsted slacks with incisive creases. He was the non-com in charge of Camp Pendleton’s rifle range. Daddy must have been a terrific rifleman, because he outshot the other Marines. I remembered a blue Tupperware bowl with forty-eight medals in it and seven trophies nearly as tall as me.
I set aside the Marine letter with Daddy’s Palo Alto post office box number in the shoebox, and another photo from when Mother had married Daddy in 1950, the year Biggy had been born. Daddy had been uniformed in green fatigues and a khaki belt. Mother had probably weighed one-fifty then–overweight, not the gross two hundred pounds she’d ballooned to after he started fooling around on her.
And there was a battlefield shot from WWII. “Peleliu 1944” was penciled onto the back, probably by Daddy. I’ll bet he wants this. He was born on Dec. 30, 1924. The Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and he’d dropped out of high school to join the Marines three weeks afterwards, the day he turned seventeen. Daddy would have been nineteen when this black-and-white had been taken. Is that what I’ll look like in four years?
The four-by-four inch World War II photo felt heavy, like a crinkle-edged postcard. Daddy had stared frankly–perhaps arrogantly–into the lens. Seven of the rifle squad carried M-1s. The private beside Daddy–tall, thin, rabbity face, Saturday-morning-cartoon teeth and a tuft of hair on the crown of his head–flashed his Browning Automatic Rifle. At least, that was my guess from watching Combat. Biggy and I had marched with Vic Morrow and Rick Jason and Pierre Jalbert for five TV seasons, and we’d studied their armaments.
I packed two pairs of Levis, two long-sleeve shirts and a week’s worth of socks and underwear in the wooden typewriter case Mother had given to Biggy and me. I hated leaving the Remington. I was the only one who ever used it. Biggy had taken typing in high school too, but that portable typewriter had been my confidante. Same company may have made Daddy’s rifle, I thought ironically.
I stowed the photo in my typewriter case. Everything else went back in the shoebox. I went to bed at nine P.M. I hoped for sleep. I wanted to get up an hour early to deliver my two routes.