I am delighted that Steve Ulfelder is back here on DSD. Since his last appearance, Purgatory Chasm has garnered both a coveted Edgar and Anthony nomination for best first book. His second book, The Whole Lie, is in stores now. If you haven't read Steve - do it! Now! You'll thank me for it. Now please give a wonderful welcome to the sensational Steve Ulfelder.
By Steve Ulfelder
My books tend to include, even center around, father-son relationships. If protagonist Conway Sax isn’t dealing with the sudden reappearance of his own father (who abandoned him), he’s trying to regain the trust of his own son (whom he abandoned). The stories are filled with sons who believe they’ve never measured up to their fathers, in spite of material evidence to the contrary.
In my writing, I focus on characters or story, letting themes emerge where they emerge. And it’s become indisputable: fathers and sons are a big theme for me.
I’m fascinated by the role of dad in the family. His power. His other-ness, especially in the increasingly rare households with stay-at-home moms.
And his occasional flares of temper.
Ah, yes. The father’s temper.
My dad had one.
Jump to Los Angeles, four-plus decades ago. And let’s begin with some context on my father’s situation at the time. At age 30 or so, he had three kids under the age of 6, a high-pressure job in the aerospace industry, a mortgage on a ranch house in Orange County, a pair of car payments, and a young wife who’d been uprooted and moved 3000 miles from home – with the aforementioned kids.
I can only imagine what pressures my dad felt back then. Small wonder that he sometimes found it necessary to vent in creative ways.
There was the time the lawnmower, one of those engineless jobs perfect for a small Orange County lawn, got hopelessly jammed. Dad responded by launching it over our tall fence into the swimming pool of the apartment complex next door.
No swimmers were injured. The lawnmower was never the same.
I want to be fair, so I’ll point out that his temper often worked on our behalf. One time, a hotrod went blasting down our dead-end street, spinning its tires, barely under control. My father roared at the hotrod’s driver and went running – running – after the car. He must have struck terror into the driver’s heart, because the kid actually stopped and waited for my dad to catch up and offer a piece of his mind.
Yes, my father’s temper had the power to halt speeding cars.
But the story that sticks in my mind occurred one Sunday morning when I was five. My mother had taken my siblings to church, leaving me and dad at home. I watched cartoons while he relaxed and read the LA Times.
My parents had recently begun giving us kids an allowance – a dime a week each. Sunday was allowance day, and though I tried to watch cartoons, all I could think of was that dime. Man, did I want that dime.
I crept into my parents’ room and meekly requested it.
“I’ll give it to you later, when I get up,” dad said.
Fair enough. Back to cartoons.
Time passed. A full three or four minutes – an eternity, in other words, to a 5-year-old with sweet silver on his mind.
I padded back to my folks’ room. “Can I have my dime yet?”
“I’ll give it to you later, when I get up,” my father said, not lifting his eyes from the sports page. There was likely a subtle shift in his tone, a sort of warning bell that I was pushing my luck.
But I was 5 years old, and a subtle shift in tone was no match for that dime.
You know where this story’s headed, don’t you?
Back down the hall for more cartoons. After a reasonable interlude – two or three minutes, say – pad down the hall again. Stand in my parents’ doorway. “Dad? Can I have my …”
And that’s when my father roared.
He roared. He became a force of nature. He let me have it in language and at a volume that would draw complaints at a convention of stevedores.
To say I was chastened is an understatement. I was cowed. I was terrified.
I retreated to my favorite spot – the floor of the linen closet, which was a perfect size for a 5-year-old – and waited for mom to come home.
Now fast-forward 30 years to the basement of the Massachusetts home in which my wife and I have raised our kids.
I need to confess I inherited my father’s temper. It doesn’t blow very often, but when it blows, it blows. My family will vouch for this, unfortunately.
I’d recently introduced my son, 11 at the time, and his two best friends to my own favorite boyhood hobby: building model cars. They had embraced it with fervor. One Saturday afternoon, I dropped in on the makeshift studio they’d created in our basement …
… where it looked like a bomb had gone off.
A paint bomb.
In the manner of all 11-year-old boys everywhere, somebody had accidentally spray-painted somebody else’s hand. Retaliation had ensued. Then escalation, then a full-blown conflagration.
Of spray-paint fighting, that is.
The battle hadn’t ended until the last can was empty. The basement walls and floors, along with everything in the vicinity, looked like a South Bronx graffiti competition.
I tracked down those boys, and I let them have it. Boy, did I let them have it, unleashing a healthy dose of the stevedore lingo my dad had so thoughtfully taught me. I gave them the works: the bugged-out eyes, the throbbing vein in the temple, the clenched fists.
And when I was finished, a funny thing happened.
Only it wasn’t funny. It was terrible.
And it was in that terrible moment that I gained a new kinship with my father. A loop was closed. A new point of view made the scene.
What happened, you ask?
I saw the boys’ eyes.
I saw hurt and confusion, caused purely by me, in the eyes of sweet 11-year-old boys, including my only son.
And I was overcome by shame and regret and the knowledge I had used my power in an awful way.
At that moment, I flashed back to the episode of the dime. And I came to understand what my father must have come to understand then: My loss of control had caused an ugly memory that, while it would recede, and would be counterbalanced by more positive recollections, would never go away.
And this is the part all dads can relate to.
Our power, which seems so great to our families, can be exercised with reluctance and gentleness … or with force and impatience and outbursts of temper.
I believe that because we’re all good at heart, gentleness and grace usually win out.
But because we’re human, they don’t always.
So what do you do? How do you react to a colossal screw-up like this?
Here’s what I did that day, after seeing the fear and hurt I’d put in the eyes of three 11-year-olds I very much loved: I forced myself to remember those looks.
Believe me, I would prefer to forget them. But I don’t let myself. I can recall those boys’ eyes even today.
I wish I could say nothing like that ugly moment has happened since. But I’m human. So it has.
But I’m human. So I keep trying.
I guess I will all my life.
I want to circle back to my dad, lest you think he’s gotten the short end of the stick.
He’s one of the finest men I know. Pushing 80, healthy as a horse, active in all sorts of charitable and intellectual endeavors.
But what’s truly beautiful about my dad is that he’s spent his entire life improving in all the important ways. As he ages, his heart gets bigger and bigger, his capacity for love and forgiveness greater. If I can become half the man my father is, I will have done well indeed.
One last thing. We left 5-year-old me curled up in the linen closet, waiting for my mother to get home from church.
When she did, and I emerged, guess what I found on the rug outside that closet door? That’s right: A perfect, shiny, carefully placed dime.
Happy Father’s Day.
BIO: Steve Ulfelder is an amateur race driver and co-owner of Flatout Motorsports Inc., a Massachusetts company that builds race cars. His first novel, Purgatory Chasm (Thomas Dunne Books/Minotaur), was nominated for Edgar and Anthony Awards and was named Best First Mystery of 2011 by RT Book Reviews. His second novel, The Whole Lie, is available everywhere, and a third book is set for May 2013 release.