Terese Mailhot

My Father, the Drunk Savant

Editor’s Note: The following was previously published in The Burrow Press Review.

My father died at the Thunderbird Motel on Flood Hope Road. According to documents, he was beaten over a cigarette or a prostitute. I prefer the cigarette. I considered it an Indian death myself, while walking along the country roads of my reservation. His death intruded, and I could not fathom being a good person when I came from such misery.

He was an anomaly, a drunk savant. He took his colors, brushes, and stool with him when he left. It was harvest and the corn stalks were gold and waving at me. I was constantly waiting, looking out and within. When he left, he was lanky with a paunch, and his hair was black and coarse. He was wearing a baseball t-shirt and jeans covered in rust-acrylic.

As an Indian woman, I resist the urge to bleed out on a page, to impart the story of my drunken father. It was dangerous to be alone with him, as it was dangerous to forgive him, as it was dangerous to say he was a monster. If he were a monster, that would make me part-monster, part-Indian. It’s my politic to write the humanity in my characters and to subvert the stereotypes. Isn’t that my duty as an Indian writer? But what part of him was subversion?

Our basement smelled like river-water and cedar-bough. He carved and painted endlessly in the corners of the room. I sat in his lap, watching him paint ornate Salish birds in striking red and black.

“You see?” he said. “What is that?”

“Eagle,” I said.

Penobscot

Penobscot, from left to right: Shantel van Dyke Penobscot/Onieda), Leigh Neptune Penobscot/Passamaquoddy), Alexis Ireland Maliseet), Nakoa Parson Penobscot), Julian Loring

“Mother,” he said.

He was soft-looking sometimes. I liked to sleep in the crook of his neck. He smelled like Old Spice and bergamot. His hands shook when he was not drinking, and when I held them he seemed thankful. He delighted in my imagination when my mother was too busy. The grass was high on our lawn when I took the hose to our well and let it run.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“I’m a gas-man filling up a tank,” I said.

“Silly.” He tickled me.

Once, I packed my bags, mimicking my mother. With a bag of dolls and wooden cars, I told him I was leaving. I told him I would not come back until he stopped drinking. He promised me he would stop and then weeks later he left.

After the birth of my second son I went to find him. I was brought to the town of Hope, where he was living with his new family. His lawn was ragged. Cars without tires sat on bricks. He answered the door wearing a thin, dirty white shirt. He was jaundiced and his face was gaunt. His hair was mostly black and still coarse. We sat across from each other in lawn chairs in his basement. I resisted the urge to sit poised like him; instead, I held bad posture and slunk in my chair.

“You have my nose,” he said. “My big honker. I missed you.”

I said I missed him, feeling awful that it was true.

“The best thing I could do was leave.”

“I know,” I said.

“Your mother was a good woman. I told her I was an asshole, and she took me in like a wounded bear.”

“I know.”

A month after this he showed up at my house with a white documentary filmmaker. I answered the door but could not let him in the house. My brother was still scared of him, still angry and confused.

“They’re doing a documentary about me,” he said. “About my art.”

I was anxious, standing there with him at my door.

“I know,” he said. “I’ll go.”

The National Film Board of Canada debuted the documentary as a piece with immediacy and no external narrative. I’m a woman wielding narrative now, weaving the parts of my father’s life with my own. I consider his work a testimony to his being. I have one of his paintings in my living room. “Man Emerging,” is the depiction of a man riding a whale. The work is traditional and simplistic. Salish work calls for simplicity because an animal or man should not be convoluted. My father was not a monster, although it was in his monstrous nature to leave my brother and I alone in his van while he drank at The Kent. Our breath became visible in the cold when Dad came back to bring us fried mushrooms. We ate the bar fare like puppies to slop.

His smell was not monstrous, nor the crooks of his body. The invasive thought that he died alone in a hotel room is too much. It is dangerous to think about him, as it was dangerous to have him as my father, as it is dangerous to mourn someone I fear becoming.

I don’t write this to put him to rest but to resurrect him as a man when public record portrays him as a drunk, a monster, and a transient. I wish I could have known him as a child in his newness. I want to see him with the sheen of perfection, with skin unscathed by his mistakes or by his father’s. Before my mother died I asked her if he had ever hurt me.

“I put you in double diapers,” she said. “There’s no way he hurt you. Did he ever hurt you?”

“No,” I said, unsure.

If rock is permeable in water, I wonder what that makes me in all of this? There is a picture of my brother and me next to Dad’s van. My chin is turned up, and at the bottom of my irises there is a brightness. My brother has his hand on his hip, and he looks protective, standing over me. I know, without remembering clearly, that my father took this picture, and that not all our times were bad.

Terese Marie Mailhot is from Seabird Island Indian reservation. Her work has been featured in Carve Magazine, Yellow Medicine Review, and The Offing (August 24). She is an SWAIA Discovery Fellow and studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

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