Dads Behaving Badly

Short stories about bad dads from our archive.

Happy Father’s Day to one of the best!

When you’re living in a patriarchy, every day is Father’s Day. For millennia fathers got by without such a day, looting and pillaging and reigning with such impunity in their workaday dad lives that to set aside a special occasion for it seemed like gilding the lily. But the powerful never tire of celebrating themselves, and when the dads saw that mothers had a day of their own, they became angry. (Angrier, I should say—dads, as a class, have always been hotheads.) Feeling unappreciated, they began to abuse their already capacious tendencies for pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. They would traipse around their homes with their potbellies hanging out of ill-fitting WORLD’S #1 DAD T-shirts, hoping to be noticed. To appease the dads and curb the worst impulses of their droit du seigneur, greeting-card companies some years ago brokered a “Father’s Day,” on which the dads consented to have their rings kissed by family members and to delight in an array of fun new gadgets and scotches presented to them at beery ceremonial barbecues. In exchange, the dads agreed to try to take an active interest in their children’s lives every once and a while, and to keep the drinking to weekends. They now pretend not to notice their cultural senescence, and chuckle agreeably when commercials depict them as primitive morons.

A little-known Father’s Day bylaw, legal scholars have argued, makes it possible for you to give your father something he does not actually want—he is powerless to protest, since by obligation he has to “enjoy” his “special day.” Short fiction is one such thing, generally. Dads are not so keen on it. (There are exceptions, of course, but these tend to be the same dads who say they don’t want “a big to-do” on Father’s Day.) If you want to knock your old man around a little bit, try reading him one of these short stories in lieu of giving him an Apple Watch or whatever. He might just blow his stack! 
Benjamin Percy, “Refresh, Refresh,” 2005

My father wore steel-toed boots, Carhartt jeans, and a T-shirt advertising some place he had traveled, maybe Yellowstone or Seattle. He looked like someone you might see shopping for motor oil at Bi-Mart. To hide his receding hairline he wore a John Deere cap that laid a shadow across his face. His brown eyes blinked above a considerable nose underlined by a gray mustache. Like me, my father was short and squat, a bulldog. His belly was a swollen bag and his shoulders were broad, good for carrying me during parades and at fairs when I was younger. He laughed a lot. He liked game shows. He drank too much beer and smoked too many cigarettes and spent too much time with his buddies, fishing, hunting, bullshitting, which probably had something to do with why my mother divorced him and moved to Boise with a hairdresser and triathlete named Chuck.

At first, after my father left, like all of the other fathers, he would e-mail whenever he could. He would tell me about the heat, the gallons of water he drank every day, the sand that got into everything, the baths he took with baby wipes. He would tell me how safe he was, how very safe. This was when he was stationed in Turkey. Then the reservists shipped for Kirkuk, where insurgents and sandstorms attacked almost daily. The e-mails came less frequently. Weeks of silence passed between them.

Sometimes, on the computer, I would hit refresh, refresh, refresh, hoping. In October I received an e-mail that read: “Hi Josh. I’m OK. Don’t worry. Do your homework. Love, Dad.” I printed it up and hung it on my door with a piece of Scotch tape.

[…] Our fathers haunted us. They were everywhere: in the grocery store when we spotted a thirty-pack of Coors on sale for ten bucks; on the highway when we passed a jacked-up Dodge with a dozen hay bales stacked in its bed; in the sky when a jet roared by, reminding us of faraway places. And now, as our bodies thickened with muscle, as we stopped shaving and grew patchy beards, we saw our fathers even in the mirror. We began to look like them. Our fathers, who had been taken from us, were everywhere, at every turn, imprisoning us.

Tama Janowitz, “American Dad,” 1981

Though we had no furniture, we did have books. My mother had made an art out of finding cheap books. We had shelf after shelf (built by my father on a long ago Sunday when it had seemed likely that my parents would be rejoined or at least that my father would continue to receive the sexual favors of my mother) filled with 15C specials—remaindered paperback books purchased in drugstores and Woolworth’s with the covers ripped off and on special sale—books about girls murdered in Chicago, in Michigan; a series of disease books; young boys who were autistic, aggressive or retarded; priests who were eaten alive by their congregations in Papua; mothers of five with brain tumors, who had to have part of their skulls removed and a metal plate inserted that continued to bulge as the tumor grew; all true, all real stories. Also there was the psychic phenomena section of the shelves—hundreds of Pate magazines to which my mother subscribed, the Life of Edgar Cayce, strange and incomprehensible phenomena that had transpired on the face of the earth that no one could explain—frogs dropping from the air, an inexplicable rain of slices of meat and blood, a hole in the Russian tundra that appeared mysteriously and was believed to have been an atomic explosion from a UFO. All these my mother studied avidly, a pastime my father in his heyday had nothing but contempt for. Once when I asked him how he thought acupuncture worked, he said that the Chinese peasants had very primitive minds and it worked on them as a mild sort of hypnosis. “But what about the Americans it works on? And the Europeans?” As a neo-Freudian my father believed the primitive mind was widespread. Why, he was only one generation removed from the Ukrainian peasant himself. “There is no alternate reality,” he told me on one of my visits to his house which by now by mutual consent had been reduced to once or twice a year, “and I’m tired of all this nonsense of people trying to prove that there is.”

Junot Diaz, “Edison, New Jersey,” 1996

I went to her house and her parents asked me how business was, as if I balanced the books or something. Business is outstanding, I said.

That’s really wonderful to hear, the father said.

You betcha.

He asks me to help him mow his lawn and while we’re dribbling clear gas into the tank he offers me a job. Utilities, he says, is nothing to be ashamed of.

Later the parents go to the den to watch the Giants lose and she takes me into her bathroom. She puts on her makeup because we’re going to a movie. As friends. If I had your eyelashes, I’d be famous, she tells me. The Giants start losing real bad. I still love you, she says and I’m embarrassed for the two of us, the way I’m embarrassed at those afternoon talk shows where broken couples and unhappy families let their hearts hang out.

Jonathan Lethem, “The Empty Room,” 2011

Earliest memory: father tripping on strewn toys, hopping with toe outraged, mother’s rolling eyes. For my father had toys himself. He once brought a traffic light home to our apartment on the thirty-somethingth floor of the tower on Columbus Avenue. The light, its taxi yellow gone matte from pendulum-years above some polluted intersection and crackled like a Ming vase’s glaze where bolts had been overtightened and then eased, sat to one side of the coffee table it was meant to replace as soon as my father found an ­appropriate top. In fact, the traffic light would follow us up the Hudson, to Darby, to the house with the empty room. There it never escaped the garage.

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