As a seven-year-old, I only remembered my dad one way: Tall and handsome. He had the best left-handed curveball I had ever seen and could throw strikes to me all day long. He had deep blue eyes and half a finger on his right hand. Above all, he had his beard. It was a dark, full beard with hairs long enough to tickle, but not scratch, when he kissed us goodnight. It wasn’t one of those evil beards that the bad guys on The Dukes of Hazzard or CHiPs had, but a nice one, like Bruce Sutter’s.
One Sunday early in 1983, after we had eaten the celery and olive relish tray while watching the Cowboys beat the Buccaneers, dad got up and went to the bathroom. Jean, Jake, and I went outside to play catch with the football while waiting for dad to come out to barbecue. I got to be the Cowboys and they were the Buccaneers. We ran and tackled each other until our pants and arms were grass-stained. After I won three games, we were going to start a fourth when Jake asked, “Where’s dad?”
“I’ll get him,” Jean said. She walked in and Jake and I started a one on one game. I ran over Jake and he was just getting up when we heard Jean scream. We ran inside.
I ran down the hall and Jean ran by us crying and screaming, “Daddy shaved!”
I calmed down. Dad shaved. No big deal. We had seen him trim his beard many times. This was like trimming it very short.
I walked back to his bathroom. “Hey Jim,” said a smiling man. My eyes opened wide. My mom stood behind him. She looked like she was in pain. “What do you think, Jim?” said the man. I started to cry. I turned and followed Jean.
We went back outside to play football. Jean and Jake got to be the Cowboys this time and I was the Buccaneers. The Buccaneers won the first game and then the man came out to barbecue dinner. We ran up to the treehouse.
We watched him as he started the barbecue. He stacked the charcoal just like dad did and Puddles and Ebony ran circles around him, whimpering like they did for dad. He picked up the football and started tossing it in the air saying, “Boy, I sure wish someone would come play with me.”
I backed into the corner of the treehouse. Jean and Jake followed. Dad tossed the ball a couple of more times and then went inside the house.
Dad never fought fair. He came back with the hamburgers and the baseball gloves. We hadn’t played baseball together since the end of the season. We loved playing with dad. Jean and Jake looked like they wanted to play. I still wasn’t sure.
He put the hamburgers on and threw the tennis ball against the wall. “Who wants to play?” he called. We didn’t move. He put his glove down and flipped the burgers. He put the cheese on the burgers like dad did, then stacked them on the platter and called, “Dinnertime!”
We looked at each other and climbed down the tree. Jake had been asking for weeks to trade me places at the dinner table. He sat next to mom. I sat next to dad. “Jake, you can have my seat at dinner now!” I said as we ran in. “No thanks,” he said. It was the first time I couldn’t fool him.
I crept into the dining room. He was sitting there and I stared at him. He just didn’t look like dad. He kept the mustache and the hair was the same and he was definitely in dad’s seat, but it just didn’t seem like him. I checked his hand and he was still missing half a finger. He smiled when he saw me. I went to my seat without saying anything.
The dinner was quiet as we all stared at him. He asked us about our football game and I told him, “I won,” and I took another bite of the hamburger. He asked Jake if that was true and Jake said, “Yep.”
“You know guys,” Mom said, “dad’s going to have to take you guys to school in the morning.”
Jean and I looked at each other. She started to cry and then I started to cry. This man was probably going to kidnap us.
He got up and left the table.
Jacob followed him. Mom lowered her voice. “I don’t like it either, but you guys need to knock it off.” Jean cried harder. Mom went over to the turntable and put on an album. Air Supply. We started to sing together.
Half way through “Lost in Love,” I was calm and singing loudly. Jean asked, “What was that?” Mom turned the volume down.
We heard, “Good catch!” and ran to the sliding glass door. Jake was playing catch with the man. He said, just like dad, “Get down on the ball,” as he threw a grounder.
I ran to get my glove. Jean and I went out and stood next to Jake. Jean caught a pop fly and then it was my turn. He threw me the ball. I held my glove out and the ball slapped me just above the wrist. A curve-ball. I ran to pick it up and laughed. “That was a good one, Dad!” I said as I threw it back.