by Donnie Casto II
“I don’t believe in fairy tales, because there is no happily ever after in life.”
The words hit him harder than a sucker punch to the stomach. Life broke everyone to a degree, but to hear such a statement from a child whose biggest worry should’ve been missing her Saturday morning cartoons, cut deep.
“Why don’t you believe in a happily ever after?” asked Thomas, trying to maintain the focus of a routine that had become all too familiar in the five years since his divorce.
“Because, Dad” started Aurora “Because my brother’s and I haven’t been happy since our time with you has been limited by someone who doesn’t know our family, or how good a father you are.” Between trying to focus on the road back to their mother’s and the reminder of the mistakes of a life that had long since evolved, Thomas Barnes began to revisit the memory lane of a life where every day with the three fine children sitting in his car with was a constant.
Life as a father and an aspiring writer had always given him passion and purpose. Between his work, his children, and the joy of drinking, an occasional joint, and the moveable feast of the barflies and women he had previously kept company with after the work was done, the bills were paid, and the kids went to bed; the woman who had given him these kids wasn’t so much a passion in his life, regardless of what he had tried to convince himself. “Dad, I want to be like you when I grow up. I want to live life, travel and see the world the same kind of eyes you have.” While all three of these kids were without question his; the youngest Gabriel was without question the mirror image of Thomas. He already had eclipsed Thomas in some ways with his love for the outdoors and fishing, and his mean streak of not allowing bullies to harass him that earned Thomas many a meeting a school for Gabe’s fighting.
Checking up in the rearview the oldest of this motley crew Oscar sat quietly picking at his fingers as was a custom for him whenever he was upset or wanting to avoid allowing his emotions out of the box. Much like a young prince trapped in the high tower of a twisted fairytale, Oscar was always the hardest to read. Had he not been so damn introverted and withdrawn from the world in such an abnormal manner, it is very possible with this near genius ability in math and remaining so stoic that Oscar would’ve already been the unquoted World Series of Poker champion in his junior high school.
“Gabe, I appreciate the compliment, but I don’t want you to be a thing like me.” responded Thomas, “I want you to be a better man than me. I want you kids to have the fairy tale you envision, not to be robbed of it because of poor choices as I robbed you.” Of all the demons in life that Thomas Barnes had conquered or defeated, it was the guilt and inability to right so many wrongs he had thought would never harm or affect those he loved that broke him the most. He had three fine children with the female equal of a Judas Iscariot. “You can’t go back down that detour road of memory lane.” Thomas thought privately. “Everyone makes mistakes son.” Thomas could hear his father say in the background of his mind. “Take it on the chin like a man, pick yourself up, dust off your ass and move on.” That’s what the elder Ernest Barnes would say. The random bits of wisdom from his father and the parasite comfort of Mr. Daniel’s finest was often the elixir that kept him sane in the absence of his kids.
“Dad, your past doesn’t matter to me, and it doesn’t matter to my brothers. Whatever you did in your past can’t be changed and we know if you could, you’d change it. The only thing that matters is that we know you are here now and that you keep trying.”
The look of sublime and serene wisdom that was on the face of this little girl reminded Thomas Barnes of what those who were present in the moment when Buddha or Christ himself spoke must have seen.
“Why do you keep trying? You’ve fallen short and failed every time. Why don’t you quit or give up?” Oscar’s silence was finally broken. “
Would you want me to quit Oscar?” asked Thomas.
“No, I just meant why is it those who are defeated keep trying? Is it blind hope that luck comes after 99 failures or is it something more? Sometimes I think maybe some people are just stars on the cosmic gag reel God entertains himself with.” Oscar rarely spoke more than a few words at a time, but in the moments when that locked up prince in the tower did speak, it often came with a blunt hard hitting train of thought that left Thomas thinking that deep inside of Oscar was na emotional Muhammad Ali, who had evidently mastered the art of stinging like a bee but was behind on the floating like a butterfly portion.
“Dad isn’t a failure Oscar!” Aurora said with the look of a mother bear ready to defend to the death a cub that had been cornered. While Aurora had done settled herself to forgive and forget Thomas’ transgressions their mother had exposed, and Gabe too had made a measure of peace with Thomas, it seems that Oscar hadn’t quite done so yet.
“Hell, I don’t fault you for being angry or having doubts. I’m still angry and doubt myself.” said Thomas Barnes looking at Oscar in the rear view mirror.” Kids can and do forgive many a shortcoming, but nonetheless they are human and as Thomas often reminded his three, were entitled to feel what they did.
“I didn’t mean it like that Dad, I just meant that why does one keep trying if they are always reminded each day of the mistakes they made in their past.” asked Oscar as if some cosmic invisible sign had floated over the head of Thomas Barnes. Many people often assume in the annals of life that one’s friend’s, one’s family, even those on the outside looking in can be the harshest judge or critic of one’s shortcomings. Such ideas reminded Thomas of a ‘come to Jesus’ reality that he had expressed to his family at a reunion once regarding his children and his poor decisions. “You all can stand or sit and point fingers at me. You all can call me any and every name in the book and comment about me whatever the hell you want, but there is nothing anyone or anybody can say or do to me that reminds me of the poor choices I made in my life as 6pm on Sunday does. 6pm on Sunday’s hurt me far worse than anything you self righteous judgmental bastards ever could or will.” To a certain degree, this was true for any parent regardless of how their mistakes trumped over the love and appreciation that they held for their children.
Until of course; the point of the drive came, where it was time to gather the kids out of the car. Pulling into the driveway in front of their mother’s had always been the rough part. It seemed that no matter how much of being in the moment of however many days Thomas had been allotted with his kids, the reality of dropping them off to not see them for two weeks flushed the good vibes. Even worse, was maintaining the stiff upper lip of being the prototype Hemingway Hero the kids needed. Most men would argue that life has numerous ways of breaking their heart and their emotions. Watching the ones they love and cherish cry and to drive back an hour crying yourself is the worst alone at 3am feeling one can have at 6pm on a Sunday evening. The weight and regret of the world weighs down most on a man in those times on the road alone. It never seems to get any better and yet it never can get much worse.
Donnie Casto II
illustration by Marie-Louise van Dijk