(I wanted to post this item on New Year’s Eve 2008, but could not find the file. It was my entry in a holiday story contest conducted by the Santa Cruz free paper in December, 1988, just three months after I had been laid off from Borland. The story earned second prize, which was a nice dinner at a local restaurant. I was 36 in 1988, just as my father was in 1958. The photo above is from that year.)
I heard my old man come down the stairs from the upstairs bedroom. I was awake, and was shining clown-faces on my bedroom ceiling with a ridiculous gimmick toy flashlight that I had received for Christmas and unaccountably loved.
He cranked the doorknob and peered in. I expected quiet orders to “hit the rack, dammit!” but, remarkably, he grinned his slightly crooked grin and said, “Come on out and toast the New Year with me!”
So I slid out of bed and skittered into the kitchen on bare six-year-old feet. I took my usual place on the broom-closet side of the kitchen table. The old man pulled down two crystal glasses with long stems from the high cabinet, and placed one on the careworn Formica in front of me.
I wasn’t sure what to make of it. He had tucked us into bed hours earlier, dressed in his at-home T-shirt and drab baggy pants. Now he was in his best blue suit, high starched collar, and dark red tie with the tiny working slide-rule tie-clip. My mother would be working all night at the hospital, and my little sister was still fast asleep in her crib.
The kitchen was mostly dark, lit only by the bright colored lights circling the Christmas tree in the livingroom. It was dark enough to see the orange glow from the tubes inside the radio on the kitchen counter. Somebody was talking on the radio, not quite loud enough to understand over the Frigidaire’s wheezy clatter.
My old man yanked the refrigerator handle, and for a moment the single bulb within was blinding. He pulled a tall bottle from the rack on the door, turned, paused with the door half-closed, then yanked it back open and pulled a can of Nehi Grape from the top shelf. I watched him fiddle the foil and the wires from the tall bottle, and we laughed when the resounding pop! shot the cork across the room.
He pulled a church-key from the junk drawer and opened the grape soda for me. It was hard enough to score a Nehi during the day (and never during supper!) and here he was pouring fizzy grape soda into that strange tall glass in the middle of the night.
That done, he filled his own glass from the tall bottle. For a long moment, we waited in silence. He had not touched his glass, and I left mine longingly alone, assuming that this was One Of Those Grownup Occasions, to be honored if not completely understood. Yankee was sleeping with his mongrel rump plastered up against his favorite heat register, and everything seemed very warm and safe if only a little bit strange.
“Howcum you’re all dressed up?” I asked. That was the mystery at the center of it, I was sure.
“You ever felt afraid of the future?” he asked.
I shook my head. The future, to me, was full of rocketships and space stations, and the Good Guys always blasted the aliens in the end, right? What was a little scary was my old man the engineer answering one question with another.
“Always look the future straight in the eye,” he said, with a sudden distance that frightened even more than his answering question, “and wear your Sunday best, so it’ll know you mean business.”
In the silence that followed, I heard voices counting down on the radio. All at once, the wordless cheers told me it was New Years. Down the block the big kids were setting off firecrackers. Yankee twitched a half-terrier ear and went back to sleep. In the basement our tired old furnace ground into roaring life.
And the old man was back from his distance, holding the glittering glass high in the air. “Happy New Year, Duntemann,” he said with that paradoxical loving drill-sergeant’s voice that I will miss all the rest of my days. His old-style rimless crystal glasses flashed in the Christmas lights, his ice-blue engineer’s eyes again smiling that omnipotent smile. I cannot forget his face at that moment because it is my face, I who am now exactly as old as he was at the end of recession-year 1958.
“Happy New Year!” I said too loudly in reply, holding my glass in his direction in imitation of his gesture.
He raised his glass to drink, and I was already draining mine before I noticed that his never quite reached his lips.
Instead he had turned toward the empty corner of the kitchen and held his glass in a toast in a direction that was not toward Mother at the hospital, nor toward my sister in her crib, nor anywhere else, but instead in a direction that I never understood.