Thrice divorced, Dad is a collage of his various wives’ good intentions. His first wife, my mother, cultivated in him the ability to shrewdly market his talent as an artist, an investment that would eventually come to buoy her alimony when they divorced three year later.
His second wife, a summery coffee company heiress (whom Mom and I secretly called the bionic woman for her blond tresses and daffy, superhuman attitude ? “everything can be solved with a karate chop!”), contributed daily walks and fourth-course salads into his regimen.
His third wife, a self-proclaimed “carbophobiac” weaned him off baklava and contorted his “men aren’t supposed to be that flexible” attitude into some order of yogi consciousness. These women weren’t wives so much as my father’s conservators, each accomplishing an improvement, before leaving him to the next Mrs. Dover.
“Women ? worse, women like my wives ? always too competitive,” Dad would trumpet. “Especially when one man is the reason for their acquaintance. A game. It’s like he’s a maypole and the women keep colliding into each other as they try to rope him up.”
“And my mother?”
“She won didn’t she? She was the first to the finish,” he guffawed. “If I was smarter, she would’ve been the last.”
My father vintage baby-boomer that he is, his crow’s feet framed by curled grey locks, will probably live forever. And he can afford to even though he hasn’t painted in years. He’s made a fortune licensing his pop art monstrosities for novelty barbecue aprons, beach towels and calendars. The calendars are his favorite because any mention of them allow him to croak the old-hat “borrowed time” gag, which he managed to do again when I inquired about business at our annual Father’s Day brunch.
We always meet Downtown and he always pays – This year: San Antonio Winery at his request.
“I’m thinking of buying a sports car. A nineteen-seventy CS Coup? or the CS three point whatever, depending,” he anted.
“Dad. You’re ridiculous,” I cooed, then noticed that the hairs my arm became bristly. I smoothed them under the table. “Don’t you already have one?”
“It’s either a car or a wife and cars break down less often,” he quipped, his breezy demeanor having something of a wind chill factor on me, as I remembered, as I think did he, that he forewent my thirteenth birthday because he claimed to have bought such a car which left him “no travelling dough.” (“Then drive!” I remember my mother bellowing into the telephone the last hours of my twelfth year.)
My father deftly recovered our conversation.
“That is, with whatever I have after I lay out for this,” he said as he tossed me a brochure from the table. It was for an art auction slated for the afternoon in the winery’s capacious cellar and on it, amid the postage stamp renderings of drawings and paintings by erstwhile so-and-so’s, was a thumbnail of me as a junior high kid painted by my father.
It was a murky little portrait of pre-teen angst ? me, with virgin ear lobes, braces and a neon green shirt boasting a Charlie Brown zig-zag on it. The zig-zag was my father’s sole improvement on an otherwise unremarkable likeness of me.
He had never sold the painting per se, he explained, but he did use it to collateralize a loan from a friend, who in turn used it to collateralize another loan and so on and until someone apparently defaulted and the painting was set adrift a sea of private collections until washing up at the winery’s art auction.
“That brochure’s like a treasure map,” he said winking, the sentimentality of his agenda not lost on him. He invariably punctuated such statements with a quick swig from a glass ? the inevitable prelude to a series of self-recriminating statements about his poor-parenting sure to come. And as always, I offer abiding absolutions (“Hey, dad, you bought a car, of course you had to flake out during the worse year of my life”).
The ritual is tedious. Sometimes I wish he’d spice it up, tell me something like “I’m not really your father,” or “you have a twin in Europe.”
He kept his eyes downcast, absently surveying the menu as if searching for his next words.
“I should have paid less attention to my career and more attention to you,” he admitted dolefully. “You should have been my job.”
“Great, Dad. I wanted to be you daughter not your day-job.”
“You were still work,” punted, then added, “I hear.”
A waiter approached and whispered something in my father’s ear. Dad, nodded, tapped his watch and said, “Speaking of precious works of art.”
We wended from our seats to the auction. The cavernous room rumbled a bit as Dad entered ? people seemed to recognize him, a fact I quietly cherished. Men bowed their heads as Dad passed, not in deference, but almost ceremoniously, as if before a duel.
“Jackals,” he muttered as a slide of my portrait was projected on a screen obscuring a raff of wine barrels.
The opening bid was higher than one might expect, but my father’s eyes gleamed, glad that his work had appreciated and proud to pay the price. He bid. A pregnant moment passed in the dank air ? it seemed Dad may be the only person interested in the work.
“Going once, going twice?”
Dad turned to me and ribbed, “Three times a lady,” then our attention was directed by the auctioneer to a lithe woman inexplicably wearing a red-sequined mask. There was some confusion regarding her bid.
“What is the bid from the woman in the -” the balding auctioneer attempted to query but was cut-off as the disguised lady crisply doubled the opening bid.
“If that’s you’re goddamn mother I’m liable to?” he began, but let the thought trail as he bid instead ? revealing a vigilance he must have developed long after the custody battle for me.
The lady in the sequin mask grinned, folded her pocket book and exited to the gasps of dozens of onlookers.
My father looked pleased.
“Going once, going twice,” crowed the auctioneer ? then I raised my hand ? almost autonomically, the way one’s heart simply beats. I was a puppet operated by pre-adolescent self.
The auctioneer pointed at me as if raising the Holy Ghost in me at an old time revival.
My father turned in utter shock ? not admonishingly, but as if I just kicked the ball through the legs of the goalie.
He bid again.
Then he. The volley didn’t end until the portrait’s price was a small fortune. Dad raised his eyebrow at me and allowed me the decisive blow. I nodded to the auctioneer.
“Going once, going twice ? Sold! To the young lady in grey.”
The crowd applauded. The slide changed. Another auction began. Dad groped for the exit.
Dad and I sipped a couple glasses of wine as a porter approached and asked,
“How does madam wish to complete her purchase?”
“My father will be paying for it.”
My father sighed and nodded to the gentleman.
“Where will you hang it?” I teased.
“In the garage.”