Bruce Harrison is Dead
by Claire Van Winkle
I was lost, once,
In an image I cannot forget-
Among a flock of foreign father coattails
Fishing through schools of
Shiny black shoes
For the pair with my reflection,
Scuffs from bearing the weight
Of miniature Mary-Janes
At wedding minuets.
Bruce Harrison is dead.
Until recently, that fact was the most important thing about him. I have known for years how his life ended, but I will probably never fully understand how, where, or even when it began. I don’t know how old he was when he learned to sign his name, but I know that twelve days after his twenty-second birthday, it was signed for him on his death certificate.
Bruce Harrison was not Bruce Harrison when I was growing up; my father simply referred to him as his Friend. I never saw the significance in that appellation; for better or worse, by my own choosing or no, I was a loner, and so didn’t consider it strange that my father should keep to himself. My father’s life beyond the four walls of his role as Parent was just as elusive and insignificant to me then as Bruce Harrison’s identity beyond that of a Friend.
When I was a child, the dead Friend had no name, no face, no life, and no story. He was a powerful, lingering ghost, a poltergeist who periodically moved my father’s features. Every so often, at the dinner table, something would conjure his memory in my father’s mind. The mist of the presence would make the air heavy. The dead Friend’s breath was my father’s sigh as that mist dissipated, condensed, formed a tear at the corner of my father’s eye, the once disparate molecules of water gathering together in his unspoken name, as mourners at a wake. For that breathless second, my father would smile strangely, closing his eyes. The corners of his mouth would twitch, mobilized by the collision of warm-fronted memories and the cold emptiness of loss. I would stare at him through the fog of years, stare at a boy who had never worn a suit except to weddings or funerals. At the table, in the cold, my father’s face was that of an old man reborn with a caul. He knew secrets but lacked the ability to share. He could hum the melody, but he couldn’t remember the words. I knew only that the simple ending of the life of a boy without a name made me want to know more about all the moments that preceded it. But my father never mentioned the Friend except in passing. My father never talked much about his past at all, and I wondered, sometimes, if he would have even wanted to, had anyone pressed for details.
No one ever did.
The mist would clear, leaving us safe in the present, the visible world, the life that we imagined we were seeing clearly, for the simple fact that it was passing steadily before our eyes.
Once upon a time, there was a boy. He was awkward and thin, with huge, strong teeth and hair that turned to sunflowers in the summertime.
He had an older brother named Steve who played basketball, a younger brother who breathed, for a while, through the iron lung of Polio, and a little sister he called Suzie-Q. There would have been a yet younger brother but he didn’t survive birth. The boy grew up in the rural Midwest, a few hours from Chicago by car, hundreds of thousands of miles from the city by way of imagination and lifestyle. He lived in a white house on a green lawn, with a tree-house and a tire swing. There were paper routes and neighborhood dogs. There were a very few friendships, more deaths, and about a million lost, unrecorded hours that made the boy into the man to whom I would pass the bread during the rare family meals of my childhood.
When he spoke at length, the rest of the conversation stopped. This was not out of admiration, respect, or even interest, but of our strained ability to abide the tedium of him, an outsider, a guest whose ideas did not apply but could not be politely refuted. My father lived in the working world of overtime and setbacks, but he would not be discouraged. He insisted, stubbornly, that his world was a beautiful place. It was impossible for me to imagine him, at those moments, as a man who had ever mistakenly drunk sour milk, risen through the ranks in business settings that blacklist good nature, or lost most of his friends and family to various villains of happenstance.
The closest my sister and I got to his work life, to the bulk of his waking hours, took the form of crayons on construction paper, littering his office walls in a childish quilt of color that he was eventually forced to remove when his work space began to more closely resemble a nursery than a room in a bank. My dad never discussed work, but he smiled all the time, and wanted us to do the same. Frequently, this desire of his was too much to satisfy; my mother, my sister and I rebelled against his cheer with silence. From our point of view, he appeared once in a while for dinner exuding an expertise about us from sources un-cited. When he spoke to us, he spoke over a canyon filled with space and hours. If we appeared to be listening, the quiet watchfulness was simply our straining to hear anything at all above the wind. The only tangible thing able to traverse that space was his love. Perhaps we thought that if we could only blame the atmosphere or the distance for our failure to catch his words, we would be able to stay a safe length from that love, frighteningly strong and durable, that worked so hard to give merit to my father’s philosophy. Even as he sat across from us, we knew better than to go along with that love. Because we knew that he was wrong about everything. We were sure that the hours were matte and colorless, that there was no such thing as “enough”, that we were more special in the eyes of our naïve father than those of any omniscient yet strangely elusive God. Sitting around that table, we were so certain.
My sister and I would play with our food while my mother finished the bottle of champagne she had opened at three o’clock, my father’s voice in the background delighted with things that we considered mundane, scolding us for bickering, for not letting our love for each other permeate the dragging hours, incomprehensible and mysterious to him, that we spent together while he was at work. It didn’t occur to me, then, that he might have envied those hours.
Our father worked from eight AM to ten PM; our mother shopped from nine to five, and drank from three to eternity. She made it very clear that she did not enjoy altering her schedule to pick us up from school; she came, regularly, thirty minutes or an hour late. We would sit on the gray stone steps of Queen of All Saints Elementary School, watching the other children leave. Then the nurse would call us back inside, scolding us with her eyes for occupying space on her bench, healthy and after hours.
When my sister and I became old enough to be at risk of the dangerous and ugly aspects of the world that even my father could not deny, his stream of life lessons would flow into an ocean of disillusion, wave after wave of human shortcomings lapping at the tide of conversation. We waited, amazed and depressed that a grown man could still be chagrinned by the world. Although we did not always feel welcome there, the sheer sum of shared hours had made us citizens of our mother’s world, one considerably darker than that in which my father lived. My mother, my sister, and I shared completely only three things: our gender, our shoes, and our silence during my dad’s speeches. As he described his world of half-full glasses and a world of peace, my mother would drain her drink and my sister and I would kick each other beneath the table.
At those moments, my father never said anything about our malaise or disinterest. He never even let on that he felt his hold on us slipping, that he noticed how far away the only people in his life could be. But once in a while, on those nights, he would mention a friend he used to have.
Once upon a time there was a boy, but where he lived and laughed, now there is only a yearbook picture that presses like drying flowers against the prom queen on the opposite page. Where is Bruce Harrison? Where is his grave? Does someone put fresh flowers there on his birthday? Did he have a white house where he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, in the rural Midwest, a few hours from Indianapolis by car, miles from Chicago by any means, right around the corner from my father’s green and brown Peoria via daydream or way of life?
My dad, the man who raised me, appears in my memory in a few specific, habitual genres of being. He was my mornings and my nights; the early rides to school, the minutes before going to sleep, the one who carried me to the bathroom when I was still young enough to wet the bed.
He drove us to school in his Camero, “Mean Red”, whose floors, rusted through, ate pencils and school papers more regularly than any scapegoated mutt.
He drove us to school in the Cadillac that followed—“Cool Gray”—a receptacle for banana splits with a large backseat cut by an invisible “state line” that kept my sister and me from clawing at each other on long trips.
He drove us to middle school and high school in the black Lincoln Town Car, unnamed, a company car, the car in which I learned to drive.
He called us in sick when we were tired and needed to sleep through first period.
He called us in sick when we were really sick.
He established a first-name basis with our elementary school nurse, who must have imagined us Bartlett children to be in extremely delicate health.
When my father drove us to school, he blew kisses to our house from the same corner every morning, said prayers at red lights and cursed under his breath when the train held up the traffic at the intersection. He timed different routes to our different schools, and had estimates of total travel times down to the minute, always seven or thirteen minutes, never rounding off to five, ten, or fifteen. He listened to the radio robot droning travel times, even when we were traveling only a few minutes to my high school.
My father tucked us in at night if he got home from work before we went to sleep. When we were little, he would make up bedtime stories about little girls who befriended frogs and went on adventures. They were long and rambling, and I often fell asleep before the endings. It didn’t really matter, though; every single one of my dad’s stories ended happily ever after. Later, he read us C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. He would sing to us, not children’s songs, but songs that used to be popular once, that sounded like lullabies when he sang them in the room I shared with my sister: “Put your head on my shoulder, hold me very tight….” “I would climb the highest mountain if I knew that when I climbed that mountain, I would find you….”
During those moments, just before we drifted off to sleep, he didn’t try to tell us that the world was beautiful, or that we should smile and thank God for each other, for our lives. He never said explicitly then that everything was, or would be, all right. He never said that he was tired, that life was difficult, that it wouldn’t be easy, that it was never easy for any of us. But there were lines around his eyes, and sometimes he would fall asleep before we did. And yet, perhaps because he didn’t say those things, because he didn’t lie to make us feel better, because his belief that we would be all right and that we deserved to be all right pierced even his own fears and the struggles that parents hide from their children, we knew that for a few seconds, we were truly safe. He had only himself to give, then, and for once in his life, and ours, it was enough.
The boy with sunflowers for hair lives in a Peoria that still has a Grand Hotel and a boardwalk. There, it is always Sunday, right after the paper route. The town is yellow and green, paved in sunlight, languishing in a sleepy afternoon. The boy smiles, but cannot speak. Perhaps he cannot speak to me because he is the main character in a historical fiction. Or perhaps he is mute because he is an apparition, a ghost who has a past but no present, who appears to few and speaks to none. Only he, and perhaps Bruce Harrison, know how much all those golden Sundays weigh when placed on the balance opposite all the rust that living eventually lets in.
One year for Christmas, my father gave me a lint brush. He had gotten it for free from the dry cleaner near our house. With a little leftover Valentine’s Day wrapping paper and a lot of highly visible Scotch tape, it appeared on the 25th in my stocking, with a note proclaiming it to be Morgan Finley’s generous donation to my holiday cheer.
I was not puzzled, though you almost certainly are.
We have always worn ourselves out shopping for my father. There are a few categories of material goods that never fail; handkerchiefs, gold-toe socks, and anything having plenty of groan-prompting esoteric humor or quotes from “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. My mom always picked out ties that she liked, or wine. My sister, who decided that his wardrobe consisting mainly of white-washed jeans, Daddy Shirts, and the most tasteless souvenir tees from vacations on which he had run out of things to wear, tried her best to put clothing from the Gap or H&M under the tree. I usually remained lost, guessing at random goods that might possibly be meaningful, watching them collect over the years in a pile of things that cannot be placed or used, but cannot be thrown away.
My dad did most of his shopping a few days before Christmas, usually at the hardware store. He bought us little, inexpensive things in which he knew we would most likely take no interest. My mother, my sister and I all have secret depositories of “Daddy Gifts” somewhere in the depths of our rooms. These are filled with everything from his attempts at promoting his most recent ideas about how beautiful the world is (as seen through a book on corporate management) to ridiculous quantities of Post-It Notes, or useless trinkets he had found pretty. For five years straight, he gave everyone in our immediate family flashlights: key-chain flashlights, penlights, and the end-all-be-all of technology for my father: the magnetic refrigerator flashlight. They came in different shapes, sizes, and colors. One can stretch the facts to say that, in this way, he personalized his eccentric obsession with practical and handy emergency lighting for each of his recipients. This would probably be false. Favorite colors weren’t really important to him. None of the details of the thing were important. The practicality wasn’t even an issue, if you really think about it; never once in all those years of flashlights had he ever thought to make a present of batteries.
He didn’t really care if we liked these things, or if we ever used them. We never questioned his fixation on gadgetry—his excitement about those weird gifts was simply a part of him, familiar as his torn jeans and messy hair. Even on the many occasions when he would give the same gifts year after year (I have three refrigerator flashlights by Black & Decker), even when the gratitude and interest in our voices sounded about as convincing an intimate confession of soap opera love, even when in throwing out the wrapping paper our thoughts veered immediately and with some dismay to the extra bulk about to be added to the reservoir of things that cannot be used but cannot be discarded, there was never a need or hope to ask for anything else, for anything more.
My father cries quietly. His tears are the closest he gets to poetry; they are almost always a celebration, a cup that flows over. He cries whenever he watches or discusses “The Wizard of Oz,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and the scene in “Terminator II” where Sarah Connor clutches her son as Arnold Schwarzenegger melts himself into a steaming puddle of mercury muck for the sake of humanity.
It was a stroke of luck that he met my mother in a bar; they would never have lasted through the classic dinner-and-a-movie; my dad won’t see anything without a happy ending and she doesn’t believe that such a thing exists. What’s more, he is usually lulled to a state of REM bliss by relative darkness and reclining theater seats long before the dancing popcorn announces last call on refreshments before the feature presentation. My parents even disagreed on Disney. For some reason, despite her need for soap operas and bloody movies, she could get lost between the cells of Fantasia or Snow White. Dad was strongly opposed to Bambi; he would always fast-forward through the scene portraying the unhappy reunion between Mrs. Bambi and the Man with the Gun. I didn’t even know that Bambi’s mother died until I was old enough to see PG-13 movies on my own.
When my father cried, his eyes stayed open. His face flushes crimson. He was a morning person; his tears were dew on rose petals, condensation on the chilled glass of summer pink lemonade. His eyes glittered clean, clear, and blue- like my own.
I cry infrequently. Those tears are instances of water struck violently from stone. They happen at night, when I am alone. They are storms.
I never carry umbrellas. My father buys them on vacations during bouts of sightseeing through drizzle. Later he gives them, sometimes, as holiday gifts. There are thousands of umbrellas littering the floors of our closets; hundreds more were discarded, having been too weak to weather their first storm. None of these could protect my father at those few unfortunate times when he found himself caught out in the hurricane torrents of my tears. When I was in high school, he would sometimes come to see if I was all right while I sobbed on my bed. I would slam the door.
The boy with sunflowers for hair grew up. At one point, when he was a young man, he worked third shift on the Railroad. My father couldn’t make up horror stories, but he could tell tales of grisly railway accidents. There was no tangible thread linking sunny streets to steel trains—just a few seconds between words. I never pressed for details, never asked what happened to the tree-house and the shady lanes. I never asked when the Grand Hotel closed, or when the Peoria boardwalk went defunct. I just saw his childhood as a series of images of amputated flesh, lost limbs leaving phantom pain, all down the line.
My father sat in the chair opposite me while I cried into my wine. I had lived in New York for three years; I was alone, unhappy, and afraid. We were at war, a man was shot and killed in the vestibule of my brownstone, and my last suicide attempt had been an utter failure. I had begun to cry more and more often, and was drowning since the rupture of the floodgates I had built through childhood and adolescence. Amazingly, his eyes were dry while I searched through the rubble for words to describe the emptiness that somehow managed to fill me to overflow. He looked at me and said, with a hint of surprise and something that sounded like recognition, “I had one friend, and he’s dead.” It was then that he told me Bruce Harrison’s name.
Once upon a time, there were two young men who were alone, unhappy, and afraid. One was an unfinished caricature of my father, and the other was a six-foot tall Clark Gable with quarterback shoulders and a buzz cut. They didn’t like where they were, but they had no place else to go. They had enrolled at the college in the rural Midwest because their friends had done the same and the vending machines there were stocked with Budweiser. They had joined their friends in a fraternity, and, for a while, had been content to drink together and call themselves happy. Soon, though, their friends made other friends, and they were left on the wayside. They made an art of apathy, ignoring exams while memorizing the inscription on the cans of Budweiser they threw from the water tower near campus. When they got really fed up, they’d walk out into the street and hitch a ride anywhere else.
Bruce Harrison loved a girl named Sugar Fell. Pronounced by my father, the name sounded right; it was wind through corn fields in a town where nothing ever happened, where a certain amount of tragedy was a daily expectation, a required dose to be washed down with chocolate milk. When my father told me about Bruce Harrison and Sugar Fell, I could hear the voice of the boy with sunflowers for hair. I began to see, as the mist settled into the corners of my fathers eye, how that boy could grow into the figure of my father, a man who for all life’s contradictory evidence, would forever deny unhappy endings.
When Bruce Harrison trespassed on Sugar Fell’s side of the tracks, her father would threaten him with a shotgun. Bruce would wait until he went back inside, then climb the oak tree to her bedroom window, to give her a kiss before he left. When he finally proposed, her father used the gun and Bruce couldn’t climb that tree for over a month.
I expected my father to stop there, to tell me that I’m loved, that with all the gloom in the world, I ought to concentrate on being happier. I thought he would remind me of all my talents and achievements before promptly changing the subject. But after what seemed like a long time, he went on.
“I knew we hated school, but I never thought about it, really thought about it. Not like you think about things…. I don’t think Bruce thought about it either. Maybe that’s why for all that, we never thought of ourselves as ‘sad.’ We never went to class, and he said once that we were just two people with nowhere to be and nowhere to go. So we just went anywhere, and came back. I never thought to call it emptiness, and I had a friend so I didn’t think much about loneliness. But maybe there was some of that there… something that wouldn’t go away.”
Bruce needed to get out, to drive. He didn’t know how to sit still. He was almost finished with college, but instead of going to class, he opted to drink up time talking about his wild schemes to rescue Sugar Fell, to climb up that tree and carry her away in the middle of his first night back off campus, in downtown Peoria. One night, he decided that her salvation couldn’t wait for his degree. He’d often laid out his post-salvation plans; they would stay at the Grand Hotel and leave at sunrise. He would buy her a new dress and a good hat to match. They would live happily ever after. My father knew that Bruce’s only realistic plan involved selling used cars for his uncle in Chicago until he could save enough to convince Mr. Fell to put the safety back on the shotgun. But my dad couldn’t bring himself to throw those truths at his only Friend. In fact, my father had had so many beers he couldn’t convince himself he could walk. So Bruce finished my father’s last drink and set out for the long drive.
A few weeks later, the day after my father was formally expelled from Cedar College for failure to attend classes or demonstrate any academic interest or effort whatsoever, he went to the spot where Bruce died. He spent a few minutes looking at the skid marks, the tire tracks that swerved squarely into the trunk of a willow tree. He didn’t cry. He hitched a ride and started down a road that would take him to many places I will never know; a railroad station somewhere in Michigan, a first wife and children in a town I’ve never seen, the deaths of strangers who, had they lived a few years later, would have held me and called me their granddaughter.
The man across from me was no man I knew; not the weirdo who fixated on hardware store gadgets, the protector who sang lullabies, the naïve optimist to be ignored when his speeches rambled through the main course into dessert. I cannot know my father completely, and even if he had wanted to or tried, he would never have been able to hold the whole weight of his life long enough to give it to another person. And yet, that night I felt fully and completely that I was without a doubt this stranger’s daughter. When he told me Bruce Harrison’s name, he introduced me to someone I knew—someone who no one I know has ever met, who perhaps no one will ever meet again.
When he finished his story and looked at me, he did not say that it would be ok. He didn’t say that Bruce Harrison was in heaven, or that either of us sitting there would live happily ever after. He looked at me with what seemed like a hint of recognition, and said, “You and I are very much the same.”
About the Author
Claire Van Winkle received her BA at New York University and completed her MFA at Queens College, where she studied poetry writing and literary translation. Claire currently teaches grammar, composition, creative writing, and literature at CUNY and SUNY. She is the founder of the Rockaway Writers' Workshop. She also runs writing therapy groups at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Claire's poetry appears in publications including the American Journal of Poetry, Poor Yorick, No Dear, The Thieving Magpie, Three Line Poetry, Sixfold, and anthologies by Rogue Scholars and Black Lawrence Press. Her literary essays and translation reviews have been featured in Belle Ombre and 3 Percent.