He comes home clenching his fists, unclenching, clenching, unclenching and then shakes them off. They have borne decades of twisting bulbs, cabling wires, fixing and lifting and placing and crimping. He massages the base of his thumb, first one, then the other, and gingerly peels off the tape – his nails are coming off from working at his temp job, and the tape keeps them attached – and sprawls out on the couch to watch TV. Some things have stayed the same.
My father’s hands have built walls and torn them down, subdued criminals and coddled babes. For nearly 30 years, his hands have held the roof over our heads. Now, they are working as hard as ever, but they are also older than they have ever been.
I drove up to the train-station one February night to pick him up and waited. The likeliness of his being there rated somewhere among the geese flying south for the winter and the sun rising tomorrow. He kept to his schedule. The sheer silver wall of the train trundled off with a huff and he emerged, as I had known he would, from between the train tracks and the building.
The first thing I noticed was his hands and the plastic grocery bags they held. For years, I had helped him throw out trash in bags like them. He shuffled toward the car, opened the back doors and placed the bags in them carefully, settling them with a pat. I readied a joke as he got in the car but he paused before shutting the passenger door and it died in my throat. He looked deep into the dashboard, his hand still on the door.
“I got laid off.” Then he looked at me to make sure, as though my hearing his words made them real. They were. They settled into my stomach like tossed trash. There was nowhere to put them so I just turned to the wheel and drove.
“If I had a choice,” he would often tell us, “I wouldn’t do anything! I would just watch TV. But I gotta work.” He commuted 3 hours a day to make sure we could attend school in good districts. He gladly worked overtime to pay for our college tuition. Thirty years of service at the Merchandise Mart had come to an end.
My father’s hands are tough, thick from work, and dexterous. But they are cracking.
I work so my father doesn’t have to.