John Dufresne, "Lefty"
A Few Words about “Lefty”
Lefty is my father, Cindy, my wife, and Tristan, my son. In what we call real
life. I wrote this story, or rather I began to write this story, on Christmas Day,
1999, in a cabin in Cacapon State Park in West Virginia. I was there with
Cindy, Tristan, my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew. I wrote at night at the
kitchen table while the others slept. After the story appeared in Shenandoah,
my friend, the writer Rebecca McLanahan, e-mailed me to see if she could
use the story in her creative nonfiction class. I said, But it’s fiction, Rebecca.
She said, But I know Cindy and Tristan. She called the piece “speculative
nonfiction,” and I’m okay with that, and then she said something about “the
great What if?”
It’s all fiction to me. Memory and imagination seem to operate in quite the
same way. They may be just the obverse and reverse of the same process. You
see people, and see them clearly and watch what they do and hear what they
say. Some of those people come from the past, some you make up, and some
live in the future like mine. I’m remembering a future, you might say. It’s
probably as accurate as any memory of the past. Ever ask two people to recall a
dinner they had together several years ago? You might wonder were they even
in the same restaurant.
So here’s a story about me and the people in my life, but it can’t be memoir,
of course, because it didn’t happen yet, even though 2004, the year cited in
the opening sentence—“It’s five years from now . . .”—has come and gone.
And to be honest I’m not much interested in memoir anyway. Fiction is telling
the truth, not telling the facts. (Truth is something like the essence of fact.
Facts are subject to interpretation, or we wouldn’t have a phrase like “The
true facts may never be known.”) We write fiction to tell the truth; we write
memoir to persuade. In a New York Times essay, memoirist Andre Aciman
wrote: “Perhaps this is why all memoirists lie. We alter the truth on paper so as
to alter it in fact; we lie about our past and invent surrogate memories the better
to make sense of our lives and live the life we know was truly ours. We write
about our life, not to see it as it was, but to see it as we wish others might see
it, so we may borrow their gaze and begin to see our life.” Fiction is not about
what happened, but about what happens.
The holidays evoke in many of us a nostalgia for the way things were in our
more innocent days. And those fond and perhaps inaccurate memories of my
own youth are what brought me to the writing table. Why couldn’t my future be
just as splendid and happy as the past? Maybe I could make it so. And if I made
it so, maybe it would come to pass. So this story grows from nostalgia for an
I’ve always been a sucker for father-son stories, and this is one of those, and
the narrator (me) gets to be both, as he does (I do) in real life. The father-son
relationship is so primal and problematic. Fathers, we know, are not to be
trusted. God told Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you
love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon
one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” And Abraham dutifully does
his God’s bidding. Yikes! Chronos ate his children, but Zeus took his revenge.
I suppose, though I may not have known it while I was writing, that I was
afraid of losing my father and my son. Lefty was seventy-three and suffered,
albeit it with grace and good humor, from several chronic ailments. Tristan was
fourteen and just beginning to assert his independence and to excuse himself
from the family table, all very natural, but also very sad for me.
I wrote the story to insure a temporary happy ending to my life, knowing that
we don’t actually get to live happily ever after. No one achieves the “ever
after” part, and so there goes the “happy” part. We would live away from one
another, Lefty in New England, Tristan in some far flung place, and me in
Wyoming. Why Wyoming? I love Wyoming, and I love the idea of a log house,
the chinks stuffed with moss. Probably from reading stories of pioneers when
I was a kid. But I saw the day that we would come together. And it would be
the rebellious boy who would make it happen. I was once that rebellious boy
who drove his father away and only later came to love, respect, admire, and
I just read the story again, and it’s quite a straightforward plea to my son, isn’t
it? Love me, it says. Please try to love me. And maybe that’s what all fiction
writing is about. It says, I’m alone and I don’t want to be. Sit with me, and I’ll
tell you a story.
It’s five years from now, and Cindy and I are living in a log home in Wyoming.
She’s sleeping. I’m in our cozy living room, reading in front of the fire, when,
just out of nowhere, I remember today, Christmas 1999, in West Virginia, and
my walk in the woods, and how the cold and the litter of oak leaves and the
lichen-carpeted rocks reminded me of my childhood in New England–acorn
fights, horse cobblers on strings, football in the schoolyard, trash burning in
rusted oil barrels. I close my book, fold it on my lap–I’m reading about how to
build a concrete smokehouse, wondering where in Sublette County I can find
an iron door–and I’m seized by loneliness because my son is nineteen, and he
has left me–he’s in college in Florida or he’s waiting tables in L.A. or he’s
leading eco-tourists through the Amazon (ego-tourists, I joke). He’s home for
the holidays and he’s lying on the floor. On the mantle over the fireplace is the
warbler’s nest I found on my walk that Christmas and a framed photo of
Tristan at six months. I ask him about the movie he’s making, Iglesia Vida
Loca, or about the play he’s writing, Murder Your Darlings, or about the band
he plays in, Linoleum Blownaparte. I don’t usually talk about my own writing,
but tonight I want to. I tell Tristan I’m writing a story called “Lying in Bed,”
and I’m stuck on a scene. I say let’s go for a walk, and we do. We live on
Fremont Lake, and the wind is howling down the Wind River range. We
bundle up. We crunch and trudge along the snowy road to Pinedale. Tristan
wears the cowboy hat I bought him. I tell him I’ve got this character–call him
Andrew–who has something important to say, but can’t find the words. Tristan
says, Do you know why he can’t say whatever it is to whomever it is? I
suddenly want to leap on my son, wrestle him down, roll us around in the
snow. I say, He’s afraid. Of? Of losing everything he has: his family, his talent,
his touch, his friends, his memory, his self. What has he done to earn such fear?
He committed the sin of solitude. He sounds melodramatic, and anyway, not
talking won’t keep it all from going away. You’re right about that. Here’s what
you do, he says. You have the other character force Andrew to talk, ask the
questions the reader is asking. Don’t let your man off the hook. We see the
lights of town. When we get there, we can warm ourselves at the Jim Bridger
Tavern. We’ll sit at the bar, have a drink, talk about Tristan’s future, his plans
for now. I’ll want to know when he thinks he can come back for a visit. His
mother misses him. I’ll talk about my old man, Tristan’s pepere, Lefty, who
was recruited by Jesse Burkett to pitch in the Boston Braves organization. This
was after the war, after seasons in semi-pro, and his wife was pregnant with me
and refused to live in Evansville, Indiana. The man worked fifty years for the
power company stoking coal, driving a back hoe, and went to work every day
whether he was sick or tired or hung over, and when he retired, they gave him a
table lamp made from a service meter, and he went blind within a year. Lefty’s
grandfather abandoned his family when my grandfather was born, took his
name, Burt Ash, and his heritage and vanished. And Lefty’s been trying to find
old Burt all his life. He has the idea we’re Irish and not French. By now we’ll
be on our second cognacs, and I’ll tell Tristan how Lefty and I once went to
Arkansas so he could have these acupuncture treatments on those eyes, and
how every morning and every night he prayed the rosary, prayed for his vision,
for the chance to drive again, to see his great-grandchildren, to be independent.
I tell Tristan that he and I and Lefty ought to make a trip to Hot Springs for the
races in March. We’ll go to Oaklawn, to Doe’s for steaks, to the Ohio Club for
cocktails. We’ll take in the baths, treat ourselves like kings. We’ll stay at the
Arlington. How about that? What do you say? But, of course, it’s five years
from now, and Lefty’s Parkinson’s keeps him tethered to the house these days,
two thousand miles from me. I look across the bar into the mirror, into my face
as dingy as an old sheet, and I feel ludicrous. What am I thinking of, for God’s
sake? And that’s when my son–who’s sleeping now in the cabin in the West
Virginia woods–blesses me. After the races, he says, we’ll drive to Monroe. I
want to show Pepere where I was born. Or he says, I’ll be home for your
birthday next month. Or he says, I hear you.
John Dufresne's work includes screenplays, short stories, essays and novels, including Deep in the Shade of Paradise, Louisiana Power & Light, LoveWarps the Mind a Little,
and Requiem, Mass.
His nonfiction books on writing are: The Lie That Tells The Truth
and Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months.
He teaches in the MFA program at Florida International University. Learn more at John Dufresne's Weblog.