The House for Unwed Fathers

Elizabeth Cavanaugh

My cousins call it the house for unwed fathers. It's not really a house though, just a big apartment. And, while all the guys living there are old fathers, not all are unwed. Unconventional would be a better word for them.

In this house live the artist, the athlete, the poet, the plumber, the trucker, and the burger flipper. The artist and the plumber are actually one and the same, and my dad Nick, who drives a truck for a living, is among these five graying men.

The house radiates masculine energy. Noise. Deep, rumbling banter blares through the walls. The howls and hallelujahs from a worship session of cable sports permeate the neighborhood. Symphonies and salsa spill from a back room, blending with another back room serenade, that of the night-shift worker snoring through the afternoon. And the telephone is always either engaged or ringing.

"I'm not in the mood to go in there today," my cousin Gisele, whose dad Rod is the poet, tells my other cousin, Rose, and me.

Gisele has always been the self-appointed one in charge among the cousins. A privilege of age, I suppose, since she is a good ten months older than either of us. Rose's dad, Theo, is the plumber in the house. He dances mambo or composes fandangos when he isn't fixing leaky pipes. With their parents' melodious genes, both of my cousins sang in our school chorus while we wre growing up. Gisele hit the full range of notes with precision, while Rose's attempts, although less pure, were more beautiful in their earthy emotion - until one day when Gisele told Rose that she was off-key, and Rose stopped singing.

I, on the other hand, never started to sing. My best friend, Loulou, had wanted to learn the violin ever since she was five and I thought that sounded like a lovely idea, so when the junior high school orchestra announced openings, Loulou and I signed up to play the violin together. When our turn to choose instruments came, however, only the cello and trumpet were left. It was only fair that Loulou get the cello; at least it had strings. By default, the trumpet was mine.

I practiced day and night at the house, where no one complained even though my scales sounded like the shrieks of pained and dying creatures. Through my own determination and a great deal of patience on the part of my dad and his brothers, I eventually got better, and although measuring only five-foot-two at the age of fourteen (and growing only half an inch in the two decades since), I came to have the greatest lung capacity in my class. I know this because one of Mr. Feldman's science experiments required us to breathe into a contraption that measured the volume of air our lungs could hold. I tied with Jake Carlotti, who stood six-foot-three and played tackle football, for first place. It seemed that all my huffing and puffing into that trumpet made me somewhat of a celebrity in the ninth grade. I remember the look of pride on my dad's face as he and his brothers sat through orchestra concerts back in the days when Rose, Gisele, and I were all musical.

"I don't want to go in the house either," Rose squeaks, agreeing with Gisele and shattering my reverie about the past.

Gisele turns to me in her formal and authoritative way and says, "Samantha, just get the tickets from my father and tell him thank you. By the way, how long do we have the honor of your presence this time?"

I hesitate as I think my answer over. This is not my usual drop-in-on-a-break-from-work visit. Having woken up one recent morning feeling like a coward, I'd begun to wonder if I had simply fallen haphazardly through my life during the past ten years since college.

After college, when Loulou suggested that we work for The Helping Hammers, a Christian group with a staff of more Jewish, Taoist, and Atheist workers than Christians, I surprised myself by saying yes. It was supposed to be a summer gig and Loulou took it as such. After three months of repairing barns and helping to build houses in remote parts of the world, Loulou returned home. She dropped the last syllable from her first name, enlisted as a corporate lawyer, hyphenated her family name, and became the mother of three.

I just stayed on. Alone. Well, not exactly alone. There were the people I was meeting and helping around the globe and the men and women I worked with daily. By way of our newly forged bonds of trust and understanding, we soon became a loving and unconventional family of our own.

Was building houses with The Hammers just a happy accident, as my orchestra stint had been, or was it based on a heartfelt choice? Maybe I was incapable of growing up and making firm, responsible decisions. I'd missed my family (even these cousins) something terrible and wanted to reclaim my home and fit back into it.

Homesickness. That horrible affliction was back. As a kid, I could get homesick during a slumber party. Feeling displaced always scared me. The unfamiliar ticking of a clock or the darkness of an unknown hallway kept me awake and longing for my own comforting space with its soothing sounds. No matter how welcoming the circumstances, I often felt out of place. Foreign.

"Samantha, are you listening?" Gisele persists. "I asked how long you'll be in town."

"I'm not sure yet," I finally answer.

"I certainly hope that you can stay long enough to take over some responsibility around here."


"Our fathers have been wacky eccentrics with no sense of commitment and no idea of what children or grandchildren need for much too long now, and it's high time that they learned to grow up."

"It's embarrassing. It's time they grew up," Rose echoes.

"My ex-husband Mark has been living with them for a year now," Gisele continues. "If I had wanted him to remain part of our family, I would not have divorced him."

"They . . . " I begin.

"You have been spared much of their madness, Samantha," Gisele says to me, cutting me off. "At least your father was off driving his truck somewhere most of the time. Mine was reciting scenes from Macbeth as a bedtime story when I was a newborn."

Gisele has spent thousands of her dad's royalties on therapy (one reason he must keep so many roommates) and she often reminds me that her neuroses were caused by the dark literary works of Parker, Poe, and Shakespeare at a much too early age.

"You're right, Gi, Sammy's dad had the decency to stay hundreds of miles away so he couldn't tell her any haunting stories."

"Well, thanks for the ride," I say, slipping from Gisele's car. "You can come by my hotel tonight to get the tickets."

There's really no point arguing with the cousins. Growing up together, blood relatives sharing the same experiences, we've created entirely different realities. And when my reality is out of tune, I take refuge in the loving cacophony of the house while they flee.

At the house, the door is always open. Although the neighborhood suffers the highest crime rate in the city, my father and the other fathers in the house refuse to lock their door. It's refreshing, albeit a little scary sometimes. But then, they don't expect the worst as most of us tend to, and (knock on wood) the worst generally doesn't come to pass.

I knock on the worn, unlatched wooden door and call, "Hello?" but the brouhaha from within drowns out my meager attempts. So I push the door open and step in.

My Uncle Theo holds a tall, neon-blue plastic glass out to me in one hand while the other clutches a bulky telephone receiver to his ear.

"The daughter is here. Anything you want to tell her, Nick?" he yells into the phone.

"Your dad says 'Hi,' Sammy. He's in Dallas," Theo shouts, almost as if he's the one in Dallas.

Uncle Rod waves me into the kitchen, "You've really got to try that drink Theo gave you, Sammy. It's a new iced tea recipe I just concocted. Sensational! Inspirational! It'll knock your socks off."

Uncle Rod is a connoisseur of hot and cold beverages and he likes to take me to his favorite cafes and book shops when we have time to spend together.

"I'm thinking of leaving The Hammers," I blurt out.

He stops unwrapping steaming tamales on the kitchen table and grabs a clean plate from the counter.

"Sit down, Sammy. Have lunch with me."

Even if there is barely enough for one, my uncle Rod always insists on sharing his meals. Today there is enough for two, so I accept without guilt, although I've just eaten.

"Your dad's come close to quitting his job over the years," Uncle Rod continues between swallows. "Gets homesick."

"Homesick? My dad?"

"He's cured, though, as soon as he sets foot back here around us for a few days. Then, off he goes, feeling fine, doing what he loves."

I listen.

"So, how's that daughter of mine?" Rod inquires as he pours more of the inspirational beverage.

"Gisele's fine. She sends her love," I embellish.

Pete, the burger flipper, staggers through the doorway with heavy eyelids and a weighty package in his arms.

"Eeya, Sammy! Whatz up?"

Despite his mastery of the English idiom, Pete proudly maintains his Slavic accent. With his own wife and kids on another continent in a city I can barely pronounce and have yet to visit, his latest red-eye work venture helps him stay legal and solvent. But here in the house, on those rare occasions when he is awake, he's just another brother, uncle, friend, and unwed father. He unloads the groceries and disappears to hibernate.

"Did Mark leave the tickets for Gisele and the kids?" I ask.

"Sure, right here. Even one for her new beau, if she'd like to take him."

"When does he get back?"

"Tomorrow. Just in time for the game."

"Uncle Rod, are you going?"

"Can't. Got a date with the ex-wife. Wouldn't miss my Saturday rendezvous with Gisele's Mom."

As we leave the kitchen, I notice a difference in the front room. Ironically, despite the bustle, "the house" is a place where I can think clearly. Maybe it's a feng shui thing: the soft angles of the old wooden structure, the comfortably worn fabrics, the minimalist decor that lets the energy flow. Or, maybe it's the aura, the ambiance, the energy created by those offbeat souls who live there. I sense a domestic disturbance; something is different.

"We had to get a new TV," interjects Theo, before I can even ask.

"And stereo," Rod adds.

"Why? What happened?"

"Had some unexpected visitors. They left with those and a few more items."

"Nothing important. Nothing we can't handle," Theo winks.

My eyes widen, "Burglars? Thieves? They took your stuff? You let them..." I trail off, realizing how accusing I sound. Just like the cousins. "I mean, is everyone all right?"

"It wasn't all that expensive. It's only stuff. So we just replaced it. These are better, more modern," Theo assures. "It's good to shake things up every now and then, anyway. Keeps life fresh."

"Those robbers weren't the brightest bulbs anyway. Besides missing the cash in the tea canister, they left the best here on the floor. Knocked it right off the shelf when they took what they thought was valuable: a watch, a radio, some old coins." Rod points, "See? They left my volumes of poetry and stories."

There is a rare moment of near silence. Rod thinks it over, then turns to me. "We might get smarter thieves the next time, Sam," he says. "Would you keep these for me? Take them with you. You know Gisele, she's never been fond of the classics."

I leave late that afternoon filled to the brim with tamales, tea, and tales, as well as with Gisele's tickets to the game, which I put, like a bookmark, between the pages of the treasured tomes in my arms.

"So, did you get them? Gisele asks as she bounds through my door. "Or did Mark and my father both forget? I can never count on them for anything."

"Right here," I reply, reaching toward the stack of books.

"What are you doing with my father's books? He loves those old things more than anything or anyone, I am sure of that."

"He . . ." I start to explain.

"They're worth a fortune, you know," she exclaims. "Many are first editions. All of them completely ancient, but none the worse for wear."

Gisele looks hurt, but quickly regains her edge and adds, "When you sell them it's only fair that I get a percentage. After all, I am the one who had to suffer through those dreadful stories."

"They're hardly dreadful, Gisele. And why would I sell your dad's books?"

"Take a good look at your life, Samantha. You're a gypsy, just like your father! I am quite sure that you won't want to lug those musty things halfway around the world. "

She raises her perfectly tuned voice and continues her refrain with precision, "Just like your father! You have nothing, no one, only a juvenile job that uproots you at a moment's notice. What on earth are you going to do with my father's books?"

"I, I'm going to read them," I stammer.

The sharp ring of the hotel phone suddenly cuts the tension.

"I am going to read them, aloud," I repeat, calling out to Gisele as she scoops up the tickets, shakes her head, and lunges toward the door.

I try to collect myself, then reach for the receiver.


"Sam? Hi, it's your old friend, Lou. Is this a good time?"

"Hi, Loulou."

"Your uncle gave me the number. What's this about you leaving The Hammers?"

"Just a false alarm."

"Good, so nothing's wrong? I know how much you love those guys and your work there. You've been such a natural from the start. Sometimes I wish I had had the guts to stay on."

I smile, knowing that Lou always had plenty of guts. But she did make a point. I have decided to stay and she has decided to leave. We each made our choices based on our own needs and desires. We both created our own destinies.

"I'm heading home day after tomorrow," I admit to Lou, realizing that's exactly what I want to do. "I'm ready to go back to my other family, but maybe we could get together before then?"

"Sure, that'd be terrific. But can't you stay in town a little while longer?"

"Not this time, we're starting a new project. What would those Hammer people do without me to get things going, huh?"

"Sam, you sound just like your dad."

"Just like my dad?"

"Your dad is always saying things like that. You and your dad, you're both adventurers. Passionate about everything you do. Devoted. Crazy. Never afraid to take a risk, try something out of the ordinary, and even stick with it. Can you deny it?"


"You know I mean that as a compliment. And don't change the subject. Can you deny it?"

We both laugh and it feels good.

"No, I can't. And yes, you're right. I am just like my dad. In fact, Gisele was just telling me the same thing.

© Elizabeth Cavanaugh

Elizabeth Cavanaugh is a freelance writer who has also taught French language, literature, and film courses around the world. She loves dancing, swimming, gardening, and practicing Tai Chi - the activities that keep her creative ideas flowing. When she's not writing stories or working with teenagers at Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, California, Elizabeth dabbles in blues harmonica and can't resist a good, wacky comedy at the movies.

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