You sold me these binoculars when I was sixteen. Never know when you might need them, you said. I didn’t need them, but you needed the money. Handyman work didn’t always pay the bills.

They’re like the ones you had in the Navy, when you scanned the seas for Japanese ships and the horizon for exotic ports, places a poor kid from Weehawken never expected to see. South Africa. India. Australia. Hawaii. Best time of your life you used to say. I was never sure how to take that.

Remember when you, me and Mom would picnic up at West Point? You’d take out the binoculars to watch the sailboats on the Hudson. I used to think you were recalling summers spent with relatives on the river, where you got your love of the open water. 

Now I think you were watching dreams sail away. 

I’m thinking about those Wednesday nights you’d pick me up at Mom’s and we’d go around collecting bundles of musty newspapers. With the trunk filled and the back seat packed to the roof, you’d drive your old Buick Skylark onto that truck scale at the recycling yard, unload the car, then weigh it again. Make a few bucks on the difference. 

Driving me home you’d ask me how school was going. I’d give you some surly teenage reply. But you always asked, like one day you might get a better answer.

I really hated cleaning the American Legion hall: emptying foul ash trays, breathing stale beer, sweeping up, filing noisy folding chairs on metal racks. But it got you a little cash off the books. I did like the freezing cold Cokes in glass bottles that dropped from inside that ancient red machine in the kitchen. Popped the caps off with the opener screwed to the front of it. We’d clink bottles and you’d ask about my classes. 

I was glad we did those things at night. I didn’t need my friends asking questions. Their fathers had regular jobs, probably regular educations, too. Certainly past the fifth grade. 

It wasn’t like anything we did was hard work. I used to wonder if you were as lazy as Mom said you were. Not now.

Binoculars make it easier to see clearly at a distance. Sometimes it takes years.

8 Comments

  1. Jack O'Connell

    “Best time of your life you used to say. I was never sure how to take that.” I think that ambivalence is at the core of the story and that’s a powerful moment and makes me feel sort of sick. I want him to say more things like that. Awkward things that make the narrator uncomfortable. Binoculars have two ends and they zoom in on far away distances — I think you get at this, sometimes being very far out (India. Australia. Hawaii.) sometimes very zoomed in (trunk of the buick, American Legion Hall). Can you do both in one sentence? What does the relationship look like zoomed way out vs. right up close?

  2. Traci Mullins

    You use descriptive detail so well here, Bill. I can see/hear/taste/smell them. You also convey the young man’s typical adolescent shame and ambivalence around the parent/child relationship in a way that hit me in the gut. The only thing I’d suggest is to give more insight into how/why the older man came to view his father so differently, with more compassion and respect. How old is the narrator here? What does he feel as he looks back? What has happened in his own life to shift his perspective? Did his relationship with his father change over time? You definitely left me wanting to know more about the inner workings of this man’s heart.

  3. Benjamin Niespodziany

    “Now I think you were watching dreams sail away.” Punch in the gut right there. Loved the American Legion references (I played baseball for Post 161 many summers), and love the contrast between exotic, faraway militant assignments/getaways with gathering bottles and cans and newspapers. I’d like to see some more dialogue while picking up these items. Or maybe what’s on the cover on one of the newspapers, or how about a little shattered glass in the trash can. “Driving me home you’d ask me how school was going. I’d give you some surly teenage reply. But you always asked, like one day you might get a better answer.” I related to this part big time! I used to give my dad the shittiest answers to this question. “Fine.” “Good.” “Nothing.”

  4. Saxon Baird

    Bill, I love the use of an object like binoculars and how it can open up into a deep history around someone’s life. So true of all those damn, some seemingly meaningless, objects we acquire.

    This piece is really great and there’s so much to work with. I’m curious how the piece would look in present tense and if a lot of these things said we’re reconfigured as dialogue with the mother, maybe at a fold out table in the American Legion Hall among the ash trays and stale beer….Some slightly surreal conversation that was never able to take place that can now in a small folding hiccup of time.

    Actually something I’m thinking about with my recent piece — how can I make it an actual interaction.

    Good stuff.

  5. Ben Saff

    Excellent piece. Super honest, intimate, and concise in style and tone.

    ‘I’m thinking about those Wednesday nights you’d pick me up at Mom’s and we’d go around collecting bundles of musty newspapers. With the trunk filled and the back seat packed to the roof, you’d drive your old Buick Skylark onto that truck scale at the recycling yard, unload the car, then weigh it again. Make a few bucks on the difference.’ Great detail and great ender sentence, it feels despondent.

    We’d clink bottles (and you’d ask about my classes) – cut this detail as it takes away from the early moment where he asked about school. Also this is a power image. It’s a moment where son and father bond despite the complexities and the disappointments of their relationship

    I *think* you could afford to cut this “I was glad we did those things at night. I didn’t need my friends asking questions. Their fathers had regular jobs, probably regular educations, too. Certainly past the fifth grade.” Unless you wanted to expand more on the narrator’s dad’s lack of education and what role, if any, did the military have to play in it.

    And first sentence was killer, immediately characterized the relationship in a humorous kind of way.

  6. Kara Vernor

    Great piece, Bill. It was fun to read along, to be on a ride with this father and son and to glimpse their sketchy adventures. You cover a lot in a small space–we see into the personalities of the father, the son, and even the mom, and their predicament and relationships with each other come through. I felt a real authenticity in the adult man looking back at his childhood experiences with new eyes and more compassions.

    I’m with Jack in that I think this could be even stronger if you stay with the ambivalence more. I saw that ambivalence in: “It wasn’t like anything we did was hard work. I used to wonder if you were as lazy as Mom said you were.” But then the “Not now.” resolves that ambivalence and I’m not sure why the narrator is so sure now. The dad could be lazy/flawed and caring at the same time. I like, too, that you come back to the binoculars metaphor, but I’d like it to be a bit subtler. I’m guessing that given more time and space (I know we’re cranking out these pieces and with word limits) you’ll be able to tweak things so that the treatment at the end is more consistent with what came before–at least I’d love to see that version. Great work.

  7. Bud Smith

    This was amazing. I loved this so much. It’s the kind of writing when I read it that I want to go and make some art myself. Thank you for inspiring that. My favorite part was how the voice is so matched to the tone and subject matter, we are talking about some dusty nostalgic things in life that we shouldn’t miss but looking back we realize it hurts that those days are over, just like the man recalls the best days of his life being when he was at war, the narrator almost mirrors that sentiment with the best days of his life being cleaning up the American Legion Hall or if those aren’t the best days of his life here he is at least writing about them, so they meant something, didn’t they.

    I tinkered with the story a little: I moved a few sentences around and changed the ‘you’ to ‘he’ and also nipped the final wrap up sentence because I think you could do another scene with the binoculars many years later, where can the narrator go that would be odd and what could he see through the binoculars. For some reason i am picturing him on the roof of his own house watching the American Legion Hall being demolished or something — something big, something symbolic that signals where his life has gone

    Binoculars

    He sold me these binoculars when I was sixteen. Never know when you might need them, he said. I didn’t need them, but he needed the money.
    They’re like the ones he had in the Navy, when he scanned the seas for Japanese ships and the horizon for exotic ports, places a poor kid from Weehawken never expected to see. South Africa. India. Australia. Hawaii. Best time of your life he used to say. I was never sure how to take that.
    Remember when he, me and Mom would picnic up at West Point? He’d take out the binoculars to watch the sailboats on the Hudson. I used to think he were recalling summers spent with relatives on the river, where he got your love of the open water.
    Now I think he were watching dreams sail away.
    His handyman work didn’t always pay the bills.
    I’m thinking about those Wednesday nights he’d pick me up at Mom’s and we’d go around collecting bundles of musty newspapers. With the trunk filled and the back seat packed to the roof, he’d drive your old Buick Skylark onto that truck scale at the recycling yard, unload the car, then weigh it again. Make a few bucks on the difference.
    Driving me home he’d ask me how school was going. I’d give he some surly teenage reply. But he always asked, like one day he might get a better answer.
    I really hated cleaning the American Legion hall: emptying foul ash trays, breathing stale beer, sweeping up, filing noisy folding chairs on metal racks. But it got he a little cash off the books. I did like the freezing cold Cokes in glass bottles that dropped from inside that ancient red machine in the kitchen. Popped the caps off with the opener screwed to the front of it. We’d clink bottles and he’d ask about my classes.
    I was glad we did those things at night. I didn’t need my friends asking questions. Their fathers had regular jobs, probably regular educations, too. Certainly past the fifth grade.
    It wasn’t like anything we did was hard work. I used to wonder if he were as lazy as Mom said he were. Not now.

    • Bud Smith

      I just thought the piece had ‘profile’ kind of vibe and that is why I nixed the ‘you’. The narrator is telling us about this guy and we are learning about him and I wanted to know more, but as he was explained I wanted that explanation to tell us more about the narrator and the mother. Have you ever read the story “Communist” by Richard Ford? I think it could help you with the rest of the telling here.

      great work, I am hungry to read more

Submit a Comment

Pin It on Pinterest