Ward Taschick’s ’72 Riviera careened around the corner and stopped hard in his driveway like a stiletto stabbing the summer night. The man loved that car or, perhaps, the presentation of it, how it moved him from point to point in regal style. I had never seen Mr. Taschick leave his home other than from behind the wheel of his Buick, the V8 rumbling as it dispatched from his driveway, its slick black body rolling heavily into the street and out of our neighborhood. His return was always the same: the clank of the car door, a glance back, and Mr. Taschick, tall and showy, striding up the walk, pausing at his front door before his grand entrance. Ward Taschick and his Riviera, an inseparable marriage of man and machine.
This was suburban Chicago, out past the “L”s’ rattle, past the skyscrapers, postwar homes, and into a checkerboard of dry reed marshes subdivided by virgin asphalt roads hemmed with gravel. Out where fresh-turned dirt gave birth to newly constructed homes and freestanding mailboxes, where backhoes and earthmovers were left to vandals, where humid nights were invaded by mosquitoes as if ordered in by air strike.
Ward Taschick was an affable glad-hander, athletic and bold, a politician of sorts with a stentorian voice that would resonate through the neighborhood as if carried over a PA system, especially on the occasions when his eldest son, Randy, came home in the back seat of a squad car. I never understood what he did for a living, though as a kid of thirteen, I imagined his Buick transported him to some lofty post in the hazy adult world of downtown Chicago.
After the Taschicks had moved in, Ward’s son Andy and I became fast friends. Our homes sat on the hem of a circular cul de sac directly opposite from one another. That summer, we’d meet on our bikes and plan our day, which often led us to a leafy path that wound to the edge of a limestone quarry. The pit was as wide as a township, with sheer cliffs that dropped one hundred feet to the excavated floor below. There on a bluff, we’d sit in splendid isolation and see our futures, a lifetime away from the stiff hands of our fathers.
The men were a study in contrast. Ward was white collar, my father was blue: an electrician, a bold-body laborer with blunted fingers and broken nails, and a back as solid as a wild boar. He was a stoic man, reliable, strong, and uncompromising. He ran a company of seven men. Frugal as a Scotsman, though he was German by descent. He saved every penny for our new suburban home, the desire being that he wanted to extricate me from the rough neighborhood near O’Hare International, where better opportunities would present themselves in the educated communities of suburbia. My father loved me but he was cold and distant. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed Mr. Taschick’s kidding when I went over to call on Andy. “What do you get when you cross…?” or “Did you ask the Simpson girl out yet? Better hurry before I do.”
On the occasions when my father was out in the front yard, and Ward Taschick was in his driveway waxing his Buick or tossing the football to Andy and his younger sister, they’d exchange a distance wave. Everything was communicated in that gesture: a semaphore of cordiality or aloofness, depending on the mood. A high-handed wave followed by a quick step suggested a short chat was about to commence. A casual salute indicated my father’s desire to be neighborly yet be unbothered. These were big men. Fathers. Larger than the Famous. Mountains.
One particular evening in the still of the summer sunset, Ward shouted out to my father who was inspecting a newly planted elm.
“How you doing, young man?”
“Young?” my father yelled back. “You’ve got the wrong guy!”
The two men strolled across their front yards to the center of the cul de sac, two allied countries, it seemed, separated by an asphalt sea. After the hellos, Ward—ever the man of habit—began the conversation the same way: “How about those Bears?”
Ward Taschick had almost been drafted by the New York Giants but got eighty-sixed during tryouts when he snapped his Achilles tendon in a basic trap play. The injury never healed correctly, which forever severed his prospects on the athletic field. He told the story to anyone with ears in a regretful, bygone tone; what could have been but never came to be. It reached a point where the story lost all its drama. Yet he clung to it like a man gone mad for a long-lost love, never letting go, tormenting him as he got on in years.
I remember that evening, and how he managed a clunky segue into the tale, and how my father’s eyes became distant and his smile slowly melted off his face. My father complained to my mother the following morning, buttering his toast at the breakfast table.
“If I have to listen to that story one more time, I’m erecting an eight-foot wall between us.”
“Again?” my mother replied.
My father shook his head.
“Jesus. Can the man move on?”
From that evening forward, my father avoided Ward Taschick. He did, however, take to Mrs. Taschick, a warm and willowy blond that I came to know on my visits to the Taschick home, and on my testosterone-charged nights lying in bed. Mrs. T came by the following afternoon, a Saturday, at the invitation of my mother, who enjoyed a hobby as an amateur florist. To my mother, Mrs. Taschick was everything she wanted to be: beautiful, sleek, a salesperson at a jewelry store. Plastic flowers covered the kitchen table as my mother and she made arrangements and my father pretended to read the paper as he looked on. The smell of coffee smoothed through the room.
“Ward ever going to let you drive his Buick?” my dad chided warmly.
“Are you kidding?” She laughed, the coffee cup just off her lips. “Maybe in another life.”
As summer cascaded on, and Andy and I remained unsuccessful at impressing the Simpson sisters, I noticed a change in Ward Taschick. He had taken to dressing fashionably with youthful clothes my father would never have been caught dead in: designer jeans, jackets with zippers, flowered shirts. He grew sideburns and slicked his hair back. The summer was one of the hottest on record, but rather than go for a natural tan, Ward enhanced his face with an aerosol spray of Man-Tan that delineated itself at the neckline. He had dropped weight around his midsection. To my eyes, he was a different man, and I imagine, to others as well.
One blistering late afternoon in July, Andy and I parked our bikes at a newly forming subdivision. The wooden skeletons of new homes, their roofs draped in asphalt sheet, lined the street. We picked through scrap piles for pieces that would complete the tree fort we were erecting deep in the woods near the quarry rim. Andy, out of sorts that day, sailed a broken shingle off into one of the neighboring debris piles.
“I saw my dad kissing this girl,” he said unemotionally.
I paused for a moment taking in the vague weirdness of the comment.
“Really?” I said.
“Yeah,” he continued, leveraging a 2x4 from the pile. “It was definitely his car.”
As much as I wanted him to go on, I also didn’t.
“I was on my bike and found them parked behind the furniture warehouse making out in the front seat. I think she was the checkout girl from the grocery store,” he said, standing the board on end.
The recession blew in like an angry unplanned storm. It began with the furtive winds of job loss and whipped into a gale force assault of unemployment. One by one businesses fell, including my father’s. Within a month, he was down from seven men to three. As the economy fizzled into August, he was forced to lay them off, too.
I overheard a conversation between him and my mom in their bedroom, holding forth quietly a few feet down the hallway.
“They were good men,” I heard him say. Then his voice cracked. The gravity of his anguish took me aback. I had never heard him so emotional. I slipped down the stairs and out the back door, my head reeling with uncertainty. Suddenly, my simple world was complex—vulnerable.
Soon my father was spending more and more weekdays alone, frittering around the house. My mother provided some income from her job as a beauty salon manager, a so-called recession-proof business, but manicures and hair-colorings dwindled, and the gap between stylings became ever wider.
One blustery afternoon when Andy and I returned home from camping in the nearby woods, soaked to the bone from pitching our tent downhill in a rainstorm, I found my father slumped at the kitchen table with a bowl of potato salad while grim images of unemployment lines flickered on the TV.
“The world’s heading down the toilet,” he said to himself. “Goddamn politicians.”
The following day, Andy and I hung on the rim of the quarry. We threw stones into the turquoise pools far below.
“My dad lost his job,” Andy reported, heaving a stone so hard his shoulder cracked. “My mom wants him to sell his car.”
We realized our parents and others were having a rough time, but didn’t understand the magnitude of the situation. What did we know of recessions and world politics and oil embargos? We were kids trying to figure out the changes in our bodies, trying lure girls.
“My brother Randy’s coming back from juvey this week,” he added. “We’re all bracing for it.”
The summer came to a head that August when a scene of high opera unfolded on the Taschicks’ front yard. The evening drama began with a screaming match between Ward and Randy, and escalated into a sheaf of expletives, and a sweeping hook to Mr. Taschick’s nose, a move so violent and shocking that onlookers froze and the world stood still and Andy’s younger sister became lost in a wail. One would have thought that Mrs. T. would have ratcheted into hysteria, but instead, with the utmost swiftness and calm, she whisked inside to the phone, connected with the police, and initiated the final act that had Randy in handcuffs. He screamed holy hell in the blue and red brush of the squad lights, yelling and spitting bile until the cops took him away.
The memory of it was still fresh in my head a few weeks later when I saw Mr. Taschick walking. The hot afternoon had tapered off to cool, and tufts from cottonwoods floated like summer snowfall across the neighborhood and collected in the grass. The evening was still, eerily void of droning lawnmowers and ambient traffic. Hard shadows from ranch homes raked across the manicured yards in the sun’s descending light, setting a stage show for fireflies. It was just after dinner. I knelt in the driveway, fingers greasy, the sear of asphalt sealant in the dying heat there in our open garage, fiddling with the chain on my banana seat bike, highly perturbed that it had fallen off again.
The bang of an aluminum door broke the silence from across the cul de sac. Mr. Taschick descended the front steps of his home, bypassing his freshly waxed Buick, and moved down the street toward me. He was dressed in a Navy blue suit and tie as if headed for Sunday church, his eyes empty, the day’s remaining light glinting off his black wingtips.
“Hi, Mr. Taschick, “ I called out, but he walked past unresponsive, head slumped, a picture of doom. His hands were deep in his pockets, his eyes heavy and fixed on the ground several feet ahead. It was a sullen march, as if very bad things were happening inside him and the only thing he could do before he’d be crushed by the weight of them was to walk—walk and walk, one foot in front of the other, plying forward, an unrelenting rhythm until he reached the crumbling edge of the earth.
In that moment I felt something—like the lion had lost his majesty. I watched him shrink into a tiny dark figure traveling up the low sweep of Burberry Road where the asphalt met a surveyed lane of torn dirt. When he stepped into the construction zone, orange lights atop saw horses began to blink in random succession as if to exalt his arrival.
And he walked—walked and walked without breaking stride, the last golden light of summer on his back, marched on until he was gone.
A day later, his body was found at the bottom of the quarry with a handwritten note safety-pinned to his suit that simply read: I resign.
The act puzzled me. I could sense its severity, but I couldn’t fully grasp its root cause until many years later. Even now, I wonder what triggers a person to that end. Andy went on with our friendship as if nothing had happened, never talked about his father’s death, though I knew he was ruined inside. His brother, Randy, ended up in the Joliet Correctional Center, for auto theft. Mrs. T. forever lost her glow.
Two weeks after Ward Taschick was lowered into the ground my father drove up in a Chevy El Camino, Vandersteen Construction emblazoned on the door, a hard hat on the front seat. He had closed his business and had taken up with a large, privately owned commercial firm. He hadn’t given me a heads up, nor had my mother. I think she was just relieved that he was employed. There was no fanfare. He simply pulled up and said he had a new job. He had owned his business for thirty years.
His humiliation became palpable when we were invited to a barbecue along with the company’s other employees at his new boss’s vacation home up north, a spread with a horse stable on Lake Geneva. Women mingled, kids ran wild, and men gathered in tight packs putting back beers. My father wandered from group to group, hovering on the periphery, silent until he was invited into the conversation. His words were clumsy as he tried fit in: even a kid could tell. It seemed as if he wanted to be anywhere but there, though I’m sure he felt obligated. Night after night my father would come home shrunken by the day, reminded with each fill-up of a vehicle displaying another man’s name that his dignity was out on loan.
Fall came and the days grew short. On an October evening, when the season gave way to changing leaves and crisp gray skies, my father left the house and walked. I was raking a pile of leaves when he passed me. Minutes had gone by before I realized that he was walking alone up Burberry Road, by then a newly paved street. He moved with the familiar gait of Ward Taschick, desperate, unyielding, his big shoulders folded forward, and eyes locked on the pavement. He walked, pacing up the road’s shoulder, further and further until he slipped away.
That night I waited for the sound of a door latch that never came. Where did he go? When is he coming back? Will he come back? What will I do without him?
I was a stupid, scared kid feeling as if the floor of the earth would give way at any moment. I tossed in bed and wondered if my father was broken like Mr. Taschick, if he also grew too tired to carry on, only to find him the next morning at the breakfast table complaining to my mother that the eggs were overdone.