Yvonne Conza | Longreads | December 2018 | 28 minutes (6,875 words)
Dad is dying. A cell phone ping alerts me to a terse, fracturing email from my father’s younger brother.
Your Father is in a Florida Hospice. My eyes freeze on the bold subject line as I’m having dinner with a friend at an East Village restaurant. The muffled music and clatter of cutlery become an inescapable tunnel of sound. Childhood memories torpedo my thoughts and conflict with the reality that Dad is close to passing away on the cusp of turning 79. Thirty years of not knowing where or how he lived vanish.
To most everyone, John Joseph Downes was Jack, but to a few he was Jacqueline, and to Mom, my three older siblings and me, called “Jackass” behind his back. Dad’s multiplex of enduring identities also include: door-to-door Encyclopedia Britannica salesman; entrepreneur selling jigs, molds, gauges and fixture parts to automotive plants through a business he built from scratch; and the owner of a successful home health care agency. A Buffalo Bills fan, he gave his season tickets to clients while he watched games at home eating cheese curds and pretzels. He was a seeker of public office, wearer of white button-down shirts with wife-beater tanks underneath, actual wife beater, sporadic psoriasis sufferer, excellent provider, entertainer, showoff, lover of culture and a Chivas Regal drinker who, as these wailing memories emerge, will not live two months more to celebrate his New Year’s Eve birthday.
For a few years, Dad donned a hearse-black, trapezoid-contoured toupee that our Russian Blue cat murderously stalked like a sly predator. When askew on Dad’s head, the cat didn’t tamper with the hairpiece. But once it was placed atop Mom’s dresser she pounced on it, battled with double-sided tape and amused all, even Dad, with her mischief. Stored in a cherry wood armoire and draped over a creepy female Styrofoam white mannequin wig stand was Dad’s more notable wig, a dolled up shoulder-length Jackie O. bouffant postiche with satiny strands looped into starched beach waves. Had he added oval, dark, smoke-tinted oversized sunglasses, the look would have been complete.
He had a proclivity towards cross-dressing, a marital joint venture since Mom slipped him into finery that hung inside a shared closet. Though their bedroom door was kept closed, the curtains weren’t pulled down, perhaps intentionally, to spark a pivotal conversation. As a child of 8, I was blindsided by intimate details that felt jarring and amiss. Whenever I put away his freshly laundered socks and t-shirts, I had to open the shuttered double doors of his dresser and be exposed to the cavernous storage area where timepieces and ties kept Jackie O’s foam head company.
When I was not much older, flickering flashes, not belonging to a swarm of fireflies, distracted me from Charlie’s Angels. Looking up to the wide-open windows of my parent’s second floor bedroom I saw Dad accessorized, demure and toying with puckered painted lips. Backlit and indefinably beautiful, he seemed more himself in a size 16 dress than in one of his polyester baby blue or pickle green leisure suits.
Once while snooping for Christmas presents, I discovered Polaroid portraits of Dad as Jackie stashed in a shabby shoebox on the top shelf of my parents’ bedroom closet. Clad in kitten heels, stockings and a conservative, zip-from-behind dress, he had been transformed into a chunky, rarified suggestion of Jacqueline Kennedy. When not embodying Jacqueline, he wore a suit, white shirt and tie, shaved, splashed on decadent amounts of Old Spice. It was hard for him to keep a clean shave, 5 o’clock shadow always intruding. He bore a resemblance to Don Knotts, the billboard-sized forehead over his eyebrows, which I inherited, displaying struggle, though in a more generous light it beamed with determination. After stuffing pens in his pocket protector, heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work he’d go — a tender, paunch bellied dwarf with pick and shovel who knew not to return home until a million diamonds shined, and his worth to his wife could be proven.