Conspiracies in Fatherhood
I wonder if it wasn’t for the alcohol and drugs or my father dropping out of the eighth grade if he would have been someone more worthwhile in his life—had an education, a career. Perhaps a professor of theory, the type of professor who wears a crisp, clean suit with equally clean dress shoes and only lectures with speech and movements in his hands, the whiteboard behind him left blank with no sign markings.
Years ago, in a phone conversation during one of his every-few-month check-ins, my father spent 25 minutes explaining his beliefs: Bush was responsible for 9/11, the water is polluted with mind-controlling chemicals, and the government spies on us by hacking our phone cameras and microphones. He even voiced his concern that Big Brother is tapping everything from computers to shower drains to spy on Americans.
“And that’s why I don’t like talking on the phone,” he concluded after I briefly and naively asked why he hasn’t been using the prepaid phone. I’d purchased it for him and sent it to his friend of a friend’s house because there are no mailboxes in the middle of the woods, far from civilization, where he was living in a tent.
This is how my father likes to live: he is a self-proclaimed homeless man in a bougie California county, free of Big Brother and unwanted chemicals. He doesn’t have to pay bills, doesn’t have his children and a family to provide for, can partake in all the drugs he wants, and never has to face expectations and realities. He eats at the local homeless shelter, survives off whatever he wants to steal and can get away with. The only government he deals with is the authorities, who arrest him frequently.
In a different world, one far stretched from this reality, I imagine a classroom of freshmen and sophomore college students, bright-faced and engaged in my father’s lecture for his course centered on conspiracies of the 21st century. On the first day, he would walk to the front of the class with his brown hair styled in a stiff gel, wearing a tailored suit and matching tie. He’d introduce himself as “Dr. Bradley Jacoby” but insist his students only refer to him as “Dr. Bradley” because he’ll think it makes him more approachable. My father would pass out a detailed syllabus: contact information, course expectations, a weekly calendar with each conspiracy lined up. He’d have students go around the room, introducing their name and major, and add what their favorite conspiracy is. The students would leave the classroom feeling interested and excited for their semester with him.
In one of our recent check-ins, I learned that my father’s current favorite conspiracy theory is that the Mayans quite literally knew everything: their own demise, Doomsday, and so much more.
“They inspired the Simpsons, ya know?” he asked, prompting me to engage. “I don’t know about that, but sure,” I responded. I never argue with him—or try to derail his rant to talk about something more serious—because he never budges. He’ll answer my question regarding his well-being in an obligated, “I have to answer her or she’ll nag” tone, and then quickly return to explaining the nuances of the newest obsession.
“No. Seriously, princess. It’s in the video called ‘Mayans Know Everything.’”
I repeat it in my head over and over, wanting to watch it just to feel closer to him despite not being into conspiracy theories. I do my best trying to make the name stick, afraid I’ll lose it forever. There won’t be a call back soon after this one, and if there is, he won’t answer. In our next phone call in a few months or a year, I won’t remember to ask him about the title of a YouTube video, and even if I did, one of the many drugs he’ll take between now and then will make him forget about it. I give a simple “yeah” and “mhmm” to let him know I’m still here, semi-listening as he goes on to say that the video is 20 minutes long and gives a brief history of their civilization, the events they predicted, and how each conspiracy was right, each time.
“When did you watch it?”
“Oh, right before I went back to jail a few months ago,” he says. His voice is enthusiastic, enlightened that I indulged him in more than a simple “yes” or “okay.” I wasn’t always this way with him: I used to be engaged, more excited to speak with him, but after five years of sleepless nights worrying about him in California, anticipating a phone call or text from him that never came, I began to be less enthusiastic about his check-ins. There was something about hearing that his obsession was useless theories, rather than me, made me tune out.
Each time we spoke our focus was only on him. For our first few long-distance conversations, this was more than enough for me—my ever-growing curiosity about him never let me realize how one-sided it was. The only times I was able to talk about myself, giving him details of my life, was when I could interrupt him long enough or if he said something I could connect my own life to. But those moments were rare, and even when they did happen, he always changed the conversation faster than I had interrupted. After multiple calls, when my frustration formed into more disappointment, I asked him once if he didn’t care to know about life on this side of the coast. He ignored my question and continued talking about California.
I had known from records that this stint in jail had been his longest in a year—the entire spring season. Not only was it the longest stint, but it was different from his other countless arrests: loitering, petty theft, failure to appear in court, probation violation, or the most frequent of his crimes—possession of drugs and other paraphernalia.
Back at the college, my father would have spent the spring semester lost in conferencing with students, grading essays, updating his attendance sheets, and lesson planning for his next conspiracy lecture in his office, shared with some other professor in the department.
His spring classes would be filled with students, all eager to feed their curiosity and distrust for the government and the world they inhabit. They would raise their hands to ask questions about non-relative theories, trying to get him off-topic. And they would succeed, making less room for theory and more space for opinions and long rants. He’d try to reel the students back in by bringing up the text they were supposed to read, but would be too excited to continue and would bounce back to the conversation they were having. He was always easy to distract, long before his current state.
In the faculty lounge, on my father’s lunch break, a nameless professor would mention to him that they share a student and comment about how his class sounds like so much fun. He would sit and eat his microwaved leftovers and discuss his newest lecture with breathy, fragmented details about the Mayans as all-knowing beings.
Maybe if he taught at the same college that I attended during my graduate school career, we would go to school functions together: football games, spirit days, events held on the main lawn. When we would arrive together, walking side by side, we’d be deep in conversation about our classes. If one of his students saw him, they would approach him to say
“Hi, Dr. Bradley,” and he would introduce me proudly. They would already know more about me than they could dream about learning because of how often he talks about me in his class: my favorite color, my major and career goals, my childhood stuffed animal’s name, and the way I tease him about his conspiracy beliefs regarding aliens. They would know how great of a father he is—assuming correctly that he was present, supportive, and caring about his daughter. He would never boast about it, though. He’d be humble and shy if anyone complimented our great relationship. If my own classmates came to say hello to me, I would introduce him proudly too, unembarrassed that my father teaches here. The way they would make “o’s” with their mouths and say “I had no idea your father was a professor,” in shock, would make us both laugh.
And yet, my father spent his spring on someone else’s time being told when to wake up, to eat, to shower, and to make collect calls. Instead of business casual clothes, he wore a bright orange jumpsuit that was too baggy for his small, thin frame. There were no offices shared by professors, only cells with cellmates. Instead of heating leftovers, he had cold, mushy food on a dirty tray.
“So, what happened?” I asked. I had known the charges from the public booking log, a log I consistently looked at between check-ins: assault with a deadly weapon, great bodily injury, a hate crime that was dropped upon going to trial, possession, and failure to comply with probation. I had found out about the rest as I always do when I haven’t heard from him for months at a time: random checks on the booking log’s site to see if he was locked up. If he was locked up, at least I knew where he was. I knew he was somewhat safe, confined by four walls and guards 24/7. The times at which the site had no registered inmate by his name, my search became darker–calling local hospitals and morgues, asking if they had a man that had specific tattoos and features. Sometimes they had someone who fit my father’s description, other times there wasn’t anyone with those features. Each time, my stomach was filled with dread for the unknown.
“I beat the shit out of an asshole,” he calmly said, never trying to filter his words.
“He fucking rushed me and my friend while we were walking across the street. They had crutches, couldn’t walk fast.” His voice was deep and raspy, elevating to a higher pitch with each additional cuss word added to the sentence. I mumbled an “mhmm” to ensure he knew I was still there as he continued to retell the event. As a sensitive twenty-two-year-old, it’s hard for me to listen to his graphic storytelling. I’ve always been this way, and the years that he’s been separated from my existence have not made me build a tolerance to his mouth.
“So, I told him to shut the fuck up or I’d beat his ass,” he said.
“You could have just kept walking and ignored him, ya know?” I trod lightly, remembering from the last phone call we had, many months earlier, that when I tried to be a voice of reason we got into an argument about parental roles: me, trying to mother him by criticizing him, and him never being a true parent or knowing how parenting works. I wouldn’t risk having more sleepless nights in which I replay our fighting words to each other, wondering if I should have been nicer, worrying that the argument would be our last conversation.
“No, that’s not how it works out here,” he said, matter of factly.
“Then what happened?”
He went on to explain that he and the man— a person of color, a fact only noted by my father’s racist, offensive terminology—yelled in the street, each threatening and provoking the other. The man took the first hit, punching him in the head, which led Bradley to shove him and hit him back. They did this for several moments, wrestling on the concrete until Bradley took the crutch and hit the man over the head.
“His fucking skull cracked! I literally heard it. It was like a…” He imitated the sound of a crack with his mouth. I shuttered, thinking of the man who was probably having a long day, unknowingly grunting at the mess of Bradley. “By the time the cops came, he was just about dead and everyone was recording,” he continued.
“Did he die?” I asked, not sure if I wanted the answer. The charges on his roster weren’t specific, though they never said murder, so I supposed that was a good sign.
“No, but the lawyers said he was in the hospital in a coma for a few weeks,” he laughs.
An actual laugh—the type that began in his stomach, deep and heavy. My stomach was in knots. I sent up a silent prayer for the stranger.
“Everyone recorded the fight? That’s what you mean?”
“Hell yeah! It was right outside of Burger King. Shit’s probably on YouTube too,” he said. He sounded proud of himself.
In his next lecture, my father would have shown the video of “Mayans Know Everything” to his students, pausing at critical moments to make comments. He would ask students how they felt about it, trying to provoke class participation. If he didn’t forget due to excitement about the video, he would also discuss each Simpsons scene that depicted a moment that the Mayans supposedly predicted. He would blush each time the show said something crude, embarrassed by any foul language. He never was one to use curse words and didn’t allow students to either. Despite the embarrassment he felt by the Simpsons, it would be both his and his students’ favorite class of the week—students excited to only watch videos in class, especially the funny clips. Of course, as they usually do, he and his students would get off-topic, finding more and more unrelated content to explore and share opinions on.
After we said goodbye on the phone—with a promise that he would call back tomorrow even though we both knew he wouldn’t—I tried to search for the Mayans video on YouTube with no luck. I tried different combinations: The-Mayans-Know-Everything, What-the-Mayans-Knew, Mayans-Predicted-Everything, and more. Each search fell flat with only history clips, documentaries about their way of life, and theories about their disappearance. After YouTube became a failure I tried other search engines, but it all ended the same. There was no video. Perhaps in his drug-induced state he made the information up, hallucinating each prediction or “fact.” Or maybe, like most things in our relationship, I had given up on looking.
When I had enough of searching aimlessly, watching the wrong videos, I searched for the next YouTube video we discussed: the fight. If there really were crowds of people with their phone cameras glued to the action, surely someone had posted it. Again, I did every combination possible: Two-Homeless-Men-Fight-Outside-of-Burger-King, Fight-Outside-of-Burger-King, Burger-King-Fight-In-California, Man-Gets-Hit-With-Crutch-Outside-of-Burger-King, Man’s-Skull-Cracked-Burger-King-California. All useless searches, even for Google. There was nothing about it—no videos or news articles, no public record other than Bradley’s arrest. It was like either it didn’t happen or no one cared enough about the homeless man attacking an unarmed person of color.
At the end of the semester, in the comment section of their course evaluations, students will say he was “the best professor ever,” “never missed a class and was always on time,” and “really cared about his students.” They’ll praise his passion, his work ethic, and so much more. They’ll rave about how entertaining his class was for them. The same students would register for his classes next semester, wanting to be in his ever-entertaining presence as he discusses new theories and constructs more wild tales. His previous students—ones who didn’t register for his class in time before it filled to capacity—will wave him down each time they see him on campus to say hello and ask him about new conspiracy theories. They’ll tell him about theories they researched outside of his class. He’d already know about them but would listen diligently, asking them for more details to show his interest. On days our schedule would allow we’d meet for lunch on campus. He would walk into the dining hall, smiling and gritty, and boast about how much he loves teaching and his students. I’d tell him he was a great professor, the best one of all time. Afterward, he would take time to ask me about my day, the course evaluations I filled out, and things going on in my life since he last saw me hours ago for breakfast. I would tell him in detail because more than a father, he’s a friend, too. When I said all I could say, I would sit back in my chair and admire the man before me: an established academic, a loving father, a supportive community member.
Occasionally, on lonely nights, after checking booking logs and various California news sites until my tired eyes can’t focus, I’ll look for Mayans and the fight on Google and YouTube with no changes in availability. I repeat the title over and over in my head still, even though I know I won’t remember to ask him about the video in our next phone call because there will be a new arrest to get the details on, moments of his life I missed out on, and a new theory that must be explored.
Kayla Jessop is a graduate of the Masters of Art in Writing program at Coastal Carolina University. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Tempo, Harpur Palate, Broad River Review, You Might Need To Hear This, Lindenwood Review, and is forthcoming in other literary magazines. She does her best writing while sitting in coffee shops and daydreaming about possibilities. In her free time, when she’s not teaching, she enjoys cross-stitching and watching New Girl.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021