The Conservationist


I’m his son. I’m ashamed to say that over the past decade of my life, that fact has been both an honor and a burden. This is the way it always is with our children. They grow up, seeing us as something magical. Then as they age, they see us for what we really are. . . imperfect. . . and the shock makes all the adoration they had turn into outrage. As time goes by, the emotion simmers into a slight annoyance, until it’s finally buffed out and smoothed over into respect. But most times, as it is with my father, Howl Richards, the realization of how much you admire them comes too late.

My father, to be described in one word, was eclectic. He was a collector, not a hoarder, as many neighborhood kids would have you believe. The difference between a hoarder and a collector lies in the attitude. A hoarder is greedy, a hoarder is frantic, a hoarder is impatient. My father, well, he was none of these things. My father was a conservationist. My father was careful. My father was measured. In all the things my father did, art was created, beauty was preserved, and life was enriched. It is a pity and a disgust that his legacy was marred by the sloppy image outsiders built for him. What’s even worse and more deplorable is that his own son saw him in that image as well.

Everything my father loved was something from a past life. His clothes were rummaged out of lost-and-found boxes at business complexes he never worked in. When he collected whatever had been left behind, he not only took in tossed-aside materials, but tossed-aside humans. If you ask any janitor in this city who Howl Richards was, a smile will spread across their face and they’ll have a story that will put a smile on yours.

Even his children were somewhat reincarnated, repurposed. When my mother was pregnant, my father loved to take her on walks. He felt like the love of the outdoor would absorb through her belly and into our hearts, and to a point, maybe it did. One of the places that he and my mother loved to walk was the cemetery. How morbid, that a woman and a man celebrating the life they’re bringing into the world, would walk among the monuments set up for the lives that were left behind.

But my father saw beauty in the darkest of places. His favorite place in the cemetery was where the children’s graves were. Little tiny headstones above little tiny children who couldn’t take walks with their mommas and papas anymore. My father would tug at the weeds and brush off the dirt. My mother left flowers and my dad left little racecars, marbles, and dolls. And my parents would leave with a name in their hearts and on their lips. One name was Lucas. One name was Marcy. One name was Andie. The names of children who never grew into them became the names my siblings and I carried throughout our lives. My dad was a big believer in second chances.

I was blind to that for a long time. I was ashamed because of the fleeting, petty comments I heard all my life growing up. How ridiculous it is that the things that don’t matter destroy the things that matter most. My father was ridiculed by so many people. Hobo Howl they called him. They looked at his beard, long and scruffy with bright shiny beads and colorful strings woven through the hairs, and they saw a bum. They looked at his tie-dyed shirts and his patched up jeans and they saw a hippie. They watched him riding his bike through town, stopping at the oddest of places, and they saw a madman. And for the longest time, I saw my father through the same eyes as they.

That beard is a legend unto itself. My mother says that when they first met, it was nothing but a few scraggly hairs on his chin, and over time it grew into the beautiful thing everyone is familiar with. My father would often comment that his beard was a symbol for their love, and usually at that my mother would laugh and blush, much to my father’s delight.

For the longest time, I couldn’t see what my mother saw in my father. It’s awful, I know, to admit that, but it’s true. My mother was so clean and so proper; how she ended up with a ragtag man like Howl Richards I could never comprehend. But if you see the way she looked at him, with her eyes lit up like diamonds and her lips suppressing a proud smile, you would have no doubt that her heart belonged to him.

They met at school. And when I say met at school, I mean she was in school and he was bumming free seminars at the lecture hall dressed as a different student every day so not to attract attention. She was studying anthropology, and I think that made her notice him. Here was this bizarre human being coming in uninvited, dressed bizarrely and trying so hard not to be noticed that it was impossible not to notice him. And I think it was her love of people that made her ignore the shy nervousness she usually had and walk up to this funny looking man with a five o’clock shadow and talk to him. But that is where my logic ends as to why my mother would be married to such a man for thirty-five years.

My father used to dye his shirts when holes appeared. I remember waking up early in the morning to the smell of coffee and tip toeing out of my room to peek on him. He would be there with his buckets of hot dye, shirt bunched up and severed off in every which way. Color would stain his skin, little rivers of red and blue settling into the cracks of his palms. His glasses would be sliding down the slope of his nose as he delicately baptized each shirt into the colored water. And when he finished, he would celebrate in the quiet light of the dawn breaking and sip the cup of coffee that my mother had made him, still hot and black. He was art and she adored watching him create and show himself. She was perfect and he was so imperfect that she had no choice but to love him with all she had.

Marcy and I used to drive up to the edges of highways on the weekends to pick up trash with our dad. It was during these eco-friendly romps that I learned to hate my father. The air was always too cold or too hot, my legs always ached and cramped, and the trash was disgusting. If any child of mine ever tosses a bottle full of pee out of my car window, I swear to Christ they will land wherever that bottle does. I was disgusted by the waste people created, but I was also enraged that I, an innocent, had to clean up after their mistakes. My dad was a big believer in second chances.

Day after day we would spend on those damn highway shoulders, looking like convicts with our skinny silver sticks poking at Coke cans and soggy McDonald’s fries and picking up every cigarette butt and shard of glass that speckled the grass. For me, it was hell. Marcy was too young to really know how to properly complain and my father thought of the whole experience as a treasure hunt.

He would call me over, waving his arm frantically for me to hurry up and look. I would heft my bulging, smelly trash bag over my shoulder and trudge over to see what the hell the old man found this time. Most times, I was unimpressed. Sometimes it was a robin’s egg, held with reverence in my father’s multicolored fingers. Sometimes it was a particularly colorful glass bottle that he would stuff with wildflowers to present to Mom when we got home. But once in awhile, it was something just for me. Like my father had conjured it up, right there on I-44, to show me. A G.I. Joe with an arm missing, making him look even more tough and war-savvy. Or, one time, he found a bracelet woven with my name on it in orange letters—my favorite. I’m wearing it now, even.

But out of all these things, the thing that my father found that I treasure more than anything else was something so normal and commonplace that people laugh. It was a brass key, small and heavy in my ten-year-old hands. He waved me over as usual and when I got to him, he looked at me, his lips pressed tight but his eyes twinkling.

“I have something for you, Lucas.”

“Dad, I already have enough bottles, can we just go—”

“Lucas. This is important. This isn’t a bottle or a Hot Wheel or a Lincoln Log. This is something that’s not a toy. It’s something you’ve got to keep for the rest of your life.”

With that, my attention was grabbed. He solemnly took my hand, opened it, and dropped the key. I looked up at him, confused.
“You are the one who holds the key. The key to your happiness, the key to your sadness. The key to your triumph and the key to your failure. You open all the doors, Lucas, and you must have the wisdom to know which doors you must also lock.”

And before I could make some smartass remark that would likely haunt me to this day, he turned away to Marcy, handing her a pink plastic Barbie shoe, and that was that.

Andrew never went to our romps because Mom worried he would run out in traffic. In a way, he was lucky. The sweat never rolled down his back, stinging his sunburns. He never had his friends drive by and ask later if you were a criminal. He never had trash thrown at him from a passing car and he never had to hear the rollicking laughter zoom by. But he missed a part of my dad that no one really gave notice to. The part that saw things that were worth so much and yet seemed to matter so little.

It sickens me to know that I wasn’t there but I could have been. Hindsight is twenty-twenty but my God I feel so blind. He called me, you know? He called me up when I was taking my daughter Lucy out of her crib. I answered, cradling the phone with my neck, hefting her up clumsily. He wanted to know if I wanted to go Highway Scavenging, as he affectionately called it. I had time. My wife was going to be home any minute. I hadn’t seen him in a month or so. I had time.

But I was embarrassed. People at work saw my dad riding his bicycle nearby. They knew he came in asking for the lost-and-found bin. They didn’t know who he was to me. They called him the Bike Bum. Someone muttered the name Hobo Howl. And I laughed beside them, in my immaculate suit with no holes, drinking my sugared-up cup of coffee in a mug that had no cracks. I stood beside the people who knew nothing about my father and I laughed with them.

So I told him no, I couldn’t come. I had Lucy to babysit because Jess wasn’t coming home for another three hours. I asked him had he called Marcy? Maybe Andrew? He said he wanted to ask me first, that he missed me, and to give his love to my daughter and my wife. And that was the last time I spoke to Howl Richards, my father. I hung up, feeling guilty, but relieved.

He was hit by a truck, bending over to pick up a pink glass bottle for my mother. The trucker was texting while driving, swerved, and that was that. He’s fine. Incredibly depressed. But fine.

If I was there, I could have saved him. I could have called to him, waving my arms frantically for him to come over. But instead, I was home, rinsing out a coffee cup and listening to the game play in the next room. I could have saved him.

I know that my father would have wanted me to move on from this. To lock the door of guilt in my life and to open the doors of forgiveness and progress. But how I ache for him. How I yearn to tell him that I saw the beauty in him even when I kept tossing him aside. I know we’re all filled with regrets when people pass. It’s as if my lungs are crowded with words I’ve held back for thirty years. I suppose I can walk to the cemetery with Lucy, clear the weeds from his headstone, and leave little treasures I find. My only hope is to instill my father’s love for the little things that matter in my own child, even if she hates me or is embarrassed of me. I want her to open doors to discovery and purpose. I want to start fresh with her, because, well, my father was always a big believer in second chances.