The following is excerpted from POP! by Mark Polanzak (Stillhouse)
Mark Polanzak’s father exploded. A puff of smoke.
Mark was eating pizza with his girlfriend in the converted attic over the garage of his parents’ house, when his mother collapsed into the rolling desk chair and slid a ways on the carpet, phone pressed to her right ear.
But there was no need to rush to a hospital. No need to hurry somewhere to say goodbye to a body. The body had vanished. He had exploded, just blown up during his weekly tennis match with his friends. Dr. Hutch, his doubles partner, told Mark and his mother: it was deuce point, his father’s service game. Mark’s dad tossed the ball up, and when he made contact, there was a dull bang as if a bottle rocket had gone off, not loud, more like a pop. A little white smoke lingered where his dad had been in the act of serving. Then, his racquet was clanging to a rest on the baseline and the ball was rolling down the net. A fault.
It shocked everyone. Nurses Mark’s father had worked with, at the wake with the empty casket, they all said the same thing: “He seemed so fit, so healthy.”
“Yeah,” he told them. “He was young. He exercised. You never know.”
Mark’s brother and he had already purchased a Father’s Day present.
This was the second week of June, 1998. The two freshly-fatherless sons drove to the sporting goods store to return the stringing machine, but they didn’t have a receipt.
“But he exploded, you see,” they told the clerk.
“Store credit only.”
The brothers browsed. David picked out a racquet and waved it in the air like a fly swatter; he played. JV. Approaching the register, though, he hesitated. “Do you think it’s safe?” he asked.
“Your game is completely different,” Mark assured him.
“Yeah. I’ll never have Dad’s killer serve.”
I’m joking, of course. No one combusts or explodes, as far as I know. This is the beginning of a fictional story I wrote. My dad did not blow up. Did not pop. He did die, though, and it wasn’t funny.
But I wrote this funny story about my dad’s death. It goes on for many more pages, being funny and super distanced from the grief. Analogies can be drawn, though, from story to truth: the explosion and disappearance of the body reflects the unexpectedness of my father’s sudden death and my never seeing the body. The line about my father being so fit intends to be humorous in the story, but that’s what everyone actually did say. I didn’t understand why, as if it would have been appropriate to say the opposite, if it were true: “Well, he was out of shape…” The joke about my brother’s hesitation to play tennis again—as if playing tennis were the real killer—is an analogy to the fears my brother and I share that we’ve inherited our father’s genes and will die for the reason he died: heart disease. The absurdity of returning the gift and being forced to explain that he exploded? Well, those sorts of things happen. It seems ridiculous, in real life, to explain a death in certain situations. For instance, my family had to produce a death certificate in order to change the billing information on a phone line. Who knows what crimes criminals have thought up to create such red tape? So, the ridiculousness of the story’s situations isn’t radically far off from the truth. It seems psycho to lose your father at seventeen. It is. The story was aiming for that. That feeling, I guess.
Plus, certain details are true: it was on a tennis court and during a weekly tennis date with friends that the dying occurred. However, I have no idea who had serve, whether it was Ad In or Ad Out, Deuce, or during a side change when my father’s heart was attacked. What I’ve been told is that my dad mentioned to Dr. Hutch that he felt dizzy, then he sat on a bench to the side of the court, fainted, and his heart fluttered and fluttered. His heart began to spasm, trying to pump blood to where it needed to be. His heart tried for maybe a minute. And that was that.
An important ‘however.’ There was an urgent need to rush to a hospital. Dr. Hutch picked me and my mother up at the house. My girlfriend waited, too, for her mom to come and get her before Hutch arrived. How unceremonious to see her face while waiting for a trip to the hospital. She was not a bad person—a really good person actually—but just a face of ephemera, understood to soon be gone. A high school girlfriend. She was representative of a fun but passing thing in my life right in the middle of a moment that would remain. Her face is in an ever-lasting mind photo. Of destruction. My mother and I should have learned about our loss in an empty, new, and high cathedral.
My mother did say goodbye to the body. I did not. My brother did not. Dave, three thousand miles away in San Francisco, didn’t even know our dad was dead yet. I was offered the chance to say goodbye. Mom promised: “He’s still warm. His arms are folded on his chest like he used to sleep. I don’t know how they knew he slept like that.” She informed me of the state of Dad’s dead body in a special room, with a couch, adjacent to the emergency room. I could hear the bigger waiting room TV through the wall. An episode of Seinfeld was playing.
I didn’t go see the body at the wake either. A request went in to have the casket closed. At the time, I was too scared to look at my dad’s dead body. Didn’t know what it would do to me. I was capable of anything, I thought, and I just wanted to avoid a potential scene. However, I now think that I refused to say goodbye to my father’s body because it left open the chance to find him among the living. And I want to assure you that I’m not in denial. It’s been ten years since I’ve seen my dad, and this is because my dad is dead. But I didn’t see his body, so I’ve allowed some part of my brain to play with the idea that my father’s still out there. Maybe he escaped. Maybe he hated me and my mom and my brother and his own life. My father faked it. Disappeared. Like in the explosion story. I think about this possibility. I think that if I do clap eyes on Dad—on the subway, in some foreign city, on a someday—I’m going to clobber him.