Dad’s a manwhore. On his first date with Mom, he made her watch a bunch of filthy Betamax tapes with him. She let him. Dad was a banker from a good family. Mom’s dad set the date up. And on rolled the Betamax. Because this was the seventies, I like to picture this all going down in sepia: Mom fluffing her hair, applying lipstick, Dad listening to Supertramp and doing coke out of the filter end of a Parliament in his Lincoln, Mom screeching at the sight of John Holmes’s monster member.
She must have liked it (guh) because their second date, the one on which they realized they were going to marry each other, was at the Confederacy Theater downtown, one of the oldest in the region, miraculously untouched by fire or flood for one hundred and fifty years. It was built as an opera house for crowds passing through from the Louisville and Nashville line, then switched to film and enjoyed a glamorous black-and-white run, then became an “adult theater” when everyone fled for the suburbs, sailing down the toilet in a blaze of misery and porno. Maybe Mom thought it was an adventure, being taken there on a date.
They divorced when I was ten. In college, I would break into the abandoned theater to take pictures. Memories from the split seemed fresher then: the days Mom couldn’t get out of bed, Dad’s eternal string of brunettes, the dark point at which the lawyers were hauled in. The Confederacy was more to me than a ruin: it was testament to the fact that, for a brief moment, the force that had put me into the world was a happy one.
My first big assignment at the Preservation Society is the Confederacy, so I go one morning and take Dad with me. He’s retired now, in the middle of another divorce. “Dumb bitch,” he says. “I feel like I lost a hundred pounds getting her out of my house.”
“Is that how much Jennifer weighs now?”
He laughs and noogies my side. He’s in the mood for a little trashing, a little rough chuckling. The careful way he steps into my dented Camry reminds me he drives a Lexus. He drills me on who I’m seeing, who I’m not seeing. “Women all have expiration dates.”
“Isn’t it the relationship that has the expiration date?”
“I never expire.”
Dad doesn’t understand my job. He doesn’t understand why I like to go “fuck around in ruins.” I pull into the back lot of the Confederacy. He groans, “What are we doing here?”
“You used to love it here.”
“I used to be able to see full frontal nudity here. Not rats. And bums. Which is what we will see today.”
Dad looks at the Confederacy and sees plummeting real estate values and declining market shares. He sees a downtick in police presence and an uptick in vandalism. I see a beginning, a chance to revitalize an artifact.
I’ve been given keys to the place so we step into the old, cavernous lobby from a side service entrance. I photograph shreds of wallpaper in the lobby, places where the shag carpeting has been trod thin, antique light fixtures. A chandelier hovers like a giant bird skeleton from the ceiling. We can get the grant to restore. We have lobbyists. The people with the right memories.
We enter the theater and flick the lights on. There is trash everywhere. Someone has spraypainted a giant penis on the curtains, but the place is huge, cool, golden, stilled in another time we can’t touch. We just stand for a moment looking around, holding our breaths, wondering when it last was when someone breathed in here. Then Dad laughs, an echo in a church, claps my shoulder. He says, “I’ll show you something.” He points. “Once fucked a girl over there.” Points again. “And over there. And I felt your mom up over there.”
I hold up my camera and take some shots of the carpeting, the dome ceiling, the organ, avoiding the places he pointed out. I take a profile shot of my father. When I do, I think about forgiveness.