Excerpted with permission from "The Great Failure" by Natalie Goldberg, published by Harper SanFrancisco.

We got a seat right away at John G.'s near a wooden column. "Dad, should we move? You don't have a view of the sea."

He shrugged. "I know it's there. I don't have to see it." He ordered his favorite: salami and eggs.

I had my camera.

He put his hand over the lens. "Now now."

"Oh, come on. I need photos of my model." I had drawn him often in the last five years. Mostly he had been in his large reclining chair in front of the TV and being still had come naturally now.

Recently I'd sold a portrait. I'd called to tell him.

"You're kidding. A woman bought it? How old is she?"


"Send her a real picture of me, in the army. She can see how I really look. She paid that much? She must be in love with me."

"Dad, she liked my painting."

"Don't be silly. Give me her address. I'll send her a Christmas card. Forget it. I'll marry her." Then he paused. "Hey, what's my cut?"

He reached for the single yellow rose in a thin glass vase in the center of the table, held it next to his cheek, and posed. Just as I was about to click, he stuck out his tongue.

"C'mon, Daddy. Be serious."


"Because I need your good looks."

"Yes, I am handsome," he smiled, and I snapped.

"Now you." He seized the camera and handed me the flower.

I didn't like being photographed here in Florida. My hair in the humidity twirled, curled, and formed wisps where it wasn't supposed to. I tried to smile.

On our way out, we stopped for toothpicks at the cashier's counter. A full cup of pennies was offered for use in a gum ball machine that gave M&Ms. My father and I each put in a coin and filled our hands with colored candy that fell down a shoot. We walked out popping the candy in our mouths and rolling the toothpicks across our lips.

* * *

It was not always this sweet between us. Nine years earlier I had written him a long letter. "Did you ever wonder what my childhood looked like to me?" Well, of course, he hadn't, but I thought--after hours of group and individual therapy--to inform him.

"You never knocked before you entered my bedroom. You commented often at the dinner table about my young breasts, and you tried to kiss me on the lips in a way that made me uncomfortable. I carried constant anger around as a defense, to ward you off. You tried to peek at me when I was an adolescent, naked in the shower. I didn't feel safe. You called me gooney, made fun of my nose, the shadow on my upper lip, my eyebrows growing across the bridge of my nose."

I wrote him that he was a terrible father, never came to my school, never asked about my homework. Sure, once he rode bicycles with me for a Girl Scout cookout, and once he brought a hundred boxes of Scout cookies to the bar [where he worked as a bartender] and handed them out instead of change for beer purchases. His customers were outraged. "You don't like mint? Here's a box of pecan sandies." He grabbed the one box away and gave the other. I won the award for the most cookies sold. I remembered once when I was nine, sitting at the edge of my bed engrossed in reading a book, he walked in, rubbed my head, and said with obvious pride, "You're reading again?"

But that was it, I wrote. I hated my childhood.

When he received my letter, he tried to call, but after I said briskly, "Write me. No more phone calls," I hung up.

Two weeks later I received a thin envelope addressed in my father's crooked hand. I imagined a gorilla gripping a pen. "I don't know what you're talking about, but don't worry. I'll never leave you."

That was exactly him. My father knew two things: determination and animal devotion. My father would be eternally loyal to me. I was his daughter. He was my father. For my whole life we would stand in relationship to each other. That was it. I knew I'd get no more.

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