Visitation, as in the right of a parent to visit a child under a decree of divorce or separation. Visitation, as in a calamitous event or experience. Visitation, as in the appearance or arrival of a supernatural being. And let’s not even talk about Visitation, as in the visit of the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth. The point is, I believe the first three meanings, at least, are at play, here and that’s the first thing I love about this story. The second thing is the protagonist, the story’s anti-hero, Loomis. The reader may at first feel some sympathy for Loomis who has to drag himself across the country in order to visit his son, but drag he does. Good for him; he’s not letting this divorce thing get in the way of parenting. But he’s not very good at it, as it turns out, even though he does sort of try. And we eventually learn why he’s divorced, and that he’s gone through a string of therapists, that he drinks way too much, and he’s not the most likable character in the world of fiction. And yet on some level we can probably relate, because it turns out he’s a misfit. He’s desperate. (“He’d been painfully aware of his own despair for most of his life.”) And to the extent that he’s lived a normal life at all he realizes that it’s all been a pretense. He’s tried “to adapt, to pass as a believer, a hoper.” And he can’t pretend anymore.
As he’s trying to have one of these futile “visitations” with his son, he meets a woman at the miserable motel where he stays with the boy. She seems to be a Gypsy, although she denies this, and yet she tells fortunes. She tells him about leaving his girlfriend, the cause of his marriage’s end: “And now you have left her, too, or she has left you, because . . . because you are a ghost. Walking between two worlds, you know?”
And this is the third reason I love this story. Loomis, who is basically a loser whose life is never going to get any better, is a ghost. And his son, in a way, is also a ghost, a boy whose birth was so difficult that he wasn’t expected to live. And yet he did. And that still wasn’t enough to cure Loomis-the-ghost of his despair.
Normally I’m not a fan of the divorce short story, especially the miserable father coping with limited custody of the kids. But this metaphor of Loomis as ghost, is a good one, and makes this story fresh for me.
April 6, 2009: “Visitation” by Brad Watson