Proving Grounds

What does it take to bridge the chasm between a father and the man who is sleeping with his daughter?

By Bart Blasengame May 19, 2009 Published in the June 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

"HELLO BART. This is Bob. Bob Riede.”

It’s 7 a.m. on a Saturday, and I’m not really sure which planet I’m on. Last night was supposed to be dedicated to rest and packing; instead it included one too many shots of Jack Daniel’s, followed by a regrettable coda of “fourth meal” chalupas. Now I’m still in bed, and it feels like a couple of circus midgets are clubbing each other with trash-can lids inside my head. As my alarm-clock radio blasts “Two Tickets to Paradise,” Bob’s voice gives me an update about road conditions through the cell phone. Bob—Bob Riede—has just cleared the Santiam Pass on his way to Sisters, which makes me officially late for our date. “Where are you?” he asks.

This is how Bob Riede rolls: Really. Effing. Early. I should’ve left Portland an hour ago. This is not the impression I’d hoped to make when we laid out plans for Bobapalooza ’08.

I’ve known Bob Riede for the better part of two years. We share a common interest in his lovely daughter Marli, though the nature of my interest is, of course, quite different than his. If I don’t screw things up (always a distinct possibility), she and I might one day get hitched. But, despite the fact that Bob and I have shared countless meals together, toasted a few birthdays, and even played some mean games of beer pong, we’ve never officially “clicked.” There have always been buffers. Women, dogs, Dixie cups of Bud Light—anything to distract us from the uneasy abyss that sometimes exists between a father and the man who is sleeping with his little girl. Thus the incessant formality whenever Bob calls me on the phone: This is Bob. Bob Riede.

This weekend, though, would change everything—in theory, at least. Bob had asked if I could help him tear out the old deck attached to the family’s cabin in Sisters. It would be just the two of us on 10 acres of pine-covered high desert, dismantling a few hundred square feet of wood and concrete with crowbars and burning muscle. It was manly, unifying labor. And, obviously, it was a setup. It reeked of a man-date concocted by Marli and her mom, Carol; an attempt to stick two mildly antisocial men in a situation about 5,000 miles outside of their comfort zones.

“You guys are totally gonna bond,” Marli told me before I left, her eyes bulging at the implied magnitude of the event.

This was more than just a men’s retreat, however. It was a Jedi-level entrance exam that would test not only my abilities as a potential suitor, but my willingness to bust my hump under duress. To a man like Bob, who clearly valued action over words, putting my back into this cabin he’d built with his own hands would prove that I was worthy of his respect. And maybe of a first-name relationship.

Accomplishing this, though, would mean overcoming a meet-the-parents history steeped in humiliation. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say that my ex-wife’s father, a deacon in a local church in Asheville, North Carolina, was horrified at the tsunami of filth that poured from my mouth after failing his crash course in Grease Monkey 101. Nor did my epileptic fish-gutting skills impress my ex-girlfriend’s father during a fishing trip in the Boundary Waters. Asking a poor wretch like me to overcome a knack for colossal social gaffes—once, I accidentally pulled my pants down in front of my entire senior class while impersonating Marky Mark during a high school pep rally—was asking a lot.

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Fueled by endorphins, I managed to reach the cabin in just two and a half hours, and soon after, the prison labor began. I like to think I’m in pretty good shape for a 34-year-old. But prying boards apart with just grit and steel is not the kind of thing yoga and an elliptical machine prepare you for. Neither do they ready you for hours spent face-to-face with bird skeletons, spiders, owl vomit, and spindly stalactites of white mold.

Pull and toss. Pull and toss. It went like this for five hours. We weren’t talking, but we were communicating in a sort of sweaty Morse code rendered through the whack of hammers, grunts, and whispered four-letter words. It wasn’t exactly illuminating—thwap, unggghhhh, damn—but it was better than silence. It was a start.

That night we drank margaritas and gorged on enchiladas and nachos at a local Mexican joint. We had chosen to eat at the bar near the television, where we easily settled into the white noise of the NCAA basketball tournament. But then a strange thing happened: We started talking. We talked about work, about the disappointing Oregon Ducks, about good tequila. And then, finally, he asked about Marli.

“How’d you end up meeting Marli at the Twilight Room, anyway?” he asked. “That place is kind of a dump.”

He was right on that count. But this dump, out on N Lombard Street, was where I’d first laid eyes on the right-beautiful Marli, who, I soon learned, was tending bar there to help fund her nonprofit work.

“At first I went for the free Internet,” I explained, aware that I was coming off as a cheapskate. “But I went back the second time to see Marli. And no matter what she tells you,” I said, poking a chip in his general direction, “she asked me out. Said she needed a karaoke partner that night after work, so I went along with her. She sang ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’; I sang ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.’ That was the point when we both knew this was too ridiculous not to be something serious.”

For the first time all day, Bob let out an approving chuckle. It was as though I’d reached that point on a date when you realize you’re on your game. Things are clicking. You will definitely be going out again. When he insisted on picking up the tab, I was officially smitten.

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The next morning my back was barking and I was popping Vicodin like jelly beans. Bob had been up since 5, gone on a walk, washed clothes, and was now delivering coffee to me before attending church. I took the opportunity to get in a few hours of solo work. By the time Bob returned, there was only bare ground where the deck used to be. We weren’t done, though. There was another part of the deck that had to go, Bob said. And that wood had been shaded from the rain and sun for the last decade, which meant it would put up a much more ornery fight. We had to tug harder and jimmy our crowbars in deeper. I feared losing feeling in my lower extremities, but I feared disappointing Bob even more.

Six hours later, the Riede family cabin was officially short one massive wooden porch. Bob’s friend, Joel, on his way down to Bend for business, pulled into the driveway right on time, and whipped out a bottle of Jameson. “You boys thirsty?” he asked.

A few fingers later, Bob cut loose with some rather impressive uses of the f-word. So did I—why the f-word not, right? He challenged me to a game of darts on his new, homemade board. Not only did I manage not to blind anybody, but I beat Bob. His guard was down. He was actually having fun. So was I.

“You gonna come down to the rodeo with us this year?” he asked. He was inviting me to one of the most sacred Riede family traditions, the Sisters Rodeo. Of course I would be there. I would even wear a bolo tie—if forced to at gunpoint.

Maybe it was the painkillers, but when the sun scrambled over the ragged crest of Three-Fingered Jack the next morning, I felt like a summer camper who wasn’t ready to go home. But after I’d loaded my dogs, Axl and Leroy, into the car, Bob sent me packing with a stern, formal handshake. I wasn’t expecting a European cheek-kiss or anything, but I was momentarily bummed. Had I become too comfortable with him? Had I gotten too cocky around the dartboard? Had he decided I wasn’t the right man for his daughter after all?

Ten minutes later, my cell phone rang.

“Bart, it’s Bob…” Seems that I’d been so caught up in the cinematic soft-focus of my departure that I’d forgotten my bag of clothes. And the sack with the dog food and the leashes in it. And oh, Bob asked, did I need my computer?

Now, sure, my computer and my bag and the dog food might sound important, but all I heard was the void where Bob’s last name used to be. Much to my relief, he was Bob now. Just Bob.

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