In Mikel Jollett’s stunning debut memoir, Hollywood Park, he recalls a childhood filled with poverty, addiction, and emotional abuse. But the one constant in his life was the love and loyalty of his father, Jim.
In the following excerpt, teenage Mikel and his dad share the moment when Mikel gets his acceptance to Stanford University.
Dad used to worry I would get stuck-up. It’s nothing he wants to admit. If Bonnie holds up a report card and says, “Wow. Just, wow. Where did all these A’s come from?” Dad will smile too. He’ll play along. But he didn’t always feel this way. Before I started getting good grades, he used to say educated people were mostly full of shit. “Some guys think they know everything because they got some fucking degree. Meanwhile they got their head up their asses and they can’t even change a flat.” I used to hear this all the time. “Why do you want to go to college so badly? We didn’t go and we turned out fine.” I’d say, because I want to learn new ideas and meet new people even though secretly I knew it was because I wanted to be a thousand miles from a prison yard and an AA meeting.
But he doesn’t say those things anymore. When I’m up late studying, he brings me a snack and says he’s proud of the work I’m doing, that it takes “heart.” He lingers a minute in the doorway while I flip through my Calculus textbook.
He likes to look through the brochures I’ve collected for the colleges I’ve visited. UC Santa Barbara with its beautiful campus near the ocean. UC Berkeley with its history, its intensity. Stanford with its massive white satellite dish sitting on a hill above its Romanesque architecture housing endless Nobel Laureates. “This don’t look half bad,” he says, turning the pages of the brochure while we watch a game in the living room. “You really got a shot at this stuff, huh?”
“I think so. We’ll see.”
On the day I receive my acceptance letter to Stanford University, Dad is the only one home. He’s waiting for me in the garage with the radio on, working on his truck. “A packet came for you,” he says with a smile. “You might want to check it out.” There is a big white envelope sitting on the shop table next to the jigsaw. I tear it open, letting the paper fall to the floor where Dad has his tools laid out — a socket set, some pliers, allen wrenches, his glass jars filled with bolts and nuts. The letter on top says, “Congratulations! It is with great pleasure that I offer you admission into Stanford University.” Before I can read another word, before I review the glossy brochures with pictures of students sitting in those Romanesque archways, before I review the financial aid scholarship I am offered that covers my tuition and housing and books, before any of it, I throw my arms around Dad’s neck and we both start to cry.
I’m not sure if it’s joy or sadness. It feels like something achieved but also something survived. Something found, maybe, a strength together that we did not have apart. I smell the Old Spice on his neck, feel his thick gold necklace against my head. I know he quit his job for me after the motorcycle accident. For this. I know Bonnie has worked to support us, for this. So it feels like it’s ours. I let out a scream and Dad pumps his fist and we’re jumping up and down with our arms around each other’s shoulders. “You did this,” he says. I run into the house to call Mom but she’s gone so I leave a message that I have big news and go out to the front lawn to yell for the whole neighborhood to hear.
When I return to the garage, Dad is sitting on the floor with his elbows on his knees, an arm on the front fender of the Chevy, his head down, a hand over his eyes. I ask him what’s wrong. He shakes his head and waves me a way, a painful smile on his face. It’s just the two of us there among the oil-stained rags and balled up shop towels, the neat drawers of his red Craftsman tool box. I know what he’s thinking because I’m thinking it too.
We still got a chance, you and me. Them sonsabitches ain’t buried us yet.
From the Hollywood Park virtual book tour: Mikel answers reader questions about his father and fatherhood.