The side of the coach was stainless steel; it was polished and so clean I would have seen myself perfectly except for the horizontal fluting. The end of a pleasant two-day trip; it put me in mind of some train traveling I had done in Europe. Amtrak was clean, smooth, air-conditioned—a world better than the slow, filthy, hot coaches I rode years ago as a student. I’d probably say something like that to Latch whom I was meeting in a bar around the corner from the station. At the right time I’d say I was sorry his father had died.
It was certain my father wouldn’t be there, but I still ran my eyes over the platform. He knew I was coming. So did my brother Billy, but on Friday night Billy boy would be too busy cruising around in his van with the side pipes and spoiler and sun roof and plexiglass tears at the rear. It was hot. I was already sweating. The old Victorian station had been remodeled inside but not yet air-conditioned. A low ceiling of hanging white panels hid those great high vaults and arches. But nice red carpets. Hertz and Avis. No more creaking floor boards, spits, butts, matches, and sailor puke.
I lockered my bag and walked up the short hill past the shop where an old Swede used to cut my hair. The place was now a toy store called The Happily Ever After: red letters on a bright yellow awning.
In the bar, I said, “Hey, hey, how’s it going,” and pumped hands that belonged to a few familiar faces. I made my way to the end of the bar where big Latch was. Almost seven feet tall, he was trim, still had his pointed beard and hair long in the back. Hooded eyes. Jokingly, he grabbed my hand. I knew what was coming: “Nice to meet you,” he said. “Where in England are you from, Dulwich?”
“No, no, I’m just back from Osaka.”
“Oh, Osaka. Let’s see, that’s. . . .
“Right. So you were in the Orient.”
“All the time I was in Japan.”
“Hey! I didn’t know they knew you there.”
“Oh they know me. Don’t worry. There were big turnouts.”
“So you were big in Osaka.”
“Very big, they loved me.”
“What about Hokkaido?”
“Not to ask. Hokkaido is something else.”
“We’ll stick to Osaka.”
The routine had been good for lots of drunken hilarity. I laughed soberly. Latch said to the kidface behind the bar, “Give my father here a Bud.”
Father. The word made me nervous. I wondered if it was a signal I should say something, say I was sorry about his father. But Latch quickly came back with some perfunctory questions about what I was doing and how did I like my new job out West. I played it down, said I was getting sick of moving around all the time. It was true.
“Beats Dulwich,” he said, nodding toward the window.
He laughed. “Now the night before you left last August. . . .”
I said we shouldn’t talk about it.
He frowned in mock seriousness. “El stinko. You were not big in Osaka, not that night.”
“This is true.”
He nudged a barmate. Ned went to school with us. Latch referred to him as “Dulwich’s Finest.” I pumped his hand. The Ali fight was just getting under way, in color, over the bar, and I could see he was anxious. Latch said to him, “Ned, you remember Jake here.”
“He’s just back from Osaka.”
“Yeah?” He looked at me. “No joke?” I nodded.
“Great place,” said Latch, “beautiful women—he was very big.”
No lights went on in his dull heavy face.
Latch said, “It’s off the coast of Nebraska.”
“Great! You look great,” said Ned. And back to Ali.
Latch let go with a bray of laughter.
Ned looked over his shoulder. “You guys are crazy.”
We watched the fight. I was in no hurry to get home. It would be easier to sneak in late. But I could feel myself getting on edge. The fight was not a good one. Beyond his prime, AH had gotten fat, had lost his timing, was missing too many shots. He spent most of his time on the dodge. It was hard to watch. Depressing. And the announcer kept calling the fight a fiasco, kept wondering what the Champ had left, if anything. I began to stare at myself in the bottles. During a commercial, Latch said something and I found myself saying, “I’m sorry about your father.”
He laughed, made a joke of it. “I’ m sorry you’re sorry, sorry that I’m not sorry.”
Ali barely won the fight. Guys in the bar were angry. Ned said, “I wish somebody’d kill that nigger.”
Money changed hands.
“He’s still champ,” laughed one happy winner.
“But no longer big in Osaka,” said Latch, evenly.
Things started to feel good. The bad joke was behind us. I wasn’t thinking of anything. Two more foaming mugs were clunked down before us. The bar buzzed pleasantly.
“Let’s see,” said Latch, “what else have I got for you? Oh, yeah, Sloane’s getting married.”
“True, but he is.”
“That’s the last of us then. Just you and me.”
“Me, you mean. At least you gave it a shot.”
“But it didn’t last,” I said.
“No matter. Confucius say, “Think of whole”.”
We stared into our beers for a while. With mock seriousness, Latch said, “Your father and Billy will certainly be glad to see you.”
Two more mugs, all foam and frost. The bar was cool and comfortable. Things began to swim in a lovely weakness. . .the click and roll of balls. . .young peach-faces drifting above the emerald cloth. . .the lone coyote wail of some singer on the jukebox. . .the sailor and woman plotting adultery in one of the booths. . .a Gary Gilmore T-shirt saying LET’S DO IT. . . . My frosted mug seemed heavy and slippery and, by the time we were drinking up for the night, I had a funny feeling someone had nailed it to the bar, given me some kind of trick glass.
Outside, it was steamy. The moon followed us down the street and peeked over the rundown buildings by the Empire Theater which had gone triple X-rated. A sign in red-on-white said: ADULT FILMS. Latch did a little zigzag walk and chanted, as we passed, “Let’s all go to Osaka, let’s all go to Osaka, let’s all go to Osaka and get ourselves a treat.” Then, to me: “I-dentify that.”
“Easy,” I said, “Intermission. The old popcorn jingle.”
A couple of black kids ran by, their sneakers whacking away on the sidewalk.
“No wonder you were big over there.”
I told him he had a great chance. “After all, you are the original Big Fella.”
We picked up my bag and drove out of town toward my father’s house. We went through one of those strips packed with gas stations and burger joints, a long hellish neon corridor that petered out into darkness and branched into a road that ran between the Protestant and Catholic cemeteries. Latch offhandedly asked if I wanted to see where his father was. Thinking he meant the next day, I said yes and he swerved under the big granite arch to Saint Edward Cemetery.
The stones, washed white by the lights, sprang into view and stood there for a moment like the skyline of a crowded city that was suddenly around us and flowing past. I noticed expansion. Past the swan pond, the woods had been pushed back over a long hillside, exploding landmarks, mocking my old sense of limits. Latch at the wheel—he was smirking, almost as if he were doing it on purpose. In the last, most recent row of stones, next to a wall of trees, we pulled to a stop. We walked among the stones, each of us with a warm beer from Latch’s supply in the car trunk. Teenagers again, here on some prank. A big moon lit the names quite clearly.
“Here they are,” he said.
A gray stone, a double inscription marker: Emma Brownwilier 1910—1969; Carl Brownwiller 1908—1974. The last two digits were lighter gray. Lower down was a scroll with a sentiment phrase: “Lasting Regret.” Cicadas were still hot in the trees. The can in my hand was almost hot, and I was dripping. In the distance, on the stretch between cemeteries, a biker was roaring, speed-shifting for the blind curve at the end. Standing there, looking at the stone, I recalled his father, a big man with a funny gash of a smile. Always active, he was usually in the yard, painting, mowing grass, repairing, even after he retired. “Good man,” I said. “Great stories he told.”
Latch snorted. “He was great to everybody but my mother.” Moonlight caught his up tilted can. He swallowed. “Never took her out, spent any money on her. I think they hated each other. Hardly ever talked.”
I said it was really hard to read other people’s relationships, even with parents. But he didn’t hear me. “After the second heart attack, I couldn’t wait for him to die.”
I must have flinched.
“Christ, don’t be sentimental.” There was a flash of irritation. “Your mother went like that” —he snapped his fingers— “but when you’ve got a hospital vigil, indifferent doctors, when you live day after day with your mother or father and see them get more and more like pale shadows, drugged, talking in circles, dragging up nasty old scenes, getting smelly, messing themselves—Christ, you get to hate them, you pray for their death.”
It seemed best to say nothing.
“It’s true,” he said.
I sipped my beer. “Maybe so,” I admitted and realized I’d be sober for the rest of the night.
“Well, I’m finished with them now,” he said. The tone was unconvincing.
It was quiet. A car came into the cemetery, and its lights shut off in a distant alley. Parkers. It always struck me as a peculiar make-out place. Most marriages ended here; but, as I thought about high school, it occurred to me that some probably began here, in hot, groaning back seats, under elegiac cedars and cypress. Latch walked toward a big feather-shaped cedar. “Remember DeVito?” he called.
I said yes. He owned a bar and served us before we were 21, before beer turned teen-age. “Come here,” he said, laughed, and pointed at the stone. “For God’s sake, don’t get poetic on me.”
DeVito. I asked how.
He laughed again, getting on my nerves. “He died—that’s how. What the hell’s the difference?”
We walked 20 feet this way and 20 that, Latch pointing out familiar names (one classmate), laughing all the time at my surprise, finally cackling. “Remember this guy?” He wasn’t laughing anymore. The stone said “Clarence Geroux,” one of our high school teachers. Latch’s jaw moved from side to side, teeth grinding. He zipped down his fly. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” he said, “and I can’t think of a better grave.” There was a long hiss as he squirted the stone. “Good old Mr. Geroux. . . . Yes, Mr. Geroux. . . . No, Mr. Geroux. . . . Three classes with this prick. . . . Taunted me so bad I had to cut. . . .kept me out of college. . . .”
“You fool, now you’ll burn for sure. Sister Rose was right— you’ve come to no good end.”
He grinned and stepped back. “Go on, give him some used Bud.”
I told him I didn’t have the urge. I was beginning to think of my father. Insects droned. The air was sweet. Latch drained his can of beer, crackled it. “Come on,” I said, “Let’s get out of here.”
The gray face of the house rose above me. I watched Latch’s red lights fade down the tree-lined street. My chin dripped. Cicadas kept saying “ski-oo, ski-oo,” and I kept thinking “scare you, scare you.” My brother’s metallic red van with its hand-painted Arizona sunset and lone seguaro in black silhouette sat in the yard at a casual angle. No lights in the house. And when I got inside, no air. An old annoyance. My father easily had enough money for central air-conditioning, but, as with so many other things, he was stubborn. Or was it oblivious? I began to realize just how much I wanted to drive him out of my mind, bury him: trips to Europe, jobs in distant places, yearly moving. Under the night light, on the kitchen counter was a new bottle of Cutty Sark, a half-killed Seagrams, a square-shouldered crystal decanter of vodka. Christ, why was I here? A stupid yearly ritual I couldn’t break. Every time I came home, there was a new bottle of Cutty. Dad knew I liked it. Green glass and yellow label. Last time home, after only a few days, I noticed it was weak. “Watered” was a word that—making arrangements for myself—I would not pronounce.
I turned on a few lights and wanted to turn them off immediately: dustballs in the corners, dishes in the sink, cigarettes overflowing ashtrays in the den, coffee rings bitten into Mom’s end tables, every surface with a film of dust. There was a scent of mildew all through the house. I went to the refrigerator for another beer and something to eat. There was a black banana, an over-ripe tomato oozing from its split, orange juice, milk, and a dozen beers. I closed the door and carried my bag upstairs.
In my old room, I got undressed, lay down and waited for sleep. It didn’t come, or only came in snatches. Heat was terrible. Sweat popped. I could feel it sliding down my ribs, dropping to the damp sheet. “Ski-oo, ski-oo.” Several times my father did his night walk. The knob (loose) clunked, and the door creaked open. His clock-radio murmured away, stairs sounded as he made his way to the kitchen. The refrigerator hummed, then hummed more loudly when he opened the box. The door went suck and thump. For a while nothing, almost as if he knew I were listening from the stairhead, straining. Then it came: the clank and pffft of the pulled tab. I went back to bed. Was he still punishing Mom? Like Latch pissing on Geroux’s grave. Old age? Fear of oblivion? Too simple. He used to have friends, was king in a number of downtown bars, even after I turned 21. He was especially big in the Hawk’s Nest, which had a softball team. A good hitter and glove man. Well liked. Once a beautiful game-winning homer: a rising slow trajectory, the ball hanging for a moment in the tower lights and bugswirl before diving out of sight behind the tall green fence. Toward dawn, after Billy revved the engine and rumbled off down the street for work, I fell asleep.
When I came down in the morning, he was sitting in the recliner, aimed at the flickering TV. He was still in pajamas, eyes small and glassy and red and pouched, the world they saw, blurred, for his glasses were gone. His face, so pale and so much older, scared me. Arms behind his head, he just stared in the general direction of the TV. Without hug or handshake, I was hurt. “Aren’t you even going to say hello to me?” I asked.
“Why should I?”
“Dad, what’s the matter?”
“Your know what’s the matter.” His face was ugly, twisted by some inner corrosive. He shouted, “More than a month I didn’t hear from you.”
I shouted back, “Christ, I was busy.”
“Don’t you shout at me, I’m your father.” Then: “Sure, you’re always busy. Big Shot.”
“Dad, I know kids who never call—”
“Sure, you know everything.”
This was senseless. I wouldn’t argue. Silence was better than the yelling systematic way we pulled old scabs. I’d wait him out. Sometimes that worked.
All morning long, he sat in front of the TV, chain-smoked. Coffee cup beside him, eating its rough bottom into Mom’s endtable. Still in pajamas. Sweat-reek blooming all around him. Anger filled me and brimmed like water in a jar. I wanted to take him by the neck. From room to room I walked, gorging myself on the dirt and crust, I wanted to stick his nose in it and ask what about it. But that wouldn’t do. The curling odors, greasy sink—these were only symptoms.
I went outside. Beautiful day. Scent of pine resin from trees at the side of the house. Nice and clean. Big, slow-moving clouds, cool as ice-floes in that perfect blue sky. And Dad was mucking it all up, for both of us. I watched a man who lived at the end of the street, a retired Navy man, sixtyish, in red shorts, come jogging up the road and cut through the big field across the street. He had a tan and flashed me a healthy smile as he passed.
Later that afternoon, I was sitting in the living room, pretending to read the glossy magazine in my lap. He must have thought I was out. His recliner bumped the wall in the next room. Footsteps. There was a faint squeak of cork on glass, a hollow thoop. I could hear the vodka giggle into his cup.
“Dad,” I said—his unshaven face turned toward me, the bottle still tipped—”For God’s sake, Dad, what are you doing?”
Without a word, he turned and did that shuffling, uncertain walk back to his recliner, very deliberately placed the cup on the scarred wood, and flopped back, headrest hitting the wall. He got a queer smile on his face, a look almost triumphant as he gazed, unseeing, at the game show where people were running around a stage, sticking their heads in buckets of water while the audience howled and gleefully shrieked. “Dad,” I insisted, “talk to me. How long has this been going on?”
He remained smilingly mute.
“Dad, why are you doing this?” Finally, he said, “I have my reasons.” His words were thick.
“What reasons? There are no good reasons for this.”
“For what? You didn’t come in drunk last night? Hooked up with Latch, didn’t you?”
“That’s different and you know it.”
“Sure, everything’s different for you.”
“Dad, I love you.” I knelt and touched his hand, squeezed it.
Nothing. Then: “Sure you do. . . you’re a fast one with words. . .charm the fuzz off a peach. . .other people think you’re so nice. . .they ought to know you. . .just like your mother, your sweet mother. . .you always loved her, not me. . .always took her part. . . .”
I half listened. It was an old routine about how Mom’s family was big and he was an only child and how they never really accepted him or recognized his accomplishments, how her brother once—because Dad didn’t have the credit— charged him higher than bank interest on a loan, how Dad had a big job in the western part of the state and her family forced them in various ways to come back, how Mom never liked any of his friends and resented his winning way with strangers.
“Dad, I know, but this is ancient history.”
“Oh, you know it all, that’s for sure.” He sneered, his face quivering, red. “Just remember I paid for what you know.”
“I’m grateful,” I said.
“You have never been grateful.”
“In a pig’s ass. . . think your education came from your mother? Tight as wallpaper, like the rest of her family. I, me, I wanted it.”
“I know, Dad.”
“You don’t know.”
I told him I had heard all this before, and it was, right now, beside the point. Why was he drinking himself to death—that was the only point I was interested in.
He said nothing, sat there in his faded blue pajamas. I could smell his body, an odor of decay snaking about me. “Are you going to throw in the towel?” Tasked. “Hell, there are men older than you who run every year in the Boston Marathon, play tennis, everything.”
“Remember what you used to say to me about quitters?”
Finally he said, very deliberately, “You don’t know anything.”
His judgment of me seemed so final I shuddered.
I walked around the yard and into a piney woods behind our house. How long had this been going on? I replayed visits of the past for telltale signs, but the footage, such as it was, was spotty. And I realized that memory, if you have not observed closely, cannot speak her secrets. I was stuck with the facts. What to do? Alcoholics Anonymous, a psychiatrist, a drying-out resort—but these options work only for people who want them to work. And no matter what he said, I knew my father, knew also that I was too much a part of the problem to be of much help. The parish priest briefly came to mind: he was a tall, dark, arrogant man, a Sunday morning baritone, a scold. Father Zindt. Thrashing me in grammar school. Dad thrashing me again at home, telling me I had to respect the priests and nuns. Our house with some kind of holy picture or statue in every room. And Dad no longer going to church. Hypocrite. And about drinking, too. How he scorned my mother’s brother who died a drunk in the VA hospital. And landing on me for my drinking with Latch. Now look at him. He stood in the window, perhaps watching me with pleasure as I went casting about the yard and woods. You don’t know anything. His pale face, half-hidden in the reflection of moving pine boughs, stared into a private bitter trance. There was a rusty rake leaning against the house, and I wanted to take it in my hands, break the window, reach in and drag him through the fangs of glass.
That evening, Billy appeared: “Hey, man.” As if he saw me everyday. Unable to think of anything else to say, I asked him about Dad’s drinking. He shrugged. Billy had my mother’s big, sad, moist, brown eyes, only his were unfocused and glassy, most of the time from pot, and the sadness was offset by a hard, smirking mouth. He came in her change of life, was separated from me by a dozen years. “He don’t drink much,” he said.
I said, “I don’t think you’ve been looking closely.”
He shrugged again.
“You buy the booze?”
“Right, to keep the peace.” I wondered if he knew what peace was.
“Hey, don’t worry about what I know.” I asked why Dad had it in for me.
“I don’t know,” he said, “He never discusses it.”
“Hey, I’m telling ya.” He was fidgeting. I was making him nervous. I asked him why he didn’t try to stop Dad’s drinking. “You should quit buying the stuff,” I said.
“Look, man”—his mouth crimped at the corners—”he knows what he’s doing.”
“He’s an adult, isn’t he?”
“Good, maybe we should get him some”—I winked lewdly—”adult magazines for his old age, straighten him out.”
A tense quiet. “You’re fucked up,” he said. “You always have to joke.”
“I’m not joking, just a little mad.”
“I’m not either. Look, man, he’s into juice. That’s his thing. I’m not going to stop him.”
“I know, man, and you’re into dope,” I told him, mocking his idiom.
He made a contemptuous mouth.
“Latch told me you got arrested.”
“Oh, Latch is a good one to talk. How many times has he been busted?”
“So what happened?”
“A little grass, no big thing.”
I recalled my own early brushes with the cops and how my name in the paper shamed Dad in front of his workmates. “What did Dad say?”
“I don’t think he knew. Can’t read without his glasses.” And what the hell was this about the glasses, I asked.
“I don’t know. He keeps saying he’ll get new ones. If you remind him, he gets mad.”
“Why won’t he get new ones?”
“How the hell do I know?”
We were out in the yard, I looked off at the low sun, at the tree line. Give him a space to calm down. Then I asked him about the pajamas and if he always stayed in. Billy said no. Last winter they went to a few basketball games. Sometimes they went out to a restaurant. And I wondered if he behaved this way only when I came home. A way of getting at me. Or poor dead Mom. Or something. You don’t know anything. I became aware of Billy saying “. . .the fuck is this? I don’t know what we talked about. Just things, sports. I don’t know. That’s it, man. No more. You’re making a big thing outta nothin’.”
It was the straw I was waiting for. “I hope you’re right,” I said.
For the remainder of my week visit, I heard that terrible squeak and thoop at odd times. I escaped several times with Latch but mostly I watched the levels of those bottles on the counter fall until one was replaced and the decanter magically refilled itself at night. The Cutty remained uncracked. But my father’s eyes were cracked, seemed to grow smaller in his pale, shapeless face as he gazed at the TV with a blank, unchanging expression, layers of gray smoke writhing about his head and neck, coiling, twisting.
I cooked some meals and washed dishes. Did some cleaning on the sly. He said nothing. I suggested we go out to a nice restaurant. He spoke, only to refuse, sitting there in his faded blue pajamas. And that’s where I left him.
The stainless steel side of the coach was splattered with mud, dulled with grit. After a night flight from Chicago, I caught the train in New York, sat, and stared into a private trance that was the one of my father staring into his. It rained and rained, all the way home. I walked through the station to a taxi out front. “Can you take me out to Chester?”
“Yup, get in.”
I spotted the Happily Ever After as we pulled out.
“What’s so funny?” asked the driver.
I didn’t answer. There were silver points of fear in his eyes.
And he spoke no more.
My father’s last bitter trump—it came from his lawyer before the funeral—was that he be buried with his family in Chester. There was a short hand-scrawled note to me: “You were your Mama’s boy. Keep the plot beside her for yourself, forever.” Why? Why not simply cut me out if he hated me? Billy and I, it turned out, would share the estate. Dad’s burning gesture didn’t make sense, or was that the sense that it made? Had he just wanted me to come home? Was that it?
You don’t know anything.
It hummed in the mind. Like the bees that hung above the funeral flowers in the yellowing watery air once the rain had stopped. It was infernally hot. Cicadas wailing. A gothic cemetery. The grave was in line with those of my grandmother and grandfather; it was next to a forbidding fence of tall black iron spears. The priest stood alone at the head of the varnished casket, a hunched, droning, red-wattled vulture. I walked a Kennedy half-dollar between my knuckles. There were reddish stones, old, some with gray-green lichen, a swamp just below with tall cattails, green, several bent by red-winged blackbirds. Nimbly, the half-dollar went in and out of my knuckles. A reproving look from my aunt. I did the classic pass and made it vanish, showed empty hands. Still, she frowned. So I reached over and made it appear behind my uncle’s ear. “Amen,” said Father Somebody. The devise was tripped and on canvas straps the box settled heavily downward with its awful cargo. But I didn’t look. He was still in the recliner with a blank face. He could see me in this yellow heat, look from the window with that triumphant idiotic grin. I wouldn’t be made a fool of. Which hand was the coin in? Neither. See? From a tree in the swamp, starlings hit the air like bits of exploded hearse. Latch stood on the other side, above the heads, mopping his face with a white handkerchief. My uncle, shiny blisters of sweat on his forehead, turned for the funeral car, his summer gray all dark down the back. A man in a boxy suit with great wide lapels held open the car door. And shut it. A dim vinyl gloom. He started the engine and cold air rushed from the vents. Billy sneezed. In the next alley an old pick-up with three young diggers waited impatiently. We rolled out and onto a country road that was empty except for an old man in a straw hat and white shirt. He was starting up a long hill in the whitening light.
It was important to keep moving, focus.
Billy and I carried an old door from the damp cellar up to the knoll under the pines where there was a carpet of bronze needles. Any chance of a breeze would be there. The door made a table between two work-scarred sawhorses. Old days making things in the cellar with Dad. Jigsawed animals. Bird-houses. I went into the kitchen for the fifths of whiskey. Billy put a sheet over the door. We had done the same for Mom and her brother. Practice. Latch helped with a few cases of beer, tubbed and iced them under the door. He paused. How was I doing? I laughed. In Osaka? His face shifted, eyes widened. Relatives and neighbors were slamming car doors and trudging up the grade with platters of salad, cheese, cold cuts. Wasps kept landing on food, pulsing their lethal abdomens. People loading and balancing the bendy paper plates. Hot pine pinched the nostrils. Groups formed. Drinks went down. Voices rose. Everyone assured each other it was hot. Otherwise a lovely day. People approached me cautiously and addressed comments. I didn’t look at their faces, I looked at their hands. My aunt Peg had long narrow hands, white as soap carvings, with wrinkled backs and bulgy veins the color of ink on a certificate of death. The hands parted with strain, snapped together as if by a magnet. Predictably, she said that Dad looked lovely laid out. I said he had embalmed himself. The hands fretted. Yes, did it himself with 100 proof Smirnoff. They jerked. The mortician only had to comb his hair. Mr. Burns, our neighbor, had one hand pocketed, the other, liver-spotted, curled about a plastic glass. That back surgery, he said. Seven years ago your father was a different man. My cousin’s little girl asked for a Pepsi. I went to the cellar. Nellie, Mom’s best friend, had delicate hands, long slim fingers, balletic gestures. Why? she repeated, paused. Friction is like love for some people. Without her, he was lost. Aunt Mary said he had lost his faith, but everyone prayed and in the end Father Zindt was there. Uncle Bill said no: Dad never had much use for the Church. Their hands, red, flapped at each other like fighting cocks. Uncle Ed said I ought to show respect. Magic has its place. His hands were big and square and tanned; the fingers were thick, nails broken and rimmed with slim moons of dirt. One jumped on my shoulder. The other hoisted a glass nearly full of straight Four Roses, two dimesized cubes disappearing. I said Dad taught me those tricks; it was a form of prayer. Honest. You need a drink, he said. You don’t know anything. It tickled, started my dry cackle. You ought to have a drink, he said. Somebody else said Billy and I should get out of that house; it was unhealthy. My cousin Dean said nothing. He rolled a piece of bologna into a tube and popped it into his mouth; he ate with his mouth open so you could admire the way it mixed with the chewed cracker and tumbled about like dirty clothes in a port-holed washer. He laughed and washed it down with a beer. Dad watched from the window with a triumphant grin half hidden in reflections. What did I know? I knew hands. They were thick and thin knuckled, fat and slim fingered, white and tanned, hairy and smooth, ringed and ringless; they dangled at sides, flew to each other, held elbows, twitched, dug in noses, thoughtlessly lifted food, came indifferently to itches, lay inertly on chair arms—they led a reckless, incomprehensible life of their own.
Next day, I found myself carting the garbage cans out to the street. An awful stench came out of them; they weren’t full, but I couldn’t face a heaving whiteness of maggots so I drove Dad’s old Ford to the back of a plaza TV store for boxes. The car was filthy and dead-smelling with dust and had an ashtray of cascading butts, a smeary windshield. Returning, I pulled the car under the pines, opened both doors, and cleaned it completely, giving the interior a wash with lysol, mostly for scent. I’d wax a small section of it everyday so that at least one part of my day would be X-ed in and looming ahead sometime would be the image of a ‘55 Ford restored to a former state of shining integrity. Maybe. But it was my car now.
Then I attacked the house, opening all the windows. An empty cardboard box in each room. First I collected the crucifixes with palm fronds, yellow-brown, that were coiled around them. Into the box. Even the Extreme Unction kit—a hollow cross—with salt and oil and a tiny towel and candles inside. Then the statues and holy pictures of The Blessed Mother, The Sacred Heart, St. Theresa, St. Jude, The Infant of Prague (this one gotten up with a gold crown and a red satin cape with fake ermine trim), and St. Joseph. Into the box. I carried the box down to the street and dropped it next to the barrels. The plaster statues clinked and off went the head of St. Joe.
Working slowly, deliberately, taking short jaunts into town for real and imaginary necessities, I reshaped the house while my brother worked. I had decided to stay and would make the house my own. At night, Billy groaned approval but said little.
Finally, I arrived at Dad’s room, that private sanctum, open to scrutiny at last. I opened drawers in the oak dresser, nervously, as if he might suddenly appear in the doorway, bellow, and get me by the neck with his big hands for daring to spy on his life. Into the box went stained underwear, sleeveless T-shirts, faded pajamas, a bathrobe, handkerchiefs, socks, a scarf, and shirts. In the top drawer I found a Social Security card, a driver’s license, a union membership card, dues receipts, two old wallets and one he used to the end (no snapshots, nothing personal). In a small jewelry box made of cardboard covered with silver foil, resting on cotton, were their wedding bands, pale gold, peaceful, side by side. Quick, I had to put them aside. There were other things in the drawer: clasps, stickpins, cuff links—most greenish with oxidation. Into the box. Two large manila envelopes stuffed with family pictures—those I would look at later, study. It was hot. A fly buzzed against the upper part of the window, was caught in the curtains. I was tempted to quit. But where were those girlie books, that pack of porno cards that would help fill in the picture? Here was a letter postmarked Chester, 1930, addressed to Dad at a rooming house in Providence. I think he worked for a man who moved houses. The letter was in Polish, from my grandmother. I would get my aunt to translate. Probably nothing. I went on looking. Where were they, those telltale letters from another woman? Or letters from Mom to Dad when he was in the service? Or letters from Mom’s lover? Evidence—where was it?
I started on the closet, the floor. Dead shoes, a black umbrella filled with dust, fallen wire hangers, tongueless rubbers, cracked boots, a fallen necktie, one of Mom’s forgotten purses (an Indian head nickel inside), a warped tennis racket (I recalled a browning snapshot of Dad toweling off at the net, smiling), some metal shoe trees. Into the box. And a half empty bottle of Seagrams. Dad’s only unfinished project. Christ, why couldn’t he have emptied it? He could have left a note in bold black strokes: “Ave atque vale.” That would have been style. Into the box.
I stood up. The box was filling with bits of his life. Now the coats and suits that hung like thin slabs of dark meat from the wire hooks. Finally, when I had pulled everything from the closet—like entrails—there was a strange cane hanging on the pipe by its crook. It was black and had a number of inlaid pearl designs: flowers. Looked oriental. Osaka? I had never seen it before and there it was, suddenly, a kind of hanging menace. In my hands, it had an odd balance. I noticed a jointseam in the brass collar at the neck. Sure, it was one of those canes with a sword inside. Holding it horizontally, I grabbed the scabbard and twisted the handle. There was a violent report, smoke, a piece of black flak shooting past my head and bouncing back. My ears rang. The room echoed. Then I saw myself holding the cane, a hole of daylight at my heart, a radiating web of silver lines in the windowglass, my hand trembling at the look of my father’s idiotic smile. You don’t know anything.
When I showed Billy the cane, he too said he had never seen it. “But it’s really far-out, hunh? A .22, single shot.”
“What would Dad be doing with that?”
Billy said, “I give up.” He inspected it closely, eyes wide with excitement. I explained how the rubber tip ricocheted off the wall. “You must of shit.”
“Sure.” He swung and aimed it at the woods. “Hey, maybe he got it in the service.” I said that was possible, but why?
“Why does there always have to be a why? Just to have it, is all. Waste a burgler maybe.”
“Was Dad ever in Japan?” He hoisted his eyebrows. “Beats me.”
Billy insisted on firing it again. He put a tin can on the wall where the woods began. There was an unconvincing bang and a tick, tick, tick, as the bullet ran through sundown leaves.
Life fell into a pattern of fast-food meals, car-work, bar-haunting, and sleep. Lots of sleep, especially after a beery night with Latch and the boys. After a while, the Ford shone, but there were a number of spots too badly oxidized to be restored. I bought points, plugs, and condenser and with Billy’s timing light got the engine to hum. Then what? A vacuum. Finally, I looked in those two manila envelopes, winced, but repeatedly applied that red-hot iron to my flesh. In browning photos, Mom and Dad smiled at me from where they were once very happy. That was it. What happened to them happened after I went away to college, slowly, not dramatically. Then Mom died and whatever it was, worsened. Dad retired and the house became empty, full of time, space, and memory. It was too much for him. For me. I took to walking around from room to room, notion to notion, with that loaded cane to protect me—protect me from the eerie reaches of the house about me, from my father’s genes within me, coiled in their darkness, ready to strike. I sat in the recliner. At night, everything wore a look of fatigue, and the room seemed to breathe, the walls expand and contract like lungs. Furniture was alien, a clutter of oddments ingested by a whale. One night, the doorbell rang in another world. I grabbed the cane and looked out the window: it was Latch.
We sat in Irene’s, a downtown bar. Some guys in green and white softball uniforms ganged in from a victory. Lots of laughing and drinking. Big gold pitchers of beer beaded with sweat. I thought of Dad’s homer, that beautiful white trajectory, the ball hanging at its peak. Latch signaled the bartender for two more. “Church education,” he snarled. “Thou shalt love death with thy whole heart.”
“My father didn’t buy that spiel.”
“Don’t be so sure. What about your mother?”
“She was different.”
“And what about you?”
“Don’t taunt me.”
“Anyway, it’s too early to tell,” he taunted. “Like with drugs, poisons. Think of women on the Pill. Everyday I expect to see my sister with another eye in the middle of her forehead.”
We laughed. The bar was quieting down for a championship bout: it was Ali again,
“Only one thing you can be sure of,” said Latch. “One thing.”
“Once upon a time, we were all very big in Osaka.” He knocked back the beer and laughed in his black way. “Oh, yeah, once upon a time.”
Above the bar, Ali, in red trunks, looked great. The belt of fat was gone from his middle. His timing was back, and he was throwing shots—jabs, hooks, combos—from everywhere. He floated, circled, reversed direction, dropped his hands, faked beautifully, and clowned just enough to remind you who he was. After Ali had taken a few heavy punches, someone said, “That’s it, he’s finished. Has-been City, here he comes.” But even in the later rounds, he was on his toes, full of grace, and fighting.