When I met with the funeral home people they spoke in low tones and stood stooping slightly forward like old English butlers do in movies. I assumed this was meant to give me a sense of ease and comfort. This was not the impression they gave me. What they did give me were two brochures; one a list of prices, the other a checklist for the bereaved to follow. The price list made me want to go into the funeral business. The checklist became an invaluable resource. In the ensuing days I began to make a mental checklist of every aspect of the day: Buy flowers – check. Call insurance agent – check. Call family members to inform of death – check.
At the wake my father’s casket was placed slightly angled in a corner surrounded by flowers. As is family custom a keg of beer was placed in the opposite corner behind a table draped with a white tablecloth with cups neatly arranged on its surface. I remember my father saying at similar gatherings, “This would be a great party except for the stiff over there. He said this at his mother’s funeral I recall.
The next couple of hours were spent in a blur of greeting and reminiscing. I spoke to my father’s friends, lodge members and co-workers, none of whom I knew. I nodded and smiled and listened. I laughed when a laugh was intended and furrowed my brow when something serious was implied, but all the while felt somehow that these people were speaking about a different person.
After nice gentleman in a plaid hat shook my hand then walked off leaving me alone for the first time that evening, I found myself standing in the center of the room. And I knew I had two options. Turn left to the beer, right to the coffin. I knew what I wanted to do but turned right instead.
I knelt on the velvet riser alongside the coffin resting my elbows on the edge. I clasped my hands instinctively inter locking my fingers. I should pray now, I thought, I should pray for my father. My mind flipped over words and sayings at random but I couldn’t quite place them in the right order. I thought back to CCD and Sunday classes, the nuns had pounded Bible verses into us repeatedly. I know this stuff. I should be able to say the right words, or at least think them. How terrible am I, I thought, what the hell kind of a son am I? I can’t even pray correctly.
Candles were placed on a narrow shelf behind the coffin, they were scented but I couldn’t tell at first of what. I inhaled through my nose breathing in the aroma. Vanilla. Defiantly vanilla, I thought. It made me think of ice cream, soft-serve from the Dairy Queen, the one that was only open in spring and summer. It was just a walk-up style counter, two windows and long lines. There were two things in my world that indicated spring had arrived: pitchers and catchers reported and the Dairy Queen opened.
I would plead for my parents to take me, “please oh please oh please, I would say and my father would rub his neck and scrunch his face, “I don’t know, we’re not made of money, he would say, “and there’s always such a line. Then I would clasp my hands and interlock my fingers, “oh please oh please oh please. “Well, he would tap his chin and think for a moment, “I guess if we left now we could beat the crowd. I would hug him round the waist.
The spring I turned six was the first year he wasn’t there. I remember I cried that year. I cried a lot back then. And I would get angry, so angry. I could feel it throughout my body, hot and burning, like a fever. At the slightest problem, anything out of place. If ever I felt the world was not how it should be I would rage and scream. I suppose I cried just to cool myself down. But it’s not right when a boy cries. Boys don’t cry, that was made abundantly clear.
I can’t I remember the night my father left. But I imagine it. He is standing with his gym bag in one hand; it is overflowing, clothes hanging from the slightly opened zipper. Under his arm he carries his chess set. My parents are screaming and I am yelling for them to stop. I stand on the couch throwing cushions at them but they do not notice me. My parents point at each other, jabbing fingers like daggers. When my father leaves he slams the door. My mother comforts me. She pets my hair and whispers, “Shhhh, don’t cry, everything will be okay. I look over her shoulder at the doorknob. It so far away, there is no way I can reach it.
Every second weekend was at Dad’s apartment. Or at the racetrack, to watch the trotters run. Or on the golf course, to carry his bag. It became routine after a while, up until the burger incident.
I don’t like onions. That was the problem. I tried to tell my father that as he was ordering our Quarter Pounders from the MacDonald’s drive-thru. He told me to hush; he couldn’t hear through these piece-of-shit speakers. Put a man on the moon, he said, but you can’t build a god-dammed drive-thru speaker worth a shit. Back at the apartment we sat at the dining room table with our burgers laid out on their wrappers like paper trays. I ate my fries staring at the horrible food in front of me. Little bits of chopped onions oozing from the sides, stuck in the cheese, like a contamination.
My father ate his burgers – he had two – in silence oblivious to the horror before me. When he finally noticed my lack of eating he seemed genuinely confused, “What’s wrong? he asked. I explained the onion dilemma. “Wipe them off for Christ’s sake, he said.
“But it will still taste like onions, I explained. He was unimpressed.
“Eat the damn sandwich and like it, he told me, “I don’t work my ass off every day to waste food. You don’t leave this table till every crumb is gone.
“I guess I’ll sleep here then, I said. I meant for this to be a joke. It did not get the intended response. He lurched forward, grabbed the burger in his fist and heaved it across the room in a perfect pitching motion. It splattered on the wall spraying meat and pickles and cheese in all directions leaving the bottom bun stuck to the wall and sliding. It was then I laughed. I thought it was funny, I couldn’t help but laugh. The way the bun just stuck there then slid down slowly leaving a yellow and red, catsup and mustard trail. I thought of planes in the sky leaving a contrail behind – this was a condiment trail. And I laughed.
“You think this is funny? his voice was loud and his eyes wide; his hands clenching and unclenching, grasping at the air. My father took hold of the edge of the table and lifted two legs off the carpet. There was a moment then, a moment when I thought the world would explode. There was anger there, in the air, hot and feverish. The world was out of place. And in that moment I knew what my father was feeling and I was afraid. I was afraid because I knew what I would do. Then it was gone. He gently placed the table back down on the floor, took a deep breath and walked away. “Do what you like, he said, “I just don’t care.
I’m not sure how long I sat there – head down, hands folded, fingers interlaced, waiting. For what I didn’t know, just waiting. “Come on bud, I heard his voice from the other room, “Come in here.
“I want to go home, I said. I was crying, “Take me home now.
There was a long pause, “Fine, he said, “get your things.
He drove slowly, much slower than he usually drove. He was searching for something, a reason maybe, a reason to turn around. Instead he found a playground. We pulled into the parking lot, “I feel like swinging, he said without turning, “You want to swing? I did.
They were the old kind, those swings. Wooden slats attached to chain links. We swung slowly at first, “I bet I can go higher, my father said. I told him he could not and set off to prove it. I pumped my legs, rocked my body forward and back, tried desperately to gain enough momentum to overtake my father. He was so much bigger, so much stronger; he could beat me with ease. “Let’s jump, I heard him say. I was afraid, “Okay, I said. We counted: one – two – three. I pulled my arms in to my sides and pushed forward on an upward arc, my father did the same. For a moment we floated, him and me together, above the ground in open space. We were free and flying, just us in a singular moment at one with each other till gravity took hold and brought us down. We collapsed on the sand laughing.
“What’s next? he asked. I ran to the merry-go-round.
“Spin me, I told him, “Spin me fast. And he did. I sat with my body facing the center leaning my head backwards so that the world was upside-down. And the world was moving, moving, moving faster. I saw my father’s face, then trees and clouds, the swing set, my father’s face. “Faster, I told him, “Faster, faster, faster. And the world became a blur and there was no detail just the sound of my own laughter drowned out by that of my father’s. It was then I lost my grip. And for a moment there was no fear, I was just flying again, till my head hit something hard. My father’s hands gathered me, “Don’t cry, he said, “Boys don’t cry.
My mother came to collect me in the Emergency Room; six stitches and a concussion. “I called you as a courtesy, I heard him saying, “I could have handled this myself.
“Jesus Christ, My mother was saying, “What the hell were you thinking?
She carried me out of the hospital and over her shoulder I could see my father, his hands clenching, grasping the air, his eyes wide.
The candle flames flickered and twisted and fluttered, I began to lose myself in them feeling myself sway in a little fire dance. Stop. Focus. My knees began to hurt, I always hated kneeling. The worst part about Church, I thought. How long had I been here? I imagined the other watching me, “such a dutiful son, they were saying, “such respect. Or were they? Maybe they thought I nodded off. “Little ingrate, they said, “making a fool of himself. As nonchalantly as possible I glanced at my watch but it was partially covered by my sleeve. I settled in to pray again. Concentrate now, I told myself, focus your thoughts. For the first time I looked down on my father’s body. It didn’t seem real; just a replica, plastic and wax. Was this really the man I knew? He wore a light grey suit and a powder blue tie, his hands clasped together across his large belly, a rosary intertwined between them
“He looks so natural, was the refrain I had heard all night. But this was not natural; probably the most unnatural I had ever seen this man, posed like a doll wearing a mask of my father. Just a mask. Maybe I could pull it off, wear the mask myself. But I don’t need a mask. I look just like him.
My knees began to twinge and my legs shake. I needed to stand, I needed to say something quickly and be done. So, with scent of vanilla in my nose, my hands clasped and my fingers interlaced I said softly the only words I could think of, “oh please oh please oh please. Then leaning both hands on the coffin edge I lifted myself slowly, thinking for a moment I might slip and fall. Maybe I could go for it, play it off as collapsing in grief, but no, I learned a long time ago not to make scenes.
I gained my balance, awkwardly made the sign of the cross and made my way across the room to the keg. Mentally I checked off another obligation: kneel before coffin/show respect – done.
My father practically danced to his bedroom and returned with a marble chessboard inlaid in a slab of polished wood. The pieces themselves were wood, hand-carved; squat and raw looking, childish and beautiful.
I went to the fridge to get the remaining carton of the beer. Handing him a can and opening one myself I asked, “Black or white?
He looked at me with raised eyebrows over the edge of his glasses, “White, of course. he said.
The pieces were set; it was time to go to war. I asked for a cigarette. “Your move, I said.
The opening went quickly. Pawns advanced and countered. We both brought out our knights. He took the first piece, a pawn, and I castled early.
My father sat back lit a cigarette and smiled, “On the defense. I can see where this is going already, he nearly finished another beer in a single swallow, “you sure you want to finish?
“A bit early for that kind of talk, I advanced my queen forward taking a pawn.
“Hmm, moving out your lady pretty quick, His eyes never left the board, “You’re either desperate or sneaky; I don’t know which just yet.
As he concentrated on the board I regarded him for the first time since I arrived. He was only in his mid-fifties but the wrinkles in his face had become pronounced and his receding hair almost pure white. I realized for the first time how old my father looked.
“Your move, Dad was smiling again.
The time between moves began to take longer and longer as the game moved along. “So how’s your mother doing? She still with that guy? he asked.
“They’ve been married for almost ten years.
“That’s right. Good for her, his eyes looked unfocused, “You gonna move of what? Still your turn, I told him. “Oh right, I knew, his voice trailed off. He advanced a knight and I took his bishop.
“Shit, he said and lit another cigarette and threw me one. He began to rub his chin back and forth. I knew the motion. It’s what he did that he was worried. His eyes were heavy. “Your move, He said not smiling.
I moved my rook forward. “Check, I said.
“Damn it, he clenched his fists, “You’re cheating. Let me think.
I stared at the board. I wasn’t looking at the pieces. I knew I had won the game. I was trying to muster the courage to say something. It was the thing that was silent in the air every time we were together. It lingered there every time we met, it swirled around us. Those unspoken words that touched our thoughts but we pushed away out of pride, out of fear. This night I would say those words.
“Dad, I said in a low voice, “there’s something I want to tell you, I looked up from the table, “Dad this is not easy for me.
His eyes were closed, chin resting on his chest. Instinctually I reached over to feel the pulse on his wrist. “You always did have perfect timing Dad. I removed several of my pieces form the board and replaced them with his. When I was finished I shook him hard by the arm, “Dad! Hey Dad! Come on, it’s your move!
His eyes popped open and he jerked his head up with a start. For a moment he looked disoriented then seemed to regain his composure. He looked down at the chess board.
“Well, he said, “look here. He advanced his queen forward, “Check and mate in three moves. You’ll never beat your old man.
“Right Dad, I said, “looks like you win.
He stood up, leaned against the table, turned slowly then walked toward his bedroom. “Back in a minute, he said sliding down the hallway his shoulder against the wall. I could hear the springs of his bed creak as his full weight fell upon it. Immediately I could hear him snore.
I put the chess set away and I cleaned up as best I could. I left the apartment and drove home through the empty, gray streets.
In the end there would be no tears that day, the day of my father’s funeral. The memories came, they tumbled in my mind and they blew away with the cold, winter wind. I did not hate my father, I knew that, but I did not love him either. In the end it was just obligation that kept me standing there by the graveside, nothing more.
I knelt removing my glove to take a handful of earth. Standing, my arm outstretched, I opened my hand, one finger at a time, letting the dirt fall into the hole. Some of the dirt fell in a long stream, some of it blew away in the wind, and some of it stuck to the sweat of my palm. I wiped the dirt away as best I could and replaced my glove. “Goodbye Dad, I said.