· POETRY ·
J Andrew Clark
Bill the Cat
· FICTION ·
· SWAG ·
R O A D
Something has been happening to me and I'm not sure if I'm going crazy. I've not told my wife about it, don't want to upset her if I don't have to. Only I'm scared. Really scared. Or at least I think I ought to be. You see, I'm not sure. It could be a good thing, and that's part of the feeling I get. But it's also something so disordered, so queer that I wonder if I'm losing it.
I'm sitting in my car right now, and I'm trying to decide if I should go. I don't want to miss the moment, lose forever the chance that I've been given. But I'm also worried that it's not really him at all, but something that's using him to get to me. I don't know. I've got my Q-beam plugged into the cigarette lighter and the .357mm loaded with hollow-points I borrowed from my buddy lies next to me like some coiled black serpent. I try not to think about that damn hair trigger he told me about, but the barrel is pointed away from me, just in case. The engine's running, the car's in drive and my foot hard on the brake should be the only thing holding me here, but it's not. I can see my wife, Meredith, through the upstairs windows still puttering around in the study. She'll be working on her next children's book. I should be up there with her right now going over it. Yet I'm sitting here looking up at this rich present wondering about a past that's possibly come to reclaim the future.
I have to know.
We live out in the country, pretty far from the madding crowd so to speak. We moved here some five months ago from New York City, finally having enough of that strange, sometimes wonderful place. I'm an artist, or at least I try to be in this hectic world that cares nothing, it seems for true beauty or craftsmanship. I lived in New York eighteen years. That's about fourteen years too long in my mind. Though I guess if I'd not stayed there that long I wouldn't have met my wife, nor learned what I really needed to learn about art, so it was the right thing to do.
New York's really a place for kids, I think. You're young, full of energy, the city's got a million secrets that it's waiting to whisper in your ears -- if you're willing to listen. And I did listen, for the first few years, and it really made an impression on me. Not just the usual things, the tall buildings jutting into the sky like ancient rocket ships, or the crusty steel worms of the subways burrowing beneath the trembling hide of Manhattan. But in subtler ways, too. The galleries and shops. Not Bloomingdales or Saks where they glad-hand the shit out of you because you've got money, but the strange little shops that seem to materialize before your eyes down some neglected little side street. Grimy storefronts that become lost treasures the minute you step inside, the worn jointed floors of aged creaking wood and the tightening of space in a world of tightened spaces. But these spaces reassure you that maybe all is not lost. Here a little knick-knack, there a small something that no one probably knows what the hell it is or was, only the guy behind the counter does know and enjoys telling you all about it. That was the stuff I loved. Chance encounters with people who didn't have that usual New York case of the perpetual gripe. Everyone stiff-legging around like they're each nursing their own personal red hot rivet up their asses. And really it's the same hot rivet everyone in the damn city has -- tired of living ass to cheek with rude strangers dressed in black and wearing sunglasses at night.
Every once in a while I got lucky and got out of the city and into upstate New York or New Jersey. Beautiful countryside. Astounding! I grew up in Texas. Not in a really small town, but not a giant either. There were plenty of open fields around, lots of big sky, clean air. So upstate was kind of like going home. Only those sporadic jaunts into the country weren't enough. And the city quit telling me its secrets, or maybe I stopped listening. Maybe a little of both. Now home is in North Carolina. Back to the big skies, the gentle rolling hills and trees all around me. I'm lucky and I know it. It's everything I've ever wanted in a place to call home. Meredith loves it, she's from Florida. And my cat likes it too, even though she's a transplanted New Yorker, from the North Shore of Long Island.
Now we're in a pretty secluded area. There's not a lot of people around us, just a few scattered homes. People wave to each other here whether they want to or not. Most do and I guess that's the difference between here and New York.
We live in a little home with a nice separate studio nestled into the trees and scrub. Deer wander into our backyard and I see them bolting from the headlights at night like something out of Daktari, leaping over hedges and bounding into the darkness. Our cat doesn't know what to make of them.
It took me awhile to acclimate to the quiet, and to truly dark nights where the Milky Way is something that you can actually see with the naked eye. When we first got here I'd wake up in the middle of the night at any little sound. A creak downstairs and I'm jumping. The big moon moths fluttering and bumping up against the windows, I'm jumping. Everything made me jump. I was such a basket case for the first couple of months that I kept the security lights on practically all the time. I kept waking up at night expecting to see a shadow darting beyond the perimeter of the light, or something oozing into the shadows, sneaking up on the house. Too much space and too little light in the evening. Meredith, on the other hand, slid right into the rhythm of this place a lot easier than I ever did. She took things as automatic that I stressed over continuously. But that makes sense. She was only in the city five years to my eighteen.
Once, in the middle of my country night indoctrination's, I heard an especially aggressive cracking sound, like the splintering of a doorjamb. I shakily climbed out of bed and grabbed my Q-beam flashlight. This thing delivers one million candles of light on point of impact. I mean you can shine this thing outside at night and watch the grass smoke and wilt under its probing eye. It's amazing. I grabbed this thing and crept down the stairs. Meredith quizzing me the whole way down, alerting any potential killers that I was indeed on my way and for them to get ready. All element of surprise gone. I toasted the walls with the Q and -- it was only a fallen painting, the frame a shambles on the floor, the nail on the wall bent from the weight. Well, I emptied the mars bars from my jockeys and tried to get some sleep, Meredith I-told-you-soing me all the way. I guess I should have just laid there and let someone come in and kill me and sodomize her. Yeah, sure. Maybe now I should buy a gun.
But in time I did get over my paranoia and have actually come to enjoy our nights here more than anything, because we're both night people. The wind in the trees, the crickets, the moths, the deer, it's just about paradise. I go out into the studio and work late into the night, the shades open and everything. Not bothered anymore. Which is a good thing.
I've started to do something that I used to do only when I went home to visit in Texas. I would get in my parent's car, roll down the windows, turn on the tunes and drive. I never had any particular place to go, just let whimsy have its way. The wind would blow in nice and cool through the car, and I would visit all the places of my childhood, my carbeams touching lightly the old schoolyard where skinned knees were the order of the day, where my sister stuck me on the tail end of Crack the Whip and I got to eat a pound of mud at first crack. Down the deserted canal road by the old high school, where we had to jog five miles in the unremitting heat of a scorching Texas afternoon; thirty minutes of foot-pounding numbness on hot asphalt, thirty minutes to make it or you got to run it again. Past my first love's home on the outskirts of town, my beams scanning those old windows wondering if she ever casts her mind back to those days now and then. Driving because it gave me a sense of being in control of my own life, my own direction. Living in New York there's only the subway or the busses and the relinquishing of control; sitting, waiting, at the mercy of a million other things totally out of your control.
So now I get in the car and go. Here, though, I have no old haunts to visit -- just the future. With my wife comfortably in bed, the house locked up tight, I hit the streets. There's a beautiful drive for the ten miles to town from our home, a long, winding two-lane that snakes through the dark hills and rolling pastures. No streetlights just road. It's a gentle drive, pleasant and relaxing. The car seems to drive itself, it knows where it's going and follows the yellow line. There's the equine silhouettes down by O'Daniel's pond, too dark to see the catfish and bass jumping for mayflies. The canopy of trees that line the road, an organic tunnel, the sky and moon peaking through, moon shadows mottled on the rambling blacktop. Small lights in the dark pines, other homes sleeping in this quiet place. The window down, cool fresh air blowing through the car. No tunes, the night sounds sweeter than any music.
I've rarely seen other cars on that road, that late at night. Unlike New York this place settles down and sleeps the night away. The shops close, the awnings get rolled up, no gates on the shopfronts, no crazy protection from burglars. Just quiet. I've made this drive a lot of times, during the day and during my night perambulations. It's one of the things I enjoy most about being out here, that drive. Sometimes I'm startled by the painted metal mailboxes as they come around the bend; if you're not paying too much attention they look just like people. There's sometimes a cluster of them off to the side, way stations for those that live in the hills; easier on the mailman. And their configurations, the post-like legs, the heft of the larger boxes, the red flags like pen holders in pockets, some with reflectors that seem like strange eyes in the darkness. Then you're whipping by and these things all converge to make a person, however fleeting the false glimpse may be. Sometimes I get a quick wring of fear in my throat when I see the reflected red-eye of a doe on the side of the road. It becomes the thing that's waiting for me. It's made its way through the rich and feculent undergrowth of the forest, a slave to its primitive instinct, snout twitching to my ever so subtle scent on the nocturnal air. It's crossed miles of inelegant terrain, shuffling, shambling closer each day, feeding off of cattle and field mice. Horses scattering, nostrils flared, eyes wide with fear. Hunting, finally locating the true game -- me. Perfect, it thinks. Away from its lair, in the middle of a deserted jungle path. I'm an easy kill.
But it's only a deer. It could only be a deer. And yet, when I see those eyes, some reptilian thing in my brain opens its eye and I'm shivering with fear of the unexpected. It's ridiculous, I know. But there it is. Just the other night Meredith and I had an attack of the heebie jeebies and were up almost all night. Earlier the wind was kicking up outside like there was a storm coming on, only there was no thunder, no lightning. Nothing in the forecast even hinted at a storm, much less high winds. We were sound asleep when the phone rang. Not a normal ring. But a quick ring, like a half-ring. Then it rang again two times in quick succession. And in the hallway at the top of the stairs a red light pulsed, illuminating the ceiling and walls. I answered the phone -- nothing. Outside the winds were driving at what looked to be gale force, the trees bending at improbable angles. Still no lightning, no thunder. That freaked us out and we sat up with the lights on for a good many hours trying to talk our way down from the fear that was crawling over our skins. Never did figure that one out, though I asked my buddy whom I bought the house from and he said that it might have just been a power surge. Fine. Except he couldn't explain the red light in the hallway.
And I can't explain what happened just last night. I look over at Meredith sleeping peacefully beside me and I start shaking at the memory of it. Sitting now, though, in the study with a hefty tumbler of Mister Daniels held in my trembling hands, I try and blow it off. Try to tell myself that I'm seeing things -- only I know in my mind that I'm not.
Last night I took my usual drive. Only this time I decided to go right instead of left toward town. Figured I'd check out the other direction for a change. Not that the normal route is getting old, it's not. Just thought I'd mix it up a little, that's all. I remember looking in the rearview mirror at the dark shell of my house and thinking that maybe it wasn't a good idea to go right then. But I didn't stop.
The thing about it is that I don't know this route at all. It's brand new to me. I've never had a reason, or the inclination to go that way. I do know that it's deeper into the country, deeper into what could be Lostville for me, even though I have an atlas and all in the glove box. One thing I noticed right away was that the trees whipping by were darker, closer together than my normal road. And the moon was straining to peek through the thick weave of branches. The road seemed to get more confined, narrower and the shoulder smaller so that mile markers looked like they'd almost scrape the car if I wasn't careful. Very few mailboxes out here, too. But still, every once in awhile I'd get a little break and a field or two would explode into space at the edge of the trees. Sounds stupid, I know. But the land looked darker there. As if even the land itself was being confined by something, cozyed up for display somehow, more like a set piece. I almost felt like I could put my finger on it, the thing that was bugging me about it, and then the trees would obscure my vision again and begin their hasty march past my windows. Even my headlights seemed dimmed somehow. They didn't quite cut the dark, even with the high beams on. It was sort of like swimming in a pool at night, how that pool light never seems to travel very far. Everything always seems just outside the fringe of that light.
I had started out with the windows down, but found that the night air had a chill that was hitting me pretty deep, so I rolled them up. That was strange -- not even close to winter here. I rounded a bend and red eyes glared back at me. I expected to fly by a deer, but there was nothing there. Whatever it was had either bolted, or closed its eyes as I sped past. I remember thinking that was a weird thought. That there was something other than the deer I expected to see, something so smart that it would close its eyes and that would protect it, camouflage it from my sight.
On I went. The road turning and twisting into hills I knew nothing about. The ride still felt good, but something else had insinuated itself into the mix and I was just starting to feel it. A slow apprehension on my part. And every turn in the road became a little nail of anxiety driven into my heart. Anticipation laced with, well -- fear. There it was. With no basis, no grounds. Just fear.
It was as if I dreaded the continuation of my journey, but could no more lift my foot from the pedal than tear my eyes from the continuous thread of road before me. It was as though I was standing still and the trees and everything they hid were approaching me, encircling me, tethering me to that spot, growing in number and depth. Another bend was coming and I began to fidget in my seat, the cold leather slick with my sweat.
It happened very quickly, like the mailboxes. One second -- road, the next -- a man on the road, lunging toward me. An instant -- that was all. A blur of movement, a sweep of somber cloth crested by a pellucid face. But it was in that hungry clutch of light, the smile that got me. I knew that smile! It took seconds, fractions of seconds for it to invade my heart, to piston into my breast, tighten my throat. A gasp or a sob forced its way from somewhere inside me and I drove my foot into the brake, the car balking as I slammed into reverse. I looked over my seat, my palsied hand gripping the wheel struggling to hold it on course. I backed, slowed to the shoulder -- nothing. The figure was gone.
I turned in my seat to face front and sat, too scared, too stunned to move. I checked the side mirrors -- nothing. Adrenaline raced in my ears and the car became entirely too small in the icy heat of that moment. It took a few seconds, but I pulled it together. I rolled the window down and the rigor seemed to slip from my body with the sweat, my heart wed my regular pulse. My hands lay limp in my lap, two beached fish, my shoulders rounded. I was a fool. I shook my head and licked my arid lips. Stupid kid, I thought, trying to smile to myself, you're letting your mind run away with you. Some lonely hiker hears me skidding and reversing and hits the woods. Probably thinks I'm some kind of a nut out hunting him with an axe right now.
I looked in the rearview at the dense tangle of woods and shuddered, remembering where I was. Who in their right mind would be out there in that thicket at this time of night? And I thought of my car stopped on the far side of a bend on that dark artery, a small beacon in a very large ocean. The dark trees seemed closer.
I ground the gears into a quick K-turn and headed for home, the way still unfamiliar. The car shuddered and seemed to falter, as if an unseen hand was holding it back, preventing it from going where it needed to go. I checked my gas gauge and it read almost full. Oil: fine, temperature: fine. All fine. Except the car was struggling. It was acting like it was climbing a massive hill, only the segment of road I was on at that moment was straight and flat. Then the mood changed noticeably. The dark trees, and oppressive atmosphere that before had guilefully lured me in now seemed to hastily expel me from its dark reach. The road seemed to immediately widen, become more navigable and the moon, once hidden, revealed itself in full-bellied splendor. Great fields broadened on either side and the stars charted my course. The weight of dread was gone and my spirits lifted.
Yet lying in bed, the engine's cooling tick outside, the smile came to me again. A heavy disquietude knelt on my chest and squatted there, its rank breath hot on my face. I rolled over and listened to Meredith's placid breathing beside me. In that sound was everything good in my life. The warm intake of giving and loving, sunshiny days of passionate compassion in the acceptance of our two lives joined. Struggle though I might, an aural memory rose unbidden in my ears. That same sound made mournful, brutally amplified by a small portable intercom intended for the monitoring of infants. My father's labored breaths in whatever room we family congregated. The sphere of that sound the undercurrent of all sound in the home. Each pause of that intake a cause for the skipping of hearts and mad dashes to the rear of the house to check on dad confined to his bed, the tumor ripening inside his shaven head.
I did not hug my wife that night, though my arms ached to do so. Though every tear that soaked my pillow belied my yearning for it, I could not. If I woke her then, I knew, the gates would come crashing and I would not be able to stop them. Was afraid I might never be able to stop them.
At first light a new day thrust itself through the picture window and all fears and apprehensions had fled, phantoms of last night's discontent. It was hard for me to recall half of what had happened. My sleep, from sheer exhaustion, was heavy and dreamless, yet totally refreshing. Meredith rolled over and with dreamy eyes flirted me into tender unprintables. Giving and loving, a handing back and forth, a yielding of two hearts. The second time was more torrid, yet no less satisfying. Meredith even remarked how chipper I was -- her own words, and we laughed. It was a Saturday and the day was comfortably busy. We swept out the gutters of the house and studio, weeded the garden and wired off the rust from the two old Franklin stoves under the studio, spraying them kettle black, drying them in the sun. The wake up call in bed had us smiling contentedly at each other all day.
It was a perfect day, really. Sun, smiles, and more smiles. Heart healthy fare. I didn't think about the night before at all until well after sundown. Even then I didn't dwell on it. Just a half-remembered feeling of disquiet, the effects of which were no night ride that night. I looked up from my reading and eyed the back door with an idea to go, but I shrugged it off. No big decision making process. Just -- no. Looking back I can see that I avoided the idea, actually. Part of me was feeling guilty and had begun to chastise myself for even taking the drives at all. It was like playing hooky. If I was going to be up late, why wasn't I working? Of course the other half of my mind, the kid half, the reasonable half, loves the idea of playing hooky, but is smart enough to call it creative procrastination. Still, something there, some thing wormed its way between my will and my intellect. I think, unconsciously, my mind was protecting itself. I still had not put two and two together, so the equation was still open, the jury still out. Self-preservation is automatic, thankfully so. It's only when we override those impulses, or some random element insinuates itself into the mix that we get in trouble. For me it was my need to know, and it asserted itself two nights later.
So here I sit, the great undecided. Should I go? Should I stay? Meredith decides for me. Her shadow passes the window again and I ease my foot off the brake. I don't want her coming down here to find out why I'm sitting in the car with the engine running not going anywhere. Rather I want/don't want. But the car coasts down the dark tunnel of the drive, the familiar crunch of gravel sounding entirely too loud in my ears. When I slide onto the street and cut on the lights I get a momentary glimpse of the bright stars in the dark bowl of sky above. My heart is beating like a piston in my chest, yet I'm breathing way too slow, almost not breathing at all. I take a deep breath and idle to the stop sign. Two deer look up from the shadows of the Miller's front lawn then continue their midnight feast, ears twitching.
Will he be there?
I make the turn onto Ferguson and the car pulls me slowly up the hill. I can see, off to my left, the lights of my home through the woods. A beacon of good. I crest the hill and begin my descent. Immediately, as before, the thicket closes in, a living thing.
I have a friend, a girl I was great buddies with in art school, that had a ghostly encounter. Her aunt was ill at the time, dying of cancer. She was not expected to live long, I think, but the family held out hope. My friend, Janine, would make trips out from Long Island to Queens where her aunt lived to help with the household chores, sweeping, cleaning, cooking. Making sure her aunt was doing well, and that her uncle had someone to talk to, someone to be with, to take the burden off for awhile. She remembers being asleep back in Long Island and being awakened by some strange sound, or feeling in her room. Her aunt was standing at the foot of her bed. Her arms were raised to her chest and her hands were open palms up in a gesture of giving. Her face. Her face was free of pain, yet imploring my friend with tears to believe that all was okay. The next day she found that her aunt had died that very night, at that very time she was awakened! Strange, but very very true. She is not someone who has this happen all the time, nor is she someone who has ever believed these things. But I believe her. I've looked in her eyes and I know when she's having a go and when she's not.
We met her uncle Charlie, a different uncle, not related to the aunt who died. He was a deeply religious man. So religious, in fact, that he is one of the only non-Jesuit's to be buried in a Jesuit cemetery. He told us that when a loved one who has passed comes to visit, then we are blessed. They have been given the right to come and let you know that they love you, to tell you that everything is okay, they are in Heaven. He looked his niece in the eyes and told her that she was holy, blessed! He longed for such an encounter. He longed for heaven! This was at the time my father was ill and Charlie told me that he would pray for my father. I cried. Janine later told me that was a great honor. People come from all over the world to try to get Charlie to pray for them.
But this wasn't like that. This figment, if you will, did not come to me, rather I came to it. But it was walking. To me? Trying to find me? Wouldn't God show him the way? Wouldn't he know instinctively where I was? It's not as if he's been away on vacation, or run away and is just now finding it in his heart to come back. I saw him pass. I held his hand as he entered that solitary place that only the dying know. The place we'll all come to by and by. I saw what was my father, the intrinsic inner thing that was him, his essence, leave. His eyes closed, his lips parted in a silent farewell, and he left us. His hand, still warm, fell limp from mine and settled on the white linen.
I remember everything leading up to that moment in sharp crystalline detail. A day like any other. Yet how little we know. How easy for things to be terribly wrong.
Dad had been sleeping on and off. The small portable television had been left on, the sound low, the blue flicker of the screen shifting reflections on his face. I don't remember what was on, but I know that Dad was not interested in it. I had, earlier, read a story to him from a Roald Dahl collection, about a guy who dresses as a priest and goes from town to town conning rare antiques from unsuspecting country people. I figured Dad would get a kick out of the faux priest's comeuppance and he seemed to. I asked if he was thirsty and he shakily looked toward me and nodded his head.
In the den my mother was entertaining some close friends of theirs. I jogged through the room and instead of getting him water got him a small bottle of Dr. Pepper from the cupboard, he loved that drink. I jogged back through the house and into Dad's room. I opened the drink and got dad's straw. He was having difficulty drinking even through a straw at this point. His motor functions were being waylaid somewhere inside his mind and weren't getting from his brain to where they were going. I had a brilliant idea. I took the straw and slid it deep into the soft drink. I covered the exposed end of the straw with my index finger then lifted the straw from the bottle. The finger acted as a stopper and I was able to withdraw a strawfull of soda. I brought this over to Dad and he tilted his head back and opened his mouth. I dribbled the liquid in and he seemed to enjoy it. I repeated this I think three more times.
Suddenly dad started to cough. It was a wheezing, liquid cough. I raised him up on his pillows, his back hot from lying so long. He couldn't speak. He struggled for breath, yet couldn't get a complete one for the cough.
"Are you alright, dad?" I lightly patted his back and looked across the room at the portable throat pump sitting benignly on the table. Mom and her friends Billy and Charlie came in. Billy immediately grabbed the pump and pulled it to dad's side and tried to get the tube into his mouth. I continued to hold him up while she worked to get this horrible thing to work. Mom then asked Billy to stop. She stood at the end of the bed with her hands to her mouth, her eyes red and wet. There was nothing she wouldn't do for my father, yet there was nothing she could do. She wanted him to be finally at peace.
I held Dad's hand as he slowly asphyxiated and looked to my mother.
"Mom," I said. "I can give him mouth to mouth."
She shook her head, her shoulders heaving with quiet sobs. She said, simply, "No."
I held my father's hand as he slowly relaxed, his limbs rested, lay still. His eyes fluttered briefly beneath the lids. His face relaxed, was composed as if in sleep. And his pain was gone.
The room was quiet. The family doctor had come and my brother was now there. I stood and walked to my mother and held her. She was crying heavily now and squeezed me and my brother close. She stood by my father, knelt down and kissed him on the lips, lovingly passed her hand over his brow, brushed the hair from his cooling forehead. She pulled the covers to his chest and hugged him close. Dr. Harmon stepped over and listened to my father's chest with his stethoscope. Tears were streaming from his eyes, he loved my father, respected the kind of physician he had been.
We all left the room so Mother could be alone with him. My brother and I did not know what to do. We stood around, shifting uneasily, suddenly feeling entirely useless. We hugged each other tightly, something we learned from our father. The waiting was over. The agonizing anxiety of how it would be, what would happen at the end was finally gone, ushered from the house like an unwelcome guest. We saw Mom leave the room and go to the den where she was warmly held by her friends. We could see the light from Dad's room from the darkened hallway and went there so he would not be alone.
Outside the ambulance had arrived and the attendants quietly entered the house, very respectful of the situation, the gravity of it. They entered Dad's room and I looked to my brother, Ford.
"Ford? This is it. We'll never have another chance to be with him. Once they take him, that will be it."
He looked at me but didn't say anything. We were both hurting and afraid. The attendants were unfolding the gurney and I asked them if they'd mind giving us a little time alone in the room with our father. They immediately left and waited in some other room. We shut the door on the outside and turned to face the bed. The room had grown smaller in that little bit of time. The light was too bright, the sheets too white. And dad was too still, too quiet in that unbearably intimate space that before held very different memories for us. We stepped over to him and knelt down.
My brother is someone who always puts on the stiff upper lip. He's one of the strong one's, my brother, but he's not very good at hiding how loving he really is. It shines through in a lot of ways that I'm sure he's unaware of. But now his strength, all our strength had fled. We were kids again, he and I, kneeling at our father's side. Ford, crying silently, held Dad's head, laid his hand on his chest. We talked quietly to Dad about what he meant to us. What a good father he'd been. We talked about the things we were going to miss with him gone. We talked briefly about the ways we thought we'd let him down, and ways we think we'd done him proud.
I leaned over and kissed my father's cheek. The stubble from his five o'clock shadow rubbed my face and his aftershave filled my lungs. Two things I've known since childhood. Two things that are the most comforting memories of a multitude of comforting memories with my father. We sat there for a few more minutes. Neither of us wanting to leave because we knew it would be forever. There would be no going back. This was it. The closing of a big door on our lives.
We finally did get up and open that door and step from that room, leaving our father's shell behind. We stepped into the world with a new awareness of life, a wisdom we wish we didn't own. Already in my mind I was visiting him and the things we'd done. And during the time I stayed at home from that time through the funeral I expected to hear my dad's closet door close and his familiar tread, slippers scuffing the carpet. Or his keys jangling in the morning while he hummed some old song to himself, leaving the house for work. The hall door squeaking as he passed, his gait strong enough to pull the wind behind him, his aftershave lingering in the hall.
I have these pictures in my mind every time I think of Dad: I used to pretend to punch him in the stomach, goofing around, and he'd react with gritted teeth and squinted eyes, clutching his stomach and doubling over. Then he'd grab hold of me and hug me. It was thing we'd do. Kind of a hello.
I keep seeing his face, this fun parody of being socked in the stomach. It makes me smile. Another one is this thing Dad would do -- put on a vacuous expression and tuck the tip of his tongue in his bottom lip, pushing the middle of his tongue out. He'd pull his glasses down a bit, too, and he'd talk in a real goofy way saying goofy things. He could always get a laugh with that one. And he still does! Another thing I think about is the expression and noises he'd make when he'd try and scare us. Like when I try to scare my wife. He'd go over the top and scare you, but he made you laugh, too.
When we were in the funeral home for the viewing I kept looking at my father's body in the casket. He didn't look life-size anymore. He looked smaller somehow. Dad was a big guy. And they didn't put any color in his face. I wanted to put some warmth there, a nice vermilion in his cheeks and nose, around the ears. Anything to bring back some of his ruddy color.
He looked so much like my grandmother lying there, it was uncanny. I've always sort of seen it in him, but right then it was pronounced.
Anyway, I sat there looking at him and feeling this tide of emotions rushing through me. All around me my relatives were really breaking up, crying their eyes out, totally in anguish. And I sat there, feeling those things, but holding it together too. I'm not sure if it was for me or my mother and brother and sister. I did want to hold it together for them, somewhat, but I also felt that if I let go I wouldn't be able to stop. That I would continue crying through all of the people that were coming to pay their respects. Then those images rose in my mind. Those funny, wonderful encapsulations of my father's humor. And they actually had me smiling. In the face of all that, my father still had that gift. I knew that he was in the room with us all, and that He was there, too.
Yet even then, through all of that, I nursed a small dread. I nursed this feeling, the terrible certainty in my mind, that I had been responsible for his death. That my dribbling that drink into his mouth kicked it off. I wasn't paying attention to whether or not he was swallowing. You had to make sure, you see. Sometimes he wouldn't. Not because he didn't want to, because the thought that tells us to swallow wasn't getting there. I have wondered, to this day, if I gave him too much and that he choked on that. I've mentioned it to my brother and to my brother-in-law and they both tell me that that's not what it was. That Dad's functions, according to the doctor were going to quit. That even swallowing and everything else would stop working, and that was what happened. I nod when they say this, but I'm not sure if I believe it. Part of me hates that. As if I let him down in the biggest way possible. He gives life to me, loves me, comforts me through all my trials and tribulations, and all the while I'm the key to his own death. The other part of me says that even if that is what happened, that I was responsible, then he probably died an easier death that way than what might have been in store. I don't know. I've learned to live with it. For awhile I wrote letters to Dad, telling him how I felt about things, how much I missed him, all those things that some people never tell the people they really love. Except we always told each other those things. There was nothing left unsaid between us.
Yet I still nurse that small hard barb of uncertainty, that I was responsible.
The lights of the car dim as I pass through that invisible membrane into that other place on this road. Again the trees crowd the car which again is struggling to gain purchase on the asphalt that is somehow not asphalt anymore. The inside of the car is a close thing, confining, pressing. The darkness is palpable, cold on my skin. There is a breeze, yet the windows are closed and the AC is off, the vents slanted shut. Nothing is familiar about this road, this route. Two times I've driven it, two times my senses have been keenly honed by fear, yet still I recognize nothing of the land in which I'm traveling. Something black and corpulent slinks into the woods at the rim of my headlights -- too fast, I could barely see it. The ribbon of the way is slow. I feel as though I'm moving in slow motion. The car is a laggard, but I know it's not its fault. I'm competing with this place, attempting to keep my head on the driving. But things are racing through my mind. These thoughts, all so disparate, yet seeming to cling to one another, unify each other, coalesce into something greater than the separate parts.
I'm cast back to the Sunday school of my childhood. God was something that we should fear. And I never bought it. Never bought into it. What kind of God is that? I reasoned. But I did fear Him, because kids fear anyone who's got power over them, and, let's face it, who doesn't have power over them? So, yeah, I was scared of Him. Kept waiting for lightning bolts to hit me when I ripped off my comics, or snuck the piece of gum into my jeans. And when the lightning didn't hit, I still feared Him because I thought it was all just adding up. But I did feel bad about what I'd done and maybe that made things okay. Repentant and all. And when God took my dad away from us, I was mad at Him for doing it. Pissed off. What right, when all around the world terrible things were happening and there were murderers loose? Why not take them? Why my dad?
Of course there were no answers there. But there's the feeling in my heart that I carry around with me day in and day out. That if there are lights moving in the sky that we can't explain, and there are, and things swimming around in the ocean that we have no idea about, and there are those too, then there's room for God in my heart too. And I know that it was just my dad's time to go. Who knows, maybe they needed a doctor up there? Or maybe God felt that Dad had put up with enough bullshit and pulled him into heaven where things are better. Who knows? What I do know is that God wouldn't make him walk here. Wouldn't make him work for it. Wouldn't have him appear to me in any other form than the gentle loving man that I knew, who ushered me into life with a stern yet forgiving hand and a quick smile.
And yet, there's that little part of me, perhaps all of us, that never knows. Will question it all, even when it's right in front of us. I have to know. Maybe. And that's what it boils down to. Maybe.
And I find myself practically there already. The long, devious inclination of the land, the shadowy turn where I saw my father that first time. I round that bend so slowly. My hands are cramped about the wheel and I'm not breathing.
And there he is. Walking slowly in the direction of my home. One foot then the other. Almost mechanical.
I ease the car to the side, and the figure stops. My dad waits, hands woven into each other the way he always did. The dim light of the head lamps flash dully in his glasses. He's dressed like he dressed at home. Pullover short sleeve shirt, chinos, tennis shoes with white OP socks. It's a great image. One that strikes close to home. One guaranteed to pull me in. And it makes me cautious again. He doesn't approach the car. Doesn't move. Dad wouldn't just stand there. He'd come to me, or we'd both go to each other.
It's like he reads my mind. He starts to come forward, around the hood of the car. My hand finds the pistol and pulls it to me as I pop the door and step into the chill air. My breath mists before me yet there's no breath that I can see from him. I'm standing there, scared but feeling like an idiot, the gun an uncomfortable weight in my pocket. He stops halfway around the car.
"Dad?" I say. I'm looking directly into his eyes. But he seems far away, like he's looking through me as much as at me. My question hangs in the air. I'm almost half afraid that he will notice me, because right now it's as if he doesn't. My fingers trace the ridges of the gun barrel.
The malevolence of the stygian wood is still present, but if feels as if the trees, the shoulder of the road, everything, has pulled back beyond the frail light to give us room. There are no sounds. No crickets, nothing. My father shifts his feet and leans a hand on the warm hood of the car. It is a strangely gentle gesture, comforting in its way. I can see his class ring, the ring I expect to see. The nails of his fingers are trimmed to perfection, just the way he did, and a tentative smile courts the corners of his mouth. He doesn't rush it. Doesn't say a word, just stands and smiles almost apologetically. I guess it's my move. I don't know how much time we have. Where does the clock stop on this scene? In stories it's usually midnight, but that was three hours ago, maybe more. He makes a move and I lift the gun in one sweaty hand. He stops, smile still in place.
"G- g--" His lips try to form the forgotten shapes, to mold the lost words. He can't seem to make whatever word it is he wants to say. But he doesn't stop trying. "G-geo--" It's the voice I remember from his illness, but different. He's been gone for three years to wherever it is we go. If he's my father.
If he's my father he's got cobweb eyes and dust in his throat, and maybe he has to learn it all over again. Maybe where he's been the silence is golden and in that silence are all the words and all the feelings and there is no want.
Or is there. He is on this road. He is walking to find someone -- me, maybe.
The gun is heavy and my hand is shaking from something more than the weight of it or the chill in the air.
"G-geor-- Georg-ie." Georgie. My -- his name for me. I can't hold the gun any longer and drop it onto the seat of the car. Some wellspring inside me opens.
"Dad? Dad, is that you. Really you?" I can barely see him for the tears.
"G-georgie. uh-I-i-I-l--luh. I luh."
"I love you, dad. Let me say it for you. I love you."
He smiles even more, his head nodding ever so slightly. "Y-yesss."
I step toward him and he meets me in the middle. I hold him close and he wraps his arms around me. I squeeze three years worth of loss and want into my father.
"I-I've miss'd you," he says to me. His squeeze is tight. It's the squeeze I remember so well, the one I've waken up from, with tears in my eyes because they were only dreams.
"I've missed you so much, dad!" I can smell his cologne, and his chest is hard the way I remember.
"I know," he says quietly. I tell him how much I've worried about that last day and how I hate it that we never thought to sit down with him when he was ill and ask him how he was really doing. And how -- He pulls me from him and looks into my eyes. "It's okay," he says, and doesn't elaborate. But in that simple sentence he tells me the one thing I've needed to know. It is okay. I can feel it. It's in his forgiving eyes, it's in the loving strength of his hold on me.
He knows. And the dam breaks.
I tell him how I've gotten married to Meredith and he says he remembers her from when he was ill and that she's right for me. I tell him that Ford has had a son, his grandson, and he says he knows. But he doesn't stop me from telling it, and he doesn't stop holding me and rubbing my back the way he used to when I was little and upset. Or when he was proud of me.
He tells me that where he is there is the light of all days, and the dark of all nights. The stars are ever visible and feelings are palpable, of texture and weight. He says the grandmom's and granddad's are all there, and Aunt Mary sends her love. They are watching over us all. He says he lies down each night with mom and brushes her cheek with his breath. And we will all be together again, by and by.
I've no idea how long we've stood here on this forgotten road that I know doesn't exist in this town, on this earth. The stars wheel in the sky and slowly crickets begin to harmonize. Life seems to have caught back up to us. My father sighs and I know that it's time. I know too that if we could we would sit here for years and play catch up. But he gives me one last hug, a big one, and I squeeze back for all I'm worth. Then he kisses my cheek and steps to the side of the road.
"I don't want to go," I tell him.
"I know. But you have to. You're a man now. I'm proud of you. Proud of all of you."
He shakes his head and smiles, raises his hand in a farewell. I walk on clumsy legs to my car and close the door. I move the handgun to the back seat and twist the ignition.
I pull away and watch my father's face, red in the backwash of my taillights receding into the dark. He's walking again. Still in the same direction, only this time I know he's heading home to Texas. I want so badly to stop, but know that I can't. It's not the way it's supposed to be.
Meredith is waiting for me when I get home and lets me in. She can see it in my eyes, and feel it in my hug. We drink a small silent toast and go up to bed. She's asleep now and has snuggled tightly next to me. I hold on for dear life. Hold on because she is my life. And I hold on because I know the value of what I have.
Not five minutes ago I heard the gravel crunch outside. I didn't get up, didn't look, but I know he was there. I know he had to see it for himself, for real. And I know too, that he's left already. I could catch him I'm sure, walking that forever road. Like a good son I start to worry about him being alone on that pale road, walking those long miles. And, oh, how I want to. It's the hardest thing he has to do, to walk that road alone, and the hardest thing for me not to jump and rush to meet him. How I want to pull over and open that passenger door and drive him all the way home to Texas and talk to him and ask him all the questions about his life I never got to ask him. The important stuff.
But I know that we had already talked about the really important stuff years ago, and tonight at that meeting place we drew a thick heavy line under it all.
"It's okay," he said to me. And I know that it is.