Her coffin, perched on metal staging, is ringed with rolled out astroturf. The glossy wood reflecting our blurred figures has no headstone behind it. I didn’t know that you get those later.
“Did you think we kept it in the basement?” Dad said when I asked about it earlier, stepping out of the funeral home’s limo.
“No,” I’d said, “I just thought--”
“What? That we had one sitting around, just in case?"
“I don’t know.”
Angling toward the grave, he says, “Have you seen mine around? You never know.”
He looks at me and pats his black jacket pockets.
A quiet crowd dutifully follows, cutting through the heat and queuing up behind the two metal folding chairs reserved for Dad and me. I feel forced into this suit, which is Dad’s, and my shoulders stretch the seams. There’s a good two inches between where the pants end and my shoes begin. I feel like a child.
Really, though, how am I supposed to understand this business about the headstone? With the exception of a series of dead grandparents in elementary school, I’ve only ever been to one funeral. That was high school, twelve years ago, and I had taken such a variety of substances that I was more concerned with all the grim, accusatory looks and vicious circling birds than the vagaries of the gravestone industry. If there’s something to be said for this, my mother’s funeral, it is that at least no one suspects me of complicity.
I take my seat next to Dad, twisting to scan the faces. I feel my chair leg digging into the ground, the sun and humidity softening everything. I’d forgotten the summer heat here. When I thought back to home, it was always winter, the town hidden beneath snow. Behind me, women carry their dark jackets and peel hair from their faces. The men wipe at their foreheads and re-assume their wide legged stances, hands clasped at their crotches. Dad sits, clutching his skinny thighs, watching as my Uncle Monty asks the pastor if he can say a few words. When the pastor relinquishes his spot, Dad sighs.
“Pat,” Uncle Monty says. “Pat and Blake. And Norman, their son, their beloved Norm, were a model for all of us, for all of Garrison City.”
He gazes into a distance. “Pat. Oh, Pat.”
I’m jealous of his white suit, he must be more comfortable than the rest of us, and his black tie certainly expresses his level of mourning. Uncle Monty gave great birthday presents, until my thirteenth or so. I never heard from him after that, and I can’t say it’s nice to hear him now. It’s certainly comforting to know that Mom and Dad and I were always in his thoughts, always held a special place in his heart. Even as he went through his family troubles, he says, even through that, we were on his mind. It’s good of him to bring that up here, in front of his children and ex-wife, glaring somewhere behind me, whom he cheated on with a 17 year old from his store. Family troubles, my ass.
I look through his legs to the coffin. He says my name, pauses. If something is expected of me at this point, I ignore it. Uncle Monty is too busy enthralling the crowd to notice. I mutter to myself, “Christ, shut up.”
Dad snorts and snuffles it back. His shoulders shake and hands cover his face. Dammit. I should reach over and pat his back, move closer, something. I could take his hand. Monty seems to be wrapping it up, his voice breaking. I look up after what seems like minutes of silence. He’s neatly unfolding a black pocket handkerchief to dab at his eyes. I roll mine to Dad who’s biting his lip, redfaced beneath his beard, hand pressed flat down from his forehead. He’s laughing. Cracking up.
I need to look away or I’ll lose it. Uncle Monty tosses a handful of dirt vaguely toward the grave and is still holding the death- tainted hand away from his white suit when he approaches for hugs. Dad and I rise. Monty dives at me for a tough guy squeeze, pinning my arms to my sides. I can’t reciprocate. He moves over to Dad, still waving that black handkerchief, and places his hands on Dad’s shoulders, misinterpreting his red eyes as despair and gratitude.
“Anything I can do, Blake. Anything. You just call me.” Monty attacks Dad, pausing only to grab at his pocket to silence his phone, ringing musically. Monty inhales deeply, delivers one final blow to Dad’s back and rejoins the mourners, smiling as he checks the phone’s small screen.
Dad leans in so close I smell coffee. He says, “Pat always hated him.”
“She had good taste.”
“No. He’s just an asshole.”
We stand as final words are said. Dad and I approach the grave, reaching to grab handfuls of stoney New Hampshire dirt from a pile dumped on the fake grass. Dad tosses his at the coffin’s side, I mimic his throw and the sand slides down smoothly. The larger pebbles drop. Stones clank against the wood and metal, skittering to a rest at the bottom of the backhoed hole.
Nobody moves or speaks or coughs. I feel Dad should be the first to walk away, and I wait for his lead. I see us as the crowd certainly does—two disheveled men in cheap matching suits staring at a coffin. Sweaty hair sticks to the back of my neck. His hair, still holding the same dark color as mine, rises in tufts around that small bald spot. It’s ridiculous, it must appear as if we are helping each other, and they’re all waiting, watching our reactions to gauge or prepare their own.
We tower before the coffin for maybe another minute until I, wanting to do something, but not speak, reach down and toss another handful of dirt. This clump has larger stones and one gets caught up, coming to rest on the railing surrounding her coffin.
Dad looks up at me, hands still crossed at his waist, “Well. That one should do it.”
I shake my head without looking at him. He’s hilarious.
“Allow me,” he says, holding up a hand, stopping me from doing something I wasn’t. He tugs up the thighs of his suit pants and crouches over the edge of the hole to remove the stone. For a moment he doesn’t know what to do with it, and his hand wavers between the ground and the grave. Finally, he tosses the rock at my feet and stretches up for my hand to help raise him. I reach out and pull him up, unsure of when to let go, so I don’t. We turn, hands awkwardly holding the other’s wrist, and face the crowd. I expect applause; of course, there is nothing.
A collective unease seeps through the August air. On the other side of our folding chairs, they’re waiting for us to move, to say something. We’re waiting for them to turn toward the row of cars, now blocking the way for the next wave of mourners. So we just watch each other. There are very few faces I recognize looking back at me. It strikes me that everyone here is here for Dad. There is a huge age gap between the little cousins peeling down to t-shirts and the old folks in shawls, with whom Mom had spent her afternoons. If any one I know from high school is still in Garrison City, they have neglected to join today’s mourning. There is only one friend in this cemetery, and it’s hard to say what his age is. He could be almost thirty, or he could still be an eternal seventeen. I suppose, at this point, that’s a matter for larger theological debate.
Uncle Monty is the first to break. He steps forward and takes Dad, who stiffens at the touch, by the shoulder and leads him to the waiting limo, its small purple flags limp in the heat. I remain beside the grave, and when Monty waves me to the open limo door, I make a walking motion with my fingers through the air. He nods and squeezes himself into the back seat next to Dad. The graveyard is close to home and everyone, turning to their air conditioned cars, seems content to let me walk.
The graveyards in this town match the phone books, more chronological than alphabetical, but the names are all here. The Browns. The Corneliuses. The Stones. The newly enlarged cluster of Means. I’m finally free to remove my jacket. I do, and roll my sleeves, which are actually Dad’s sleeves and fall short of my wrists. I look for Fitzy’s grave, which turns out to be more difficult than I expected. I saw the FitzGeralds at the funeral. I was too impaired to speak to them or to know if I was welcome, if they also held me responsible. Maybe I spoke to them at graduation, a few months after the funeral. I remember them being there and feeling uncomfortable. They had no one graduating, not now. Fitzy was their only child. I remember wondering then if they thought raising him had been a waste of time. They made love, had a baby, then they had a child, then a gangly kid, then a teenager, then nothing. Then they had nothing, and I wondered what they thought wasn’t a waste about that.
There are fresh flowers at Fitzy’s grave. HENRY FITZGERALD above the dates and an engraving of the sun behind clouds in the corner. The headstone hadn’t been there at the funeral, I know that now, and I disagree with that sunshine in the corner. There should be only an aerial view of the pond with a classic chalk body outline floating in the middle. Maybe just the dignified silhouette of a twelve pack.
It never occurred to me, then, that we were too drunk for anything or too young for everything. We’d been in that spot, in that pond, a thousand thousand nights and had never lost anything permanently. Until we did.
I wipe my eyes, my face, and offer what I can: a rock placed on the headstone, a memory, a regret. I prop the potted flowers up against his grave stone, as if I brought them. I rearrange them so they lay flat, stems pointing away from the stone. My jacket is on the grass and I lift it, flap it out like a bed sheet, allow it to fall over the grave stone, draping the sleeves down the sides, smooth the lapel over the sunshine.
Stretching out the short walk home, I take side streets and detours past personal landmarks. After my time in the city, Garrison looks so idyllic. These are the neighborhoods considered almost downtown, where the duplexes stand side by side with the family homes, once the distinguished domiciles of the mill owners and bosses. Newer ranches squeeze in on side streets which cut through the old rolling lawns, now split into driveways and playgrounds. These are different from the devouring brick monoliths of the old mills along the river dominating the downtown proper. They’re also different from what you’d find by following the brick sidewalks out to the paved, and past them, out to the roads where nobody walks, out to the woods, trailers, and ponds.
There’s the lacrosse practice field, hours a day adding up to months of my life spent there until I found more stimulating things to chase than rubber balls. I can name the families who live, lived, in half these homes. Walking by, I take a count of those where I’ve had sex, though that game doesn’t last long. I open it up to any action, including even blind fumbling over a bra. Names and faces have faded, but not the feeling of those nights. Not the aching for something more, something further, always further, the wordlessness and strained groping until it all reached a point we couldn’t pass without speaking, and sometimes we’d work it out and other times we’d subside, reclasp a bra, cinch a belt. The quiet return to a party.
Corny had been one of those girls in the dark, now she’s one of those girls who have left and stayed gone. I am back and she’s still in San Fran, and doesn’t even know. And Fitzy.
Somewhere, right now, Mom is apologizing to him for my teenaged foolishness. They sit, legs dangling from a cloud, overseeing my walk home. She hopes he understands, she really does. I’m not a bad boy. Just thoughtless, or careless, whichever is better, but not heartless, she’s saying. I thank her for that, and turn the corner onto our street.
Cars line the curb from the Joneses all the way to our house. The Joneses. We never tried to keep up, at least on the outside, which was Dad’s realm. The inside was always neat and organized. All of Mom’s little statues aligned on shelves. And picture frames, a curving row of them mirroring the railing up the staircase documenting my growth, school picture after school picture until you reached the landing, where I stare out from under my mortarboard.
Each house looks very similar to the one next to it, and even more like the one next to that. Most of them, not ours, have been built up: a garage with a room above, a new addition to house a new kitchen, something. But not ours. Still the same two bedrooms, mine untouched since high school, down to the Algebra book on my desk, the plaid sheets on my bed. It’s been a long time since both bedrooms have been filled and last night the house felt both odd and familiar. There were two adults, but in separate rooms, separate beds. Two different adults.
The lawns are all late summer tan, dead under the sun. They’re differentiated, for the most part, by hedges or fences, but not ours. Open to the sidewalk, brown stalks spread over the sidewalk and heartier green weeds poke through, taken over when the grass gave in. Dad always hated yard work and successfully passed the loathing on to me. When the duties became mine there was a noticeable decline in our already shabby yard. He never seemed to care, even took a little pride in having better things to do than pull dandelions and measure grass blades. Standing between the cars, I remember when Dad, shorts too short, holding a beer can, showed me how to mix oil and gas for weed whacker before stepping back inside. My Junior year, I was allowed one beer after mowing. That was a banner year for the Mean lawn.
I stand between the bulky cars lurking in the driveway, and hold off on entering the house. Just as I decide to take one more walk around our block, the door opens and the Joneses emerge, blinking in their black clothes. Mrs. Jones sees me first and tilts her head, wipes a hankie under her veil. She holds her husband’s arm. They never had children. We meet at the top of the driveway, she leans in, and holds me in an idea of a hug, our bodies untouching, for several moments. When we separate, he shoots out a piston handshake.
“Good to see you,” Mr. Jones says.
“You too,” I say.
“I only wish the circumstances could be better.” He won’t release my hand and eyes me from the shoes up like a car he wouldn’t recommend buying, not with that wear and tear.
“Mmm. Me too,” I say.
Mrs. Jones stifles a sob. “So young…”
“I’ll be thirty soon.”
He lets my hand go, she holds a purse to her chest.
“We’ll leave you to your guests,” he says. “Take care of your father for me.”
They walk right over the lawn. He points out weeds to his wife and makes scissor motions.
Mom’s ladies had landed early this morning. Dad and I erratically orbited each other in pajamas, figuring out how we could both get coffee. They arrived bearing trays of deviled eggs and huge, ornate samovars filled with boiling water. Moments after Dad opened the door every surface was covered with white linen and crackers. A lasagna. Mom would never have stood for that kind of intrusion. Dad and I welcomed it. Food hadn’t occurred to us. Now I take a small roll smeared with mayonnaisey thickness.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” A hand on my forearm.
“Thank you, thank you. You too.” I have no idea who that was. They’ve moved on.
I go to the kitchen, looking for a place to put my sandwich down, and settle on a stack of napkins on the counter. I check in the cabinet above the stove; he still keeps the whiskey there. She couldn’t stand to have it in view. Reaching for a rocks glass, I bump into someone.
“Sorry, I was just—hey, Dad.” He’s put on his old Garrison High baseball hat.
“How’s it going?” I say.
“Great, Norm, just wonderful.”
“Yeah, there’s a lot of people here,” I say, waving my empty glass.
“Your mom was a wonderful woman. She was always...she was always.”
“Right. I know. All the time.”
Dad motions for me to grab him a glass. I pour us both a few fingers. He refuses to accept the drink until I add a another splash. Mourners move among us, nibbling and whispering. We clink glasses.
“Welcome home,” he says.
“I’m sorry, Dad. About mom. I’m sorry.”
We drink. When we’re done he hands me his glass and moves as if to reenter the crowd, but turns, hand out, fingers waggling.
“I’d better have one more,” he says, more to himself. He bothers his beard a bit and lifts his hat, lowers it. I top us both off.
“Here,” I say. “You know, if you want to have a smoke or something, I’m okay with it.”
He takes a swallow. “Thanks, Norman, that’s helpful.”
I shrug. He quit years ago, but I bet there’s still a pack hidden around. I could use one. I also quit years ago, a half-hearted attempt to convince Corny to stay in our tiny San Francisco apartment.
“Come on.” Dad slips his arm through mine, as if he’s an old man. “Let’s just get through this.”
The weight of his arm feels strange, but it gives me a role as we navigate through our two small rooms packed with morbid, idle guests. I’m his support, whisked in from afar during this crucial time and that counts for something.
As soon as the last ladies finish washing dishes, and after their husbands and I conclude awkward local sports team talk, the TV goes on. It seems Dad has acquired a taste for crap. He shushes me from his recliner whenever the commercials end and emits barks of derisive laughter at the real life antics of someone’s mom in someone’s city. This is not the empty evening I would have expected to have after a day filled with Mom’s funeral.
I watch him more than the television; his shirt is unbuttoned to the waist. His tie knot rests on the small curve of his new belly. It’s hard to remember what he looked like when I was young. It still feels like he’s taller than me, but he stops at my chin. We’ve moved the whiskey bottle between us, on the doily with the strawberry lamp. The vodka is on the floor, just in case. Dad drinks mechanically, purposefully, until his eyes waver. He mumbles something I think is a joke about the show, but I can’t understand him. When his head lies back against the crocheted pillow cozy I take his whiskey and pour the remainder into my glass. The show ends and I find a gangster flick on one of the upper channels. Every time there’s a shoot-out, I turn down the volume and check him for any movement. There’s none beyond his sudden inhales, held for too long before the next breath.
The house exhales around us, releasing the day’s heat and pressures. Lacey curtains wave, ushering in an evaporating coolness. Here we are. I’m back, and essentially alone for the moment. My drink and I take a few inspective laps of the first floor to visit the spaces I haven’t entered in years.
The pantry. Dusty classic red and white snowy day soup cans linger behind the brighter low-sodium chicken noodles up front. My favorite pop-tarts, raspberry, sit dormant among the cereal boxes. The mudroom: still a pair of cleats in the corner, nestled in a row of leather boots under hibernating heavy jackets. The winter clothes’ padded insulation and scratchy high collars appear unbearable, even in the cooling evening. In the bathroom cabinet, old prescription bottles tell their tales of strained backs and wisdom teeth.
The back porch seems tiny under the stars, at the edge of our small field. Two white plastic Adirondack chairs kept separate by a low matching table glow ghostly in the moonlight. The far arm of one is rutted with cigarette burns. The closer chair balances a wine glass on its seat, an inch of particled red is pooled with drowned flies. A small plate on the table is spotted with crumbs and a cookie with one delicate front-toothed bite missing.
No one has been out here yet, since then. The ladies auxiliary funeral corps must have missed it. The wine smells sweet, and the burns have melted the plastic into rough edges. They’re old burns, dirty and permanent. I pick up the cookie. Chocolate chip. Stale. The whole thing has the feel of a half-sentence. It’s the pause before the bad news.
Dad would have been dreading his last year of teaching, out here that last night, complaining about the school board and another new principal. She would have been listening with the paper in her lap, searching the obituaries and birth announcements. They look across into the small pocket of woods, waiting to count the tenth or thirtieth deer of the season. They don’t discuss her diagnosis. She jokes about the yard; he hopes she’s joking. Talk turns to their possible retirement future which turns to their familial past, which turns to me, a nation away. Mom sighs and folds the paper. Dad looks over and takes her hand on the table. She’s surprised, but returns his look. On their way upstairs, she drops the paper in the new recycling bin, leaving behind her last sip of wine.
I almost bite the cookie, but instead, rub the bit off teeth marks, where her mouth was, against my lips. I place a light kiss against the cookie, hear the smack in the dark, before going inside to put my Dad to bed.
Dad has dodged every phone call. I’ve received none. There’s a knock on our door every few days, then we look at each other, usually over drinks from our seats in the living room.
“You expecting anyone?” he asks every time, and by now it’s taken on a hint of insult. We both know the answer.
He pushes himself up with one hand, the other reserved for whiskey, and goes to the door in sockless moccasins and hardly buttoned button-down.
“Blake. Oh, how are you two holding up?” It’s always a woman’s voice. They’re a diligent corps of death watchers.
“We’re holding in there. Staying tight.”
“I brought a casserole. Now, I put the heating instructions on top of the foil, all you have to do is--”
“I’m sure we’ll be able to handle it. Thank you.” Dad doesn’t let her get through the simple instructions.
“Oh, I just know you will, the thing to watch out for is when to take the foil off.” I hear the metallic wrinkling of foil.
“Thank you,” he says, closing the door and yelling to me.
“Another green bean with crispy onions?”
“You want some?”
I usually do. We heat it up, careful to take the foil off for the last ten minutes, and eat in front of the television. A few days later there is another knock, and we return the casserole dish, empty, breaking one of Mom’s cardinal rules. Booze bottles have migrated from the cabinet to the counter top. The wine glass on the porch remains untouched.
The moments when Mom seems to be around, we do not speak. And when we feel alone, our conversation centers on TV channel or cocktail choices. I’ve yet to go farther than the new grocery, haven’t even taken the long way through town. Once, through misattention to my route, I drove past Fitzy’s house. Slowing at their driveway, I saw several people on the porch, laughing and swinging on the same porch bench I used to sleep on if I couldn’t make the three-block walk home. They seemed happy and nicely unaccusatory. The rest of town, though, each corner and alley holds some memory. At the gas station by the grocery, I expect to see myself, too skinny and laughing, kicking the door open, brandishing a case of underage beer to cheers from a waiting car, Fitzy sitting on the hood.
Dad hasn’t asked, yet, what I plan on doing. Or better, why I’m still around. I don’t know what I’d say, and I think he knows that. His summer vacation is drawing to its end. I’ve been using that as a vague endpoint. A time for decisions.
I couldn’t produce my education degree when Dad asked for it, seeing as, he said, it has the highest expensive to useless ratio of any thing he’s ever bought. He begins asking about my old job in San Fran, prior to the pizza place, running an after school program for screwed up neighborhood kids. Finally, this morning, he got to the point.
“They’ve been trying to fill the position all summer. No takers,” he says over coffee and Pop-tarts. “Special Education. All the kids I kick out. You would love them.”
“That does sound tempting.”
“I talked to the boss yesterday. You could interview tomorrow.” Dad sips a few times before looking up. I’m not sure if this is an order.
“I don’t know if I’m up for that. I decided not to be a teacher after all, you know?” I say.
“Hmmm. Good decision.” He looks back down at the paper.
“It’s my old school.”
“It’s mine, too.”
“And you work there.”
“I do. For another year.”
“Nah. Can you pass me the classifieds? I’ll find something more suited to my natural lack of abilities.”
He flips a page. He does not hand me the classifieds.
“What time tomorrow?” I say.
“9:00. Clean yourself up. You look like shit.”
He’s right, I think, looking in the mirror before bed, in the light of a tilted desk lamp. I need a haircut, or maybe a hairstyle, if there’s a difference. I want my beard back. From the eyes down I look just like the last photograph on the stairs, but my eyes have sunk. The skin is building around them as if someone is digging a hole, the dark dirt piling around the edges. My eyes have always been blue, bright enough for strangers to comment. They’ve probably kept me in jobs and relationships for longer than anything I’ve actually done. I put on an interview smile; it moves aside some of the darkness—for a moment. I push some hair down right above my eyebrows, then hold it back, slick against my head. Not bad, but my forehead is nearly as pale as my eye whites. I blame the yellow light of the desk lamp, not the booze, for my appearance. Tomorrow I’m going to need to borrow Dad’s nicest clothes. If I want to make this work.
Dad is elsewhere this morning, but there’s coffee in the pot and toast, not pop-tarts, rising from the toaster. I eat at an angle, keeping the crumbs off Dad’s shirt and tie, the same ones I wore to the funeral. He’s left the car keys in the middle of the table, next to a comb. He’s still hilarious.
The interview is with Deidre, Garrison High’s head of Special Ed. She’s a square woman in a round dress and the whole thing consists mainly of agreeing that Dad is a great guy and how tragic Mom’s death is and how bad things happen to good people and do I want the job? There is really no way out at this point. I take her tour of the special education rooms, dubbed The Learning Center, as if the rest of the school isn’t, and like that, the number of Mr. Means at Garrison High doubles.
He’s on the porch when I get home, in the chair with the burns, two cigars long as my forearm and a sweating bottle of champagne on the table. He doesn’t turn. I take hold of Mom’s seat, carefully, so as not to knock over the wine glass. The grass stretching out into our patch of woods is brown; trees have sucked the moisture up into their drying leaves. He has a small white towel on his lap, a yellow bottle of lighter fluid, and his venerable silver Zippo. Bony legs stretch from the towel to brown loafers. The Zippo lights with a click, scratch, and fwoom. Again. Again. His fingers move deftly, finding the old muscle patterns as he spins it around, flipping the top and bringing the flame with a snap of his fingers. He gives it a small toss so it lands, lit, clutched in his fingertips.
“Champagne?” I wipe a line of condensation from the green bottle.
Without stopping the lighter show, he says, “I thought it might be in order.”
“Did they call you?”
“Well, I didn’t get it. They wanted someone with more experience. Any experience. I guess they were looking for someone who wanted the job.”
“Pop the cork, Norm.”
“Really. I flipped out when they turned me down. Demanded the job. You’ll be lucky if you still have a job. I called the lady a fat bitch.”
“You would have been correct. But now she’s your boss. Pop the damn cork.”
I do, and it doesn’t arc gracefully through the yard. The cork, actually made of plastic, shoots into my palm and some unexciting foam runs down the bottle.
“What do I do with it now?”
“Pass me that glass.”
The wine glass is sun-hot, any liquid has now evaporated, leaving incomplete circles of burgundy stained sediment. Dad lifts it to his nose and inhales, starts to say something, then spits into the center. He wipes around the inside with the towel from his lap, staining it red. Holding the glass to the sun, he seems satisfied, and raises it to me.
When it isn’t filled immediately, he turns, and I see his face. His old trimmed beard is back, smooth lines separate hair from skin, red from heat. He’s had his hair cut into neat deviations, separated by a ruler-straight part. He’s an old photograph taped back together. His eyes, light in the sun, jump between mine and the champagne bottle.
“How about it, Mr. Mean? Let’s celebrate,” he says.
“Please, Mr. Mean is my father. Call me Norm.” I say, and pour.
“Those kids are going to walk all over you.”
“That’s what I tried to tell them today.”
He drinks down the foam. Now that the wine glass has been removed, the other chair is available, and I sit, matching Dad’s sun- glared stare over the burnt yard. The bottle still holds some of its refrigerated coolness. I stick it between my legs, let it soak through the fabric until my thighs feel white and frozen.
“You didn’t bring out another glass?” I say.
“The bottle is glass.” He sets aside his Zippo cleaning project and unwraps the cigars.
When I tip the bottle back, foam fills my mouth, and I shoot forward, coughing champagne through the porch rails. It’s all over the interview shirt and tie. I strip down to a soaked t-shirt, which is refreshing. I make a pile of bubbly soaked clothes, topped with borrowed shiny shoes and flimsy damp dress socks. The second sip goes better, but not as well as the third, and when I lean back Dad is handing me a cigar, already lit.
My immediate coughing sends smoke out my nostrils, burning furiously, but briefly. I try to cool it with a swig from the bottle, but it’s too quick, and champagne joins the smoke in the air.
“Can I grab you a sippy cup?” Dad says.
“Fine. I’m fine.”
“Good, because that’s the finest champagne Store 24 had to offer. It’d be a shame to spit it all out.”
“I got it, I’m good,” I say.
“Let’s hope that’s true.”
“We can always hope, can’t we?”
“That’s all we can do, Norman.”
The sun slides smoothly over the day, stretching the roof ’s shadow across the dry field. Eventually it covers a small bike, abandoned by a neighbor’s child in the heat. Dad’s talkative, telling horror stories about high school special education. I listen to his accounts of the screaming, chair throwing 15-year-olds who can’t subtract and will soon be my charges. Kids raised by wolves in mom’s clothing. When I was in school (just thinking this puts me solidly into adulthood, a first step toward becoming that didactic teacher the kids dread) such kids existed, I’m sure, but they fell victim to the cruel Darwinism of childhood. Either they were shamed enough to leave everyone alone, or just to leave. There was a drop out age for a reason—so they could drop out. There was no responsibility to coddle, nurture, or educate them. They could always get a job with an uncle a few towns over. I certainly drank at my share of ‘just dropped out’ parties in the woods, at the pond, or in some dilapidated trailer they shared with vague cousins.
Every story leads Dad to another, the angry underprivileged subject of each related by blood or address to the next. The champagne leads to gin, a new bottle, bought this morning. He’s been busy, and I feel good. It’s nice to be employed and still not have to work for another few days. It’s good to sit out here and drink and smoke cigars, though it seems dangerously closer to cigarettes. These are the old times we never had, as if Mom should be inside, maybe baking something.
We’re past talk, through the smoke, and I think I just poured the last of the tonic. We never had limes. I have that satiated stretched skin feeling of long sun and plentiful drinks. Dad’s quieted, examining his cigar stub for another drag.
He’s unsuccessful, and looks at me until I look back. He says, “Where’s that waitress with our burgers?”
“No shit. I’m starving.”
He stands. “Let’s go. You’re driving.”
“I’ve been drinking all day.”
“Fine. I’m driving.”
We ramble inside to bump around, pee, and check our reflections for sunburns. The house still holds the day’s heat. Mom’s porcelain kitties and photographs of ourselves judge us from the shelves. If she were here, she’d run to the store for us, clicking her tongue. Ensure that we listened for a buzzer to go off. She’s not here, and I watch Dad fumble through the dish for his keys, smooth his hair in the small mirror by the door. I stand aside, allowing him to finish his routine. He checks pockets, pats his butt for his wallet, breathes into his hand. He smiles up at me. “What? I’m the one driving.”
“I’m not saying anything.”
We pull onto the old street in Dad’s newish car, the one Mom wanted. It still smells flowery and laundry crisp thanks to the candle shaped air freshener hanging from the rear view. Our street winds through double sentry rows of trees and set-back homes. It’s been here long enough to allow the landscape some passage. I can pick out the neighborhood newcomers by their family-style trucks parked on the street, garages too overflowing with equipment and grills.
Garrison City creeps outward, starfishing from its five-street downtown, which once encapsulated an entire world. The old mills hold the center of town in place, everything else revolving around them. Anything on the outskirts is there because a block-long mill building takes up any potential space downtown. When I had the run of the place, downtown was clearly differentiated from the rest of the world by its brick sidewalks. Once you hit the concrete, you were outside town, even if crossing the street got you to an old mill-worker bar, you were not downtown unless you had brick. Our house is in one of the first neighborhoods built for those workers, and by the time I was in high school nearly everyone I knew came from farther away. I gained some credibility as the kind of guy who knew downtown.
Dad hums while he drives. Tuneless songs he couldn’t name if pressed, except maybe that it was a big hit by that guy who wore a hat. Before you were born. I fidget with the radio, scanning rapidly and perusing the few CDs Mom bought after discovering the car had no tape deck. I almost put one in for a laugh, but return it to its case, afraid of what we might hear. Talk radio seems safe in lieu of talk. Dad seems to have a destination in mind, so I remain quiet as he coasts through stop signs and takes the corners wide.
“Pizza or burgers?” he says.
“Burgers it is.”
Downtown is busy tonight, people out walking in this finally cool evening. They hold hands and drink through straws. They window shop in all the little stores, new since I left. The old brick is still everywhere, but cleaner. Scrubbed. Window frames have been painted, refreshed in subtle shades to match the signs hanging over each doorway. I feel like all my memories have turned sepia, a monotone compared to this pastel street. I want a huge old photograph to cover it all. An overlay that will replace everything as it should be; eventually I can poke holes in it, allow the changes to arrive one at a time.
We’re stopped at a light. There’s the fountain, spraying its lily shaped shower. The benches surrounding it were the spot where we’d meet. I’m glad to see that kids are still lining the benches, lying over each other. One plays guitar. We never did. They think they are subtle when they couldn’t be more obvious. A girl sits on a boy’s lap while another boy stares, desperate to touch that short summer skirt&emdash;maybe feel a little skin against his own. We did the same, but we did it with a far greater sense of ownership and disdain. In cooler clothes.
The light changes, and Dad keeps up his determined driving. We’ve passed a dozen restaurants that by the law of averages must have a burger or two. We thread Dad’s drunken needle between gas stations and their identical counterparts across the street. I worry over his driving skills and whether he even remembers our mission this evening. Food. And possibly more drinks. Maybe he’s just driving, too embarrassed to let on that he doesn’t remember why we are on the road. Oh, Dad. Another restaurant’s welcoming lights fade beyond the rear window, and I can’t hold back.
“Where the hell are we going?”
“Tuesday,” he says.
Oh shit, he’s farther gone than I thought. Is it even Tuesday? I don’t know, but I can guess that’s not where we’re going.
“Two for one burgers on Tuesdays, Norman. One,” he points at me, then himself. “Two.”
I play with the radio again, finding a great song, and I sit back. He’s on top of things. Two for Tuesdays it is, though I swear we’re closer to home now than when we left. After this afternoon, here without our bottles, we’ve sprung back to silence. Everything is a test. This has the feel of Dad dropping me at practice, or at a friend’s house, Mom assigning him as driver&emdash;so we could talk. Maybe have THE talk. Which he eventually did, on the way to a friend’s house, where a good laugh was had about it. By that time, on that car ride, I had hopeful condoms stuffed in my backpack under a warm six-pack. He seemed relieved as I was when he finished his speech. If he had said ‘penis’ or ‘love’ one more time in the same sentence, I would’ve leaped from the car.
I’m on the verge of jumping out now, just to eat. Thankfully, he slows to a coast and pulls into a red chain restaurant.
“This work for you?” He clunks into park.
“At this point, sure.”
We’re seated in a booth and I’m done with the menu before our waitress, Brittany, hands it to me.
“We’ll have two burgers and a couple beers. Thanks,” I say.
“Do you want Rancheros or Bigelows?” she says.
Nobody says anything. Brittany seems unsure of what to do. Finally, Dad says, artfully, I feel, “Medium rare, please, and Budweiser.”
“Yep,” she says, looking away as she accepts our menus.
We rearrange the abundance of tabletop advertisements and gaze at the locally themed decorations hanging haphazardly from the walls until he speaks. “So. How is Julia doing?”
“Corny? I imagine Julia Cornelius is doing just fine without me,” I say.
“I’m doing just fine without me, also.”
He doesn’t respond.
“Christ, Dad, we’ve been together every minute for almost two weeks now, you tell me, how am I doing?”
“Just fine. I imagine.”
“How are you doing?”
“Well. I suppose I’m doing just fine, as well.”
“Well, that’s fine,” I say.
Our beers arrive, ridiculously tall and delicious. We both take long sips, making the same satisfied sound when we put them down. Nothing caps off a day of liquor like cold draught beer. We raise our eyebrows at each other, in agreement. He points at something over my shoulder.
“I know that guy,” he says.
I look over both shoulders until I find what he’s pointing at. There’s a framed photograph of a very clean-cut looking kid in a robe, accepting a diploma from someone who looks like the monopoly man.
“He died in Vietnam. I think,” he says.
“He looks so happy.”
Dad looks at me as if I’ve said something stupid. “I think he probably was.”
“I guess. But Vietnam, that’s rough.”
“He didn’t know that. Then. He didn’t know what was going to happen.”
I shrug, really looking around this place. These decorations, this theme&emdash;it’s demeaning. There’s Garrison memorabilia everywhere, like Garrison no longer exists. It’s as if an invading army came through and built this memorial to those they destroyed. There are photos of last year’s graduating class, the year spelled out in the green robes the boys wear. The girls surrounding them in white robes. Smiling kids in pretend police uniforms smugly hold plaques beside the town’s one lonely symbolic police horse. Sports teams kneel on their helmets, coaches on the end of the line up in their green and white polo shirts. Stoic sepia women pose in their dour dresses, their names hand drawn over the image. Where do they get all this stuff? In every town this restaurant drops on, there must be teams of scavengers scouring the countryside, digging up décor.
“Hello? You going to eat that?”
“Just thinking,” I say, and set to preparing my burger.
He’s already three bites in, ketchup on his cheek. “Not bad, huh? Two for one Tuesdays.”
“One.” I point at him. “Two.”
“Maybe you did learn something in my class.”
The burger fills me perfectly, leaving exactly 20 oz. free for the next beers Brittany brings to our table. We sip at them, feeling growing pressure from the hostess table to move on. Sated, worn from the sun and the gin and the beer, oh, and the champagne, we sit until Brittany bounces back with our check. Dad gets up to pee, leaving me alone and hoping he doesn’t expect me to pay. I don’t even have a credit card or a wallet in my borrowed pants. I still wear the t-shirt I spilled champagne on earlier.
I look over the faces in the row of graduation pictures, young and unsure in their tilted caps, futures unwritten, I’m sure at least one of those nervous kids had a hand in our burgers tonight. Others are dead.
“So, you got this?” Dad says on his return.
“Ooh, I don’t seem to…” I make a little show of patting imaginary pockets on my chest.
“For the pleasure of your company,” he says, and tosses a few bills on the table.
At the door, Dad pauses and says he should piss again, old men, you know? I wait outside, in the present, free of the museum inside. It’s the purple dark of late summer. People have built up in a line by the door, mirrored by the line of SUVs turning in. Dad reappears, walking strangely, his hands at his crotch.
I have to take the keys from where they hang below his belt, because he won’t raise his arms. I curve the car past the traffic and pull out, away from town.
Dad’s quiet, probably disapproving of my choice of route. We pass row after row of stores: videos, coffee, and cell phones. I see trees silhouetted beyond the buildings’ roofs, a star. He shifts around in his seat, changes the radio station, then shuts it off.
“Turn down there,” he says.
“I was going to go down Sixth and over to Central.”
I turn where he indicates, a completely unfamiliar street. There are street signs where there were never streets. Ornate signs tantalizingly advertise developments, listing vague prices, “Starting in the low 300s!”
Dad snorts. “Nothing low about 300. Turn here.”
“There? It’s a dead end. Cul-de-sac.”
I turn, the lit sign sliding by the window: “Barbados Pond Estates: An Elliot Development.”
“Shit. Dad. Fuck. No.” I hit the brakes hard, right in the road, and put it in park, a hand on the shifter, ready to reverse.
“We’re fine, just go on. You gotta see this. What they’ve done.”
“I don’t care what they’ve done. Let’s go home.”
He looks at me under the yellow dome light, points ahead.
“Just take a spin around the circle.”
He puts a hand on my leg; I breathe in and put us into drive. Swathes of flat, bright green glow on either side, broken by smooth black paths. We creep through like stalkers, casing the joint.
The houses are massively set back from the road, huge rectangles stretching into smaller wings. Everything is silence.
Each lawn simultaneously sprouts a small sprinkler fountain, and the curbs reflect our lights like a runway, leading us forward. I need to use the wipers because the sprinklers are splattering the windshield. They keep time with my heart. We continue to the end, where the road takes a graceful twist around a circle of grass centered with a granite monolith.
I roll us to a stop at the curve’s apex and smell water on pavement. This house we’re parked beside is enormous. Its lawn is less austere than the others, strewn with stuff, just stuff. Blue tarps, corners held down by bricks, mar the grass. A ride-on mower rests idle, sprinkler water raining down. The grass flows a gentle slope behind the house, where I can just make out a circle shaped absence of trees. Every light is on. No noise, though. Not a sound spills from the closed windows.
“It’s back there,” he says. “The pond. Behind that.”
“That,” I say.
I rev the engine in neutral. “Why are we here?”
“I thought you might want to see. To know.”
“Things move on, Norm. Houses are built. Families swim.”
“I see,” I say and drop into drive.
I need the high beams through the back roads home. It’s starting to get dark earlier, school will be starting soon. We drive without the radio, the engine nearly as silent. The clicking blinker is the only noise as we turn into our driveway. Dad reaches over my head and presses the garage door open, but I shut the engine where we sit and stare at the glow of the dashboard.
Dad stretches out strangely. He straightens his legs, lifts his shirt, and reaches an arm down the top of his shorts. He produces a narrow black rectangle, a picture frame, and hands it to me. His door opens. The interior illuminates. He leaves slowly, following his long legs into the driveway.
In my hands, smiling up at me and clutching lacrosse helmets, are Fitzy and me. An enlarged newspaper photo broken into pointillist dots. Our arms around each others’ shoulder pads, our heads touching, we’re holding our fingers up, number one. Number one. When I wipe the glass dry, looking through the open car door, the stars have fully revealed themselves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ben Schwartz lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two boys. For a very long time now, he has been an English and Special Education teacher at a High School and an Alternative School. Ben received his MFA at Southern New Hampshire University, where this novel was his thesis.
The Drift of Things is available for purchase on amazon.com.
ABOUT THE RAG
The Rag is the home for literary guts and steel. We are an electronic publication hell-bent on true grit and uncompromising action. We call this “literary entertainment.” We publish new fiction monthly on our website www.raglitmag.com. You can read online, or free downloads are available in PDF, Kindle and ePub formats.