Post Road Magazine #22

Sailor Man

Jason Ockert

The phone rings and wakes the baby up and it's after midnight and for a moment there before the clamor it was quiet and nice. Answering the phone this late is never a good idea, it cannot be happy news; last time I picked up the receiver after midnight I heard word from a groggy nurse that my mother had passed which was a surprise since everyone knew it was my father's time to go.

Trace, my wife, rises from the bed and ignores my plead to notanswer it — probably just a wrong number — and says "Hello?" and while she's listening wordlessly to the person on the other line and the baby somehow, miraculously, drifts back to sleep, it occurs to me that I don't know anyone anymore I care about who could be calling with bad news and this makes me feel momentarily invincible.

"That was your uncle," Trace says, hanging up the phone. Her voice is alert and sharp; ever-ready. This is the New Her, super-thankful to God that we, already in our forties, were able to change our minds and decide to have a child after all, and did.

"Oh."

"He's spooked. There's a noise upstairs." "Big, old, house."

"Would you be a doll and check on him?" "In the morning."

"He can't sleep." "Yeah, well."

"He lost his only brother, you know."

I know I don't have a choice here and she's right, of course, he's all that's left of my family other than the family I've created and I know that if I keep protesting Trace will threaten to simply go herself and will; it is not a bluff. I rise and dress and make my way to the door with my keys and say, "I'll be back soon."

"Honey," she calls, "don't forget to grab my keys."

This is something I had forgotten: my pick-up's in the shop with a busted radiator, her keys are in her purse in the closet. "Got them," I reply, too loudly. I hear our son stir and before I can hear if he is going to fuss or not I am outside and in my wife's Subaru, negotiating the frozen roads. It is not as dark as it should be, in my opinion, with the low, gray clouds and a significant number of cars out and about; it is Saturday night, after all, and I am among these people with late-night plans, awake and alive.

I pull right up to the front steps of my childhood home, do not go around back to the detached garage, stop the car, enter the foyer where my uncle Drake is standing, fretting, offering a greeting I don't pay any attention to and when I am in, I take off my shoes like I've done since I was a boy. It is hot inside, my uncle's got the furnace working overtime, and I'm automatically thinking about heating bills and what this must cost and how it gets paid.

Drake's the spitting image of my father minus thirty-or-so pounds of muscle. There's the fringe of whimsical hair over the big ears, the smallcrooked nose, weak double-chin, gray mustache, heavy-set English eyes with super-long lashes. The old man is going on and on, "…been calling, you know," and I cut him off and tell him never to call my house again.

"There's a noise, upstairs."

I steal a quick look over at my uncle and am surprised to see a glimmer of terror there.

"Probably a mouse."

"It ain't a dang rodent. And if it were I can't get up there to kill it!" he says loudly and sputtering. The old man is so easily worked-up, the noise must be driving him mad; he's probably been staggering around from room to room imagining what the sound could possibly be, if the noise even exists in the first place, and in this empty house maybe Drake's losing his mind a little.

"Maybe it's a ghost," I say quietly, spookily, wiggling my fingers in front of his face.

"I told you it wasn't a mouse!" the old man shouts.

"I said ghost, Drake. Ghost. Like the apparition of my mother trying to teach you a lesson. Maybe she's confused and thinks you're dad."

"Thinks I'm dead?" The old man's hands flap. He's got the ancient, elderly head-wobble.

I tell Drake to wait here even though this isn't necessary, and then I climb the groaning stairs.

When my mother's dementia worsened, my father was quick to put a mattress in his trophy room so he could sleep at night. And at night is when mom needed him most. I know. I slept over — Trace's suggestion — slouched in a recliner in their bedroom with an eye on my tiny mother swallowed up by the king-sized bed. She woke up awfully, confused and clawing for someone who wasn't there. I'd sit on the edge next to her and do what I could, There, there, there, Mom, it's OK, until the nightmare of her waking condition blew by.

Meanwhile, dad dreamed down the hall.

And this whole sleeping-in-separate rooms concept was my father's, no doubt about it, although the doctor believed it was a good idea since my father's heart was on its last legs, staggering and ready to drop — one, two, three — and the body needed rest now more than ever. Dad was the one dying. Doc said soon, any day, the strain was real and too much. Trace, who had a rocky relationship with her own crummy father, bought all this, believed she could see something absent in his eyes, thought we should do everything we could to ease the suffering, thought it'd be wise for him to spend time in the trophy room surrounded by everything he'd fought for. And, God love her, Trace decided that someone should prepare mom for the inevitable so she could brace herself somehow, delicate as her mind was, she had a right to know. That burden fell upon my shoulders — I waited in her room for a pocket of lucidity, practicing my line — Mom, Samuel's dying and you're going to have to let him go — and my opportunity came around two in the morning after she had terribly awoken and danced through her horrible pantomime and I had soothed her like a champ and seen fair skies in her eyes — I told her what Trace thought she had a right to hear. Mom, caught momentarily in reality with me, whispered, You mean he's dead? with her eyebrows furrowed and lips barely parted and with just enough energy to turn breath into words. I said, Yes, with confidence. Then she turned her head away, thoughtful, and we sat there for some time both mourning the man. Soon she let out a sob that shook her whole body and then rolled onto her side and eventually slipped into a fitful sleep. And if she remembered anything about it in the morning, I didn't know. And if she grew confused when she did see him from time to time when he'd sit with her in the late afternoons spooning her potato soup, and thought, Hold on a second. . ., I never knew. None of this mattered. It was all a lie. I wish I'd never said a thing. Her heart relinquished first.

Through the raised mini-blinds I see flakes of snow drifting past the streetlight.

Down the hall is my dad's room. It has always been a place forbidden to enter. It smells sour. In glass cases are the spoils of a lifetime of amateur boxing — trophies, laminated newspaper snapshots, medallions, golden gloves, and plenty of belts. There are also piles of video tapes and journals filled with notes; he was as much a student of the sport as he was a competitor, and he'd study his opponents' moves weeks prior to a match. Before I was born, when he was making a name for himself, so the story goes, my father started losing his hair early and he looked older than he was. His first trainer, a man named Whip, put my father on a strict diet of vegetables and water and stressed curls. Soon, dad had enormous arms — The right one's made of iron, the left one's made of steel, if the right one doesn't git ya, than the left one will — and looked, I suppose, a little like Popeye. Plus all those greens. Whip started calling dad the Sailor Man and my father, the boxer, was born. He got tattoos. He smoked a corn-cob pipe. He crushed tin cans of spinach with one hand. He squinted his right eye. In his heyday they'd play the Popeye theme song as my father jogged down the aisle, shaking his arms loose, and into the ring. Growing up, whenever my father did a Popeye imitation — that skittering chuckle and garbled New England accent — I knew he was in a good mood and so mom and I were happy. But when he'd lose a match and come home bruised and rubbery, the house held its breath as his anger simmered and boiled over with some reservoir of strength — energy enough to rattle the windows — he still had in him.

In his office now, I am surprised how little dust has settled on the place. His single bed by the window is unmade, something he would never stand for in life. There's a border running around the room, near the ceiling, which is decorated with alternating faces of Popeye characters — Brutus, Olive Oyl, J. Wellington Wimpy — the whole gang. The walls are festooned with framed championship certificates and titles. Tucked into an open closet is a leather medicine ball. There's a television tray with a clean plate and an unopened bottle of water on it. His desk is pushed against the back wall and on it are a lamp and a framed picture of the Sailor Man in his youth with his arms thrown high, shirtless, and smiling wide with the mouthpiece out of a black-and-blue face. My mom snapped the shot. This was when they were young, before I was born, when she still attended his matches. When I came along, she quit going and never let me see him fight. Dad protested. Mom said if the Sailor Man wanted to sacrifice his body and get his brains bashed in, that was his choice, but the ring was no place for a boy. Dad didn't argue this; it probably didn't seem worth the effort. But I knew that he'd grown up boxing and believed somehow that being in the ring hardened him into a man. Me, I was forever Swee' Pea, the Softie. He loved me all right so long as he lived but never really thought much of me.

I hear a beep coming from my father's desk; the answering machine is flashing with twenty messages. I don't think it can handle more. This is the sound that's been haunting Drake.

The messages are complaints by people who have lost money in my father's vending machine. To be honest, I completely forgot about the thing. Maybe three or four years ago he purchased the machine. It gave him a reason to get out of the house and maybe make a few extra dollars. He put it outside the bus terminal, a location where people were always coming and going — I bet it was a wonderful place for him to meet women. He'd sit on a bench behind a newspaper, one eye on the door to the terminal, and offer pretty ladies a free Coke and a bag of Fritos. Maybe he hopped on the bus with them from time to time — disappeared for the day.

I guess the Sailor Man posted this phone number, his private line — I don't know how the phone bills are being paid — on the machine. Seems as if customers haven't figured out that it is empty and that the owner is dead and gone and that it will never spit out a can of soda or a bag of chips again. I don't know who technically owns the thing and is responsible to refill it. I know it wasn't left to me.

One disgruntled guy has left maybe ten messages — the electronic voice on the machine mentions that the date of the final call came two days ago. The man may have continued calling if the answering machine was willing to keep listening. He speaks as if he has been personally offended — maybe he's a bus driver or a custodian who incredulously keeps hoping to get at something that's not there. On the answering machine, he's outraged and curses like it's practiced. He threatens to bash the vending machine with a baseball bat and calls my father a fucking shyster. In another message, the man says he's going to hunt my father down and get his money back one way or another.

I tug at the line in the wall and disconnect the phone.

The next morning I'm running an errand, distracted, and just need to clear my head for a moment. I want to get what's inside out so I pull over, stop the car, wherever here is — snow-banked parking lot by the soccer field, the goals ice-laced gateways — belt unbuckled, door open, door closed. Out. I shove my hands into my pockets — in the cold my wedding ring is loose on my finger, hardly hampered by the knuckle — I make a fist around the change I've got, walk from the car down the slope, prints lingering in the snow, my breath wavering over me idiotically — dumb-cloud, buffoon-thought, numb-brain — the head holds cold ears and watery eyes and enough doubt to sink me; now I'm on the creek and the ice and the feet splay. Here's as good as any place to hash through the unresolved.

Above the trees trick me into believing I'm swaying, not the snowweary branches bending, not the glazed-over evergreen thistles, not the blackbirds — one, two, three, no, two — birds barking at the air they stir, not gravity toying with the flakes falling, sky imploding. Nothing like that makes my knees buckle, lips twitch, tongue swell, nose pucker, mind onetwo-three, one-two-three-waltz along the creek-bed, nearly remembering enough now to properly cloud over what's been really bothering me — the Sailor Man — my footprints track back to the wife's car with the bells and the whistles, car still running, not near paid-for, but hell, a second car is necessary with my pick-up in the shop, costing us time and money, and I know this whole car debacle is easily remedied once I just let go and get what's mine. I can see the Subaru over the rise — the exhaust is making weather of its own there in the wake of itself — tire tracks fading in the too-deep-to-drive-through snow — there's always the possibility that once I've driven in I cannot drive out; no matter, I can shove at the immovable all day, it's a thing I'm good at, leaning in and pushing with everything I've got.

What happens to the fishes under the ice, and the crawdads and the water-critters down below — some kind of cryogenics, a stasis, a reprieve, life-pause — waiting for the thaw?

Here's what I should do and here's when I should do it — here is not my destination but it's where I am — spar with the loss: Dad's dead and the anger I pent up during the years leading up to his departure has not died. Now, then; let it go. Breathe differently. Un-fog the head, un-clog the heart. So what about what was? Think more of the what-will-be and the who-to-become. If not for me, for Sam. Sammy. Not-Samuel — well, yes; Samuel — the name's part of it — upper-cut, left, left, hook. My boy back in the car.

I return in the spaces I made coming down the hill so that the prints look as if the strider — me — is going in two different directions or else no direction at all. I don't know my nose is dripping until the lips, then tongue, taste the run. The Subaru — a station-wagon, reddish-colored, meteoric crimson — waits so patiently, like a pet, a dog, my old dog Newt, rather, not-mine, which is the point — I was walking the thing in the early fall back before the Sailor Man had keeled over — a black Labrador, Newt, trotting me along with the leash down the sidewalk on our way to the park or the playground or the thin leaf-speckled forest — us going toward wherever, happily, our specific memories bounding around in our heads like the time we played Frisbee, the time we chased squirrels, the time we splashed in the shallows, the time we caught colds, the time we curled upon the couch and watched Sports, the time Newt discovered fire, the time, the time… — when, there, across the street from Newt and I, we spied a man walking his dog, a black Labrador, in the opposite direction and the man and dog turned to regard Newt and me regarding them and what a pair of idiots — a quadruple-bunch, as it were — morons, the lot of us, this man with half-smile and half-wave, his dog with half-smile and half-wave, and Newt and me caught half-waving too — all of this preposterous, really, because the dog that the man on the other side of the road trotted behind looked exactly like Newt, there could be no meaningful difference, a black Lab that looked like the idea of a black Lab, if there were a line-up I'd never be able to tell the difference — here, Newt, boy, here — and what a farce, this dog-thing, this pet-owning — that man and me, were we the same?

When Newt ran away, Trace and the Sailor Man were sad or so, just for a while, not long, and I knew they wouldn't forever be upset what with the impending birth and the impending death knock-knock-knocking on the doorstep — let some other idiot get behind Newt and dodder toward oblivion — not me, anymore.

Sam is asleep in the car now. I see him through the back window. His seat faces backwards so he can sort-of peer through the defrosting. There's nothing to see but gray-white in the sky and me peeking in, hands cupped to the glass, nose-cold — the father outside. Sammy is nestled in some kind of super-thick blue-colored body-suit so that only his face is exposed. Let me say that I am so glad he looks like Trace and not me. Her chin, nose, hairline, ears, mouth, and all that — only thing he's got of mine are his eyes and, well, I'm told the color of them may still change. His cheeks are flushed, like he's blushing, dreaming of something inappropriate. He is five months and a handful-of-days old. He can hold his head up. He can say, Ba-Ba-Ba and Um-ma-ma. When he lets me, I stand over his crib and repeat — Da-da — so maybe he knows it's me — Da-da — the word, the name; the father who is learning to love in a way once removed from how he's loved before, a love I'm still figuring out, baby-steps, the Unconditional, an emotion I don't trust myself to feel yet, everything I've ever known has had conditions — the snow is really coming down now — my boy, Lima Bean, Cherub, Bubaloo, Monkey, Peanuthead, still wearing pet names, and I like any of them other than the one he was born with, Samuel, after my father, who died a week or ten days before Pumpkinface was born — if he had just died sooner or later Gremlin would have been named otherwise, something not-Him, but no, because of the proximity, Trace suggested it to me, whispered in her wavering, serious, just-out-ofthe-delivery-room and I-knew-it-was-going-to-be-a-boy voice — Simon, let's name him Samuel — and my answer — No! No! — issued forth in a wow-how-about-the-miracle-of-life-moment, kind-of-non-voice; she didn't hear. Now I'm sandwiched between Samuels.

The bottom line is that my boy is in the car warm and safe and I'm just going to go ahead and promise him and me right now, I'll just come out with it — Son, I'm going to be the best father in the universe. No better, no how. I'm going to be nothing like your grandfather. Nope. A name's just a name, Newt knew that. You and I will get beyond what we're called. We'll get beyond what a thing means and focus on what just is: my soon-to-be unconditional — once I've got a bead on it — love for you and maybe down the line vice versa.

Saying all this isn't half-bad for a moment and I think that maybe the reason I pulled over in the first place, to clear my mind, wasn't a half-bad instinct — my head's partly cloudy and I'm not really lost or confused. Today is Sunday and Trace is at church, praying, maybe for me to get beyond my grief, which is laughable — I'm beyond, way beyond, and if I wasn't before, I am now — I had the moment there back on the ice, back there when I told myself — now, then; let it go — hellfire, it's gone. Poof. Jab, jab, body-blow, left, left — out.

Fair enough. Focus on the task at hand. The store is up the road, Wade's, a place that has fine prices on meat and so-so prices on produce. My son needs diapers and that's the charge I've taken on. I'll go ahead and do that, then.

When I try the car door I'm surprised to find it locked. So, I try it again. Then I try the other doors — scrambling around the car and making a horseshoe in the snow. Trunk's locked too. I didn't know a car could just go ahead and lock itself like that. I don't remember Trace mentioning this — it's her car, perhaps she could have brought it up, in passing maybe — Funny thing, hun, my meteoric crimson-colored Subaru auto-

matically locks when you shut the doors — she could have said this, could have given me the heads up. Maybe I should have noted this sooner, like last night — the wagon probably locks when the car's running so that a child couldn't accidentally open the door and throw himself out, or so that a bold napper couldn't snatch the kid while the driver idled at a light. I mean, I suppose it makes sense. I'm under the impression that everything makes sense after a while. At least, I'm hoping that. Like what to do now. Inside, the keys are in the ignition and the car is running and the exhaust is creating a low-pressure frontal system — roiling clouds and all. The snow has decided it's going to go ahead and turn me into a snowman, falling with a master plan. Inside are my cell phone, my wallet, my hat, my son, and any semblance of my good fatherhood. Outside is me getting buried. I can't recall seeing a car pass in forever. I'm suddenly having trouble imagining what other cars look like. I try the door handle again. It's wrong for a car to do this to a person who needed to clear his head for a moment — needed to get out and just think, for a second, a person who was courteous enough to leave the heat on for his infant and slumbering son. I wonder when the hammer dropped, the tumbler tumbled, the locks fell, what was I doing in that instant — regarding the sky, the one, two, three, no, two blackbirds?

Let's not panic, here. Try the handle again. Don't wonder what the Sailor Man would do should he not be dead and instead of you, fidgeting in these cold shoes.

I'd never be in this situation, he'd say. Let's just say you were, Dad.

I'd never be in it.

Dad, just a hypothetical.

Never.

I'm just saying, let's just say... Nope. Moving toward the road is difficult. Stepping is something I've taken for granted now that I have to lift high to walk. Snow has gotten beneath my socks, under my jeans, and if it could, it'd crawl north all the way. When I get to the road, it's gone. What tire tracks I made have been covered over and I could be standing in the middle of the street for all I can tell. What kind of road is this? If nobody's going to use it to drive along, why not just let the forest claim it, let the deer wrestle the rabbits or whatever, let it be wild again. But I'm not thinking right. First, I should locate myself — I was on the way to Wade's to get diapers when Sammy started howling, crying like crazy, and that incessant baby-wail distracted me, I turned down the nearest side street, a county road, a place that runs parallel to the local high school, where kids play soccer. That's where I am, by the high school that isn't far from Chester Avenue where Wade's is. Fair enough, that's it then. Except Sammy Bear is sleeping and has been sleeping since I started the car — he wasn't the distraction, let's not blame the child, such a nasty habit. Everyone gets turned around from time to time — leave it at that.

When I get back to the car, I try the handles. If the car can automatically lock itself, perhaps it can automatically unlock itself. I don't know how much gas is in the tank — I can't see the gauge — how long I have before I'm in deeper trouble than I'm already in. Now's when I need to be decisive. Now's not the time to wonder, again, what the Sailor Man would do — I'd never be in this situation but if I were I'd use a fist — or weigh the pros and the cons. Now's not the time. My body has grown numb from the cold and I'm starting to feel warm in my chest somehow that I know isn't right.

The strides I take down to the creek bed are longer than they were earlier. I slip my ring off and let it mingle with whatever change I have in my pocket, and then I dig in the snow — the caustic snow-bite feels beautifully sharp right before the burn — and find a sizeable stone.

Sam's still asleep. I'm grateful for this. Surely, he'll wake up once I've smashed the window, but it will be the crash that startles him, not me, per se — he won't see his old man hustle over to the passenger side, I don't know why I choose this as the most logical window to bust, pack snow around the rock, perhaps this will lessen the shatter, somehow, stand back and pitch the hard thing — he won't exactly know it's me doing the damage, rather, he'll remember me as the one doing the There, there's, and the it's OK, baby, it's OK, Daddy's here now, baby, it's OK. If he can remember at all, really; I have no idea how old a person is when he or she can remember or how far back he or she can go for a recollection — certainly not as far as five months — my earliest memory, if I recall right, is when I was four, maybe, and it was Halloween, and I had on the scary-mask and was following my father out the door to go trick-or-treating and he didn't know I was behind him and let the glass door with the mouth-level brass handle close behind him and knock out my two front baby teeth — uppercut, haymaker, hook. I'd had my mind on the sweet thing and instead tasted a mouthful of my own blood. If Sam's anything like me, I've still got three and a half years to get this fathering down pat.

I hurl the snow-covered semi-boulder like a shot put. The glass splinters — a spider's web, for an instant, while the stone bounces back into the snow at my feet — and then explodes. The sound is big and just like it's supposed to be. In the aftermath of the break, there's a substantial silence in which I hold my breath.

Then Sammy starts into it. His cry begins like it always does — low and quick and mournful with a twinge of self-pity. But then it takes a turn for the worse. The cry moves from wail to howl — higher pitched and desperate, and from there it moves further along into out-right blood-curl mixed with the head thrash, and then, finally, my boy hits the uncontrollable-punctuated-by-three-seconds-of-build-up just flat out scream which, even to my frozen ears sounds like he's in pain.

I quickly reach my hand inside the window, feel the warm blow, and press the automatic unlock so I can open the back door and slide next to my boy. He's full-tilt now — red-faced and gone. His eyes-like-mine drop serious tears and I start in: You're OK, buddy, no, no; it's OK, you're all right, I'm sorry I scared you, that was a loud noise, huh? And talking like this, while it doesn't help him, comforts me. I'm doing what Any-Dad would do — trying, here: Baby, baby, baby, I know, I know. He seems to be hyperventilating now and I'm thinking maybe I'll need to take him out of his seat and walk him around for a while. The cold outside, though, may exacerbate the situation; he could catch a pneumonia, the wind's biting and the snow's hell-bent on putting an end to everything. Perhaps I should just drive, just get gone. I don't even know if the car will make it out. I've pushed countless cars out of snow banks before, I know how to coax a vehicle — reverse-forward-reverse-forward; go — and take the boy home to his mother who should be back from church by now and by God I hope she sent something kind skyward for me.

Then I see the tiny sliver of glass embedded just under my son's left eye. I see it because he's swiping at it with his mittened hands and about to spike it further beneath the skin.

Whoa, Sammy, don't do that, now, Son. With one hand I try to push his fists away and with the other hand, pluck the sliver. But he's gonegone, feeling the pain and trying to shake away the sting. My hands are socold and useless, they will never be able to get the job done, stiff and fumbling, when I grab, I can't get the glass-splinter — it is too small and too big at the same time — tweezers would be nice, I have a pocket knife on my key chain, but that idea strikes me as perhaps the dumbest one I've had in my entire life; I'd certainly take his eye out or slit his throat and make what's really maybe just a scratch something permanent and I want nothing permanent here, I'd like to get beyond the now and never ever return — when he's ten and wants to play soccer in these fields, I'll say, No, no — let's go up the road.

I use both hands to grip his head, say, Hold still, and lean in with my mouth and my teeth and use my tongue a little for guidance, and I get the damned thing out and spit it away. And this seems to send him into some kind of melt-down and he's dirtied his diaper and man, I hope we have at least one back at the house, if I can ever get back there — we're not going to Wade's anymore. I have no idea if this injury is hospital worthy. The blood that comes out of the wound is more red than I've ever seen, nothing like the dark kind that comes out of me, I work the kind of job where the once-a-week injury is part of the wage so I know what my blood looks like and it's not like Sammy's here, so super-red and bright — not unlike how I remember my father's, unfortunately — and I wipe-it-away and wipe-it-away again and when it doesn't stop and starts to smear like warpaint I guess I'll just let it bleed and return him to his mother.

I get out and open the passenger-side door and brush away as much glass as I can. Then I'm back in the driver's seat and notice the all-wheel drive, and I rock us forward, I rock us back; Sammy's scaring away the birds outside and maybe waking the hibernating frogs back under the ice at the creek, and I start whistling loudly, to maybe distract him and it isn't until I've got the car in motion and am backing out and into what I want to believe is the road that I realize the tune I'm whistling is that damned Popeye song and I'm nowhere near where I want to be.

By the time I arrived home the bleeding stopped and Sam's crying had dwindled. I wet my index finger and wiped his face relatively clean. Then I hurried inside, hefting the car-seat out of the back, and found Trace standing in the kitchen with a cup of something to drink. The kitchen is the finest place in our pre-fab affordable-house. I laid marble tile down, surplus from a job I'd worked, and it looks wonderful. When she saw us, disheveled, she asked, "How'd it go?"

I figured she knew full well. I've lived with her long enough to know that she can read my mind — she's done it time and time again — so I don't have to say anything often. This telepathy is not a two-way street — I have no idea what's in her head — and when I smelled her perfume I automatically went down the wrong-track wondering why she would wear the particular kind — a kind I thought she reserved for special times she and I went out — to church with her girlfriends. Who needs to smell good there? Her friends were always chiding Trace for settling so soon — with me — a thing I understand but don't appreciate. Her friends convinced her that it was not too late to conceive, which it wasn't, thank God, of course, but I'd rather it have been me doing the coaxing. That perfume, though, sent me headlong down the cheating-track and I careened and ended, where I always seem to end lately, right along the edge of doubt — unfounded doubt, by all accounts, but there nevertheless. And there because of the Sailor Man, the Philanderer. Before mom passed, Dad took on a girlfriend or maybe girlfriends, a thing I could have murdered him for if I had been the kind of man capable of patricide. And Trace, God love her, took his side. Trace had a fine relationship with the Sailor Man. They used to talk four or five times a week. I liked this, at first, of course, since it meant I didn't have to pretend I wanted to spend time with him, ask him how he felt, etc., because, by proxy, I wore my wife's forthright concern. Apparently, the Sailor Man told Trace that my mom had encouraged the affair or affairs which is something preposterous the old man used to delude the guilt — I can't figure out why my wife bought this tripe. When Trace mentioned the arrangement to me and the immediate anger bloomed, she quickly pushed my buttons — she, so crafty — nosed me down the wrong track, a place I go easily, by saying that the whole thing was sort-of sweet and that someday, if we were in the same boat, and she, Trace, like my mom, was mentally far, far, away, and I could find a kind of contentment in another woman, if the circumstances lent themselves similarly to the ones mom and dad were in, she'd want me to be happy, no matter. And I locomotived down that line like a bruiser.

I handed the boy to her, took off my shoes to stand in my wet socks, and noted the magic she performed that shushed him — a quick jostle and a boop-boop-boop on his nose — and before she could ask about the tiny dot of blood beneath his eye, I started in: "It didn't really go well. I decided to get diapers."

"That was sweet," she said, battling a yawn. "We have an extra box under the crib."

I didn't know this.

"Walk with me there. He could use a change."

I followed them and felt something crushing looming overhead. We walked down the short-hall, in our tiny-place with bad-carpet, dog-smell, wind-drafts, roof-leak, and banged-up hand-me-down furniture. Before it was a nursery, the room was a sizeable walk-in closet. I know a carpenter who helped me transform it into a decent-space for Sam, and it is enough to hold the crib and a changing table and the two of us — Mom and Irresponsible-Dad — together.

"Something happened," I said as my wife tucked a strand of her wheat-colored hair behind an ear and began unpeeling our boy.

"Looks like he got a scrape."

And all at once I felt a little blizzard in my chest, and nearly-to-tears, whispered, "I can't do this anymore."

Without missing a beat, Trace said, "Sure you can."

I asked her to explain to me what I meant because I really didn't know. And her answer made sense — "Finances, the gloomy season, lack of sleep. . .

I don't suppose I'm sleeping now?

". . .baby stresses, recent orphanism, car troubles…"

"Speaking of that," I interrupted — body-blow, upper-cut, right hook. "The Subaru, Simon? Come on."

"I parked under an over-hang and an icicle — as big as a leg — fell and smashed the window. And a sliver from the shatter. I got it out. No big deal?"

"We need that car," she said, not facing me and working the boy.

Of course I knew this and what it meant. "I'll fetch dad's," I replied. Trace turned to me and asked, "You ready?" with her round eyes wide and concerned.

"I yam what I yam," I answered, giving over to the moment.

So I'm on my way and almost-there, well, here, now. The Subaru crunches into the drive of my childhood home that is not mine. The trash bag that I wrapped around the window-hole is already starting to tear and it hasn't been on there for much more than a little while. The snow has stopped and some sun nudges through the cloud-cover above and it's just past noon and if I concentrate, I can nearly-forget this morning. I pull as close to the detached double-wide barn-like garage as I can, put the Subaru in park, engine running, and get out, leaving the door open. I fish around in my pocket of change; my hands like my hands again, slip on my ring, and grab the car key. I lift one garage door open and there's what's mine now — his car, what he left me — a mouse-brown-colored boat-of-asedan, nineteen seventy-something. Thing hasn't been moved since he fell too sick to rise and stand for long — four, five, six, seven — so he couldn't go out on the prowl for any old coot who'd have him. But my dad was the kind of man who would rather die than stay down for the count so I'm sure he got up and out and turned the engine over semi-regularly for good measure. Since he's been gone the car's been sitting cold.

When I found out this is what he decided to leave me, and this alone, I promised myself I would never come and get it, to spite him somehow; let him, in whatever spirit-form he may be in feel guilty about the kind of raw deal he'd dealt me. I can be obstinate. But that luxury's gone, we need the damned thing — jab, windmill, power-house.

As I expected the car doesn't turn over. I pop the hood and fetch the jumper-cables, hook the batteries up right. I slide into my father's sedan and wait a while for the life in my wife's car to make its way to his. The smell of my father is not as faint as I expect it to be. I can make out the cologne he used trapped in the leather of the seats. It may very well be rubbing off on me.

Next to the sedan and hanging from a beam is my father's worn punching bag, gray-beige and motionless like a carcass. There's a jump rope looped around the shoulders of the bag. The ground on that side of the garage is covered in sawdust. The Sailor Man liked shuffling in pulverized wood for some reason — late nights, when I was younger, from the kitchen window, through half-blinds, I'd see a few paces of the stuff trailing after him toward the house when he was done.

Someone up the street is shoveling snow, rhythmically. That sound of metal on iced concrete hurts my teeth suddenly and I'm just-like-that remembering this morning and the window shatter and how long ago it seems, this morning on the ice over the creek, when I was prepared and ready to let my pent up bitterness toward my father for abandoning my mother go, which I did, thankfully. But if I didn't or if it's somehow found me again, here's as good a place as any, in my father's car in my father's garage within plain view of the punching bag — just let it go: TKO.

Then I hear a door close, the Subaru, and because the hood impedes my vision, I don't know who's done this, although of course I know; there's really only one person: Uncle Drake. He peeks into the garage fol- lowing his hollow, "Hello?" He says my name quizzically as if I could be anyone else. "Simon?" he questions, and I say, No, Uncle Drake, it's a stranger sitting in the garage stealing your dead brother's car.

"Boy, is that you?" "It is."

"I thought it might be."

The old man is wearing long-underwear beneath his ruinous coat. He could use a hat.

"To what do I owe the pleasure?" he says. "There's no real pleasure," I say.

"Slept well, thanks to you." Drake is having trouble looking at me straight on. The sun stands behind him, props him up. "You come for a visit? Where's Samuel?"

"I came for the car." I wait a few seconds while the old man thinks of some useless banter to offer, and just as he opens his mouth I roll the key, pump the gas, and startle him with the sudden pop and roar of my father's resurrected vehicle.

"What say?" I holler, having fun, now. He shouts something back I can't hear. "Get a hat, Drake. I need your help."

While the old man dodders back toward the house, I have to snake a hand through the garbage bag mostly-covering the broken window to unlock the Subaru doors.

I instruct Drake to follow me in my father's car. I'm pretty sure the old man does not have a valid driver's license, so I drive the Subaru fast and don't wait at yellow lights, forcing him to move in a way he doesn't feel comfortable, thinking, maybe a cop might intervene, punish the old man, a thing I'm sure he deserves. But it's Sunday and nobody cares and the roads are messy and my father's car is sturdy and could drive itself, really; Drake's just a passenger with his decrepit hands on the wheel momentarily. We head east into the industrial section of town to the auto mechanic who is over-charging me on the radiator he had to order to fix my pick-up. Since I am not in the auto business I don't know any worthwhile mechanics — the only good deals come from knowing someone — so I'm at his mercy. I'll leave the Subaru and call him tomorrow and inquire how long it will take for him to rip me off and replace the busted window. Then I shoo old Drake into the passenger seat and I'm behind the wheel of Sailor Man's car and from here on out I'm going to start thinking of it as my car since it is.

"Drives smooth," Drake says.

And this is the part that I dread the most, being in the car with my uncle, this ten-minute-drive with him, a sentence I'll need to serve. He's got more in him. His lip is quivering and the hat that he chose to put on his head, a baseball cap labeled with a cheap beer company, completely inappropriate for the weather — not at all what I had in mind for him — is too small, it needs adjusting, and he's grinding his knees against each other and gearing up for more to say.

I wonder all at once what station my father had on his radio. What was the last song he heard before dying? When I turn the radio on, it's static, and before I can crank it loud enough to drown uncle Drake, he starts in: "You know, I've been meaning to speak with you," he begins. And I don't want him to finish. I know what he wants to say. He wants to tell me that he feels guilty because the house was willed to him instead of me. My father moved him in several years ago when Drake pretended his legs were getting bad — a lie anyone with a half-brain could see; the lonely man just wanted attention and figured hobbling would advance this desire. And then, after I tell him, It's fine, Trace and I are happy where we are, he's going to suggest that we move in with him, it is a big-enough place and he only stays downstairs — his room is where mine was when I was a kid — and, frankly, he'd love to have the company — Samuel was always the social one — and maybe it has dawned on him that being alone could be forever. Truth is, I could use the house or at least the money from the house but no way am I moving in with the Sailor Man's slight spitting-image limping around down below. I've got the patience to wait my uncle's life out.

Drake clears his throat and continues, "I didn't get to talk to you last night. You left in such a rush."

"I love this song," I say, cranking the static, keeping my eyes dead ahead, trying to blow out the speakers.

Monday morning, before I leave for work, Trace reminds me that

Sam has a doctor's appointment this afternoon. "Right. I'll take off early."

Sam's sitting in a high chair, cooing and content until I lean in for a peck on the blood-dot beneath his eye. That's when he swats me and whines. I'm clearly not forgiven.

"You remembered to transfer the baby's car seat?"

"I did," I say, lying and grabbing my lunch which I won't have time to eat. "See you at three."

"Two."

"Right. Oh," I add, "could you…"

"Call the mechanic about the window?" "One step ahead of me, Sweets."

"Side-by-side, my heart," she says.

It snowed some last night. What's on the road is not enough to plow. My dad's car just glides along, perfect. Black ice means nothing in a vehicle like this one. I turn the radio static on. The white noise seeps into my head and pushes out any lingering thoughts and worries I'd maybe entertain in silence. I'm left just concentrating on the road and the nuances of driving in the right direction.

I've been working the master bathroom of a ritzy house on the west side which is in the opposite direction from the mechanic. I need to think through time in order to do the day right — retrieve the baby seat and get home before Sam's appointment. It's important for me to show my family that I can be depended upon.

The owner of the house is a pudgy man whose hands appear webbed. He often holds them out as if he is keeping an invisible wall at bay. His wife is as-tall-as-can-be and ducks when she passes beneath the chandelier in the foyer. I'm pretty sure she wouldn't hit her head if she didn't bend low; actually, I've calculated the distance, and it must just be some habit she's grown into.

The couple owns a million dogs. They're all Golden Retrievers and must eat bowls full of speed. They're manic. When one hurries out of the room, another one sprints into it. I know that they are different dogs because I see them passing each other, sniffing and drooling, and I've heard the owners use so many names. One they call Buddy finds my crotch the moment the door is open.

"Right on time," the owner says. "Buddy, down." "Yes," I say entering the house. "I'm punctual."

"You'll finish today, yes?" the wife asks, slinking in from the living room as she slides into a pullover.

"Maybe. Tile is not something you rush. Things need to settle."

"That means no, honey," the husband says, chuckling, hands extended — pushing away nothing.

"I'll lay the tile down this morning and come back tomorrow to grout it. Don't walk on it tonight." I swat a different dog that has decided to chew on my shoe.

When I'm upstairs and mixing the mud, I realize that I've forgotten my kneepads in my wife's car. Crawling around without them is murder. It's a kind of pain that, after a few hours, I learn to appreciate. I will not be able to walk well this afternoon and I'm fine with this. I spend a substantial portion of my day on my knees, and since I'm in position — half the problem with praying is getting down low — there's no reason I shouldn't do it more often. And wear the kneepads less. God probably listens more closely to those inflicting pain upon themselves.

I set my trowel aside, close my eyes, and say, Show me how to let him go, mustering as much emotion as I can and feeling the weight on my bony kneecaps. I forgive him, let me forget him.

I hold my position a few moments while God works his magic — erases the hate, inserts love — and this feels good, like maybe, with guidance from above, if I wasn't completely over him before, I'm genuinely beyond the Sailor Man now and can get on with my life, become a better husband and father and nephew and set tile straighter — I will do my best work here and remember this master bathroom as the place where I came to terms with the unresolved and whenever the owners enter to do their business they will be treading on hallowed ground.

Then one of the younger dogs licks my ear and I open my eyes and see tiny paw prints in the mortar where the puppy prances.

By working through lunch, I finish for the day around one. The owners are gone and have left me to lock up and slide the house key into a fake rock that rests atop a pile of snow. I cram the dogs in and slam the front door hard and hear them all howl as they try to make me feel guilty for leaving.

The mouse-brown-colored sedan feels good to get into and I'm off, on my way to the auto shop to fetch the baby seat I forgot yesterday. I find it curious how comfortable I am in the car — considering how vehemently I promised myself I would never claim it — and how I cannot smell my father's cologne anymore. I'd like to believe this indicates a kind of growth. Acceptance and progress. After all, there were good times with my father in this car. I know, with a little effort, I can Sunday-drive down Memory Lane: recall when he took mom and me bowling or to the lake or the drive-in to watch Rocky sequels or to the ballgame or to Huey's for dinner, a place he treasured because he was worshipped there, everyone knew him, there is a spinach lasagna named after him, splendorous pictures of him on the wall, and people there covet the Sailor Man, a Man's man, a hero, a patriotic purveyor of good, like Popeye but real and boywere-they-sad when he passed, swarms of strangers attended the wake, a few dozen old-timers made up tee-shirts with dad's fighter-face silkscreened to wear during the ceremony, even former arch-enemies from the ring who'd been beaten by my father waited in line to say improbablethings into the microphone at the wake, clichés meant to tap into the glory of his life, so many talkers, so many references to my father, the Champ, buried with his best welter-weight belt and all kinds of mementos mourners dropped into the casket to go down with him — a mouthpiece, a ring, a tooth he'd lost someone had kept, a brass key — I eyed the women who broke down in their heavy-makeup and dark clothes with their slouched posture hunkering over his prone and slightly-smiling corpse, some leaned down to kiss his forehead and his body took on the perfume of those many different women before professionals finally sealed the deal and planted him in the ground next to mom, whose funeral brought fifteen people, including my father who sat stoically and consulted his watch and waved away the minister when asked if he had anything he'd like to say — the funeral home had to extend its hours so that all the people who wanted to pay their respects to my dad were given due time and as wave after wave of sympathizers clapped my shoulders and earnestly pursed their lips at me with watery, veined eyes — jab, hook,

body-blow, round-house — my blood boiled and my knees just about buckled. But, see, these are not the good-things I had in mind and I'm not sure where I am anymore. There are semi-trucks surrounding me — one in front, one behind, and two to the sides — and we're stopped at a light and maybe I should kill the engine and sit here buried in metal a while. When the light changes and the trucks lumber forward I follow and discover I'm heading down a street that isn't familiar until I see signs for the bus, and well, I'm pulling into the station — delivered.

I park where I can see the vending machine. It's positioned just outside the bleak terminal where it can be accessed by people stepping off the bus and those arriving from the parking lot. The machine is decorated with an enormous, wide-eyed M&M caricature and it purports to sell soda, candy, and chips. Black and yellow lettering has faded in the elements. I can tell, even from where I'm sitting, that one of the buttons is permanently depressed. At the bottom of the machine, someone has kicked in the plastic. The whole thing is canting, exhausted. I wonder how much money's in it.

Nearby, beneath a bare tree, there's a snow-covered bench. That's where the Sailor Man spent his time watching, clenching and unclenching his fists in anticipation of his next bout, pantomiming his lines, shadow-boxing the concrete sidewalk while mom was shaking and sputtering through la-la, alone.

And I have no idea where I was when he was here. There's a good chance I was on my knees counting out the hours to lunch, to quitting time, week's end, retirement; whatever. I was working, doing my job, providing — nobody's hero, nothing special. And on those infrequent occasions when lonely ladies made half-hearted passes at me I kept my head down, averted my eyes, never entertained any funny business. And I wouldn't do anything if they did press harder, or if Trace was like mom, years down the line, and gone-gone — this is a thing I think my wife and maybe son, when he's older, can depend on.

There is a thin man who has been sitting in his Volkswagen since I've arrived, spaces over in the parking lot. He is wearing a huge wooly hat — something Russian-like — and trying to hide the cutting eyes he casts my way. I don't know what he expects from me. I could be competition, treading on his territory, a man more lecherous than himself. I wonder if he knew my father.

I get out and pocket my keys. My bruised knees are there to remind me that I won't be walking well anytime soon. An icy gust of wind weaves through the parking lot and converges around me. I turn the collar of my shirt up and let the air guide me forward and into the station.

The middle-aged man behind the ticket counter glances up from a newspaper he's got spread out before him and frowns at the cold I'm letting in as I struggle to shut the door. He's wearing headphones and is listening to something on his walkman.

A dozing woman wearing a heap of trash is slumped in a plastic chair. No way is she going anywhere today. Otherwise the terminal is empty. I tug on the door and get it closed. The lighting in the place immediately puts anyone under it into a battle against severe depression. There are a few blinking bulbs buzzing overhead. In the corner, beneath a mute television with a horizontal line racing from top to bottom, bottom to top, is a battered pay phone. Next to the phone, a garbage can is over-flowing. The builders have chosen the cheapest linoleum they could find to slap on the floor — something vomit-colored and ready to bear stains. On the walls are yellowed maps of the state and a smudged bus schedule. A sign indicates bathrooms down a short hall.

This is where my father spent a good chunk of his time in the twilight of his life. Something must have rattled loose upstairs for him to come here — one too many blows to the head. If I had tracked him down here when he was still alive things might have been different between the two of us. Back when he was alive, in the summertime, before Samuel was born, I could have arrived here and lifted him up by the elbow and gently guided him back home, or over to the ballpark, or down to the river to watch ducks. Or I could have yanked him out of the chair by an ear and pummeled him, right, left, jab, upper-cut, hook; at his age even I could take him — eight, nine, ten. If I'd only done something maybe I would be closer to feeling nothing now.

But I've already been through this. I've let the anger go, I've let it go again, and I'm not going to stand here and beat myself up anymore.

On my way to the door I catch the man behind the ticket counter glaring at me like I am responsible for all of the misery in the world. When I catch his eyes, he bends his head. I change directions — midstride — and step up to the counter.

I blow into my hands and say, "Cold one out there."

Because he is wearing headphones the man has the luxury of pretending he doesn't hear this. He takes his time folding the paper improperly before turning his attention to me.

"You listening to?" I ask.

"Nothing," he says and I see that he's got gum in his mouth that he hasn't been chewing. "Radio's broken. Even if it weren't there's no reception in here."

I can't exactly say for sure, from the sound of his voice, if this is the man who left the nasty messages on my father's answering machine. I'll need to hear him curse to really tell.

"Where to?" he asks.

"Nowhere special. You recommend anyplace?"

He cocks his head and narrows an eye, quick to suspicion. His body is suddenly wracked by a tremor that could be a nervous tic, some kind of palsy, or else a shiver from the cold I held the door for. "What do you mean?"

"Where would you go if you could leave?" I ask. "I'm not sure I understand."

"You read the obituaries?" "How's that?"

"Got an extra piece of gum?" "Gum?"

"I'll bet you didn't get it from the machine outside."

"It's for my smoking. It tastes like shit. Are you going to buy a fucking ticket or what?" he asks.

"Ha!" I say, certain it's him. "It's you."

And I know that this is the moment I've been waiting for — now is when I roll up my sleeves, spit out of the corner of my mouth, and say, I've had all I can stand and I can't stands no more!, reach over the counter and deck the son of a bitch — lay him out cold. I am the Good Guy here defending the honor and dignity of Dead Dad. Whatever issues my father and I have should stay between my father and me — I don't need any help hating him.

The man curls his lip, waiting indifferently to see what I'll do. I almost think he wants me to hit him. There's not an ounce of fear showing on his face. I suddenly understand that he looked forward to leaving the heated messages on my father's answering machine — it was the highlight of his day, an outlet, a measured disappointment he depended upon. I'll bet he was crushed when it wouldn't take his calls anymore.

"No," I say, and in relaxing I realize that my shoulders had tensed and my fists clenched. "I'm here about the vending machine."

The man's body shudders again and he rises from his chair to square himself to me. He puts a newspaper-stained hand to his chin. "You the guy?" he asks.

"I am," I say.

We both stand quietly under the buzzing lights as a bus pulls in. "That machine's empty," the man says, finally. "I tried every button." "I know," I reply, taking out my wallet. "Let me reimburse you."





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