It took four months to leave St. Louis and all of it was hard. Tangled karmic ties clung to me, stretching from Evansville to San Francisco. I had to walk away from my sculpture studio. Years of work to make it right, yet it was not finished. I sometimes made fun of myself by saying I spent more time working on my studio than I did working in it.
The dreams continued, mostly with Dad. Sometimes I was a Mongol chieftain on the high, cold plains of Asia charging ahead of my men. My father now, was then a younger man under my command struggling to keep up as my aid, unsure of himself in the midst of battle. In the quick moments of fighting, I lost him. Later, his blood pooling around my boots as I knelt down to him, I held him, knowing I had been too hard on him. I had pushed him beyond his ability. Using my pride to shield my pain, I push away my sorrow. Surge ahead unrelenting—or die: that was life as I lived it. I was a long way from love in that lifetime and have been approaching it only reluctantly ever since.
In another series of dreams I was the son during medieval times. A reoccurring scene showed my father and I escaping from a partially burning castle, running from a group of soldiers ready to kill us for no apparent reason other than we were in their way. We escaped through an upper story laboratory which had been a work place for me. The lab’s sophistication showed a level of science advanced beyond medieval times, yet different than today. I also could not explain how I, as a boy, was a worker in the lab, but that was part of the dream. We did escape, and as we outdistanced the soldiers I became aware of an underlying tension between my father and I. Then I would wake up.
In this lifetime my father and I shared a tremendous love made uneasy by his emotional tangles. Life was constantly uphill for Dad. As I grew through my teens I saw how he made situations unnecessarily hard. I moved to St. Louis from Colorado in 1977, making Dad happy that I was closer to home. A year later my proximity proved insufficient to buoy Dad. He took a final step which defined hard times, changing our lives dramatically. The aftermath spread over the next four years until I had to get away. San Francisco called and leaving St. Louis meant leaving my father behind, I hoped.
“Lee, can you come home. Daddy…Oh, shit…” My sister was holding back tears and anger. I had just started dinner, cooking beef stew for a woman I had met the night before, when Cathy called.
“Joyce just called and said Daddy was holding her at gun point. Some shit about her affair and redemption. They are at her mother’s and he’s supposed to come here to see the girls. He’s got that old damn rifle at the house and I don’t have a key to get in and get it.” I had heard my sister this upset only a few times before. Neither of us handled stress very well.
“Sure. When did all this…” My words stopped as I saw on the inner my father and Joyce driving in his Mustang. Dad’s lips were tight. Joyce held her arms against her chest in the passenger seat. St. Louis and Evansville swirled with the angry, warped energy he was giving off. “…I can leave in a little while.”
“Could you leave now? Please. You’re the only one with a key. The bastard. He wouldn’t let me keep my key after I moved out.” Cathy paused. She and I are very different people, but connected in a primal way. She laughed, a catch in her voice, “But right now I’m glad I don’t have it.” You’ve got to get into that house and get the gun. Joyce said does not have it with them. You’ve got to stop him somehow, Lee.”
St. Louis is a three hour drive from Evansville, mostly interstate. I called Chris and told him I had an emergency with my father and had to drive to Evansville immediately. He was concerned and asked what was the matter. I told him I would update him when I got back—and that I was sorry to leave him in the middle of the Martin job. He understood, “No problem, just come back soon. I’ll miss you,” he laughed. Chris always found something to make a joke about.
I then called my date and apologized for canceling, turned off the stove, grabbed my jacket and old hat and walked out of my apartment. The evening air was cool, a little humid. Thanksgiving was a few days away. Old leaves and city dirt cluttered the sidewalk and curb near my car. It was the longest drive I have ever taken. I wanted to beam myself there; I wanted to never arrive—so I drove about 70 mph, cruising along in my old station wagon.
I knew little about my anger in those days. It shook me periodically like a dog with a rat in its mouth. My worst experiences were with my father. He got angry daily, but rarely directed it at me. Usually he yelled at life around him. “Where’s the god damn scissors? Where’s my Xacto knife? Why is nothing left where it was around here,” he would say to know one. Almost always he had used the scissors, or whatever, last. At times he would be angry with someone he had business with for months.
My father got angry like other people belched. He relieved himself of internal pressure and colored the world around him with his steam. I hated his anger. I loved my father deeply—desperately, but I hated his anger. Growing up in my grandparent’s home in Mt. Carmel with Cathy, Dad visited like a playboy Uncle. My grandfather died when I was seven. After that Cathy and I spent weekends and summers with Dad 40 miles away in Evansville. Our time with Dad was the Rose Bowl Parade. We played golf, bowled, saw movies, ate out—we had great fun. Dad was wonderful to be with, unless he was angry. Going home to Grandmother’s house each Sunday night felt like returning to a shadow existence. School, homework, Grandmothers’ worries, watching Bonanza and What’s My Line on a black and white television upstairs in a dark house. Outside only the street lights were awake.
My mother was simply a name when I was growing up, “Your mother…”. I learned her name was Helen, that she had left just before I turned two and moved to San Francisco. Whenever her name came up—which wasn’t often–Dad spat out some nasty barb and coated everyone with his anger. I learn to not even think about my Mother.
My hunger for her was real, though, and even buried as it was, fueled my need for Dad. He was a great Dad in many ways, but he was not around enough and when he was there trouble could erupt any moment. Loving my father was like hugging a fan.
Twice, maybe three times, I had gotten angry with my father. I once told him he was like his mother (not good) and that our home was full of his anger, not love. Probably because what I said was true, he turn on me like a flame thrower. I was toast in 5 seconds. I hated my father’s anger because I felt all of it and it pushed us apart. When he got angry at me, it just about killed me.
So driving 180 miles to confront my father about why he was holding our step-mother, Joyce, at gun point was not a high point for me. I imagined myself stepping into the door of his home and Joyce running to get behind me, “Save me, Lee!” Dad would be standing across the room, his plan thwarted by his now powerful son.
Leaving the highway and driving into Evansville punctured that fantasy. The reality of Evansville and my father settle onto me, a ton of bricks three at a time as I drove closer to his home. I stop at our neighborhood Pizza Hut and called Cathy. Dad had just left there after taking Nicole and April for ice cream. “He seemed fine, Lee. Joyce stayed at her mother’s doing laundry. It’s weird.”
“What do I do…?” I half muttered into the phone.
“Better get the gun if you can. I would say you have 20 minutes, maybe more.” I could feel the tension in my sister’s voice.
The Pizza Hut felt lifeless as I left. Evansville’s north side is a sea of cookie cutter houses. Tremont Avenue lay in the heart of a 1950s housing sprawl. I drove my station wagon through the right-left-right zigzag to the top of our little hill and rolled down to 4430. The front light was on, the tall pines were taller and untrimmed on either side of the front walk, the bushes along the front of the house were abundant, Dad’s old Ferrara VW kit car sat neglected in the back of the driveway next to the house, and the front of the drive was empty. The burgundy ’69 Mustang, which he had said was his last car when he bought it new, was not there. Joyce’s white Mercury sat at the curb.
I parked across the street and walked to the house. My heart pounded and my mouth was dry. My key fit the front door as always and I stepped inside. The small lamp on the green chest inside the door cast a shadowy yellow light off the cork wallpaper behind it. I had not been back since summer and the house looked the same, maybe a little more cluttered. But the energy screamed at me. I closed my eyes for a moment and looked inward. I felt Dad and Joyce snarling at each other on the inner, two gargoyles come to life. Their dance was dark and heavy. Dad’s image was blacker, but both were fully engaged with their fury. I shuttered and stepped out of their conflict on the inner.
But their conflict was all around the house. I walked the length of the house quickly from family room to back bedroom to be sure no one was home. My old bedroom was now Joyce’s sewing room. The dining room was Dad’s office. The kitchen had a refrigerator, piano and now a stove where the dryer used to be. The original stove and washer had left with my first stepmother ten years earlier, making room for Dad’s piano. I guess Joyce had finally insisted they get a stove.
The back bedroom was piled high with junk, except for two walls of shelving on which he neatly stored his music scores. Behind the door next to a stack of cube size boxes leaned the rifle. It had been there for years. I picked it up gently, remembering how heavy the old gun was. The barrel was six sided and long. I stepped out of the room into the hallway, looking into the dark doorway of Dad and Joyce’s bedroom. I did not need to turn on the light to see the furniture or the colors. I wondered what I would do if Dad acme home at that moment.
Quickly I left the house, closing the front door quietly. As I crossed the street I saw the wife of the old couple who were neighbors we barely knew. She waved at me from her front porch, but I walked straight to my car trying to be invisible, open the back, and slid in the rifle. I covered it with a blanket.
I exhaled hard as I drove away, realizing I had been holding my breath. I rounded the corner at the top of the hill keeping my eye on the rearview mirror. No headlights coming up the hill. A dozen blocks away I pulled over, parked at a curb and slumped. What now? I closed my eyes but the dark energy swirled too hard.
Starting the car again I drove to our nearby shopping center by a long, haphazard route, driving away from possible intersections Dad might cross on his way home. I saw a pay phone, but drove past it to the other end of the center, away from the cafeteria I had gone to so many times with my father. I called Cathy.
“Did you get it?” were the first words out of her mouth.
“Yes, it’s in the car. Have you heard anything?”
“Yeah, it’s still weird. Joyce called me soon after Daddy left here to see when he was coming back to her mother’s to get her. She said the laundry was done”
“Damn, you’d think she would call the cops.”
“We had a nice normal little talk, except during part of it she talked about being afraid of Daddy, afraid for both her and her mother. I asked her what she was going to do and could we do anything. She said there was nothing we could do to help right now. Lee, it is just so weird.”
“You can say that again. The house feels really creepy.”
“What are you going to do now? Do you want to come over here?”
“Yes, no…I have to go see them, Cathy.” I was shaking just thinking about it.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I have to do this. I got the gun away from there, so I don’t have to worry about that.”
“OK, but call me. Please.”
I hung up and went back to the car. I feel could the inner energy pulsing. In my physical body fear surged, nearing overload. My old station wagon was cold steel as I got back into it and slowly drove the five blocks to Dad’s house. Everything felt strange. The streets I had walked, ridden my bicycle over, driven in a variety of cars felt like lunar landscape. I passed the library and thought of my old friend Bwana, high school and college buddy—the endless days of playing cards and drinking our rum and grape juice mix we called grape shit. Bwana’s wife Lucy worked at our neighborhood library, but I knew she was not a work now. I was 7:00 pm on a Sunday night in late November. It was dark and getting cold.
I turned up Tremont Avenue, coming in the opposite way from a little while go. I passed the corner home where the man had lived who had hauled me out of a neighbor’s yard at gun point, saying I was peeping into windows. Dad and I had been painting the house late into the evening just before moving in. I was 14. I went for a walk, took a short-cut through a yard, lingered at a fleeting image in a window. Hormones and curiosity compromised my normally good sense. Thirty seconds might have become a minute or ten. Suddenly a man was near me with a gun and angry words. He took me across the street to his house, called the cops, not believing me story that I was just cutting through a back yard. The police told him to talk to my Dad. His gun scared the crap out of me. The thought of talking to Dad was worse.
We walked up the hill, his hand tight on my arm, the gun left at his house. I opened our front door, saw Dad and said, loudly, “This guy says I was peeping into windows, but I was just cutting across a backyard. He had a gun, Dad.” Without hesitation, Dad verbally tore this guy a new butt hole. Paint brush waiving wildly, voice getting loud fast, Dad told him I did no such thing and to get his ass out of our house this moment. Told him if he set foot on our property again Dad would call the cops on him. Told him with razor edge words that if he ever pulled a gun on me again he would “rue the day”. I wondered if Dad was going to hit him, something I had never even imagined Dad doing to anyone. In all his angry words, I had never seen Dad take one step toward physical violence. The guy blustered a moment, tossed a mild threat about the “next time” then left, heading downhill.
Dad said some choice things about our new neighbor and we got back to work. Twenty minutes later, after my heart rate had dropped below 200, Dad said, “So what happened, Lee?”
“Nothing I was just walking, decided to take a short cut behind this house, and this guy shows up.”
Dad let it drop. I felt guilty about lying and bringing this guy into our home, but I felt great about how my Dad had defended me. I knew I would not be taking any more neighborhood walks. I had not seen anything in the window, anyway.
The neighbor had move a year later and as I now drove up the hill, my memory came and went in a 100 feet. I neared Dad’s home. No change. His car was still not there, the porch light was still on. I drove past slowly, heart hammering.
I drove to the top of the hill and turned right, away from the normal route to Pizza Hut and the back way out of town. Down the hill and back up again, through our subdivision, feeling foreign yet familiar. I drove up the hill where my first driving lesson had ended. After stalling at the bottom of the hill, I had been unable to climb the hill, killing the engine three times as I struggled with the clutch, brake and accelerator pedals. I gave up and Dad drove home, disappointed with me. I was crushed. Later I wondered why he had not just driven to our nearby shopping center’s parking lot and let me practice on level ground. I could have done that.
Ten minutes passed and I turned again onto Tremont several blocks from our home. As I neared the house, I could see the outline of the Dad’s Mustang in the driveway. Curtain time. My nerves taught and heart racing I parked across the street from the house past ours. I heard my car door slam, loud in the quiet street. I walked behind the Mustang, across our yard and to the front door. The porch light was out. I sucked in some cold air and turn the front door knob and pushed opened the door.
Dad was standing in the living room, Joyce sitting on the white couch behind him. He looked up at me. “Hi, Lee. This is a surprise. Didn’t expect you until Thanksgiving. I took off my hat and mumbled something about wanting to talk to him, which he did not hear. “Would you like to watch Billy Graham with us? His holiday program is about to start.”
This was not the scene I had expected. Not at all sure what was happening, I pushed out words loudly, “Dad we need to talk.” A moment later, my heart pounding, feeling dumb standing there offering myself as reluctant knight in brown coat, hat in hand, Joyce zipped behind Dad and down the hall. Not what I had imagined. Dad took a couple steps toward the hallway Joyce had escaped into and I followed. We both stopped.
We stood on a 3’ by 6’ section of charcoal carpeting which served as a color transition between the burnt orange carpet in the living room, the green shag in the dining room and the neutral sculpted carpet running down the hall. When we moved into the house in 1964, Dad had re-carpeted the whole house except for the hallway, my little room and the back bedroom, which was Cathy and my step-sister’s room until they moved out at their different times and it began collecting junk.
Before he could say anything, I blurted out, ”I heard you were holding Joyce at gun point.” I could not believe I had said it.
Dad took a drag of his cigarette, looked me straight in the eye as smoke curled up from his lips and said, “Lee, I need to ask you let this alone. It’s between Joyce and I and its over.”
“I can’t Dad.” I said this on almost the same spot where ten years earlier I had denied smoking. The cigarettes on the floor which had just fallen out of my coat belonged to Jim Woodruff, I had said. He told me it was a very stupid habit and to never start it. He told me to tell Jim the same thing, while smoke floated up from his cigarette—then as now.
He was pissed then, ten years ago, but nothing like now. “Alright, come outside and I’ll tell you.”
I followed him out of the house, me with my jacket on, my head bare, he in a light V neck sweater. We walked halfway to the twin pines at the sidewalk and he turned around, looking hard into my eyes. “You may not be able to understand this, but a very profound thing has happened. I’ve been tested. Just like Abraham in the bible with his son Isaiah. Joyce has broken the Commandments. She needed to repent. I had chosen a way to get her into heaven before she would then have a chance to sin again. I was then going to follow her.”
His words chilled me deeply. I had often seen a light around Dad and a few other people. His light was usually tight to his body, a pale yellow-white with gray shadows weaving throughout it. Now the light around my father was a razor sharp outline of light yellow with a hard, dark gray layer surrounding hit. Dark red streaks stormed throughout the gray. I thought, “…he’s gone over the edge.”
Rubbing the cigarette out on the sidewalk with his shoe, his breath fogging the air, Dad continued. “It’s a miracle, Lee. I hope you can be happy for me.” He did not look happy.
My father had grown up in a First Christian home. His father was a golden hearted man who substituted for the congregation preacher during summer sabbatical. My grandmother nursed a pinched heart and tried to be like her husband, but her actions did not ring true. She was not a bad person. She believed in the church, but she did not necessarily practice what she preached. My father rebelled as a teen and when in college told my grandmother, to rebuff her umpteenth admonition for him to go to church, that Jesus was just like Santa Claus and stomped out of the house. I had heard from my Aunt Ruthy that the scene had sent Grandmother to bed for three days with a migraine.
Dad and I had spent hours talking about flying saucers and the pyramids. Life with and around him had been religiously neutral. To hear him now talk about the Bible and miracles told me that he was beyond my ability to reach him.
I looked him back in the eye. His stare burned into me. The father who defined his universe to the exclusion of other views, whose power I could not challenge, whose presence robbed me of much of my identity, who I loved so much, but hurt so much loving…this man was now completely in his own orbit. I broke the stare, looked down, shook my head and said, “I left my hat inside.”
I walked into the house and found my hat sitting on the white serving table near the charcoal carpet. Joyce was nowhere around. Billy Graham blared from the television. I walked back out of the house, pumping energy into my legs with my single thought: Get me out of here.
I angled across the yard heading toward my car. Dad had not moved. As I passed him, about ten feet away, he said, “You sound like you wish I had done it.”
“No!” I spit out and kept walking hard. As I drove away, I felt knives slicing into my gut. I headed towards my sister’s home.
Cathy and I sat at her kitchen table, where it was warm. The girls had been difficult to get to bed, overhearing some strange things on the phone, but not sure what was happening. We were not sure either.
Thankfully Johnny, my brother-in-law had left us alone. I sat drinking a root beer in an antique beer mug with ice. Cathy had a glass of chilled Seven Up, no ice. The kitchen felt small. Polished copper pots hanging in a neat row above the stove highlighted a wide variety of reproductions, antiques and unusual junk-made-treasure.
We had been talking in circles for an hour, getting no where. “I just don’t know what we should do, Lee. What can we do?” This was not the first time we had asked each other this question. “How did Daddy seem to you?”
“Truly? You really think he’s crazy?”
“Well, I don’t know about certifiable. But when he started talking about the religious miracles being responsible for his holding Joyce at gun point, I knew I could not touch him. He was really in his own world.”
Cathy looked at me while I spoke, but with some effort. She carries an overload of deep hurt, hidden away. Stimulated as it was now, the pain in her had risen. Listening to me brings it home harder for her. Speaking to me is harder still for her. She is awash in this new hurt and again immersed in all the old crap. “What the hell are we going to do about Daddy,” she spit out.
“I can’t see calling the cops,” I said, “I have the gun, he didn’t really do anything.”
“Shit.” Cathy was barely holding back her tears.
“What was he like when he was here? How about with the kids?”
“Oh, just like nothing unusual was happening. He really pissed me off.”
“And Joyce…on the phone?”
“She was shaken up, scared the first time she called. But when she was at her mothers’ she sounded almost normal, too.”
We sat there a few more minutes not saying much, then Cathy said, “Do you want to stay here, Lee? I can move Nic into April’s room.”
“Thanks, but I talked to Dolfie when you wee tucking in the girls. He said I could stay there and sleep on the couch. He’s leaving the front door unlocked. Told me to come in anytime.”
“Do you need anything?”
“No, don’t think so…but thanks. You should get some sleep, too.”
“Oh you know me, I can always sleep.” Cathy said this as she followed me to the living room to get my coat and hat. Cathy and I had been close forever, it seemed. She is three years older than I, so she is a constant memory for me. When Mom left Springfield I was two, Cathy five. We went to Dad’s parents in Mt. Carmel. I later learned how unplanned and uncertain the situation was for everyone. Mom planned to get us. Dad wanted Mom and us back. Our grandparents thought it was a scandal, that our well-being was being ignored and that our parents were behaving irresponsibly to the extreme.
But Mom found herself in San Francisco with Dad’s trombone player, another Bill, broke and pregnant. Her father, who could have helped her, had suffered a stroke while she was traveling to the west coast, and never recovered. Mom’s stepmother was mean spirited and refused to help. Dad eventually moved closer to us, to Evansville, and settled into a bachelor’s life. So Cathy and I lived with our grandparents for years, never really sure why. Our bond deepen even when we quarreled, Mom having vanished and Dad passing through only occasionally.
As close as we were, though, I had not stayed at her home for several years.
Driving the few miles to Dolfie’s was cold and sad. I felt very alone and fought back my tears. My life had been defined by my Dad until my teens and dominated by my need for him for the next ten years. Recently I had been pulling away from him. I was really tired of the strain of being my father’s son, of his emotional demands on me.
I closed the door to Dolfie’s townhouse softly behind me and quickly felt comforted by the soft light, pillow and blanket on the couch and the warmth of our friendship. Light green carpet blended with a brown couch, some western pictures and assorted wooden antiques to make the room feel homey and safe. Then Bunny jumped down from her chair and hissed at me. I walked across the room slowly. She took a swipe at my Earth Boots from three feet away.
The hall light turned on. “Bunny! Bad Kitty,” Dolfie said quietly as he walked into the room, pulling his robe around him.
“Dolf…thanks much for…” I tried to say.
“Hush, Lube. You are always welcome, you know that.” Dolfie laughed softly. “I don’t think Bunny will ever forgive you for putting her in the washing machine.”
“But I didn’t turn it on.”
“Some days, I think you should have.” Dolfie bent down to Bunny, “Here, kitty, kitty.” Bunny hissed at him and went toward the kitchen, tail high and twitching. “Beck is the only person she’s civil too any more. Seriously warped cat.”
“Hope I haven’t awakened Becky.”
“No chance, she could sleep through a tornado. Sit down, Luby. Are you hungry?” Dolfie always took care of me.
“No, I’m fine.” Rick Brack had been a close friend of mine since the end of high school. He, I and Craig Clem shared a period of bumping around Evansville with our directions hazy and motivations at idle. We played cards, drank some, fantasized about girls and laughed at everything. Somehow Rick became Dolfie, Craig became Bwana and I was called Lube or Luby by them and a few others.
“What’s going on with your Dad?”
I had only mentioned that there was a problem when I called Dolfie. I half sat, half fell onto the couch. Dolf sat down on Bunny’s ambush chair “Don’t you have to work tomorrow?” I said.
Dolf waived me off, “Does not matter. Tell me what’s happening.”
So I did. I ran through the situation quickly—just the facts, ma’am—and without feeling much.
“You don’t look so good, Luby. I’m worried about you.”
“I’m OK. Dad is…Dad is just nuts, I’m afraid.”
“You still have the gun?’
“Yeah, it’s in the car. Not sure what I’m going to do with it.”
“Want to keep it here for awhile? I don’t think your Dad would come looking for it. I can put it behind the washer.”
“Better keep Bunny away from it.” We both laughed.
“We can unload it. You’ll be safe from Bunny.”
Dolf’s offer solved a problem I had not realized I had yet. What do I do with the gun. “That would be great, Dolfie. Seriously.”
“Here take this to get it,” Dolfie said as he handed me the blanket from the couch. He waited by open door, bare legs and feet, while I walked across the parking lot, opened the back on my station wagon, looked around like a nervous thief, then pulled the gun out and wrapped it quickly in the blanket. I dashed back in his front door and we closed door behind us in a flash.
I unwrapped the gun. “Aren’t your feet cold?” I asked.
He watched as I ejected five .22 shells from the old pump action rifle. The wooden stock was dark with age. “How old is this gun?” Dolfie ask as he took it from me. Where do the shells go in?” I showed him the little tube under the barrel which bullets were slid in, nose first. “I’ve never seen a hex barrel like this. I weighs a ton. And this scope…its cool.”
“It was Dad’s old river rifle. He used it to shoot cans and whatever when he went canoeing up the White River in Mt. Carmel.” I got a sudden blast of dark energy. “Let’s put it away, Dolf. This thing gives me the creeps.”
“Sure.” I watched as Dolfie moved a laundry basket and tucked the rifle behind their washer, leaning it against the back corner of the laundry nook. “Hope I remember to tell Becky it’s there. I still held the shells in my hand. “What do you want to do with those?” he asked.
“Get rid of them.”
“I can put them in my work bench drawer.”
“Great,” I said and gave him the bullets. He went out the door to his garage and was back a few moments later.
“Thanks, Dolf.” Something lifted from me and I sagged.
“You need to get to bed, Luby.” Dolf walked through the living room, past the couch. “Need a toothbrush or the bathroom?”
“Tomorrow. Thanks.” I fell onto the couch and heard Dolf say goodnight as he switched the hall light off. The lamp by the door was still on, but I fell asleep quickly with no thoughts. A few minutes later I awoke.
I was sitting in Bunny’s chair looking at myself asleep on the couch. I could see my feet sticking our from under the blanket, one jean pant cuff and both black socks.
The blanket was blue now. It had seemed yellow to me earlier. I watched myself roll over slowly. My long brown hair fell way from my face. I still wore my blue jean shirt and black t-shirt underneath. The room was quiet. The light near me was soft and warm. I felt fine and normal.
Later I would learn that I had left my physical body, and that we are in and out of our bodies all the time—dreaming and day dreaming are two examples. Our consciousness is normally limited to the particular inner level in which we are having our experience. At the moment I was stepping out with greater awareness than normal, but without my human consciousness understanding it.
The wall on left side of the room gradually became transparent. I looked toward it and saw a hilltop. A man stood there who seemed familiar. As he turned to look at me, I was suddenly standing next to him, but he and the scene around me were not clear. It seemed that a light film floated between me and the inner world around me.
“We each follow our own path,“ the man next to me said. I turned and looked deep into his black eyes. A feeling of love washed over me. “Yet all our paths lead back Home to the Ocean of Love and Mercy. Your father is on a detour. There is nothing you can do about it. Love him.”
“I know you,” I felt myself say.
“Of course you do. We will meet again soon.” He turned and walked down the hillside. I noticed he was wearing a long maroon robe. As he passed out of sight, I heard him say to me as though he was still standing there, “Love drives us all. Our human love is just an echo of the Divine Love which we seek. It is inside you. Look there for your comfort.”
I felt great. The air was warm and the anguish of my father’s craziness was gone. I turned, took one step back toward Dolfie’s living room…and woke up in my physical body.
I remembered my inner experience vividly. It felt different than any dream I had ever had. And yet, I was not sure how much to trust it. I lifted off the blue blanket and sat up. There was a note on the coffee table. I reached for it and read, “Lee, We are going to work. I’ll be back for lunch. Call me when you wake up. Rick.”
Bunny strolled by me in front of the couch. She bristled a little at my boots, but kept going on her way from the bedroom to her litter box in the laundry. I heard her scratching. “Well, Bunny is mellower,” I thought. “I wonder if the rest of the world is different.”
I opened the front door and looked out through the screen. Evansville laid out in front of me. Cars, parking lot, garbage compound, other townhouses across the courtyard—all beige in a dull beige world. I did not want to be in Evansville. Many nice people live here, but so few doing anything which really interested them, which challenged them. And this was fine with me. Their choice to stay here. But I hungered for the swirl of creative energy. I wanted to be around people passionately involved in something, anything. I could not breathe here. Evansville was slow rotting for me.
I could see my breath in the air. I open the screen door and picked up the paper. Unfolding, I saw the headline was about a highway controversy. Nothing about Dad and Joyce and his old river rifle. I sighed and went in to call Cathy.
She answered on the third ring. “I thought I’d let you sleep,” she said. “How are you?”
“OK, I guess.” Some of the weight from the night before settled onto me. Words from my dream—was it a dream?—filtered through about Dad taking a detour and loving him. “Yeah, I’m fine, really. How are you? What time is it, anyway?”
“It’s after ten. I didn’t have the best night, but I’ll survive. John and I talked about Daddy this morning and I’m not sure we can do much. I talked to the Sheriff’s office. Our choice is to do nothing at all or have the Sheriff come arrest him, take him downtown and probably ship him off to the State Hospital.”
“That would kill him.”
“My thought exactly. What are your plans?”
“I have no idea.” I was sitting on the couch, thoughts bumping into each other, listening absently to Cathy’s breathing. Finally I said, “How are the girls?”
“They went to school. Nicky had several questions I couldn’t answer, April seems OK. Why don’t you do just take your little shower or whatever you are going to do and then come on over. I don’t see any reason to hurry.”
Cathy sounded better than last night. Her stress level seemed to have subsided. “OK. Anything I can get?” As usual, my sister told me she did not need anything. Accepting was not her strong suit.
I called Dolphie at work. After I assured him I was fine, he said he would be home in about an hour, but he would be just passing through. He had a meeting that afternoon. I got my tooth brush and a clean shirt from my car, took a shower and then settled into the big chair away from the door. I took several deep breathes, slowing down gradually, then began chanting my mantra silently. I practiced most mornings for half an hour and usually felt calmer, my gut less tight afterward. I was supposed to still my mind, but I never could. Thoughts circled, drive-bombed and cruised through my brain on a regular basis.
I heard the front door open a while later and slowly began coming out of my meditation. I had learned the hard way that popping out too quickly when practicing left me feeling raw and exposed…like being plunged into a windstorm naked.
“You OK, Luby?” Dolfie was sitting on the couch. He had folded the blanket.
“Yes, as far as I know.” I stretched and yawned. “How’s your morning? How are you?”
“Same old. But I’ve been thinking a lot about you and your Dad. Bill just doesn’t seem the type to…flip out.” Dolf new Dad enough for them to like each other, though hanging out at my house had been a low priority during the years Dolf, Bwana and I knocked around Evansville together.
“Surprised me, too, but Dad lives life on his terms. The rest of the world can got to hell, if it suits him.”
“You said he had planed to kill Joyce and then himself?”
“Yes, after she repented, Dad said. Then something about Abraham and his son. This miracle of Dad’s”
“What was she supposed to repent about?”
“Dad said she had broken the commandments. Sinned.”
“He means the Ten Commandments?”
“Only ones I know about. Unless he’s given her some of his own.”
Dolf rubbed his chin. “You think she’s seeing somebody.”
I thought about what Dolfie said for minute. It echoed true. “Must be. That would really get Dad going.”
“She’s a lot younger than Bill, isn’t she?”
“Half is age when they married. She was 25m he was 50. Same ages as Cathy.”
“That much be hard for your sister. Having a stepmother her age.”
“After all the crap Dad’s between Dad and Cathy, I really don’t think it mattered to her.”
We sat there quietly, something I always found easy to do with Dolf and hardly anybody else. One of the reasons I loved him. We had such a quiet harmony together. Nothing to prove to each other. Finally, he said, “Do you think he would really have killed himself?”
“Shit, Dolf. He’s been talking about that for years. In grade school he told me he had not wanted to live past 35. That he didn’t want to get old. Body sagging and feeling bad—he did not want any part of that. We talked about all kinds of stuff driving back from Mt. Carmel.
“Then in high school, after things got bad with him and Kim, he told me several times that if anything ever happened to me, he would kill himself because I was all he had going for him.” I paused, the old memories flooding me.
“You know he said that like he was giving something important to me. Showing me that I was special to him. All it did was make me feel like shit. Like his life depends on mine, his weight on my shoulders. I don’t know if he will, Dolf. But I do know I wish he would stop talking about it.”
“Sounds terrible, Luby.” Another silence as I swam in thoughts of my father. His anger. The deep love and need I had for him. His fights with Cathy. The time on Tremont with Kim, his second wife, and my stepsister, Chris.” All five of use together for a year until Cathy got married to Vic. Then the slow disintegration of Dad’s marriage with Kim. Our home became their battled ground. Mostly silent hatred. Chris and I allied strongly to our respective parent. Kim left in my senior year. They had a bickering divorce. Dad complained vehemently about the money he had to give her. Cathy did good to get out early.
I was grateful when Dolf broke my less than pleasant reverie, when he said, “What are your plans, Luby?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’ll go back home after I see Cathy.” I remember Dolf mentioning his meeting. “You need to get going, don’t you?”
“Just this meeting. You can stay as long as you want. You know that, right? It’s fine with Beck, too.”
Suddenly I need to go, to get on the road. To get some air, to get out of Evansville. “Thanks, Dolf, but it’s time for to go.”
We got up and I collected my toothbrush, putting it in my shirt pocket. Dolfie laughed. You’re a real travelin’ man, Luby.” I had my hat on and my coat over my arm. “Are you hungry?” Dolf said, the thought just hitting him.
“I’ll eat at Cathy’s. Thanks much for your hospitality, my friend,” I said as I hugged him. I walked out into his little front yard, the November air brisk in dull sunshine.
“Here don’t forget your blanket,” Dolf said as he stepped toward me with the blue blanket he had folded.
“That’s yours Dolf. You gave it to me last night.”
He looked puzzled. “I thought it was yours. I don’t think we have any blue blankets.”
“Well you do now,” I laughed. “You’re getting old, Dolf. Second thing to go is your memory.”
Dolfie chuckled. “First thing hasn’t gone yet.”
I waved as I walked toward my car. “Take care, Dolfie. Maybe vitamins would help.” I slid into the old Pontiac wagon. It was blue and about the size of small ocean liner. Driving away I waved at Dolfie, standing in front of his door, holding the blue blanket and still looking puzzled.
Cathy lived about ten minutes from Dolf. As I drove through the streets of Evansville’s east side, the traffic was light this Monday before Thanksgiving. I thought of Dad’s comments when I walked into the house the night before that he had not expected me until Thanksgiving. Holidays had not been fun in our family for a long time.
Expectations of family harmony exceeded possibilities the last six weeks of the year. We all got high anticipating being happy. But our wallets were easily strained, people visiting further strained our nerves and everybody’s unresolved emotional baggage cluttered the house. After my grandfather died, my grandmother was terminally sad at holidays. We had to leave to laugh. After she passed away, Dad dipped into his sadness that both of his parents were gone and that he never told his father he loved him.
Cathy and I fought our family holiday blues by finding time to get away from the older generation to shop or ride around. We could be happy just going to the bakery together, away from everyone’s crap.
On my own I kept holidays very low key. Thanksgiving and Christmas were good times to do laundry. When I was 22, I celebrated my first Thanksgiving away from home by stopping smoking.
I pulled into the Church parking lot off Washington Avenue and drove to the far corner behind Cathy’s house. She opened the kitchen door and waved to me. The darkness of the night before felt lighter today and the warmth of Cathy’s kitchen buoyed me further.
“Well I see you finally roused yourself from the dead.”
“At least I didn’t shoot myself.”
We looked at each other and groaned. “So much for humor,” I said.
“Really, Lee. Are you hungry?”
“Something would be great.”
“Well you can choose between a roast beef sandwich and some bread with roast beef on it.”
“Tough choice. How about both.”
Cathy was already fixing my sandwich. “Hope you don’t mind regular bread.” She knew I preferred health food store bread.
“Of course, whatever you have is fine.” I sat on one of the bar stools and watched her across the breakfast counter. Her kitchen was full of sunshine and polished brass pots and pans. “Sure is bright today.”
“Here eat this and then we can talk.” She put a plate of chips and a thick sandwich in front of me, lettuce, onions and beef spilling out.
“We can talk now,” I said around mouthful of food.
“Oh Lee, you’re still disgusting,” Cathy said laughing a little. You were always such a grubby little boy.”
“Still am,” I said, smiling, a second bite on its way down.
Cathy and I fell into a light banter easily, a quick journey into our world where, briefly, we could forget about the hassles around us. The light moment faded though as she said, “Joyce called a little while ago from work.”
Cathy sighed, “She said she was not going back to the house. She had signed divorce papers this morning. They were supposed to be served sometime later today.”
“Does Dad know?”
“She didn’t tell him. He’s probably still sleeping.” My father kept musician’s hours all his adult life. Getting up by 10:00 am was a struggle for him. During high school I would come home about 3:00 pm, get him up and we would then have breakfast at the nearby shopping center
“She said he was very upset this morning when he couldn’t find his gun. He woke her about 5:00 am asking what she had done with it.”
“So she went to work…? How did she sound?”
“She sounds OK. Joyce is a little strange anyway.”
“You can say that again. It was so weird yesterday when I went there. She just zoomed back to the bedroom. I thought I was going there to save her life.” I replayed the scene in my mind—not for the first time. “Something very weird is going on.”
Cathy had a glass of 7-Up and took a drink. “I don’t’ know what we can do, Lee?”
“Dad’s…” My thought did not go anywhere.
“Joyce said she is worried about him.”
“She’s afraid he’s going to do something to himself.”
“Not with the rifle. He doesn’t have another gun does he?”
“No, the pistol has been missing for years.”
“He never found it, huh?”
“No, but he was sure John took it.” Dad never liked Johnny and seemed to look for opportunities to discredit him. Of course with John, that was not too difficult.
An hour later I-64 was rolling underneath my wagon as I headed back to St. Louis. Cathy said she would call Dad later in the afternoon. I did not want to see him. I was angry with him for his craziness and creating this situation. I was also running from hurt and fear.
The white lines kept me in my lane. Traffic was light. Thoughts of Dad circulated in my closed system, no where to go, not really being processed. My single to him word, “No!” kept coming back to me followed by Dad’s reply, “You sound like you wish I had done it.” I wondered what Dad was picking up on in me to say that. I did not wish Dad had killed anybody. I thought about it some more, mulling it over. Then my conversation with Dolf surfaced. I was tired—very tired–of Dad’s periodic references over the years to taking his own life for whatever reason. I realized I had lost patience with my father, my love for him had been worn down by years of anger. Or maybe it was my need. Maybe as I had gotten stronger in my life, become an adult, I did need Dad less.
I did not feel very strong, though. I had been kicked-out of the Graduate Art Department at the University of Washington six months earlier, was barely paying bills working with Chris Clover doing home repair and was still struggling to get my loft together in Soulard and make some sculpture.
I thought about Jim Sterritt, the pig farmer sculpture professor at the University. He literally had a pig farm outside of St. Louis. I had come to Washington U. for the shop. Sterritt seemed OK. I built art–abstract, kinetic art. I couldn’t make anything look like something else, but I loved creating shape and form, especially working with movement or the possibility of movement.
I had come from a small pond, the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, as a star of sorts. My one man undergraduate show had been very successful in a school where grad students usually had to combine to make a show. I had a 4.0 grade point average, worked a hundred hour weeks in the studio, partied hard and wore my hair past my shoulders.
Sterritt was an alcoholic, I learned later, who thrived in an atmosphere of power and intimidation. He gave everybody shit during his weekly drinking parties which sculpture students were required to attend. The second year students gained his approval by giving the first year students shit. I went to one party, was revolted by what I saw and what he threw at me, and decided to detour around him. I worked from dinner to dawn at the studio, my natural hours learned from Dad. I saw few people, went to no more parties, met with Howard Jones once a week for my multi-media course and built art. With some investigation at the admin office, I learned that I could change my major from sculpture to multi-media, have my first semester of sculpture fill my minor requirements, be rid of Sterritt and work on multi-media art projects in a world of reason. Howard had agreed to sponsor me as a multi-media student for the next semester and I thought I had found a way to get a real education.
I made friends with Chris Clover, a second year sculpture student from England, who told me about arriving in St. Louis the year before. He had brought his wife and daughter and a few pennies in his pocket to St. Louis to study with Sterritt on a full scholarship, which included a teaching assistant job. By the end of the first week of Chris being here, Sterritt was threatening into pull his financial support. Both Chris and his wife, Jill, hated Sterritt.
But I shot off my mouth a week too soon at the end of the term. When Sterritt heard I was transferring to Multi-Media, he changed my grade from a B to a C, which was flunking in grad school. He did not want me staying around to serve as a role model for new students, showing them how to beat his sick system.
I liked being out of school, but I was still wobbly from being flushed out of the University by Sterritt and my checkbook was on life support. Dad was very supportive and had offered to help, especially if I came back to Evansville more often. The bribe was not overt, but I had learned to read between his lines. I did go back to see him. And I declined his help.
The gray afternoon was just turning to evening when I turned off Lindell Boulevard and drove a block to Pershing Avenue. I found a parking space just past my apartment and maneuvered my wagon into it. St. Louis was void of color and cold. Toothbrush in shirt pocket, I walked across the street feeling out of touch. I checked my mail and found just the electricity bill. Dad had been here just once in the year I had lived in St. Louis. He and Joyce had been on their way to hear the Clayton High School jazz band play a couple of Dad’s compositions. They had stayed only a few minutes in my apartment—it’s not large or inviting—then we had gone to dinner nearby in the West End and on to the concert. I felt 12 years old squeezed in the back seat of the Mustang, a reminder of the downside of being with Dad: He was always in control, coloring the world to suit his vision. I fit in as the good boy.
I wondered what Dad was doing at that moment when I walked into my apartment. Laundry sat in a basket just inside the door, clean but unfolded. Wooden shelves, a small black day bed and my foam mattress on the floor filled the room. The kitchen opened up to the left, a closet with a desk and the bathroom branched off the other way.
Half-cooked tomatoes, chopped herbs, onions and oil sat on the stove in the my grandmother’s aluminum Dutch oven from the night before, giving my apartment an off-color odor. I sat down. Now what? I picked up the phone and dialed Cathy. Nicky answered, “Hi Uncle Lee. Are you coming over for dinner?”
I could hear April in the back ground, saying, “Give me the phone, Nicky. I want to talk to Uncle Lee. You always get the phone first.” They argued while I sat, feeling numb, waiting to talk.
Finally I heard Cathy scoot them away and she came on the phone. “Such pleasant little children.” Cathy’s voice was colorfully sarcastic. “How was your trip?”
“Kind of numbing. Anything new there?”
“I talked to Dad about an hour ago. He was just getting up. He had talked to Joyce and knew she wasn’t coming home. He said he was going to take a shower. He sounded sad, but not particularly crazy. John and I thought we would go over there soon and see him.”
“Glad I’m not you.” The last thing I wanted right now was to see Dad. I wondered how I was going to face him on Thanksgiving, three days away.
“I can handle this OK. Things have calmed down a lot since last night. At least Joyce is out of there.”
Both Cathy and I had been grateful to Joyce for coming into Dad’s life. He had a life-long need for someone to lean on. His younger brother, Bob, had been his first buddy-crutch, from how Dad had described their relationship and his feelings about Aunt Ann “taking Bob away from me”. Cathy and I had both served terms as #1 buddy. Her term ended and mine began when she went through puberty. Dad had trouble sharing his #1. I was the only person left for him to lean on for several years, a situation I was OK with, even though it was suffocating at times. I learned to be a good liar and led a shadow life. He met and married Joyce just as I was about to move to Bloomington to try college again, making my transition much freer.
“I wonder how Dad is going to handle life alone.”
“I am worried about him, Lee.”
We agreed she would call me when she and Johnny returned home from seeing Dad. After I hung up with Cathy I just sat on the day bed. The apartment was lifeless. I thought about calling someone, but was not sure who at that moment, or what I would say. Life seemed to be in suspension. I did not really decide to meditate, I just closed by eyes and slipped into another world.
I was leaning against the railing of a small bridge, part of narrow road running along side a river. A band of trees and overgrown grass separated the river from the road. The river was not particularly wide, but too far to throw a stone. A moment later a man in his twenties walked up and stood beside me. He swatted a mosquito. “Damn things are bad this year.” I had not noticed any insects. The man was slim and his dark hair was combed to one side with care. His slacks and shirt were clean, pressed and looked stylish to me, but were not a current style that I could remember. His lips were set tightly.
Looking through the trees across the river, he said, “I just learned today that my best friend is dead. He died fighting the god-damn Germans. Shot out of the sky like a helpless bird. At the bottom of the Mediterranean by now. Makes me so angry I could…” He sucked in his breath slowly, but did not finish the sentence.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. The wind began blowing.
“Thanks,” he said without looking at me. “We used to come down here a lot. Paddle up the White River. The mouth is just around that bend.” He pointed off to his right. ”Charlie was a great shot. He could put two out of three into a can’s bottom at 100 yards. Once I did three, but usually only one.”
I looked more carefully at the man. He was handsome in a fragile way, giving off some vibrancy, but also feeling brittle. The wind blew stronger. “Must be going to storm, I said.”
“Probably. Just my luck.” Neither of us showed an inclination to leave. “I can’t believe Charlie’s gone,” he said. “Best heart of anyone I knew. Always kind to his mother. Never left the house without pecking her on the check and patting her on the popo. ’Love you Mom’ I heard him say over and over again. I never said that to my Mom.”
Rain drops started to fall. Neither of us moved. I stood quietly, waiting to see if the man would continue. He looked down and slowly shook his head. “Useless. God damned useless. Who am I going to pal around with now? We had such great times together at his house or mine when were kids. Charlie loved to play Chinese checkers. Especially on my Dad’s board. It’s a wooden one with holes in it. Nice workmanship.”
Rain was pouring down. I watched as water drops collect on the man’s hair for a moment, then ran down his cheeks. His shirt was turning dark with wetness. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Charlie loved to ride with me, especially in Dad’s Graham. The exhaust has such a sweet whine to it. We used to take it out Third Street past the bridge and really let it out on the highway. Whom can I do that with now. His poor Mom!”
We were in then middle of storm. The trees were whipping back and forth. Rain came down in sheets. I could see white caps on the river. The man turned and looked at me, “Why I am talking to you anyway. Do I know you?”
Before I could answer, he looked at me with a funny expression, cocked his head a little to one side and said, “Why aren’t you wet? It’s raining like hell out here.”
The phone rang and I was in my apartment again. I pick-up the receiver, the man, the river, Charlie just swimming around in my head.
“Are you there? Did I wake you?” It was my sister.
“Yes. Not sure. I’m here.”
“Well I saw Dad. John and I took him to eat at the cafeteria. Nobody ate much.”
“How is he?”
“He said he was just tired and wanted to sleep. I believe him Lee. He looked very sad…and tired. You know, I felt really sorry for him. As mad as I have been with him sometimes, and especially over this thing with the rifle and Joyce, he looked miserable, peaceful and dead tired all at once.”
I was trying to digest this. The dream—or was it a meditation experience—was still right in front of me. The man was still right in front of me. I was seeing his face sitting across the table from Cathy and John. I felt a wall of grief wash over me. Tears came to me eyes.
“Lee, are you still there? Are you OK?”
“It was Dad!” I heard my voice thick with emotion.
“Well of course it was Dad. Who else…” Cathy paused. “What’s going on, Lee?”
I shook my head a moment as if that would help. “I slipped into a meditation and had a dream or something and saw Dad down by the river. It was storming and he was talking about losing his best friend Charlie. To the Germans.”
“Germans? Charlie?” Cathy was never quite sure what to make of my meditation. I really wasn’t either. But I knew I was drawn to inner experiences. They jumped on me periodically. I had learned a form of meditation in Colorado two years earlier—our neighbor had given me a free initiation, saying it as worth $100—and been given a mantra and told not to say it out loud. I was making an effort to learn about the inner worlds, which I sensed were very real, and to bring some understanding to my episodic experiences. “Lee, this is getting weird…”
A veil lifted and I suddenly saw the connection, just as my sister said, “Charlie…Charlie Reynolds?”
“Yes! I just spent a few minutes with Dad as a young man just after Charlie Reynolds was killed.”
“I only know a little bit about that.”
“Dad used to talk to me about all kinds of stuff on those rides from Mt. Carmel. Some times he told me about his best friend, Charlie Reynolds. Charlie lived just a half a block from Grandmother’s house. He was shot down over the Mediterranean in World War II. Maybe 35 years ago. Dad’s best friend.”
“Yes, I knew that.”
“Oh, Cathy. I can feel his pain and his tears, most of which are still inside him. He is so full of hurt. He hurt so much when Charlie didn’t come home.” I found myself standing in front of the day bed, gripping the phone tightly, my body bent forward, muscles tense, my father’s grief coursing through me strongly. And then it left.
I exhaled like I had been punched in the stomach and fell back on the day bed, phone still in hand.
“I’m OK. I’m OK.” I breathed deeply. “Boy. That was something.”
“Lee, are you…” I could tell Cathy was a little freaked out.
“Yeah. I’m fine. Well a little tired. I just had the jet-stream of Dad’s pain over Charlie zoom through me. It’s gone now.”
“Are you sure this meditation stuff is good for you? You worry me, Lee?”
“I just need to understand it some more.” Clarity was coming. “How is Dad? How did you leave him?”
“Well you know me, I just said it to him straight: ‘Daddy you aren’t going to doing anything to yourself are you?’”
I laughed nervously, holding my breath without realizing it. “What did he say?”
“He said, No, that he was just tired. He wanted to go home and sleep. He said he was glad it was over. I told him we were worried about him.”
“What was over? Joyce?”
“Yes, the whole divorce thing with Joyce. I guess he got the papers. He knew she wasn’t coming back.”
“Did he say anything about me?”
“Yes, he said he hoped you would still be coming for Thanksgiving.”
I couldn’t think it through. “I guess so. But I sure don’t look forward to seeing him right now.”
“It will blow over, Lee. You know all the fights he and I have had. They pass.”
“Yeah. Guess so.”
Neither of us said anything for a minute, then I thought about Cathy. “How are you?”
“I think I’m numb. In the middle of all of this, Wanda calls John about Rusty acting crazy again. As though John is responsible for his brother. Things get so screwed up sometimes…I could just…”
I could hear my sister’s frustrations in her voice. “You need to go to bed. It’s late for you.”
She laughed a little through her almost tears. “And just think I used to party all night long. Now, the sun goes down and I’m out for the count.”
“And the sun went down a long time ago. How about we talk tomorrow.”
“Good idea. I hope you sleep OK.”
“You, too. Love you, my sister.”
“Love you, too, Lee.” We hung up. I wanted to get off the phone fast before the tears let go.
I sat on my day bed, which Dad got when we first moved into Tremont and had gradually become mine. I brought my knees up to my chin, and wrapped my arms tightly around me legs. And I cried. Silently at first, then racking sobs. I knew I was hurting, but I wasn’t sure why.
The next morning was bright. The sun woke me up about eight. I was on my bed, a foam slab on the floor, with my blanket pulled up tight. The radiator hissed steadily and clanked twice. I had no memory of going to bed.
There was some frost on the windows overlooking Pershing Avenue I could see from my bed. The day looked clear and colder. I sat up against the wall and pulled the blanket up. Thoughts bounce around and through my mind. I couldn’t stay too long with the imagine of my father standing in front of the house, cigarette in hand, saying to me, “It sounds like you wish I’d done it, Lee,” as I walked by. How could I visit my father on Thanksgiving? Two day from now. I just couldn’t stay with these thoughts.
The imagine of the man in my dream with the long maroon robe popped up. I heard an echo of him saying my father was on a detour. I closed my eyes and could see the man so clearly that I could look into his eyes. They were very black, but I felt warm as I looked into them. A sense of love and well-being flowed over me.
I thought about Dolfie, about my sister, about the blue blanket, about Charlie Reynolds. I thought of Chris, picked the phone and called him.
“Hey, Mate, how are you?” Chris was from England and a Liverpool rascal. He had also become my closest friend. He had helped me work on my sculpture studio in Soulard where we both built some pieces and played a lot of backgammon. We worked together doing small home remodeling jobs, usually agreeing to knock off by 3:00 pm and get a few beers—“pints” he called them. We were both products of pig farmer Sterritt’s graduate sculpture program at Wash. U. He graduated, I was rejected.
Chris loved his wife, Jill, and their daughter, Zooey, with an overpowering passion. He had days when he could hardly work because—for no reason– he had a thought about what life would be like if something happened to either Jill or Zooey. I have seen him actually shake so badly he couldn’t hold his cigarette for a few minutes. Afterwards he would say something like, “Not a pleasant thought, that one,” and get back to work, slowly.
“I’m OK, Chris. How did it go yesterday?”
“Oh, no problem, what with super drywall man here on the job. Finished the upper two floors and demo-ed the downstairs bath. Ready for a go at the bath fixtures install tomorrow.”
“Right,” I said. Chris sounded his normal and loveable BS self. “How did it really go?”
“Well, really!” He pretended he was insulted. “If you must know, I got one and a half coats of compound on the nursery ceiling. Bloody awful on the arm, spreading and sanding above your head. Sure glad we got all the drywall hung on Friday.”
“Hammering up killed my arm Friday.”
“That wasn’t so bad, you know. But that spreading and sanding….bloody awful.” He paused for a moment, then said, “How are you anyway. Things OK with your Dad?”
“I don’t think so. It wasn’t a great trip. I could tell you about it at lunch. You planning to work today? I’m not sure I’m up to it.”
“I promised Jill I would take Zooey to the doctor’s at nine this morning. Wasn’t sure after that.”
“I hate to slow things down, but do you think Barbara would mind us not working today?” I knew Chris always needed money, and well, so did I, but I didn’t think I would be very effective working and I did want to talk with Chris. Lunch sounded good to me.
“I think that’ll work OK. I’ll call her up. I could meet you at Llewellyn’s, say about noon.”
“Great. Let’s do it.”
“Keep your chin up, Mate. It’ll all work out.”
I sat in bed a while longer, then got up and took a shower. As I was drying my hair I stared back at myself from the mirror. Same face, different feeling. My hair was down past my shoulders, straight brown with a few blonde streaks. I had a full beard which I trimmed periodically, but mostly didn’t look at. I felt like a poodle if I trimmed it too neatly. If I did nothing, though, I felt like I was talking through my pubes. I had yet to find the right combination of grooming cool. Both shaving and cutting my hair were poisonous thoughts. I had struggled though my teens listening to the Beatles, living in Evansville’s conservative climate, as my hair grew longer. Dad didn’t like my long hair, even though he was as rebellious in his own way, but he usually did not say too much. One exception was whenever I got a ticket driving his Mustang. Judge Kent ruled our local traffic court with an iron intolerance for driving misbehavior and adolescent individuality. Since Dad was paying for the tickets, and everyone knew that if you showed up in Judge Kent’s courtroom with long hair the fine would triple, I could not avoid a haircut now and then. If the police had tailed me and witnessed my normal driving—flat out and in a four wheel drift through the turns of many outlying roads–I would have been bald.
After I got out of the bathroom I cleaned up the kitchen and saw it was only 9:30 am. I called Cathy. She answered on the fourth ring, out of breath.
“I was outside getting groceries out of the car. Let me catch my breath.”
I held off for about five seconds, then said, “Have you heard anything?”
“No. Joyce hasn’t called and it’s too early to call Daddy.”
Right. I wasn’t thinking. Dad would probably not be up until 2:00 or 3:00 pm.
“How are you? Any more of your little meditation experiences? “
“Nothing new.” I usually didn’t tell Cathy too much about of my inner adventures. I didn’t know what was going on much of the time, myself, but I was OK with it. I have an inner gyro which keeps me balanced and pushes me away from energy which doesn’t feel right. Cathy is spooked by what little I tell her.
“Good. Gives me the willys. What are you going to do?”
“I’m thinking about drinking some beer for lunch. Maybe a lot.”
Cathy laughed a little. I could see her standing in the kitchen, putting away food as we talked. “Too bad you are three hours away. I wouldn’t mind joining you. Things are too damn crazy right now.”
“What’s going on? I mean besides Dad and Joyce.”
“I’d say that’s enough, wouldn’t you.”
“Yes…” I waited for her tell me more.
“Oh, shit. Nicky won’t quit with the questions and John goes on and on with one wild theory after another. I think the only he hasn’t considered is alien abduction. “
“Past or future.”
“Maybe present. Maybe Dad has been transmogrified or something. Maybe an alien sucked his brains out. Damn if I know.” We both laughed at the thought of aliens sucking out Dad’s brains.
“Maybe they got Joyce first and she sucked out Dad’s brain.”
“Oh, that’s gross, Lee. Let’s don’t go there.” Cathy was fragile today. Normally she would have handled my comment easily.
“Sure. Sorry.” I thought for a moment. “I guess I’ll come back over tomorrow night. Stay at Dolfie’s. See you in the morning on Thanksgiving.”
“That’s sounds sane. Call me when you get up. Don’t call me Wednesday night unless there’s some kind of emergency.”
“Some unauthorized alien…”
“Don’t say it. Lee.” She was half laughing, but I sensed she could cry just as easily. I felt bad. My drive for humor often pushed past my good sense.
“I’ll stop. Promise. And I will call you Thursday morning. And I do love you.”
“I love you too. Drive carefully. OK?”
We hung up and I looked at the clock: 9:40 am. I hoped Dad was through acting crazy. I started to wonder about him, but could not stay with the thoughts. Most of what I felt was some form of shock–stunned at what we had said to each other and how I had left. I decided to fold the laundry.
After straighten up the apartment I still had more than an hour before meeting Chris. I sat down on the day bed, piled some pillows behind me—I missed the overstuffed chair I had left in Colorado—and closed my eyes. I gradually slowed my breathing and felt my inner energy settle down.
I gently placed my inner focus on the middle of my forehead and began chanting the mantra I had been given in Colorado. The sounds softly poured from my mouth. After a while my inner hearing switched on. I heard a variety of sounds—water and wind rushing, a harp playing an enchanting melody, bees buzzing and more—sounds which grew nearer then moving father away as though they flowing freely throughout a world I had just stepped into. The harp settled nearby and I could hear the water running over rocks, not loud but full of energy. The other sounds receded.
Meeting people in my dreams or during meditation did not happen every day, but over the past three years sometimes it would. Since learning the mantra, my inner adventures had become more frequent. Usually there was some communication with whoever I found myself with. Sometime the person was very familiar to me, sometimes not. But seldom had the encounters been particularly meaningful, that I could see, or pertaining to my life at the moment. But I felt I was on a path heading somewhere meaningful. I had no doubt that the inner worlds were real and that I had lived other lives before this one. And the past two days in which I had looked into the eyes of the man in the maroon robe and had a conversation with my father made me feel that I was passing through a doorway.
The image of my father as a young man, standing on the bridge and bothered by mosquitoes came back. I wondered how often he thought about his friend, Charlie. My father as I knew him did not spend much time thinking about his personal growth. He did not seem to be motivated to make himself into a better person, to unravel his emotional and mental tangles, to live lighter, clearer, more freely. He was very motivated to create, to work passionately on his various projects. I wondered if Dad buried his pain about Charlie Reynolds and if so, had it made him bitter on a certain level. Had he given up trying to sort through his feelings? Had the part of himself which I found hard to penetrate, his heart of heart, been more open to experience as a younger man?
As I listened to the water rush by, I felt my father to such a deep extent, as though I could reach out and touch his feelings with the same ease that I could touch his shoulder if I were standing next to him. Then I was standing next to him on the bridge again. He was looking at the river. He had a heavy coat on, but no hat. His face was pale. The wind was not strong, but it was ruffling his hair. I stood just a couple feet away from him. He was leaning against the bridge railing and I was standing next to it. I looked at his face in profile. His nose, curved and narrow, looked almost the same as I knew him in the flesh. The winter sun was high overhead, but dulled with the season and some clouds. He began crying, silently. Tears ran down the cheek I could see, ran down like a river. His breathing began to catch as his silent tears turned to sobbing.
He turned toward me and looked into my eyes. My heart broke in an instant. His lips quivered. I moved toward him and put my arms around his shoulders. I knew I was hugging my father as a young man. He looked to be in his early twenties, very much the same as when I had seen him before on the bridge, but the season was different.
An energy passed through me which is hard to explain. I felt warmed and lifted by an inner light. I felt my connection to my father, but I felt far older than him. I knew my grandfather, so I could not be his father. But I saw that he was my responsibility. I was farther along the path then he. I was responsible to help him.
I held him tightly. I flashed on the young man dying in my arms on the high cold plains of Asia and I saw he was the same being. We stood for a long time that way. Finally he pulled back and looked at me and said, “Adele is dead.”
I looked back at him and had no idea who Adele was. “She was driving home to see me for Christmas, from Texas. Ice storm. Her car slid off the road, she hit a gate in a fence and her car flipped into the ditch. It caught fire. She burned to death.” He said the last few words are though he were watching her burn to death now. The anguish in his eyes and across his face reached into my heart and crushed it.
He turned away, stood still for a moment. “Thanks,” I heard him say softly. Then he walked across the bridge and up to the rode. He got into a silver and gray car—a style I hadn’t seen before—and he drove away, leaving me standing on this little bridge, hearing the wind and the water rushing by me, roaring by me now, and with my heart so badly broken.
I felt tears running down my cheek as I slowly became aware of my apartment around me. My poor Dad! I felt his broken heart in a way so close to me, yet it was not me. His broken heart was not mine. But I felt it almost like my heart.
These feelings of loss and grief slid off me as I became more fully conscious of myself. But I sat for a long while before I really trusted myself to be in my apartment rather that on the little bridge—or somewhere else.
Something was happening with me. This was not my normal meditation. I wondered where the man in the maroon robe was. I wished I see him, could look into his eyes. I felt pretty exposed in a world I was learning to navigate within, but not understanding too well.
I sat for a while on my day bed until after eleven. I thought about Dad. Seeing on the bridge as a young man softened my fear and hurt toward him. I wished I could really talk to him. I wasn’t sure what I would say, but talking to Dad was always along prescribed corridors. If I ventured too far off the path, he let me know he was not interested.
Finally I got up to get dressed.
An hour later I walked into Llewellyn’s and saw Chris sitting at the bar just past the draft beer spigots. The pub was a long room with a narrow entrance. You either sat at the bar or walked by it. Beyond lay an area of booths with high wooden panels separating them. The bar was mostly old wood. Black and white photos covered the walls. I pulled off my jacket and put on the back of the bar stool next to Chris, then sat down. He was starring into the dark, deeply polished bar. He looked up, “Hey mate. Nice to see you’re on time today. Only about a pint late.”
“Sorry, Chris. I’m not too on top of things at the moment.”
“That’s OK. I’m just pulling your leg. Only been her a few minutes myself.” He looked at me closer. “You don’t look so very good. Are you all right?”
I didn’t really know where to begin. “OK. Maybe not.”
“What’s up with your Dad?”
The bartender slid a coaster in front of me and asked what I wanted to drink. “Guinness dark and Bass, please,” I said taking off my hat and putting on the bar. Then I remember putting on a hat, all soggy, the week before when Chris and I been at the bar. Folding the felt hat I stuffed it in my jacket pocket hanging beside me. I had found the hat—and several more like it—at the Goodwill near the University. Sometime before I was born, probably, it had been another gent’s dress hat.
“Half and half?”
I hesitated, then said, “No I’ll take one of each.”
“You’re going for the gusto out of the gate.” Chris laughed his normal, cheer-everyone-up laugh, but I did not respond. After a minute of me saying nothing, Chris said, “This is serious. Never seen you without much to say.”
I looked at him and took a deep breath. “My father was planning to kill Joyce… my stepmother…but then he didn’t.”
“Oh. Not good.”
I told him about the past two days in detail, except for my inner experiences. I could sense he was feeling for me, though Chris normally shifts a conversation when it begins to touch his deeper feelings. We ordered fish and chips, ate and talked. After a while I felt like I had talked out Dad and I thought to ask Chris, “How’s Zooey?”
“Fine. Just a kid’s run at a little fever. Jill’s too protective. I’d just give her some aspirin and a shot of whiskey and put her too bed.”
“Poor Zooey. Is she very sick?”
“Just a might. Jill came home to be with her. Didn’t want to take her to the sitter’s.”
I looked at him. “She took off from work so you could come have lunch with me?”
“Well I was supposed to work anyway.”
“Well I did say something about you having a rough go at it and all.” Knowing Chris, he was worried about both Zooey and I, but would not let on to anyone…except probably Jill. Chris and Jill were always short of money. I felt bad we were not working and Jill had taken off.
“You up to some dominos?”
I needed to lighten up, so I said. “Sure.”
Chris moved a stool away and brought back a box of the bar’s dominos. What was a kids’ game for me was a serious bet-and-brew adult game where Chris came from. He and I played for fun, but with a good zing of competition. He won the first game. Midway through the second I asked him about the Martin job was going and if Barbara said anything to him about me not being at work.
“Funny you should ask. Barbara was asking about you yesterday.” He looked at me with a moment of intensity. “I’ve often wondered if you fancy her.”
I was surprise he asked me so directly. I thought for a moment. “Yes, but not that much. I mean I like her. And she is sexy. But she’s not really my type.”
“I think she’s a bit hot for you. But it is not a good thing. Remember last summer when you would wear those shorts of yours. She used to watch you a bit, you know.”
I remembered one time in particular when I was following Chris up the backstairs of the Martin’s huge old home, which had been the maid’s way to the second floor a hundred years earlier. Barbara had stood at the bottom of the stairs watching me go up. Just before I turned the corner, she had said with a somewhat husky voice, “Nice legs, Lee.” My jean cut-offs were short. I felt both a little thrilled and embarrassed by her comment. Later, during a day I was working by myself she told me to stop by some Saturday, that Bud would be working and we could sit outside in the swing and talk. I had not told Chris about that. I also had not stopped by.
“Yeah, I remember. But you know I really like Bud a lot. I couldn’t do that to him. And he’s my dentist and all.”
“Would not be a good thing.” I felt how much Chris did not want me to get involved with Barbara. We admired women together, but he was just looking and having fun with me. I was single and usually lonely, so I often was hungry for feminine companionship. Chris was very married—heart-to-heart.
“She’s not my type anyway, Chris. And I wouldn’t do that to you.” I knew Chris and Jill and spend some evenings with Bud and Barbara. ”I also wouldn’t do it to our work. We both have bills to pay, mate.”
We drained our beers and Chris said, “I feel better all ready. Want to stay here some more or swing by the Blue Goose and shoot some pinball?”
“Moving on sounds good. I’ll drive,” I said. We paid, put on our jackets and left, both of us with lifted spirits. As we walked I pulled my felt hat from my pocket, smoothed it out some, and put it on. I would have liked to share with Chris my meetings with my father on the bridge and with the man in the maroon robe, but I felt Chris would not easily relate to my adventures and I did not want to chance freaking him out. As we approached my station wagon, I felt the man in the robe next to me. When I looked the feeling disappeared.
As I started the car I felt that I did not want to go to another bar. “Hey, how about we go to my studio instead. Play some backgammon.”
“Sure, mate. I don’t mind womping your butt a few times.”
I grinned at him. “Few times. You’ll be lucky. How about we get a six pack.”
“OooooKaaaaay,” Chris said, making it sound like a great sacrifice. We turned left on N. Euclid and drove a few blocks through the heart of the West End to a liquor store which had good beer. I parked on the street.
In the store, I said to Chris, “Coors or Heineken?”
“Ugh, not that Rocky Mountain piss of yours. Anything but that.” Chris actually liked Coors, which is what I usually drank. We got a six pack of Heineken bottles and I paid.
Back in the wagon, I jogged up to Kingshighway and drove the few blocks to the I-64 on ramp and turned toward the Mississippi River and my studio. “God, that is such a beautiful piece,” Chris said looking at the top of the gleaming Arch, which grew larger as we neared downtown. “It always gives me the shivers.”
“Yes, it is amazing. And the ride to the top. How many times have you seen the video of its construction?”
“A lot, I tell you. Each time I feel the willys as they connect the two legs.”
“Must have been amazing to be part of the team building it. I love its graceful shape.”
I turned off the highway and onto Jefferson Avenue. As we drove along the four lane street, we fell silent for no real reason. We had both driven this way many times. Older red brick buildings lined the street like sentries in a wide variety of costumes. Some were painted brick, some had been recently tuck pointed, but many buildings needed major repair. Occasionally we saw a brick shell with gaping windows and no roof. Most of the buildings, though, were occupied, though only a few had insulated windows.
As we turned left onto Lafayette and drove by the park, Chris said, “Wouldn’t this old park make a fine sculpture garden. I could see it populated with a series of big steel pieces.
“If you were the curator, whose pieces would you put in here?”
“Mine of course. That’s a silly question. And I would have the City pay me a nice stipend so I could just design and cut steel and weld all day long.” I followed the street as it angled right then left and then looked at Chris with a mock long face. He responded playfully with, “Don’t know who else would be worthy. Let me see…”
“Annnnnd…” I said.
“Well maybe we let you put a small piece over in the corner by the bushes. That would probably be OK.”
“How about Billy?”
“Three at a least, if there good ones, of course.”
“And Sterritt?” I knew the mention of his name was always good for a colorful retort from Chris.
“That lopped-eyed bugger? He couldn’t build a piece of art if his balls were on the chopping block.”
I laughed as we turned left on 9th, then right again on Soulard. The buildings here were older here than those a mile behind us, which meant some were built in the middle of the nineteenth century. Half way down the block I turned into an alley then turned again into the parking space behind my studio. The Soulard area was about three miles south of downtown and the riverfront. Old and in the middle of being renovated, the neighborhood offered a few low key historic sites and a lot of dreary old-St. Louis landscape.
Chris picked up the sack with the beer and we went through a gate into a long, narrow courtyard which connected the rear of the three buildings owned by an attorney named Sol Zurker and his carpenter-partner Paul somebody.
I had met Sol when I was looking for cheap studio space after ending my grad school career at Wash. U. I had talked him into letting me renovated the third floor loft of the first of these buildings for my studio. Renovate is a generous term. I quickly cleaned about 125 years of sooty dirt from the never used space and installed a gas space heater. Then I moved in my prized small metal lathe, drill press, table saw and other tools from the University sculpture shop at Fenton. The rent was $40 a month.
During this time I had run into Chris at Llywellyn’s and had a passionate discussion of Sterritt’s poor judgment and shriveling manhood. Over the next couple months Chris and I insulated and drywalled the front wall–which was the inside of the Mansard roof—repaired windows, installed electrical wiring, a phone and reinforced the door. Chris helped me finish off the loft’s drywall and wiring. We had known each other during school, but our friendship solidified over backgammon and beer in my loft.
We walked up the stairs, a straight shot of rickety wooden stairs up to the second floor apartments back porches and then up 18 more steps of narrow-walled stairway, coming up into the loft in the middle of the 30 foot square single room.
I loved this place. It still smelled some old city dirt, but now it also smelled of machine oil, cut wood, ground metal, paint and wood stain. I turned on the space heater and Chris put four beers in the old refrigerator and handed me one. We sat down at my main work table, a strong, oversize solid core door attached to a 4 x 4 legs and wood frame. The chairs were comfortable surplus office chairs—deluxe models with casters, arms and some upholstery.
“Ever hear of a writer named Paul Twitchell?” I said, startled by my words.
“No. Can’t say as I have. Course Jill’s the reader in the family. I just watch the telly and recyle these bottles.” He held up the Heineken. “Hoping Zooey follows in her Mum’s footsteps. Not her old man’s, that’s for sure.”
I thought about why I was bringing this up, found no reason, but also could not resist an inner push to keep talk, “Interesting stuff. Ever thought about reincarnation?”
“Not in this lifetime.”
I smiled. Chris is seldom serious. “My Dad used to be fascinated by the subject. Read a book by some doctor about a woman named Bridey Murphy, I think, who under hypnosis talked about a past life she had had and spoke in a foreign language she did not know.
Chris had become a little more serious when I mentioned Dad. “How could she speak in a language she did not know?”
“Well that was the point.”
“The point of what?” Chris was putting me on.
“The point supporting reincarnation, you dolt.”
“Right. Frog last lifetime. Rock next lifetime. Maybe this beer bottle is my dear of Grandmum.”
I rolled my eyes. “Sorry I brought it up.” And I wondered why I had brought it up.
“No. Go on. I’m just pulling your leg. What’s the book about?”
“But more that that. This guy, Paul Twitchell, he talks about each of us as a Soul.”
Chris is looking into his beer bottle by now. “Grandmum, did you find your soul in here? She did, you know. My Grandmum. She drank like she was looking for her soul in a bottle. That’s why Jill hardly never drinks.”
“He talked about more than having a Soul, he talked about being Soul.”
“Same thing, right?’
“Well you have that shirt, right?”
“Are you that shirt?’
“Well, I’ve been three sheets before, but I don’t think I have ever been this shirt.” Chris burped loudly. “Excuse me. Terrible manners.”
“Well it meant something to me. I grew up going to Sunday school at my grandparents’ church. I got baptized right after my Grandfather died when I was seven. The Pastor talked to us about having a Soul, but not about being Soul. When I read about being Soul in this guy’s book, it really meant something to me.”
“OK. Sounds good to me. We can play backgammon, soul-to-soul.”
I sighed. I knew why I had not shared my recent inner experiences with Chris. I opened the backgammon boards and spun it around. Chris liked being the brown blots.
Chris won the first two games, playing silly, but very good backgammon. He won the roll for the third game, then rolled a double six. “Ouch. Want another beer?” I said.
“Let me check with Grandmum.” He looked into the empty bottle with one eye. “She’s out shopping. Sure let’s have another.”
I chuckled as I stepped to the refrigerator. It was always hard for me to not smile around Chris. When I sat back down with the beers, Chris asked, “So when are you going to start actually buildings some pieces here. Now that you have this fine studio and all.”
“Funny you should ask.” I went over to the shelf by the lathe and brought back a foot high model made of wood and some small steel pieces.
“What have we here? Art!”
“Just a model. I’ve been thinking of doing a series of outdoor pieces.”
“Where? In Lafayette Park?”
“Col-o-ra-do…! Why there, mate?”
“Well, it’s the only place I ever sold a piece of sculpture, for one.”
“But Colorado,” Chris said shaking his head. “Not exactly the art capital of the US…but it’s a place to start.” He looked at me, his eyes, twinkling. “And just what kind of things are you going built?”
I could see that he was excited. Chris love to make art…whether his work or a friend’s. I began sketching out shapes on the table with a marker. “Organic sheet steel forms. Acid etched, varying patinas. Maybe some brushed aluminum. Twenty feet high, plus or minus. Interwoven lines. Wood elements worked smooth. And some steel gears…especially ones which don’t do anything.”
I was excited now. “The key is movement, but movement measured over months and years. I need to do some experiments to find how different materials decay.”
“Yes. Rot. I want to have these organic elements moveable, but held in place with rope or wire or whatever. The hinges and pivots would be hidden. But have some big gears which looked like they would move. Over time the rope rots and breaks and a section suddenly swings into a new position. The piece would have a series of configurations lasting a few years, maybe longer.”
“That would be cool. Some bloke looking up at this huge steel sculpture, been unchanged for three years, then suddenly he hears a snap and this large steel elbow, weighing maybe 500 pounds, swings down and lops his head off.”
“Well not quite the image I had in mind.”
“I like it. I’m sure people will pay good money for it, too.”
“I’m not so sure about that. The most money I ever got for a piece was material costs and seven cents an hour.”
“Hummm. Really should be able to get better than seven cents an hour.” Chris laughed, but we both knew how hard it was to sell art. We also knew what broke felt like. “Which piece did you sell?”
“The Aluminum Plant. The big aluminum thing on a 9’ foot curved stem made from large aluminum pipe.”
“I think I remember that one. Looked like some tropical man-eating something.” Chris had seen the slides of my Greeley one man show. “Some bright color inside.”
“Orange. Brushed aluminum outside. TIG welding aluminum Is not easy.”
“You did that?”
“Yes, in the industrial arts lab at Greeley. Welded for hours. Screwed up a lot at first.”
“So how much did you sell it for?”
“$420. Which included planting it in concrete in my guy’s back yard.”
“You mean your patron.”
“Right. My patron. Nice sound. Anyway the piece had a gallery base. Ten foot long burgundy feet made from 2 x 4s tapered to meet the ground at a shallow angle. But he wanted it right in the ground. So I set a tube with these big-ass sealed bearings into about five bags of cement. It swiveled around and swung back and forth. The base was a suspension spring from an old Ford in the junk yard. And I used a coil of spring steel to make one cone swing from the other.”
“When do we start fabricating?” Chris was great to hang out with.
“Maybe we should wait until we build a few more models and then I can give my patron a call.”
“I’m in. Just let me know.”
I grinned at Chris. I really loved the guy. “Want another beer?”
“Why not? Wonder what time it is?”
“Still light out,” I said walking to the fridge.
“Great. Now let’s see if you can play up my level…for once.”
We played backgammon long after the Heineken beer had run out. I kidded Chris about lowering himself to drink the Coors in my refrigerator, which he did with feigned disgust. After winning the best of nine games, he walked me through his plans for two installation pieces he wanted to build, but need a space in which to do them. I offered my loft, but all the machinery was a “conceptual distraction,” he said. I offered to talk to Sol and see if the loft next door was available.
As late afternoon became dark we called it a day and drove back to the West End. I dropped Chris off at his car.
“See you in the morning and thanks for the beer,” Chris said as he opened the passenger door of my old wagon.
“Sure thing. And tell Jill, ‘Thanks’. It was good to work with you today.” I watched Chris unfold his lanky body as he got out of my car. He was almost tall, but so skinny and wiry and habitually hunched that he did not look tall.
Chris leaned back into the car, “Take care of yourself, Mate. Call any time.” He shut my car door firmly and turned to his faded yellow Pinto. One of the ugliest cars I had ever seen.
I drove the three blocks to Pershing Avenue and my apartment. The mail box was empty as was my apartment. Coming home each day to a place where no one had moved anything was peaceful–and empty.
I tossed my coat and hat on the day bed and checked the refrigerator. I made a peanut butter sandwich, grabbed the bag of tortilla corn chips and sat at my little kitchen table by the window overlooking the black steel fire escape on the building next door. If I opened the window I could reach out and touch the railing.
I felt buzzed, but not unsteady. The evening was dark and felt empty. I got up and turned on the rest of the lights in the apartment, and stopped in front of Grandfather’s picture in my alcove by the bathroom. He looked at me over a long, somewhat misshaped nose. The pores in his skin were big and irregular. He had trimmed, wispy beard and thinning white hair. I had looked this closely many times before. He was my mother’s father whom I had never met, Judge Lee Ninde. She had given me the picture, a 16 by 20 reproduction of an old original. I had never met her parents either and just one of her two brothers—Lee Ninde. I was named for the Judge, my grandfather, who was a family icon.
I had framed the picture when I worked at the frame shop in Bloomington. I used a wide, gray stained barn wood molding and non-glare glass. I was proud of the handsome framing job. I wondered for a moment why I did not have a picture of my father on the wall, then knew of course. He was too much in my life and usually an overwhelming presence who took more than his share of the oxygen in the room.
But thinking about Dad reminded me to call Cathy, which I did. There was no answer. I looked at the clock on the wall, which read 5:40 pm. I went back to the kitchen to finish my snack—or was it to be dinner? I did not feel like reading the book I had on Brancusi, nor going out to get a paper, a habit I learned from my father—reading a newspaper while eating.
I finished eating and sat down on the day bed, pushing my coat aside. Television was usually boring. I thought about calling the woman I had just met, but decided to wait. I was going back to Evansville on Thursday morning. I’d call her after that. I toyed with the idea of going out, but found no enthusiasm for the idea. I wished I had a girlfriend who I could snuggle up with. I thought about, Dee, my Colorado girlfriend. It just had not worked with her after I surprised her at spring break earlier that year.
I guess I fell asleep, because the phone woke me. The clock read 6:47 as I answered, “Hello.”
“Lee, Hi. This is your sister. I hope I’m not interrupting anything.” Cathy often announced, “This is your sister” usually in a cheerful voice. We hadn’t had too much cheer recently and the strain was back in her voice.
“Oh, Hi. Tried to call you earlier. Must have fallen asleep.”
“We went out to do the laundry. Then John wanted to go to Newburgh to that second hand store. I swear I nagged him for an hour to come home. He just loves to buy stuff. Thinks he can make some money.”
“Where are the girls?”
“They are at Carolyn’s.” Cathy’s toned changed, “Lee, Daddy’s line has been busy all day.”
“Probably off the hook. He does that sometimes when he has trouble sleeping.”
“I know, but I want to go check on him. I’m worried about him, Lee.”
“OK.” I should have gotten a key made for her, I thought, then realized Dad would be really mad if he found out. “You want me to come…”
“No. Of course not. I talked to Joyce this afternoon twice. She sounds fairly normal.”
“We decided we would go over there tonight. Just to see how Daddy’s is.”
“When are you going?”
“We are going to meet her there at 7:30.”
“This doesn’t sound like a fun trip.”
“No, it’s not. But I think the worst is over. Daddy seemed like he had come to his senses last night. And Joyce sounds OK.”
“Your not taking the girls, are you?”
“Heavens no. Carolyn said she would watch them as long as we need. She’s such a good friend.”
“Good. You’ll call me, right?”
“Of course. I’ll call you as soon as we get back home. Are you going to be in?”
“I’ll stay here, no problem.”
“Love you. I’ll call you soon.”
“OK. Love you, too,” I said and hung up the phone. Well, I was staying home for sure, now.
I got up and began to straighten up the apartment, but there was nothing to do. I went through my mental check list: Read? TV? Write letters? Call someone? Who? No interest. So I sat down on the day bed to meditate.
My beer buzz kept me jogging in thought circles. I bounced from Dad to Joyce and the gun to what would I say to him on Thursday to the bridge to Charlie to Adele to the man in the maroon rode to Cathy to Dolfie to his cat, Bunny. By the time I got to Bunny I realized I was a little more wasted than I thought.
I focused hard on my mantra and began chanting it silently. Over and over again I rolled the foreign, yet familiar syllables through my mind. The sounds echoed in my mind, but did not resonant anywhere else. I felt like I was trying to start my car with the spark plugs fouled.
I had meditated after drinking before. Yes, they were not the deepest times, but there always was some settling, some calming, some feeling of being nurtured. But now I might as well have been watching television. But I haven’t had any experiences like my recent ones before, either, I thought. Was something changing in me, I wondered? My inner life seemed to point that way.
The image of the man in maroon robe came to mind. I imagined his face. I looked into his eyes, but it wasn’t the same. There was something there, but it felt our connection felt filtered, like a curtain had been pulled between us.
I sat looking at him in my mind’s eye forever it seemed. I checked the clock. Almost 8:00 o’clock. I wondered what had happened at Dad’s. Had he gotten angry with them? I knew why Cathy was hesitant to call him earlier in the day or go over there.
A year, maybe eighteen months ago, she had called him at 8:00 am one morning. This was not smart of kind of her. Dad had a hard time sleeping. He usually went bed around dawn and pulled down his special-order black-out shades. I would guess he usually waited until after Joyce got ready for work. She left the house at maybe 5:15. Sounded like a horrible schedule to me. Well all morning and into the afternoon Dad slept—or tried to sleep—through the morning noises of neighbor kids going to school, of non-school age neighbors doing a variety of day-time activities which involved pulling their car in and out of the garage next to Dad’s bedroom window. I could understand why he had trouble sleeping.
And Cathy knew why he did, too. But one morning last year she forgot and called him at 8:00 o’clock. She had been up for at least three hours. Dad answered the phone. I guess he had just gotten to sleep. When he realized it was Cathy, he lost control of himself. “It was awful, Lee, he sounded like a stranger. He told me to never, ever call him before noon again, that he was writing me out of his will because on my eighteenth birthday he had looked at me over lunch and realized that he was looking at Russ Jacobson’s daughter. ‘I knew your mother had had an affair with somebody’, he said. It was horrible, Lee.”
“What the hell?” I had said. “Who the hell is Russ Jacobson?”
“I don’t know, Lee, but I really hate him.”
“You hate Russ whoever?”
“No, stupid. I hate Daddy.”
I didn’t hate my Dad, but I felt he had been lower than slug shit that morning. Later Cathy called Mom and told her what Dad had said. Mother just howled with laughter.
“Russ was this seedy little guy who used to hang around your father’s band. He would go get coffee or cigarettes for the guys. Your father never liked him. I thought he was repulsive. I don’t know what your father is doing these days, but he needs some help, Cathy. Seriously. I’m so sorry he said something so cruel to you. It is the farthest thing from the tRuthy. You are your father’s daughter.” By this time, Cathy was not particularly attached to being Dad’s daughter but she wanted him to be wrong.
I looked at the clock again: 8:14 pm. If they were on time, Cathy, John and Joyce had been at Dad’s for 45 minutes. I hoped he was not causing a scene. Then the phone rang. I picked it up and said hello. I thought I heard Cathy say my name, but there was a gurgle in her voice. Then she said very clearly in tone I still remember because it was so brittle with hurt, “Lee. Daddy is dead.”
I did not know what to say. I felt my gut knot up in a new way and my apartment faded away. “Oh, Cathy. What…what happened?”
“It looks like he killed himself, Lee. The bastard. Oh it’s just shit, Lee. The police are here and the corner is on the way. John found him. Back in the bedroom. He cut his wrists. Died on the floor beside his bed. Inside the front door he laid out a large envelope and a picture of Nickie. They were the first things we saw. The envelope is addressed to you.
“Oh, Cathy…” I was suspended between feeling what she was feeling—and being worried about her—and the heavy, heavy weight of her words. My father was gone. Could it be? The man who had defined the first half of my life and then become a counterpoint to my emerging self during the next 14 years–this man was now just, poof, gone.
“You are sure…”
“Yes. The policeman said he thought Dad had been dead for quite a while. I couldn’t go back there and look at him. Lee, I saw him just twenty-four hours ago. Oh, damn him. Damn him.” I heard her fight back her tears. I felt something rising within me. It felt like a fist about to pound my heart.
“What can I do?” I heard my voice but did not feel it. I felt like a robot in slow motion.
“I don’t know right now.” Cathy sounded so hurt and angry.
“I’ll leave now.”
“OK…Does that make sense? No, I don’t want you driving until you settle done. I have John here.”
“I am OK. I can drive.” I had no idea what I could do.
“I think the coroner is outside. Let me call you back in a little while. Stay put for now, OK?”
“OK. Sorry you have to be there. I love you.”
“Oh, I love you too, Lee.” She hung up and I held the phone, listening to the dial tone, and hearing the echo of my words, “Sorry you have to be there.” I had always thought—assumed—that I would be with my father when he died. That I would be holding his hand, reassuring him that whatever was happening was good. That he would not be just stepping off into a black void.
Instead I was 180 miles away and my last word had to my father had been, “No.” I felt wretched. I felt low. I felt that I had let my Dad down. His last words to me, “You sound like you wish I had done it,” passed though my head. Had I pushed him over the edge? Did my confrontation with him cause him to take his final step?
He had long talked about losing people in his life: He lost my Uncle Bob when Bob married Aunt Ann; he lost his father when he died; he lost my Mother to his trombone player; he lost Cathy when she hit puberty—had he now felt like he lost me?
“Oh, my Daddy, what have you done?” I said into my hands. In the distance I heard dimly the beeping of the phone. I had moved to my bed on the floor. I struggled up and put the phone back on the hook. Then I fell back onto my bed, tears pouring down my cheeks onto my pillow. I could barely breathe.
My Dad was gone. How could that be? I want to go see him, desperately. To hug him. To tell him I loved him. I had not said that to him when I last saw him. Oh, shit. He was hurt deeply when his father died, but he was even more torn up when he realized he had never said to grandfather, “I love you.” I had told my Dad often that I loved him, but not the last thing I saw him. This was not the way I wanted to say good-bye to my father.
“Daddy I love you,” I said softly into my pillow. “I love you Daddy. Why did you do it?” Now I was bawling. Crying like a baby. My guts were beyond tight, knotted into something solid. My heart felt crushed. I felt alone and naked. My Dad was gone. I felt like no one had ever hurt like I was hurting. I curled into a ball and laid on my bed, sobbing silently.
Slowly my tears subsided and my thoughts calmed. I thought about Cathy. About how much steel she has inside. More than I will ever have. I knew she kept a lot of pain locked away behind her steel curtain and I sensed that this hidden pain weaken her. But I greatly admired her ability to deal with crap of life which seemed too often to find her.
I thought about the people Dad had talked about losing. He had talked about Charlie periodically, but little about how he felt when he died. And he had never mentioned Adele. I wondered why. I knew Charlie had existed and felt that Adele had been a part of Dad’s life, too. I had the feeling that Dad must have locked away most of his hurt with Charlie and all of it with Adele. Just like Cathy.
I got up and washed off my face. I felt numb and exhausted. I didn’t think I was up to driving. I got a glass of water in the kitchen and came back to my bed. Propping up pillows I leaned against the wall and stared into nothingness, my thoughts blank.
After a while Cathy called. The coroner had taken Dad’s body away. She and Joyce had agreed there should be an autopsy. “How are you?” I interrupted her.
“Oh, shit, Lee. I don’t know. I just want to get out of here. This is awful. He was such a selfish bastard to do this.” She was quiet for a minute and said nothing. “But, I miss him, Lee. And I have no idea what I am going to tell Nicky and April. Especially Nicky. How can I tell her granddaddy killed himself. What will that make her think? He was just so selfish, Lee. Shit.”
“I wish I was there to hug you.”
“I wish you were here, too.” She laughed a little. “I wish you were here so you could deal with all this and I didn’t have too.”
“I’ll come now…” Her words tore at me. I was letting my sister down, too.
“No, Lee. It doesn’t make sense. We are not going to stay here much longer and I’ll probably be asleep by the time you would get here. Go to bed yourself, get a good night’s sleep and come over tomorrow.”
“What about Mother?”
“Oh, I hadn’t thought about her. Somebody needs to call her. Could you?” Cathy laughed, a little throw away laugh. “The last time we talked was not so great.”
“Sure, I’ll call her.” I did not feel really close to Mom, but I had not fought with her like Cathy had off and on over the years. “What else is going on there?”
“Oh, Joyce is poking around and John is a little freaked out.”
“How is Joyce taking this?”
“Calmly. A little too calmly.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean… Listen, I think we are about to go. We’ll talk about this tomorrow. OK?”
“Sure. I’ll call you before I leave.”
“Come anytime. And get some sleep. I love you.”
“Love you too—and Cathy,”
“I’m really sorry I wasn’t there tonight. I always thought I would be with Daddy when he…”
Cathy cut me off, “Lee. It’s just the way it happened. Don’t be silly.”
I took a deep breath and said, “OK.”
“We are going. I love you. See you tomorrow. We will get through this. All right?”
“Love you, too.” I said and heard her hang up again. I stared at the wall for a long time. Then I call my mother. Dad had said she left with his best trombone player, Tommy. Said he had just fallen in love with her—after eight years of marriage—when she left. Much later, she had told me all Dad wanted to do was work on his trains in the basement while she read Kahlil Gibran and wanted to talk about philosophy and the meaning of life. Dad had brought home Tommy as a skinny, lost kid who lived at the Y, played a mean trombone on Dad’s band and needed a place to hang out. So he hung out with Mom. They talked and read and went out to bars some nights while Dad arranged big band scores for the band and made HO scale building and freight cars in the basement, which looked like the real thing in a photograph.
One thing let to another and Mom took a break from their marriage. Cathy and I went to Mt. Carmel to live with Dad’s parents. Mom’s situation soon made it impossible for her to return to Dad. She has told me how much she missed Cathy and I, how it still eats at her everyday. I believe her, but it does not affect me. On some level my two year old is seriously pissed. On almost all levels I bonded with Dad desperately. To Mom I am her dear Little Lee. To me Mom is pretty much a stranger who gets very emotional when she drinks.
Mom and I talked periodically, friendly talks. I have never told her how I feel about her. I have shared with her my frustrations about Dad and she usually is a pretty good audience. Tonight when she answered the phone I suddenly did not what to have to tell her. I knew she still loved my father deeply.
“Hi Mom. How are you?”
Oh, Hi Lee. I just knew that was you.” This was Mom’s favorite phrase on the phone. I was feeling pretty shaky still and my voice tipped her off. She said, “Are you all right? You don’t sound to good, honey.”
It was evening in San Diego and I guess she and Tommy were past the half-way point of their nightly martini adventure. I disliked rather strongly talking with her about anything family when she was half lit, but tonight I didn’t have a choice. I also could not hold back. “Oh, Mom. Dad is dead.”
“Oh, honey…Oh my. How is Cathy? Are you all right? Oh, Tommy, Bill is dead. What happened? Oh my. This is just terrible. No, this is not right. He is too young.”
“Mom…” We were both quite for a while. I heard her breathing become raspy, like she was crying. “Mom are you OK?”
She pulled herself together and said, “Yes. I’m fine. What happened? Tell me everything, Lee.”
“He killed himself, Mom. Dad killed himself.” I felt my tears rise in my thought.
“He killed himself,” she said to Tommy, my step-father sitting closely by evidently. Then back to me she said, “He had no right to do that. It’s not fair to you and Cathy. Then I told her about the gun and Joyce and the craziness of the past two days. She seemed to sober up as we talked. I guess I had, too, since hearing from Cathy. I was feeling really tired, suddenly, so I said I probably should go. I asked her if she would be OK. She said she would, then confessed that it would probably be a rough night for her. I could understand what she was feeling and told her so. We hung promising to talk tomorrow. I guess I felt a little closer to her after our conversation.
I was tired, very tired. My mouth tasted awful and my contacts were scratchy. Feeling like it was the last thing I wanted to do, I dragged myself off the bed and did the bathroom basics. In a very few minuets I was back in bed, the covers pulled up to my chin. The radiator clanked. It was going to be a cold November evening in St. Louis.
I remembered nothing about the night until I woke up in the gray dawn. I lay in bed slowly regaining consciousness. Gradually I realized I did not feel cold. I looked around. My apartment looked the same, but the walls glowed a soft yellow, like they were gently lighted from within. I stood up easily. I looked at myself. I did not feel any clothes on me, but I did not think I was naked. I seemed to be bathed in a million tiny lights.
I saw a light on in the kitchen and walked toward it. I felt no fear. When I turned the corner I found myself in a different room, a hallway. It felt like a hospital, but too pleasant to be a hospital. I walked along the hall and began to hear voices not far away. The walls glowed like the walls in my apartment, but were a soft orange and seemed to pulse gently. As I took each step I was aware of the floor, but it felt soft and comforting in some way. The voices were getting stronger. They seemed to come from around the next corner of the hall. A few steps from the end of the hall I suddenly was bathed in an intense purple, maybe violet light and heard a quick burst of flute music. The sound surprised me and I stopped, which maybe was someone’s intention. I closed my eyes and felt the sound of the flute pass around and through me, lift me in a way I had never felt before. Then the sound and feeling were over and the walls again glowed orange and I began walking again toward the end of the hall. My consciousness was just beginning to question what was happening when I turned the corner at the end of the hall.
A large room full of people opened up. No one noticed me. I was pulled by an unseen force to enter the room. I passed by group after group of people of different sizes and shapes—a normal assortment of beings—but they each wore a full length orange robe and a vibrant orange light emanated from them.
I walked farther into the room and realized that each group was standing around a chest high platform on which lay a person—a patient. Above each platform hovered a hood of some kind, not too different from an exhaust hood over a restaurant oven, but different, very different. The hood appeared to be formed of light, orange light, which did not look intense to me. But when I looked at directly at the hood I felt a powerful surge flow through me and could barely keep my eyes on it. As I looked away, I caught a glimpse of the person lying under it and was shocked to see such misery on their face. Their expression was deep sadness and their skin was dark green and yellow.
No one noticed me still. The people standing around the platform I was nearest to were busy moving their hands, but I could not see what they were doing. A mist was rising from the platform, enveloping the person on it. Then the people stopped their hand motion and stepped back. From the hood burst a bright orange light, pulsing and swirling, but very focused. I looked at it, but it was too bright and I looked away.
I realized I was in a hospital of some kind and that I was here for some purpose. I moved to the next platform where the patient looked darker, but not quite as said. Then I saw four people guiding a patient on a floating stretcher. They stopped at an unoccupied platform and transferred the person on the stretcher to the platform. Immediately a new group of people joined the stretcher crew, had a brief conference, then began moving their hands over patient. All the staff wore the same full length orange robe and gave off the same vibrant orange light.
I was drawn to an area on the other side of the room. The ceiling above the platform was brighter than the others. I moved between the platforms and groups of people easily and still no one seemed to notice me. As I approached the area on the other side of the room I saw there was a barrier around the platform I was drawn to, a white light fence. I stopped at it. The platform then rotated slowly and stopped with the head of the patient near me. With a jolt I saw it was my father. His eyes were closed and his face wore an expression of hopeless depression. But he looked alive. The people around him were adjusting the hood and working with a long probe, inserting it into different small openings on the platform.
I started to take a step toward him, but felt the pressure of the fence on my legs and a stronger grip on my shoulder. I turned my head and looked squarely into the eyes of the man in the maroon robe. I was startled. He was not smiling, but there was deep compassion in his eyes. I felt a sense of love which humbled me. He seemed to look through me, to see all the choices which my little self made and to know my true nature. I felt his gaze penetrate to my heart. His lips did not move, but I felt his voice say to me, “You can do better. You will need to do better to become who you are.”
Then this man in the maroon robe led me through the room. I noticed his robe shone with countless points of white light, tiny yet brilliant. People turned to looked at him as he passed with smiles and some with slightly bowed heads. The people were bathed in bright white light as we passed. No one looked at me.
We walked to the hallway, then he turned to me and looked into my eyes. I felt a strong love wash over me. In that moment I only wanted to be a part of his love. I felt him telling me to return the way I had come. He turned from me and stepped back into the room. Standing in the hallway with the walls shimmering their pale orange light, I felt suddenly lonely. My heart pulled me to return back to the room, to be with my father, to be with the love I felt from the man in the maroon robe. But I knew it was not my place.
I turned and walked back down the hall, back the way I had come. As I turned the corner into my living room, I saw myself asleep in my bed.
Then I was in my awake in my bed. It was dark. There was no dawn. I looked at the clock, which read 3:00 am exactly. I sat up. The room was normal. My head pounded some from the beer. “Dad,” I said out loud to myself. “Was that you…?”
I sat back against the wall and thought about what I had seen. I felt an inner sureness it was real. I had just seen my father, not in this physical world, but somewhere and he was being treated in a hospital. And this man in the maroon robe. I could still feel his love. And I remembered his disappointed in me.
I feel back asleep trying to fit my experiences into some picture I understood. I flew in my dreams. Effortlessly I speeded over trees and flatlands. I was going somewhere. I was on a mission which I knew well.
It was eight o’clock when I awoke. The flying dreams stayed with me, but not the mission. I thought of Dad in the orange hospital. The lingering feeling of love stayed with me. Then I remembered Chris. I was supposed to be at the Martin’s in an hour.
I called Chris and felt relieved to catch him at home. I told him about my father’s death and that I needed to go back to Evansville today. Chris was stunned. He had trouble saying anything intelligible for a long moment. Finally he said how very sorry he was and I knew he meant it and that he felt deeply what was happening with me. He said not to worry about work, he could get Arthur to help him finish the job if I was not able to come back in the next few days. When we hung up the phone I think we both were crying. I know I was. I was feeling Dad’s death, but I was also touched deeply by how much Chris cared.
The morning blurred by. I did whatever I needed to do to get on the road. Cathy’s line was busy. I tried three times over fifteen minutes, then decided to just go. By 11:00 am I was driving across Illinois on I-64 for the second time in three days. The trip was not as suspenseful as the first, but it was heavy with sadness and sharp bursts of grief.
I thought a lot about my father and what he must have been going through his last day and evening. I wondered what had happened, exactly. I thought about seeing him in the orange hospital. I felt a ready, even automatic, acceptance of existence beyond what my five senses told me. It came from some area deep within me that did not question things which felt true, even if my mind could not sort of the details. So my inner experiences were as real to me as the car I was driving through the winter barren corn fields of southern Illinois. Who I could share this with? Who I could tell about seeing Dad on Planet Orange? That was a different story.
Two hours later I pulled into the church parking lot behind Cathy’s house. I was barely out of the car when Nicky came running out of the house and into my arms. “Uncle Lee…” she said and began to cry. “Tell me Granddaddy’s not dead!” I held her tightly. I had no answer for her. She looked up at me and asked, “What happen? Why did Granddaddy die?”
I had no idea what Cathy had told her, so I said, “I wish I knew, Nick.”
Nick and I had been close since she was ten months old and Dad and I had her for two weeks while Cathy was going unstable times with John. Nick had slept in a crib in my room and I became substitute Mommy, changing her diapers, feeding and playing with her. But she was Dad’s little princess. She responded to his attention over the years with a precious personality. Nick was a great kid, though spoiled by her Granddaddy. I knew she would take his death hard.
We walked to the house and through the back door arm-in-arm. Cathy was sitting at the kitchen table, with the phonebook open. She looked up. “Nice to see you bright and early,” she said.
“Hey, I thought you said…”
“Oh, I don’t mean anything, Lee. This has just been a very shitty morning. You want something to eat?”
“I called before I left, but the line was busy.”
“I was talking to Mother. Sandwich? Milk?”
“I’ll make Uncle Lee a sandwich,” Nicky said brightening up.
“Nick I would rather you help April put away the laundry like I asked you to. OK…?” Cathy’s voice had an edge to it, but I could tell she was trying hard to be nice to Nicky.
After Nick left, Cathy had a ham sandwich on the table for me and was pouring milk before I could hang up my coat and hat and sit down. Maybe I was just moving slowly. “Little ears,“ Cathy said, “They are everywhere and they hear everything.”
“What have you told Nick?”
“Just that Daddy died in his sleep and we don’t know why yet.” I did not like the idea of hiding the tRuthy about Dad from anyone, especially Nicky. She loved him so much she was entitled to know what had happened.
“John and I feel that certain little persons,” then whispered, “especially Nicky…could not understand it. Maybe take it personally.” I had not considered Nicky blaming herself for Dad’s suicide. “Mother agreed.”
Dad and Cathy were my primary family. My allegiance began with them. When they were not speaking it was really hard for me. With the girls or Johnny I supported Cathy and usually kept my mouth shut. With Dad gone this feeling of loyalty to her was stronger than ever. So I let pass the issue of what Nicky was told.
“You said you were talking to Mom this morning? That’s amazing.”
“Yes it is. She called me. And she was great on the phone. None of her normal running my life. She’s flying in tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? She is?” My jaw must have dropped because Cathy looked at me and laughed.
“That was a priceless look, little brother. It’s going to be a zoo, here. And I have been talking with Joyce this morning and calling funeral homes.”
“What’s happening, anyway? What happened?”
“That’s a conversation for another place. Finish your sandwich and you can take to me the bakery. I could use an éclair. I’ll tell you there.”
“All right.” I listened as Cathy went into the girl’s room and bargained with them to stay home while we went “shopping”.
Once in my car, we drove out of her neighborhood to Washington Avenue then the couple miles to Washington Square Mall and her favorite bakery. Cathy had a serious sweet tooth and a slim figure, a combination which amazed and annoyed many of her friends. We didn’t talk much on the way. Cathy and I always enjoyed being together by ourselves, enjoyed the freedom, enjoyed being away from the ever-present family hassles.
Sitting at the little round white table at the back of the store, the bag of éclairs and long johns ripped open, half-pint cartons of milk in front of us, mine chocolate, Cathy told me what she knew. “Something is not right, Lee. Joyce acted very strangely last night. Very strangely. Once we got into the house, she would not go back to the bedroom. She made John go. Poor Johnny, he looked sacred to death. At first he said he didn’t see anything, then he saw Dad’s feet on the floor sticking out from behind the corner of the bed. When John came back out he was white as a sheet.”
“Where was Joyce?”
“She waited in the living room. She was very calm. Too damn calm. Then she called this cop.
“A cop?” Why?”
A friend of hers, she said. Well he was there in about a minute. He must have been waiting around the corner. Though I don’t know how she called him.”
“Maybe she called the police station and they radioed him.”
“Maybe. Anyway, he came, went back to where Dad’s body was, then they went into the family room and talked by themselves for several minutes.”
“What were you and John, doing?”
“We were in the living room. God it was horrible, Lee. I never wanted to get out of some place so much.”
“Then what happened?” Both of us had stopped eating.
“Joyce comes out of the family room with this cop trailing behind her. He comes over to talk to John and Joyce heads to the bathroom. After a minute I followed her.”
“To the bathroom?”
“Yes, I mean no. She had the door open. I looked in and she was cleaning out the medicine cabinet. She was wiping blood off the bathroom sink.”
“Yes.” Cathy looked at me. I felt my guts slowly ripping apart. “Oh, Lee. I’m sorry. I’m being so clinical about this. I’ve had a few hours to get used to this. You haven’t.” My sister is also tougher than me. She continued, “Daddy cut his wrists in the bathroom with a knife from the kitchen, we think, then he wiped off the knife with toilet a paper which he then threw in the bathroom wastebasket. There was some blood in the sink. He then went to the bedroom, laid the knife on his nightstand and evidently collapsed as he was taking off his shorts. He was found lying on the carpet beside his bed with his shorts down around his ankles. There was a pool of blood on the purple carpet.
I let Cathy’s word sink in, seeing the image my mind. I was struggling to get through the awful feelings inside of me, but it did not feel right to me.
Cathy put her hand on mine. “I know this is hard, Lee.”
“Yeah.” I pushed down my feelings and wiped my eyes. “What does not make sense to you?”
“Joyce’s behavior. She told me on the phone this morning that Daddy had awakened her early this morning wanting to know where his gun was.” She told him she didn’t know. Then she said she got up and gave him two packets of anti-depressant and told him, “You can take these, they won’t hurt.”
“She what?” My voice jump a couple octaves and was loud. Some people a few tables away stared at us. “She said what?” I hissed.
“Joyce gave Daddy anti-depression prescription pills before she left for work. She gave them to him as a way to kill himself since the gun was gone.”
“Wow! This is weird. Why would she… How did she get prescription drugs?”
“Well, at work, where do you think? She’s an X-Ray technician at Deaconess, you know. She probably can get any drug she wants.”
“Oh, right.” I had never paid to much attention to what Joyce did except how it affected Dad. I drank some chocolate milk without realizing it. “You said he used a kitchen knife?”
“Yes, a big one with a white handle.”
“Have you ever looked at their kitchen drawers?” Cathy shook her head. “Last summer when I was there, I had dinner with them.”
“Yes, they must have just gotten the new stove. Instant stuff mostly. She puts sugar in the mashed potatoes. Couldn’t believe it. Anyway Dad made a fuss about clearing off his model stuff from the dining room table, so I helped by setting the table. Cathy their kitchen cabinets are stuffed full with all kinds of crap. Don’t’ see how they find anything. And the silverware drawer. It was full. Level full with silverware. Several different sets all mixed together. You know Daddy never touched anything in the kitchen ever, except to get something to drink. And especially since he moved his piano into the family room. Cathy I think if you walked into their house last week and asked Daddy for a kitchen knife he would take five minutes to find one—if he even could. I can’t see him going to the kitchen in what must have been a hellish time for him to get a kitchen knife. He would have used his Xacto. He used it all the time to sharpen pencils. Hell, he knew that knife—and where it was—better than he knew his toothbrush. And it was either in the bedroom on the desk or on the piano in the family room—all the time.
Cathy looked at me, then said, “You’re right. I saw his knife on his nightstand after the coroner left, right next to the kitchen knife.” We let these thoughts soak in for a minute. “Another thing which doesn’t make sense is the toilet paper used to wipe the blood off the knife.”
“You mentioned that.”
“We found them in the wastebasket under the sink. The double bunch of toilet paper which had blood on it. John showed it to the coroner.”
“I bet that got his brain working overtime.”
“Oh, John is just cooked over this, Lee. It really weirded him out. As much as he and Daddy did not get along, John did not want to see him dead. He doesn’t trust Joyce.”
“You think she had something to do with this?” I asked not liking any of this.
“Well, who would know where to get the knife for Daddy? Who would wipe the blood off the knife? Daddy? I don’ think so. He was in the process of killing himself. And he wasn’t Mr. Neat anyway. You know that.”
“Yes, Dad wouldn’t do that. You think Joyce… What do you think Joyce did?
“John and I think she helped Daddy kill himself..”
“Wow. Is that illegal?”
“Who gives a shit. I’m just trying to understand what happened, Lee. There have been times when I would have been more than happy to help him kill himself. Joyce and he had some dark energy going between them. And I think they both contributed to it.”
“Holy shit. What do we do now?”
“Go back home and don’t say a word about this to anyone.”
“Of course, not. We would look like horrible people accusing Joyce of something we could not prove. Can’t change a thing now anyway.”
“OK.” I really did not know what to think. But I did agree with Cathy about the weird energy Dad and Joyce had cooked up. The best approach at the moment for me seemed to stay clear of whatever they had going on. Dad was dead. And recovering, hopefully, on Planet Orange.”
“We need to get the girls some ice cream and be home before John wakes up. That’s was my bribe to leave them at home. God, I sound like a horrible mother, don’t I.”
“Johnny is still in bed?”
“Lee, we were up most of the night talking about this. I am walking in a trance right now. Probably going to fall asleep on my feet before it gets dark. Oh, yeah, another thing. John and I are going to the funeral home at 4:00 o’clock to make the arrangements with Joyce. Do you want to go?”
I looked at my sister and thought she looked pretty good for not sleeping much. Her mind was sharp, too. And, no I did not want to see Joyce or pick-out a casket. “We are not going to cremate him? Hadn’t we talked about that before?”
“Well you and I had. But Daddy and Joyce had not. And she still is his wife.”
“I thought she filed for divorce.”
“Filed, yes, she said. But the divorce papers were not at the house that we could see. Another strange thing. Would not matter, though. She is legally his wife until a divorce is finalized.
There were so many things I had not considered, so much my sister was dealing with. “You are really doing great, Cathy. Sleep or no sleep. I would not have thought of half the things you have.”
“Oh, don’t be modest. We are just wired differently. I’m naturally drawn to the macabre. John is too. Let’s get out of here.” Cathy was uncomfortable with complements.
We picked up some cherry and vanilla ice cream for the girls. I paid. Cathy usually did not have any money unless she has just raided Johnny’s wallet. But I didn’t mind. I would buy her anything she wanted as long as I had the money. We drove back down Washington Avenue in the heart of another dreary Evansville winter. Trees barren, rain drizzling and cold-to-the-bone feeling, though not quite as cold as St. Louis.
I wondered why I still lived in the Midwest. I knew of course, it was because of Dad. Cathy and the girls and my various friends were mobile, at least in my mind. No one had pulled at me to come back when I moved to Colorado. Of course Cathy and John soon followed, settling in Denver for a couple years, about 60 mile south of where I was going to school in Greeley. But we only saw each a few times a year. We missed each other. I missed Cathy most of all, but it was OK. I did not feel incomplete because I could not see my sister everyday. And I knew if I lived in one place long enough Cathy and John would probably pass through for a month or a few years. But only Dad reached out and touched, reached out through the phone lines, no matter where I lived, and squeeze my guts to come home. He very clearly did not feel complete when I was away for very long. And I had a hard time doing something which I knew would make him feel abandoned.
Mother and Tommy and my two other sisters have lived in California for most of the past twenty-five years. Cathy had gone out there for her junior year of high school, but I had not been to California. I felt that I would be betraying my father to move to California. Maybe that would change at some point, now.
I did not stay too long at Cathy’s. I sat with the girls as they ate their ice cream and heard about school stuff. They fussed with each other. Cathy scolded them twice. John got up. It was time to leave. I called Dolfie at work. As I was asking him if I could stay at his house, I realized I had not told him about Dad. “I heard about your Dad, Luby. Sure sorry.”
“How did you hear?” I was amazed.
“Evansville’s a small town, Lube and there are not too many jazz composers living here. Especially ones who dress like your Dad, drives a convertible Mustang and marries a woman half his age. Bill Barnett is well known in Evansville.”
I had no idea.
“I’m sure it will be fine with Becky. I’ll let her know. She gets home by five and I will be there soon after that. So sorry about Bill, Luby.” Dolfie’s afternoon schedule left me with almost three hours to fill.
As I was about to leave, Cathy asked me again if I wanted to go with them to the funeral home at 4:00 o’clock. I told her I would pass, which was all right with her. I could have gone, but I felt she did not need me there and I did not need to be there. I was not particularly anxious to see Joyce either. “But please call me when you get home,” I said.
“Of course. We’ll be fine.”
She then remembered the envelope and went into her bedroom. Returning moments later, she said, “Here, I almost forgot,” and gave me a 9 x 12 manila envelope. In Dad’s neat, artistic handwriting my name was written on the front of the envelope in green ink with one of his music writing pens. “Do you want to read it now,” Cathy asked. “I have only looked at part of it. It’s not pretty.”
I looked at the envelope, then at my sister, then back again at the envelope. “Do you mind if I take it with me? Read it tonight?”
“No, not at all. But if it gets too hard, just put it away. Wait till tomorrow when you come over. OK?”
“OK. Thanks. Oh. Do you have Dolfie’s number?”
“Yes, I have it written down on my little pad.” Cathy thought my nickname for Dolf was cute. She usually laughed a little whenever I said his name.
“OK. Bye. I love you,” said and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
It was not hard to find somewhere to go, but it was strange not having a specific place where I was expected in Evansville. Whenever I visited I went from one friend’s house to the next. I could not go home, obviously. Only Dolf knew I was back in town and he was not available yet. I really did not feel like seeing anyone else and going to Dad’s house was unthinkable.
So I drove to Division Street and the River City Café, which was really a bar. It was not busy and the few people there were friendly and looked familiar, but I did not know any of them, thankfully. I slid into a corner booth, tossed my hat on the other side of the table and zipped my coat. I ordered a Molson from the waitress, when she came. She was cute.
After the beer came and I had a couple of drinks from the bottle, I opened the envelope. Inside were four typed pages, which began, “To My Son, Lee,” and continued, single spaced, without a typo. Dad had perfected the art of two-finger typing on the avocado green Smith Corona electric he gave me as my high school graduation present. He had given it to me early so I could finish a big term paper. The typewriter performed smoothly, I got an A on the paper, graduated and then Dad took over the Smith Corona. He was writing several letters every night, long, single-spaced letters with carbon, to his network of Formula Five Directors. The carbons were filed neatly in separate hanging folders. The racing organization withered away a couple years later in 1970, about the same time his attention turned again to writing music. I didn’t mind about the typewriter. He typed much faster on it than on his old manual and I got to choose its replacement, a thirty year old Royal in a square, black travel case. I loved it and it felt perfect for me when I took it with me to college.
I took another pull on my beer and began reading Dad’s last letter.
To My Son, Lee,
When you read this I will be dead. I have made my peace with God and am surrendering to His Almighty Judgment. The past months have been extremely hard for me in a very personal way I hope you never experience. My trusted wife Joyce has betrayed me. I have tried to make her repent, but she is under the spell of the Satan and is doomed to burn in the eternal fires. This grieves my heart greatly, but I cannot change her. I have tried.
When you came to me with your anger on Sunday I tried to tell you I had passed God’s test. You seemed to not want to hear about my achievement. You seemed to not love me anymore.
I turned my face to the wall of the booth as my tears ran down my cheeks. “Oh Daddy…” I whispered through my tears to no one. “How could you think so, how could you…” After about a minute of my gut churning, I blew my nose, took a deep breath and continued. Cathy was right. This was a hard.
Lee you have been a model son for most of your life. You have given me very little trouble, unlike your sister. As father and son we have shared wonderful times playing golf, bowling and especially racing karts. You have made me proud of you on numerous occasions. I have watched you grow from a young boy into manhood. I wish you would cut your hair, I think you would be looked at better by others if you did. But a son does not always do what a father wants him to do.
I was never more proud of you than when you won the World Championship racing against drivers older than you. Little Lee performed and acted like a true champion, driving flawlessly and never letting success go to your head I know you don’t like for me to call you Little Lee anymore, but it is a name dear to me, my son.
I wish I could be around to see you have a family. But my life is over. I refuse to live with an unfaithful wife. Joyce had brought me the most bitter pill I could imagine. I wish her only the hottest flame and the eternal damnation she deserves. I tried to save her.
Your sister Cathy has been kind to me lately. That has been nice of her. Even John has tried to be civilized, even though he is far below her and she should never have married him. I hope God smiles on Cathy. As she is not my daughter, it is unfortunate that I have had to raise her under false pretenses. There is no doubt in my mind that she is Russ Jacobson’s daughter and where ever he is he should be burning in Hell, too. Your Mother is not to blame for her indiscretion which produced Cathy.. We were too young and I offered her no guidance. I should have listened to my father when I was younger. I left the Church when I young and foolish. That I have only found it again recently is a testament to the folly of youth.
I sat back and took a deep breath. My father had become religiously crazed. For all his adult life that I had known him he had shunned church and any religious teaching. Wow. The waitress came by, smiled sweetly, and asked if I wanted another beer. I said “Yes,” and ordered a cheeseburger, too. She seemed to be flirting with me.
I looked back at the letter again and sighed. A big sigh. My poor Dad. He had gotten seriously warped in a very short time. The waitress brought the new beer with a big smile. I smiled back, though I had trouble imagining talking to her. “Hi my name is Lee Barnett. My farther just killed himself and maybe my stepmother who was cheating on him helped him do it. My guts are roadkill, I am almost broke and haven’t been laid for months. How is your day going?” Oh, yeah, I was good relationship material all right.
I was near the bottom of page two and plunged into it again. “Not pretty,” was an understatement.
Dear Little Nicky has been a sweet Princess for her Granddaddy. I wish she had a happier home life. I have tried my best to make life better for her. She, though, is only a couple years from puberty and I do not wish to be here when she goes though that transition. Her mother gave be such fits as a teenager. She had been my sweet Princess, too as a little girl—even if she was not my daughter. Which means Nicky is not my granddaughter. This burns my hearts horribly.
I refuse to go through with Nicky what I went through with her mother.
It is time for me to go. To you my Son, Lee, I leave what little money and things I have, except I request that you give to Nicky something meaningful for her to remember me by and some money when she needs it. I leave the rest of my estate in your hands, Lee. I hope what little I have to give you will be helpful. You are better off it with than I.
I will love you always, my dear son. Please look to Almighty God for your salvation.
Dad’s signature was in the middle of the third page. Below that he had made a listed of things for me to do, if I wanted to.
I turned the pages over on the table again and sat in the booth, stunned. Everything seemed surreal. Only a few days ago I was happily involved in my life in St. Louis, working with Chris, working on the studio, thinking about building some art again soon. I probably drank too often, my love life was pretty empty and money was tight as usually. But life was good. Now it sucked, big time.
Dad’s words were hard for me to accept. There was no doubt he had written them, but the thoughts behind them were filled with more bitterness and anger I knew was in him. Granted, he did not take responsibility for unpleasant family experiences. It was always somebody else’s fault. But, damn. His stuff about him not being Cathy’s father was just sick. Even if it was true, it was long past mattering. He had raised her, at least in part—and for better or worse we were family. “Christ,” I said to the empty booth, “He should have been shot for what he did.” I would sure as hell never let Nick read this letter. Poor kid. Her Granddaddy is dead and she is left in the dark.
The waitress brought my cheeseburger, but I had no smile for her. I just felt black. After a couple bites of the sandwich, I turned over the pages again and read through Dad’s instructions to me. On Saturday he had send out photos and text for an article he had promised the Model Railroader magazine about his N scale rolling stock. He gave me contact numbers for following up on the articles and told me to be sure they returned the photos. “Why? Who the hell cares now?” I wondered. Most of the information was about this music. He explained how he had organized his charts and where the copies and originals of each chart were stored in the house–as if I could not figure it out myself. He told me where to buy the oversize paper he used to print the charts. He told me how much I should pay and which copier he had found to be the best (North End Public Library, three blocks from his home). There was more, but I could not read it. I shoved the letter back into the envelope. “Christ on a raft! That son of a bitch, ” I hissed to the booth wall.
I finished my sandwich, paid the waitress and left. It was past five o’clock so I headed for Dolfie’s. When I got there Becky was home, but Dolf was not yet. She opened the door and immediately gave me a hug. Becky was always very sweet to me. “I am so sorry, Lee,” she said. “Gary told me. It’s such a waste.”
At that moment I was sure Dad had done the world a favor. But I didn’t want to dump my crappy feelings on Becky, so I just said, “Thanks Becky. It means a lot to me. You and Dolf.” She hugged me again and pulled me inside. “Here let me take your coat.” I had already stuffed my hat in my pocket.
Bunny hissed at me from the middle of the room. “Oh Bunny behave,” Becky said and took my coat to the hall closet. I glared at Bunny. If she had come closer my boot might have plastered against the nearest wall. Bunny must have picked up my mood, because she turned tail and zipped around the corner into the kitchen.
Dolf got home 30 minutes later. By then Becky had forced me to drink some hot chocolate and I had put a serious dent in bag of Chips Ahoy cookies. Beer and chocolate, my favorite combination. I was feeling a little more pleasant. Becky had asked me a lot of questions about Dad and as I stumbled through them, I realized I probably would be asked these same questions often over the next few days. I was quietly wishing for a beer to go with the cookies when Dolf, asked, “Luby. Want a beer?”
“Oh, bless you Dolf. Sure. Anything, but a single.”
Dolf chuckled and pulled two cans of Schlitz from the refrigerator. Becky made a mild protest about beer before dinner, but she was smiling.
“Schlitz? When did you start drinking this stuff?”
“A while ago. Not bad after you get used to it.”
I lifted the black can for a closer inspection—as if that would tell me what it tasted liked, took a swallow, and looked sideways at Dolf. “Very tasty…paint thinner.”
Dolfie laughed, “It’s not that Bad, Luby.”
“Tell him the tRuthy, Gary. He bought four cases because it was on sale.”
“I can see why.” We all laughed and I felt my heart lift. “It’s so nice to be here. I really love you guys.”
“We love you ,too, Luby. What’s going on?” Dolfie sat across the table from me, his tie pulled loose.
“Oh it just sucks, Dolf. My Dad…really went off the deep end.” I spent the next hour telling them about everything which had happened since Cathy’s phone call on Sunday. A long hour later, after we had talked it to death, Dolfie, said, “Happy Thanksgiving, huh, Lee.”
“No shit,” I said.
With impeccable timing, Cathy called at that moment. She told they had just come back from dinner—“I can’t face the kitchen right now, Lee…”—Joyce was still acting strangely, but they had finished the arrangements at the funeral home. She gave me the schedule and we agreed I would come over about 10:00 the next morning. After we said goodbye, I told Dolf and Beck, “Happy Thanksgiving is right. Tomorrow we spend in the funeral home telling everyone about why Dad killed himself. Friday is the funeral.” I shook my head. I was spinning inside. Anger, beer, chocolate and love from my good friends had me really going in circles. Actually the beer, anger and chocolate were spinning me. The caring from my friends was helping a lot.
I crashed early on the couch and slept through the night without being attacked in my sleep by Bunny or having any nocturnal adventures. I was up for a little while as Dolf and Becky left for work, then crashed again for a couple hours.
At a few minutes past ten the next morning I walked into my sister kitchen as presentable as I could reasonable be. I had showered, blow dried and brushed my hair and beard. I was wearing new blue jeans, clean black t-shirt, my best long sleeve denim shirt, calf-high earth boots, my fleece-lined corduroy jacket and my favorite hat, one I usually did not crumpled in my pocket. I felt ornery. This was not my idea of a way to spend Thanksgiving.
“Good morning. You look presentable. I feel like shit.” Cathy did not look her best, but she still put me to shame.
“What’s going on?” I said. She was in the kitchen by herself.
“Oh John’s still asleep, the girls’ are at Carolyn’s and…” Cathy put a hand to her face, “I just don’t think I can do this, Lee.” She started to sob. “Face all those people.” I put my arms around her and held her as she cried. It occurred to me that she was just now letting down from the nightmare of the past few days. It was not long until she quieted. Only rarely did my sister let down her emotional guard. When she did, it was not for long.
“I’ll be OK, Lee. Let me sit down. Do you want something…”
I hushed her. “I’ll take care of myself. You have been carrying a lot on your shoulders.” Seeing her vulnerable woke me up.
“It’s just so…shitty. Thanksgiving and all. He was so selfish. I could just kill him.”
“I think he saved you the trouble.”
Cathy laughed. That was a good sign. I realized I had been sleepwalking through our nightmare, letting Cathy do all the hard things. “Lee, I just don’ t think I can go to that funeral home today and face all those people who are going to asked what happened.” She looked at me. Her eyes were begging for help for somebody, but she was not going to ask me, her little brother. Cathy had taken care of me when I was little, feeding me crackers in my crib before either Mom or Dad got up, bringing me whatever her four-year imagination thought qualified as breakfast. She was still taking care of me.
“You don’t have too. I can handle the people.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I can do this. I probably know more of Dad’s friends than you do, anyway. What are the visitation hours?”
“1:00 o’clock to 8:00 o’clock. That would really help, Lee.” She was recovering already.
“John and I will come by, but …wait…” She looked like she had just eaten a cat. “I almost forgot Mother. She’s flying in this afternoon. Wouldn’t that have been awful if we left her at the airport and nobody picked her up.” Cathy laughed, then snorted, then became nearly hysterical. “God, Mother would kill me,” she said through her snorts and laughter. She would never speak to me again.” I was laughing at her as she jumped up with her one hand covering her nose and ran to the bathroom. Cathy had a truly morbid sense of humor.
She returned a couple minutes later. “That’s an image I’ll take to my grave, I swear. Mother flying in from San Diego and nobody remembering to pick her up.”
We sat at the kitchen table for a while longer, talking, holding hands some. As much as I was hurting because of my father’ stupidity, I had never loved my sister more. Cathy asked me about the envelope. Thinking about brought me down hard. “It is just awful, Cath. Did you read it.”
“Only the first half of page. Joyce wanted to see it, but I said we should wait for you. It was addressed to you. He was a sick man, Lee”
I did not have the heart to ask Jan if she had gotten to the part about her. “I think I should l just burn it.”
“Well…maybe. But not yet.”
Then John got up. He walked into the kitchen silently from their bedroom, his embroidered maroon bath robe lashed securely around his growing belly. John had been gaining weight for a couple years, since he career shift from rolling back speedometers at used cars to lots to buying and selling collectable junk. His specialty was buying. I decided I would hide the envelope in the little compartment of my car under the floor of the third seat.
“Good morning,” he said with a little smile. “Hi, Lee. Sure sorry about your Dad.” I was beginning to overdose on “sorry about your Dad.”
“Anything to eat, Cat.” He called my sister Cat, which really did not fit her.
“Of course John, would you like some eggies?” Cathy waited on John shamelessly, which seemed to make him happy. He was the one with no shame, I had decided years ago.
“Maybe just some coffee and a roll for now,” John said and sat down with us at the small table. Cathy stood up immediately. “It really weirded me out, Lee. Going over there with Cat and Joyce. Especially after the nice little visit we had with Bill the night before. He was actually pleasant.”
“Oh, John. Maybe Lee doesn’t want to hear about this now.” Cathy was fixing John a cup of instant coffee and heating up a plate of breakfast rolls which she had just pulled from a bakery sack.
I often did not listen closely to John, and I was not prepared to jump into a discussion about Dad with him at that moment. But I was interested and quickly decided that there would never be a good time, so I flipped my brain around and stepped back from the table emotionally. I said, “What happened that night when you went to Dad’s.” My question was the equivalent of opening the flood gates. John could talk people to death. Especially me.
John launched, “Well your Dad had been over seeing Nicky the night before and he and I never got along too good, which is not really my doing I can get along fine with him but he hasn’t like me since we, Cat and me, met and…”
“John, get on with it,” Cathy said. Her sudden sharpness with John surprised me because she usually pampered him with her voice.
John crossed his eyes at me for a moment and smiled a funny little smile. “Your sister thinks I talk too much.”
So do I—and half the rest of the world, I thought.
“…but she loves me anyway. Don’t you Little Kitty?”
“John…! Behave.” Cathy put the hot plate of rolls between us on the table and John’s coffee in front of him. A moment later a glass of milk appeared in front of me. I looked up to thank her and she waved me off, her expression saying there was no need for any thank you between she and I just then. Her eyes were full of love and concern about my interaction with John.
Cathy’s tone dimmed John’s smile. He took a big bite of roll and continued with a full mouth, “Anyway, it ain’t no secret that Bill don’t like me. Didn’t like me. So I was nervous going into his house. You can imagine. So, Joyce opened the door and we went in and right there in front of us was this picture of Nick and a big envelope. Cat did you give Lee the envelope?”
“Yes, John. Now get on with it.”
“You’ll have to tell me what Bill wrote sometime, Lee.” John winked at me. I wanted to puke. “So we turned on more lights. The little light just inside the front door was the only one on, you know, I always thought it was so cute.” He crammed another bite of roll into his mouth and drank some coffee. I did not see how he had room for even a few drops, but he held it and did not spill anything.
“Then Joyce kind of just fades to one end of the living room. She didn’t call out Bill or nothing, just hovered around in the corner near the TV. Ain’t that right, Cat?” Cathy agreed and John plowed on, “So I walked around the house a little calling out “Bill,” a little timid like, afraid any minute he was going to jump out from behind something and scare the crap out of me. As you can guess he didn’t. Anyway I finally moseyed down the hallway. The bedroom door was open. Cat was about a thousand feet behind me.” He paused for effect to wink at Cathy. “But we didn’t hear nothing. I turned on the hall light. Made both of us jump. Slowly I peaked into the bedroom. It was real dark in there. Those black shades on his windows really do the trick. Anyway I had no choice but to turn on the light. I felt inside the door and found the switch. Lee, I tell you, flipping that switch is about the last thing I ever wanted to do.”
I was with John every step of the way in my mind and throwing the switch was not something I would have wanted to do either. I felt both grateful to John for looking for my Dad and resentful that it was him, not me who had done so. I also felt depressed that someone Dad liked so little had been the one to find him.
John continued, “At first I didn’t see anything. The bed was a little messed up. Did you know his ceiling is black? I never knew that.”
I did not answer, but I knew. I had helped Dad paint it.
“So I was about ready to turn around and I heard Jan say, ‘Is he in there?’ when I saw a little flash of white from the floor. I guess it was just the way the lights played. Anyway I moved a couple steps in and saw feet sticking out from the end of the bed. On the floor. That’s when I said, “Oh-Oh.” Cat came up behind me and said, ‘What,’ I said, ‘I see feet on the floor,’ and she pushed me into the room farther. Which was not where I wanted to be. But I was starting to get curious and you know how I am when I get curious. Well I looked closer and sure enough the feet were connected to the rest of Bill, laying there kind of awkward like on the floor. Your Dad sure had white feet. And his butt was white, too. I know cause it was kind of sticking up in the air a little and his underwear where down. Like maybe he fell when he was taking them off, you know.”
John bit into his third roll and I sipped my milk. I had questions, but not the focus to ask them. I also was overdosing on John. I was starring at the table, just letting my thoughts run, when John started up again. He told me more than I wanted to know about how Joyce acted strangely and what the cop did and how long it took for the coroner to arrive. He said the coroner and the cop were back in the bedroom with Dad for a few minutes then the cop came out and he—John—when into the room. He said my Dad’s body was lying up on the bed on top of a black bag and he had no pee-pee. “What? What did you say?”
John leaned toward me and whispered “I said your Dad’s body had no pee-pee. You know, his thing was gone. Which really surprised me. It was just the way he was laying it was sort of obvious. Then the corner began zipping up the bag.”
“John, cut it out,” Cathy said from the corner of the kitchen.
“Well, I asked the coroner about it, of course, being the curious fellow I am. He told be it was standard procedure to prevent loss of body fluids. There is cavity right there which he had stuffed up Bill’s you-know-what into. Look like he didn’t have a…”
“Oh Christ, John…” I stood up and steep away from table. “I need some fresh air.”
“What did I say, Kitty? I just told him what I already told you.”
Cathy was trying to support me and calmed down John at the same time. She did not do either well. I got my coat and hat and headed for the door. “Cathy, I had better get to the funeral home.”
“Sorry about that,” she whispered to me at the door.
“Its’ OK. Let me know when you pick-up Mom, OK? Bye John.”
Cathy said she would call or stop by after they picked Mom. I left hearing John saying something from the kitchen, but I headed straight for my car. It was a cold day.
I started my wagon and pulled out of the parking lot, wanting to put some distance between myself and Dad and John. Of course I was heading to the funeral home where Dad’s body was laid out, so I would not be getting too far away from him. I was early so I turned east on Washington to take the long way around. About the time the heater warmed up, I decided to stop off for a burger. The east side of Evansville is more affluent that the north side, where I had spent my high school years. I was not a stranger to the area, but it did not feel very familiar either. I thought I remembered that there was a Wendy’s near Lincoln and Green River Road. The restaurant was where I thought it was and I used the drive through lane to order a double cheeseburger, then drove back around to the parking lot. I took off my coat and hat, kept the car running and ate slowly. I was not in a hurry.
Time dragged on. I wanted the day to be over. Hours later, it felt, I had finished my sandwich, yet still sat in the car, engine running and heater blowing. I had killed only about twenty-five minutes. Very reluctantly I shifted into drive and pulled out of the parking lot. As I drove down Lincoln Avenue I felt I was in a foreign land. A couple of miles and about twelve stop lights later I saw the mortuary sign on the left: Alexander Funeral Home – East Chapel. The sign was by the driveway entrance and reminded me of a lighted tombstone. I turn into the driveway with trepidation. As I parked near the entrance to the mortuary I saw another sign near the door, this one with movable letters, which listed people’s names. Dad’s was at the top: William M. Barnett, Viewing Today 12 noon to 8 pm, Memorial Service 10 am Friday, November 24, 1978. I was late.
I got out of the car and breathed in the cold air. The funeral home was a one story building with low white walls and big windows divided into small panes. The roof was dark, rose higher than normal and came down over the windows, almost meeting the near solid row of bushes which obscured the foundation. Everything about it was in perfect repair. Too perfect. It looked like a fairy tale house, a Grim Brothers fairy tale. I felt like the building was looking at out me through small slits. What a wonderful place for this nightmare, I thought.
I walked through front door and into a world of subdued lighting, plush carpet, intensely restrained décor, and heavily decorated hallways which ran in three directions. Another sign announce in which room Dad was hanging out. I had volunteered to do this, saving Cathy from what I knew would be torture for her, but I did not like it. If Dad had walked out of one of these rooms just then I would have given him a piece of my mind. Instead I followed the arrow below Dad’s name. I did not have the opportunity to wonder what was behind door number three, because it was wide open at the end of the hall. Flowers in tall urns stood guard in the double doorway. I walked into the room, my earth boots making little smush, smush sounds on the carpet, and took off my felt hat, stuffing it in my coat pocket.
The room was about half full. I tried to look around at faces, but the white and gold casket at the other end of the room held my attention. Flowers surrounded the hidden platform which raises the casket off the ground and tall floor lamps lit the ceiling above it. The right half of the casket was closed. The left half was open. I could see the white ruffled lining of the raised casket lid from across the room. Looking impossibly small, my father’s head lay in the middle of the white rufflely stuff, raised just above the side of the casket. I wanted to run both away and toward him. I wanted to curse him for what he had done. I wanted to crumble on the floor and cry. I wanted to hug him. And I wanted all the people to leave.
The first person who came over to me was the last person I wanted to see, Joyce. “Oh Lee. It is such a terrible thing,” she said giving me a big hug. I wanted to puke on her shoulder. I hugged her back enough to be polite, then pulled away. She continued, “Poor Billy. I am going to miss him so.”
“Which is why you were shacking up and had filed divorce papers, right, Joyce?” is what I wanted to say. Instead, I said, “Me too.”
“Mom, you remember Lee.” Joyce said as she dragged me over to a nearby chair.
“Hi Mrs. Phelps, how are you?” I said running on automatic pilot. I did not sit down. I was feeling pulled toward the front of the room.
“Oh, Lee it’s been such a difficult time.” Mrs. Phelps said, looking ashen and drained. I blathered some nonsense, then unfastened myself from Joyce and walked directly to the casket. I might have ignored some people on the way.
My father’s face was very familiar to me. Growing up I had looked up to him physically and emotionally. Seeing him so little during most of my childhood, I treasured the times with him, especially the weekends in Evansville during grade school. I hungered for my father’s presence. No matter what he was feeling or saying, I did not look away from him. I adored him until I was fourteen and a half. Even after then, when I had begun to see him more clearly, I still was drawn to him. Dad’s face was the hub of my world for a long time, even when it was the hub of the fan blades—his anger—which I hugged to be closer to him.
The face I looked upon now, nestled in the sea of white fluffy material, was no longer the face of my father. I could see how it was once him. I could see the pain he felt when he died, etched as it was on his nose and eyes and around his lips. His dark, almost black hair was combed neatly, but a little too sprayed looking. There seemed to be a small dent on his nose which looked like it had been filled in with make-up. I wondered if he had hit his nose when he fell by the bed.
Dad was dressed in a blue striped, double breasted suit coat, hip and stylish, not a business suit. Clothes were important to Dad. He had learned interior decorating in the late 1940s in his father’s furniture store in Mt. Carmel as the modern movement moved into the mainstream design world. Dad embraced the strong, muted colors and convinced his father to invest in a line of Herman Miller furniture. Dad did well in this world, his natural artistic eye let him leap ahead of the traditional decorating styles and create some remarkable interiors in the area.
Dad dressed like he chose colors for homes. Mustard pants and shoes, burgundy socks and belt and a yellow sports shirt a few shades lighter than the pants with thin green stripes was an everyday outfit for Dad. He had once told me about changing from zuit suits to narrow lapel sport coats and slim cut pants overnight in the early fifties, inspired by Fox Brothers tailors in Chicago, where he bought most of his clothes. When Dad found shoes or shirts or suits that he liked he bought three or seven of each, sometimes identical, sometimes nearly alike.
I was always drawn to Dad’s closet. It felt full and rich and reminded me of him. The coat and shirt I looked at now pulled over Dad’s body looked like it came from a fashionable, middle quality store, something I had seen him wear in the past year. Dad had become worried about money during the last fifteen years of his life.
His chest was pushed up a little too high, looking awkward. I looked down at how his hands were crossed, very unnatural. But the worst were his fingernails. Dad paid ongoing attention to his nails. When I was younger and Dad took me to the barbershop, he would sometimes get a manicure. At home when relaxing or watching television, he often had a long, Revlon diamond dusted fingernail file in one hand, patiently rounding finder nails on the other hand. He kept his nails groomed in graceful arcs, just approaching the tips of his fingers.
The hands I looked at in his casket had the nails chopped off square and not even filed. I struggled with my feelings about his appearance and, of course a lot more. I was startled to feel a hand on my shoulder and turned to look into the face of Rollie Lambkins, Dad’s barber.
“Bill doesn’t look too good, does he Lee.”
“No he does not, I said.” I had always liked Rollie. He was pleasant and kind, was usually chewing gum and always gave me a stick, but what I like the best is that Rollie Lambkins felt true. There was no bull about him.
He kept his hand on my shoulder and squeezed some. “What happened, Lee? How could Bill have wound up this way? I just can’t understand how he could have taken his own life? Bill was so full of life.”
Rollie was looking at me. I could see the hurt in his eyes, the need to understand. I could have given him a number of platitudes and no one would think less of me. But I had told Cathy I would handle talking to people and Rollie deserved the tRuthy. But what would I say? I did not want to turn Dad’s last act into a scandal. I took a deep breath inside and stepped off the cliff.
“Rollie, Dad lived life according to his own rules. He had so much talent.” I shook my head and looked down, fighting back tears. Rollie squeezed my shoulder again.
“I can imagine how you must be feeling, Lee. I don’t want to…”
“It’s OK, Rollie. I want you to know.” I snuffled a little and blew my nose on the old handkerchief in my pocket. I stuffed it in on top of my hat, then switched it to my other coat pocket. “He just could do so many things really well, Rollie. But I think he never bothered to grow up. He was so involved in his music or his trains or his stamps. Rollie he spent nearly two years making these beautiful model slot car bodies for me to race when I was fifteen. He was not a normal Dad.”
We both looked at Dad lying in his casket.
“Why did he take his life, do you think, Lee?“ Rollie said softly.
“I think he was backed into a corner, Rollie. At least he felt that way. Joyce had just left him and he was very worried about money. His music had not been selling as well lately.” I looked at Rollie and new I had not answered his question. “Deep inside he was a very troubled man. He got to a point where it was too hard for him to go on, I think Rollie.” This was hard. I knew Dad on a level I could not put into words, I knew him as a young warrior on the Mongol plains of Asia. I watched him die there. I knew of the deep losses he felt in this life. But I could not tell Rollie or anyone about those things. And when I got right down to it, I did not really know why Dad had made this stupid, stupid choice.
Rollie squeezed my shoulder again and said, “I’ll miss him, Lee. I’ll miss him.” There were tears in his eyes. He looked back at me again and said, with a twinkle through his tears, “And if you want to take care of this haircut problem of yours, come see. On the house.” He passed his fingers professionally through the ends of my hair as he lifted his hand from my shoulder. I did not want a haircut from anyone, but I longed to sit in his barber chair again with Dad waiting for me, reading the paper or talking to Rollie about the Aces game.
After Rollie left I stood looking at my father for a few minutes. Joyce hovered nearby, so I moved away to avoid her. A steady flow of people filled the next couple hours. I knew some of them, though not well, the rest were strangers to me. To no one else, after Rollie, did I give anything but a passing explanation of my father’s behavior. Everybody said how sorry they were. I had moved passed my overdose of “sorrys” and just nodded my head, agreeing, getting numb. No one asked how I was doing–which was OK.
There was a lull of new people coming in. I settled into a chair on the far side of the room and closed my eyes. Taking several long, slow breathes, I felt my energy settle downward as I relaxed. My father’s energy, a pulling, aching energy, swirled around me. I felt myself react to his pulling, felt my energy begin to drain. My stomach tightened and a familiar fear rose inside of me. I felt his anger lash me, hard, knotted whip against my tender feelings. I started to recoil in hurt.
Then I was a watching myself from near the ceiling. I looked down at my physical body sitting on the chair, a gentle light surrounding it. There were other lights in the room, some dim, some a little bright, but they all were beyond my focus. As looked at myself I felt something lift from me. I felt suddenly lighter and relieved of a burden. As this happened I saw a light within by physical boy form in my upper torso and head. It glowed, softly the color of a pale pink rose. My awareness expanded and I knew I had just stepped out of my emotional body, too. I became peaceful and calm. A gentle love flowed through me, similar to what I had experience looking into the eyes of the man in the maroon robe, but not as strong.
I watched as my father’s angry energy swirled throughout the room, grabbed at my heart center as I sat in the chair. I saw him on the inner both lying in the orange healing chamber and swirling around the funeral home. I followed the swirl of his energy and saw it centered not around me, but around Joyce. She stood near his casket talking a man dressed in slacks and sport coat. The light around Joyce was mostly a dark red, pulsing and laced with black and strong flashes of yellow-white light.
Dad’s energy, which I sensed but did not see as a color, swirled around and through Joyce. Her energy rose up and snapped at him like an ethereal dragon. He ripped back at her. They were at war, feeding off of each other. In contrast the angry energy Dad pulled at me with was an after thought.
In a moment, I was fully in my body, eyes open and aware that I needed to protect myself from Dad and Joyce’s craziness. I also realized I needed to go to the bathroom. Leaving the room felt great. I looked for a restroom and found it two hallways away. Afterwards, I looked outside the windows near the entrance at the parking lot and the gray November sky. I did not feel lost, but I did feel and alone.
About two o’clock Jan stopped by to tell me they were on their way to the airport to get Mom. Jan had come into the room briefly, agreed with a couple that Dad’s death was a tragedy, then snagged me and hauled me out of the room. Her face was stiff as she struggled to hold off her fears. We found an empty side room with a table and chairs.
“I thought the plane did get until 4:00 pm?” I said, happy to see her.
“Of course it does, but John has been about to pee his pants to see these white squirrels and the guy has been out of town. He’s waiting out in the car.”
“They’re stuffed white squirrels and are supposed to be quite rare.” Jan paused, then rolled her eyes and said, “I know they sound tacky and today and all…but that is John.”
I smiled. “It’s OK. I do know John.” I gave her a hug. “It’s nice to see you.”
“It’s nice to see you, too. How are you holding up?”
“All right, I guess. Getting a little hungry. It’s very weird in there.” I wished I could tell her about my experience, but I knew it would freak her out.
“Oh, you poor thing. We can run get you a sandwich.”
“No, that’s OK.”
“No. It’s not bother. You just stay right here and I’ll be back real soon.” Jan gave me a hug. “I love you. Be back soon.”
“Love you, too.” She was out the door quickly. I appreciated her going to get me something to eat, but I would rather she stayed a while.
There were two chairs in the main hallway, their backs against the wall. After watching Jan and John drive away through the window, and then watching the bare trees stand silently for a while, I sat down in one the chairs. Before I could weave my way through the events of the day and week, and settle into something to chew on, my world changed rapidly. Andi walked in the front door.
“Lee.” She said with clear intensity and rushed the few steps toward me. I was on my feet just as suddenly. We hugged full and deeply. There were two women in my life for whom I still yearned. Andi was the first. The spring of our junior year in high school we fell wonderfully in love. I had barely dated before her. She was beautiful, full of sparkle and had just gotten over her most serious boyfriend to date.
Feeling her in my arms brought back vivid memories of our close time together. Unfortunately, linked with those memories was the searing pain I felt when she broke up with me six months later. I had heard during school that she had begun dating a college guy. I could not bear the thought of being dumped. I spent second period that day, a Tuesday in October, writing her an awful letter of childish venom which I had then jammed it into my back pocket in case, when I saw her later, the rumors turned out to be true. I did see her and she admitted she had gone out with someone else. “Lee, I need security. I need someone who can provide me with security,” she had told me to justify dumping me. My heart crashed and my pain shot through fear, launching a deadly anger. I crushed the letter into her hand, told her I had written it in second period—timing was important to my teenage mind to avoid becoming the dumpee—raced down her steps and jumped into my father’s 1964 Mustang at the curb. I stomped on the gas as I released the clutch pedal and spun a tire-burning U turn in front of her house—’64 Mustangs burned rubber easily because of their light rear ends and healthy V-8 engines—and continued the burn as I rounded the corner. I hit 40 mph in first gear looking at the 12 foot high concrete wall across the upcoming T intersection racing toward me. The old Chrysler Plant had been shut down for several years, but it would still stop me. Moments stretched out as I approached the wall. I saw myself plaster against it, the car a mangled ball of fames, and did not care. But I knew Dad would be pissed. So, at the last second, I slammed on the brakes and jerked the steering wheel left, then right precisely, coming to a screeching stop sideways in the crosswalk. What shred of security I might have offered Andi was torched that early fall afternoon as she watched me scream away. I then turned the car around with in a quick reverse and sped off, relatively sanely, crying harder than I had ever cried before in my life.
Andi and I had seen each other in passing in the eleven years since then, talked some, almost became close again once, but never really repaired our hearts. I still ached for our closeness in the hidden stillness of my heart. Holding her at that moment in the funeral home, feeling alone and reeling from Dad’s craziness, my love for her rushed to the surface.
She pulled back some and looked at me. “Oh, Lee, you look terrible,” she said.
I smiled. “It’s nice to see you, too,” I said and we almost laughed. She stroked my cheek. I led her to the private alcove and we sat. I wished for a couch so we could cuddle, but she held back from me some. I seem to attract women who can choose to not be close to me, even when they want to, when it is in their best self-interest to remain apart. I am more likely to jump where my heart leads me, though it was impossible then and would be very difficult for another twenty years, for me to know the difference between love and need.
We talked gently. I calmed my desire for her. Andi was married for the second time. Her daughter Angela was starting school and even though Andi gave hints that all was not well with Keith, her new husband, she seemed very married. I did not want to upset her family life, even if I could, so I slowly pulled back my yearning for our closeness. That visit with her at the funeral home was the best time we had spent together in years. Andi and Dad had know each fairly well and got along great. She was sad with me for his death. We did not get into the weird things behind it. Andi has lost her father several years before she and I met in high school and I knew it had affected her greatly. But I had not really known. Sitting with her in the funeral I began to appreciate her feelings more.
Andi was not able to stay very long. When she said she had to go, I of course understood, yet I wanted to her stay longer. So I hugged her in a warm, but not pulling way, and thanked her for coming. I walked her out to the car and then waved good-bye as she drove off. Like a revolving door, Jan and John drove in before I could remember what to do next. They pulled up next to me and Jan rolled down her window.
“What are you doing standing out here in the middle parking lot without your coat and little hat? You’ll catch your death of cold,” Jan said.
”That sounds like something grandmother would say,” I said, just reporting the facts, not quite still there.
“Oh, you make me feel awful old, Lee. Shame on you.” She was pretending to be insulted. “Here we got you a little something to eat, she handing me a McDonald’s sack. “Sorry it took so long. The line at McBurb was so long.”
“Thanks,” I said and looked in the bag. I was hungry and feeling suddenly chilled.
“Are you OK? We need to go see John’s white squirrels. The guy lives out by the airport, so we can still get Mother on time.” Jan snorted with laughter. “Unless we forget her. Oh, I’m just awful.” Changing subjects rapidly, she continued, “Anyway are you going to be OK? How it sit going in there. Oh I just dread going in there.”
I thought about telling her about Andi stopping by, but decided not to. “I’m OK. People come, people go. Are you bringing Mother back here?’
“Oh Lord, I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about that.” Jan turned to John and asked him what he thought. I heard Johnny say we should ask Mom what she wanted to do. Made sense to me. John had his good points on occasion. “OK, we’ll do that,” Jan said. “We’ll come back, Lee a little later, though, God knows I would like to avoid it.”
“Don’t rush. I’m fine and thanks for the food.” They drove off and I hurried back inside. I was feeling cold.
Inside the front door, I realized that the spell of fries and burgers did not fit seem to fit in a funeral home. I quickly ducked into the small room and close the door. As I slowly ate the burger, fries and drank the chocolate shake, I wished Andi were sitting next to me. After we had broken up that October day, I had been miserable. Seeing her in school was torture. Two days later, I got out of school early and, with Dad asleep trusting that I would be back with his car by mid-afternoon, I completely lost my head and decided I had to drive to California to see Mom. At that point, when I was seventeen, I had not seen her for fifteen years.
Driving from Evansville to San Francisco is not a casual project. But I drove out of Evansville with fourteen dollar in my pocket. Even though gas was thirty cents a gallon, I knew it would not get me very far. So I headed to Mt. Carmel to find my old buddy Tim, and borrow forty bucks. Tim played in a rock band and usually had some extra money. But I could not find him. Spirit must have intervened because he late told me he would have loaned me the money and I probably would have become stranded in Kansas. So I went to Ernie Barker’s office. He was Dad’s old buddy from childhood and a kind man with a family we had visited periodically growing up.
I found Ernie in his office and he took 45 minutes out of his busy day to listen to me teenage tale of a broken heart and my discontent with Dad’s anger. Ernie talked me out of going to California, mostly by listening to me. By the time I left him, and thanked him profusely for his time, I knew I was acting irrationally. I drove back to Evansville, stopped to get some gas, so the gas gauge would not reflect the unplanned miles and arrive home on time to find Dad in the bathroom brushing his teeth. We went for his breakfast, my afternoon snack, at the center and I told him nothing about my heartache or aborted plans to see Mom.
Falling in love with Andi had opened a deep well of old hurt and need in me for the love and nurturing I had missed as a kid. But I understood only the feelings then, which would continue to rock my world periodically. As I sat in the little room, my self restraint about Andi slipped away and I stepped off into a deep yearning to hold her again.
Swiping at my beard with the last napkin, I stuffed papers and cups into the McDonald’s bag, balled it up tightly and tossed it in the small wastebasket in the corner of the room. I had no idea what time it was as I emerged from the little room.
Walking back into the viewing room where Dad was on display felt like walking into the Twilight Zone…again. I was an emotional fruitcake. Joyce was talking with her mother and a well-groomed man in his forties on one side of the room. Dad was still in his casket, not far away. I veered away from them and found myself walking toward to a couple I knew well.
“Lee. Is that you?” the woman said and gave me a hug. “You don’t look so well, dear. This must be so hard for you. Virgil and I are so, so very sorry about your father. Such a tragedy.” She stepped back from me to hold her husband’s hand. “Virgil is taking this really hard, aren’t you dear?” Virgil and Thelma Syrup owned the second most popular restaurant on Dad’s itinerary, The Merry-Go-Round. I had eaten there thousands of times, it seemed. Virgil often came out of the kitchen visit with us at our table. He gave me my first job in the summer of 1966 as a busboy. He cooked. Velma ran the register and managed the waitresses. I earned $1.25 per hour, spent the money on slot-cars and was not especially thrilled with working. But Virgil and Thelma were very nice to me, even when Virgil cut off the tips of two fingers on the meat saw. I had known them as a customer since I was a young boy, Little Lee, drinking chocolate shakes and eating ketchup covered fries. Virgil had been of the first people do drop the “Little” from my name, which endeared him to me deeply.
As I looked at Virgil, I saw that he was taking Dad’s death hard. Virgil’s lower lip was quivering and his eyes looked about to tear. He extended his hand and I gripped it. “I just… never…thought Bill would…”
It was clear he could not finish his sentence, so I plunged ahead with my job for the day, explaining why Dad did what he did. I gave Virgil and Thelma a modestly edited version of recent events. Most of Dad’s friendships had a connection to his ongoing stream of projects. He got to know Clyde at the printers really well at the printers over the years. Bill Fritz was a great welder. Arnie somebody and he spent a winter building fiberglass formula five body molds. And through all of this he ate out two or three times a day. Virgil and Thelma were major suppliers of a much needed ingredient for all of Dad’s projects, food. I felt Dad I owed this people a reasonable explanation of why Dad had taken his life. I avoided all Joyce issues, thought hey knew her well, too, and focused on how Dad had lived his life, his music business downturn and his feeling of failing health. Dad slept poorly, ate little home cooked food, kept a schedule completely out of harmony with nature, and yet except for being tired a lot, seem to have a strong constitution. But would never go to a doctor, but complained about his health often. So I used it to strengthen my explanation of why Dad offed himself.
Virgil and Thelma nodded at lot as I talked. Finally I just stopped. They nodded a little more. Virgil wiped his eyes and blew his nose. It was hard to look into his eyes. He always had a kind expression in his eyes, but now the hurt was so clear in them, it was hard to look into them. I noticed how his skin was pink and creased around his eyes. I guessed Virgil did not get out in the sun too much. At that moment I was desperate for any thoughts to take me away from his—and my—pain.
We said good-bye and they drifted by Dad in his casket, then over to Joyce to give her their condolences, but did not stay long. I watched them leave the room. I wished I could go with them.
The room was getting fuller. I spoke to a few more people whom I did not know too well. I saw the Tombaughs nearby and felt sadder as I went over to them. Mr. and Mrs. Tombaugh were old friends of Dad whom we visited when I Jan and I were younger. Their kids, Eddie and Jennie were older than Jan and I. We would just visit, never do anything. Mostly Dad would bring them up to date on his current project. Nice people. Sane people. Friends of Dad’s from Mt. Carmel, from a long time ago, but who did not know about his anger and current craziness and would not understand what Dad had done. To tell them what I wanted to tell, the tRuthy about Dad, would be upsetting beyond words and not a kind thing to do. Maybe I was wrong, but my instincts told me I should give them edited version.
Eddie was working in Oklahoma, so only Jennie Tombaugh accompanied her parents. I mostly looked into her eyes as I spoke to her and her parents. She had deep brown eyes full of kindness and warmth. I felt drawn to her. After I finished talking about Dad, Jennie asked me how I was doing. I told OK, that I was fine. She reached out and rubbed my shoulder briefly, reassuringly. Her parents looked so sad. Sheldon had sad looking eyes anyway. It was hard for me to keep standing there with them, even though they felt so warm.
Jennie hugged me when they left. I almost burst into tears. But I did not. I sucked up my feelings, something I rarely bothered to do, and looked around for the next set of Dad’s friends to talk with. Instead I saw Jan, John, Dolf, Becky and Tim and Janice walk through the door in one group. Whoa. I went into overload. They did not know each other well at all, but they came up to me in one group. Jan gave me a hug.
“How are you holding up,” she said.
I felt split in three parts. These were people I gave all of myself to and I was a little bit different person with each pair. They were fine with me no matter how I was, but I was reeling.
“I’m OK,” I said. “It’s been an intense afternoon.” I was surprised I could talk.
“Do you need anything, Lube?” Tim asked. Tim was a natural leader, but he was also sensitive to being among people he did not know well. I felt him reaching out to me, though careful to not bulldoze anyone.
With friend around, I felt my guard lower. My eyes teared up. My lips quivered. I could not speak. I felt like Virgil Syrup. Suddenly I was surrounded by arms and comforting words. I almost broke down. My tears ran down my cheeks in a strong burst, then stopped. There too many people in the room and I felt too vulnerable to let my feeling out any further.
We sat down near the back of the room. Dolf squeezed my shoulders from behind. Slowly Jan began talking with Tim, Janice, Dolf and Becky. John remained quiet. Thankfully. Tim and Janice asked a few questions about Dad, but did not probe deeply. They knew they would get the full story from me sometime soon. Dolf shared a few things he knew about my Dad. The conversation around me helped calm me.
Then I suddenly remembered. “What about Mom?” I asked Jan.
“We got her all right. We did not forget her.”
“How is she? Where is she?”
“She’s with the girls at home.”
“Oh.” I though for a moment, my brain working better as my emotions subsided a little. “Well, I though she would come her.”
“We talked about that, Lee,” Jan said. “Mom and agreed that there was no need to for her to come here tonight. She may come to the service tomorrow.”
“OK,” I said and thought for a moment. “OK, makes sense. As long as Mom does not feel left out.”
“Mom’s cool. She’s in real good shape,” Jan said.
“If you all want to, after here I mean,” John suddenly came to life, “You really out to see these white squirrels I just scored. They are really…”
“John! Not now!” Jan almost shouted, then got her voice in control. “That’s a horrible thing to say now.” I rolled my eyes and looked around the room. Jan then said, “Can you come with me for a minute, Lee.”
I felt badly about leaving everyone with John. My four friends each said it was fine for me to go, in their own ways, so Jan and I got up and walked to the front of the room. Joyce came over to us immediately and I could see Jan stiffening. They exchanged words without saying anything. Joyce seemed to want something from Jan. I watched feeling uneasy.
Jan told Joyce they could talk later and that she wanted to look at Dad with me at that moment.
“You do?” I asked.
“Of course not,” she hissed to me. “It’s the last thing I want to do, but it’s all I could think of to get away from her.” Force to move to get away from Joyce, we were slowly heading for Dad and his casket. “Well, shit, let’s get it over with,” Jan said as we approached Dad.
We stood at the casket, side by side, Jan on my left nearest Dad’s head. I took her hand as we stood here. I was not in good shape, but I knew inside, deep inside, Jan was quaking. Finally she said, “God, Lee. He looks awful. This is barbaric. This is just horrible. No matter how angry I feel at the man, having him displayed like this is unspeakable.” Jan was good at finding diversions to avoid talking about her feelings. I just squeezed her hand.
We stood there a little longer. “I can’t take this, Lee. I wish this was all over.”
“You can go home. I will finish up here tonight. Then there is only tomorrow,” I said. Wondering how I would get through it.
“Oh. God, tomorrow. I think I need a drink.”
“Speaking of drinking, how was Mother.”
“Three sheets to the wind. What do you think? She was not about to miss the free drinks on the plane, I can tell you that. We could not bring her here, she would have caused a scandal.”
“Oh. I had not thought of that.”
“I have just a little more experience with her than you do. We left her with the girls. She should be OK. She probably will be sleeping when we get back.”
“Go home. And take Johnny with you. Please. I love you dearly. And I can handle this.” I felt stronger and clear realize what Jan had to deal with.
“Oh, John. Those squirrels are just awful. They look like rats with fake tails stuck on them. John bought three for $25 each. Swears they are white squirrels. Oh, I get the shivers just thinking about them.”
Jan did not have to be asked to leave twice. She agreed to go and I hugged her goodbye at the door to the viewing room. Then I walked back to where Tim, Janice, Dolf and Becky were sitting.
“Are you OK, Lube?” Dolf asked.
“Yeah. Fine.” I said down in from of them and turned the chair around.
“Your brother-in-law is a little unusual,” Becky said. She had not met John before.
“He’s insane. I told you that,” Dolf said to his wife, barely smiling.
“I about slugged him,” Tim said, seriously
I looked at Tim, amazed. I had never know him to even come close to violence.
“John said some not very nice thing about you, Lee and you Dad.” Janice said. “None of us liked it or him at all. If he had not left when he did, we probably would have.”
“He’s an asshole,” Tim said.
I took a deep breath. “Yes, he is. He is mostly annoying. I’m sorry he upset you. Dad despised him. Thought my sister could have done much better.”
“Anybody could have, Tim said.”
I tapped his knee. “Thanks for defending my honor, old buddy. I love my sister. She loves him, for whatever reasons. What Dad never could see is that he did not give enough support to Jan for her to feel good enough about herself to think she could attract a better guy than John. Her first husband wasn’t much to write home about either.”
Janice ended the subject, by saying, “How are you really doing, Lee.” My close buddies call me Lube or Luby, but no one else does including Janice and Becky. I never minded.
“I’m…fried. I think.”
“I can imagine,” Tim said. “You feel like talking about your Dad?”
“You don’t need to, Lee,” Janice said, reaching out to me.
“No, it’s OK. I would like to tell you. Dolf and Beck know most of it.” We looked at them at they nodded.
Dolf said, “It’s pretty crazy. You are holding up well, Lee.”
“Thanks, Dolf. I really appreciate your support.” I thought about where to begin and how much to say there in the funeral home, then plunged into Dad’s story, talking softly. I left out the weird energy Dad and Joyce had, the wiped off knife blade, but I did tell them about her affair, the rifle and Dad’s “miracle”.
When I finished, Tim shook his head. “Such a waste. Your Dad had more talent in his little finger than most people do in their whole lives. I wish I had his ear, his understanding of music. This really sucks. You must feel like shit, Luby.”
“On good days,” I said and smiled. “It’s really great you guys coming tonight. Thanks.” Tim, Janice and I talked about normal things for a little while. Dolf and Becky mostly listened. Sharing the time with my friends normally made me sane. Tonight was no exception.
Then Tim said, “Sorry, Lube but we need to get home. The kids and all.”
“Oh, sure, can I come with you?” I said, smiling and standing up
“You bet. Always welcome. Thad never minds giving up his bedroom. I mean it,” Tim gave me a hug. As close as he and I had been since the fourth grade, I don’t think we had ever hugged. I hugged him back and I felt my tears begin to well up. But I was able to push them back down.
Janice gave me a hug, too, which was not unusual and said, “Come see us soon.” I watched them walk away. “We need to go, too Lube,” Dolf said behind me. “Are you going to be OK?”
“Yes, I can handle.”
Becky gave me a warm hug and said, “Are you coming over tonight? You are welcome as long as you need, you know.”
“Thanks. I had not thought about it, but yes, that would really help.”
“We will keep the porch light on and put Bunny’s teeth in a glass by the bed,” Dolf said and chuckled.
“How about her claws, too.”
“Be nice, guys. Lee, the door will be open,” Becky said and gave me a little rub on my shoulder.
I watched them leave, too, and felt suddenly very alone. I wondered what time it was. The room was almost empty. Joyce was still up front talking with her Mother. There were two there couples sitting by themselves quietly. I decided to sit down. I closed my eyes and felt my tears about to begin again. I pushed them away.
I felt very alone in a strange land. Evansville, the funeral home, al the people, Dad’s body lying up there in a box, all full of chemicals and undoubtedly missing most of internal organ. I wondered what he had been think that last evening. What could anyone be thinking as they cut their arm with a knife, as they prepared to die. Nothing seemed real, any on it. I thought of see Dad in the orange hospital on the inner. I wondered how he was doing and what else was going on in others inner worlds. I thought about the man in maroon robe. I remembered looking into his eyes and as I imagined his eyes I felt a gentle love settle onto me.
Maybe I fell asleep, maybe I was off on another inner adventure, but suddenly I was back in the room being tapped on my shoulder. I opened my eyes, struggled a moment to focus. My contacts felt dry. Joyce was looking at me from a couple feet away.
“Are you OK, Lee? It’s past eight. We are leaving. The funeral home is closing,” a woman said, standing a couple feet away. I looked at her from a long moment, saw her face, saw it change as something dark passed across it, underneath her skin, like a hidden expression taking form beneath the surface.
“Joyce,” I said and pulled back. “Oh, it’s you.” The weird image dissolved.
Joyce had a strange expression on her face, a knowing little evil in her eyes. “It’s all right, Lee. I won’t bite.” Her eyes flashed.
Right, I thought. Just burn me to crisp. I stood up, moving away from her very slowly and eased into a stretch. “I must have fallen asleep,” I said yawning, hoping to put distance between myself, her and my reaction to her. I wanted to be away from her.
“We are going, now. Do you want to walk out with us?”
Inside I shouted, “NO,” but instead, I said, “I think I want to stay here a little longer, then I‘ll leave. Thanks anyway.”
“OK, then. We’ll see you tomorrow. The service starts at ten.” Joyce backed out of the row of chairs and left with her mother following silently. What strange energy she had, I thought. I felt shivers run up and down my back.
I looked around. I was alone in the room, not counting Dad. As this fact was sinking into me, I head voices in the hallway. Suddenly, my Aunt Ruthy burst into the room. “Little Lee, are you still here? You poor thing. We picked-up your Uncle Bob at the airport and rushed here as soon as we could. His plane was late, you know. Isn’t that always the case. Your Uncle Jay is parking the van. Don’t suppose we will see him to soon. Probably smoking one of those awful cigars of his. But you don’t want to hear about all that, do you dear.” By this time she had made her way into the room and met me with a big hug as I emerged from the row of chairs. “I am so, so sorry for you and Kathy to have to go through this.”
During my grade school years in Mt. Carmel, Aunt Ruthy had often been my surrogate mother. Grandmother was too old and often not well enough to go to school events. Since my cousin, Carol, was in my grade, Aunt Ruthy was usually heading to school whenever I needed to go anyway. I also spent a lot of time at their house playing basketball or hanging out with David and Donnie, my older twin cousins, or sometime with Carol. I was accepted as one of the kids. It was great to have a home besides Grandmother’s to go to, but being at Aunt Ruthy’s always made me miss my father more.
When she left go of me, I looked around and saw Uncle Bob standing in front of Dad’s casket. “Oh dear,” Aunt Ruthy said as we walked up behind him. Uncle Bob was looking down at Dad. Aunt Ruthy joined him on his left nearest Dad’s upraised head. I stood off to my Uncle’s right, a little apart and noticed that Uncle Bob was almost bald. Dad did not look any better than he had earlier.
“Bill, what in the world were you thinking?” Uncle Bob said, shaking his head. “What could have pushed you so far…”
Aunt Ruthy stroked Dad’s hair. I shivered a little think about touching him and felt guilty about my aversion. Ruthy spoke softly, “Such a poor dear. Always self-tortured. Never found peace in this life.” Watching my Aunt and Uncle, Dad’s siblings, by themselves talking about Dad was unique. I looked thought their eyes somewhat, seeing their older brother lying there, instead of my Dad.
Uncle Bob said, “He was so stubborn.”
“Now Bob, we mustn’t talk poorly of the dead,” Aunt Ruthy said.
“Ruthy, I’m just telling the tRuthy. Bill would admit it. He did what he wanted’ to do almost very moment of his life, including the last, it seems. Such a shame. Such a wasted.”
“Well he’s in God’s hands now,” my Aunt said. I wondered if God knew about Planet Orange.
“I remember as kids we used to have floor plan contests with Dad.” It seemed funny to me to hear my grandfather called “Dad”. Uncle Bob continued, “Dad would give us a problem, husband, wife, three kids, so many square feet, one story or two, and Bill and I would go into separate rooms and draw a floor plan. So often our floor plans would be identical. I have often thought he would have made a better architect than I.”
“That’s silly, Bob. He was four years older than you.”
“But he had the vision that I don’t think I have ever fully developed. He had so much ability. We all saw it.”
“I know. Too bad he never used it. You’ve done so well, Bob. We are all so proud of you.”
I wondered who made up the “we” they both spoke off. I also wondered if I should share my thoughts about Dad. Before I could decide, Uncle Jay came into the room, breathing nosily like he had just run in from the car and with his keys jangling.
“Oh, hey there you are. Though I’d lost you.” He came up behind them and between their shoulders at Dad. “Looks pretty good for a guy…”
“Don’t say it, Jay,” Aunt Ruthy said. “And you smell of cigar again. Have you been smoking. You promised…”
“Now Ruthy, we don’t need to talk about that here.”
I stepped back a little more. I had seen my Uncle Bob every few years growing up, then not at all for a long time. I always like him. I was around Uncle Jay a lot when I was younger and he was always respectful to me, but I doubted Uncle Jay was warm to anybody. On one notable occasion he was angry with me.
Dad had taken Kim to Florida just after Christmas when I was sixteen to try to save their marriage. My stepsister Chris had stayed with her grandmother, Jan was married to Vic and I went to Mt. Carmel for a week. Uncle Jay had recently bought my cousin Carol a 1962 VW Beetle for her birthday, but she did not have her license yet. The boys at the store had reworked it and the car was cherry.
Both Carol and Aunt Ruthy said I could borrow it. I was hesitant at first, this was Carol’s birthday car, but I found my enthusiasm soon after taking it for a spin. I had no desire to drink alcohol, and did not, but I might as well have, because I was drunk on freedom for those seven days. A car to call my own, some money in my pocket, Dad 1,500 miles away, I drove from Mt. Carmel to Evansville, through Princeton, hung out with Tim and his band, staying with friends without planning or calling home. We had a blast.
I was a little hard on Carol’s VW, though. I put in numerous laps starting at the top of the Third Street hill, down to the river, around to the gold course and back into town. It was about a 3.5 mile circuit, half of it over rutted gravel roads. I had learned to drive racing karts with Dad, routinely taking tight turns in a four wheel drift at 70 mph. The VW felt like a big kart to me and I drove it appropriately.
One evening four of us were heading out side of Princeton and someone announced they needed to pee. Wanting to be a good host, I turned right suddenly into the first little road and we promptly rolled into the ditch. We only turtled, not rolling all the way over. The four of us climbed out, a little stunned, and pushed the car back over on its wheels. Once we saw we were all OK, three of us watered the nearby bushes and I drove the car out of the car ditch. Amazed everything still worked, we drove away laughing. The top of the car, one back fender and the paint job suffered.
Another evening found three of us off-roading up a hillside in Evansville, for no compelling reason. Along the way, things became a little tight and I took out a series of small trees. More trauma to the paint and the left front fender. The final assault was perhaps the mildest. I double-parked along side Tim’s Corvair in front of Janice’s house in Princeton—they weren’t married yet–and decided I needed to back up suddenly, not realizing I was at a little angle. The VW clipped Tim’s bumper with the front edge of its right rear fender. The Corvair’s bumper was sturdy compared to the VW’s body and literally took a bite out of the VW fender. We were all amazed that Tim’s car was unmarked while part of VW fender was gone.
Reporting to Dad after he returned from Florida was not fun. I called from Tim’s house in Mt. Carmel and went through the list of damage to VW, then emphasize that the right front fender was still cherry. I had to stretch the phone cord so I could squeeze around the corner because Tim was laughing so hard on the living room floor.
Dad turned the phone line blue, reevaluated my supposed maturity in detail, pausing in mid-stream to ask if anybody got hurt. I knew I had done bad. I wished Dad was more like Tim’s father, who was always patient in helping Tim learn from his mistakes, instead of getting angry and then forgetting about it as I knew my Dad would. Dad probably wished I was more like Tim.
When I took the VW back to Uncle Jay at the store it was not a pleasant scene, though it could have been worse. We walked around the car three times, him shaking his head a lot, alternating comments between about much work they had just put into the car and asking me how I had managed to cause a particular area of damage. I was evasive and got out of there as quickly as possible. Uncle Jay said my Dad would be hearing from me.
Dad did forget about it relatively soon. But sometime in February Dad received a note from Uncle Jay that I had caused $1,245 damage to the car and that amount was being deducted from Dad’s share of the store stock. That was not pleasant day.
And neither was this day. Even though my friends and I had laughed about the VW adventure whenever it came up, I could only feel sad and depressed and it as I stood watching my Aunt and Uncles in front of Dad’s casket. I wished I could have told Dad how sorry I was about putting him in a vulnerable position with Uncle Jay.
Uncle Jay had had enough, it looked like. He said, “Bob must be tired, Ruthy and we still have to drive back home tonight.”
“I fine,” Uncle Bob said.
“Oh, yes and I want to help Elaine with her homework before she goes to bed. The poor dear, ” Aunt said and they turned away from the casket almost in unison.
Uncle Bob saw me first. “Hey, Sport. Didn’t mean to forget about you.” He stepped toward me and gave me a hug. “How are you holding up? This is so sad. And how is Kathy?”
I felt pretty numb. Uncle Jay added a few words to Uncle Bob’s and Aunt Ruthy gushed more feeling sorry sentiment to me. But I just felt numb and sinking. “Well, we will see you tomorrow, right Sport?” Uncle Bob asked.
“Yes, the service here at ten tomorrow morning. Then we go back to Mt. Carmel for the graveside service,” Aunt Ruthy said.
“Two services? That’s one too many,” Uncle Jay grumped. They wished me a good night and Aunt Ruthy hugged me again. I followed them out in slow motion. I had just gotten to the end of the rows of chairs when I heard them close the front door behind them. I did not want to go with them.
I also did not want to stay where I was, alone with Dad in his casket in the funeral viewing room. But I turned toward him anyway and slowly walked to the front of the room where he lay. Looking down at him was hard. Dad and I had spent many hours together. He once told me that even though we only saw each other on weekend and summers, he spent more total hours with me than most parents, because he worked at home and we did so many things together. I followed his math and agreed with him, but it did not help during the endless days in Mt. Carmel when he was not around.
I looked at Dad’s face. The make-up applied by the mortician was more noticeable, but his expression of suffering was still there. I reached out and touch his hand. It felt cold. I shivered a little, but I kept my hand on his. “Dad, I love you. Why couldn’t…” My throat was getting thick with emotion. “Why did you have to do this? How do you think you will be better off?” I spoke softly to my father, looking at his closed eye lids. I remembered the many times he asked me to lift his head, a technique taught us by his chiropractor after Dad had been rear-ended in the Mustang by an another driver blinded by the sun. Dad would sit in one of our dining room chairs while I lifted his head straight up to relieve the pressure on his neck. I would put my fingers under his chin bone and my place thumbs at the base of his neck. As much time as my Dad and spent together, we touched some, but not a lot. I felt uncomfortable each time I lifted his head, and was always relieved when he said it was OK to stop. Seeing him know in his casket, I wished I could back and change so many things.
I felt my tears falling down my cheek as I held my father cold, dead hand. I closed my eyes and I could see him full of life, playing golf, bowling, complaining. My sobbing came from deep in my gut. I took my hand off his and held onto the edge of his casket. My Dad was gone and I missed him so.
I don’t know how long I stood there, but at some point I stopped crying and pulled out my old handkerchief, wiped my eyes and blew my nose. “I guess I have to go, now Dad. I love you.” I knew he was not there, but I did not want to leave him.
As I turned to leave, I saw a man in a suit standing at the door to the room. Somehow I knew he was the mortician. As I walked out, he said, “I am so sorry for your loss.”
“Me, too,” I said and walked out into the cold night.
As I climbed into my wagon, the vinyl seats felt colder than normal on my back. I wondered why, vaguely, until I saw my coat and hat lying on the seat next to me, where I had put when eating the sandwich before I came to the funeral home. I struggled to put coat on in the car. My hat was easier. Both felt cold. With a sigh, I leaned back and thought what a day it had been. I felt like I had been on an emotional roller coaster at Indy 500 speeds.
Driving to Dolf and Becky’s the radio D.J. told me it was 9:07 pm. When I got to their front door, I could see through the window they were watching TV. I knocked and Dolf opened the door right away with Becky right behind him. “Hey Lubey, how are you?”
“I told you the door would be open. No need to knock,” Becky scolded me like I was not taking care of myself. “This is your home as long as you need. Let me take you coat.”
‘Thanks, guys,” I said as made my way to the couch and plopped down, coat still on. Dolf turned the TV off. “Don’t do that because of me,” I said.
“It was junk anyway,” Becky said.
“We are worried about you, Lube. Beck and I were talking about it. How are you anyway? You don’t look so good.”
Dolf sat in Bunny’s chair and Becky on the couch near me. I looked at both of them. I easily could have burst out in tears. But I held back. “I hope I look better than Dad.”
None of us laughed. Our conversation did not go very far that night. I had no idea what I was doing, really. Sleep walking through a nightmare.
“We should all get a good night’s sleep. Lee, here’s your blue blanket,” Becky said patting the folded blanket on the arm of the couch. I started to say something about the blanket, but my mind locked-up in mid-thought. Dolf mumbled something I did not catch. When they turned out the hall light, I tossed my hat on the table, pulled the blanket over me and crashed hard, still wearing my coat.
At 2:00 in the morning I woke up suddenly, realizing I had not called Kathy. I hoped she was not worried. I fell back asleep, but only after a too long a time of my mind running in circles. Images of Dad in his casket, Joyce’s face as heavily made up as Dad’s, Andi, John and the stuffed white squirrels, Tim knocking in John’s his teeth. It was not pleasant.
I awoke to the smell of coffee. I got up, body feeling stiff and found Dolf was sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast rolls and drinking coffee. I heard the shower running and figured Becky was in the bathroom. Bunny hissed at me as I walked close to her.
“Hey, Luby. Have a seat. Want some coffee or O.J.?”
“Juice would be good.” I looked at bunny a few feet away. “And where were you last night, Princess?”
“She was in our room. Got me up at 4:00. Thought serious about putting her in the dumpster.”
“I’d vote for that.”
“Your sister called an hour ago. She said to just let you sleep for awhile. The service is at ten.”
I drank some orange juice. “What time is it anyway.”
“A little after eight. How did you sleep?”
“OK. I guess.” We talked a little about Dad and how he used to want me to look more like our high schools student council members he would see at the Merry-Go-Round. “As if he looked like their Dad’s,” I said. Dolf laughed.
I went back into the living room and phoned Kathy, apologizing for not calling her the night before. “Don’t worry about it, Lee. Mother was swacked when we got home. Evidently she was telling Nick and April some wild stores. They were in a high giddy mood. Mother went to bed soon after. I had a harder time getting the girls settled in. Then I was out. Have no idea when John came to bed.”
“How is Mom this morning?”
“Oh she is just fine. It’s so disgusting. She never gets a hang-over. She’s just like nothing happened. If I drank half of what she does, I’d be miserable for three days.”
“Is she coming to the funeral today?”
“No, she decided not too. It’s hard for her. But she agrees funerals are barbaric. Thinks Dad should have been cremated. Made me promise to be sure she was, as if I’ll be in California when she croaks.”
“You sound a little put out with her.”
I guess I am, but that’s the story between us. You know that. We get along fine for awhile then something always happens. This is just a hard time for all of us. I am really glad she is here.”
“But it would be nice if she drank less,” I said, finishing Kathy’s thoughts for her.
“Amen. That will be the day.” She paused, then said, “So what time are you going to the funeral home.”
“How about we meet there about 9:30. Do you want me to come over there.”
“Oh, don’t bother. You don’t need the stress this morning. You can see Mother later today.”
“Are you going to Mt. Carmel for the graveside service?”
“I don’t see how we can avoid it.”
“Who’s going to drive.”
“Well, John certainly can. Let’s figure that out later. Will you be OK?”
“Yeah, I’m OK. Not looking forward to this.”
“Oh, I know, Lee. This is just crap. Daddy has made such a mess.””
We hung up on that happy note. I got clean clothes out of my car and showered. When I was ready to leave, Dolf told me they would be right behind me. Driving to the funeral home was lonely, but I was grateful to not be in the middle of Kathy’s house and Mother’s craziness.
The parking lot was almost full 45 minutes before the funeral. I found a space under a an large evergreen tree near the back of the lot. Walking up to the funeral home door I felt sad, heavy-hearted and some confused by the last few days. I also felt lighter. Dad was no longer around to pull at me or tell me how I should be. I felt hollow thinking I would not see him again and freer at the same time.
As I walked into the room where Dad lay in his casket, I also felt unlike anyone there. People turned and looked at me. Maybe that had happened yesterday, but I had not noticed. The room was nearly full. Everyman I saw had on a suit, dark blue, black or gray. I did not own a suit. I became self-conscious of my jeans and calf-high Earth boots. I decided to keep my jacket on. My jean shirt and black t-shirt were not ironed. They never had been ironed. I had brushed my hair and combed my beard.
A woman sitting on the end of a row near me looked at back at me unconsciously, then her eyes grew wide in surprise. She elbowed her husband and they both back looked at me. She gave be a thorough up and down appraisal and stuck her nose in the air. I wish Dad were still around to tell her what a good son I was and what she could do with her condescension. But he was not, except for his no longer functioning body, which we had all come to say good-bye to. I saw Joyce up front. I decided this irritating woman must be a friend of hers.
There were a lot more flowers in the room today, making it look full, too full. I looked around for Jan and John or Aunt Ruth or anyone I felt close to. I knew I was expected to sit in the front row, but I did not want to go up there by myself. People were still coming in and some were filing by Dad’s casket. The atmosphere felt hushed and suppressed, unlike the relatively free-form coming and going of yesterday. I wanted to be far away.
Suddenly Jan was behind me. “Lovely, isn’t it?” her words laced with sarcasm
“I’m so glad to see you. Wish we get out of here, go anywhere else,” I said to her, whispering.
“I agree, but we can’t. Let’s sit down and get this over with.” If someone overheard our short exchange, they probably would have thought us disrespectful. Maybe they would be right. I know I did not feel respectful to Joyce’s weirdness, Dad’s method of departing, nor the whole put-you-in-a-box approach we were witnessing. I suspect Jan felt the same way, but we had not choice but to go with the event.
We walked to the first row, I saw John behind us a few steps, and took our seats quietly. I looked at the casket in front of us and could see Dad’s clearly with upper half of the top open. He had not changed.
Joyce materialized off to our left. I had not noticed there was a section of chairs off to the left of the front row. She was talking to her Mother. I turned to Jan to say something, but a flash of light startled us.
“Oh my God,” Jan said. “She’s not…”
But she was. I watched as Joyce snapped a second, then a third photo of Dad lying in his casket. The successive flashes seemed to get everyone’s attention. What little murmuring there had been, quieted.
“I can’t believe that,” Jan said quietly. “She’s such a…” Jan held back from finishing her sentence.
John came to life suddenly “I hear that’s a custom in some parts of the south. Taking pictures of people as they lay dead.” He took a breath and both Jan and I could tell he was about to launch into an extended discussion of details no one wanted to hear.
“Not now, John,” Jan said firmly. I was grateful for Jan’s intervention.
Then Aunt Ruthie, Uncle Jay and Uncle Bob slid into the row behind us. “What was that flashing,” Aunt Ruth whispered to Kathy and I.
“Joyce took some pictures of Dad,” I whispered back, turning in my chair to face them..
Aunt Ruthie was already short on breath, caused by her size more than exertion. She shook her head, sucked in some more air, then said, not too softly, “Well, now I’ve seen everything. Image taking pictures of poor Bill laying in his casket. You’d think she had had quite enough of him, filing for divorce and all.” Then she leaner closer to Kathy and I and whispered, “You two be careful of her. She’s just liable to try to take all she can get her hands on.”
Kathy and I looked at each other, both our mouths open a little. We were stunned. I don’t think I had ever even heard Auth Ruthie say something bad about someone or even controversial. I immediately looked around to see where Joyce was. I thought she would be sitting in the front row next to us, but all I saw was three empty chairs. A small black beaded purse sat on the last chair. Joyce, her mother and two other people sat in what could be called the extension of the first row, in the little alcove just off the main seating area. She did not meet my eyes. I watched as she stretch across the narrow aisle and grab the little black purse, and put in clutched in her lap on top of a instamatic camera.
I looked back at Kathy, who was elbowing John in the ribs to keep quiet. Uncle Jay was whispering in Aunt Ruthie’s ear. I could tell by the way his vest rose and fell under his jacket that he was putting some energy into his words. I met Uncle Bob’s eyes. He was sitting on the end of their row. He rolled his eyes just barely and shook his head slightly. I was not sure whether it was Joyce’s photographic adventure or Aunt Ruthie’s outburst which seemed out of order to him. Maybe both.
Before anything else happened a man who seemed vaguely familiar came up to the small podium to the left of Dad’s casket. He introduced himself and began an introduction of the service. I did not catch anything meaningful in his words. Soon he introduced Reverend Somebody who rattled on for a while about how God welcomed home all children. I wondered if I should tell him about Planet Orange. Evidently Dad was on a detour that this fellow was not aware of. Then a third person came up to talk. He gave a several minute run-down of Dad’s life. His description gave no feel of the Dad I knew. The statistics were the same, but the flavor was heavily sanitized. I leaned toward Kathy and whispered, “Did we know, did anyone ask us about a description of Dad’s life?”
“No. None. This is more of Joyce’s horseshit.”
By this time my guts were garbage disposal soup. Emotionally I was beyond overload. Mentally I was confused. The mix of people in the room, particularly the key players in our vicinity, were giving off layers of highly charge energy. There were a lot of differing feelings and thoughts converging about my father and his death.
I closed my eyes. But it was worse in there. The inner energy was thick with conflict and suspicion. Dark red waves were washing across my inner screen, laced with flashes of yellow. I opened my eyes again fast and reached for Kathy’s hand. She squeezed back as the last guy finished his blathering.
Then some music started. Joyce had gotten up and turned a portable tape player at the foot of the podium. Karen Carpenter voice flooded the room, singing, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” The volume was too high and the small speaker crackled.
My stomach churned. “What in the hell…” I whispered to Kathy.
“Hell is right. Daddy would be flipping in his grave if he were there yet,” Kathy hissed back. “This is a circus.”
I looked at Dad in his casket. He had not moved yet.
“Wow.” I shook my head slowly. We sat there while the music finished. The first man came back to the podium and announced that there would be a graveside service in Mt. Carmel for those who would like to follow the hearse there. Then it was over. People began standing up. When Kathy stood up, I did, too. I glance over at Joyce in time to see her leaving quickly.
The next hour or more passed in a fog. I saw several of my friends, such as Tim, Janice, Dolf, Becky, Andi with no husband and some others. Tim offered me a ride to Mt. Carmel, which I really wanted to take. But after a short discussion, Kathy and I were persuaded to ride over to Mt. Carmel with Uncle Bob, Aunt Ruthie and Uncle Jay, who was going to drive.
It was not the most pleasant choice, but was good for duty and family. If there was any question about Joyce being family, it was settled for good in that forty minute ride. We quickly move passed our shock at Aunt Ruthie’s outburst and agreed she had spoken well. If I had felt strange in the back of Dad’s Mustang, I now felt even stranger. Being driven by Uncle Jay and Aunt Ruth reminded me of grade school. I was adult with my own car, but for the next three hours or so I was dependent upon them. They were of course very nice and caring to Kathy and me, and tolerant of John. Uncle Bob spoke of Dad in his loving, articulate way. Aunt Ruthie lamented how Dad must have been so unhappy to take such drastic action. Kathy and I were scooped up and held, verbally, as the kids who had lost their father.
But their world was so different from mine and from the Dad’s. I felt again what I usually felt in Mt. Carmel when visiting Aunt Ruthie’s. I felt lost in a world devoid of Dad’s artistic eye, his wonderful love of color in décor and wardrobe, lost in world which was plain and leaden. On top of various the feelings I was had to deal with, I felt trapped in a suffocatingly dull, raw world.
So I sat there. If I could have harvested, prematurely, the growth I was to experience over the next twenty years, I could have focused on the love being given to me and overlooked what was really just differences in people. But I had learned at Dad’s knee to have and hold opinions. He was full of them and so was at that point in my life. I later learned to treat opinions as I would bricks. Bricks belong on the ground or cemented in wall, not tied around my neck in the form of unproductive opinions.
The miles ticked by, the conversation flowed back and forth and I endured my self-created discomfort. Then we drove up the Walnut Street hill which marked the beginning of Mt. Carmel for me. I had traveled up and down that hill a thousand times riding with Dad or in the Greyhound Bus. Moments later, it seemed, we had driven across the town of 8,000 people and were pulling up to the graveyard. I got out after Kathy and felt the cold breeze cut into me and blow my hair around my face. Kathy was dressed in lighter clothes than I, but did not look cold. I button my coat and reached for my hat. Then I stuffed it back in my pocket. My sacrifice to decorum.
Our family plot is close to the northwest corner of Rosehill Cemetery. I had come there often during my childhood. At first, it was occasionally with Dad, at Grandmother’s instruction, to put flowers on various people’s graves who I had never known. Uncle Frank, my Grandfather’s older brother, was Dad’s favorite. He told us many stories about the buildings Uncle Frank had built in Mt. Carmel and how great an uncle he was to Dad. Then Granddaddy died and three months later his mother followed. Dad and Kathy had bet five dollars whether she would live to be 100 years old. Kathy won. Great-grandmother passed away just before her 99th birthday, brokenhearted at the death of her favorite son, my grandfather. After their deaths we went to the cemetery a lot.
I was disoriented momentarily seeing the green and white tent surrounding what had to be Dad’s grave. There were a lot of people and flowers. But the tent changed the landscape so much I could not even tell where Uncle Frank’s grave was.
I moved with Kathy and the others toward the tent. We sat down in two chairs almost on the edge of the grave. The casket was right in front of us. I heard Joyce’s voice off to the side, then she sat down next to me and took my hand. I look at Jan briefly, but she had not noticed. Then I looked over at Joyce, my eyes wide in surprise.
Joyce had a white handkerchief in her hand and was dabbing at her nose. She snuffled a little. She looked at me just as I was about to look away. Our eyes met. She wore a layer of grief troweled over her expression like makeup applied by an impaired senior citizen. Her eyes were slightly moist. She snuffled again. “Oh, poor Bill,” she said to me in a normal tone of voice. “He was so troubled.” I withdrew my hand from her and tore me eyes away from hers, which were shone black and cold. There was no sorrow in her eyes.
Chills racing up and down my spine I focused on the flowers surrounding Dad’s closed casket. The tent did not seem to be big enough to hold all the flowers. They pushed against the roof and spilled out the edges. In the midst of this garden center sat Dad’s very polished white casket with bronze edging.