I stood with a small group of people, huddled close to one another, as they mourned the dead. The sky overhead rolled with thick grey clouds; a constant churning mass of darkness that spit torrential rain down upon the earth. Water slicked down our coats, and followed the path the of our clothes until it dripped steadily down into the water logged ground. Before me, the deep cavity loomed; a dark and menacing hole that waited, eager to be fed.
It was impossible to focus on the low dull drone of the preacher’s voice as he prepared to send the man who had been my father into the earth. The whole procession was pointless though. That old man wouldn’t have gave a shit if anyone mourned his death or not, the only thing he cared about was the next bottle. Yet, here I was anyway, freezing my ass off, getting soaked to the bone by what must be a fucking hurricane. I wasn’t here for him though. If it was up to me I would have had the old man cremated and tossed away in a coffee can. Oddly enough, he probably would have preferred it that way anyway. But for some reason, the woman standing to my right, my younger sister Laura, wanted a chance to mourn for what we never had.
I glanced over at her. She stood there with her husband, her slight frame hunched over. Her two daughters stood before her, my boy, Nathan, with them, his lanky body stooped in an effort to keep warm. His eyes were on the ground, completely disinterested. Not that I could blame him though, after all, he’d been dragged to a funeral for a man who had never shown him any interest.
I felt the cool brush of fingers over mine, and looked to my left, into my beautiful Emma’s face. Our eyes held, a silent exchange, and her chilled hand squeezed mine tight. Oh how I loved this woman, my wife, who could sense my every mood. I wasn’t a bit surprised she knew I was brooding. Extending my arm, I gathered her close to me, and together we stood there, soaked and miserable, among all these other’s who were also soaked and miserable, and waited to send the old man to the earth.
The rest of the evening flew by with little participation on my part. A few people hung around after the service to offer their condolences, and I sent them over to Laura as politely as I could. I imagine I bothered some people at my total lack of emotion, but I really didn’t give a shit. Those old women needed to mind their own fucking business anyway. Emma stayed by my side, helping me to brush away the last of the unwanted visitors, and it wasn’t long before mine and Laura’s families made our way back to the old man’s house, finally surrendering to our exhaustion.
My eyes opened into slits and I looked at the clock. Ugh, it was six in the morning. Confusion set in me as I looked around until I remembered where I was. My old bedroom, although it was far from mine anymore. At some point the old man had stripped what was left of my things from the room, now it just held my old bed, and boxes of miscellaneous junk. It felt so weird being in my childhood home again, but Laura had insisted we all sleep in the house.
“It’s more practical,” she’d said, “we have to sort through all of mom and dad’s stuff anyway.”
I knew she was right, but that didn’t make it any easier. Memories from my last night in the house snaked, unwelcome, into my mind. I was barely eighteen, just graduated from high school. Mom had been dead for two years, fuck, I could probably have said the same thing about the old man. The echo of slamming doors ran through my mind, and I could still see Laura’s small form as she sat huddled in her bedroom, silent tears streaming down her face.
“Nothing but a long haired piece of shit! Filthy fucking hippie, can‘t do a God damned thing right can you?”
My father yelled as he raged about the house, his stringy hair lay clumped to his forehead from whiskey filled perspiration.
“Whose the piece of shit old man?” I said, my voice boiling with anger. “How about you take a closer look at yourself and tell me what you see? `Cause all I can see is a filthy drunk who abandoned his children when they needed him most!”
The old man stood there, his lip quivering with rage, at a loss for words. Turning my back on him I left him standing there. I packed a backpack with some clothes, and grabbed what little I had in savings from my sock drawer. I stopped at my little sister’s door and peered inside. My twelve year old sister sat huddled on her bed, her eyes a watery mess.
“Laura, listen,” I said, bending down before her, her big green eyes on mine. “I promise I’m not leaving you, I would never do that. Once I’m able, I’ll get you outta here. Okay?”
She sniffed and nodded up at me. “Okay.” she said. “I’ll be alright, don’t worry.”
“I love you little sis.”
With that, I kissed her on the head and left, walking right past the old man where he sat, nursing a fresh drink, and out the front door. The door shut behind me with a definitive click. I didn’t look back; he didn’t stop me.
Though the episode was just a distant memory now, the pain I felt as a teenager still lingered. Quietly, I rolled out of bed, and dressed, hesitating a moment at the door to look back at my wife’s peaceful form, still shrouded in sleep. I sighed, and silently shut the door behind me.
Laura was at the kitchen table when I walked in, a steaming cup of coffee sat before her.
“Morning sis,” I said, and headed straight for the pot of coffee.
“Good morning big brother,” she said. “Couldn’t sleep either huh?”
I grunted my consent, and sat at the table with her. She looked tired, sad, beaten down. Even in death the old man managed to spread misery. For a moment we sat together in silence, sipping our coffee, staring out the same window we did as children.
Habitually, I pulled my glass pipe from my pocket, along with my ancient leather tobacco pouch (which hasn’t held any tobacco since I’ve gotten a hold of it), and loaded the pipe with a small green bud, sticky with tiny crystals. Laura wasn’t bothered–after all, we were both adults and she knew me well. She merely looked across the table at me, and reached her hand out for a turn.
We continued in for awhile, quietly passing the glass back and forth between us and after a moments silence Laura chuckled.
“What do you think Dad’s reaction would be if he knew we were smoking pot in his house?”
I smirked at her, then the amusement washed from my face as I really thought of it.
“I don’t think you really want to know the answer to that Laura.”
Her face turned somber, as she looked at me. Then in a small voice that made her seem ten years old again, said, “What would Mom have done?”
“Loved us anyway,” I said, holding her gaze.
Laura turned silent, and I suppose she went years away. I could almost see the shadow of memories flicker across her eyes, and my mind struggled to do the same. My memories of Mom had faded over the years, she’d turned into this perfect entity in my mind. Like an angel I guess, though I didn’t buy into that religious crap. The old man, on the other hand–well honestly I can’t remember one happy memory of him. There had to be at least one, from back before mom died, but nothing came to mind. Maybe years of belittling and derision had erased what pleasant memories I might have had before.
“What’s the plan for today, sis?” I asked Laura.
Laura gathered herself, and brought herself back to the present.
“Well, I was thinking we’d start by going through everything we can in the house. Maybe you and Nathan can start with the old shed though, see if there‘s anything worthwhile. I’m sure some of our old stuff should be in there.”
“Okay, sounds like a plan,” I said, slowly tucking the worn leather pouch back in my pocket.
For some reason I felt trepidation as we walked up to the old shed door. I had no idea of what we would find in there. Some of mom’s old stuff, or maybe just junk the old man tossed in there. I looked down at the ancient key ring I’d grabbed from the kitchen drawer. There were at least twenty-five old keys hanging from the hook, and not one of them was labeled. I huffed out a sigh, and began the task of testing keys.
It took seven tries before I was finally able to turn the key and hear the lock click open. Beside me, Nathan’s breath came out in an anticipating huff, as he waited for me to open the door. I laughed at him.
“Easy, son. Why such a hurry?”
“Aw, come on, Dad. I’m just curious. Who knows what’s in there, could be anything.”
He gave me an exasperated look, like I should be just as curious and excited as he was. I couldn’t help but smile at him. Tousling his shaggy hair, (which I know drives him nuts), I threw an arm around his shoulders and pushed him towards the still shut door.
“All right kid, you take the honors. Lets see what kinda treasures may be hidden in there.”
He gave me his lopsided grin, and pushed open the door. A thick musty odor smacked us in the face as we peered inside. Nathan hesitated in the doorway, and I scooted past him, feeling along the wall until I found the light switch. Florescent lights flicked on over head, and gave us our first view of the cramped old shed.
I felt for sure it would burst from the seems, there was so much stuff crammed inside. Piles of old tools, boxes, broken furniture, a scattering of bike and car parts. The old man must never have gotten rid of anything in his seventy-two years. Sorting through this stuff was sure to take forever.
Nathan wandered inside ahead of me, and started digging through the mess for anything interesting. He was on a treasure hunt.
“Okay Nate, lets just start by making a garbage pile for all the stuff that’s broken, a scrap metal pile, and everything else we’ll put in a sort pile.”
“Okay dad.” Nathan said, and started the daunting task of dragging everything outside.
I continued through the shed, looking around to see if anything visible would catch my eye, see if I saw anything I remembered. Pushed up against the wall on the far end, stood a discarded door, cracked and broken. A fist sized jagged hole pierced its center, and instantly the years melted away until I was sixteen years old again.
The door slammed shut behind the old man as he staggered in the house. The stench of drink permeated from his body, his heavy boots clunked on the floor with determination and anger.
“Jim! Where the hell are you?”
I stopped mid-sentence in the story I was reading to Laura, and closed her door behind me as I went out to face the old man. Vases of dying flowers still sat scattered around the house, their little notes of condolences hanging limp from their stems. The sweetness of their fragrance contrasted heavily with the sweat-filled stench that rolled off the old man in waves. When I walked into the room, the old man swiveled and looked at me glaringly, his eyes hidden under a blood shot haze.
“How dare you disrespect your father, you answer me when I call for you! You need to learn some fucking manners.”
“Yea, sorry, but someone had to put Laura to bed.”
I knew my eyes were steely, and I squared my shoulders when I spoke to him, knowing where this would lead. He was too far gone to for any sort of rational conversation.
His silence rang in the room for a moment, tension building in the air, until disgust spit from his mouth with such ferocity, I struggled not to stumble back.
“You filthy little bastard! Don’t speak to me with that ungrateful attitude. I know how to take care of my own children. It seems its time I put the fear of God in you boy!”
He lurched toward me, his movements unsteady, until he stood right in my face. It took all my effort not to let him see my fear.
“Don’t you dare touch me.” It was amazing to me that my voice remained steady, as I saw him for what he really was.
This man before me no longer held any resemblance of the man my mother had loved. Anger and whiskey had destroyed him, and it was gut wrenching to know the man before me was just a hollow shell of who he once was.
When he pulled back his fist, I stood still as stone, determined to show him who the real man was. Wind brushed my face as he released, a hiss of air that whispered against my skin before his fist cracked directly into the door behind me, less than an inch from my head, leaving a gaping hole. I looked into his eyes and was appalled by the hatred I read there. Without saying a word, I walked to my room and locked the door behind me.
“Hey Dad!” Nathan’s voice abruptly brought me back to myself.
I was standing before the door, my hand hovering over its broken center. He hurried up to me, and stopped in his tracks when he saw my face.
“You okay dad?” He asked.
I gave him a reassuring smile and threw my arm around his shoulders, pulling him close.
“Don‘t you worry about me kiddo. What’s up?”
He slipped from my grasp and looked up at me.
“Dad, you gotta come see what I found. It’s this awesome old bike!”
He hurried off, and I followed him to a relatively orderly section in the corner that had been hidden behind the open door. I stopped dead in my tracks when I came upon the rusty bicycle.
The old cruiser sat there, forgotten, its frame caked with dirt and corrosion from years spent baking in the sun. Its seat was brittle, the metal pan slowly flaking into nothingness.
“Oh wow.” I said, walking up to it, gingerly putting a hand out to brush against the handlebars. “My old Western Flyer.” My voice was a barely audible whisper.
“This was your bike dad? Its way cool, pretty rough shape though.”
“I can’t believe the old man kept my bike, after all these years. I was sure he would have thrown all my stuff away.” I said, surprised. “Come on son, lets get this outside and get a better look at it.”
Nathan cleared a path for me and carefully I steered the bike outside, into the week filtering sunlight of the cool autumn day. The sun hit it in just a way that cast it in a glow of light. The old bike seemed to swell from it, almost breathing, like it longed for the days when its paint was still a bright and gleaming cherry pop red. For a time when the wheels pressed against the road, and snaked along silently, feeding on the pavement beneath it.
“Dad, do you think it’s still rideable?” Nathan asked, gliding his hand along the frame as he did so.
Looking at the bike, I turned the crank, tested the brakes.
“It’s a little stiff, but it looks to be in working order still. Go ahead Nate, hop on, take it for a spin.”
He looked up at me, his smile near splitting his face, one that echoed my own from so many years ago. Hopping on the bike, Nathan rode, cautiously at first, then gained speed until he flew down the driveway and back, riding circles around me. The wind blew back his hair, his face grinned ear to ear. He rode with confidence, assuredness, and the sight of him made my heart swell. As I watched, the years drifted away, and my son was replaced with my own twelve year old form, speeding up and down the driveway, exuberance flowing from my core.
“Dad look how fast I’m going!”
Gravel crunched beneath my tires, and I turned towards my father’s smiling form. The sleek red bike streaked by him as I rode as fast as I could. I was a professional driver, racing my speedster in the drag races. No one had a chance to beat me, because I was in the most top-of-the-line, streamlined vehicle that ever existed.
“That’s my boy Jim! That beauty suits you well.” Dad called, as I streaked by him again.
I pulled a one-eighty, a dangerous maneuver that only the most experienced of drivers can perform, and skidded to a stop in front of my dad. I hopped off the bike and threw my arms around him.
“Dad, this is the best birthday present ever. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Dad’s arms went around me, holding the world in place. He smelt of wood smoke and aftershave, and when he smiled down at me I flashed him my toothless grin. Reluctant, but eager, I broke from his grip, and was back on my bike in a flash. I had to be the luckiest kid in the world…
Emma came up to me quietly, and grasped my hand, bringing me back to the present. The memory of my twelve year old self left me feeling unnerved and shaken. It had sprung on me so heavily, this unexpected memory of happiness. I pulled Emma close for comfort, and noticed she held a small worn picture frame in her hand.
“What’s that my love?” I asked her.
“I found this on your father’s dresser, I thought it’d be something you’d like to see.”
She held it out to me and I took it from her hands. The edges of the frame were well worn, and stained black, like it had been handled often by dirty hands. Inside was an old black and white picture. My toothless smile grinned up at me, as I straddled my brand new cherry pop red Western Flyer. Dad stood directly behind me, his hand gripping my shoulder, a smile lighting up his face.
It startled me when the first teardrop landed on the smudged glass of the frame, slowly rolling down the picture. My chest became heavy, and it felt as though my heart was put through a vice. The first shudder came unwilling, and was followed by others that racked my shoulders. Emma held on to me, and finally, I gave in. Choking gasps erupted from my throat, and tears streamed down my face as I mourned for the father I had lost so long ago.
Nathan, in his own world of happiness, whizzed by me.
“Look how fast I’m going Dad! This bikes not in bad shape after all.”
I looked up and gave him a watery smile, my voice rough with emotion when I called out to him.