Flash Fiction: My Father When He Dies

we’ll separate you so you lose yourself, lose your bearings, never find your way back

~ ~ ~

My father could never be who he was. Never could take what was really inside him and be that. Faker, he faked his life.

You get off track early, you build something that isn’t you, that becomes bigger than you, that opposes you, that confuses you, the real part of you gets left behind.

I’m at the funeral home. Stillness. In the back, a tall man and woman approach the Guest Book. I’m not surprised by the minuscule turnout. When the funeral director forwards the options, I take the smallest room.

In my business, I cut words and rearrange thoughts. To get a book into print, I watch costs. No, I’m not surprised by the turnout. Costs matter. My father matters little.

People avoided him, did not want to be around him, did not want what he was to come back at them. Why would death be different?

Heaviness permeates the air. Not like a metaphor.

When I attempt to move, something weighs against me, anchors me.

This heaviness is real, the result of a life that doesn’t fit. Of waste, of things made heavy that won’t budge.

Me and dad? Here we are, alone with one another. In death, he looks metallic.

I wonder if we don’t all become anchored beings. Routine and compromised, surrounded by things that hunt us down. Like a book that falls short, mangled by budgets, by fate, by inabilities.

For those of us that find our place, are we any better?

Why do we remember trips to the country? Why do we remember trees and woods, small streams?

Does something unknowable, something we’ve forgotten, call us?

My father felt that kind of heaviness. Lost in a blurry childhood, alcoholic parents. Not a day safe. Not a day without booze, without fallen bodies, purple bruises, broken bones.

He became a part-time novelist, day laborer, Ph.D. dropout, prof for hire, boxer, long-distance hiker, abuser, indigent, failed actor, unknown writer, small-time activist, misfit father.

Careening through life, discarding friends, families, being discarded, dying alone, his uneven accomplishment.

To have always needed help from others for the most basic, to eat, to feed himself, to keep a house, an apartment, a room, his failures. He could never earn.

To have provided for strangers, given to causes, loved animals, plants and flowers, to have walked off jobs out of principle, ditched tenure and to have worshipped women in the face of life-long failure, his disciplined character defect.

How many times did he invent himself? How many times did disappoint rap on his door, curl his lips?

The part of him that was real surfaced in small blocks, maybe in half days, mornings, in the dark of night, in the thinnest of veils between worlds. That part of him must have been unbearably small, must have pained him when the monster appeared.

I hate to think he thought of himself as small, that the part of him that loved me disappeared, even from himself.

He was like a cosmic current. Wispy apparitions hovered around him, upwards like steam. As a child, I could literally feel him float away. As an adult, I hated what he did to himself.

He was not a small person! My dad did not belong here, did not fit.

To him, the country was a company town, a corporate entity privately gained. In his eyes, The Stockholm Syndrome, prisoners in league with captors.

Crazy. At the end, paranoid.

Those things I promised I would leave behind. His craziness. That poor, pitiful side of him, my father. I would move on.

I think these thoughts when I feel a nudge.

“You must be his daughter,” the tall man says. He pulls on his sleeve, lowers his head, continues. “The New York daughter, the poet.”

I haven’t returned in years. Grandma and grandpa are gone. How would anyone know me?

“Early on, in my early days in New York, I wrote poetry. Years ago.” Uncomfortable, stepping away.

“And then you became an editor,” he counters, drawing me back.

“You knew my father.”

His wife approaches.

“Carla,” he says, “this is Duncan’s daughter. From New York.”

“The poet,” she says.

“No, I am an editor, not a writer,” I repeat.

My protest means nothing. “Duncan loved your poetry,” she continues.

“When he stayed with us, he read your poetry.”

“He stayed with you?” I ask.

“Only for a while,” her husband answers. “When your grandparents died.”

She takes my hand, draws me close.

“We lived across the way.”

The Horvills, I think. These are the Horvills. Drinking buddies with grandpa and grandma. They were there. They smashed bottles against the walls, they climbed backyard fences to get at each other, they wrecked cars.

I instantly want to pull my hand away. My father started his wandering to get away. Turned his back on early tenure, the start of his career. All to get away from the crazy drinking, from these crazy people.

“You ought to know something, sweetie,” she says, holding firmly. “You need to know this.”

I wait. Pain circles, approaches, crawls up inside me.

When she begins to tear, her husband wraps his arm around her.

“What she’s trying to say,” he starts, squeezes her, comforts her. “What we’re trying to say is your father never had much of chance. We know that.” He sighs, his face contorted.

“Things got tangled up and he spent his life running, trying to get away from all of us. We gave it up, the drinking. You need to know that.”

We huddle, my father’s body in front of us, shining in the late afternoon.

“And we want you to know that when he came, when your grandparents failed, he came and he read your poetry to them, your first books, as if there wasn’t any trouble between them. Not any trouble at all. And he called you a poet. And that’s why we call you a poet. You wrote true words. Everything changed when they died. The party died. The war ended. Your father was with them. You can let go of things you believed.”

He holds his wife and she nods.

Good things about my father flood my brain. I remember being in the woods with him and how he loved the trees and the colors of the leaves in fall and the space between us, between the Horvills and me, grows very small and evaporates and I sense the unexpected.

And I remember being a poet and realize that what is inside of me disentangles. Instead of floating away, instead of drifting away like a stream of vapor, instead of running and wanting, of oh so wanting in this instant to be small, of wanting to edit and to chop words, in such smallness that I tower over others, I see the steady, sure gaze of the Horvills and verse begins to form and I feel free.

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