My father appeared in a vision last night as a team of June bugs satellited the lamp outside the kitchen door, spinning in unmapped circles about the halogen bulb bought for efficiency. I was astride a beam of moonlight strafing through the oily leaves of the avocado tree, the full brightness shattered by the checkerwork of branch and veins. His muttering broke into my thoughts as the fire cooled to embers and the bats swallowed about the house’s silhouette. How he would have loved this place, I thought, and the way he pined for the countryside all those years we lived in Dublin city. An apron of dead leaves spread around the fire and I scooped a handful and lay them on the embers in an attempt to better see his death mask. It wasn’t until I flung the whiskey from my cup onto the fire that he roared at me in that manner I was used to from childhood. Like his temper, the violence of the flames abated in short order and he returned to his bearish brooding as I prayed a silent prayer for his tortured soul.
I often wondered if he’d taken a mistress on the far edge of the country, in some violent town with red and yellow and blue painted houses along a sea front. To be gone so often, in a readable pattern you could trace on an ordnance survey map, must have given bloom to life’s unholy possibilities. The towns and villages that dotted the map were fair filled with their share of unhappy widows and desolate spinsters, and a man of my father’s appetites could find satisfaction and a full stomach in their lonely homes. I could see him under overcast skies, his raincoat soaked and his wide brow salted with drops blown from the Blasket Islands. Behind shuttered windows and slick streets an aproned shopkeeper might greet such a man with the look of a starved creature, his full-boned body something she could feast upon for years to come. Yet, my raving imagination discarded his Holy obligation to my mother and her brood. Instead of pressing his luck in some unnamed draper’s shop, he likely thumbed his prayer ring and kissed the cross for every revolution of Hail Marys, the sorrowful mysteries bringing him ever closer to his journey home.
The debts pressing on your skull brought only a tightly contained blister to your forehead. A pat of yellow butter, she said. It will ease the pressure and allow you some respite from your misery. Loves company, too. The story of how you met. A country dance. She accompanied someone else, in spats and tuxedo, hair oiled to sheen. Hotel owner’s son. Foxhunters’ Ball it was, and how he showed up three sheets to the wind, wearing his top hat and tails as if off to meet the President himself. Pure twinkle toes in those days and how he knew it. Swept her off her feet he’d often say, his deep voice humming the tune they first danced to in the ballroom of the Royal Hotel. Watch out for that one, her mother told her. I was never able to corroborate the warnings, as my grandmother died before I was old enough to realize she contained multitudes. Oh, he plucked the courage to ask her for a dance and then refused to deliver her back to her date, instead whisking her away for the night in his motorcar. Likely they took a drive out to Saint’s Island on the shores of Lough Ree, where he spread a picnic blanket on the ground and spoke to her of wildfowl and riverbanks where silver flanked pike hid in the shadows waiting for their prey.
When he returned from the hospital, his femur held together in six places by glistening steel screws and a long implant, I was intrigued by the lack of a bandage. Instead, the wounds were open to sight. The screws going into his flesh like giant knitting needles, their entry points crusted by dried blood. An iron constitution; that’s what he had, according to so many visitors who came bearing brown bags with naggins of whiskey and bottles of deep orange Lucozade. My mother said he was a martyr to the drink, but that he’d had to cut back because of the heretic who’d performed your surgery. He demanded absolute teetotal assurances from him. Tongue in cheek, fingers crossed behind his back where the fist-sized bedsore gaped, my father told the doctor what he wanted to hear. Mam worried. She sorted socks, folded sheets, baked apple tarts for a living, all-the-while waiting on him hand and foot. I blocked out the trauma, imagining him to be on Death’s door, on the verge of capitulation. The accident had battered his body. It had taken them five hours to pry him from the wreckage with the “jaws of life.” We did the arithmetic in his absence, figuring out his tolerance to pain and innate sense of survival. Hard chaw; that he was. She spoon-fed him soup and forked potato and vegetable into his mouth until he was capable of feeding himself. No longer able to ascend the stairs, he had to defecate and piss into a commode. Those were hard days; days of prayers and pleas for him to stop drinking. She couldn’t say no when he asked for a small “nip” of whiskey; medicinal, he called it. All the research showed that he should have died. Little matter, as he healed in the dining room/bedroom and in one beautiful moment on a May day, bright and clear, got up from the bed and walked to the garden gate, using the aluminum walker the social worker had dropped by months previously.
He told a story of how he could bend a six-inch nail in his hands when he was a younger man. Probably true. His fingers were thick and tanned, bringers of apology. For a man with hands such as his he was hopeless in the kitchen. Not able to boil an egg or make a slice of toast. Might as well tie an apron on a tree stump, my mother said. Good for one thing only, bringing home the bacon, but not doing anything else to it. His hands were expert in the unscrewing of whiskey bottles and the pouring of glasses of Guinness Stout, but put a recipe for even the simplest of dishes in front of him and you might as well be talking in Swahili. Still, a great man for the chat, he was. He’d extend giving directions to a lost traveler into a long prognostication on the weather, or the devilry of the sitting government in Kildare Street. In his cups he was at his best, spinning yarns of childhood roams about the countryside searching for German paratroopers in the darkness. Those enemies dropped from the dark sky proved to be lost cattle wandering the land under a moonless eye. I don’t recall his last story, the one he told before the spasm of stroke that cut his voice forever.
The embalmer found clusters of regret inside the body as he readied him for the burial. He ran lines of chemicals from the wreckage, his apron spotted with dried blood, the loud expressive sadness of Gounod drowning out the hum of the machines. By my father’s left temple an island of deep happiness welled beneath the skin, bubbled up from his no-longer beating heart, but undoubtedly sprung from the wellspring of summer holidays by the sea in the West of Ireland. What appeared a freckle was in fact a perfect facsimile of the Metal Man in the waters off Rosses Point, and a strawberry birthmark on his right thigh was a close approximation of his favorite horse; a white hunter, thirteen hands tall. My father’s corpse laid out like a great landmass, the contours and depressions lining his body a concatenation of isoclines between his shoulderblades and ribcage, and the isopleths enumerating the numerous moments of sadness in his life, pooled in various shallows about his torso. Unseen to the embalmer, the unmapped regret at having lost a daughter to stillbirth, the same year Marilyn Monroe took her own life because of her own personal sadness.
James Claffey has new writing and reviews at The Vignette Review, Fiction Southeast, Litro UK, Flash Fiction International Anthology, MadHat Lit, The Eunoia Review, The Miscreant, Flash Fiction Chronicles, Prime Number Magazine, Entropy, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Blood a Cold Blue.