My Father's Son

My Father's Son

My father’s voice came to me down the short hallway from the kitchen, through my open bedroom door, “Just tell the boy I need to go away for a while.”  It was late and my parents were talking, probably sitting at the kitchen table.  They must have thought I was asleep, though I couldn’t; I knew something was up.  I was also wondering why he was calling me “the boy.”

I heard my mother say, “What about me?  What am I supposed to do for money?”

“You have your job.  And there’s a little money in savings.”  I could picture my father saying this, a stubborn hangdog expression on his face.

“My job,” my mother spat back.  “A big two dollars an hour.”

This was in 1975 and two dollars an hour was standard for an entry-level job in a factory, which is what my mother had, packing light bulbs into cartons.  I was twelve and had a paper route, delivering the afternoon daily from a canvas bag hung from the handlebars of my Schwinn bicycle.  “It would be a help,” my mother had said to me when I had first suggested it.  My father’s job as a heavy equipment operator at a construction site had become history weeks before.  They had fired him because of all his unexplained absences, those mornings he couldn’t bring himself to get out of bed.

I listened to more of their kitchen conversation, some of it indistinguishable when their voices fell to a murmur, and finally I did fall asleep.  When I got up the next morning and went to the kitchen, still in my pajamas, I found my father seated at the table drinking his morning coffee.  He was wearing a starched white shirt and a tie, and his suit jacket was draped across the back of his chair.  It was the first thing I noticed, because he never wore a suit except on Sundays or when he was going somewhere “important.”  He looked at me in the serious way he had, his coffee cup poised for a sip.  “Good morning, Jackie” he said.  I was named John, after him, and was Johnny to my friends, but in the family I would always be Jackie.  “You’re up early,” he said.  “I thought you’d still be asleep.”  He looked at my mother, who stood with her arms folded, her back to the sink and her lips compressed into a thin line.  It was a look she would wear whenever she wasn’t happy over something.  My father said to me.  “I have to take a trip.”

“For how long?” I asked, immediately thinking he was going back to Vietnam.  He had spent my ninth and part of my tenth year there as a civilian worker, driving bulldozers and road graders, helping building roads and airstrips.  The pay had been good and the year-and-a-half he’d spent away from home had allowed him to save enough to put a down payment on the small frame house in South Amboy, New Jersey where we now lived.  That had been the reason for the Vietnam job, so I’d been told.

“Not long,” he said.  “A month, maybe.” 

“Your father needs a rest,” my mother said from her position at the kitchen sink.

“In fact I have to be going right now,” he said, standing and donning his jacket.

He picked up a small suitcase sitting next to him and went over and opened the front door, which led directly outside from the kitchen.  He looked at my mother and then at me.  “I’ll be back in a month or so,” he said and held out his hand for me to shake.  It was after he’d returned from Vietnam that he had decided I was getting too big for kissing goodnight or goodbye. 

I already knew this rest excuse was some kind of crock, and I felt a sudden anger at him.  Still I stepped forward and took his dry hand and shook it, mine feeling small and weak in his.  Then he dropped my hand and was through the door, closing it behind him.  I pulled back the curtain on the door’s four-paned window and watched him walk off down the cement walkway leading to the sidewalk, bypassing our car parked in the driveway.  Was he walking to wherever he was going?  Knowing I’d be watching, he turned once to wave and then went off down the sidewalk.  I opened the door and ran after him, barefoot and still in my pajamas.  He stopped and turned, saying, “You’re not even dressed.  Go back inside.” 

“But where are you going?”

“Don’t worry about it.  I’ll be back in a month or so, just like I said.  Now go back inside.”

But I didn’t and each time he started off, I followed, a small distance behind.  When he reached the bus stop at the end of the block, he turned, without setting down the suitcase, and gave me a disappointed look.  “Go on home,” he said, but I just stood there about ten feet away until the bus arrived and stopped for him, and he stepped aboard.  Finally, I started back to our house, trying to ignore the looks I was getting from the few passersby, who must have been wondering what a barefoot boy in pajamas was doing walking down the sidewalk.

“He’s depressed over Vietnam,” my mother said to me as soon as I entered the kitchen.  “It’s why he had to get away for a while.  All the things he saw and did.”

“But he wasn’t even in combat,” I said, already knowing the Vietnam angle was another excuse.  For as long as I could remember, my father had had his bouts of depression, seemingly coming from nowhere.

* * *

The month or so he had promised to be gone dragged into a second month, and then a third, and my mother finally sold the house, unable to keep up the payments because his mysterious absence had used up all the savings.  Perhaps I was more naïve or accepting of circumstances than other twelve year olds, but all I knew at the time was we were moving somewhere else after months of my father’s absence.  The new house, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was owned by a man named Bill.  My mother told me, was an old friend.  She hadn’t yet told me she’d started divorce proceedings against my father.

I was clueless about some things, but not so much that I didn’t know who Bill really was.  I refused to call him Uncle Bill, as she suggested.  Finally, after more than four months, she told me my father was living in a rented room in Plainfield, New Jersey.  I asked, “Is that where he’s been all along?”

 “No,” she said, leveling her compressed-lipped gaze at me, showing her unhappiness, not at me I knew, but at my father.  “He called one day.”

“When did he call?”

“You were at school.”  She was a stay-at-home mom by then, having quit her job at the light bulb factory after we’d moved in with Bill, who had his own business as an electrical contractor.  “Anyway, he’d like to see you,” she said.  “You can take the bus there and he’ll meet you.”

“You can’t just drive me?”

“No.”  Her no had seemed a little too forceful, but then she explained, “If I drove you, then what would I do?  You would be there a few hours, and I’d have to be waiting for you, driving around or parked someplace.  No, the bus is better.”

I had naturally thought my visit with my father would include my mother, but now I realized what I suppose I had suspected all along without recognizing it: that his time away from us meant they were separated, not just inconveniently apart.

He had relayed to my mother the intersection in Plainfield where he would wait for my bus to arrive.  She had written it on a piece of paper for me, which I showed to the bus driver, telling him to please call it out when we got there.  After an hour’s ride, as the bus was roaring its way up a hill, after passing a sign announcing we were entering Plainfield, I was feeling nauseous from the jostling and lurching and the stuffy overcrowded interior.  Through the huge windshield I spotted my father ahead of us, standing at the corner at the crest of the hill.  I was already out of my seat and making my way down the aisle, holding on to the backs of the seats because of the swaying, when the driver called out my stop.  He opened the folding doors and there stood my father, framed in the doorway, wearing the same suit and white shirt and tie he’d worn the last time I’d seen him.  I descended the three steps to the sidewalk, and he held out his hand for me to shake, his face wearing an over-bright smile that seemed false, coming from him.  The smile faded when he looked at me closely.  “What’s wrong?”

I told him I wasn’t feeling so hot, and then I threw up on the sidewalk, some of it spattering on his shined shoes, which caused a look of disgust to cross his face.  For some reason the bus behind me had not moved on, and the driver inside was looking down at this little drama through the open doors.  My father’s look became stern, and he led me away, pulling me by the arm while wiping my mouth with a handkerchief, which he always carried in his inside coat pocket.  “We’ll get you some Seven-Up.  That should settle your stomach,” he said, the disappointment clear in his voice.  He stopped once, about a half-block along, to wipe the spatter of vomit off his shoes before throwing the handkerchief away into a public trash bin.

My visit, after we stopped at a soda shop for the Seven-up, which did make me feel better, consisted of him showing me the sites of Plainfield, none of which made an impression on me, and then taking me to see his rented room.  It was at the top of a flight of stairs in an old house on a tree-lined street, the house having apparently been converted from one large residence to a number of rooms for rent.  My father’s room had a bed and dresser, a nightstand with a lamp and an alarm clock, and a straight-backed chair set by the one window, where you could sit and enjoy the view of the street below.  A small radio stood on the floor next to the chair.  The bathroom, he told me, was down the hall and shared with another tenant, which seemed odd, but his room had a door he could lock with his own key.  For some reason that one fact impressed me, maybe because I had never had a room I could lock with a key.  Then I noticed there was no television, and of course he had no kitchen.  When I asked about these things, he said, “I never was much for television anyway, and there’s a diner I usually eat at.  I can sit at the counter and that way I don’t have to leave them a tip.”

The subject of tipping had always been a sore one between my father and my mother, on the rare occasions when we went out to eat.  He would say, “Why is it my fault they can’t find a job making a decent wage?”  But then he would grudgingly dole a meager tip when my mother insisted, so she wouldn’t feel embarrassed.  Now all that seemed from long bygone days.  Now he could eat at the counter at the diner all the time and not have to worry over the part about the tip.

Later, at the same diner, where we ate meatloaf, mashed potatoes and stringed beans, with a Jell-O dessert, he told me he’d gotten a job driving a truck for a vending machine company, making deliveries to factories and motels and other places with vending machines, stocking them with chips and candy and such.  It struck me as odd: why hadn’t he gotten another construction job driving heavy equipment, which would surely pay more money than this menial work?  So I asked: “Is it better than what you used to do?  Doesn’t construction pay more?” 

He thought for a minute before answering: “I didn’t care for the stress.  It’s a demanding job.  Besides, I don’t have such a hot employment record.  You take what you can get.”

I didn’t know what the “stress” part was about.  All I could imagine was him driving big monster earth-moving machines, which seemed glamorous, but what he told me next made me forget that.  He said my mother had asked for a divorce, which I hadn’t known until then.  A separation was one thing; there was the implied possibility they could still get back together.  But a divorce was final.  I didn’t say anything, but I realized what I had been seeing in my father that day that’d been different, that I hadn’t been able to put a name to: he seemed relieved, and it had to be over the divorce.  He was getting rid of a wife and a son who had become burdensome to him.  I held back the tears, but he must have read the expression on my face and placed a hand on my shoulder.  It was one of the few shows of affection I ever remembered from him.

The bus ride home went a lot better.  It was late and the bus was half empty and I took a seat next to a window and opened it to let the cooling night air wash over my face, keeping away the nausea.  Arriving home, I could see my mother reading my expression.  I must still have been showing the effect of what my father had told me.  “So, Jackie, I guess he said some things to you,” she said.  “So now you know.”

I wasn’t sure what I knew, but it had to be about the divorce.  I said nothing.

“Someday you’ll understand about your father,” she said.

“Understand what?” I asked, not sure what she was talking about.  I’d always felt I was just like him in a lot of ways, in the way he craved neatness and order in his life, and in his abhorrence of any hint of a mess—witness his mortification over the embarrassing display of me puking on the sidewalk in front of him, and it being viewed by the bus driver and, I suppose, the passengers on the bus.  Like him, I too had been mortified.  And like him, I instinctively sought out moments of solitude in my life, and perhaps I was realizing it for the first time.  I had immediately seen it in him that day—the way he looked and carried himself—that he liked the solitude of his new life; that he craved it.  He was fussy in his appearance—construction worker or not, he always wore a suit and a white shirt and tie for special occasions, even if we just went out to eat.  I began thinking of being more careful with my own appearance.  He was a notorious penny-pincher, and his explanation had always made sense to me, if to no one else: he hated waste, and wasting money was the worst kind of it.  Still, I waited for my mother’s explanation of what I would someday understand about him.  But she only said, “I trust he fed you.  It’s time for you to get ready for bed.”

* * *

The place where my father had gone when I was twelve was called Blue Hills Hospital.  Over the years I had heard it mentioned by my mother a few times, always spoken with the scornful tone she reserved for any mention of my father or his doings.  To me just the name had made it sound like an idyllic place, and I imagined rolling, tree-covered hills, a babbling stream and pretty nurses in white uniforms.  But my father, being a secretive man, had never talked about it, and I could never bring myself to ask.  Finally, though, I did learn of it in an oblique fashion.

I had just turned twenty-one and was a student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, and to celebrate the occasion of my officially becoming an adult, my father picked me up in his car and took me out for a drink, which turned into a few drinks, at a local watering hole near where he now lived in Morristown, New Jersey.  By then he had worked his way into a supervisory position at the vending machine company and no longer drove the delivery truck.  My mother had married and then divorced Bill, and she too was living alone, back in South Amboy in an apartment complex.  Maybe I was thinking they had more in common than I had thought, or maybe I was still harboring the secret boyhood dream that my father and mother might get back together again.  But I couldn’t just put it that way to him, so instead I said, “A few times Mom said someday I’d understand something about you, but she never said what.”  It had seemed a lame thing to say, since, over time, I had come to an understanding of my father—that he could be distant and moody, that he sometimes came across as unfeeling, that he was stern and taciturn, a perfectionist who expected the same from others.  But of all of that, so what?  Didn’t I, more and more as I grew older, have the same feelings?  Didn’t I see myself whenever I looked into his Irish mug?  Still, I had said what I had said, and now was embarrassed over it.  Maybe it was just the beer talking; I’d had several on an empty stomach.  My father had started with a boilermaker—a shot of Rye whiskey with a beer chaser—and was working on his third beer.  I wondered if he might pretend not to know what I was talking about, something he would sometimes do when he didn’t want to answer a question.  Instead he said, with a faraway look in his eye I thought of as expansive, “Your mother and I are just two different people, who probably never should have been married in the first place.”  That stung momentarily, because, if they had never married, I wouldn’t even exist.  I was still young enough to think that way.

He went on, gazing past the array of whiskey bottles doubled in the mirror behind them, stretching the length of the back bar.  Maybe he was watching himself, but it seemed he was looking beyond that with a faraway gaze.  “Your mother has a good heart.  She’s really a good person and probably deserved somebody better than me.  She certainly needed somebody different than me.”  He chuckled.  “I gave her a hard time in those days, but it was really all on me.  I just couldn’t accept the way my life was going and thought I was losing my mind.  I’m talking about the time just before I had to go away to that place.”  He turned to look me in the eye.  “Blue Hills, it was called, and what a name that was.  There were no blue hills there or hills at all that I ever saw.  It was an old, gray-stoned hospital that started out as a lunatic asylum way back in the nineteenth century.  It’s not that now, and it wasn’t when I went there.”  He wound down suddenly as if it was all there was.

“What did you do there?”

“Therapy.  That’s what they called it.  Sometimes group therapy, sometimes one-on-one with a doctor.  You talked and you talked until you began to wonder if you were saying what you really felt or just saying what you thought they wanted to hear.  And then there were the electroshock treatments.”

“That must have been awful.”  In my imagination I pictured electrodes attached to his skull and he writing in agony while strapped down to a table.  Maybe it was something I had picked up from some movie. 

“I don’t know,” he said, swirling his half-full beer glass in small circles.  He did it, he would say, to get a little head back on the beer, but I always thought it was just a nervous habit.  “I don’t remember the sessions themselves.  Maybe it’s just the way it works.  You don’t remember, or maybe you block them out over the years.  I only remember people standing around me, and then having something put into my mouth, so I wouldn’t bite my tongue off, so they told me.  And then I would wake up back in my own room feeling tired.”

“Didn’t it scare you?”

“No.  I looked forward to it.  I thought it might knock out the demons in me?”

I knew immediately what he meant by demons; didn’t I have some of my own?  But I asked the question anyway.  “Demons?  Like devils?”  I was kidding him a little, and I could see he knew it.

“No,” he said, still with the faraway look in his eye, but with a small smile now.  “Of my own making.”

“Did it work?”

“I thought so, but now I’m not so sure.  Sometimes I feel like they’re still there.”  He still wore the smile.  “But it’s not like that movie about the girl who’s possessed and turns her head all the way around and throws up green vomit.”

“The Exorcist.”

“That’s the one.  I never saw it, but I saw previews once at a movie house.  It was enough for me.”

* * *

I was forty years old when my father killed himself.  He was sixty-eight.  I was living in California, had been married and divorced and had a twelve-year old son, Jeffrey, who lived with his mother.  Other than one visit my father had made to California, when Jeffrey was five and I was still married and still with a family, I hadn’t seen him since I’d moved to San Francisco, and the little I had heard from him since was mostly through the occasional letter he would send.  I would call him from time to time, but he never called back; it was clear he’d never liked telephones.  The thoughtful pace of letter writing, and perhaps the time and distance a letter implied, suited him better, so it seemed.

I learned of his suicide from my mother, which seemed strange and unreal, so much so that I couldn’t bring myself to believe it at first.  Though I heard from her about as infrequently as I did from my father, I had kept in touch enough to know she lived in New York city with a man she called Fred, whose given name was Manfred, who was German born and ran an art gallery in Greenwich Village.  It sometimes occurred to me, over the years, how little I understood of my parents, despite what I thought I knew.

Still, there were the occasional attempts at reaching out between my mother and me—on Christmas, when she would call me or I would call her—or on our birthdays.  If I managed to remember hers, I would call her, and she always called me on mine.  But it wasn’t one of those occasions when the phone rang one evening and my mother’s voice came across the line.  After a brief hello, she said, “You’d better sit down.”

I didn’t, though.  I was standing next to the wall phone in the kitchen of my small San Francisco apartment.  I said,” What is it?”

“Your father’s dead.”

Maybe it was from the shock of hearing what she’d just said, but all I could think of was: how would she know?  That was immediately followed by another thought: had they gotten together secretly, without them telling me?  And what had happened with Fred, her Greenwich Village boyfriend?  I dismissed all that; it just wasn’t possible.  “How could that be?” I asked, which seemed a ridiculous question under the circumstances.

“He killed himself.”

I finally did sit on a chair at the kitchen table.  “What the hell?”

“Oh, the poor tortured soul,” she said.  “I always thought he would do it.  You know, he tried once before you were born.  And then again when you were little.  He made me promise never to tell you.  But what difference does it make now?”

It was beginning to sink in, and I began to believe it.  “But how did you find out?”

“He had a girlfriend living with him.  Did you know that?”  There was a hint of amusement in her voice.  “A Puerto Rican girl, Rose.  No, Rosa,” she said, with a hard “s” sound.  “That’s it, Rosa.”

“No, I didn’t know.  How did you?”

“Well, I didn’t, but she called me.  Apparently she came home from work and found him in the bathtub.  He slashed his wrists and didn’t want to make a mess.”  A catch came into her voice.  “The poor man.”

I was trying to avoid the images entering my head.  “But how did she know to call you?”

“He had my number, somehow.  I must have given it to him for some reason when I moved, though I don’t remember.  He had it written in a notebook with a few other numbers, including yours, but she said she was afraid to call you.  She knew about you, and about me too.  Your father obviously told her.  I can’t imagine him having a Puerto Rican girlfriend.  Can you?  She sounded young too.”

The information was coming too fast now.  I asked, “How do know this is real?  And how do you know she’s Puerto Rican?

“She told me a little about herself.  She was born in this country, but her parents came from Puerto Rico.  I guess that makes her an American citizen.  Puerto Ricans are citizens automatically, aren’t they?  But then, being born here would make her a citizen too, no matter what.”

My mother was rambling, and I was still trying to get it into my head that my father was no longer anywhere in this world.  Then she said something that brought me out of my scatter-shot thoughts: “He left a note with your name on it.”

“What did it say?”

“It was in a sealed envelope and Rosa didn’t open it.  Do you want me to give you her number?  You can call her.”

Her number would be my father’s number too.  But then, it wouldn’t really be his anymore.  I couldn’t imagine calling it now.

“You’re going to come and take care of things, aren’t you?” my mother said.

I hadn’t even thought about that.  “Of course.  I’ll get on a plane and be there in the morning.  I’ll rent a car and come pick you up.”  I was already thinking of a funeral and my mother being there.  I wasn’t thinking of my father’s Puerto Rican girlfriend.

“No,” she said.  “Come by after you take care of things.”

“Well, where is he now?”

“Rosa didn’t know what to do, so she called for an ambulance, and they took him away.  He must be in the morgue in the hospital there in Morristown.”

After we had hung up I was struck by two odd similarities with some inner connection I hadn’t yet gleaned: one was, I was the same age of forty my father had been when he had effectively left my life, twenty-eight years ago; the other was, I had a twelve-year-old son, the same age as I was when my father went away for his rest from which he never really returned.  

* * *

Over the course of his life, there had been little that surprised me about my father.  Not even his disappearance when I was twelve had come as a surprise.  It had come more like a culmination of a pattern of his behavior.

Now there was his suicide, and it too came as if I had been expecting it.  I hadn’t, but it felt that way.  But Rosa came as a surprise—the fact of a Rosa, or anyone in his life, was unexpected.  Before leaving for the airport the next morning I finally did call her, but not at my father’s number.  It was a different number my mother had given me.  “After what happened, she said she couldn’t stay in that apartment,” my mother had said.  “She’s staying with a friend.” 

When I talked to Rosa she agreed to meet me at my father’s apartment, the same one in Morristown where he’d lived for the past twenty years.  I arrived there after flying all night on the redeye from San Francisco to Newark airport and driving to his place in a rented car.  On the flight, I had spent all my time thinking of him and his life and how he’d ended it, and the course of my thoughts had brought me to accept what he’d done.  I understood it; he had a right to put his tormented soul to rest.  Still, arriving at his apartment, I had the odd notion none of it was real.  After trudging up the four flights of stairs to his top-floor apartment and ringing his bell, I half expected him to answer the door.  It had been years since I had been there, but it all seemed as familiar as if I’d been there yesterday: there was the same smell of mustiness, not quite masked by the cleaning fluids used on the tile floors of the hallways; the same echoing of my footsteps on the stairs, up through the open stairway.

Rosa answered my ring almost immediately, with a look on her face that she was about to cry, though she didn’t.  She said, “You must be Jackie.”  She starred at me for a few seconds and then said, “You look like your father.”  Then she closed her eyes as if she’d regretted saying it.  “Come in,” she said and stood aside so I could enter.  “I’m so sorry,” she added.

Inside, the place looked the same as the last time I’d seen it, but there were differences too.  There was the same old couch with the sagging cushions, the same big easy chair, as my father had called it, bearing the imprint of years of being occupied by his skinny frame, even the same old television, which he hardly watched.  The differences were touches that must have come from Rosa: colorful prints hanging on the walls, where before they had always been bare; sheer curtains at the single window of the living room and a window box full of yellow flowers outside; and two walls of the room painted a muted red color.  There were embroidered doilies on the arms of the couch and chair and a checkered tablecloth on the table in the small kitchenette adjoining the room.  I took it all in and then turned to face Rosa, who was watching me with a sad expression.  She was trim and attractive, with streaks of gray in her dark hair, not as young as my mother had believed, perhaps fifty.  Still, that would make her eighteen years younger than my father.  Looking at her I felt a mix of envy and admiration that the old man had snagged such a good-looking younger woman as Rosa.  She broke the mood by appearing again as if she might cry and saying for the second time, “I’m so sorry.”

I was still unable to quite get over the feeling my father was here, as if he might pop out from the short hallway leading to his bedroom, wearing a grin and saying, “surprise.”  Feeling ridiculous, I nevertheless moved automatically toward the bedroom.  In there was another difference, a king-sized bed taking up half the small room, rather than the sagging, almost monastic old single bed he’d slept in for years.  This king-sized bed, covered with a cream-colored comforter and a half dozen pillows arranged at the head, was where he had slept with Rosa and apparently made love to her.  Again the envy and admiration came over me.  She was standing behind me.  “I still can’t believe he’s gone,” she said.  “Your father was such a wonderful man.  He was so kind and considerate, and he loved people.  And people loved him.”

My mother had told me Rosa had been born in this country, but I heard the slightest hint of an accent in her voice.  Maybe she had grown up speaking Spanish with her parents.  And maybe it was just the emotion of the moment, making her speak of my father in the way people always speak of the dead, saying nothing but good things.  Or maybe he had really changed.  Maybe Rosa had changed him.  I don’t know if I believed it, but what I did know was the man she’d just described didn’t sound like my father. 

I turned to look at her and saw tears about to spill from her eyes, and I reached into my pocket and brought out my handkerchief and handed it to her, reminded of the time I had thrown up one the sidewalk and my father had used his handkerchief to wipe my mouth and then his vomit-spattered shoes.

She dabbed at her eyes and looked around at the room.  “Everything in this place belongs to you now,” she said.  “Maybe you’ll want to sell it, I don’t know.”

“No, it’s yours, all of it.  I can see you in everything.  You really made him a nice home.”  I wanted to reach out to her, to reassure her with a touch, but I felt my father’s reticence, as much a part of my makeup as his, holding me back.  

“Thank you.  I tried.”  She looked around again.  “I don’t know if I can stay here, though.  We’ll see.”

We went back down the short hallway toward the living room.  The bathroom door was half way down the hall, and I stopped and reached in and switched on the light.  My eyes sought out the tub where Rosa had found my father, but a pale yellow shower curtain encircled it, hiding it from view.  For that I was grateful; I really didn’t want to see it anyway.  Everything else in the small room was clean and orderly.  On a shelf above the sink there were bottles of lotions and jars of cream that must have been Rosa’s; more of the same were on the sill of the small frosted window.

“I found him there in the tub” she said and then started to cry in earnest and went to the living room.  I followed and she sat on the couch and wept silently for a minute, holding my handkerchief to her eyes.  Then she stopped and looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes.  “I’m sorry.”

We looked at each other for a minute, and then she reached for an envelope on the coffee table in front of her and handed it to me.  It had the single word, “Jackie,” written on it in my father’s slanted script.  Tears gathered at my eyes, the first time I had come close to crying since I had first heard the news.  I wiped them away and Rosa offered me my handkerchief.  Shaking my head I tore open the envelope and extracted a single page of writing paper, the same paper he’d always used in his letters to me.  Words in the same slanted script of his were written there, though I couldn’t read them at first.  I blinked the tears away and focused on the words.

I have no explanation other than to say life can get to be too much for you.  I hope you’ll forgive me and understand.  I think you will, though I don’t know about Rosa.  Maybe you can explain it to her.  She’s a good woman and she doesn’t deserve this. 

I will ask one thing.  I want to be cremated and I want my ashes to be scattered at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC.  It will only be a symbolic gesture and I can’t explain it other than to say it’s my way of protest against all wars and governments.  One other thing.  Take your boy Jeffrey with you to the wall.  I think you should share this with him.  I know it must sound strange and I know I only met him the one time on my visit to California a few years back but I have a feeling about him.  He’s not like you or me and maybe that’s a good thing.

I stared at the letter, trying to take it all in.  The last part, He’s not like you or me and maybe that’s a good thing, struck me as something I’d always known without realizing.  The rest was dimly registering.  In all his life he had never once mentioned Vietnam; where had that come from?  Then I tried imagining the scattering of his ashes in a very public place.  What came to mind was a picture of me being arrested.  I handed the letter to Rosa, who read it and stared at it the same way I had.  Without looking up she said, “He said maybe you could explain it to me.”

“I don’t know if I can,” I said.  Then I remembered what my father had told me years ago, when I had celebrated my twenty-first birthday with him.  “Demons.  He had his demons.  I guess they got to be too much for him.”

“Demons?”  She seemed to think that over for a minute.  “Maybe.  Sometimes he did seem so sad.  I couldn’t even talk to him.  Other times, especially if he had a few drinks, he seemed fine.  It was like he was two different people.”  She shook her head, still looking down at the letter in her hand.  “But who ever thought he’d do this?”

I didn’t want to tell her I wasn’t surprised. 

She handed the letter back and said, “He used to talk about that war, you know.  How much he hated it.  And Iraq too.  The first one they called The Gulf War, and then this new one they just started for not much reason except the oil.  He used to go on and on about it.”

There had been the surprise of Rosa being a part of my father’s life, and now this other surprising thing, this political turn of his.  It was something I never would have guessed at.

She asked, “Are you going to do what he asked?”

I had to think about it for a minute.  “I guess I have to.”

“You don’t have to.  It won’t matter.”  She looked away.  Her shoulders slumped and her expression turned suddenly tired.  The abrupt change seemed a peculiarly Latin gesture, conveying an old-world weariness over the sad turns life inevitably took, even though she was no more of the old world than I.  “All of this is just too much,” she said and then looked up in a surprised way and let out a sad laugh.  “Look who’s telling who.”

“Well,” I said, at a loss for something to say before settling on, “I have to do it.”

“The world is for the living.  The dead are just dead.”

I couldn’t disagree.

“But you have to do what you have to do,” she said.

“Would you like to come with me?” I asked.  “To the Wall, in D.C?”

She shook her head.  “I can’t even imagine it.”

I tried doing that for a second time.  “Neither can I.”

Her eyes were dry now, looking at me.  “When will you go?”

“As soon as I can?”  There was nothing else left to do or to say except to ask, “Where is my father now?”

“He’s at a funeral parlor.  The hospital said they couldn’t keep him at the morgue there, and I didn’t know what else to do.”

“I need to go see him,” I said.  “Will you come with me?”


When we entered the funeral parlor a man emerged almost immediately from an office near the entrance.  I told him who I was and who my father was, and he nodded, his hands folded in front of him.  “Where is he now?” I asked.

“He’s downstairs in our basement.  He’s being kept in cold storage until we received instructions from you.”  He spoke in a near whisper, and he looked at me with soft eyes.

“I’d like to see him.” 

The man nodded again, almost a bow of his head.  “It will take a few minutes to have him brought up.  If you’ll have a seat I’ll take care of it.”  While the man disappeared down a hallway, we sat in two chairs set against the wall, separated by a small, highly polished wooden table.  We said nothing.  The man returned in about ten minutes and we rose and he ushered us partway down the hallway and into a small room off to one side.  He backed out and closed the door, leaving Rosa and me standing side-by-side, alone with my father, or what seemed to be a wax impression of him.  He was laid out in a plain wooden box that looked as though it might have once been used as a shipping container.  He wore the kind of green gown doctors and nurses wore in the OR, covering him to his knees and covering his arms down past his wrists.  I was grateful for that; I didn’t want to see what he had done to himself.  I stood and looked down at this caricature of my father.  Still, I could see it was him.

Rosa approached the box and put her hand on his cheek in a caressing way.  Tears ran down her face again, which she wiped away with my handkerchief stilled clutched in her other hand.  It must have been sodden by now.  “The poor man,” she said.  “At least he’s in a better place.  Then she turned to me, her hand still on his face.  “He’s like ice.”

When we left the room I closed the door behind us, closing it on my father’s life, so it seemed.  The man emerged from his office and I said to him, “I want my father to be cremated and I want to take the ashes with me.  Can you do that?”

“Of course.”  He gestured toward a cabinet against the opposite wall.  “If you’d like, you can choose from our selection of urns.”  We went over and looked through the glass doors at several shelves containing urns of various shapes and sizes, even one in the shape of a cowboy boot.  Rosa and I both stared at it, and when we looked at each other we exchanged a smile.  I spotted a plain urn with a polished veneer of variegated shades of green, light and dark blending together.  Green had always been my father’s favorite color.  I pointed at it and said, “That one.”

* * *

That night, at the motel I had picked for a one-night stay, after a long telephone conversation with my mother in New York, I called Jeffrey’s mother in Palo Alto, California.  After I explained what I wanted to do, she argued briefly, but I could tell her heart wasn’t in it.  I was the bereaved; I could hear it in her voice: “But you’ll be taking him out of school,” she said.

“Just for a few days.  Besides, it’ll be educational for him.  He’s never been to Washington.”

“That’s true.  But it’s such an odd request.”

“My father was an odd man,” I said.  “It’s the only way I can say it.”

She had barely known him, having met him only the one time when he visited us in California years before.  “Well, I guess that must be true.”

I asked to speak to Jeffrey, and when he came on I explained what I wanted to do.

“That’s something,” he said, not sounding at all certain it was something he wanted any part of.  “He was in Vietnam, wasn’t he?”

I was surprised to hear him say that, since I’d never told him.  He must have gotten it from his mother.

“He was, but he wasn’t a soldier.  He was a civilian worker.”

“I didn’t even know there was such a thing in a war.”

“He asked me to take you along,” I told him.  “You don’t have to go.  Only if you want to.”

There was silence for a moment.  “Okay.”

“I doubt you even remember him.”

“No, I do.  He was nice.  He seemed sad sometimes, but he was nice.”

Again I wondered, as with Rosa, if he had said that automatically, in the way people believe you must always say good things about the dead, even if you are only twelve years old.  But then I decided to believe him; he had really meant it. 

* * *

His plane from San Francisco into Washington National Airport arrived about an hour after mine from Newark Airport.  I stood waiting for him outside the security gate, carrying a small bag containing the polished urn in variegated shades of green I had picked up from the funeral parlor.  Earlier, at my motel room, after packing my one bag, I had looked into the urn, opening the snug-fitting top and peeking inside, seeing what looked like fireplace ashes mixed with bits of bone.  Quickly I had replaced the top and gone to the airport for the short trip to DC.

Now, spotting Jeffrey emerging from behind the security gates, his twelve-year-old slightly built frame partially hidden by other passengers moving around him, I felt a jolt of gladness.  We had never been a family to demonstrate our feelings, which I suppose I picked up from my father, but as he approached me, wearing an awkward smile, I moved forward and put my arms around him, my one hand still holding on to the bag containing the urn, and I kissed him on the cheek.  He seemed surprised at first and slightly embarrassed, but then he returned my hug.  When we stepped apart, he seemed about to say something, maybe a clever remark, but a different look came over his face and he said in a grown-up voice, “It’s good to see you, Dad.”

Downstairs we passed up the baggage carousel, and he stopped and said, pointing at it, “I brought a bag with me.  We have to wait for it to come out.”

“We’ll pick it up later,” I said.  “They take the ones nobody claims and set them aside.  Mine’s already over there against the wall.”  I pointed at a collection of suitcases and garments bags and backpacks that had been set aside.

He looked at the small bag containing the urn, still in my hand.  “Are the ashes in there?” he asked.  I nodded.

Outside we headed for the taxi queue.  “Where are we going?” he asked.

“To the Vietnam Wall,” I said.

He looked momentarily puzzled, maybe thinking, aren’t we going to check into a hotel first? –or– aren’t we going to get something to eat?  But then he said with a shrug and a smile, “Okay.”

After telling the cabbie to drop us off at the Vietnam Wall I sat back and realized I still had no plan for this.  The cabbie negotiated his way through the busy midday DC traffic and stopped across from the Lincoln Memorial; I recognized it right away from seeing it in pictures or television.  On the sidewalk, across the road from the Lincoln, there was a number of souvenir stands selling Vietnam War memorabilia.  The cabbie pointed out the window past the souvenir stands and said, “The Wall’s over there.  You can’t miss it.”

We got out and walked the way he’d pointed and soon enough it came into view, and we stood for a moment looking at it, the series of upright panels of polished, black granite formed into the shape of a shallow V descending down a gentle slope and then back up at the other end.  There was a walkway next to the Wall so you could read what was on the panels, and we started down, seeing a few names appearing on the first wedge-shaped panel and then more names as the panels became increasingly larger.  I was in a semi daze as we moved past them, while people moved slowly around us in both directions—men, women, children, a few of the men wearing baseball caps bearing the names of some military unit—everyone hazily reflected in the polished surface of the panels.  Some seemed to be searching the panels, for a particular name, I supposed, though I could see no order in the names.  Some would reach out and touch a name on one of the panels.  I stopped and stared at the whole scene, of the Wall and the people searching the Wall.  Jeffrey stopped alongside and asked.  “What now?”

“I don’t know.”  I watched and wondered what my father would have done. 

At the far end I could see the Wall ended on an upslope and the panels grew smaller in size, just as they had where we had started.  We walked up the slope and turned around and looked back down the length of the Wall.  I could see now it was set into the ground like a retaining wall, with grass growing on the ground above it.  “Why don’t we go up on top,” I said, meaning the grassy ground above the Wall.

“Maybe we’re not supposed to,” he said.

“No, it’ll be okay,” I said.  We were at the top of the sloped walkway, and I could see people walking on the grass, among some trees at a distance away from the Wall. 

We stepped onto the grass and walked off at an angle and stopped.  I looked around.  What now?  When I looked at Jeffrey his expression seemed to be asking the same question.  “So we’re going to scatter the ashes, right?” he said.

 “I guess.”

“How about in the grass above the Wall?”  He pointed back to where the grass ended and the top of the Wall began.

“I don’t know.  It seems so anti-climatic.”  What I was thinking was, where is the romantic gesture?  A romantic gesture was what I was beginning to believe my father had in mind.

He looked up at the tops of some trees.  “Well, it’s kind of a windy day, and the wind will be behind us.”

He had a look on his face I remembered from when he was three or four—mischievous—and I knew what he was thinking.  We walked over near the edge of the grass, where it met the top of the Wall.  Looking down at the people slowly walking along below, most off them gazing up at the Wall, I could feel the breeze at my back.  A man holding a clipboard and wearing a baseball cap with some emblems pinned on it, who looked like he might be some kind of guide, stood off the opposite side of the walkway looking up at us curiously.  Hurrying now because I saw other people spotting us and staring up, I set down the bag and took out the urn and pulled off the snug-fitting top.  I took one last look down, holding the urn out at waist level, and paused.  The people below seemed to get the idea of what was about to happen and started to hurry away, but one older man staring at the Wall, whose view of me was probably blocked by the bill of his cap, wasn’t moving.  Finally he walked off slowly and I upended the urn, shaking it so the ashes and bits of bone poured out, some of the heavier bits falling into the grass at my feet but most of the rest of it taken by the breeze, my father’s ashes spraying out onto the walkway below and on a few of the people, even though they had been moving off.  It reminded me of the over-spray of my vomit falling on my father’s shoes those years ago.  There were shrieks and angry shouts, and when the urn was empty I replaced the top, grabbed the bag, threw the urn inside, and Jeffrey and I ran off, giggling like kids.  Finally I believed I had gotten the idea of my father’s last wish.



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