– From “The Mourning After”, a novel by Edward Fahey:
I played like this many a long gray afternoon, thirsting for the world beyond windows. Neighbors shuffled by but didn’t wave back. Some guarded their children when they saw me, as though congenital defects and loneliness were contagious, even at a distance and through glass. Those were gentler years when folks went out of their ways to not notice, but I spent a lot of time yearning through the shades; I watched them pointing without pointing, shaking their heads, cupping their secrets into each other’s ears.
Hours stretched longer when I was a kid. I knew I might not make it through to adulthood, but hadn’t grasped the full implications of that. Something had gone horribly wrong at my birth, so my father would never have his little soldier, Mom would never have her home filled with tiny scampering joy, and we each clutched our guilt very privately.
I’d been walled in since birth. Over-protected to the point of emotional crippling. I’m just now discovering that along with home schooling me in math, history, and language skills, my mom slipped in lessons on the torturous enrichment of loving too much; lessons I’m sure she hadn’t intended….
… “Honey, your father could be home any minute,” Mom told me; startling me out of my distraction. “You can leave your animals where they are for now. Just clear off the ones near the table where your father will see them.”
After another pause, “Denis. – Honey. – Please?”
I got ready, but “Sergeant Carl” didn’t come home for a while. I washed up and changed to “fresh clothes for your father.” They were warm and smelled of ironing. I caressed them softly to my cheek as I turned back toward my mother, who was scurrying around at the other end of the hallway. Folding the ironing board up with a hoarse, friendly skraaack! Hiding baskets of folded clothes quickly in the closet. Smoothing the wrinkles out of her apron but then taking it off anyway, folding it neatly, and placing it in its drawer….
… Suddenly I felt as much as saw Mom snap to attention, slap on her best smile, and launch into a flurry of activity. Out in the driveway, Dad was belting out a robustly cadenced song about caissons rolling and field artillery. No longing for loved ones left behind; no reverence for the nation or its deity; just stampeding over the enemy with arrogant pride.
We heard the war song and knew where he’d been. We knew he’d come in smelling of cigarettes and beer. He marched to the vestibule, into the house, and slammed up against our alternate reality. I didn’t need to look up to watch his face and spirit sag, forced to once again acknowledge the son who would never be a hero. I knew he’d be staring at me as he greeted my Mom. Checking his disappointment at the door, stuffing his sense of loss into private pockets he thought we couldn’t poke into.
After a long moment of readjustment, of just standing there, putting World War II buddies back onto his own inner shelves, he stepped the rest of the way into our home and, as much as he could, into our lives. He turned away, eased his sample case down onto the floor of the closet so slowly that it didn’t make a sound. I heard the metallic scrape and clinkling as he dropped his coat onto a hanger. With his back to us both, he asked Mom, “How’s the boy?”
“Denis is fine,” Mom reminded him of my name. I knew she’d then offer me a wink and a smile. I tried to smile back, but my chin was too deeply buried in my neck. “We went to Africa today. We helped fight a war to free the slaves. Then our little man helped me make dinner.”
I really hadn’t. I’d only wanted to.
“That’s good, good,” Dad said. “I need to wash up.”
He stood there a moment after turning back around; a moment that felt long and heavy, like a gray rainy day. He was wearing his special salesman shoes. Orangeish brown wingtips. “Twenty-five-dollar Florsheims but worth every penny. A man’s gotta show he’s a man, that he’s got control of his world.” Looking down at them as we all stood unmoving, I could have spat out that long practiced defense, but it would only have left me feeling guilty and broken. I was holding him back.
There were dustings of peanut shell powder below his knees and two or three small spills or splashes, some crushed shell webbing in the cuffs Mom had ironed to perfect steak knife creases, but nothing really out of the ordinary.
Mom’s feet had changed from the stained tennis shoes that always reminded her she was “home with her favorite little fella,” to conservative, respectable pumps. Barely moving now, they shifted and rocked through their choppy, but timeworn, minimalist pas de none; like they wanted to run forward and pull back in the same instant.
Dad was home.
Caught up in moments like this, which lingered awkwardly, but passed all too quickly, I liked to imagine my father’s hand wavering, just above my head, almost ready to pat me.
But not quite.
After a time, I watched Mom’s knees buckle, felt her arm slipping around behind me, her hand hooking my far shoulder with a gentle Mom’s nudge, drawing me closer in to her. “Come on, Sweetie, get out of your father’s way. I’m sure he wants to go in and freshen up. He’s had a hard day.”
My father’s legs stood there, straight, strong and unyielding. He let out a sigh before he moved past us. I’m sure he never meant to make me feel small. He was a great man in his own way, a “pillar in our community,” The Levittown Times had called him. President of the local Kiwanis club, he led charity drives for other kids at Christmas. He was chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, of The American Cancer Society, founder of this and that. He was away most nights doing good work. He spent so much time helping others that he was rarely home, so you had to give him points for altruism anyway. Everybody loved Sergeant Carl. I’m sure at moments like this he must have felt if I didn’t actually look up and see him sigh, I probably wouldn’t hear it either. He really didn’t want to hurt me.
At least I hope he gave things like that a little thought.
For the next twenty minutes or so I stood on the edge, between dining area and living room, watching Mom scurry back and forth between kitchen and table. My father lingered on his “throne.” Then I listened to him gargling away hours of waving mugs with his war buddies down at Clancy’s; counting on a stinging penitential rinse to make things right. Now was the time to put all that away, anchor into that courage, and do the right thing as head of the family.
Mom busied herself nestling steaming bowls and dishes into position as I stood around the corner of the fireplace, watching. After Dad had changed his shirt, he walked as proudly as he could back down the hall, to take his time-honored position at the head of the table. I climbed up onto my chair next, and then it was Mom’s turn in our little dinner ritual. Her job was to check my fingernails; a warm, friendly, but unnecessary rite since we both knew all the dirt was outside where I couldn’t get near it.
She placed my hands back beside my plate and nodded a smile toward my father, who’d been watching. Only then did he tell us, “Let’s say grace.” We folded our hands, closed our eyes, bowed our heads, and eavesdropped, as he spat the words out as though they left a sour taste in his mouth and he couldn’t wait to unload them. “Bless us Oh Lord in these thy gifts which of thy bounty we are about to receive through Christ our Lord Amen. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost Amen.”
I waved my hands through the obligatory gestures, feeling there had to be more to God and spirit than that.