"I'd forgotten his name until he came back yesterday."
"Wonder why he bothered coming back?"
"Guess he wanted to see his daddy put in the ground, I imagine," another voice spoke.
"Yeah, maybe, but I heard . . . " the voice was lowered to a decibel that could only be understood if one were standing near the speaker.
The funeral home smelled of fresh cut flowers and death. The six old men who would serve as pallbearers stood off to the left of the viewing area in an alcove, whispering among themselves.
The oldest son made his way toward the casket, eyes straight ahead, acknowledging no one. He stood at parade-rest; staring down at the remains of the man he had called Daddy.
Mingling with the odor of flowers and death were the unmistakable, rotten-egg smell of the International Paper Company, where the father had toiled most of his life.
That smell was a part of life and wasn't noticeable except when company from somewhere outside the local area came to call. Soon they would wrinkle their noses and complain about the odor coming from the smokestacks. The mother would always smile as she said, "Smells like bacon and eggs to me."
The son closed his eyes in an attempt to stop tear from trekking down his cheek. He was sad his father was gone, but after all, he had lived to eighty-four. The son's pain came with the realization that his father had spent most of his life as a scapegoat and verbal punching bag for Orean, his wife of fifty-six years.
When the son opened his eyes he was shocked to see that the waxy expression on his father's face had changed. Could the dead smile? His father seemed to be smiling.
When he bent to see more clearly, something happened that he would never forget, nor understand. It was like a thousand dusty, shuttered windows inside his mind were suddenly flung open and a thousand doors thrust aside, revealing long-forgotten phrases; sentences; images. Ghostly faces of the father's youth, dead memories he had spoken about during his lifetime materialized inside the son's thoughts.
Voices and faces whirled inside his head obliterating any sense of time and place. He had been mentally, magically, transformed back to his father's springtime of life; to a scene he remembered from an old grainy black and white photo taken long ago.
The father and his brother were sitting on a fallen oak tree, his father with a guitar on his knee, the brother, a fiddle knotted under his chin. It was an exciting time in his father's newlywed life; but he was also among the great throng of unemployed men in America in 1930, compliments of the Great Depression.
The son's thoughts completely absorbed him. It was as though he was hovering over a play in progress. A play acted out decades past by real people doing real things . . . Bits and pieces of the father's anecdotes over the years, sublimely, profoundly, being relived. As he stared down into the forever stilled face in the casket he was seeing the launching of the tragic comedy which was his father's life. What he was hearing were private whispers from lips eternally sealed by death's insolent kiss.
It was a time of great hardship for his guitar-picking father and the fiddle-playing brother - and most of America - a year after their world had been turned upside down by the stock market crash. The two men were sharing a jar of homemade whiskey, playing; singing the song of the times:
Hoover blew the whistle,
Mellon rang the bell,
Wall Street gave the signal,
And the country went to hell.
At the end of the rendition a tick-infested redbone hound lying beside them bore tribute to the world's suffering as he lifted bloodshot eyes toward a Ming-blue sky and howled a mournful, last sad note to the words made popular about the crash of '20.
The brothers finished the quart jar of clear moonshine whiskey and, after applying themselves to a spirited tune called Sally Good'en, then left the small clearing going in different directions. The father taking the path to the shotgun house he shared with his wife, the brother to look for more whiskey.
The father still wasn't sure how it had all come about, his marriage to the much younger woman. He'd heard the story though, of how, when the wife first laid eyes on his when she was twelve years old, had told everybody within her circle of acquaintances that she was going to grow up to marry him. He guessed he was satisfied with that. She did have a mouth on her though, something she concealed from him during the courting.
"Last time you'll ever drink whiskey and come home to me," the mother said, standing in the doorway of the two-room shack, legs planted wide apart, dishtowel slung over her shoulder, a large wrought-iron skillet in her hand.
The father, tipsy, and until then, unafraid of his wife, laughed and walked past her, intending to sleep off the effects of the whiskey. What happened next was never quite clear in the son's mind because it seemed to vary whenever, and whoever, was telling it.
The father never spoke of it. The mother brought it up whenever she thought it was to her favor. Busybody aunts and other relatives were prone to embellishing the story at family get-togethers.
The result of the mother's action with the skillet, however it happened, persuaded the father that demon rum was best left to others. His drinking days were over. His commitment to his marriage was fixed, never to be subject of speculation again. The son honestly believed his father had never looked at another woman with anything resembling Jimmy Carter's lust.
What demons the mother hadn't swatted out with the skillet she spent the rest of her days nagging down to a bitter nub. This was acceptable to the father, especially after the son arrived one dark, stormy night by way of a wayward, unmarried relative who had gotten large with child. The mother took the son as her own and father's pride accepted the same.
He came by a sawmill job driving a truck for seventy-five cents a day. Father worked and mother kept the shotgun house spotless and the son healthy. This was as it should be when there were responsibilities. This was why God gave father's strong backs and mother's nurturing inclinations. Life was plain and unadorned, but good.
However, a woman’s ambitions can cast dark shadows over a man's lackadaisical attitudes. This was the specter hovering over the father even as he thought all was well within his limited world. The country was clawing itself out of the depression; the father had been raised to a dollar and a half a day in pay. Life was better.
It wasn't enough for the wife, however, and he was to be relocated out of the piney woods of his ancestry to the nearby town where the paper mill was located. Wife was covetous of town dwelling, never fulfilled with country life. She needed to be close to the stores; people. She was one who fancied showing off what she had although what she had wasn't much. Except for one thing.
He was a jewel, all the women of the town said in unison. The wife reveled, explaining to one and all that determination and a black iron skillet was all a woman needed to channel a man into what a wife expected him to be.
Was the mother a heaven-sent nymph or a sorceress from the bowels of Hades, whose only existence centered on tormenting the father? A soul-sucker and abuser of children? Yes, to all these portraitures. In the end, as she grew into something to ridicule, he became saintly.
Growing up, the son found the father's love restrained . . . fatherly duties performed almost by rote. From the mother a tornado of emotions. Her love all-encompassing. Smothering. A violent love which manifested itself by slaps to the face or the blood-letting of the disciplinary belt.
Through it all the father sailed a steady course of provider. More children were brought into the awkward nest. Three more unmarried, pregnant women, three more boys the mother sought custody of. These siblings were to somehow make up for the sins of the firstborn; the ungrateful one. In the end, the son thought maybe they had. They, at least never strayed far from the unnatural den.
If the father took his responsibilities for the welfare of his family seriously, he was to find out that nurturing wasn't the end-all for the wife. The mother embarked on a lifelong career of victimization and sacrificing her very soul for one or all of her brood. It was all part of her plan to be presented that elusive star in her crown when she at last made it into heaven.
The son knew what it was to be blamed for her sorrows. The mother, when not faulting the father, had the son on standby to share the blame for her wretchedness. She was proficient in knowing the words to say that would cleave his heart to its core.
The father built their two-bedroom home from the ground up. The son, old enough to want to help but only able to get in the way, saw pride on the father's face when it was completed. A thing well done. Never mind the mother's comments. He had built something that would survive him. Part of his soul was molded within the framework of the house.
She filled it with things. Sears and Roebuck things. Montgomery Ward. Bric-a-brac and things. Things. She looked around and decided that something was missing. Love. When she undertook to give the house love she became confused. Tried too hard. Gave love until it hurt her in the giving, and the son and father caught the residue of her inept love-giving. Her love hurt.
The father as a man was only the sum total of his place in time. He could never be accused of being an evil person although he used the nigger word all his life. He never believed Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. "Arizona desert," he'd snort.
The years disappeared as they are wont to do and the house settled into a home. What represented love found its way inside. The son scorned it and left, to search for it somewhere else. Anywhere else. Now he was back, and having found this love, he was fearful it would be swallowed up in the house of his youth.
He brought the love he had found back home yesterday. She received the obligatory hugs and kisses, from relatives not at all sure what the prodigal had fetched into their midst. From relatives not at all sure what the prodigal had fetched into their midst. The house smelled of impending death. Soiled bedclothes. Misery and woe filled the mother's face. Nothing had changed. Except the father. He lay dying and when the son approached the deathbed, the father's eyes had been closed.
"Daddy?" the son had said, leaning close to him.
The father snapped open his eyes, looked into the son's face as if he were looking at himself, and said in a clear, loud voice, so like him, "Where you been? Are you all right?" He closed his eyes and died.
Leaving the mother. Alone. No, she had the brood. Those who didn't leave. And their children. The grandchildren. It would not be the same, though. The son came to believe that at last the mother understood what the father had been to her, and the void he would leave in her world.
† † † † † †
Thunder shook the small funeral home and lightning illuminated the dimly lit room. A hard-driving rain pelted the windows and jolted the son from his reverie. He beheld the corpse of his father again and smiled satisfactorily, remembering an old saying he had heard somewhere.
It went something like, "The deeds of a kind man follow him like his shadow all of his days." The son's smile grew wider, knowing that the father's deeds had preceded him, making the road he was traveling now easier and less bumpy. He was as convinced of that as he was that the heavens were heralding his arrival with trumpets and fanfare befitting a fine and good man.