Fiction by Stephen J. Golds

The old man always liked to say he’d outlive me. He was wrong about that. Wrong about a lot of things as so many fathers are inclined to be. My sister, she was the one called me to let me know. Her voice sounding like a foreign language down the telephone line, it’d been so long since I’d heard it. Missed the funeral. Of course. Spent that afternoon drinking in a dark bar down in Jackson. This right here, probably be the closest thing to a eulogy from me, I suppose. 

Mary Beth, my sister, she called me again a couple of days later. After she put him in the ground and started trying to get his affairs into some kind of an orderly fashion. Real pissed, course she never told me that in so many words, but I heard it there in her voice. In the intonation at the end of her words. She takes after my father in that way. Said she needed me to go on down there, help move the old man’s stuff out of the house. Couldn’t rightly do it on her own. Said if I wanted any money from the property sale I better get my ass right on down there. Real quick. So I went.

People tend to think death comes quick. I don’t reckon it does. Heard it the doctors told Mary Beth with the old man the cancer got a grip on him slow. Took him a year to die. A year. Lot of folks thought that was quick and kind. Lot of folks think a lot of things don’t mean much but what it says about them. I think my old man, he was dying since he got back in country from Viet Nam. Weren’t no cancer killed him, but a silence. A cold quiet that raged, boiling inside himself every day. I ain’t no expert, but I reckon that feeling inside, that feeling hanging like the air after a heavy rain, it grows, and it eats you alive over the years. The decades.

I could say here that I loved the old man. I won’t. Won’t for the same reasons I never said it to him when I knew him. I guess that there’s another one of those silences, isn’t it? My own. I’ll carry it inside my lungs like a held breath. He never said he loved me neither, not once to my recollection, never expected him to. Guess we’re just about square on that account. Not a lot of happy memories to my recollection neither. Do remember him taking me on down to the warehouse on Saturdays when he worked that overtime shift, the foreman not being there and all. Riding me around on the side of his forklift truck. The smell of gasoline, exhaust, dust, and tobacco filling the air. Soaking into the fabric of my clothes. Guess those Saturday mornings were the closest we ever came to any kind of Father-Son bonding.

Mary Beth had one of those big old U-Haul trucks rented out for the day and parked crooked outside underneath the River Birch. She sat waiting for me on the front porch. Stood up when I approached, a smile crossing her face as quickly as a Chickadee cutting across the morning sky. She took one helluva hold on me and cried into my chest for a long while. Made me feel pretty shitty about being away for so long the way I had been. After she was done with that, she let me go, straightened herself out and pretended like nothing had happened at all. Again, taking after the old man in that way, I suppose.

Didn’t take us long to get the bulk of the larger stuff out of the old house and up on the truck. A few hours. Could manage just fine between the two of us. Always had as children. Though we left the grand old piano we’d played as kids, thick with dust, just where it had always been. Said we’d leave it right on there. Throw it in with the house. Neither of us wanting the damn thing or the memories that would inevitably come along with it.

I learnt more about the old man in that long afternoon cleaning out the house then I did in forty years of being his son. Felt strange going through his belongings. Touching things that would’ve caught me an ass whooping if he’d found me looking through them when I was a kid.

Found the shoebox in a drawer underneath his bed. On the side he slept on. His dog tags inside. Piles of photographs of him as a much younger, stronger man. Pictures of Viet Nam. Army buddies, I never even knew he had. My father never once spoke to me about the war, except to say he’d been there and made it back.

The woman, she must’ve been in over half the photos. Vietnamese, I guessed. Extraordinarily beautiful. Eyes as dark and as warm as a July night. Could tell just by the way my father was looking at her in those pictures, she was one of the great loves of his life. Though, like the war, he never mentioned her at all. Neither hinted. Why would he when he’d come back from the war to my mother? Wouldn’t have been right, of course. Though looking back on it now, I did see that woman. Saw her lingering there in his eyes when he was at the bottom of another bottle. That long off, kind of injured look. On the backside of the photographs the same Vietnamese words were scribbled in pencil. Couldn’t work out if it was the woman’s name or the place they were at. I doubt it mattered much at all.

My father, he carried this woman in his flesh, same way he carried the shrapnel scars I’d glimpsed on his shoulder. She was the silence he let burn within himself like a tormented self-immolation. I guess people were different back then. The times change, people rarely do. Or can.

I almost cried gazing down at that photograph. Though I can’t rightly say why.

When Mary Beth asked me what it was I was looking at for so long, I said nothing. Carried that shoebox out to my car, opened the trunk and slid it carefully next to the other things I’d decided to keep or try to sell.

Hung the dog tags from the rear view mirror.

No doubt my own boy will ask about them sooner or later, as is his way.

Stephen J. Golds

Stephen J. Golds was born in North London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life. He writes primarily in the noir and dirty realism genres and is the co-editor of Punk Noir Magazine. He enjoys spending time with his daughters, reading books, traveling the world, boxing and listening to old Soul LPs. His books are Say Goodbye When I’m Gone, I’ll Pray When I’m Dying, Always the Dead, Poems for Ghosts in Empty Tenement Windows I Thought I Saw Once and the story and poetry collection Love Like Bleeding Out With an Empty Gun in Your Hand.

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