The voice was light, mocking: an echo.
“The preparations for shaving are nearly as important as the act itself. The proper tools must be gathered. A sharp, clean razor, a proper soap, a correct lather. A clean, large towel must be kept handy, perhaps resting on the edge of the sink or draped over the shoulder opposite the shaving hand. The light must be correct, evenly dispersed so that both sides of the face are illuminated, thus to reflect the warp and woof of the beard to allow each hair to be trimmed.
“A proper aftershave must be selected. Nothing cheap and certainly none of those fruity concoctions that come in those ridiculous Christmas gift boxes. It need not be manly, either. This after all is not an exercise for lumberjacks, but gentlemen. It most of all must not be watery or weak. An improper choice would soil what after all is an act of cleansing.
“First aid might also be at the ready, depending, of course, on how long it has been since the last shave. No matter how careful the shaver is, the act often, as are all acts of contrition, is a bloodletting.”
Especially after ten years, Stephen thought with not a little apprehension as he gazed into the mirror at his hirsute face. All that blood, he thought. All those
gobs of tissue paper.
His face seemed to argue against it. You really want to do this, huh? it seemed to ask. Know how long it took to grow all this?
It became a debate.
Stephen: If it please the court. The question is to shave or not. Whether to cast this sparsely-haired face to the hidden darkness or to bring it out to the light once again.
His face: But, if it please the court, have you seen your face? I have covered you in winter, sheltered you from the cold. But mostly I have given that oblong, blank space you call a face some shape, a purpose. You can’t certainly focus
on that nose. It’s bent and long and doesn’t work properly. And I am essentially maintenance free.
Stephen: Objection. Leave my nose out of this. He is trying to shave the issue.
His face: No, he is trying to shave the issue.
Stephen: The issue.
His face: The issue is my beard’s life.
Stephen: The question is whether a beard in these conservative years is acceptable. Certainly a neatly trimmed model might have been. But to neatly trim you would be to eliminate you. Here in these hard times we need to look like Marines. Hair trimmed close, no sideburns. Powerful, cold-eyed stares. Erect postures. In the times of conflict we are supposed to look like . ..
His face: Your father.
Stephen: My father.
That’s what all this shaving is about, isn’t it, Stephen asked himself, suddenly sober. Ten years ago you walked away from that restaurant and said you would never see him again until he died.
And now he has. The letter came from Houston the other day. He finally went home to stay.
I don’t even remember what we said to one another, Stephen thought. We just walked away.
Then he shook his head. Revisionist. That’s not what happened. It was a knock-down, drag-out fight. An angrily whispered howling in that restaurant with heads often turning, voices harsh, then constrained, dropped to a hiss.
Over what? An image. We were supposed to be made in your image. Close-mouthed, militarily-erect, eyes focused on some distant horizon like a ship’s captain seeking land, or glory, loyal to the cause. And I sat there with hair to my shoulders and a beard left to grow for months.
It seemed too large an order, too indistinct a concept.
And too large a memory to abbreviate, Stephen thought.
Stephen asked his eyes reflected in the mirror: Did you really think you’d never seen him again?
His heart was silent.
He shook away the thought and reached for the razor.
It was obviously an engineer’s dream. It fit in the slope of his hand perfectly and he envisioned all those clay models formed and thrown away until they produced something that would fit in the universal male hand. Yogi Berra’s hand, all tough and flat from catching all the fastballs, perhaps as mangled as his syntax. Or a surgeon’s hand, trained in precision, cutting just so, then feeling for blood flow, a muscle twitch or seeking the place where life is leaking away.
His hand. Broad at the palm, unaccomplished as it was. He always felt his fingers were too short for the size of his palm, and in fact seemed so when placed against the slender palm of his wife. Carol’s fingers were nearly as long as his own. No good for palming a basketball, though he could perform some tricks with it. Not bad for football. He could throw a spiral pass 50 yards when he was thirteen. Straight, hard, true and he could never explain how he could do it.
He closed his hand around the razor. The little finger on his right hand did not form a perfect fist. It never would again after that football game when he tackled a runner and that hand was somehow trapped under the falling bodies.
He had caught the finger in the other player’s jersey and it was pulled from its socket. Now the finger had a particular hump over the middle knuckle and the finger points defiantly opposite the rest of the fingers when he makes a fist.
That was in when you were in college, he thought. Things were normal between you and the old man. As normal as they would be.
When did you start calling him “old man?” You were not taught to be so disrespectful. It was “my father,” though it never was the familiar, “Dad.”
Maybe it was an easy label as the distance grew and everything became a confrontation, judgmental. But the distance was always there. He remembered as a child having to embellish stories told about his father, to aggrandize the meager facts, providing beginnings, middles and ends to stories he hardly knew in the first place. He shook his head. The old man wasn’t much of a story teller, was he?
Stephen snapped on the Norelco and listened for a moment to the whirring of the blades inside their little case. Then he placed the razor against his face and heard the rasp of the blades cutting through the growth on the right side. The sound of the razor alternately deepened and lightened as he maneuvered it around his cheeks and chin. He decided he especially liked the harsh clatter of the sideburn trimmer,
a sort of Neanderthal device lashed perhaps unwillingly onto something so obviously modern.
And then it was done. He silenced the machine and placed it carefully on the edge of the sink and turned back to the mirror to study his handiwork.
Hello, face. How ya been?
He thought he didn’t look as nearly denuded as he’d feared and was pleased.
He also thought he didn’t look as nearly as much like his father as he feared and the thought left him unsettled.
“What am I supposed to say to his family?” Stephen asked his wife as she helped him pack.
“You’ll figure it out,” she laughed and stuffed a pair of rolled up socks in the open suitcase. “They’re your family, too.”
He surveyed the bed, covered by two open suitcases and an overnight bag and piles of socks, underwear and shirts. “Am I going to need all this?”
Carol picked up a pile of underwear and tossed most of it into the overnight bag. “Oh, just take it.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, and returned to the packing. “I feel like Jim Morrison of the Doors.’
“You know that old song. ‘Old Otis dead and gone. Left me here to sing this song. ‘”
Carol jumped across the bed, took the ties from his hands and held them. “Why do you do this to yourself?”
Stephen cocked his head and stared into her deep green eyes. “I’m lost here. Why do I do what?”
“Apologize for your father.”
“Is that what I’m doing?”
“Every time someone mentions him, you rise to his defense, make some excuse and try to soften whatever criticism there was, or you made up. Most of the time I have the feeling you’d like to get on a table and blast the living hell out of him, just yell and swear and get it all out of your system. But you never do.” She released his hands and returned to the packing. “Maybe you ought to.”
Stephen just watched her.
“I know. That’s why we’re packing your suitcase. Look, remember that time when things were going really badly at work and you went out to the woodpile and started smashing up the wood. Maybe you should do that now. Smash this image
you carry around in your head. Yell it out at the top of your lungs. Purge yourself.”
“They’d have me arrested,” he said, though the idea seemed wonderful, to wander through the backyard smashing things with an axe. Wham! There goes the fence. Pow! Out go the headlights. Take that you old picnic table. But he’d never do it. Not to purge himself of his father. That was an old war and now that he was dead, it was over.
“I’ll just go down to Houston and play the game,” he said softly, mind somewhere else. “It’s hard to work up a lot of anger over him. He never did anything obviously neglectful. He just was not there. None of us never knew
him very well.”
She just rolled her eyes. “The application for martyrdom is in the mail.” She shut and zippered the suitcase.
Stephen closed the overnight bag. It’s just three days, he thought. Just three days.
“But before you go,” she said as she pushed him back on the bed and began to pull off his t-shirt. When she was done, she slipped her shirt over her head and unsnapped her bra and laid against him. For a long time they just laid skin to skin feeling the warmth of each other flow back and forth. Her hair smelled of this morning’s shower and her bare shoulder had the faintest hint of lavender soap
Carol drove him to the airport and they said their good-byes in the middle of a high school glee club boarding a charter flight to Los Angeles, saying silent I love yous to each other in a background symphony of smart phones all at full volume and all playing different songs as competing groups of singers performed. It will be a fun flight, Stephen thought grimly.
On the plane alone, waiting for the shuffling of passengers and luggage to cease before take off, Stephen acknowledged that which he knew was true all along: Carol was right. It was difficult to be openly angry against so benign a target, but maybe that is missing the mark. Maybe the scars don’t show. You once brought passion to the battle, maybe it was time to resurrect that passion.
The flight attendant spoke over the intercom and chain of thought broken, Stephen fastened his seatbelt. He sat, it seemed, mindlessly, tuning in the sensation of the big jet’s liftoff and ascent, and not his own mind; falling through the absence of memories about his father as if falling through space, weightless. The family will think I’m nuts, he suddenly thought, if I act like I don’t care. Think, he scolded himself. Prepare something. He was going to be there alone, he knew. His brother and sister, both of whom also had their own differences, were not making the trip. How am I going to heal all that? He wondered. Am I supposed to try?
The setting sun was changing the world from a red glow to a blue-black dome that enveloped the aircraft like a dream. Stephen drifted within the change, seeking a point, a fact, a place to start.
You never saw me play football in high school or college, didn’t attend my college graduation and at our wedding stood in the corner of the church like some left over ghost.
Why did it all come to that?
Stephen dug deeper, going back farther that he really had a right to know.
His father came out of a backwater region of eastern Texas and Louisiana, born just after the end of the first world war into a time when bands of men with primitive drills and strong backs were scavenging the lowlands, punching holes
in the ground for oil. His own people were farmers, but the oil fever was growing. Eastern money was trickling into the region. The industrialization of America had found a new source for the fuel it needed. The land was swampy, Stephen remembered being told, and periodically ravaged by storms that swept up the Gulf of Mexico and leveled everything with no more warning than a shift of wind, clouds on the horizon.
It was the rural South. A region somewhat lost between the end of the Civil War and the promise of the 20th Century; it was a frontier about to be made over, an engine about to be started.
On the plane Stephen shook his head. My father, the Southerner, spend most of his life living everywhere but the South. No wonder he spoke so little about it. It also explained why most of what he knew about his father’s life, Stephen thought, was told to him by others.
In the case of his father’s early life, the source was an elderly aunt who at 75,
became an author. Her folksy, but accurate little book, as she called it, told the story of her life as the wife of an oil wildcatter and revealed the 1920s in Texas as
a hard time made desperate by failed crops, dry oil wells and too much rain. She told of the tent cities that sprang up near drilling sites, of the towns born seemingly overnight with cheap storefronts and boardwalks bordering streets of mud. She knew of the camp ladies, the whores, of men sleeping over holes in the ground to protect stakes, of murder and treachery over oil.
But she also showed the care of family, the invisible strings that held her family close as time and the world churned by. Her people persevered. It seemed in the book they found a balance between the old values and the new world thrust upon them. While they might not have exactly been thrilled with the machines and noise and destruction that came with oil, they thought enough of it to make some
money from it.
As Stephen thought of the times, eastern Texas was at war with itself, and all those modern western movies seemed accurate. His father’s aunt didn’t write her book from a modern perspective, but from that of a young wife making her way at that time. The lack of revision and the pure clean descriptive’ style made it clear to the reader she was setting down what she knew, what she had lived.
It had to be a time, Stephen thought, when images sprinkled on the minds of the young must have seemed like diamonds falling from the sky; a certain power or majesty must have filled the air with the smell of change.
Some, he thought, growing excited by the recollection of the little book and the sunburst of ideas he felt while reading it, preserved the memories and made life from the times; made, as he recalled the glow, a social connection that made them feel important.
What of his father? Maybe he was like the vast majority who walk dully through their lives just going on from day to day with no more thought of the importance of it than a cow. But to live in such, a time! He locked it up, Stephen
thought. Kept it to himself. Maybe he flushed it through his memory like water as the currents of more recent events flowed in, leaving a mere residue. Maybe he didn’t, Stephen thought sadly. Maybe there was nothing there. He shook it
away. The relatives will help me fill the gap, he thought.
The gap. The distances. More like a canyon, he thought. Interstellar space.
As he worked at his memory, Stephen felt the old anger squirming to life. I don’t have the faintest idea who you are, he thought, and I don’t know that it will matter if I find out.
He stared again out the window. My father was in the service during World War II, the Navy, he thought, beginning the process again. Of course, in 1940 everyone was in the service, he added. Big deal.
But that was the only first-hand fact he had. Everything else about his father’s time in the military was told to him by his mother, or gleaned from newspaper clips from the time. He had served in combat in the South Pacific and
later was assigned to the Mediterranean. He was a lieutenant on a destroyer escort.
That was it. The shortest “This is Your Life” on record.
No war stories. No women on the sandy beaches. No war buddies
dropping by to tell long and boring stories of how they saved the free world. I learned more about World War II from comic books, Stephen thought. God. My father lived in a period of time bracketed by two world wars, the industrialization of his home, the destruction of the great evil empires — basically the creation of the modern world, and all I know about the man’s life is that he was in the Navy.
Didn’t you tell somebody? he asked the dead man’s ghost. You might as well have not been there. Or worse, Stephen realized, your children were not a proper audience. It’s like you were at war with us. Stephen thought, a cell of bitterness released. You were a prisoner of war to your own life, trapped as if being married and having kids, you know, being a regular Joe, was like being behind enemy
lines. We ask you a question and you give us name, rank and serial number. You’ll take your secrets to the grave.
And so he had. Stephen thought. His words reverberated in memory. They were his own words, spoken at that last meeting in the restaurant. Tell us who you are, he had demanded. Tell me why I must obey your rigid rules, adhere to some
code of honor I do not understand. This isn’t the Navy. We are your family. There are no orders to be given, no admirals to please. Talk to me. Give me a reason why things must be done. If you can not, there is no reason for me to stay.
There was no answer, as Stephen at the time knew, there would not be. Just a stone face. Shock? No. Remorse? Even less chance. Just silence as Stephen threw ten dollars on the table and stalked out, never looking back.
Be angry, Carol had said. Purge yourself. Sitting in a deeper gloom than he ever imagined Stephen knew that was not possible. It is too deep a well, Stephen knew. Even when there is nothing between families, there is too much.
What was the secret, or is there none at all. No promise, no secret, no vision. Just the shell of a man with a face and eyes and hands to touch, but no blood or nerves running through the skin, no catch basin to trap something precious to leave us, but just a pipe in the ground passing through, passing on, passing by.
The plane landed with a thump and the field of blue lights came up and surrounded the plane. Perhaps shocked by the intrusion, Stephen recalled one story his father did tell him.
He was part of an expedition by sea to the South Pole before the outbreak of the second world war. Imagine, Stephen always said when telling the tale, proud at last to have one to tell, the South Pole! The adventure of a lifetime.
But only one story.
The ship became trapped in ice, locked in a groaning solid sea of ice that in a moment could rise up and crush the massive ship like paper. Stephen recalled the distance that suddenly invaded his father’s voice as he told the story, recounted the mounting fear and sense of isolation. The only contact the men and the ship had was with a distant radio operator whose cheer and information could not penetrate
the gloom that had descended on the ship.
On the night watch, Stephen’s father said. it seemed like there was nothing in world. No light, no voices, no motion, just the silence of the great ice sea and the groaning of the hull squeezed by the mass. It sounded like the moans of dead men. his father said. Death would not be as frightening.
To Stephen that one lonely tale seemed a perfect description of his father’s life. Locked in the ice sea of his soul he waited for a channel to be broken open,
for someone to rescue him from a place where he otherwise would remain.
You died waiting, didn’t you, Stephen said to the ghost. And then he stepped into the Houston terminal.
Welcome to the land of y’all.
“Y’all have a good flight?” Stephen’s cousin asked as they met at the baggage carousel.
“Pleasant enough,” Stephen said, trying to sound glad to be there, when he was really still lost in thought.
The cousin whom Stephen had never seen before, James, swept up the
overnight bag at Stephen’s feet and joyfully sprang toward the door. “Get home just about in time for supper.”
In the land of y’all, it was always just about time for supper. Or time for coffee, or a glass of wine; in the land of y’all, he understood, you were among family. It didn’t matter that you hadn’t called, visited or written for twenty years, there was a way around that distance.
That first night, the night before the funeral, the way around the distance was a meal, a feast with the entire clan. Stephen found himself sitting with cousins and aunts and neighbors sharing ribs and crawfish and jambalaya along with tidbits of neighborhood news and gossip as if he’d been there all along and party to the happening that created the talk. Music played on the stereo, that strange sounding Cajun swing that pleased Stephen to no end because of its strangeness to his northern ears; drinks were passed, and passed again and he shook so many hands and was told so many names he knew there was no way to ever make sense of them. Aunt This. Cousin That. Names read off from some chart of lineage of an obscure French king. Names not said as YOUR aunt or cousin, but Cousin David, as if the relationship to one another had become part of their name: David, Cousin of Beaumont.
And as the crowd thinned toward midnight, and the echo of the farewells sounded through the dark streets, Stephen understood what the land of y’all meant. It was home. Even though he had never lived there and visited infrequently,
it was something he understood. Home. Y’all have a good flight? Welcome home.
But in the darkness of a strange bedroom and the odd lumps of a strange bed, with uncertain sounds leaking in through the screened open window Stephen understood that this place was not his father’s home. What was wrong here
that he spent his entire life running from these people, Stephen wondered before he fell asleep.
In the morning, his host, a cousin named Jolene, left coffee on the stove and warm muffins in the oven and a note saying she was at the chapel making the last arrangements for the funeral. Jolene, he thought. And her sisters Wanda,
Bertha and Lydia. Names from another time.
The service was brief, fitting. Stephen thought, for one who had just recently come home. His father was carried to the graveyard on the shoulders of six cousins
he had most likely not spoken to in thirty years. Welcome home.
It was only after the funeral, when the family gathered at Jolene’s for a buffet that the talk turned to Stephen’s father, and finally, he thought, to Stephen.
They seemed to be treading into a stretch of uncharted waters, Stephen thought, like crossing an unfamiliar bay in the fog. But still they ventured. But it became clear that no one knew his father any better than Stephen did. He existed only as some part of a general memory of a time fifty or sixty years earlier, some minor player in a large and greatly local history. Like dreams, he thought; like windblown birds seen against a dark sky, and after passing seeming inconsequential.
“He sure could ride a horse,” a cousin named Tom said. “That was quite important in those days, but your daddy was really good at trick riding and roping cattle. You know, that stuff they do at the rodeo. T’aint like today. Now them rodeo stars come in buses with their names all painted in glittery paint on the side
and the horses come later in a semi. The TV people show up and all them riders want to talk about is their latest record album or their next movie. Seems no one just rides for riding anymore.” He smiled over at Stephen. “But your daddy, boy. He sure could ride a horse.”
Bertha brought a huge family album, its sides spilling over with odd photographs and the ends of clippings from newspapers. She weeded through a stack of high school pictures until she discovered a separate, neatly clipped pile.
“Hey, lookit you!” Someone slapped Tom on the arm and passed him a yellowed photograph of a skinny kid in an oversized cowboy outfit, hat sloped down over one side of his head with huge ears sticking out from a nearly bald
head. On the back was the date: 1926. Tom squealed out a laugh. “Damn fine lookin’, ” he said. Bertha handed the clipped stack of papers to Stephen. They were taken from the Boston papers of the time for the most part, though some were from the local papers. The dates showed they were from just before the outbreak of the second world war.
The explorer’s ship his father served on had returned to port and the crew was greeted like heroes.
Surely these will open up the secret that was my father’s life, Stephen thought. But after reading through some of the stories he realized they would not. They were about an adventure story, a fairy tale and should have been read to sleepy children while snow storm raged at the windows. They were filled with tales of penguins and sea birds and grown men playing baseball in the frozen ice world of the Antarctic. But they weren’t about his father. They were about Never Never Land. And his father was not Peter Pan.
“Can y’all image how cold it was down there?” a cousin named Jack asked leaning over Stephen’s shoulder. “That’s the absolute bottom of the world. Understand the sun sort of circles around the pole for six months or so and then sets. Just wandering around in a circle. Then it sets and y’all live in the dark for six months. No wonder all them explorers have beards. Can’t shave in the dark too good.”
Stephen smiled. “Did you talk to my father about this trip?”
Jack pulled back at the question. “Can’t say I did. Just heard about it.” Jack’s hand fumbled around at Stephen’s shoulder for a moment before squeezing it and dropping away. “I’m sorry he’s gone, son,” he said before slipping into the crowd.
“Y’all remember that parade we had for him when he came back?” Lydia
asked no one in particular. A few heads nodded, and some smiles creased the old faces. But it was clear no one really wanted to talk about it. Then
someone asked: “Remember that parade they had when the war ended? Thought I’d never see a more proud display for those boys. God, it was sure good to see- them home.”
A few voices joined in the celebrated recall. “The end of the war.”
“Get our lives back to normal.”
“But we lost so many.”
The discussion turned then to the war, and then to Korea and then Vietnam. And then to Democrats and the problem with Democrats. They left Democrats and went on to football.
And then they left the room, leaving Stephen with a pile of news
clippings. At first he had leaned forward in his chair or elbowed into a tight circle in the middle of the room to join a discussion, to listen, maybe to learn. But when the conversation turned away from that which they truly did not understand, they turned away from him.
Is this what happened to him, Stephen wondered. Caught in conversations, trying in a few words to bridge gaps in lives years wide, trying to bring together lives that had turned in early opposite directions, resembling one another
in the way cousins sometimes have the same eyes or carry in their walk the ghost of a distant relative, but really having no more in common than two cities on opposite coasts with the same name?
Did he fight through it? Stephen wondered. Or did he sit as I do, alone with a handful of confettied glory?
But then he wasn’t alone, Stephen realized. He became aware of a young girl at his elbow. How? he wondered. She sort of slipped to the side of his chair and traced the flowered pattern of the cloth with one finger. Then she lifted her
head and smiled. Stephen guessed she was about eight.
“Hi,” he said.
She just smiled inwardly. Then she asked, “That was your daddy they put in the ground today, wasn’t it?”
Stephen smiled at her soft southern voice. “Yes, it was, honey.”
“Did I ever meet him?”
“I don’t think so. What’s your name?”
“Cheryle Anne Guidry,” she said proudly. “My daddy’s in oil.”
Cheryle Anne Guidry traced one of the flowers on the chair’s arm again. “Do you miss your daddy?”
Stephen couldn’t answer; but he kissed her cheek. “Thanks for asking.”
And then it was over. Jolene drove him to the airport the next morning and he sat in a noisy airport restaurant fighting the urge to yell Shut up! He had said goodbye to all the aunts and uncles and cousins and promised to return this time
with his wife and stay two weeks and go out and walk the back forty or help with the haying, or something. It wasn’t quite real, he decided. The waitress
brought his coffee.
On the flight home he thought about the visit he had made the day before funeral in the afternoon before the buffet to Lucrecia, the matriarch of the family.
She was now nearly 90 and her face showed the progression of the times she had lived. She sat in her dark living room on a large sofa surrounded by pillows and open books. She sat erect, her head held back at a sharp angle as if trying to give her old weak eyes a better angle to the light.
To Stephen she seemed weary, like an elder, a seer, worn down by the visions of her fading eyesight.
“In your book you describe a big storm that devastated the region,” Stephen said. He wanted to discuss this passage with Lucrecia; of all the stories in her little book, this one seemed tinged in guilt. Where others were filled with minute detail of everyday life, this one written bare of event, feeling. seemed sparse .
“It was a storm of all storms,” she began, her voice full and rich. “Because we had no radio or television, we never knew when a storm was going to be that big. They all started out the same. Sometimes the wind would twitch around to the south and increase in speed throughout the day. Sometimes the clouds would come first, clouds like you’ve never seen, grey and black from the sky to the earth, solid,
like all the escape routes were closing down. I came back to Beaumont alone with my two babies. My husband had gone days before up to Midland to set up a well.
She paused, as if letting the fury of that long-ago storm build up in her mind. “It was such a storm, Stephen. It rained for nearly four days, and the water flooded over the levee banks, across the roads, into houses and barns, taking everything
that couldn’t hold its ground. Needless to say the crops were gone. But the animals, Stephen. New born calves, bulls, horses, goats, anything that couldn’t fly or crawl away seemed to be floating by, either dead and bloated, or drowning. And there wasn’t anything we could do. The wells were poisoned and lots of people got sick
with typhus and pneumonia and there weren’t any doctors around and a lot of them died. It seems we did nothing for a week or more after that storm but visit some bereaved family, offering what we could scrape up. There wasn’t no National Guard to help out, nor any armories to put people in. We just did the best we could.”
She reached for Stephen’s hand. “I suppose you want to know about that visit with your granddaddy,” she said and began to tell of it, not waiting for Stephen’s affirmation.
“It was about the third day of the storm. Somebody, I don’t quite remember who, stopped by and said there was a family out on the China road who was in a real poor way and that we might better see what we could do. My sister Lorraine moved her three young ones into my home and I took the horse and wagon out to the China road.
“Well, that family was your grandfather and his wife and indeed they were poorly. The house was cold and wet and all the wood had washed away. They had just some crackers for food and no water, being that their well was filled with dirty river water. And they were both so sick you couldn’t imagine. I had brought some soup, but couldn’t heat it and had to feed it to them cold. But they could hardly eat anything. I stayed two days doing what I could. But I wasn’t trained as a nurse and we had no medicine and cold compresses to the forehead made no difference.”
She paused. She looked to the window trying with fading eyes to find the light.
“So I left, went home Stephen. I, had done my Christian best for them, but I’m not God. If they had died I would have been more sorrowful than anyone can imagine. But we lost so many in that storm. We would have accepted them in our grief. I was only sixteen, Stephen.”
Stephen hesitated. There was one more part to that story. “What about the baby?”
The old woman’s face became solid, a mask.
“Your daddy clung to my dress when I arrived like I was an angel. He was a dirty, wet child, alone, scared and hungry. I fed him what I could. He just crammed it down his little throat because he hadn’t eaten in days. I cleaned him up best I could, gave him the driest of the wet clothes I could find. But I had to leave him, Stephen. I had babies of my own. There was nothing I could do for him.”
Stephen was silent a moment. They had all lived, of course. What was the harm?
“But you know,” the old woman whispered, “I never looked back. Not from pride, but I knew I would see a tiny round head in the window and that baby crying, felt the tug of his tiny hands on my dress as I walked away, and felt my own hands pulling them off and saying, ‘It’ll be fine, I’ll be back,’ not knowing if any of that was true, and my heart would just tear open.” The old woman closed her eyes and dabbed away the tears that ran down her cheeks.
Stephen tried to speak, but no words came. He reached over and took her hand and they clung to each other for a moment.
“How horrible,” he whispered.
She patted his hand. “Not horrible, Stephen. Horrible would have been finding them dead and wondering if I had come just one day earlier if it would have mattered, or returning home and finding my own babies dead. No, not horrible. Just life.”
He only saw the image of his father as a child left suddenly in a cold, dark house, his parents lying together, perhaps dying, cast in silence. He wondered if that child-father rummaged through the empty house for food, or crawled up the stairs to touch the face of his mother and cry, “Ma?” Did he ache in the loneliness of his desertion, or was he too young?
“Did … ”
“Did he know?” the old woman asked his question.
“May be at two you don’t really understand.” Stephen said.
“No, son,” she said. “He knew. Just as you as a child knew the fear of the darkness when that first night you slept alone. You would have pulled some stuffed toy closer, hugged it for all it was worth, just to see the light. But he had no stuffed toy. And no one answered his cries. Yes, he knew. That’s what he spent his whole life running from. He was running from the edge, from death. Sometimes I thought
he thought he had it beaten and was laughing at us all. But other times I think he was that little scared baby crying in the dark, both afraid the sun wouldn’t come up and afraid that it would. He had to know, Stephen. Pain like that you don’t forget.”
Something shifted. Something he knew had come clear.
“What was he like, I mean, growing up?” Stephen asked.
“He was the toughest boy in town,” Lucrecia said, smiling. “He had to be. He was out to punish us all. I guess he went off with his head filled with whatever visions that anger distilled. He went off to become a hero. That’s what all that South Pole business was about. And combat duty. He wanted to take on the most difficult tasks he could find. In a way he was a lot like my husband. Ed went at a problem like it was his enemy and would not rest until it was solved. Your father went at problems but never had the genius for solving them. He went at them like a bull goes at a fence, pounding it until one of them gives up. He came back here after the war and showed us all these medals when all we wanted him to do was sit a while, split some wood with the men folk, drink a little wine and dance a round or two on the back porch on a Saturday night. Be with us as we were, not like some visiting big shot.”
And it all made sense, Stephen knew. The inspections after Saturday chores, the bread and water meals if things were not perfect. The military rule. But the silence?
“That’s how it was,” Stephen said.
“That’s -how it was,” Lucrecia said, finally. “Families love and forgive, Stephen. Sometimes I think you father didn’t want our forgiveness, or was unwilling to forgive us.”
Stephen and Lucrecia went to the visitation and arrived alone. The chapel was empty and silent. His father’s body laid in its casket in front of a make-shift alter in the half-lit room.
He helped the old woman to the casket and found a seat. She touched the dead man’s face, her fingers gently tracing the stilled features. She ran her hand down the long, straight nose and placed her fingers on each of his eyes with a lingering touch as if to draw sight from them. She caressed the smooth cheek and then finding the mouth, kissed her nephew farewell. “Bless you,” she whispered.
When she stood her eyes were wet and Stephen reached up a hand to touch her tears. For a moment they stood in the moody silence clutching hands, resting them against her soft, old face.
Then she reached for Stephen’s face and with forgiving fingers traced his eyes, nose and down his cheeks to his chin. “You have your father’s face,” she said softly. “But I don’t feel in your face the anger that dwelled in his. I do not feel his anger in your face and that is good. But I feel a sadness, Stephen. Find out why you are so sad.”
She kissed his cheek and he felt the wetness of her tears. “Make your peace.” Stephen guided her to a seat and then returned to the casket.
He gazed down at the face, now so still. He didn’t really have anything to say and was curious at the silence in his heart. But he was not filled with the terror he thought he might be.
They had shaved his face with a sharp blade and a thin bloodless line marked a spot under one sideburn where the blade cut the skin.
There have been too many places, he thought, too many friends known and then forgotten and still I’m not filled up, not ready to say, stay.
That I owe to you, he thought. All this running. All this hiding. I want it to stop.
A crack had opened and he heard a voice.
“The preparations for shaving are….” But it was the voice of his then 24-year old brother, face buried in shaving cream, laughing through some comic routine. You never even taught me to shave, Stephen cursed the ghost. I had to learn that from my brother. You taught me to hide.
Stephen gazed into that closed face as he had many times stared with question into his own eyes glaring back from the steamy mirror: Who are you. What have you done?
His wife’s voice filled his head. “You never tell me anything.”
“What,” he heard himself replying.
“I don’t know anything about you,” Carol said. “People ask me who you are, what you’ve done and all I can tell them is a few dates and places.”
“Oh, come on I told you about college and all that. And you don’t. want to know about my old girlfriends,”
Carol walked to the other side of the room. “I know. But it seems so, um, statistical.”
“If I told you everything, what ever that is, would be satisfied?
“I guess there’ll always be a part of you I’ll never know,” Stephen heard her say in a voice like fading mist. Oh, dear Carol.
Somewhere in these preparations there comes a moment when something is known, when a stroke reveals that which was there, but for a time ignored.
Stephen looked again at the dead man. I am your son, he thought.
Your face. My face.
Author’s note: The story of the hurricane told by Lucrecia is based on a true story found in the book, “The Boomers,” written by Lorecia East, my great-great aunt.