CCW Finalist, Fiction
The father died in a small California oil town that languished in the drain of the great basin of the San Joaquin Valley . To the south, past the low hills dotted with tumbleweeds and oil wells was the grapevine grade to Los Angeles . To the north were the agricultural gardens of cotton and fruit orchards. The town had a history cultivated by what John Steinbeck called “Harvest Gypsies”; most everyone else called them Oakies. Small houses leaned against each other; nestled so close you could hear neighbors in the grip of what served as passion by roustabouts stinking of oil and fatigued wives fighting to stay awake. Their snores passed easily through the windows.
The day the man died his son shuffled his way home from school, through a vacant lot toward his house where several cars were lined up along the curb and he paused at a low fence that surrounded the lot to decipher what that meant. In a small town, on a quiet street, it was natural to question such a gathering of cars on a street that was usually empty of cars. He slowly made his way across the street and stood at his stoop while his mother held a quiet conversation with another woman on the porch. He could tell it was a serious talk and for some reason the boy felt sad but he went to the door anyway. His mother kneeled and said quietly, “We don't have a daddy anymore.” It was a moment of truth, clean, clear, and concise and cut as sharply as a scalpel through the dread he was feeling.
What did that mean? Everybody has a daddy. Beyond the questions, down deep the boy knew the answers and didn't hesitate. After hearing the words he walked into the small living room, through a circle of mourners and into the bathroom to have a private conversation.
Standing in front of the mirror, if he had known how to pray he would have prayed silently: “My Father, who art in heaven, in my mirror is that you or me? Amen.” Without saying a word aloud the boy reached out to the father. Staring at his own image in the mirror he mentally vented his feelings of guilt over letting his father die and was sorry for letting him down. The boy's defenses unraveled and a sense of helplessness washed over him and he finally said aloud to the mirror, “What will I do now?” There were no tears, only fear and confusion.
The boy finished his talk with his dead father and headed for the group gathered in the living room, seated as though for a circle game of some kind. His older brother and younger sister were in the circle. Extended family and friends sat forlornly, glancing sympathetically toward the children. There were low murmurings of support, people hugging and the mother spending most of her time answering the door; no grieving time for her. There would be grief enough for her to suffer the loss of a husband who died too young at forty-nine.
Looking for clues on how to respond the boy searched the eyes of everyone in the circle. What were the protocols when a death occurs in the life of a child? There were no protocols at that moment. As the circle grew with the arrival of each new mourner, sobbing and quiet sniffs into hankies could be heard. But where were the boy's tears?
His father came from Texas to California to grab what he could from a country strapped by the great depression, first, as a grocer then as a cop. He was average at both but relentless in his efforts to feed a family of five. As a grocer it wasn't enough and as a cop he was easygoing, kind and undone. But a cop in a small town in the ‘40's could be easygoing and kind and despite any misgivings as a policeman the father was heroic in the eyes of the son.As he sat in the circle the boy's thoughts wandered back to the times when his father locked him in the small jail cell and he watched through the bars as his father made the bullets that he never used and the times he allowed the boy to hold the heavy pistol that resided in the holster that hung against the policeman's aching hip. And the times he spent watching for the light. In an era before cell phones or two-way radios the boy watched for the lights that hung over the intersections…watching for the light to turn red and blink signaling that a policeman was needed and should phone in. Watch for the light so dad can eat his lunch. In his uniform the father was indeed heroic, showing up at the boy's school for “play days,” cheering his son on in foot races and long jumps. The boy's pride swelled as he stood next to the cop in full police dress while his school mates gathered to see the man with the gun and badge.
The boy felt two hands gently settle on his shoulders as he sat at his place in the mourning circle. Behind him his grandmother stood silently and gently patted him but never spoke. He looked up at her but couldn't find anything that would fill the empty feeling in his belly. But, her touch and understanding was enough for the moment.
Throughout the afternoon and evening the mourning circle would grow and shrink as mourners came and went, people left their chairs to prepare food and set a table, there were grievers to feed. The boy also left the circle several times to revisit the bathroom mirror not knowing who he would find there or what the questions would be, questions he felt needed to be asked. One in particular gnawed at him, “Why can't I cry?” It remained unanswered.
As dinner dishes were being washed and put away and evening moved into the circle a sense of normalcy overcame the heavy silence that had hovered over the house throughout the day. Conversations spoke of sleeping arrangements and meetings with long lost friends and family. There would be no change in the boy's schedule however and he was in bed by 9:30. His mother came to his room and sat with him and turned out his lights. Nothing about the day was discussed but she made sure he understood that he would not be going to school for the rest of the week and that the family would be attending services in two days to say goodbye to his father.
The boy's bedroom was adjacent to his parent's room and he spent much of that night listening in the dark, yearning to hear his parents muffled pillow talk that was so reassuring and often lulled him to sleep. There would be none of that and aloud, in the darkness of his room, the question was asked again. “What will I do now?”