Seasons Beckoned Unto Night
by Bob Church
part 1 of 2
Three hundred eighty-two days passed while I paused to once again allow the world back into my life. Oh, consciously I would have denied my feelings. A fifty-year old man doesn’t stop functioning because he loses his father.
Sure, there are those times when the still of night or pang of conscience disrupts my routine and hurls me down the slope of despondency towards the pits of despair. Usually, I find a way to hang by my knuckles on the ledge of hope until reason comes to rescue me. That’s just what you do... nothing is served by letting go. If I didn’t let go in Vietnam, I’m damned sure not going to let go over a man who spent eighty years on the planet.
Besides, I always seem to manage to find a rationale for my ambivalence. My friends and family had lots of available bromides. “He’s in a better place” or “Finally, he can be with Betty” or even “Jim wouldn’t want us to be sad.” Plus, I’ve managed to provide a few of my own: “Why wouldn’t you listen to reason?” or “How do you feel about that three-pack-a-day habit, now, Dad?” or even “What a horrible way to die.”
Sometimes, though, I just see his face. And it’s not the old-man face, either. It’s the 1945 version, the smiling rake with the wavy black hair and slightly receding hairline, the handsome, devil-may-care soldier who stole my mother’s heart. It’s the face of a man who’s just come back from the war, battle ribbons adorning his Army dress uniform and beer-powered legs willing to dance the night away.
Plus, he has that damned Kirk Douglas cleft chin that he refused to pass along to me. Truthfully, I’ve always felt that he was glad he didn’t, too. I’ve always perceived it to be his way of telling me how disappointed he was in me, how I fell short of expectations.
Three hundred eighty-two days passed until I stood in Section 7, Row 6 of Fort Logan National Cemetery, and first saw the white marble stone with the words:
James C. Church III
Specialist 1st Class
US Army, WWII Pacific Theater
November 14, 1920 - March 20, 2001
Admiring the quality of the marker, I bent down and allowed my hands to run along the edges, enjoying the military smoothness of the sharp, contrite edges.
“I didn’t think you’d come.”
I looked over my shoulder, but saw nothing. Now convinced that I’d taken leave of my senses, panic overtook me, and I hurried back to the curb where my car was parked. There, my father stood, resplendent in the suit we’d buried him in.
“Why don’t we sit inside,” he said. “I think it’s time we had a talk.”
* * *
The tripper bar of my car door succumbed to my trembling fingers and the release caused the door to stand ajar. I looked inside my Blazer’s tinted windows and saw nothing I wouldn’t have expected to see under normal circumstances, so I pulled the door open and paused, scanning the interior for further signs that I may be certifiably mad. Then, satisfied that my crisis of sanity had subsided, I sat down in the driver’s seat.
The leather seats, warm from the sun radiating into the closed compartment, comforted and consoled me. Fumbling for my keys, I heard a match strike in the back seat. I turned around in time to see my father waving the match in the air to extinguish it, sucking hard on the cigarette he’d just lit.
“Hey, Buck-o, what say we go down to the Blue Lady? I haven’t been in there in years.”
I looked into the coffee-brown eyes of James Charles Church, III. The man called me ‘Buck-o’ the first fourteen or fifteen years of my life. I didn’t like it then, and I didn’t like it any better now. Whoever or whatever sat in the back seat of my Blazer knew this, too, and the smirk on his face gave testimony to it. There could be little doubt: this was my old man. But how was this — what — possible?
I don’t think I can do this... My heart screamed inside my chest and I fought for breath.
“Oh, you can do it, all right...” his words took on the same tone I’d heard whenever he demanded my attention. “What’s the matter, Buck? Chicken?”
Those words thrust me back to the summer of 1959, when he’d called timeout and walked out to the mound. We were one run ahead in the last inning of our ball game. I’d gotten two men to strike out, but Eddie Dodge was at the plate, the league’s leading hitter. I’d thrown two pitches, neither of which was even close to being a strike.
Taking the ball from my hand, Dad looked at me and said, “Bobby Ray, if you walk this guy, I’m going to let Debby come out here and get this guy out. I’ll give her your uniform and you can wear her dress and play dolls on the sideline. How about that? Can you do it — or are you chicken?”
Debby is my little sister, age 4 at that time. As I recall, I shrugged, the tears welling in my eyes. He put the ball back in my hand and walked off the field. Eddie Dodge launched the next pitch over the tops of the trees in centerfield. So, I was a loser... but I wasn’t chicken.
“Okay, whatever you say... Dad...” I started the car and put it in gear. Slowly, I proceeded along the road leading through the vast fields of identical white markers, being careful not to hit any of the ever-present Canadian geese attempting to cross and pulled out into traffic on Sheridan Avenue. After checking my side-view mirror, out of the corner of my eye I saw my father now sitting up front, adjusting the seat.
When he caught me looking at him, he grinned, held up his cigarette and said, “No ashtray in the back seat. I wouldn’t want to get ashes all over your nice new carpet.”
* * *
The traffic in Denver is horrendous, even on Sunday. I worked my way through town, trying to avoid the major arterials. I’d been gone for years, but some things never change; and the heavy flow of traffic is one of the immutable eventualities that Denver’s residents learn to put up with.
At each traffic light I’d look over at him. He had his legs crossed and his arms folded at his chest as if he were sitting on the sofa, watching TV. All the while, he peered out the side window; taking in the sights of the city he’d seen thousands of times, like some erstwhile tourist. At least he wasn’t smoking.
“Dad, I need...” he held his hand up, demanding that I stop. He didn’t look at me, but the signal was obvious. Don’t talk now. With the advantage of hindsight, as I think back upon it, I now think he realized he’d been given a chance to see his beloved town one last time.
Lakewood became Englewood became Denver became Aurora. Soon, we drove down Colfax Avenue to the neighborhood I grew up in. At the intersection of Montview and Florence, he pointed for me to turn left. A short two blocks later, I pulled up to the curb in front of 2264 Florence Street, my boyhood home.
Dad continued to look out the window. “Why did you do it?” he said, still not looking at me.
“Why did I do what?” I inquired, honestly.
Now he looked at me, inquisitively. “You really don’t know, do you?”
“Well, Pop, there were so many devious, hateful, despicable things I did as a boy, I just didn’t know which one you were referring to.”
He snorted a little, nodding his head and exhaling through his nose. “I guess I had that coming...”
“Care to be a little more specific?” I pushed the button, lowering my side window.
“Once, when your mother and I were having a little spat, you said you wished I’d die.”
I didn’t remember ever saying that and told him so.
“You always took her side.”
“Dad, I was twelve; and you came home drunk, night after night, refusing to eat and falling asleep at the kitchen table. When Mom tried to get you to go to bed, you swore at her and told her to leave you alone, which she did. One night you almost burned the house down when you passed out and your lit cigarette fell in the trash. I guess you don’t remember that, huh? Whose side am I supposed to take?”
He wrung his hands a little. “Okay, I drank some... but I always put food on the table, didn’t I? I don’t remember you ever going to school with your butt hanging out!”
I paused to look at him again, craning my neck to get a better angle. Sure enough, it was Dad’s face; that much was unmistakable. “You’ve returned from the dead to find out why I took Mom’s side. Does that about sum it up?”
Dad looked at me, his eyes suddenly sad. “Please don’t hate me.”
“I don’t hate you, Dad, how can you say that to me? I’ve always loved you. Sometimes I didn’t like you very much, but I always loved you...” My voice trailed off at that point.
“Enough to buy your old man a beer?” Again, the leprechauns danced in his eyes.
It was my turn to snort. “Sure, why not... I’m sitting in my car in front of a house I haven’t lived in for nearly thirty-five years, talking to a dead man. I might as well buy him a beer at a bar which may or may not even still be there. I guess the cell can’t get any more padded.”
* * *
The Blue Lady held a charm that, apparently, only he could see. It was dark, seedy and nearly empty. Granted, most neighborhood bars probably don’t do a rousing business on a bright August Sunday afternoon, but had it not been for the bartender, it would be deserted. We found a seat next to the shuffleboard machine, and I ordered two draws of Coors. I hated Coors, but that was the only beer Dad drank, so rather than argue with him, I just ordered it.
The bartender, an older lady with big hair (I suspect it was a wig) placed the cold glasses in front of me on the bar and said, “Pardon me for buttin’ in, but your friend looks pale.”
“You don’t know the half of it.” I picked up the over-full glasses and sloshed my way back to our table, after making sure that I tipped her a buck.
As I walked away, she picked it up in both hands and commented, “Oh, boy! A whole dollar! Now I can get that heart transplant!”
I walked, noticing my father’s expression. He was now Humphrey Bogart, with a sardonic grin and Camel Filter 100 dangling between his fingers. “You seem to have a way with the ladies,” I chided, my intonation caustic.
With pinkie-finger extended, Dad quickly offered a perfunctory toast, lifted the glass to his mouth and took a sip. “Ahhhh, yes... Good ol’ Adolph... I could always count on him to tickle my taste buds.” Then, the grin — again.
Tickle? Adolph Coors spent more time in your mouth than your teeth. “How do you do that? I mean, come on, Dad... you’re not real. I can see you, but I can’t touch you. Yet, you can grasp objects, take up space; annoy me — just like you did when you were alive. What’s happening here?”
Now he stared at the jukebox and absent-mindedly swirled his glass in small circles on the table. Presently, he looked back at me and paused, no doubt assessing me. After a bit, he offered, “You look just like George Copeland.”
Uncle George — Mom’s brother — was my favorite uncle. Even as an adult, I went out of my way to visit Aunt Frances and him. He was a big, gentle man with a heart of gold. Plus, he was friendly, outgoing and loved to sing. At family gatherings, it never failed that someone would ask him to sing or dance. I always suspected Dad was jealous of him, because he tended to leave the room when George was on a roll. I lost Uncle George in 1990; they found him dead in the liquor store he worked part-time in. A robber killed him for $14. The storeowner said he thought George probably refused to open the safe for him. That’s the sort of man he was.
“Oh, so that’s my fault, too, I suppose.” I tried to remain calm, but inside I was seething.
Quickly, he put both hands up in front of his face, palms toward me, as if to fend off my words. “Why do you take offense at everything I’ve ever said to you?”
“Why didn’t you ever say anything that I could interpret as being complimentary?” I drained the remainder of my beer in one gulp, quelling my impulse to throw the glass. “Just once, I would have liked to hear you say, ‘Way to go, Bob’... or ‘Hey, Bob, interesting car you bought’... or “Well, Bob, I hope you’re happy as an engineer, although I can’t understand why you wasted all that time in school’... just anything, Dad.”
The lady with the big hair and green teeth placed her hand on my shoulder. “Can I get you two another one?”
I glanced over my shoulder at her, looked at Dad, and back at her. “Why not, it’s still early, isn’t it, Pop — for some of us, at least.”
* * *
I suppose I’d probably put two or three dollars in the jukebox (and learned the bartender’s real name was Myrtle, but around 1965, her professional name had become Trixie) before I felt the call of nature. We’d re-hashed the Cub Scout years by then, and, truthfully, I had gained little, if any, insight that I hadn’t known when he was alive. Suddenly, I felt the need to drain the lizard.
“Pop, I need to whiz. I’ll be right back. Promise me you won’t wander off, okay?” I thought that was pretty funny, but he didn’t even look up. He was checking out the laminated menu card held up between the salt-and-pepper shakers, squinting the same way he did when he was alive. Dad couldn’t focus on anything closer than three feet from him, but he’d always refused to wear glasses for any reason, because he didn’t need them... unless he wanted to see, of course. Dad probably couldn’t spell ‘stubborn’, yet he was one of nature’s best examples of the word’s true meaning. As I said, some things never change.
I found my way to the 4 x 5 enclosure laughingly referred to as the men’s room. It contained a toilet and a urinal. I was afraid to ask about a sink. I guess I should be grateful that they even had indoor plumbing at all. I returned to find Dad talking to Trixie, her arm wrapped around his shoulder.
“You want me to leave you two lovebirds alone?” It took my best efforts to keep from losing my lunch.
Trixie smiled coyly and patted her hair, giving me her best kiss my ass attitude. “Whazza’ matter, Junior, don’t know how to treat a lady? Or are you jealous?” She smiled at me and rubbed my old man’s shoulder. “This tiger here does... maybe you should take some lessons.”
For a few seconds, all I could do was stare. My suddenly mute father, the same man who always had something to say, sat stock-still. That’s right, let me dangle in the breeze.
“Uh, you want to tell her, or should I, Pop?” Now, the remains of the man who I call Dad was gritting his teeth and shaking his head fervently, in the time-honored shut the hell up, I think I’m getting somewhere signal.
“Okay, I think it’s time for me to go. Pop, need me to float you a loan for a room or can you just snap your fingers or something?” I’d seen just about all I cared to take in for one day when Trixie decided that I hadn’t quite suffered enough.
“Yea, you can run along, baby boy. Daddy and I are going upstairs.”
I don’t know whether it was the beer or the smell of this place or maybe just my mind trying to get around the concept that my dead father was sitting at a table, copping a cheap feel from the world’s ugliest woman; but suddenly the room started to spin and I needed to run for the commode. I pushed the door open and hugged the porcelain for what seemed like twenty minutes as the waves of nausea overtook me. Dear God, make it stop! Then, thanks be to God, I passed out.
Copyright © 2006 by Bob Church