A Glad Heart: An "Atlantic First"

The night before my father died, in the middle of the night, I came awake: the room was dark; this bed was mine. A few inches of dim light outlined Superman, flying at me from the night, a poster on my bedroom wall. I listened for the echo of what had wakened me. Something heavy fell on the stairs, a groan; and a woman’s whispering, my mother. Loudly, a man’s voice: “All right, I’m all right.” My mother whispered “sshh” as if to quiet a troubled child. There was a grunt and the sound of furniture toppling, of crockery shattered against the floor. At once, I heard a heavy thud and a cry of surprise from my mother. In sudden dark, indistinct scuffling and sharp curses. I strained through the darkness at Tommy’s bed: no movement. Blindly, I went to the door, feeling for the switch in the hallway, and, finding it, flicked on the overhead light. In the glare, a small pleated lampshade at my feet, pale lamp fragments scattered over the floor. Wedged between the old walnut table—on its side in the center of the hall—and the bathroom door were my mother and father. He, on his back, struggling like a tortoise, while Mother, on her knees and half sprawled across his chest, had hold of his left arm. She was trying to stand and pull him upright.

“For Crissakes!” my father said. “Get off me,” and he wrenched his arm away so that my mother fell back against the door jamb. A quick glance at me, and she got lightly to her feet.

My father lurched up, using the overturned table for balance. “Damn light, can’t see a thing,” he said, and, squinting, wiped his face with his hand. He looked at me—watching him from beneath the wall switch—and walked, swaying, into his bedroom. “Go to bed,” he said. He was fully dressed, jacket and tie, except for his feet, which were bare. Those white feet, in the glare of the overhead light, against the dark runner in the hall, looked dry and soft.

Mother righted the table. To me she said, “Hop in bed. I’ll be in in a minute.” She formed a kiss with her lips, a small sucking sound, and hurried after my father.

I returned to my bed, leaving the door ajar, the light from the hall slicing into the room. My brother slept, one arm over the bedside. From my parents’ room came the murmur of my mother’s voice and then my father: “Screw that!”

“Sshh,” my mother said. “I’m going to see if they’re settled.”

“Hey, come here . . .” my father called after her.

Mother straightened the covers over Tommy, nuzzling him in his sleep, and sat on the edge of my bed. She smoothed the blanket, smiled. “I’m sorry we wakened you,” she said. “Your father tripped over that table, and then, silly me, I tripped over him. We did make a mess, didn’t we?” She was offering me a retouched family photo.

“Yes,” I said.

She kissed me and, patting my left shoulder, stood. “Night, night,” she said.

She closed the door; the room was dark again except for the glow around the jamb. I heard her go downstairs and, after a minute, return: the sounds of sweeping, of lamp shards pushed into a tin dustpan. She padded away to dispose of the broken pieces. Tommy’s breathing, the bubbling snores of my father . . . Mother switched off the hall light and went to bed. The house was dark, snoring the only sound. I wondered what he had done with his shoes and why he had stripped off his socks.

In the morning, I woke on my stomach, face buried in the pillow. Gray light made the sheets look cold. Tommy’s bed was empty, his covers fallen on the floor. Saturday morning—he would be wrapped in a quilt, center of the living room rug, watching cartoons. I sat by him, cross-legged, and he glanced at me sideways, too absorbed to speak. When a commercial for Sugar Pops came on the screen, he said, “I’m hungry.”

“Mom’ll be up soon,” I said.

“When?”

“I’m going to get my robe.”

I walked upstairs, the cool wood of the stairway against my toes. There was a muffled slam next door at the Kaminskis’, and in the living room, Tommy laughed. On the hall table, an empty lampshade; the door to my parents’ room was closed; nothing. I thought about knocking, but my father hated us to knock. One night when Tommy had wakened with a stomach ache, crying, I had gone to my parents’ room—the door, locked. I stood outside and called,“Mom, Mom, Tommy’s sick,” and I knocked on the door, jiggling the knob. Inside, my father said, “Holy Mary, they can’t leave you alone for a minute,” and then my mother opened the door, tying her blue bathrobe, saying over her shoulder, “I’ll be right back,” and to me, “Sshh, it’s okay.”

She had held Tommy’s head while he panted over the toilet and had put him back in bed with a towel beside him. “Your father just doesn’t want you getting up in the night for no reason,” she said. She had smiled and gone back to her room, closing the door.

Now, surprising me, that door opened, and my mother was in the hallway. Behind her, my father sprawled on his back—asleep—the pillow covering his head. I looked down at the narrow green carpet and saw a white shard, missed, under the table. She said, “Good morning, Paul.”

“I’m getting my bathrobe,” I said.

“Slippers, too,” she said, and went into the bathroom.

This morning, their bedroom would stink of my father’s breath, his sweat. Later, despite February, my mother would open the windows. I didn’t see how she could sleep in there, could breathe him like that.

I shrugged into my terry cloth robe and pulled on sweat socks. When I came into the kitchen, Tommy was seated at the table with a glass of orange juice; Mother was pushing bread into the toaster. “How about cereal and toast?” she asked me.

“Okay,” I said.

Turning from the counter, she said, “Hand me the milk, please.” Then, noticing my socks: “Where are your slippers?”

I passed her the milk carton. “I don’t like them, I said. “They’re weird.”

“Your Aunt Betty gave you those slippers.” She put two bowls on the table. I sat down; Tommy spooned milky cereal into his mouth.

“That’s probably why they’re so weird,” I said, mugging. Tommy giggled and spit cereal on the table.

Mother shook her head. The toast popped up. “You could slip and fall running around in socks,” she said.

“Is that why Dad took his off?”

She turned, the butter knife in her hand, and looked hard at me. “Your father came in late,” she said. “He took his shoes off so he wouldn’t disturb anyone.”

“And his socks?” I asked.

She narrowed her eyes and set the toast on the table. “Eat your toast,” she said, and poured coffee into a mug.

I snatched a piece of toast and took a bite, replacing it quickly on Tommy’s plate.

He howled: “Paul’s eating my toast!” He started to cry.

“Paul . . .” my mother said.

“He can have mine.” I switched the toast. “Big deal.”

Instantly recovered, Tommy asked, “Can we have cinnamon toast, Mom?”

“Hey, cinnamon toast,” I said.

“I guess so,” she said.

“Yea!” Tommy and I cheered.

My father stepped into the kitchen. “What’s all the goddamn noise?” he said. His hair was sticking up on the back of his head; pajamas sagged around his legs.

“Cinnamon toast!” Tommy said. “Want some?”

He snorted. “Thanks, it’s all yours.” He opened the refrigerator, stood looking into it, one hand resting on top of the door. After a moment, he took out the bottle of orange juice and asked, “Is this the only juice we have?”

Mother, who had been sipping coffee, said, “Yes.” The second batch of toast popped up.

He half-filled a glass with juice, slipped the sports section out of the newspaper, went upstairs—Saturday morning. The kitchen smelled of warm cinnamon.

Upstairs, my father would settle himself on the bed with the news of basketball and ice hockey. Though, before he punched up the pillows, he would have filled his glass with vodka. I had found the bottle between some worn sweatshirts and the color slides which covered the bottom of his dresser drawer. Once in a while when no one was around, not even Tommy, I would pull open that drawer and lift the sweatshirts, and the bottle was always there. Sometimes bourbon or gin, but usually it was vodka: Smirnoff s, Gordon’s, Kasser’s. I wondered when he brought it into the house; I never saw.

“Thanks, Mom,” Tommy said. Chewing the last of his toast, he returned to the television.

Distractedly, Mother smiled after him and sat in his warm seat with a second cup of coffee, the front page of the newspaper spread over the table. She looked up. “Did you want anything else, Paul?”

“No,” I said, and joined Tommy.

Above me, I heard my father go into the bathroom, shut the door. Spiderman faded to a commercial, and my father emptied his stomach—his gagging sounded clearly in the living room. Tommy looked at me. “Dad’s sick,” he said. Mother appeared in the doorway, her head tilted, listening: the shower ran into the tub. “I think your father has a touch of stomach virus,” she said aloud, to no one in particular. She retreated into the kitchen. After a short while, my father came downstairs, dressed in jeans and sneakers; his face was pale, the skin around his eyes tinged green as if the blood had drained away. His hair damp, he was carrying an empty glass. “That damn orange juice is like acid,” he said loudly, speaking toward the kitchen. “I’m going to go get some tomato juice. And Mylanta.”

He put the glass on the television and shrugged into his down jacket. “Do you want anything at the store, Margaret?”

“No, thank you,” my mother called.

He stood, jingling his change, patting his jacket and the pockets of his flannel shirt. “Where are the car keys?” he yelled.

Mother stepped into the living room. “I don’t know,” she said. “What did you do with them?”

My father’s face went blank, and then his gaze fell on the coat he wore to work, balled up on the sofa where he had thrown it. Under the coat were his shoes and one sock. The other sock was in the left coat pocket along with the keys to the car. “Found ‘em,” he said, and dropped the coat and the sock back on the couch.

He winked at Tommy and me, forming a pistol with his right thumb and forefinger, shooting us. The door slammed behind him.

When he returned nearly three hours later, he brought no tomato juice, though he did have a bag of pretzels and a six-pack of beer. “I thought we were running low,” he said, holding up the pretzels. He put the beer into the refrigerator and, coming into the living room, his face ruddy with the look of health, flopped onto the sofa next to my mother. “O Meg of my heart,” he said, and pinched her belly.

“What happened to the tomato juice?” she asked without raising her eyes from her sewing—my corduroy trousers.

“I forgot,” he said. “But I have the Mylanta.” To demonstrate, he took from his shirt pocket a cellophane packet of chalky tablets. “And guess who I ran into?”

“Who?”

“Bob Dooney!”

Mother glanced sideways at my father.

“Remember I told you he was talking about buying a boat? He did.”

“In the dead of winter?”

My father jumped up, spread his hands. “Best time, Margaret,” he said. “Come spring, the price goes up.” He gestured, thumbs up, at the ceiling. Talking, he went to the kitchen, pulled a beer from the refrigerator. He popped off the ring top and slid it into the beer. “Naturally Bob’s all excited about the boat, wanted me to go have a look at it with him, celebrate a little.” He flicked on the television—a basketball game—and sat on the couch, left foot on the coffee table. “It’s a sweet little boat, about sixteen foot. Be great for fishing,” he said. “We’re invited, soon as the weather gets warm.”

My mother looked up, briefly, from her hemming. “That’s nice,” she said.

My father crossed his right ankle over the left, giving his attention to the basketball. “Jump ball,” he said, settling into the couch. “Why don’t you kids go outside and play for a while. Get some air.”

“I don’t want to. Too cold,” said Tommy.

“Go on. Be good for you.”

“Come on, Tommy,” I said. “Maybe Joe’s around.”

Reluctantly, Tommy rolled to his feet, plastic soldiers on the carpet.

“While you’re up,” my father said, hoisting his empty beer can, “get me a beer, will you, Paul?”

I gave him the beer.

Tommy and I found Joe Bergen, red stocking cap over his ears, in the alley that ran behind the row of houses; he was throwing stones at trash cans. “Want a cigarette?” he asked me.

Joe lived two houses down and sat in front of me in Sister Angelica’s class, the sixth grade at St. Michael’s. Joe was in trouble a lot for talking, running in the halls, but Sister felt sorry for him, she said, because his father had died at Thanksgiving. I liked Joe; he did a first-rate imitation of Father Cimino just by locking his hands behind his back and closing his eyes. “Well, son,” he’d say, rocking on his heels, eyes tight, “let’s see whether I’ve got this straight . . .”

Joe pinged a trash can. Coughing, I crushed out half a cigarette with my shoe, and Tommy, who was only in third grade, and bored, returned to the house. Twenty minutes later—a second menthol cigarette, some talk of hockey—I shivered and followed Tommy home. There, my father was full-length on the couch, whistling through his nose. On the coffee table were four beer cans—three standing, one on its side; Tommy was again on the floor, in front of the TV. I sat in the armchair, leg over one arm, and stared at the screen: John Wayne, Rio Bravo.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked.

“Basement,” Tommy said.

She came upstairs with a small stepladder. “You should turn the television down,” she said, nodding at my father.

Tommy grimaced, his lips pressed flat. He said, “I can’t hear when he snores.”

Mother arranged the ladder in front of the double window by the front door. Tommy and I watched her lock it into position and, bouncing on one foot, test it with her weight. She climbed to the third rung, high in front of the draped window, her hair brushing the ceiling. My father, heedless on the sofa, snored.

“What are you doing, Mom?”

“I’m going to wash these sheers,” she said. “They’re filthy.”

She unhooked the left side of the curtains, and then, holding the long rod with one hand, she leaned to the right side of the double window. The rod stuck. Extended, off balance on one foot, she lost the left half of the curtain rod, which slid away from her, striking the lamp on the end table with a loud ring. The pewter bud vase with its silk rose spun to the floor. Swaying, Mother yelled as she tried to regain her balance, and the curtain rod, which at that moment unstuck, clattered to the floor.

“I’ll get it!” I said, jumping up.

“What the hell’s going on?” my father said, and sat up on the couch.

Climbing down from the stepladder, my mother said, “It’s all right, Jimmy. I dropped a curtain rod.”

My father rose, rubbing his left hand over his head, standing his hair on end like the crest of a mandrill. “For Crissakes, why didn’t you ask me to do it for you?”

The curtains in her hands, she looked at him. “I can do it,” she said.

“Oh, you can do it,” he said, mimicking her. “You nearly kill yourself and make enough noise to wake the dead! Jesus.” He waved at her with the back of his hand, a dismissal, and started toward the refrigerator.

“The curtains need washing now,” she said, “not next week sometime.”

My father stopped at the entrance to the kitchen, his back to her. “Are you trying to imply, Margaret, that I don’t do my part around here?”

“I didn’t say that.”

Facing her now, pressing his advantage: “I guess not. As hard as I work for this family, I guess not.”

Tommy concentrated on John Wayne, trying not to hear what was spoken over his head. I studied the vase on the floor, its silk rose, avoiding my father’s sneer, seeing, instead, another scene: his right hand gripping my mother’s arm, twisting. I had stood in the doorway of their bedroom, come to say good night, unbelieving of his large hand, her wince of pain. It was a bare second, not even time for me to turn away, before he noticed me and dropped her arm. What do you want? he had asked, and had come toward me with his boozy breath. Good night, I had answered, and scurried for my bedroom, Mother calling “night, night” after me.

Unmoving, she stood with the pale curtains spilling over her arms. “I only meant that maybe the bedroom would be a quieter place to nap.”

“Listen,” my father said, “if I’m in the way here, I’ll be glad to clear out.” He scuffed his feet into his shoes, righteous with anger. “You just say the word, Peggy, baby.”

“Where are you going?” Mother asked him.

He grabbed his jacket from the back of a chair. “Out,” he said, and pushed out the front door in a rush of cold air.

His anger was an exaggeration, the swelling of a bullfrog. Actually, my mother never accused him of anything, at least as far as I knew. She was more likely to cover for him, to lie to his employers, friends, to Tommy and me. I hated that she lied for him. Together with Tommy’s selective deafness and my tendency to stare at the carpet, Mother’s lies dressed us out as three monkeys.

I had once pictured my father on his back, hands clutched at his heart—dead in the street. Another time I dreamed a funeral, the family gathered about the grave site. I watched as my father was lowered into the freshly turned-out earth, and I comforted my mother, who leaned on my shoulders. Strangely, there was no coffin, just my father going slowly into the ground. Of course, I never told the dream, and to myself I pretended a sadness I didn’t feel. The truth is that I awakened to a flash of triumph, brief but hotly felt. Now, when my father gunned the car and set off, squealing, down the street, I was relieved; I wished him riddance.

Dinner was meat loaf, the three of us—Tommy, Mother, me—around the kitchen table. She kept a plate warm: all the dishes had a tracery of cracks, like broken veins. My mother never remarked his absence, and at bedtime, she tucked us in with a smile, kissed us good night. Later, I came awake slowly, thinking myself awake before I was, caught in my dreams. Eventually I knew myself conscious, and I lay still, attentive to voices in the living room, my hearing sharp-edged. I thought at first it was my father come home again, but there was a different tone to the house and strange people downstairs. I strained to catch my mother’s voice and heard the rough, metallic squawk of a two-way radio. Knowing that here was something new, I tiptoed to the top of the stairs, squatting to listen to voices that mysteriously had filled the house while I slept. To my surprise, I recognized Grandmother’s voice, and then a man was saying Excuse me, please—his tread on the stairs. Midway, seeing me, he stopped. “Uh, oh,” he said and, stretching out his arm: “You better come with me.”

I followed Father Cimino, the priest, into our living room. Mother sat on the sofa—Grandmother to one side, Mrs. Kaminski, in her bathrobe, on the other. Two policemen were going out the door; Mr. Kaminski, arms folded across his chest, stood by the freshly laundered curtains. Slowly, as if the movement pained her, Mother wiped her eyes with a wad of tissues, and when the priest spoke her name, she saw me, came to put her arms around me. “Oh, Paul,” she said, pressing me to her. Her neck smelled of lemons.

Then, holding me away from her, her hands on my shoulders: “There’s been a terrible accident.” Her eyes were glassy with tears, and she hesitated, struggling with her voice. She said at last—nearly choking on the words—“Your father’s been killed.”

I felt my mother’s words in the sudden drawing-in of my stomach, the shock of fear. From somewhere distant, I watched two tears slide over her cheeks, hang a moment from either side of her chin, and drop. I breathed in. As though this were a scene remembered, the words recalled, I said, “Don’t worry, Mom. We’ll be all right.” I hugged her, disgracing myself with dry eyes, and patted her on the back.

Father Cimino reappeared, his hands clutched behind him. “I’ll be going now, Mrs. Lynch,” he said. “If there’s anything I can do . . .” He seemed embarrassed.

“Thank you, Father,” my mother said.

He left; then the Kaminskis, saying good-night— “Don’t hesitate to call”—slipped quietly through the door, leaving Mother and me and Grandmother in the living room. My mother held my right hand in her left, chafing it. “What about Tommy?” she asked.

“He’s asleep,” I said.

She turned to Grandmother. “You can sleep in my bed.”

“I’ll sleep right here on the couch,” Grandmother said. She raised a hand. “Please, Margaret, tend to the children,” and she went upstairs to fetch the bedding.

“I have to tell Tommy,” Mother said. Her eyes searched around the room as if hunting for a thing misplaced—her keys, a ring.

“You can tell him tomorrow,” I said.

She looked at me, relieved, and nodded her head. “You know, he ran into the side of the bridge,” she said. “Jumped the median strip and hit the bridge. There was no other car.” Wide-eyed at the wonder of it, she seemed unaware of the tears spilling down her face.

In her blue robe, alone, she looked very beautiful; there was a fierce pressure in my chest. Whispering, just loud enough to be heard, I said, “I’m glad.”

Her neck stiffened, and she pulled back as if I had spit at her. She raised her right hand to me. I made no move, and finally, her shoulders relaxed; she closed her eyes.

“Of course,” she said, “I’m glad too, that no one else was hurt. Yes.”

I blinked hard—deliberately—as though baffled by some sleight of hand: I didn’t care about anyone else. “Mother. . .” I said, and stopped. She patted my arm. In silence, I stared across the room, my throat aching.

Grandmother came downstairs, a blanket and a pillow in her arms. “Paul,” she said, “you’re the man of the house now. You’re going to have to look after Tommy and help your mother.”

“I know,” I said.

Two days later we had the funeral. In the February cold, the ground rang like iron. My father was buried in a gray metal casket, lowered by a hand-turned crank into the frozen grave. We laid long-stemmed red carnations on top of the coffin. Walking away over the uneven ground—beside Tommy, Mother’s arm in mine—I thought of watching my father one morning pull on his socks. He sat on the edge of the bed in trousers and an undershirt, and clearly the socks were giving him trouble. He moved slowly, his joints awkward as an old man’s. He had the left sock on, and in the middle of his struggle with the right, he stopped, the effort too great, at least for that moment. He covered his face with his hands, elbows resting on knees. Unseen, I slipped downstairs.

When I tried to confess to Father Cimino that I had killed my father—wished him dead—he gave me five Hail Marys and an Our Father for “hard thoughts,” and he talked to me for a long time, explaining about free will and God’s will. He warned me of the sin of pride. But he didn’t know; he didn’t understand about the triumph, flashed between a dream and waking; He’s gone! And it was that gladness, which formed like a crystal in my heart, that would not dissolve in this priest’s absolution. □