I left the car running and spread my arms over the top of the wheel twisting the tobacco into a cigarette with my cold raw fingers while I was waiting. When the door of the house opened I swung the passenger door out for him. I lit the cigarette filling the car with a stuffy burst of grey smoke and watched the door. He had gone back in to get something. The snow had been cleared off his driveway. Had he done it himself? I imagined him grabbing some last minute supplies; gloves and a scarf, maybe a woolly hat for the cold. I was already sweating beneath all the layers without making any movement at all.
I clenched the filter in my mouth and gave my brow a two-handed swipe. I could feel the beads percolating through strands of my hair. It itched like school nits. Remember those rows of kids scratching and tugging at the intruders in their hair? Bumping heads in the yard. Wrestling. The plague had multiplied. Just thinking back to it then made me want to douse every surface around me with hand sanitizer. The thoughts made me sweat more, my palms too.
Here he came, flowers in hand.
I stretched a dry-lipped smile across my clean shaven face. I could feel the wet just under my nose. He swung himself down off the kerb and into the car with a, Good morning son, and pulled the yelping door in after himself. He smoothed out his pants with tough dry hands and aligned his feet perfectly side by side.
– No shorts and flip-flops today no?
He looked at me as if I had grown two heads. – It's freezing, are ya jokin' me? – I know. I'm only messin,' I said with the open defeated face of someone who's joke missed the mark.
I pushed the car forward. – Dad put on the seatbelt will ya…thanks. – Oh. Yes of course. They say this snow’s gonna last for the next three days. – Yeah. It's bad alright. Ok, so where too first? I've gotta drop some books off at the library but we can do that before or after the graveyard. It's no bother either way. – Ye that's fine. I just need to get a few things in the shops. Can wait until after. Lets do the library now so.
I left him in the car. Despite the cold, he rolled his window down for air, to smoke with his left elbow crooked out, right arm tipping ash all over my car. The wind blew away his attempts to get it in the ashtray, if he’d made any. I knew his head would be full of wistful small duties and declarations of speech he thought to make. I took my time maybe avoiding him but maybe letting him gather his thoughts too. I remembered on dates, when I was much younger and more nervous, I would have topics for conversation – bullet points – in my phone. On trips to the toilets I would erase the ones already discussed and add in new ones I'd just thought of while taking a piss, usually sitting down so I wouldn't drop the phone into the urinals. Dad didn’t use his mobile phone ever but maybe he had cheat notes on his arm or on scraps of paper up his sleeves or maybe, unknown to me, he was more comfortable around his son, a person he had shown how to walk, to talk, to swim, to spell, to piss and shit and someone he had watched grow to be taller than he was, someone who spread wide dry smiles on those cold days that needed them and someone who carefully rotated the car down busy streets helping with his messages and giving lifts to graveyards, all the while never going over the speed limit. For his benefit.
I handed over the books to the frowning exasperated looking woman. She was older than me but cute in a typically bookish librarian way. I avoided the urge to look for new books and grabbed a paper cup of water from the machine. I sipped the cool liquid and tossed the cup in the outside bin by the car.
He’d seen me bin the paper cup and I swear he gave me a look of, What, no water for me? As if I was going to carry out two cups. I looked at him once, then twice, as if to say, What? What now? But he turned his head away.
I let him get out and go ahead while I parked the car. He'd taken the flowers and stomped through the open gate head bent, squinting. I opened the glove compartment and found an old cloth I decided then to take to him. I pulled on a baseball cap, moulding all the sweated hair into one tight mop and grabbed the water spray before leaving the vehicle.
At the grave, his broad labourer’s body bent double knelling in the icey marble chips and after brushing away a few inches of snow from her, he placed the flowers diligently, spreading the stems apart before removing the old flowers from the small porcelain pot and inserting the new ones. He handed the dead heads back to me without looking. I folded them under my left arm and handed down the water spray and cloth to his open and waiting out-stretched arm. He soaked the cloth and rubbed the headstone cleaning in circles fingering the deep rivets of the once golden lettering.
Dearest beloved. Mother and wife.
The winds caught up and the corner of his checked shirt flapped like a flag from under the frayed overcoat. His hair moved subtly as he bent inward cowering over the letters, polishing and preening the corners of Es and As, the loops of the Us, the islands of the Os. I’d never hugged him or at least, I couldn’t remember ever doing so. But right then I wanted to stroke the hair that looked so much like thin grey horsehair, the strands brushed and placed so carefully. Instead, I kept my fists bunched in pockets and looked out over the the horizon of jutting slab stone and marble angels.
– It should have been you dad. And you know it too, don't you? – I do. I would have preferred it that way too. You hate me. I know it. – I don't hate you. I could never hate you. Hate is for other things…ideas…lovers. Not for you. You’re my father. All of this; it's just not fair dad. – I know. – She never drank…or smoked. She was always on one healthy diet or another. She did exercises. And you… – And me? – You, did the exact opposite of all these things. You weren't conscience of health. Or at least you didn't seem give a damn if you were. She did. She worried about it. She worried about her own health and all of ours. She believed in Jesus and God and read all those books and went to church every week and she feared death. – Did she? – Yes dad. She did. She feared it more than anything else. And yet, here we are. – Here we are. – Standing over her. – Yes. Standing over her. – It should have been you. – If you could, would you have us change places? – If that were actually possible? – If it were… – No. No, I wouldn’t. Do you fear death dad? – No son. I don't..do you? – Very much so. Why do you think she feared it so much? – I don't know. I didn’t realise. I try not to dwell on death myself. I know I have little time left. That the best is behind me. But it makes no sense to…not now, not ever. – I need to stop smoking and drinking. Maybe take up running or swimming. I keep saying I’ll join that damned swimming pool. And it’s never too late for you too dad. – It should have been me.
He was staring at me. – Wake up son will you. We're finished now. Give me a hand up.
So I took his arm and pulled him up. He handed me not his words, not the conversation I wanted us to have but the spray and the cloth. I stepped back, let him lead the way. I looked at her grave as I imagined I would have looked at any other box of a similar shape framing sentimental objects in storage, and blessed myself. I screamed somewhere silently like that child had long ago when he missed his mother while he was in playschool. Like the troubled teenager who needed her advice. Like the lost twenty-something that didn't know how to move forward and become independent. And now like the thirty year old man aging and falling apart by the deepest rivets of snow. Bury me silently. Dearest mother. Devoted to the end.
He put his belt on without being reminded this time. I wouldn’t have cared at that moment. The sweating had stopped. I felt pale and ghostly. He kept his hands on his lap turning his body towards me. – Thanks for your help son. It's good to get up there and change the flowers, clean the place up a bit. Though it’s a chilly day for it.
I said, Sure, yeah, no problem. I put my hands on the wheel and he said, – So, will we go to the shops? Just to pick up a few things. Won't be long.
I nodded carefully looking at the speed limit on the sign over the other side of the street and pulled the car away.
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