‘Get me outta here.’
“Mark! I’m so glad you made it.” Dora gave him a hug while back-kicking the door. She stood back, took him by the shoulders and gave him a little shake. “I was afraid you wouldn’t.”
“Well I did, Aunt Dora. Surprised us all.”
She masked a smile with her signature frown and gave him an affectionate punch on the arm.
“Come on. Have a drink. There are people here, you need to see.”
Mark thought, ‘They say funerals are for the living. Who are receptions for? At least no one talks at funerals.’ He looked for familiar faces. Not many.
Dora led him into the living room where his deceased father’s relatives and friends, the survivors had gathered. She made a general introduction. Mark recognized a few.
The ceiling fan spun lazily to no discernable effect. People nodded as he scanned the room.
A man about his own height and resembling his father, stood and approached with his hand out. Mark shook it firmly.
“My favorite nephew! I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Like wise. How many years…?”
“Twenty-two by my reckoning. You were just a kid when I last saw you.”
“Wow! That long?”
A pair of card tables with cloth covers stood in front of the fireplace. Paper plates and snacks were laid out. A cooler sat to one side.
“Preference?” Bill moved to make Mark a drink. He scooped ice into a plastic glass.
“Whatever, I guess.”
“Serious occasions require serious drinks.” Bill produced a flask and poured a couple of finger’s worth of bourbon into the ice. He offered it to Mark.
The ice rattled as he sipped. He smiled and nodded to his uncle. “Thanks!”
Bill nodded at a couple of open seats and they claimed them. Just as they were settling, a Beagle came from nowhere and jumped up on Mark. He recoiled and almost spilled his drink.
“Oh! He likes you!” cried Dora from across the room. “Come on Snuffles!” The dog persisted. Mark tried to ward him off with his knee. “Leave him, Snuff! He doesn’t like kisses.”
The dog whimpered and moved to Dora.
She continued, “It’s okay, baby. I love you even if Mark doesn’t.”
He sensed eyes watched him. “Sorry. I’m not in the mood.”
Dora said, “Poor Snuffles…” She touched her nose to the dog’s. “You didn’t know he hates doggies.”
To no one in particular, Mark announced, “I don’t hate dogs.” He let it drop. He knew no one believed him.
Bill leaned in, “Here’s to your father, Mark. I know you two didn’t always see eye to eye. But he was a good man.”
Mark sipped. “I know. We didn’t talk. But I know. He was.”
Bill looked at Snuffles. “I remember when you got… Sparky?”
“One handsome Dalmatian, that dog.”
Mark looked at the floor. “Sparky…”
“You had a birthday party. I dabbled in magic, so I arranged a show for you and your friends.”
“So, that was you? I always thought... But I never knew.”
“None other.” Bill smiled at the memory. “I shanghaied you. You were my assistant.”
“You gave me a funny hat to wear.”
Bill laughed. “Right! Kind of a floppy, shiny sack.”
“Said you needed a Swami.” They laughed.
“Swami! Right! And you couldn’t stop giggling. You were hilarious.”
“You were! You kept making all these corny jokes while doing these amazing tricks…”
“We had fun. When I conjured that puppy out from behind the handkerchief… Your look was priceless!”
“It was too much. When it sunk in I had a dog, I lost it.”
“You loved him so much.”
“I couldn’t stop bawling. My friends made fun of me. But it meant so much.”
“I’m glad I could help make that memory for you.”
Mark’s voice got husky. “Then Dad made him disappear.” He looked down.
Bill looked off. Snuffles had curled up at Dora’s feet. “I couldn’t believe it, Mark, when I heard…”
He looked over but Mark had left. Dora pointed to the kitchen. Bill stood and followed.
The kitchen had uneaten casseroles and other foodstuffs. But no Mark. He looked down the hall. Maybe the bathroom?
He peered out the back window. Mark stood at the far side of the deck looking into the trees. His drink sat on the railing.
Bill opened the door and stepped onto the deck. A slight breeze freshened the air. He didn’t want to intrude. Mark turned and their eyes met.
“Uncle Bill, you knew my Dad.”
“We were brothers.”
“Why did he do that? What the hell was that about, anyway?”
Bill didn’t answer. Not wanting to step on a rant.
“He was great. He took care of us. He provided… everything.” Bill nodded. “Why take my dog? Without telling me? I came home and Sparky was… just gone.”
Bill stepped forward.
Mark continued. “That changed everything. I could never trust him after. He tried. He didn’t know how to fix it. But he broke it, damn it.”
A gust swirled and calmed.
Voice low, Bill said, “Mark, I felt bad when I heard. It didn’t make sense.”
Mark shook his head. He didn’t want to hear platitudes. ‘It happened so long ago. Time to move on…’ All that crap.
Bill continued, “Nothing I can say will matter. But can I tell you something?”
“Something that might shed light? Maybe lend some perspective?”
Bill paused. He didn’t know how to start. Navigating emotional shoals had never been his strong suit. He pulled the bourbon from his jacket.
“You want a refill?”
“Say what you want to say, Bill.”
They looked at each other.
“My brother, Greg, your Dad, always went his own way. He didn’t seek advice…”
“This isn’t news.”
“Something happened when we were kids. Something changed him. He’d been easy-going. Our Dad told me he worried about Greg being too...”
Mark leaned against the deck railing.
“We came home from school. Like any day. Only our Mom had left. She’d gone to Florida and taken Paula, our little sister.”
“I never heard this.”
“Not many know.”
“Dad traveled. Always on the road. Mom decided to start over. She took Paula… and your Dad’s dog.”
“She left a note. It didn’t say much. Some cash. A number for our Dad. No cell phones then.”
Mark turned away. Some birds circled a tree.
“We figured… maybe Paula told us later, she wouldn’t go unless Shep went too.”
“Didn’t see them for years. They were a thousand miles away. Don’t think Greg ever saw Shep again.”
“How could she? She didn’t tell you?”
“Not us. Dad took it in stride, I guess. But he didn’t expect it.”
“After that, Greg didn’t worry about anyone. He did what he thought right. He’d say, ‘Damn the torpedoes…’”
“…full speed ahead.”
“I guess that’s what he meant. He only said the first part.”
“I remember hearing that. Never made sense… ‘til now, I guess.”
“I know this doesn’t change anything. He’s gone. But it might give you a little bigger picture.”
Mark smiled and downed his drink. The ice rattled as he raised his glass. “One for the road?”
Bill pulled out the flask and poured. “Don’t mind if I do.”
“Or should I say, ‘Damn the torpedoes’?”
They drank and smiled.
“Thanks, Bill. I’m glad I came today. I’m heading out.”
“Will be…” They shook hands.
Mark re-entered the house. He hugged Dora and thanked her. A few hangers-on offered condolences.
Near the door, he saw Snuffles sitting in a corner looking forlorn. Mark knelt beside the dog and scratched his ears for a time.
“See you, pooch.”
Then he stood and left.