The heat was oppressive. It pushed in from all sides, making his skin slick with sweat.
He cracked the door open to let in some air. With the cool breeze came the cicadas’ chainsaw orchestra. Each wisp of fresh air brought a moment of refreshing peace from the heat.
He’d been parked in the car for twenty minutes. Every moment, he told himself now was the time to get out and go over there. Every moment, he didn’t.
But now that the door was open and the sound of the world was filling his head again, he couldn’t ignore it any longer. He got out, closed the door and started walking over.
Gravel crunched underfoot and he wiped an arm across his forehead. Swollen clouds hung overhead, holding the heat down on them. Cars hummed by on the highway behind him.
He was the only person in the cemetery.
He found the headstone he was looking for. When he was fourteen, it had been polished and new. Now, fourteen years later, it was faded and dusty. There were a lot of words on the marker, but one statement stuck out to him.
He shook his head and gave a bitter laugh, “Bullshit.”
There were a lot of words one could use to describe the man: stubborn, unpredictable, intelligent, violent…
But not loving. Never loving.
Not that Jake had ever seen. He couldn’t think of a single tender moment between them in fourteen years. He remembered the shouting matches between him and Mum. He remembered the drunken outbursts, the verbal abuse, and in the last few years, the physical abuse. Jake and Mum were the root of all his problems, according to him. They cost money, they took up his time, they took him away from the things he wanted to do.
Which was also bullshit, Jake thought. He didn’t enjoy doing anything. He claimed to enjoy working on his boat, but Jake had snuck into the shed at night and seen him working away. Even alone, doing what he supposedly wanted to be doing, he was drunk and frowning. Angry. Sometimes he would suddenly throw something or punch something.
He made Jake afraid to speak. On all of his report cards, the teachers would write, Jake’s a bright boy, but very quiet. A little confidence and he would surely excel.
He was scoff when he read those, Confidence isn’t your problem. You’re just lazy. Then he would cast an evil eye at Mum, leaving the blame implied.
But she still loved him. Even now, after a string of equally – if not more – dangerous boyfriends and a second, miserable marriage, she carried a torch for her first husband. She was the only reason he was out here.
“Have you been to visit your father yet?” she had asked over breakfast.
His wife, Amanda, had given him a look, because she knew the answer and the reason.
Jake shook his head, “Nope.”
“Why not? You’re only going to be here for another couple of days.”
“Because I’m not interested.”
“Well you haven’t seen him since… when were you here last?”
“I haven’t been there since we buried him, Mum!” he had snapped. Lost his temper. The guilt was instant, and he clenched a fist under the table, burying his nails into his palm.
His mother was not impressed. She pushed and pushed, insisting that if he didn’t, he would regret it. That when he was older it would creep up on him. That even if things weren’t always great, he was still your father.
He had finally relented, just to end the conversation. At first, he was going to just go for a drive and lie, but she gave him flowers to take. He would have felt guilty just ditching them somewhere, so he was compelled to fulfil his promise.
He was going to toss them at the bottom of the stone, but he thought about his mother and grimaced. He knelt and laid them gently down. He couldn’t stop himself from saying, “You’re lucky anybody loved you at all.”
He felt something pushing at the walls.
“She would have walked through fire for you.”
They were beginning to crack.
“Still would now, maybe. Practically did, just putting up with you.”
“Both of us.”
“You tortured us.”
“And then you hung yourself so you wouldn’t have to live with the damage you caused, you selfish bastard!”
His voice rolled across the field of stones.
Jake got to his feet and knocked the dirt from his knees.
“I hated you… I hate you.”
Thunder rolled overhead. The clouds were beginning to break. As he marched back to the car, the first fat droplet bounced off the red roses he had lain at his father’s grave.
It had rained when they buried him. The ceremony had been closed casket. After the wake, his mother, aided by several bottles of wine, had told him that the mortician was unable to convincingly paint over the purple in his face or make him look less swollen.
She had lit a cigarette with trembling, yellow-stained fingers, “He was a mess when I found him. There was blood coming out of his mouth. Apparently, he nearly bit through his tongue. They said sometimes that happens when they… as they…” she made a kind of shooing motion with her hand.
They were alone, she was drunk, and they were surrounded by empty glasses and trays of food. He spent the night cleaning up, after she passed out in her chair. They had each had a chair, Mum and Dad. Dad sat in Dad’s chair and Mum sat in Mum’s chair, always… even after he died. Jake had tried taking it to the side of the road a week later and she had screamed at him.
“He’s not using it!” Jake had argued, “He’s gone, Mum, he’s fucking gone!”
She had wrestled the thing away from him, and he had watched, dumbfounded as she dragged it back into the house with a strength he hadn’t known she possessed. No more was said about the chair until over a year later, when a ‘gentleman caller’ had unwittingly sat in it. She had thrown a drink in his face and cursed him out of the house. A week after that, the chair was gone. When Jake asked, she said, “It’s time to move on.”
She had an easier time dating other men than she did getting rid of her dead husband’s chair.
Jake didn’t blame his mother for the men. Well… not completely.
She wouldn’t have gone through them if his father hadn’t died. If he hadn’t killed himself, just to get away from them.
Why have a wife and child if you don’t want them? Before he’d left home, he went through their old papers, convinced it was a shotgun wedding, that his conception had forced them to get married.
But when he found the marriage certificate, he found that they had been married at least two years before he was born.
By the time he made it back to his mother’s house, the storm was raging. Lightning flashed across the sky and thunder pounded on the air like an enormous drum. Amanda had been on the porch waiting for him. She hugged him, asked him if he was alright.
He was fine. It’s done. Let’s figure out lunch.
They spent the day with his mother, and she graciously avoided the subject of his morning trip.
They had lunch at a café by the lake.
He had grown up in this tiny coastal town, swimming in the lake, digging on the beach and riding his bike up and down the hilly streets. Some things had changed, but not much.
The café was new. The last time he had been home it was a little newsagent.
The rain continued on into the night. At one in the morning he was still awake, while Amanda snored lightly next to him, her legs spread out on the pull-out. The springs creaked as he got out of bed and padded to the back door. He put on his shoes and stepped outside, sloshing through the muddy yard and into the enormous shed that his father had built, specifically for his boat.
He stepped in and switched on the light. Every piece of his father that his mother didn’t throw out, had ended up in here. Over the years it had become like a shrine, untouchable and undisturbed, even by her second husband. Boxes were stacked against one wall, the opposite taken up by rows of fishing rods. The wall opposite the roller door was an enormous tool rack and bench. Everything was covered in a film of dust.
And at the centre of it all, an enormous sailboat. The sail itself was disconnected and hanging from the rafters, with the body standing beneath on an old trailer with flat tyres.
Jake had treated this thing like a sacred object when he was a kid. One false move got you yelled at and kicked out of the shed. And if you accidentally did something to it…
Jake took a rusty file off the tool rack, walked up to the boat and dragged the end down the hull with a satisfying grinding sound. The paint peeled away, and he left behind a long, crooked gouge.
He defiantly stood back, looking up at the boat, as if he were waiting for his father to poke his head over the side and yell, What the hell was that?
But the boat was empty. Nobody came.
Jake tossed the file up onto the bench.
He was obsessed with this boat. It didn’t make him happy, but he was still obsessed with it.
Jake climbed up onto the boat. He hadn’t been inside it since was seven. He hadn’t wanted to be inside it since he ten.
Why did you love this boat so much?
Once inside he looked around and raised his eyebrows. It truly hadn’t been touched since his father had died.
Brown bottles were strewn about, empty and caked in dust. He knocked one with his toe and it rolled all the way to the stairs leading below deck and then clattered down them. The sound was incredibly loud, even with the storm overhead, but the bottle didn’t break.
What was down there, he wondered. More bottles, probably. Maybe some old fishing magazines. What did angry, bitter men keep from their families?
Jake found a working torch in amongst the tools and got back into the boat. He turned it on and descended the steps.
Below deck looked more like a study than anything else. There were a handful of cupboards on one wall and a desk with a chair on the opposite, with a shelf above. Jake inspected the shelf and found plastic prescription bottles. He picked one up and inspected it. The prescription had been made out to his father, but he didn’t recognise the drug. He went through the dozen or so bottles and found three more prescriptions. A quick moment of googling on his phone and he realised that the drugs were used to treat mental disorders. Things like manic depression, bipolar and OCD.
He continued the search but didn’t find anything. No hidden drawings or dramatic journals, detailing his descent into madness. Just more bottles.
He had been sitting at the dining table for around forty-five minutes when the light suddenly came on. He jumped and looked up to see his Mum standing in the doorway in a dressing gown, looking at him through bleary eyes.
“Jake? Is everything alright?”
Jake wanted to say he was fine, that he couldn’t sleep. Just go to bed, Mum, I’m alright.
“Mum… was Dad sick?”
“Sick, what do you…”
He pointed at the little pile of prescription bottles he had brought in, sitting in front of him.
She saw them, “Where did you get those?”
“They were in his boat.”
“You were in the boat?”
“Mum,” he looked up at her with pleading eyes.
She sighed and sat down at the table. “Yes, he was… unwell.”
“What did he have?”
“Honestly, they didn’t really know. They were trying him on all sorts of things, to try and stabilise his mood, but it never really… stuck, I guess.”
Jake felt his throat tighten, “Then why did you marry him?”
She looked at him, “He wasn’t always like that. When I met him, he was sweet and generous… he was everything I could have wanted in a husband… and in the father of my child.”
Jake scoffed, “Are you joking?”
She frowned, “No. It wasn’t until you were a little older, four or five, that he started showing symptoms, and at first we thought he was just frustrated with work, or about money. It didn’t even occur to us that it was something more… troubling, until years after it started. But when we realised, he went to every appointment, tried every drug, every coping mechanism, he saw a therapist. He tried everything he could to stay in control of it but it just… it got the better of him. He couldn’t stop it. He died before we could… we…” her eyes were glossy and she took a moment to compose herself, “He never stopped fighting. Even on the day he… the doctor’s found his normal medication in his system. He still took it, did everything he could, even when he knew he wasn’t going to be around anymore.”
Jake was staring at her. She had never said anything about this before. “Did he say that? Did he leave a note?”
She shook her head, “There was no note… but I know my husband. I know the first man I married, the only man I loved. He did it because he couldn’t stand to see us cower anymore. He hated the way you looked down whenever you walked past him, the way I would f-flinch when he raised his voice. You think you hated him, Jake? He hated himself more than you could ever know.”
He leaned forward, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“If I had told you then, would you have wanted to hear it?”
He sat back, “No… I guess not…”
It was a cooler day. More windy than breezy. It ran through his hair, pushing it out of his face. He was in need of a haircut. He hadn’t had once since… since the last time he’d been here, which was about two months ago now.
He stood over the gravestone, with Amanda next to him, her arm around his waist. He hadn’t said anything yet. They had just stood there, looking at the words on the marker.
“Are you still angry with him?” Amanda asked.
Jake sighed, “No… yes? I don’t know. I understand a little more what was going on, I guess… but it doesn’t change anything. He still said and did those things. He still hurt me… us.”
Amanda looked up at him. He knew she understood. They had talked about it a lot since their last trip to see his mother.
“Without forgetting… I guess I’m starting to forgive it all.” He shuffled his feet, “But part of me doesn’t want to.”
He shrugged, “Force of habit? I’ve those thoughts and feelings for so long, it’s hard to let go of them. To replace them with something different.” He looked around, “Alright… would you give me a moment, babe? I’ll be at the car in a second.”
She nodded, and he listened to her feet crunch across the gravel.
There were a thousand things he wanted to say, while he also wanted to say nothing.
He stared at the words on the stone for a long moment. It almost felt like his father was looking back, with his impassive, severe face. A face that he sometimes saw in his own, as he got older. It frightened him.
Finally, as the wind picked up, he knelt down and tucked something behind the flowers he had brought for his mother, at the base of the stone. He stood back up, squared his shoulders, and said “I’ll see you next time, Dad.”
He turned and walked away.
As the wind picked up and stirred the autumn leaves up off the ground, a little black picture fluttered against the gravestone, held in place by the flowers. It was an ultrasound picture of Jake and Amanda’s first baby… of his first grandchild.