Trigger warning: mention of child abuse
It was a well-kept cemetery. The grass was cut evenly, the flowers arranged with tender care, the wooden casket polished to a shine, and there was Henry’s father, Robert, eyes closed, serene and resting. He died of lung cancer.
Strangers gave Henry their deepest sympathies as they streamed into their seats.
“He was a good man”, said one.
“I’m sorry for your loss”, said another.
Henry was straight-faced, nodding severely, clenching his jaw for the full effect.
The doctors told Robert he was terminal. Robert called Henry to say he wanted to patch things up, never mentioning his diagnosis. Henry asked him why. Nothing’s changed, Henry said. Just please come home, we need to talk, said his father.
Henry hung up the phone.
Weeks went by and he heard the phone ring, sometimes late into the night. Knowing it was his father, he let it go to voice mail. Sometimes he started to play the message, wanting to listen to the pain in the old man’s voice but his resolve weakened at the sound of the weeping and he stopped.
Four weeks and three days after the first time he tried to reach Henry, he got a call from his aunt. She never called him; he had a good feeling why she broke her silence.
“You want to know what his last words were?”, she said.
“What made you so damn heartless, Henry?”
“When’s the funeral?”, he said.
“Next week. I hope you’re not too busy for it”
That was a good one. As if he would miss a chance to see the old man buried.
Then came the day.
He was sitting at the front row of seats at the procession, somber clouds, dark and grey, the plain rows of head stones, and that smell of freshly cut grass, the lines of sycamore trees lively in the distance, and the people scattered in their seats, giving condolences to Henry - a stranger to the man in the casket.
A man dressed in black robes and holy relics, none of which Robert believed in, went up to the podium to speak.
“If anyone would like to share any stories about Robert, please make your way to the podium.”
A tall man looked around to see if anyone planned on going first. No one did so he made his way to the podium, a sad smile adorned on his face. Henry recognized him from old pictures embracing his father. He stood in front of them all and dared to say those first words,
“Robert, as we all know, was a great man”
Henry grimaced. He promised he wouldn’t make a scene.
“I remember the day Henry was born, Robert’s son, that fine young man down there. Robert called me with the news. Jenny didn’t make it, he said. I still remember his voice, how hard it was for him to say it out loud. Robert was a strong man though. He didn’t complain. He gritted his teeth and did whatever he had to do.
You all remember how much Robert loved Jenny. If men loved women like he loved Jenny, the world would be a much better place. He was devastated. He composed himself and told me how beautiful the boy was. He was going to name him Henry, like his father. He told me he wasn’t going to let him make the same mistakes we made, he said he was going to love him to death. Look at him now. Henry, I know I wasn’t around when you were growing up but I can promise you that the man who called me the day you were born would be damn proud of the man you are today.
Henry, would you like to come up to say a few words?”
Henry felt a wave of nerves dive-bomb into his stomach and start to spread like wildfire. No one knew what his father really was. He heard someone call his name again, but it sounded like he was underwater.
Hundreds of eyes were on Henry and he felt every single one of them burning into his skin, waiting. Every time he heard his name, the pit in his stomach grew and grew. His eyes went to the corpse, the man resting there, the skin cold and pale, his eyes closed, now for eternity, and it hit him all at once.
His father was dead. He felt ruined and the man to blame would never know why he was broken. His father was left wondering, hoping, and died a sad, old man. He felt pity for him and then shame.
He had to get away. He tried to get up, he started stumbling, his knees felt like jelly, he couldn’t compose himself. He had to get away. He had to get out of there.
Henry managed to stand and started walking, stumbling over his feet. He felt hollow limbs on his shoulder trying to help him, but he pushed them away. He kept falling to the grass, rolling on the earth, muddying his suit, and his hands, and his face, now all full of dirt.
He kept walking wildly almost tripping into his father’s grave, like gravity was pulling him there. He stumbled on headstones, following some divine guidance, when he heard those hushed voices and remembered that smell.
Dad was in the living room. He was crying again. The floor was littered with empty beer cans and bottles of whiskey and bourbon half-finished. The room was rotten and grim. The shades were drawn. There was only the faint glow of the television and the man sobbing and sniffling. It was like this for weeks. The boy was hungry. He tried to sneak out of his room and into the kitchen. He started rummaging through the cabinets as quietly as he could, looking for food, when he heard the footsteps and the dark imposing figure came. The man was towering over the boy, like a sky scraper, he was in his shadow entirely, he turned around and he could see every detail of his father – the red dulled eyes, his hairy arms full of flaked dead skin, the twitching of his upper lip under the dark mustache. The father convulsed and started to shake violently as he looked down at the boy. He began to beat him. The man wept, his hot breath reeking of liquor, as he smacked the boy around with his big heavy hands. He felt every slap like a clapping, encouraging him to go on. He closed his fist and punched the boy in the gut. The boy was floored, looking up at his father, bleeding on the kitchen tiles, sniffling, trying to hold in his tears. The man lit a cigarette and crouched down like a frog; his arms hung low on his knees while the cigarette burned. He took a drag and blew the smoke on the boy’s face on the ground and pressed the burning cigarette onto the boy’s arm, the flame extinguished, turning into ash, scarring his innocent skin.
Henry saw the two groundskeepers on their break, smoking cigarettes.
Even now, he felt like he had something to prove. He looked at the elegant thinly rolled cigarette and craved it desperately. This was his first cigarette
“Mind if I get one of those?”, said Henry.
Henry took the cigarette and held it in his hands, feeling the soft paper against his skin, smelling the sweet maple burnt tobacco.
“You need a light?” asked the groundskeeper.
Henry nodded, shaking, and held the cigarette in his mouth letting the man light it for him.
He inhaled deeply and started coughing violently. The groundskeepers looked at each other. He felt dizzy again and nauseous. He took another puff and the cigarette started to feel good between his fingers. He looked at the puffs of smoke vanishing in the wind.
Henry took a last drag from the cigarette, almost to the end of the filter. He felt the rush, like he was floating. He felt good. He felt in control. Most of all he felt proud. He looked down at the dark circles on his arm, the marks of his father.
“Here’s to you, Dad”