Contemporary Fiction Sad

This could be true 

“Every true story ends in death.” [Ernest Hemingway]

My dad was different. As a kid, I’d been in my friends’ homes. I’d talked to their moms and dads. Their dads wore polo shirts and shorts and baseball caps. They vacationed in places that had boats. They always came back with t-shirts with palm trees drawn on them. I’d mentally place myself into their family pictures on their bookshelves – I’m smiling along with them, one arm frozen in mid-wave. 

            Instead, I lived with Freddie, Mom, and Dad in a house alone on a cul-de-sac in New Albany, Ohio. We didn’t have neighbors yet, just an open field of weeds and dirt and gravel on either side of our house. In those days, from the time I attended elementary school through high school, my father always wore a long-sleeved white shirt, a dark suit, and black shoes. Both Mom and Dad smoked before and after dinner, so Freddy and I ate our meals in the family room in front of the television, watching the news or “The Andy Griffith Show” or “Bonanza.”  My teachers loved calling on me in school because I knew everything about current events. Like about President Johnson and the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights marches in Alabama, the Boston Strangler.

When I was thirty-two, Dad retired from his optometrist practice and found out a year later he had lung cancer. I returned home to care for him and begged him to stop smoking. He refused.

Six months later he started giving me a sealed envelopes once or twice a month. I’d find them on the kitchen counter when I’d come home from working at the quarry, and each envelope contained a letter with instructions I should follow after he died. The letter in the second envelope instructed me not to involve Freddie, my older brother. He’s “an idiot,” Dad wrote, and can’t be trusted. Freddie, he reminded me, always boasted he was the smartest child because he’d been a high school student for five years instead of four.

            The letter two months later instructed me to bury him in an oak coffin, not a metal one. “Don’t let Freddie pick it,” he told me after I read the letter. “He’ll probably dump me in the ground in a plastic garbage bag.”  Then he took a long drag from his cigarette.

            Another letter ordered me to bury him wearing a white shirt so his skin tone would look better. The next letter advised me to take his other shirts and his luggage so they didn’t go to waste. “Throw out my shoes,” he wrote however. “No one should wear a dead man’s shoes.” Plus, Dad demanded I burn his white optometrist coat.

            Then he started updating me in a series of letters how much money he had in the bank and in his insurance policies. Those were the letters Freddie really wanted to see. Freddie at the time owned a failing hardware store in Wheeling, West Virginia and would ask about Dad’s will every time I called him to tell him about Dad’s most recent letter.

            I asked Dad to just tell me what he wanted to say instead of giving me letters, but he refused, claiming that the letters would make his words live forever. “You’ve been to the library,” he explained. “All those great books? What if those authors decided just to voice their words instead of writing them down? Huh?”

            One letter was his apology for giving me the frizzy hair gene. He apologized in another letter for not taking us to church enough. He devoted one letter to explaining how proud he felt to sit in the stands at the New Albany High School baseball games watching me pitch and win games. Another expressed regret that neither Freddie, I, nor he ever caught a fish when we vacationed in the Florida Keys so long ago. Four months ago, the letter expressed his extreme guilt for punishing Freddie by whipping him with a belt after he caught him and two high school football buddies drinking beer while they listened to his Roy Orbison records. Dad loved Roy Orbison.


            As Dad’s health rapidly declined, he began narrating descriptive stories in his letters. They were about his life growing up on a Kansas farm:  how he hid under Aunt Donna’s bed instead of his own when they played hide-and-seek, the time Uncle Jack punched him in the stomach when he was ten, how bad he felt losing his pet Labrador named Chester when the dog ran away, and the embarrassment he endured in high school where he wore glasses and the other kids called him “four eyes.”

            I laughed when I read about the senior prank they pulled at his high school. All the senior football and basketball players snuck out at lunch, put on ski masks, lined up outside the cafeteria windows, and mooned everyone. His best friend, Jimmy Delany, even took a dump on the grass. Then they ran. Some teachers burst out the doors and ran after them, shouting, “I know who you are, I know who you are.”

            When Dad died, I informed Freddie that I would take care of the arrangements. I made sure Dad was dressed in a white shirt, a dark suit, and black shoes inside his oak coffin. I burned his white optometrist coat at the quarry. I let the funeral home pick out the flowers and didn’t say anything when Freddie and his bartender girlfriend arrived late for the service. 

            I still have Dad’s letters – his stories – and read them every now and then when I want to remember him and my younger years at our home in New Albany. The stories in his letters tell me about events I never knew before. Like the first time he kissed a girl. It happened in a park. He admitted he was nervous, the girl pretty, a blonde with a blue ribbon in her hair. I neatly tucked that letter back into its envelope.

            The letter I struggled most to read, however, is the one where he explains the grief he felt when Mom died. How her death wrenched at his body and caused him to stop caring for his own health. That’s why he kept smoking after the lung cancer diagnosis. I feel especially bad about that one. I never had the heart to remind him that they had divorced and she was living happily in Newport Beach, California.

            I know this is a sad ending. Dad did die, and Hemingway, who claimed all true stories end in death, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Of course, I’m telling you all this because you don’t know me or dad or Freddie. Isn’t that why we tell stories? Aren’t our lives just a collection of stories? Maybe I should quit my job at the quarry and, like Dad did in his letters during the last years of his life, just write stories. If I don’t, how will you know what happened to me when I’m gone?

February 04, 2021 20:03

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