The man was twenty-eight and his father’s death a tragedy of twenty-three years’ standing before he realized it had been a suicide. In the mind of a boy of five the loss of his father was less of a single significant event and more of a series of images swirling around a palpable, ever-growing, but nameless void. Day-to-day encounters with the images and the void bred a casual familiarity. Even as the void grew he accepted it as a man accepts the face in the mirror as his own even as it ages—he sees the changes without registering what they are or even that they are, until perhaps he comes across an old picture of himself and makes a comparison: a tan, a wrinkle, a larger nose, sunken eyes, the odd gray hair. So the boy became the man, carrying the void and the swirling images though instinctively shying away from true intimacy with them, and so the man never questioned the circumstances of his father’s death until assaulted by déjà vu in his living room one day.
He remembered walking by slow, tentative steps into the family room while hushed voices spilled from the parlor. A stale, bitter odor hung in the dark room so he held his nose. His breath felt hot and moist on the heel of his hand. He flipped the light switch he was just tall enough to reach and the fan overhead began to spin slowly. A kitchen chair had been set by the far wall next to the television set. Walking forward, he crushed the brown end of a cold cigarette butt beneath his sock. When he picked it up black ash smeared his fingertip. At a sharp sound he turned to find his hard-eyed mother in the doorway. “Throw that away. Wash your hands.” He threw the butt away and washed his hands with lavender soap.
Then there was the service: the tight-fitting dark suit and pinching Sunday shoes, the wet-combed hair, the white flakes clinging to his mother’s black dress as her hands and nails worried an endless supply of tissue to bits before the large, gilt-framed photograph of the boy’s smiling father. Her hands twisted and her nails tore until an older woman, the boy’s grandmother, pressed a linen handkerchief to them. She squeezed his mother’s shoulders, her arms, then her hands, and said, “You mustn’t, dear. You mustn’t.”
His mother spoke at last. Her voice was a growl. “I’d have wrung his neck myself if I’d known what he was doing. And now see what he’s done to me. I’d have done it for him.”
“You mustn’t. You mustn’t.”
“I’d wring his neck.”
“You mustn’t. You mustn’t.”
“And him… He’s the spitting image. How can I…?”
“You mustn’t. You mustn’t.”
A California-dwelling cousin, two years older than the boy, whispered, “Did Uncle Michael choke to death?”
“Hush!” hissed an aunt.
His mother’s hands wound the dry handkerchief around and around her fingers. They wrung it as they’d wring out a rag. They wrung it as they’d wring a chicken’s neck. They plucked at it as they’d pluck a chicken’s feathers.
Then there were cakes and cold ham sandwiches with the wrong kind of mustard and raw vegetables with dips and dripping pitchers of clinking ice water next to tall thermoses of coffee all set on a long, covered table. The boy’s grandfather placed his gnarled hand on the boy’s head and led him to a chair. As the boy waited for his food he swung his legs for the pleasure of it, listening to the swish of his pants against the cheap upholstery. When his grandfather returned they shared a large slice of cake. The boy was given all the frosting. It was the wrong kind of frosting, but the boy ate it anyway. He licked the tines of the clear plastic fork until they were clean again.
“Mikey, you’re going to come and live with your grandmother and me for a while. What do you think of that?”
The man licked his lips as though the flavor of the blue buttercream flowers still lingered on them, but instead he felt the sting of tobacco on his tongue. Yes, tobacco. That was it—tobacco in the air. He slid his body forward on the seat of the chair and tipped his head to rest it along the rail on the back. His eyes shut instinctively against the hot glare of the bulbs in the light fixture overhead but he forced them open again. The blades of the fan hung perfectly still above, the rope dangling like a python from the center. He closed his eyes again to take another drag from his cigarette. Spots of light quivered in the dark. Michael choked to death. A bead of sweat ran down the side of his face.
He stood up and tugged on the beaded cord to set the fan turning. As the blades began to spin, the hanging rope whipped around and around, snapping wildly against the blades. He swore and stumbled backward, tipping the chair and tripping over it, dropping his cigarette to the floor beneath his hand and crushing it under his palm with a hiss.
The fan didn’t fall, but it kicked the end of the noose up out of standing reach. He took a deep breath and inspected the seared flesh of his hand. It wasn’t a serious burn but would require some attention.
Scrambling to his feet and cradling his wounded hand in the other, he made his way to the kitchen with a rueful chuckle at his clumsiness. Cool water from the tap soothed the burn. The sound of the running faucet seemed to run over and across his mind. Then the thought came: “Does a dead man tend to a burn?” He’d smoked his last cigarette. The chair was kicked over, the noose still attached to the fan. It only required the final resolution, the final courage.
Or was it courage?
Does a dead man tend to a burn?
He was a dead man, but he was alive. He could die or he could live. But could he live?
“Are you afraid, Grandpa?”
“Naw, dying’s not so hard.”
“Is there anything you want? Anything I can do?”
“You still smoke, don’t you?”
“I know you do, and for God’s sake I’m dying—much good a lie’ll do you now!”
“I didn’t want to disappoint you.”
“I know that… Be a good man, a brave man, and I’ll never be disappointed. But even if I am disappointed I’ll always love you.”
“I know that. I love you, too, Grandpa.”
“Good lad. And as you love me, you can hand over one of those cigarettes.”
“You don’t smoke!”
“Not in thirty years, but that doesn’t mean I can’t now.”
“Why, you old hypocrite. All the trouble I’ve been in for smoking…”
“If I’m an old hypocrite, you’re a young fool. Quit to oblige me…after this.”
The boy-man of eighteen dug into the inner pocket of his jacket to pull out his half-empty pack and lighter. With trembling hands he removed two cigarettes, placed them in his mouth, and lit both. He slipped one between his grandfather’s cracked, parted lips.
“I’m not so feeble yet,” growled the old man, taking the lit cigarette between two thin fingers and resting his hand on the bed. A thin tendril of smoke rose up from the glowing ember. “Open the window then, lad, or your grandmother’ll have a fit.”
The boy did so, sitting on the sill and leaning out slightly to blow the smoke into the chill night air. “You’re not cold?” he asked.
“Not yet,” chuckled the old man.
The boy chuckled, too. “She’d have a fit if she heard you say that.”
“That she would.”
They smoked silently for a few moments.
“Give me that bedpan.”
“You have to…?”
“I need an ashtray.”
They chuckled again.
“So is this your ‘last cigarette?’ Like the man up against the wall facing the firing squad? A bit of courage to face death?”
“Not as bad as all that, is it?”
“There’s nothing too fearsome about death…death doesn’t require courage. It can come at any moment, and it takes you either way.”
“Then what is this, after thirty years?”
“What is this,” mused the old man, holding the cigarette before his face and considering it for a moment. “It’s one of life’s little joys, I suppose. A little comfort, a little courage—but courage for living. Every living moment calls for courage.”
“Fear is a black hole, Michael Davis. But it’s conquered in a moment, every moment.”
“Will you read that again…‘Come in under the shadow of this red rock?’”
Come in under the shadow of this red rock.
Michael Davis lit another cigarette, another moment’s courage.