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Debra Di Blasi

WAYS A FATHER DIES


ONE: In this case, it does not happen quickly. He only complains the air is thin, tinged maybe with pollen or smoke or lead. Indeed, a leaden weight on his chest wakes him every damn night. Like a big cat crouched, he says, and wet. Like the cougar he once saw bowed in a creek bed, coughing up bone and fur. Bad meat, poison meat, meat of the future where all cougars moved away north or were shot by land developers. Those pretty hills, he says, someday they’ll just be houses full of misery, of not quite content, never heart-fed. And you, old man, staring at a century’s bloodshot eyes? You? I’ve lived my time, he says, I’ve worked my gullet raw spitting up bone. He coughs blood into his hand to prove it.

 

TWO: Winter, there’s no heat in his feet. Beneath thick yellow nails blooms a shade of blue like crushed lilacs and bug chitin mixed. He killed bugs when he was young and kept killing for decades: pigs, calves, mice, squirrels, rabbits, muskrats. Even a lame horse. Even an old cat. Then one day he watched a half-eaten frog crawl toward a pond, no hind legs, a clouded eye. The hawk that’d chewed and dropped it perched in the nearby elm, furious hungry. Well go on, the father shouted, get em before he reaches water! But the hawk only unsettled its feathers. When the frog finally reached the muddy bank, the fetid pond, a patch of algae teeming with worms, the father was emancipated from his past grown hard and foreign in every shining surface. He felt, intensely, a creature’s obliging life. This winter his legs too will disappear. Hawks will watch him crawling across snow. Not toward home, no, just crawling.

 

THREE: The children rarely visit. All right, they’re not children now, but he can’t think of them as adults, either — their voices still whine with need. No one cares that he sharply hears the silence squealing through the house. And him a heel-step behind, stalking the empty rooms, sniffing for anything that might accompany him into his lonely death. That scent of newborn, of smoke or chocolate. If there’s time, he says aloud, to nobody, I’ll die here on this wooden chair so there’s less stink when they find me. He considers the offer, then replies, No, you’ll die on the unplowed land. Let the coyotes and maggots clean their plate of you. Let the children think you fled to some park in the desert where all old people die in concert, holding hands.

 

FOUR: Death is not the end of his body. A body that means nothing to everyone now. Including especially his doctor who sees only money in the slow flesh-rot. Nope. Death is the end of five children’s voices playing a hot summer night on a rural lawn mown tidy. It exists only in memory, forever, as long as he is. Memory saturated with humidity and the unstinking sweat of a five-year-old’s twig-twining arm around his neck, and a moon wholly tender in expression like his brother dead two lifetimes now but blessed risen that August night. And shining down on that sealed moment. And benevolent. As his dreams ascended from the breathlessness of fading, every one so Jesus-real he reaches down and yanks a fistful of grass already starting to dew. Smells it, sweet and pliable as love. His hands bent now always with this gesture of age and grace.

 

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