“On the Eve of Surgery With No One to Drive You Home” by Ray Shea
He was a great and volatile God when you were tiny. Laughter and strength and anger flowed from him. With every bit of your weight you could not bend one of his fingers. He knew everything, could fix anything, would let nothing harm you.
You asked him how does a boat float and he told you about displacement, but you didn’t understand until he got some Tupperware and lug nuts, and filled the tub, and you both made a mess. He took you on his ship, showed you the bridge, the anchor chain, showed you how to slide down the ladder facing the wall, never facing out.
He showed you how to close a pocketknife with one hand without cutting yourself. How to suck an oyster right off the shell. You curled up in his lap and watched Cronkite, and Archie Bunker. His hands smelled like engine grease, his clothes like smoke, his breath like whiskey.
He gave you porno mags. Told you jokes about chinks and spooks. When the kids down the street took your bike, he grabbed it back, said, “you touch that bike again I’ll break your goddamn neck.”
When he was drunk, he leaned out the car window and whistled and yelled at girls. He told you things about your mother you didn’t want to hear. When he was sober, he didn’t have much to say about anything.
You hit him up for gas money, or beer money, and he dug out his wallet. He said how come you never call? He asked what you did with the money, why you never brought your girlfriends around, but you just shrugged. You called less and less.
Your son held you up on Olympus. You taught him how to walk, how to fix a bike, how to bait a hook. How to suck an oyster right off the shell. How to close a pocketknife, and how to shave. You taught him to always walk away from a fight.
You tried not to make the same mistakes.
You didn’t talk about his mother because there was nothing to say, even when you drank.
He asked you for gas money, and college money, and he called sometimes, but never very often and less and less.
The clock over the stove says midnight. The fasting hour. You down the last of the beer, warm and bitter and losing its fizz. Rinse the bottle and set it on the counter. Over the sink, in the window, your reflection. His reflection. His resentment. His sad eyes, sullen and distant, frown wrinkles, sour scowl at imaginary foes.
You want to call. You want to tell him that you are lost. That you are confused, and uncertain, and frightened. That your chest aches for what you understand, what you never said, what he must have felt.
And you wonder if your own son might one day ache for you.
You wonder this and you pray, Please, God, please let it happen in time, so that I will not die alone, like my father did.