I call you a bastard but long after your gentle side had disappeared, owing to two decades of vodka. Now you sit, surrounded by pillows and stare through the only window that matters. That single pane that faces the bird feeder, empty and swinging alone. It’s the only sign of life in this long forsaken place. This pine board box where you spent your childhood—your beloved sugar shack.
A mirror hangs, smudged and crooked, on the adjacent wall and reflects your shrunken face—your beard, tangled and gray. On the floor lies this week’s USA Today. Its curled pages marred with burns—a yellow, ashen hue. The day is empty. No news worth reading and the birds have come and gone. In a surly voice you instruct me to cancel the subscription. There won’t be unpaid bills when your day comes.
Autumn, a decade before:
You smile from your wheelchair but only when you feel there is no other choice. At your granddaughter’s wedding, you ask the groom between shots of whisky, “What kind of man starts a family with a part time job?” You worked two shifts and weekends to boot and that was before you had married—hauling booze from Long Island to New Bedford, under straw in a cabbage truck.
Six months prior, sometime in May, Dorothy, your wife of fifty-four years collapses at breakfast without warning—her death, followed by your brother and son. After her funeral, two months pass before you utter a word. When you call for a meeting over dinner, your children breathe a sigh of relief—a sign that you’re coming around. But it’s only to declare your decision to sell the house, and your intentions to move to the sugar shack just out of town. You close with instructions for a weekly delivery of bologna, cigarettes and booze. When you finish, you depart without saying goodbye.
Autumn, the year you turn sixty-four:
Halloween, 1960, the year the doctor took your leg. “Have you read Moby Dick?” you ask. You stare out the hospital window and watch children in costumes skip down the street. A tear wanders down your cheek. “My babies, my babies, my world,” you say.
Summer. You are fifty-four:
It is early evening in June and there is a party in the house that you bought for your aging Mother. You are surrounded by sons, daughters, grandchildren and sisters. With coffee in hand, you interrupt with your usual toast. “Look to each other, my beautiful children. Be true and kind and gentle. And when hardships come, and they inevitably will, when waves are cresting the bow, rise up and declare together, I am the whale, I am Ishmael, and this is my sea.”
Fall. You are forty-six:
You work two jobs and bring fish home from the cannery on Fridays. You promise Dorothy that a raise is around the bend. She smiles, and says it was never about money. A loving home is all she needs. You bite your lip and nod. For love you supply in abundance, expecting nothing but her smile in return.
Winter. You are thirty-nine:
Christmas Eve you insist upon the role of Santa. Just before midnight, you dance in the snow and shake bells beneath the children’s windows. You lob snow balls that land with a thump on the roof—no doubt Donner and Blitzen. Afterwards you wolf down a tray of cookies, have a nightcap and go to bed. But not before spending time on your knees, giving thanks for your blessings and the day ahead.
October. You are twenty-nine:
The last leaves of autumn float down from the trees as you return home from the cannery astride a beat up 1200cc Indian motorcycle. The low rumble of the engine brings Dorothy to the porch and when you tell her the price she pelts you with a dozen potatoes. A volley of banter ensues and you are ashamed but lost for the reason why. It was the first time you’d ever bought a gift for yourself.
After dinner in silence, with your eyes aglow, you unbutton your shirt. Dorothy casts a confounded look. On your chest, above your heart, you uncover a tattoo. The word, ‘DOT’ beneath the arc of a rising sun. Dorothy smiles and shakes her head. It marks the end of the only cross words that you’ll ever have between you.
Spring. You are twenty:
You twitch and there is a pit in your stomach but you summon the courage to lift her veil. There is the scent of hyacinths as you kiss her hand, and then her lips. You honeymoon at the Seaport Hotel a mile down the road, and spend the next two days making plans for a home, your first Thanksgiving and names of children to come.
Summer. You are nineteen:
You arrive at the beach six hours early. You gather driftwood and dried leaves to build a fire to steam clams that you dug from the sand the morning before. You reach to feel for the silver band that pricks your thigh through the pocket of your dungarees. When Dorothy arrives, you slip off your shoes and walk to the edge of the sea, hand in hand. The froth encircles your ankles in rhythm with the ebbing tide. With the sun behind you, you ask her to marry.
You cannot blame her for the moment it takes to decide. She, a young woman of eighteen, bears the weight of your dubious ways: the untoward liquor runs, the unintended scuffle with neighbors on the fourth of July, and the time you took the ill-witted swipe at your father. But you raise your chin, bright with promise—confident any bad days in life were long since left behind you.