Summary: “. . . because some things are never over.”
Word Count 1550 Rated K
Still His Father
It was a simple question, the kind of casual inquiry routinely posed by new acquaintances at parties: How many sons do you have?
I don’t know what I said: Three. Four. It depends. I’m not sure. Or maybe I didn’t say anything. Whatever my response, it gave her pause. A crinkle appeared between her brows. How could a person not know the answer to such a question? Then again, she was new in town. She didn’t know any better.
“Pa.” The low voice at my elbow let me know that she wasn’t the only one to notice my reaction. Joseph extended his hand to the attractive woman whose name I suddenly could not remember. They introduced themselves, and Joe said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Do you mind if I borrow my father for a minute?” Smoothly, he maneuvered me over to the punch bowl and filled a glass for me.
“I’m fine,” I said. He didn’t call me a liar, but I could feel his eyes studying me as intently as I was focusing on the miniscule glass I held in both hands.
“We should get out of here,” he announced. “It’s late. I’ll find Jamie.”
The last thing I needed was to have both of them fussing. I mounted a feeble protest: “No, don’t. It’s early yet, and the boy’s having a good time.” I took a sip of the punch and grimaced. “Oh, that’s terrible,” I said. “There’s not even anything in it, is there?” I’d almost have been willing to finish that sickly sweet concoction if there was a chance it might numb me.
Joe filled another glass and took a swig. “Blech,” he said, his face scrunched up in disgust. “Right on both counts. Come on. Let’s get out of here.” He took the glass from my hands and shepherded me through the crowd that had gathered for the town’s latest fundraiser. Out on the front steps of the International House, he said, “I’ll be right back.” Before I could protest, he disappeared into the hotel, returning a minute later with Jamie.
“But I want to stay!” Jamie was protesting. “I didn’t get a chance to dance with Ellie!” Ellie Simons was the latest object of Jamie’s affections. Jamie wasn’t nearly the heartbreaker Joe had been at that age, but he enjoyed his fair share of puppy love.
“Joe, we don’t have to—” I began, but Joe held firmly to Jamie’s arm.
“Let’s go,” said the man whom I’d dragged out of countless parties and socials just that way so many years ago, when he’d been the one begging for just one more dance with his latest great love. Another time, I’d have asserted my authority to override him, but tonight, I couldn’t seem to muster up the energy.
Whatever Joe growled at Jamie after I’d gotten into the buggy must have been pretty fierce, because the boy was silent the entire way home. I turned around once to see if he was sleeping, but there wasn’t enough moonlight to tell. Joe’s profile was stony, but his fingers played the reins casually.
By the time we reached the house, I was half-dozing. Without being told, Jamie set to unhitching the horses. Joe clapped his shoulder and said something I couldn’t hear, and Jamie muttered, “Sure,” with minimal sulkiness.
“Aren’t you going to help him?” I asked as Joe followed me into the house.
“He can handle them.” Tending to the horses was officially the job of the youngest, but most times, an older brother lent a hand.
As we had after so many parties, we untied our ties and unbuttoned the top buttons of our shirts. Somewhat to my surprise, Joe turned up the lamp Hop Sing had left burning in the front room. “You staying up?” I asked as I headed with all deliberateness for the stairs.
“Thought I’d have a little something to wash the taste of that punch out of my mouth.” He uncorked the decanter and poured two brandies.
“I’m going to turn in,” I said.
“It’ll help you sleep,” he pointed out.
A flash of anger burned through me. “I don’t need anything to help me sleep.” He said nothing, but for the second time that evening, I felt as though he was refraining from calling me a liar. I stomped up the stairs and down the hall, slamming my bedroom door behind me.
By the time I heard footsteps in the hall, I’d shed my party clothes in favor of a nightshirt and my ancient maroon dressing gown. A hesitant tap sounded on my door. Before I could decide whether to invite him in, Jamie called, “Good night, Pa.”
“Good night, son,” I responded through the closed door. I waited for Joe to echo the sentiment, but all I heard was the closing of Jamie’s door.
Dimly, the grandfather clock downstairs chimed the hour—eleven or twelve, I didn’t count. With inexplicable stealth, I lifted the latch on my door and peered into the hall. Jamie’s door was closed. Joe’s stood open, the room dark. I padded down the hall to the top of the stairs.
Joe was poking at the fire in the desultory way that meant he was thinking of something else. The brandy decanter sat on the long low pine table behind him. As I watched, he drained his glass in a single gulp and refilled it.
“Making up for lost time?” I asked. His head snapped up. For an instant, I saw his anguish, as raw as it had been a year ago. Then, deliberately, he assumed a relaxed stance and held the glass out to me.
“Offer’s still open.” His voice was tight.
I descended the stairs. “I’ll get my own,” I said. I fetched another glass from the table where the decanter usually sat, and Joe filled it brimful. We held up our glasses in a silent toast, and we drank.
Joe seated himself on the hearth, and I sat in the worn blue chair next to him. He poured another round. This time, we didn’t lift our glasses. We drank in silence.
“I never know what to say, either,” he said suddenly. “Somebody asks how many brothers I have, and I don’t know whether to say three or two.”
So he’d heard everything after all. That simple question: How many sons do you have? What to say? “I had four, but now I only have three”? Did the question include the implicit limit—how many living sons? Did a son stop being a son—or a brother stop being a brother—just because he died?
Hoss was still my son. Always had been, always would be. Just as I was still his father, and always would be. Nothing could change that.
Joe’s eyes searched my face. The authoritative man who took charge of us all tonight was ready to step in again, still trying to protect me from the agony that had plagued me for the past year. Only one other person would have seen what I saw—fiery pain radiating through the hairline cracks in his strength.
I emitted a humorless chuckle. “Adam would say it’s just a grammar problem.” Our language included no word that encompassed both have and had. That which we still possessed, intertwined with all we had lost.
Joe snorted. “You know what Hoss would have said to that.” Mimicking his big brother’s deep voice, he said, “Ain’t no point in worrying about grammar. Just tell the truth.” But his attempt at levity betrayed him. Tears filled his eyes, and his voice cracked: “The truth hasn’t changed.”
“No,” I managed. “It hasn’t.” I laid my hand on his. He bowed his head, shoulders shuddering. A drop landed on my hand. I squeezed his. We stayed like that as the fire burned down and the clock chimed again. Finally, my son wiped his face on his sleeve.
“I gotta get up early,” he said. “That herd has to come down from the north pasture.” Back in control, he recorked the decanter.
“Just leave it,” I said as he moved to take it back to its regular spot. “Hop Sing’ll get it in the morning.” He favored me with a crooked half-smile. I rose, and he wrapped his arms around me, enveloping me in his vulnerable strength. His wiry frame had filled out over the years, sturdy and muscular now. The little-boy hug grew into an embrace that had supported me through many dark hours, and would undoubtedly do so again and again, because some things are never over. If he felt my tears dampening his shirt, he didn’t say.
“Let’s turn in,” I said at last. We trudged up to our rooms, our footfalls nearly in unison, counting off the steps: one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four. At my doorway, across from Adam’s long-empty room, we said good night, and I watched as Joe walked past Jamie’s room. When he passed the closed door to Hoss’s room, he didn’t break his stride, but he reached out, brushing his fingertips against the wood. Then, he went into his own room and shut the door.
“Good night,” I whispered to my sons. Present and absent, awake and asleep.
All of them.
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