A fire crackled on the hearth, filled the room with odors of burnt oak, my head with times lost in the years I lived as if reaching the end of life was a goal to race towards, rather than an accomplishment achieved on the back of meritorious actions. I turned away from the fire, and the blaze of regret, and spoke only loud enough to be heard as a rhythm in the background, as if my purpose now was merely to flesh out the past, to give form to the wavering shadows that lurk in memory.
I’m Marlowe Black. My son is Michael McKaybees. Don’t ask about the different names. I’m Not Telling.
I cleared my throat and looked into the eyes of my companion. He had the same eyes as his mother, the same high cheekbones, even the same lightning strike temper. But he cooled down much slower.
And damned if he hadn’t just asked the question that’s haunted my life: “How could the war affect you so deeply?” My instant reply: How could it not?
After a brief nod, I began with a drawn out sigh. “There’s always opportunities for error at any moment in life, especially a life lived walking the edge between a moonless night and the finality of death.
“I never really felt like I chose my existence, but more like the experience of it and its billions of pieces we call events big and small, selected me for the role. That may be a bit melodramatic, but it’s important for you to know if you’re to understand my answer.
“The war I waded through was so thick with horror, cluttered with death occurring so rapidly that those who escaped the clawed clutch and walked away unscathed, were shells of the boys they’d been at the very start.
“For me that was the entire story. I escaped without a physical wound, having lost the best friends a man might hope to find, having punished the enemy until numb from the bloodied effort.
“The enemy surrendered and my government sent me home to my native New York.
“But everything was different. The air smelled alien, the buildings appeared to be the same, yet not, as if an army of workers had replaced them with duplicates subtly altered.
“There didn’t seem to be as many young men on the streets. I think those who survived sought shelter in jobs that kept them indoors all day, or they fled to the suburbs for a life so different from what they’d had before the war that somehow it could make sense again. If not immediately then later in time. I suppose that meant a life where reminders of their lost youth wouldn’t hover in the alleys of their nightmares.”
I lifted my glass of eggnog, something I hadn’t had since I was a young man, sniffed the tangy cinnamon aroma, sipped the thick sweetness, and let it coat my tongue before swallowing. I set the glass on the green cork coaster shaped like a Christmas tree, and wiped my lips with the back of my hand.
Then I said, “I stayed right here in New York, pinned on a badge after studying in the police academy and fought crime with the same zeal that I fought the Germans. We went up against petty thieves, murderers, and even a few true commies, drug dealers, the mob, and all the other criminals that made headlines.
“I shunned close relationships. I couldn’t shake the fear that anyone who got close to me would die. Eventually I found the rules for a cop to be too oppressive and quit the force. That was when life, for me, began anew. A long while after I met your mother. She was modeling for Christmas in Macy’s front window…nobody but Sears and Montgomery Ward offered catalogs in those days…guess that was about 1970.” I nodded after calculating dates in my head–yeah those old gray cells still function, albeit slowly. “Yeah. You’re right. Nine years before you were born. Neither of us were ready to rush into anything. Your mother was a lot of years younger than me, and had just gotten out of a nasty relationship.”
I stopped talking rather abruptly when I heard the lilt of excitement in my voice. It surprised me. Excitement gets to be harder and harder to find in old age.
Oddly, I wanted a cigarette, but hadn’t had one in years, certainly didn’t have one in my pocket then. Instead, I lifted the eggnog, sipped and tasted the bite of brandied alcohol…my oldest friend. Gotten me in a lot of trouble over the years.
My eyes stopped on the face of my only child; the man who called me ‘his old man’. As a child, he never knew me. It was my fault, my doing. For one thing I feared my enemies would become his, and too I feared I’d fail as a father in the way that my ‘never-spare-the-rod’ father had failed me; become the father who had raised me in Hell’s Kitchen.
Michael sat silent and unmoving, what you might call stony. His eyes watched me, not revealing an inkling of his thoughts or feelings. After a year of our spending time together, we’d buried some grief and healed some surface scratches, but my expectation that he might understand what I’d done to him had been delusional. He would never fully forgive, and certainly not forget. I would have to learn to accept that truth.
I surprised him when I said, “I should have been more to you…but I was lacking in the basic foundations of civility. You know my history. Your friend in NYPD has allowed you to read the file her captain assembled that views my career as something less than.” I stopped, put the glass down empty. He pointed to it, and I nodded, watched him pour a refill.
When I failed to finish the thought, he asked in a monotone, as if he was being polite, “Less than what?”
“Less than what is expected from a private cop in this day. When I hit the streets, every crook, every pimp, loan shark, numbers man had a gun. And everyone, of them used their weapons with great enthusiasm. They were like runoff from the sewerage left behind by the Chicago mob.”
Michael had been looking at his feet. He didn’t look up when I stopped, but said, “It’s Christmas Eve.”
“I know,” I said, smelling the aroma of their live Christmas tree. “Remember when you were a boy and you’d sit up waiting for the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof?”
That pulled his face up, filled his eyes with wonder and pain. “How’d you know that?” he asked sharply.
“Your mother. You never could stay awake long enough to find out what happened next.”
“Don’t tell me that was you,” he said with a catch in his voice. He blinked and looked away.
“I delivered an arm load of packages each year from the list your mother presented after Thanksgiving. But, damn it I couldn’t make myself be there in the morning when you opened them and renewed your faith in the unbelievable.” I laughed dryly. “Isn’t that what faith is all about?” He nodded. I added, “I lost mine in a small French village on Christmas Eve 1944. By the time the fighting stopped the earth itself was bleeding.”
I drank some eggnog. The fire had dwindled. I got up, went over and opened the screen. I dropped another log on the wavering flames, closed the screen, sat and said, “Sorry. I guess it’s obvious that I’m forever stuck in a time capsule.”
He said, again, his voice a little stronger, “It’s Christmas Eve. In fact, it’s the second one we’ve spent together.” He glanced over his shoulder. Sue was sleeping on the sofa. She had moaned a little as she turned onto her side as if to face the heat of the fire.
I hoped they’d marry and raise a family. Yes, I suppose my desire might be stimulated by the possibility of vicariously enjoying the experience, but mostly so my son would have the chance I denied myself.
We sat silent for quite a long time. The clock he had on the mantle ticked loudly. It was an antique new a year or two before my father was born back around the turn of the century a quarter century before my birth. It was ornate carved walnut with a brass pendulum that reflected the lights from the tree at the end of each sweep.
The heat from the fire bathed me with its sleep-inducing embrace. Its sounds and smells roused so many memories they tumbled into a confusion of images of people now mostly gone. I could hear their voices, laughter, the tinkling of ice in glasses of greetings and songs sung to usher us through another holiday season doors opening that allowed blasts of cold snow laden air into the room. It was something back then. We never thought our way of life would end. But it did. Slowly dieing with every passing day like the sun bleaching the colors from a flag. You don’t really notice until they’re gone.
“So what other secrets do you have you’ve not told me?” Michael asked.
I was glad for the reprieve didn’t know just then which was worse, his feelings of abandonment and neglect, or my sense of losing something more precious than I could’ve known back when I had those years ahead of me. Time. Perhaps the only real gift God gives us. When it’s gone used up we get a brief chance to reflect on life and hopefully not regret too much of what we see.
I looked at him. You’re my son, I thought. No matter how you feel about what I did that fact will never change. “Your mother took you to a small cafe in Manhattan every Sunday after church, which I suppose you disliked as much as I when I was young.”
“The cafe or church?” he asked with a quick crooked smile.
“Maybe both for you. Me? Church. It drove me nuts. Didn’t make sense…maybe it’s not supposed exactly.”
“I knew about the cafe being something special for her. When I was very young, I thought she went there because it was a chance for her to go back to the old neighborhood. Later, in my early teens I guessed it had something to do with you. She always dressed up.”
I nodded. He was right. I decided to surprise him. “You remember the time a pie disappeared from Mrs. Shultze’s window?”
“Yeah. I love blueberry pie.”
He leaned forward eyes wide with surprise his mouth spread by the first real smile I’d seen on him. “That was you? You took that pie?”
I nodded sagely. “And it was good.”
“You know how much trouble I was in?” He grabbed his glass and downed the eggnog as if it was Pepsi. Finally he had relaxed and was enjoying himself.
“Sorry. But I’ve never been able to walk away from blueberry pie. Besides if you hadn’t had a reputation for swiping pastries they wouldn’t have suspected it was you.”
“Swiping pastries? Me? My mother told you that?”
“She mentioned it once…thought it was pretty funny. So did I.”
“And you let me take the heat for the pie?”
“Oh, no. Soon as I learned about your troubles I admitted to Mrs. Shultze that it was me who took the pie and went down to Bill the baker on the corner and got her a replacement.”
He shook his head. “I can’t believe it. It was you. How close were you most of the time?”
“Never too far but never close enough. I really am sorry.” I had to look down. The regret I felt was genuine and was causing me some minor chest pains. I rubbed my sternum, and then dropped my hand quick so he wouldn’t notice.
From behind me I heard Sue. “You all right?”
I looked back and saw she was standing alongside me. I nodded, but thought, No I’m not, felt my shoulders sag my neck suddenly unable to hold up my head. The pain returned burned down the length of my left arm and I knew I was in deep trouble. “Help,” I murmured as I began falling forward.
Michael jumped to his feet, said, “Call 911,” and I blacked out certain I’d seen my last Christmas tree and happy I’d been with my child when I did.
It was sunlight that opened my eyes. The sounds of Christmas music somewhat muted by the closed door to my hospital room reminded me of what had happened. The song was “White Christmas”, the volume increased as the door opened and a nurse stepped into the room. She saw I was awake and said, “Well. How are you feeling today?”
“Merry Christmas,” I said in response with no enthusiasm at all. “When can I get out of here?”
She laughed, “They told me you’d be like this.”
“Your son and his girlfriend.”
“Oh. Guess they would. But that doesn’t answer my question.”
“The doctor will be around in about an hour. You can ask him.” She finished taking my blood pressure. It was 145 over 95. Not bad for an old man.
I had a tube plugged into the back of my left hand. My heart felt like it was chugging along normally. But who can know what normal is at my age?
They allowed me some ridiculously bland breakfast. Salt-free everything that tasted like soaked cardboard and the doctor arrived with a flourish white coat flapping behind him. He smelled like strong disinfectant soap. His hands had the look of those having been washed far too often in too little time.
“I’ve always wanted to meet you,” he started.
I stuck out my non-tubed hand and said, “And now you have doctor…?” and hung a question for him to fill with a surname.
“Jefferies, Thomas.” He lifted the clipboard that was tied to the foot of the bed scanned it and said, “Well, you got lucky this time. You had a Cheney…as I like to call it.”
“A Cheney? What the hell’s that?”
“Don’t you mean who the hell’s that?” He dropped the chart.
I squinted at him just to be certain he really was a doctor and not a comedian in need of employment and decided there was no way for me to tell. I had to take him at his word, which was starting to get confusing. I knew we had a vice president named Cheney. He was the guy with two or was it three DUIs when he took office; the type man we really want in a high profile position to set an example of what children should not become.
I’d thought at the time they were elected it was a good thing they didn’t let him and the bozo in the White House drive their own limos. Then I remembered Dickie’s heart attack when it looked like the man who actually won would become the next president. At the time I thought it was an asinine attempt to misdirect public attention from the real issues. Still think so.
“Well,” I started, “Glad it was so mild I could become the Veep. When will you release me?”
“Soon as your son returns. Can’t allow you to drive.”
“Good thing,” I told him. “Haven’t had a license to drive in ten or fifteen years.”
He laughed, shook my hand again, and said, “I called in a prescription for your blood pressure to a pharmacy your son recommended. Get it and take it daily and a low dose aspirin once a day too.” He stared at me as if he thought I didn’t quite understand his instructions. I nodded and he said, “Hope I don’t see you here again.”
“Count on it,” I said and watched him leave. Nice guy, I thought. Wonder how he’ll finish.
Michael walked in as if on cue. He looked around the room got me thinking he had something important to tell me and wanted to be certain we were alone first. He stopped at the foot of my bed and asked, “How you feeling?”
I really wanted to inform him that I was getting real sick of people asking that question but held it in. “Ready to leave as soon as they unplug me.” I held up my arm to show him the tube taped to the back of my wrist.
“You’re lucky the doctor was willing to come in today. He’s a friend.”
A buxom blonde nurse in a pink uniform entered sidled past Michael and approached the side of my bed with undue caution. She had her hair tangled into a strange looking braid that was tight on the back of her head. Wore little or no makeup, but her lips were so thin I thought a layer of lipstick might be a good thing.
“I don’t bite,” I said, “Just take the damn thing out. It’s starting to hurt.”
She laughed nervously. Her hands were cool and steady when she lifted my hand and began peeling off the white cloth tape. She smelled like cinnamon and nutmeg.
“You been drinking eggnog?” I asked.
“No, sir,” she said and finished removing the tape yanking a few hairs with it. The needle slipped out as if it had been greased. She slapped a bandage across the small wound and said, “Doctor Jefferies wants to see you in a week. Stop by the nurse’s station on the way out. He left his card with the appointment date and time on it.”
I was tempted to give her a healthy pat, but was sure it would be inappropriate in these modern times. “I’ll do it. Where’s my clothing?”
She pointed to a closet. “In there, sir. Good luck.”
She left. I dressed and was wheeled from the room by a different nurse with Michael quietly in the lead. He got the business card, and Sue stood from the bench she was sitting on. She stuck a dog-eared Sue Grafton paperback into her purse. The title looked like ‘“G” Is For Gumshoe’, which I thought was pretty strange. If you’re living with one why read about another one? Isn’t the real thing good enough?
“You okay?” she asked.
“Yeah. Thanks to the two of you. If I’d been home I’d be dead right now.”
“Maybe,” Michael said, as if he didn’t think it possible.
“I’m not that tough.”
He glanced sharply over his shoulder paused his step as if to reassess what he was thinking smiled and said, “Don’t I know it,” in a way that said a lot more.
Sue stepped between us put an arm around his waist and my shoulder and said, “No mystery here.” And the three of us went outside and into the chill air of Christmas Day, with me feeling that at last we’d leaped across the pit of poison spikes the past had erected as an obstacle to block our way to healing a badly mangled relationship.