JOE OPPENHEIMER - SHORT-STORIES
Mother’s unexpected call woke me today. My wife too. I mean, it was rude. Early in the morning. Maybe 5? There I was, suddenly awake. After less than 4 hours of sleep. A pounding headache, still totally hung-over. I’d tried to drink my way out of a deep funk at The Saddlery. So many things had been rushing through my head. Then mother pushed one more, “Your father wants you to come to his bedside.” He’s been ill for God knows how long.
I just wanted to turn around and go home today. From my 25th school reunion. Leave. Because of him. Well, him and Jerry. Dredged up hurt so bad. That’s why I got drunk.
I never get drunk.
Ask my wife.
But here I am, now, by his bed. Here. You’re thinking, “Of course you’d go. After all he is your father.” But it’s way more than that. And I’m not staying for any long hours. Believe me. When I got here, he whispered, “Hold my hand.” And then as if my hand were some lifeline, he grabbed it. Tight. Closed his eyes. He’s been holding on, pretending to be asleep ever since. So here I sit. Sort of imprisoned by. Or at least tethered to.
It’s like some deep communication cable inserted through my hand into my mind. Happened last night, too. Gigabytes of memories passed into me. At top speed. Now, here I sit receiving messages from some gone world. I didn’t ask for this. Couldn’t stop it. I tried hard to pull the plug at the bar. Failed. Sleep helped. But it’s battering me again through his God-damned arm. It’s like some forced infusion of a psycho-altering drug. Same thing last night but then it was Jerry. Maybe that was even worse. Came so blindingly fast. I couldn’t say, “Stop!” ’cause I wasn’t even aware what was begun ’till it slapped me flat.
Like being hit by lightening. You don’t have time to get out of the way before you burn.
We walked in to the hotel lobby, joking, feeling great. Going to the party. We were early. No one was there except Jerry and Roz. I always liked them. When we were kids Roz was my neighbor. She was always up for fun. Jerry was the butcher’s son. Now he’s an electrical engineer. Anyhow, we all go way back. My wife and I go over, hug and say things like “Wow! It’s been so long!” Jerry looks at me like I’m some person he lost on Mars and starts, like a wind up, or robot, or killing machine or something.
Man, did you know I worked in your Dad’s place when you were in the Navy? You know what that was like? Any idea what that was like? Your Dad?
’Course I don’t know where he’s gonna ride this pony. So I get into the conversation saying something simple, innocent, like, “No, Man.”
You remember Sam. You know, Sam: short, older. A bit slow. Just did menial stuff. Like the mail sort. Had a limp. Sam. Well, one day he he comes in and drops the mail he’s carrying. On the floor. You’d think that’s nothing right?
And now he’s looking at me, begging me to agree, and so, what am I gonna’ say? After all, it isn’t a big deal to drop some mail. So I agree, again just saying something simple like ‘yeah,’ laying another brick on this road to no where that I expect.
But no, your Dad, he gets crazy. I mean absolutely nuts. Gets up from his desk – the big one behind the glass partition – and he’s screaming.
And now Jerry is screaming. And that’s when I see more people arriving. They’re crowding round. They’re Jerry’s audience.
“Christ! You fool! You idiot! Can’t you do anything right?” And he just goes up to him, right in his face. Your father, you know.
Jerry’s volume keeps rising and there are ever more people coming in, gathering round. And Jerry’s just warming up. He’s acting the whole scene out. Comes right over to me. His nose maybe only four inches from mine. And he’s yelling. Spittle from his mouth comes flying out at me. Grabs hold of my shirt.
“Pick up that shit. All of it! Now! Get down. Do it!”
And he pushes me hard. Then, as if I’d fallen and am on the floor picking up some of that invisible mail, he turns toward the me on the floor. Now he’s dancing on one foot to get a good balance for making a kick, a vicious kick.
“There, you scum. Over there, there’s more. Pick it up, God Damn it.”
And he starts to kick the imagined fallen Sam for real, over, and over again. And he’s yelling. And hopping around the imagined Sam for yet another vantage point to hurt the poor old man. And my whole high school class with their wives and husbands, now all crowded around, breathless. Now Jerry’s staring at me. Like a rabid dog.
“Pick up that shit. Do it! Now! . . . ”
You know, don’t you? Your own frigging father? Treating human beings like that? An old man. You knew, didn’t you? And there we were, his office staff. None of us moved him away. None of us told the boss to stop. To go stuff himself. Didn’t you know?
Now all these people staring at me. Like it was me. Didn’t I know? My father? Of course I knew. I’d seen him like that many times. Many places. With employees in his office. With hired help at home. With the dog. My sisters. My mother. Me. But suddenly, my whole class knew. And Jerry’s still screaming, dancing, frothing at the mouth trying to exorcize his memory. Pushing it from his brain into mine. Searing it. But I’m no longer hearing.
I’m looking around. Everyone now in a ring side seat, looking at me as the freak son of some evil. Some horror. Expecting me to answer, to be something I’m not. Never was. Someone who’s got some honor saving role. But I don’t. Never did. Well, maybe once. Once I’d seen him swinging that big boot at my little sister fallen on the floor. I stopped him then. That once. But last night I couldn’t think of that. I just grabbed my wife’s hand. We left. Went to The Saddlery. And drank.
And now, here’s Mom looking straight at me from the door. Just like those schoolmates last night. Her thoughts land rapid fire in my mind, “Stay here with me.” “Why, didn’t you, you big strapping boy, why didn’t you ever protect me?” “Tell me.” “Stay.” “Let him go in peace.” “Beg his forgiveness.”
And an answer begins to form. Remains unspoken. “And why, mother, why did you never protect me?”
The understanding takes shape, flies around my brain. The cable breaks. Unplugged. Perhaps I scream. I can’t know. My hand loosens from his grip, I am no longer hearing. No longer receiving. I push past my mother, down the stairs. She’s saying something. Is she calling my name? I don’t stop.
Out the door. Free.