As soon as I set foot in the hospital, I realize it’s a mistake.  I swore to never come back, even if I’m dying.  Yet here I am, not dying any more than usual.

This is a different hospital than the one that haunts me, but it makes little difference. Green walls and grey floor.  Cold quiet noises: faint beeping, rubber soles squeak-squeaking on linoleum, soft, urgent voices.  Aromas of gauze and iodine, that familiar smell of sterile misery.

Deflated humans litter the hallway, sagging against steel beds and chairs; prison bars rearranged into objects of rest while secretly serving their former function.  The occupants aren’t fooled; their empty stares convey the loss of freedom with more conviction than their garbled voices, muttering nonsense.  Pass me my suitcase, I’m going home today.  That nurse is stealing my money.  Someone’s trying to poison me.  No one hears.  As I go slouching past, some raise skeletal hands, whether to ward me off or grasp in desperation, I can’t tell.

The door is barely open, and I pause there, my resolve wavering.  If it were fully open, I could peek in and thus be prepared; if it were closed, I could just walk away and forget the whole thing.  I’m paralyzed between options, lost in my mental preparations and caught off-guard by a voice behind me.

“Young man.”  Her voice is thin and insubstantial.  I spin around, and almost miss her.  She is hunched low over her walker as if folded in half, her neck craned toward me.  “Young man.  So tall and full of life.”  It sounds like a lament, her voice raw with old regret.  She looks at me, beady black eyes wet with some dimly remembered hope. As I watch, those eyes grow dull and she turns and shuffles away.

Her words hang in the air with the resonance of a warning.  My impulse is to turn and walk back up the hall, to flee this place and immerse myself in the frigid, stinking, smokestack haze of downtown. To keep walking until the hard air has scrubbed away my body’s memory of here.

But here is where I am.

The room is stifling and I’m assailed by a ripe, organic stench like breath from an infected mouth.  I freeze, looking at the desiccated figure on the nearby bed whose body is a thin log under the sheet, toothless mouth agape, eyes fixed vacantly on some invisible horror above.  Then I realize it’s not him, and I exhale the breath I’d been holding.  He must lie just beyond the half-drawn curtain that bisects the room. Suddenly, I’m frozen again, this time by roses.

They are long-stem, a fresh, improbable dozen, sitting in a slender glass vase on the table by the foot of the bed.  They stain the room like drops of fresh blood soaking through dirty canvas, jarring in their vividness against the drab walls.  I feel a stabbing in my gut, a rising of something vile and insidious; I swallow it down before I step around the curtain.

His bed is beside the window, where he can enjoy a view of decrepit buildings in the heart of a decaying city.  There are no other adornments: no family photographs, no watercolour prints or teddy bears or get-well cards.  A bible lies on the bedside table, talismanic and untouched.  I turn my eyes to the figure on the bed, and I almost look away when I find he is staring at me with bulging eyes.  Maybe he thinks I’m Death.  It’s likely I appear that way, pale, grim, and undernourished as I am.  I try to unclench my jaw as I look at my father for the first time in God only knows how long.

His prone form is barely recognizable; it won’t fit into the imprint in my memory of the man with big round shoulders and thick hands always clenching a cigar, white-gold-and-diamond ring on the third finger of the left hand, shiny hair swept back from a sun-ripened face, drinking brandy or Scotch from a snifter while poring over financial portfolios, well-dressed in the careless fashion of the overly confident, top buttons of his shirt undone to let his gold chain breathe.  In this memory, he wears a pair of thin bifocals that do little to soften his image and ash piles on the table as it falls from his unattended cigar while he scratches away at his ledger with a fine-tipped pen or pecks at his computer keyboard with one finger.

So vivid is this image of him that I feel a stirring of unexpected pity.  I didn’t come to pity him, and his sorry state angers me. Bloated and pale, the skin on his face and arms taut and translucent, like grilled sausage about to burst.  What hair he has left is brittle and grey, like ash.  His arms lay limp as severed tentacles against the swell of his stomach but his fingers, now devoid of any rings, start twitching and scratching as if trying to drag his arms away.

We stare at one another.  The noises in the hall have receded and we are encased in oppressive silence.

“These roses.”  My voice emerges, with the finality of an indictment.  “Where did the roses come from?”  His oily face shines in the lamplight, sweat running freely now.  I’m beginning to think he will just lie there and stare all night but I see him swallow, lick his lips with a darting tongue.  His mouth opens like a surgical incision, blood between his teeth, and he strains to speak a single word: “Nurse.”

“From a nurse?”  I try to maintain an even tone and hold back the tumult of emotions but already I’m failing.  The years of separation from him have fermented my ill feelings into a potent brew of resentment and blame.  “You’re sleeping with the nurses now?  Or did she just feel sorry for you?”  He doesn’t answer but there is a gleam in his eyes, a hint of something mocking.  “Do you think I’m stupid enough to believe that any nurse in this place would enjoy your company enough to buy you roses?”  I have to restrain myself from grabbing his throat until that smug gleam fades from his eyes.  “I didn’t come all this way to be made fun of, so for the love of God just tell me: where did you get the fucking flowers?

“Nurse!”  The gleam has vanished and I’m not sure if he’s answering me or calling for help.  The urge to choke him withers into disgust for him, and because I recognize something of him in myself.

It doesn’t matter, of course.  I don’t really care where he got the flowers.

My knees go weak and I take the steel chair next to the bed.  It’s this place, getting to me, memories emerging like lava from beneath the crust of my subconscious.

###

I follow Karen.  Karen follows Aunt Beth down the hallway.  Aunt Beth looks back; she looks cross, like her face is being squeezed.  She waves her hand for us to hurry up.  I want to cry but I try not to.  Karen isn’t crying.

            We stop outside of a door.  Bad feelings are coming.  Aunt Beth says wait here and goes into the room with the man in the white coat.  When they’re gone, Karen says Mom’s gonna die.  I say how do you know, and she says didn’t you hear them talking the whole time?  He said she might not make it and that means she’s gonna die.  Then she punches my arm and says stop crying, only babies cry.  I say I’m not crying.  But I cry more because she said that, and she punches me again. 

            Aunt Beth comes out, and she’s crying too.  She looks angry and she grabs one of us in each hand and says let’s go.  She pulls my arm so hard it hurts but Karen says let go of me and then she’s running back down the hall, and Aunt Beth says a bad word and lets go of my arm so she can chase after Karen. 

            Karen is in the room and Aunt Beth is in the room.  I go in the room too.  Karen is on the bed.  Aunt Beth is sitting on a chair.  She doesn’t look angry anymore.  Mom is on the bed.  What’s on her face?  The tall man is standing there looking at Aunt Beth and at Mom and Karen.  Nobody looks at me. 

            I feel it coming, the bad thing. It’s like drowning, I think.  It’s pushing on my chest.  Mom’s wearing a mask.  Something else is different, too.  Her face looks weird.  I walk up to her, even though I can’t breathe, and the doctor is talking to Aunt Beth but I’m not listening (“she was hanging about eight minutes”) and I see Mom’s neck and it is purple and blue.  Purple and blue purple and blue purple and blue

###

He says something faint and incomprehensible.  He has rolled his head to the side, bulging eyes staring at me.  I stare back at him.  We go on like this for a while, then he opens his mouth.

“They mean nothing.  She’s nothing to me.”  These words are ominous, and I stare in horror until he gestures to the side of the room with his eyes, to the flowers I had already forgotten about.

“They’re never anything to you, are they?”

“Why did you come?”

My expression is as incredulous as his.  Why did you come?

Now that the moment has arrived I find the words caught in my throat.  Maybe I pity him too much to tell him.  Or maybe he doesn’t deserve to know.  “They told me you’re dying,” I say instead.

“So?”  He casts the word at me like a taunt and I look away.  My heart thumps against my breastbone.  The air is too thick in here; and the room is changing, growing.  I try to stop it, to maintain my grip on the situation.

“I want to know the truth.”

“The truth about what?”

“What really happened.  Why she did it, and why you didn’t stop her, or ever go visit all the time she was lying there.”  Eight fucking years.

“Don’t be ridiculous, I did visit her.”

I have a moment of doubt; I know my memory is flawed.  “Maybe for the first couple of years you did.”

“Did you ever think about how hard it is to watch your wife wasting away?  And being totally helpless?”

This is his classic trick, to reflect his own insensitivity back at you.  I ignore it.  “You had to have known something was wrong.  People don’t just hang themselves out of the blue.”

“It wasn’t my fault.  She was sick.”  He gives the word extra emphasis, that I might know hers was not just any sickness but a special kind.  “She didn’t want my help, or anyone’s.”  He looks at me now with immense irritation.  “I’ve already been through this once, Andrew.  I was exonerated, remember?”

“What about the lawsuit?”

“An act of desperation.”  He sounds so self-righteous that I want to strike him.

“You could have done something before it was too late.  You knew she was unhappy.”

“Who isn’t unhappy?” he wheezes.  “Anyway, what do you know about it?  Only what Beth told you.  You were still a baby, practically.”

“I was six years old.”

“You were still a baby at six, Andrew.”

“I know Mom cried a lot.”

“She was a woman.  Women cry.”

“I know you cheated on her.”

“Am I to feel guilty about that now, after all this time?”  He coughs in breathless little puffs, as though he hardly has the strength for it.  “The time for remorse is long past, don’t you think?”

“I think you’re incapable of remorse.”

He says nothing, closing his eyes and affecting severe fatigue.  He wants me to feel sorry for him.  Prick.  Everything is going wrong now, just as I thought it would.  I had the upper hand when I walked in grim-faced and unexpected, an apparition incarnating every past mistake, when I could see the guilt written on his pallid face.  But now he has sensed the weakness in me, that I am barely holding on, and with a strong push, I will topple.

“You don’t look well, Andrew.”  The note of concern in his voice almost sounds genuine. “You’re so pale and gaunt.  You haven’t been taking care of yourself.”  And you have?  I look at the floor and try to decide if it is stable enough to support me.  I don’t want to listen to the lies crawling out of him and it isn’t why I came, I know that much.  When I stand my stomach lurches.

“Wait!”  He almost chokes on the word, coughing and gasping. I wait, and his fit subsides.  “Karen.  How is Karen?  Why didn’t she come?”

That is all it takes to bring me back.  I’m shaking, weak in the knees again, and I can’t bring myself to say it.  I see him reading my expression and becoming even paler.  “Speak, damn it!”

“She’s dead.”  I can see the words plunge into him like a dagger.  I wanted to kill him and perhaps now I’ve done it.

“Not Karen.”  That is all he can manage, his voice strained almost beyond the point of audibility.

“She went over the edge of the Niagara Escarpment a month ago.  A rock climber found her.”

“Went over?”

“Jumped.”

“My God.”

His eyes are so red that when the tears escape I expect them to leave bloody streaks down his face, but he blinks and I see they are just ordinary tears.  “Are you enjoying this, watching an old man suffer?”

“Believe me, I’d rather not have come.”

“What’s the matter with you, Andrew. Look how you shake.  You’re sick too, aren’t you?  Like your mother.  Like Karen.”  The pain in his voice is tangible and I almost regret hurting him like this.  Then the other feelings return.

“Two down, one to go, eh?”

“Get some help for yourself, Andrew.  Have you ever spoken with anyone?”

“A little late to start being concerned now, isn’t it?”

Defiance flashes in his eyes.  “You’re one to talk.  Two years I’ve been in and out of here you never even called but you come here to judge me when I’m too sick to stand.  You think it was easy raising two spoiled kids on my own?  I did my best.  I gave you whatever you wanted and all you do is run away.  Why don’t you just come right out and admit it: you don’t give a shit about your old man.”  His diatribe is broken by another fit of coughing, pink spittle flying from his lips, and he almost drowns me out when I say the bad thing that freezes him mid-cough, his lips stained rose-coloured against his blanched face.

“What?”  It sounds more like a gasp, an inhalation, than an utterance.  I stand with my mouth half-open as if I can breathe the words back in.  “What did you say?”  But I’m already turning, his voice ringing hollow in my ears, when he hisses at me. “Get out.  Get out.  You’re no son of mine any longer.”

###

The January air spills over me, biting into my skin but I leave my collar hanging open, and keep my hat in my pocket.  I can still hear his raspy, emphatic voice: No son of mine any longer.  It feels like I haven’t been his son for a long time.

I cringe inwardly at what I said.  At least I never hated you like Karen did.  I don’t know where it came from.  But it came out naturally, and sounded right, and from the look on his face he must have believed it, which almost makes it true, even if it wasn’t before I said it.

Thinking about Karen, the weight of everything settles over me.  I’ve avoided confronting these feelings for the past week, but this has rocked my defences.  I’ve thought about giving up many times.  I’ve considered my death dispassionately, pragmatically, a problem to be worked out.   Always, an image of Karen steers me away from such thinking.  I was afraid of disappointing her.

I used to dream of being as strong, and confident, and assured as Karen.  “Don’t worry, Andy.  I’ll look after you,” she used to say when we were kids, when I came home crying because some asshole had pushed me around at school.  And she did.  Anyone who picked on me had to answer to her and her ferocious temper.  Crazy Karen, they used to call her back then.  She offset her good grades with twice-a-year suspensions for fighting, bearing her scratches and shiners with more pride than her rows of As and B-plusses.  Mom used to kick up a great fuss whenever Karen was sent home from school bloody-nosed.  I remember her crying in alarm, beside herself at the injustice of her precious daughter being harmed by some snot-nosed bully, oblivious to the fact that Karen always went willingly into battle.  She would flutter around Karen with nervous hands, trying to apply bandages and ointment while Karen scowled and swatted her away.  For his part, Dad seemed more disgusted than concerned.  “What sort of barbarians am I raising?” he would growl, somehow lumping me in with Karen.  “You’re dragging our family name through the mud.  Does that make you happy?”  And Karen would reply, “Maybe it does.”  Hellacious, tenacious, Karen.  With her looks and brains and fierce will it seemed anything was possible for her.  After Mom went down, it was she who kept hope alive for me.

I remember her most vividly when we were teenagers, dyed-black hair falling over her face so that one almond-shaped eye glared ambiguously at the world.  “Cut to the chase,” she would say, and “No bullshit.”  Nothing seemed to faze or impress her.  I never heard her boast about our cavernous house on the escarpment, the BMW she would get to drive at sixteen, the maid who was at her beck and call.  She bought her clothes at thrift shops.  Anything to distance herself from the rich-bitch persona people expected of her.

When Mom went into her coma, Karen didn’t cry.  During those first hospital visits, she talked to Mom, told her about school, read to her while she lay wheezing her mechanical breath.  I sat next to the bed, speechless and forlorn, while Dad paced about the room in nervous impatience.  By the fifth visit, he wouldn’t last ten minutes before taking our hands and saying, “Come now, your mother needs to rest,” as if she had not already been sleeping for months on end, leading us away ahead of the nurses’ whispers and sidelong glances.

Only once in those first couple of years did I see Karen lose her composure, as we were preparing for a weekly visit.

“I can’t come with you to see Mom today,” Dad told us without looking up from his desk.  “I’m absolutely buried in work.”

“Who’s gonna take us?” I asked him.

“Your Aunt Beth is on her way over.”

Karen looked at me and then at Dad.  “I don’t want to go with Aunt Beth.”

“Fine then, don’t,” he mumbled around his cigar.

“Aunt Beth’s a bitch.”

“Just what do you want me to do about it?”

“Bring Mom home.”

He froze, his pen halted on the page, even the smoke about his head suspended.  “What?”

“Why can’t she come home?”  I recognized the challenge in her voice. They were too much alike, Karen and Dad.

“Why?  Because she’s a goddamn vegetable, that’s why.  You know what that means, don’t you?  She can’t even think.  She needs round-the-clock care.  Who’s going to look after her, you?”

“Sure, when I’m not at school.  But what about you?”

“What about me?”

“You’re home most days doing your stupid work.  And you could hire someone to help take care of her.”

He looked up at her through narrowed eyes.  “My stupid work is what keeps us in this big house you kids love so much.  I don’t get paid just to look good, you know.  It’s tough enough in this business without having to worry about someone who can’t even blink unassisted.”

That’s when she lost it, though neither Dad nor I realized it at first when she abruptly left the room.  We both jumped at the cacophony of exploding glass.  At first Dad just sat there, recognizing the sound as the destruction of a china cabinet he probably cared little about.  But then there was a great floor-shaking crash as his cabinet of rare Scotch landed heavily on its face, and he sprung to life.

Dad moved quick for a big man.  He circled around through the living room and came upon her from behind.  She tried to evade him at the last second but he seized her in a bear hug, bringing her to the floor and squeezing her until she stopped trying to kick him.

“You want me to beat you so they’ll send me off to jail?”  They were a ball of anger, entangled there on the carpet.  “Is that what you want?  Then who’ll look after you, eh?  They’ll send you to some shitty east-end foster home full of cockroaches and centipedes.  How about that?”  He knew she hated bugs and said that for effect.  At last he let her go and she scrambled from him, wordless and smouldering, her hair plastered to her face in dark streaks.  Dad looked at his cabinet.  The mahogany frame was still intact but the glass doors lay in a thousand fragments.  I could hardly believe she had managed to topple it; she really was much stronger than me.  The thick, pungent heat of Scotch whisky filled the room.  “There goes your allowance forever,” Dad muttered, almost to himself.  “But that’s not enough.”  He looked at her and I saw the glint of malice in his eyes.  “You don’t care about money anyway.  Since you have no respect for me and my work, you can find your own way to the hospital.  I’ll take you there no longer.  I was only going for your sake anyway.”

“You mean you never want to see your wife again?”

“My wife’s dead, as far as I can tell.  She never even knows we’re there.”

“Yes, she does,” Karen said.

“No, she doesn’t.  And the sooner you realize it the easier it will be for everyone.”

Karen glared at him.  I thought she might cry at first but then her face twisted into a sneer.  “I’d hang myself too, if I was married to you.”

I’d hang myself too if I were married to you.

These words have stuck in my head like a nursery rhyme over the years.  But after finding out about Karen they have renewed significance.  I think of them almost as an omen, foreshadowing her fate more than a decade later.

True to his word, Dad ceased accompanying us on our visits so we relied on Aunt Beth, the only one of Mom’s three siblings that was not too far out of the way.  Beth was a severe woman.  A few years older than Mom, she was slender and almost attractive but for her perpetual frown.  She wore her hair short and her attire was businesslike.  She sported dark sunglasses even on cloudy days and always kept a hand on the small shiny purse pulled down tight from her shoulder, as though prepared to draw a gun from it at a moment’s notice.  She never came into the house and wouldn’t even pull into the end of the long driveway.  I figured she did it out of spite, making us walk the hundred and fifty feet even in the pouring rain.

At the hospital, Aunt Beth attended to business, ensuring her sister was kept clean, was properly nourished, and her condition monitored for any change, anything that might indicate a miraculous recovery.  Once satisfied that all was in order she would sit in the corner behind us, looking on as Karen told Mom about her new boyfriend or a teacher she had a crush on.  Sitting in silence at the bedside I felt smothered by the heat of the room. Amidst the heat, the steady beeping of Mom’s heart monitor, Karen’s soft droning voice, and the oppressive watchfulness of Aunt Beth, I would fall into that state where I became small and distant, detached from my body and floating away while somehow remaining in place.  I could still move but I couldn’t feel.  I came to dread these visits to the point where they encroached on my daily life.  I couldn’t sleep.  I began chewing my fingernails till they bled.  I even wondered sometimes if Dad wasn’t right, if maybe Mom was as good as dead and we might as well have been visiting her in the morgue.

“Why do you think Aunt Beth hates us?” I asked Karen after one visit to the hospital.  We were sitting in her room, which was making its transition from a princess suite to a punk rock lair.  Karen sat facing the mirror applying makeup thickly to her eyes and lips while I stared out the window.

“She doesn’t hate us,” Karen said, to my surprise.

“Then why is she so mean?”

She looked at me with impatience.  “Jeez, do I have to spell everything out for you?”  I didn’t answer.  “They think it’s all his fault.”

“What is?”

“What do you think?”  She turned to scowl at me.  “Don’t be so dense.”

I flushed.  “Okay, but his fault how?  Like, he made her do it?”

She paused at the mirror.  “That too.”

I grew more confused by the second.  “Who thinks it’s his fault?”

“Aunt Beth, Aunt Liz, Uncle Gary, that whole family.”  She pressed her lips together; they were painted dark purple.  She set her lipstick down on the dresser and studied the result of her handiwork.  I thought she looked very pretty in a dangerous sort of way.  “Maybe you were too young to remember.”

“Remember what?”

“When the police came.”  She stared into the mirror, looking beyond her own eyes as though she might find something hidden there.  “I heard them asking Dad questions.”

“Like what?”

“Like why didn’t he do CPR while waiting for the ambulance.”

I had never thought of that.  “What did he say?”

“He totally flipped out.  ‘My wife just hanged herself you son of a bitch, I’m not a goddamn paramedic, what do you want me to do?’  You know, his typical reaction when he gets caught at something.”  Her Dad voice was remarkably accurate, low and booming.  I could picture the scene clearly.

“He was probably freaking out, you know, not thinking straight,” I reasoned.

“Dad doesn’t get scared.”  I saw in her eyes the same angry flash that I often saw in his.  “He could have done something to save her.”

“Come on, you really think so?”

She answered with a question.  “Did you know Mom wanted to get a divorce?”

“How do you know?”

“Beth said so.”

“She told you that?”

“I overheard her talking to Uncle Gary.”

“You overhear a lot, don’t you?”

“More than you do, anyway.”  She wiped her nose and sat staring at nothing.  I hadn’t even noticed that she’d been crying.

“So, what should we do?” I ventured to ask.

“Keep visiting Mom,” Karen said.  “Maybe she’ll wake up one day and be able to tell us what really happened.  Did you ever notice all the pills she was taking?”

“Pills?”

“God, you really are clueless.”

She was right about that, but after our discussion I began noticing things.  For one, Dad was not nearly as distraught about Mom as Karen and I were.  Indeed, he got over it fast and soon his spirits seemed lifted by his newfound freedom to leave the house when and with whom he pleased, now that we were old enough to fend for ourselves for a few hours.  Coming home from school we would often find the house deserted, no note awaiting us, and when he finally arrived it would be without an explanation, reeking of whisky and perfume.  By the time I was fourteen and Karen was making her second round through grade twelve he dropped all pretences and started having women over at the house, unapologetically telling us that they were clients, investors, or business associates, as if he neither expected nor cared if we believed him in the slightest.

Aunt Beth showed up at the door one day in the fall, and upon seeing me, burst into tears.  I had not seen her in some time, not since Karen got her license and could drive us to the hospital.  In fact, we purposely scheduled our visits to avoid contact with this woman who now stood weeping at our .  The news she brought didn’t come as a surprise; Mom had been steadily wasting away and even Karen wondered if it wasn’t cruel to continue sustaining her.  “Think of what kind of life that must be,” she had said once.  “She already gave up on living and now we won’t let her go.”

Aunt Beth made no move to come in, but simply stood crying at the door. She had aged in the short years since I’d last seen her; her hair was greying at the temples and thin spidery lines ran along her face from the corners of her eyes and mouth.  I stood staring in shock and embarrassment for her but then I heard Dad coming up behind me saying, “Who is it, Andrew?”  He got to the door, took one look and said, “Oh, God.  She finally gave up, did she?”

Aunt Beth looked at Dad and her face underwent an incredible transformation, the shape of anguish melting away, hardening again into straight lines and then twisting, curling like paper over flame into sheer, undisguised hatred.  I thought she would fly at Dad with her fists but then she changed again just as quickly, the anger draining away, leaving behind only deep, empty weariness.  “You killed her,” she said simply.

Dad was taken aback but only for a second.  “I know we haven’t been on the best of terms, Beth, but can’t we set all that aside at least for”—

“I know what you did.  Eight minutes.”  She stared at Dad with a cold detachment, but her voice shook with rage.

“Just what the fuck are you talking about?”  When Dad was nervous he became coarse and brash; this I had learned over the years.  “Are you trying to accuse me of something?”

“You watched her.  For eight minutes.  Don’t even bother trying to deny it.”

“Goddamn it, I always knew you were crazy.  I want you to get the hell off my property”—

“You can’t hide it any longer.  My sister died because of you, you son of a bitch.”

Dad shot a nervous glance at me.  “Listen, if you’re going to make baseless accusations you should at least have the decency to do it away from my children.”

“Your children have the right to know what kind of man you are.  I know all about it.  She told me everything.”

Dad’s eyes narrowed.  “Who did?”

“Someone you were…on intimate terms with.  We had a lot to tell each other.”

“Oh, did you?”  Dad tried to sound scornful.  “Did she tell you the secret to my Beef Wellington?”

“She told me about the awful things you said to her, about the drugs and the orgies and the rest of your filthy lifestyle.”

“Good for her.  Did it ever occur to you that she’s lying?”

“It sounded a lot like some of the things Jane used to tell me.”

Now Dad dropped some of his arrogance.  “So, if she has all this supposed dirt on me, why come out with it now?”

They seemed to have forgotten that I was standing there but now she looked at me with something like regret.  “She was hoping Jane would recover one day and we could all move on and be spared any more grief,” she said.  “It was a foolish hope, but she was thinking of the children.”

“How generous of her,” Dad said, his tone caustic.

“She knew you would drag them down with you, after what you did to Jane.  But now they’re old enough to stand on their own feet, so there’s nothing stopping us.”

“Stopping you from what?”

“We’re taking Jane’s story to the press.”

Dad forced a laugh.  “If you libel me, I’ll sue the pants right off you, not that anyone wants to see that.  Who the hell will care about Jane’s story anyway?”

She looked him in the eyes, her manner solidifying into immoveable resolve.  “We’ll soon find out, won’t we?”  Then she turned on her heel and went off at a brisk pace, her shoes clicking against the interlocking stone.  Dad stared at her back.  “When’s the funeral?” he called to her.  She didn’t respond.

We soon found out who would care about Jane’s story.  The story broke in the local paper and the breadth of the scandal surprised everyone.  A sordid tale it was: A pretty, young waitress at a pricey Italian restaurant swept off her feet by a man nearly twice her age, a handsome, wealthy investor with a reputation for womanizing.  Rumours swirled of parties on his sprawling property, of fancy drugs, and sexual partner-sharing.  Then came the baby and shotgun wedding, young Jane being thrust into the role of housewife while her husband carried on much as before, albeit more discreetly.  Another child appeared, I suppose to make the first seem less accidental.  Just look at the Miltons, the envy of the neighbourhood.  Jane spoke to her sisters of depression, of her husband who was quick to anger, who had already grown tired of her and had no interest in her emotional needs.  She spoke of medication and therapists and divorce, her sisters urging her to take the kids and half his estate and start over.  She would be justified in doing so, they assured her, considering the evidence of his indiscretions; she had only to peruse the odd credit card statement to discover mysterious purchases from a jeweler or florist.

No one is sure what happened next.  Perhaps she couldn’t bear the thought of raising the children on her own, or she had simply missed her medication too many times in favour of other remedies (she had cocaine and clonazepam in her system after the incident); maybe there were other factors known only to her and Dad.  She opted for the easy way out via the waist cord of her silken nightgown.

This was all merely back-story to the real scandal, the one with criminal implications.  The Spectator covered the story for a couple of weeks, beginning with an article featuring the damning testimony of the woman Beth had alluded to:

Police have launched an investigation into the decade-old attempted suicide of local woman Jane Milton, wife of prominent investor Robert Milton.  Milton, who spent nearly ten years in a vegetative state after hanging herself in the basement of the family mansion, died of an aneurism last week.  In the wake of her sudden passing, her family has come forth with allegations that Robert Milton found his wife just after she attempted suicide and “let her hang there” for several minutes before calling 9-1-1.

At the centre of the investigation is the shocking testimony of Sonya Stewart, an alleged mistress of Robert Milton.  In an interview with the Canadian Press, Stewart claims Milton made a disturbing confession regarding his wife: “We were both very high (on cocaine).  We had also been drinking all night…we went into the bedroom and he was rough as he usually is when he’s intoxicated.

“We were lying in bed afterward and he was having his Scotch and cigar like he always did and for some reason I asked him about his wife.  As soon as I said it I was afraid because I thought he would be angry and he was quite frightening when he was angry.  At first he didn’t say anything but just stared as if he hadn’t heard me.”  Asked why she brought up Robert Milton’s wife, Stewart replied, “I wanted to know him better than purely on a sexual level.

“I felt strange about it then and was going to change the subject when he said, ‘I thought she was dead.’  I asked him what he meant and he said he watched her hanging for eight minutes and thought she was dead.”

Stewart said she was “extremely unsettled” by this revelation, but spent the night with Milton and continued to see him for the next few weeks, during which time she was aware of him sleeping with other woman as well.  She says she was under no illusions that theirs was a mutually exclusive relationship and that it was Milton’s two children that caused her to end the romance.  “I couldn’t look those kids in the eye after what he told me about their mother,” she said.

Stewart claims to have delayed acting on the information for so long in hopes that Jane Milton would recover and a family scandal could be avoided.  “I didn’t want those poor kids to be victimized even more by their father’s actions,” she said.

Jane Milton’s sister Beth Astel has been in contact with Stewart and helped bring her story to the press.  Asked what motivation Mr. Milton might have had in allowing his wife to asphyxiate, Astel claimed “Jane was on the verge of filing for divorce, in light of mounting evidence of Robert’s infidelities.  He stood to lose a considerable amount of his fortunes.  Like everything else in his life, it was financially motivated.”  None of these allegations have been proven in court.

Sergeant Kelly Tanner wouldn’t speculate about impending charges, but said police are investigating.  “In a situation where a suicide attempt could have been prevented, we’ll try to determine whether there was criminal negligence,” she said yesterday.

Lawyers for Robert Milton declined an interview but in a press release called Stewart’s statement “preposterous”, challenging the credibility of an admitted adulteress and cocaine user.  They said Milton is considering suing Stewart and Astel for defamation.  Milton himself could not be reached for comment.

I remembered that woman.  She had hair so blond it was almost white.  She was very tall; I recall being intimidated by her long legs, the sway of her narrow hips.  Dad introduced us.

“Andrew, please say hello to Sonya.  She’s a very important client.”

She shot Dad a funny look and then smiled and held out a hand to me and I felt as though I was being blessed.  Her hand was thin and soft and warm.  She had brought us gifts for Christmas, books for me and makeup for Karen.  When Karen found out who it was from, she made a show of tossing the expensive lipstick and eyeliner into the trashcan.   I think I was happy with the idea of a stand-in for Mom, even one as exotic and alien-looking as Sonya.

After that first newspaper article, the floodgates were opened.  More mistresses came forth with even seedier details of my father’s double life.  He declared it a smear campaign, perpetrated by an embittered sister-in-law who sought to alleviate her own guilt over her sister’s death.

It was around this time that Karen disappeared, failing to return from school one day.  Dad was frantic, the most emotional I had ever seen him.  Two days later a postcard arrived in our mailbox, sunbathers on a Cuban beach.  On the back in Karen’s crooked scrawl: “Don’t worry, I’m fine.  K.”  I wondered if she was really there, on that sunny beach, but I’m sure Dad knew better.  He reported the postcard to the police, who could do nothing more since Karen was seventeen.

He changed after that. It was strange. He had scarcely paid attention to either of us in the past six years but Karen’s departure seemed to drain him.  From that point on, his Scotch was ever-present and he often went about the house in a half-slumber.  No longer did he have attractive “clients” over for late-night visits.  He also began neglecting his real clients, who called with increasing frequency and frustration.  In answering the phone, I bore the brunt of their ill temper.  It’s sad to think that the evasion of angry investors was the first meaningful activity we had shared in years.

Meanwhile, the prosecutors built their case, reconstructing the timeline of that night.  They replayed 9-1-1 tapes, interviewed the policemen and firefighters who had first responded.  A kindly grey-haired investigator came to the house for a private chat with me, much to Dad’s irritation.  There was little I could tell him, from my distant childhood.  They may have gotten more out of Karen, but no one could find her.

Ultimately, the storm blew over and he was still a free man.  Too much time had elapsed, and there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute.  Mom’s sisters sued Dad for negligence in his wife’s death; he counter-sued for defamation.   In the end, he settled out of court just to be rid of them.  It all seemed to be over, but by then Dad was a defeated man.  He drank constantly, and his work fell apart in shaking hands, his clients cashing out and moving on one by one.  This depressed him almost as much as the disappearance of Karen.  It seemed he never cared about being part of the community until he was ostracized from it.

I felt the same; the whole ordeal had attracted unwanted attention at school.  I was happy when Dad sold the house, and we moved to a condo in a suburb north of Toronto. He took a job as an auditor at an accounting firm in the city, while I tried to fit in at my new school.  In those close quarters, we existed in uncomfortable silence.  Dad grew increasingly irritated with me, criticizing me to the point where I avoided him as much as possible.  This worked out well for him, since he soon resumed his old lifestyle, seducing younger women who were attracted to his rugged charm and careless style, the vague sense of danger about him.

As for me, I was drifting through life, rudderless and empty, and I began to realize how much I relied on Karen, from whom I had always taken my social cues.  Making friends became near impossible.  My communication skills were in rapid decline, and my marks were lousy.  I had the brains to succeed, but couldn’t concentrate for all the noise in my mind.  I drank to excess,  smoked weed, dropped acid, swallowed whatever pills would kill the noise and distance me ever further from reality.

Arriving home from school one day, I found Dad seated at the kitchen table with a blond woman at least ten years his junior.  He had a thing for blonds.  No chance they would remind him of Mom, I suppose.   They were drinking coffee and their hands were clasped over the table.  “Andrew, have a seat,” Dad said to me.

I remained standing.  “What’s up?”

“You’ve met Sarah before, haven’t you?”

Sarah smiled apologetically at me, holding out her hand.  I had seen her numerous times but had never been introduced.  We shook hands while Dad beamed at her.  The look on his face was not the typical smarmy self-satisfaction I was used to, but genuine happiness.

“We’ve been seeing each other for a while now,” Dad said.  “She’s going to move in with us.  This weekend.”

I don’t know why this affected me the way it did.  Maybe because I never dealt with Mom’s death properly; maybe I harboured some resentment toward him about it; or I might have just been insulted at not having been asked in advance.  I’m not sure if it was my intent to sabotage him, but in any case, his happiness was offensive to me.  The feeling was that he had stolen it, from me, from Karen, from Mom, and was now displaying it proudly as his own.  And after all that had happened, he expected my complicity.  It was just too much.  I looked at her, looked back at Dad and asked, “Does she know about the court case?”

Sarah shot Dad an inquisitive glance.  He glared at me for a second, and then laughed.

“You’re a funny guy,” he said.  “Court case.”  After we moved, he had made me promise never to mention that whole situation to anyone ever again.  I could see the look in his eyes screaming traitor!

“Did he tell you what happened to my Mom?”  No trace of emotion showed on my face as I watched her studying him, seeing how his face reddened, drained of all good humour, his eyes turned hard, jaw clenched.  Who knows what story she read in our faces as we stared at each other.

Then he exploded from his chair, so abruptly Sarah let out a surprised scream.  I leapt back a step, raising my arms defensively, as he stood there glowering, still tall and imposing for all his fifty-seven years.  “Get out of here, you God-damned ungrateful kid.”  He didn’t shout but his voice had the intense quality of someone who has been grievously offended.  “Go on, get out of here!”

I turned and headed slowly to the front door.  “Robert,” I heard Sarah say, her tone conciliatory.

“Just stay out of this,” he snapped.  I was tying my shoes when he came up behind me.  “You’re not welcome back here,” he said.  “You hear me?”  I didn’t respond.  “You’ve no right to ruin everything for me.”

I stood up, a lump forming in my throat.  It was no time to cry but that was just what I felt like doing.  I turned and left without a word.  He followed me.  “Where are you going?”  He sounded simultaneously angry and guilty.  “Call me tomorrow, okay?”  I didn’t look back as I walked away.  For eight years, I never looked back.

 

The last time I saw Karen was about three weeks after she left home, in the unsettled calm which preceded the storm of the scandal.  I was sitting on my bed, my back against the headboard, one of Dad’s Penthouse magazines spread across my knees.  I gazed at the bright flesh-coloured pages with keen interest, and queasy confusion.  The house was silent; Dad was out for dinner with his lawyers and I didn’t expect him back for several hours.  When he did stumble in he might be jubilant, high on wine and convinced he would come out of this crisis the better man, having shown his adversaries that they had chosen the wrong opponent.  Conversely, he might also arrive even gloomier than when he left, ready to concede defeat to a world that had set out to destroy him.

Either way, I anticipated being alone for several hours, and I couldn’t resist the lure of the magazines that Dad kept in a desk drawer.  I felt no need to lock my bedroom door, had even left it open a crack.  Just as I was about to get down to business, I felt more than saw a presence in my doorway.

My head jerked up, eyes wide with alarm, and they didn’t relax when I saw Karen leaning against the doorjamb, dark hair draped over one side of her pale face, a hint of a smile on her lips and in her eyes.

“Studying hard, I see.”  She made no move to enter.  I shoved the magazine under my bed sheet and shifted to hide my erection.

“So, you’re home now?” I said.

“No.”

“Oh.”  I tried to read her eyes but was no more successful than usual.  “Dad’s been in rough shape since you left.”

She shrugged.  “About time he should answer for things, don’t you think?”

“I guess.”  Karen’s hair hung in strands.  Her face appeared bonier.  I realized that she wasn’t wearing makeup, which was a surprise to me.  “Where are you staying?”

A guarded look came over her face.  “Don’t worry about me.  I can take care of myself.  I don’t need Dad coming to find me.”

That hurt.  “You think I would tell him?”

“You were always the one he trusted.”  We looked at each other in silence for a moment.  “It’s going to get real ugly, isn’t it?”

I didn’t want to cry in front of Karen but once it started I couldn’t stop.  It was as if I had just been struck with the realization that Mom was gone, though by that time it already seemed that I never even had a mother.  Karen stood there for a moment and then I felt her arms around me, and I cried even harder.

She left with two bags of clothes, some canned food, a bottle of rye, a pack of cigarettes and an undisclosed amount of cash that Dad had carelessly left in a kitchen drawer.  I watched as she walked down the driveway under the burden of her knapsack and duffel bag, her thin form fading in the deep evening sunlight, oblique and melancholic.  A rusty hatchback sat idling at the end of the driveway; she tossed her things in the hatch and hopped into the passenger seat. Watching her I was struck by a sudden empty sadness, a morose certainty that these were the ending credits, the final image in the last scene before the fading-out of my youth.

 

The downtown core is bright and alive, defying the cold.  Smokers huddle outside of bars, their toxic exhalations spirited away by the wind.  Early drunks cry out across the street to one another, exuberant and oblivious to the hard bits of snow blowing in their faces.  A light dusting coats the sidewalk, and the cars parked along the road; the grimy street is almost picturesque.

My ears are starting to burn.  I passed the bus stop long ago, lost in recollections.  I’m alone now.  First Mom, and now Karen.  I have no one else.  I might as well throw out my phone now that the one number I ever dialled will yield only dead air.  She had called me a couple of years ago, out of the blue.

“Hey, baby brother.  It’s your favourite sister.”

Her voice.  I couldn’t even respond at first.  Her voice brought back so many things at once, it closed my throat, tightened my chest.  I had expected it to be yet another solicitor, I almost didn’t answer the phone.

I’m okay, she said.  I’m living out west, she said.

“With your boyfriend?”  Jealousy squeezed my voice.  The thought of some asshole keeping Karen to himself, away from me.

“Girlfriend,” she corrected, and I almost laughed.  As always, my conception of Karen was way off.  “And no, I’m not living with her anymore.  I can take care of myself just fine.”

Silence hung between us.  I imagine she felt like I did, choking on all the things she needed to say but couldn’t.

“How’s Dad these days?” she finally asked.

Now I allowed myself a laugh.  “Who?”

“You mean you aren’t living with him?”

“I haven’t spoken to him in years.”

“Wow, Andrew.  Just, wow.”  It was the first time I can remember Karen being impressed with me.  She assumed Dad still had me in his pocket, and I don’t blame her, though at the time I was offended that she didn’t give me more credit than that.

“Hasn’t he tried to call you?”

“A couple of times, at first.”  I let her chew on that for a minute: his calling, my not answering, his giving up.  It was not often I left her speechless.

She asked how I was keeping.  I told her I was fine, back in our home town with my own place.  I didn’t mention that my place is a bug-infested bachelor pad in the lowest-income part of the city.  I didn’t tell her about my forklift operator job, my lazy dickhead boss who is always trying to get me fired because of my absenteeism.  I said nothing about the long shifts, the low pay, the days when I wake and can’t get out of bed because of this crushing sense of futility that overcomes me.  I omitted any mention of the prescription pills I purchased from a co-worker that make me feel hollow, distant, like I’m floating away from my body: the very sensation I used to dread as a child.  If I had said something about that, even just alluded to it, she might have expressed a similar problem of her own.  Maybe recognizing our mutual, silent suffering would have been enough to bring us together, bolstering each other like a pair of cripples.  There we were, mentally and emotionally disfigured, undiagnosed, thinking we would shrug it off, somehow fight our way through it, one day at a time.  Until what?  What ultimate destination did I think I was dragging myself toward?  I see it now, of course, just as Karen saw it too late.

I visited a therapist once.  She asked a few probing questions, and while it felt good to talk about my youth, I also realized that it would take months to disentangle the mess my life had become.  Instead, I would call Karen.  While we talked a lot about Mom, when I tried to draw her into other childhood memories she became reluctant.  If I spoke of our father, she usually said she had to go, asking if we, could do this another time?  We were always doing that, putting things off to another time.  If only I had known how soon we would run out of other times.

I wanted to ask her about our parents.  Why did they get married?  Why did he have children if he wasn’t interested in raising them?  Why keep a wife he wasn’t in the least committed to?  I don’t know why I thought Karen should have the answers; maybe only because she had always seemed so sure of herself.  Mainly I wanted a deeper glimpse into the life I was hardly even a part of.  I wanted a more enduring picture of my mother than that of the dark-haired little woman who cried and fretted constantly, who pleaded with us to stop fighting or we would make our father mad.  I suppose I was seeking some meaning, something that would justify or at least explain my inability to handle life.  It turns out Karen was seeking that very same thing.

My reflections on Karen lead me to the same place: the note found in her pocket, protected from the elements by a small plastic bag.  “Please notify my brother Andrew Milton, my last remaining family member.”  It had my phone number and address.  No apology, no explanation.  I didn’t expect any.  At first I assumed she left Dad in the dark out of spite.  But then I began to wonder.  Would it not have been more spiteful to make sure he knew?  She had put the ball into my court.  She gave me an unusual, impossible choice.  I think she knew what I would do.  But what good did she think would come of it?  Did she think she was doing me a favour?  That her death might somehow reconcile us?

###

I find myself standing before the doorway of a narrow bar squeezed between an abandoned theatre and a Chinese grocery.  It looks dark and gloomy, and maybe that’s why I go in.  After the inescapable fluorescent glare of the hospital, I’m craving time in the shadows.

Inside it is warm and subdued and I’m greeted by the comforting smell of fried food.  Jazz music floats down from the ceiling onto the patrons lounging at the few tables.  At the bar, I stand awkward and stiff, unaccustomed to putting myself amongst strangers in a social setting.  I long for the isolation of my apartment, but I have wandered in here, perhaps for a reason, so I lean against the bar and catch the eye of the pretty red-haired woman behind it.  “Johnnie Walker, please,” I say without thinking.  Dad’s favourite drink.

“Red or Black?”

“Um, Black.”

I’m not a drinker these days.  But I’m following an impulse now.  I have a seat on a stool and take my drink off the bar.  I am enveloped in its smoky aroma, and I shudder. There is a musty sweetness to the scotch, which brings back old, forgotten memories, and I feel like I’m in our old basement, where Karen used to regale me with stories of her nightly adventures while teaching me how to mix a rum-and-coke.  It wasn’t that many years ago, but those years seem lost to me now.

“Rough night?”  Her voice startles me as I’m staring dejectedly into my drink. She sits alone two seats over, looking at me with dark eyes, both curious and warm.  She is in her early forties, her voluminous dark hair in curls about her shoulders, her face lined with some old, persistent worry.

“Kind of.  My father just passed away.”  I say this automatically, without affected sadness.

“Oh, I’m sorry.”  She seems to back off a little but I offer a smile.

“It’s okay, really.  He was very sick.”

She studies me for a moment.  “I lost my mom last year to cancer.”

“That’s too bad.  My mom died years ago and I’m still not used to it.”

“It’s tough,” she agrees.  She sighs and looks somewhere beyond me, wistful.  “Happens to the best of us, I guess.”   Then she smiles crookedly, reminding me in a painful flash of Karen.  Still acting on impulse, I offer to buy her a beer.  She studies my face, searching for intent.  Perhaps she finds none; in any case, she accepts the beer.  She might be twice my age but I feel an overwhelming desire to bring her home with me, a stranger, to embrace recklessness.

I realize I’m staring at her and I look away, but then she hoists her pint glass.  “To the memories of our mothers, then.  And fathers,” she’s quick to add.  I smile an ironic smile as we clink glasses, then down the whisky in one gulp.  It catches and burns in my throat and forces a shudder out of me.

“Not much of a drinker, eh?”  Her eyes watch me over her pint glass.

“Not these days.  Booze and I don’t get along so well.”

“But tonight’s an exception.”  She had slid onto the stool next to mine almost without me noticing.  Her perfume smells of vanilla.  Her blouse has a plunging neckline and I catch a good glimpse of cleavage, faintly creased from over-tanning.  I look at her eyes and see that she caught me peeking.  She smiles into her beer as my face reddens.

We order more drinks and share a plate of French fries.  Maybe it’s the Scotch or just the company but the tension that has been so tightly coiled inside me starts to unwind.  I can feel the muscles in my neck and shoulders loosening.  By some mysterious process, the beginnings of a smile are working their way onto my face.  Only now does it strike me how seldom I smile.  It is almost like rediscovering some forgotten childhood game, and the mere act of smiling triggers more good feelings.  Maybe it’s because I realize this woman is openly flirting with me.

We sit at the bar and talk like old friends.  I learn her name is Theresa; that she works for an insurance company, is one year divorced from a cheating husband and has had no luck meeting people.  Only recently has she pulled herself from the ruins of her marriage to creep around local bars and athletic clubs, waiting for a cute guy to approach her, shy as a teenaged loner.  In a moment of boldness, I ask why she decided to talk to me.  She pauses before answering.

“It’s hard to explain.  I saw something in you that I recognized.  You looked like I felt, if that makes any sense.”

I look away and reflect on that a minute.  I’ve always been easy to read, and I guess some things never change.

The more I talk to Theresa, the more I like her.  She has crooked lower teeth and covers her mouth when she laughs.  Her wide thighs jiggle in her black tights as she crossed and uncrosses her legs.  I discover that she is desperately lonely and insecure.  She has taken to drinking alone in her condo and crying herself to sleep, depressed that she’ll never have kids.  She had an aunt whose husband left her in her fifties and the aunt died alone of lung cancer a decade later.  Theresa doesn’t smoke but she is terrified of suffering a similar fate and though she tries to make jokes about taking up knitting and acquiring many cats I grasp that she is looking for a lifeline, some indication that there still might be a happy ending for her.  To most guys, she would be damaged goods, but to me her imperfections are oddly appealing.  I feel at ease with her.  The strain of holding that wall up, keeping the world at bay, has been lifted.

“So, what’s your deal?” she asks me over a glass of red wine.

“I have no deal.”

“You don’t have a girlfriend somewhere?”

I grin ruefully and shrug.  “I’ve got no luck with girls.”

“Come on, handsome guy like you?”

“I’m a bit of a loner,” I admit, swirling my glass of Scotch and looking at the table.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.  Fucked-up childhood, I guess.”

“You and everyone else,” she says, and goes on to tell about her Dad, who did six months in jail for breaking a beer bottle over her stepmom’s head.  It seems divorce runs in her family.  She finishes her story and we order more drinks and sit in silence and sip our liquor.  I’m on my fifth Scotch and she has switched to gin and tonic.  Her story seems to have choked her up a bit and I wonder if I’m supposed to touch her hand or something to show support.

“That’s enough about me,” she says abruptly.  “Tell me something about you.”

“What do you want to know?”

She ponders for a moment.  “What do you do with your free time?”

I shrug.  “Not a hell of a lot.  Read, watch movies.  Write.”  I let this last bit slip out against my better judgement and she pounces on it.

“You’re a writer?” she gushes.  “That’s awesome.  What sort of stuff do you write?”

“Nothing too interesting,” I say, but she is leaning into me, her hand on my arm.

“I’d love to read something you wrote.”

I smile coyly.  “We’ll see.”

###

We end up back at her place.  It’s a new development close to downtown, small but tastefully furnished.  We’re both quite drunk but she insists on another glass of wine in the kitchen.  Under the bright kitchen lights her face appears older than it did at the bar.  She could easily be my mother, and though she tries to dress below her age the effect is that of a cougar on the prowl.  Her nails are long and painted orange; she clicks one against the side of her wine glass as she looks at me appraisingly.  Watching her down the wine I get the impression she is trying to steel her nerves for something.  In the bedroom, she keeps the lights off as she undresses and I wonder what sort of scars or disfigurement she is anxious to hide.  This scenario is entirely new to me and I lie beside her and tentatively stroke her bare skin.  She is unresponsive to my groping and after a while I figure she must be asleep, which comes as both a disappointment and a relief.  The sound of her breath whistling in her nostrils is comforting.  My hand rests on her breast, her nipple poking the centre of my palm.  I feel the rise and fall of her chest and the feeling that comes over me is not one of desire but of security.   I remove my hand and say into the dark, “I lied about my dad.  He isn’t really dead.”

Theresa’s even breathing is arrested for a second.  She responds in a voice thick with alcohol and sleep.  “Why?”

“I don’t know.  I guess it was just easier than telling the truth.  He’s not a very good person.”

Her deep breathing resumes and I think she has gone back to sleep but then she says, “Do you hate him?”

I ponder a long while before answering.  “I don’t think so.  I want to forgive him, but he won’t apologize.  He’s never been sorry for anything.”

“You can forgive him anyway.  Do it for you, not for him.”

This bit of profundity arrives so unexpected that it takes a minute to sink in.  Do it for you, not him.  It is the obvious truth that I have been waiting all these years to hear, and I feel an immense weight being lifted from my spirit.  It’s as though a window has been thrown open, beyond which there is a world free from the burden of resentment and vindictiveness, of irreversible wrongs that must somehow be put to right.  Suddenly there is joy in my heart.  I don’t know if it will last.  More likely I will wake hung over and embarrassed to be sleeping beside this naked stranger who is so much older than me, and I might even forget about this conversation altogether.  But for the moment I feel that I’ve been freed from an emotional prison.  I reach over and put my arm around Theresa.  “Can I kiss you?” I whisper, but she has gone to sleep and she rolls over and pushes her broad backside against me.  I pull the covers over us and lie there holding her, sharing her warmth, feeling not so drunk anymore, and I can’t get the foolish grin off my face.

 

Mike Ducak

Michael works in commercial distribution while writing short stories in his free time. His work has appeared in From the Depths, Cargo, and Sulphur literary journals. He lives with his wife and pets in Guelph, Ontario.

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