Barry Yourgrau’s story “Sand” appeared in our Spring 1985 issue. It appears (in slightly different form) in his collection Wearing Dad’s Head, reissued this month by Arcade Publishing along with another of his books, Haunted Traveller.
My father comes into my room. “Look,” he says. He carefully opens his hands: a luminous, gold-colored butterfly sits in the bowl of his palms, like a light he has carried into the dark room. I prop myself up on a hand in the pillows, gazing in sleepy awe. The butterfly remains still for a while; then it twitches its wings. We watch it flutter in a curving, luminescent course to the window, and then under the sash and out into the night.
We go downstairs and noiselessly out the back door onto the dark lawn. My father points up a tree: a halo flickers around its crown. In its topmost leaves a golden colony hovers. “They’ll be there all night,” says my father, his voice a whisper. I stand beside him in my pajamas, spellbound and feeling a strange, tranquil enchantment, as if the night has turned into my bedroom. “Where do they come from?” I ask my father. “From the moon,” he says softly. We look at the moon. “At least,” he says, “that’s what I’ve always been told.”
“Let’s eat,” says my father. We go into the dining room. Halfway through the meal the phone rings. My father puts down his napkin and pushes back his chair and goes out to answer the phone himself, since he’s expecting a call. I seize the opportunity to right an inequality that’s been vexing me since we sat down. I pick up my father’s plate and hastily scrape what’s left on it onto mine, and bolt everything down. My father had given himself by far the larger, tastier portion to start with. He comes back into the room and sees the two empty plates. He looks at them. I sit quietly, trying to appear vacant. He doesn’t say anything. He walks behind me. Suddenly he grips me by the back of the collar and heaves me out of my chair, onto the floor.
I lie on the floor, shocked. After a while, I get to my feet, my face burning. I set the chair back upright. I go out of the room into the hallway on trembling legs. I make my way towards the kitchen, and pause in the doorway awkwardly. “Dad, I’m sorry,” I tell him, in an unsteady, chastened voice. “I was only joking.” He stirs eggs in a bowl. The flame is on under a frying pan. He glances at me. He closes the lid of the egg carton on the counter and takes it over to the refrigerator. “The sooner your mother gets back from her trip, the better,” he says.
I come into the kitchen. My mother screams. Finally she lowers her arm from in front of her face, “What are you doing, are you out of your mind!” she demands. I grin at her, in my Bermudas and bare feet. “It’s okay,” I tell her in a chambered voice, through my father’s heavy, muffling lips. “He’s taking a nap, he won’t care.” “What do you mean he won’t care? she says. “It’s his head. For God’s sake put it back right now before he wakes up.” “No,” I tell her, pouting, disappointed that her only response is this remonstration. “I’ll put it back in a while.” “Not in a while, now,” she says. She moves her hands as if to take the head from me, but then her hands stammer and withdraw, repulsed by horror. “My God,” she says, grimacing, wide-eyed. She presses her hands to her face. “Go away! Go away from here!” “Mom.” I protest, nonplussed. “Get out of here!” she cries.
I stalk out of the kitchen. Hurt and surprised I plod heavily up the stairs. I go into my parents’ bedroom. I stand at the foot of the bed. My father lies on his back, mercifully unable to snore, one arm slung across his drum-like hairy chest in a pose particular to his sleep. I look at him. Then I back away, stealthily, one step at a time, out the door. On silent bare feet I steal frenetically down the hall, down the front stairs and out the front door. On the street I break into a run but the head sways violently and I slow to a scurrying walk, until I’m in the woods. Then I take my time on the path, brooding, my hands in my Bermudas pockets. I come to the creek and stand balancing on dusty feet on a hot, prominent rock. The midafternoon sun lays heavy, glossy patches on the water and fills the trees with a still, hot, silent glare. A bumblebee drones past, then comes back and hovers inquiringly. I get off the rock and stoop down, bracing the head with one hand, and pick up a pebble. I get back on the rock and fling the pebble at the creek. It makes a ring in the water. Another ring suddenly blooms beside it. I look around at the path. A friend of mine comes out of the trees. “Hi,” I say to him. “Hi,” he says, in a muffled, confined voice. He stops a few feet from me. “You look funny,” he says. “So do you,” I tell him. I make room for him on the rock. “Where’s your dad?” I ask him. “In the hammock,” he says. “Where’s yours?” “We don’t have a hammock,” I tell him. “He’s in bed.”
Half an hour later there are half a dozen of us standing, great-headed, at the side of the creek.
My father and I quarrel and he cuffs me and I lose my balance and tumble down the carpeted stairs and bang my head into the foot of the banister.
I lie in bed with my head festooned in bandages. Every evening my father comes into my room with another present for me. A science book, which perhaps I’ll read; an instructive game, which I’ll certainly never play. Then he wheels me out onto the screen porch and turns on the lamp and reads me a story aloud, which normally he never does. The stories are hoary favorites of his from his own childhood, and they bore me terribly. But I love the sound of his voice as he reads, hammy and low and at times awkwardly urgent. Then he puts the book aside. He reaches down and from under the lamp table he brings out our paper hats. He has fashioned these with his own hands from the Sunday paper. He spreads mine wide and carefully seats it on my swaddled head. He fits his own on. Then he turns off the lamp, and in our hats we sit together waiting for the moon, a pale giant, to rise above the woods across the street. He tells me about these woods, as my mother used to when I was still a very little child. “Yes, it’s all true …” he murmurs, squeezing my hand in his, his great wavering hat nodding in the dark. “The woods are full of all sorts of things—lions, tigers, savage crocodiles … And two valiant soldiers.” he adds, squeezing my hand. “The young one wounded, the other, who loves him, to nurse him …”
I am taken prisoner by pirates. They put me in irons but release me after I agree to join them. Our ship leaves the coast and enters the muddy reaches of a river. Here the wind falters and then the water becomes too shallow for navigation. We take to rowboats and after an afternoon of arduous pulling, put ashore under trees. The pirate captain says we will eat now; after dark we will move on foot to our raid’s destination. Two laughing, stinking types—my “shipmates”—come out of the woods from foraging with a squealing pig in their arms. The one who wears a brass ring in his nose thrusts his cutlass blade against the pig’s throat, and laughing all the while, the two of them let the frantic pig wriggle out of their grasp, so that when it lands it’s done the work itself of cutting its own throat. The pig rushes briefly in idiotic, posthumous circles in its blood. I turn away, horrified. “Go fetch me the ears,” says the captain, grinning at me sadistically as he scratches under his shirt for lice.
The sun sinks. The night is moonless. We move inland. The first mile or so is through dense woods; after much confusion and crashing and cursing, the captain angrily submits and we go under the light of a small torch. Then we reach a main road and the torch is doused and we go across. The woods are sparser here. We come to a smaller road and follow it, keeping just off the edge, breathing heavily, weapons clanking in the silence. They have provided me only with a cudgel, apparently not trusting me with a cutlass or pistol. Suddenly I crash into the back of the man ahead of me. who has stopped. He elbows me savagely. It’s the brute with the nose ring. “We’re here,” the captain announces in a fierce whisper.
The dark shape of a mailbox stands beside the entrance of a driveway into the trees. Part of a house is visible, set back on a high lawn. I regard all of this with disbelief. “But this is where my parents live!” I gasp. “What’s that?” says the captain, eyeing me over several shoulders. “Nothing,” I reply, and I sink back out of his sight. I am in shock. I hear mutterings all around me about a fabulous treasure of vacation slides. We start in a body up the driveway. I can see now the car my mother wrote me they’ve been trying to sell. No lights show in their window. They’re asleep of course, they go to bed early. My heart is sickened, feverish. What could pirates want with my old man’s vacation slides? They are good slides, it’s true, but worth a raid? I cover my mouth, thinking of what’s in store for my poor elderly parents. We reach the lawn. The first pirate goes tramping through my mother’s zinnias. Suddenly the cudgel flails in my hands.
I race towards the house. “Mom! Dad!” I scream. “Stop him!” the captain’s voice shouts. Explosions roar around me. “Save your ammunition, save your ammunition!” the voice screams. I fling over the welcome mat and find the key and throw open the door and go rushing down the hallway, crying alarm. The lamp is on in my parents’ bedroom. I burst in. My father is sitting on the side of the bed in his pyjama bottoms, fitting on his spectacles. His grey hair stands up in sleepy wisps. His false tooth is in the glass on the night table. “What is all that noise and shouting?” he says. “What are you doing here? I thought you were out west communing with nature. Why are you wearing that funny eyepatch?” “There’s no time for questions, we have to run,” I gasp, pulling him by the arm. “Come on!” I cry, then, looking around, I let go. “Oh my God, where’s Mom?”
The bedroom door crashes against the wall. The pirates fill the threshold, all black moustaches and yellow teeth, headkerchieves, drawn cutlasses, smoking guns. “Ha!” cries the captain. He comes swaggering into the room in front of his troop. “What’s going on?” says my father, rising to his feet. “Who are these awful people, are they friends of yours?” “They’re pirates, dad,” I muttered unhappily. The captain stops in front of us and raises his cutlass into my face. He sets the point slowly against my chin so I have to tilt my head back. “We’re going to hang you by your guts, you mutinous dog,” he announces savagely “This is an outrage!” cries my father. “How dare you? Stop that this instant!” “Dad, don’t,” I tell him, through clenched teeth, squinting down the length of the blade. “Shut up, greybeard.” the captain sneers. He gives a quick vicious prod so that I jerk. “What we want from you,” he says, addressing my father but glaring at me, “is to tell us exactly where the slides are.” My father gasps. He draws an arm up in front of his once burly but now wizened chest in a pathetic gesture of defiance. “Never!” he cries. “What do you say?” grins the captain. He presses the cutlass slowly so I have to bend my back. “Dad … “ I plead out of the side of my mouth. There is a long, deadly pause. “Do you think I’ll wait all night!” the captain gasps furiously and his jab makes me stagger backwards into the night table, upsetting the tooth glass. “Dad, please—” I whimper. “Stop!” cries my father. His voice breaks. “They’re in the closet, over by the secretary.” The captain grins lividly. “Ha!” he says. He pulls the cutlass away with a sharp flick of his wrist. I squeal in pain and clap a hand to my chin. I look at the palm: there is a drop of blood on it. The captain swaggers over towards the closet, gesturing with a thumb over his shoulder for someone to guard us. “Don’t cry, bag-of-bones, we’ll take good care of your treasure for you,” he says, and he cackles derisively. He pushes his men out of the way and flings open the closet door.
There is a tremendous choral explosion. The captain rises into the air like a rag doll and sprawls down onto the floor. There is no more front to his body whatsoever. My mother and the next-door neighbors, all in nightgowns, step through the smoke firing blunderbusses and muskets. “Now we’ll show them!” cries my father. Flintlock pistols blossom in each of his hands. They belch flame. Our guard screams and topples to the floor clutching his face. My father throws the pistols aside. A saber and a dagger take their place. “Cover my back!” he cries. Stupefied, I do what he says and stand behind him. I look around for a weapon, all I can find is the cudgel I brought with me. Furious cries and clangings and explosions around in the room behind my back. Suddenly a pirate bursts in front of me. A brass ring hangs over his frenzied snarl. It’s the pig sadist. His berserk one-eye glitters at me. Cursing him. I cower under my cudgel as his cutlass rises high above my head and the spit of his own invectives sprays me. My life flashes before me. The cutlass flashes down with ferocious violence, past me, into the floor where it quivers wildly, sunk on its tip. A hand and forearm are still attached to its handle, gruesomely, all by themselves. The pirate gapes at this spectacle in one-eyed astonishment. Then his astonishment transfers to his chest, where, to a deep gurgling in his throat, the blade of a saber driven by two neuralgic hands sinks full length into his ribs, up to the hilt, then withdraws, covered in blood. He slumps, lifeless and gushing, onto the bed. “Are you alright?” cries my father, the bloody sword in his hands. “Yes, I think so,” I gasp, my knees trembling. Then I gasp again, pointing in horror. “Your shoulder!” I cry. “What?” says my father. He peers down his nose at the red stain at the top of his arm. “Ach, it’s just a flesh wound,” he says. He looks past me and he grins, pale in the face and looking rather foolish with his tooth missing. “Well I think we’re about all done for the evening,” he says.
Some hours later, when many things have been cleaned up and seen to, the three of us sit alone by ourselves at last in the kitchen. The blackberry cordial my father brings out for special occasions is open on the table. My mother is putting a safety pin into the bandage on his shoulder. I have a Band-Aid on my chin. “So you see we’ve known a raid was coming for quite some time,” my father says. “Everyone in the neighborhood has been very helpful and kind about it, especially the Lewises from next door. I must say we didn’t expect to see you! But when the time came, we were ready for them.” “I’ll say you were.” I agree. “But you know, there’s still one thing in all of this I don’t quite understand: why would they want your slides?” “Oh, that,” says my father. He shifts in his seat and a grin of debonair self-effacement takes form on his face, and I realize he is trying to evoke the debonair movie heroes of his younger days. His tooth is back in place. “Well I’ll resist the obvious temptation of saying they’re all ‘gems’…” he jokes urbanely, pausing to let this bon mot sink in. “But in fact.” he continues, “for some reason people seem to value them very highly.” “Did you know,” my mother breaks in, “that next month the library is going to have an exhibit of your father’s slides?” “Just prints of them,” my father corrects her. But he’s beaming proudly. “But at their expense.” He leans back in his chair and slings his unbandaged pale arm over the back rest and regards me with a cool, wry twinkle in his eye, his characterization now in full flood. “So you see. Mr. Adventurer-Out-West,” he says, the lamplight in his hair, “maybe we do live in a quiet little town here, and perhaps we are getting on a bit in years … but we still manage to have our share of excitement. Wouldn’t you say?”
News comes to us of my father. He’s lying in the sands. “You must go and recover him,” says my mother, “and bring him back for a decent burial.” “Yeah, yeah,” I tell her. “Right now do you mind if I finish my breakfast?”
After breakfast I go upstairs to my room. Presently my mother comes to find me. “Oh this is appalling,” she says. “What are you doing, just lying there?” “I think I have the gout,” I tell her. “My big toe is killing me.” “Nonsense,” she says. “People your age don’t have gout.” “Why not?” I demand. “Dad had it. I inherited it.” “Stop this nonsense!” she cries. Her eyes suddenly fill with tears. “Your poor father lies rotting under a foreign sun and his own flesh and blood won’t even lift a finger to find him.” I writhe frantically at this remark. “Why should I?” I shout, swarming to a sitting position. “There was only one reason he went chasing off to that God-forsaken place. And what was it? I’ll tell you what it was: it was because he heard they made terrific stewed fruit! So now I have to disrupt my entire life. I have to risk getting myself killed, because of his craving for stewed fruit? I say he can go to hell!” I lounge back, glowering. My mother stares at me with a trembling face. She rushes sobbing out the door. I lie glaring after her; then I smash my fist into the blankets and curse and drag myself out to the head of the stairs.
“I’m sorry,” I shout down the staircase, into the stillness. “I’m sorry. I’ll go. I can barely read a map and you know how much I hate flying, but I’ll go.” My mother appears in the kitchen doorway. She looks at me, grim-faced. “Don’t you ever raise your voice to me again like you did just now in your room,” she says. Her own voice is quiet, deadly. “I said I’m sorry,” I tell her, chastened. I take a step down towards her. “I said I’m going.” “That’s not good enough,” she says. “Screaming at me like that.” “Mom. I just wanted you to know how I felt,” I explain. “And what about how I feel!” she shouts. She stamps her foot. “I’m tired of hearing about your feelings, all I heard from your father was his ‘feelings’! What about me and my feelings? And what sort of a man are you anyway with your stupid gout and your miserable fear of flying?” “Don’t tell me about being a man!” I cry heatedly. “You’re a damn fool, that’s what you are!” she shouts back, and she wheels and goes through the doorway. I make a livid, obscene gesture after her. Then I wheel myself and stamp back to my room.
I eat lunch alone. Afterwards I leave the house without speaking to her. I go downtown and, after some confusion, locate the consulate I want. A dark, grinning young man in a Hawaiian shirt shows me into a spacious office. A powerful air conditioner drones. “Isn’t this heat something?” he drawls pleasantly. “How about a diet soda?” He comes back from a small refrigerator with a can and a straw. “Thanks.” I tell him. I wince. “What’s wrong?” he says. “It’s nothing,” I tell him. “A touch of the gout, that’s all.” He smiles, nodding several times in recognition. “I sympathize,” he says. “Sometimes I have it so badly in this ear I have to lie all night with a huge ball of cottonwool soaked in paraffin stuffed in it.” I look at him. “No, no—gout,” I tell him quickly. “My big toe. Uric acid. Inflammation of the joint.” He looks back at me. “Are you sure that’s what is meant by ‘gout’?” he says doubtfully. “Oh yes.” I tell him, shifting in my seat, trying hard to remain amiable. “But this condition you describe,” he continues, examining me askance, “surely this is a condition of older people. Aren’t you too young for it?” “It is more common among older people,” I allow stiffly. “But it certainly can occur if you’re younger.” “I see,” he says. He considers me in silence. I stare at the floor.
“Well, anyhow,” he says. He smiles. “Here is the map you asked for.” He pushes it across the desk towards me. He folds his hands in front of him and inclines his head and looks amused. “And what, if I may ask.” he says, “could possibly in- terest you about our enormous, overheated, preposterously sandy country?” “Oh. personal things.” I reply, shrugging. I feel his stare on me. “And culinary things.” I add. I clear my throat. “For instance. I have heard about your wonderful stewed fruit.” His stare becomes puzzled. “Oh that,” he says finally. He shrugs. “It’s not too bad. I suppose, if you like that sort of thing.…” Suddenly he looks off to the side and titters. “We always have to warn our visitors, if you’ll pardon me, to be very careful of it,” he giggles. He grabs his belly in both hands and grimaces violently. “It cleans you out but good!” he cries, laughing uproariously. I stare at his gyrations, and a sudden, terrible insight unfurls through my consciousness. “Wait a minute,” I ask him, gripping my chair, “you don’t think someone could actually—I mean, under the circumstances, out there in the desert—you don’t think it could ever be fatal?” “Fatal?” he says. “Oh no no—well. I suppose if someone were to just eat and eat and eat. But no one could be that foolish.” “I’m afraid I know someone who could.” I mumble.
In a kind of daze I get to my feet. “I must be going now,” I tell him. “Thank you. For everything.” “Not at all, not at all,” he says, rising with me. He holds out his hand and bares his teeth. “Eight-fifty, please,” he says. I regard him blankly. “Eight-fifty?” I repeat. “For what? For this map?” “And the diet soda,” he says. “The diet soda!” I reply. “How much was the diet soda?” “Two-fifty for the soda,” he says. “Six for the map.” “But that’s highway robbery,” I protest, coloring. He shrugs, grinning, holding up empty hands. “This air conditioning, “ he says. “It’s preposterously expensive.”
I arrive home fuming. I slam the front door and stamp noisily into the hall, shouting for my mother. There’s no answer. Shouting, I stalk into the kitchen. On the table is a note. “I’ve gone to retrieve your father,” it says. “Your supper is in the fridge. Bring it out a while before putting it on the stove. (It may need salt.)” I scream uncontrollably. As I come back out the front door, pain shoots suddenly through my foot so that I hop and stumble idiotically down the front steps. I hurry into the street, gnashing my teeth. I know exactly where she is. At the end of the block I lumber up the short bank of the defunct railroad tracks. I see her ahead, silhouetted against the setting sun, marching along towards the bus stop. A feeling of such utter pathos assaults me that for a moment I just stop where I am. She is dressed for rescue, grotesquely: Hopping sun hat, open parasol, my old Boy Scout pack and canteen on her back, her thin calves up to the knee in my hiking socks, which puff out in huge, clownish wads between the straps of her sandals. “Mom!” I shout, hurrying again after her. She stops and slowly turns. She watches my approach. “What on earth do you think you’re doing?” I demand. She stares at me and starts to answer, but then her face just wobbles. I put my arms around her. “Mom, Mom …” I murmur, patting her shoulder as she weeps against me. “The poor, poor man,” she sobs, “all alone for the vultures to pick at.” “Mom, it’s alright,” I soothe her, a great lump swelling in my throat. “I’m going, I told you it’ll be alright.” After a while, I turn and lead her back slowly across the darkening tracks toward the house.
I put her to bed without bothering about supper. She takes one of my father’s sleeping pills and is asleep before I have the door closed. I go up to my room. I turn on the ball game softly and sit with my foot up and the map and my world atlas in my lap. I look at them, musing somberly. Outside, the night is warm and still.
Towards midnight I wake up suddenly. I’m still in the chair. I rub my eyes. Then I stiffen. I turn off the radio and listen, darkly. A closet door slides open downstairs; clothing hangers rattle. I step over the atlas where it has fallen and go out into the dim hall, and after a pause, go softly down the stairs. The door to the bedroom is slightly ajar, the lamp is on. “Mom,” I whisper desperately, and I push the door and peer in. I gasp. “Dad … ” I stammer.
My father looks at me from the closet—an eerily robust version of my father, one with dark-tanned skin, garishly blackened tufts of hair on his almost bald head, huge pitch-black sunglasses. “Yes,” he says. “Shhh—your mother!” He gestures with his head towards the bed, where my mother’s long-nostrilled, barbiturated nose pokes above the covers. “My God,” I whisper, stepping into the room, “we thought you were dead!” “Of course,” he says. “I sent the notification myself. And for all intents and purposes, continue to regard it as the case.” I stare at him, unable to believe what I’m hearing. A bizarre, alien presence confronts me, in slippers with long, curling toes. “Dad, what’s all this about?” I demand. “Why are you taking all these clothes? What’s going on?” “I’m a new man, that’s what’s going on,” he says, adding another shirt to an armful of them. An open bag, sumptuously tooled, lies on the floor stuffed with his potbellied underwear. “I feel like a million bucks,” he says. “I feel like a kid again. Here—” He shifts the load of shirts to wiggle something out of his breast pocket. He grins lustily, showing splendidly white teeth. “Is that, or is that not, paradise?” he says.
I look at the photograph of him in his new persona, sprawled under a tent awning amidst a heap of grinning hour is, all wearing sunglasses and all as plump as he is. I think of a pile of roasted pumpkins. “I just had to come back to get some things to wear,” he grins, taking the photo back. “I feel like an idiot in those bedsheets they run around in.” He lays the shirts into the bag and reaches into the closet for more. I watch him, stunned. “But what about Mom?” I ask finally. “What about me?” “You’re perfectly old enough to take care of yourself,” he says. “And as for your mother, she has her pension and her memories. And you,” he adds. “But you don’t seem to understand,” I tell him, distraught. “Mom is suffering terribly! She thinks you’re decomposing out in the middle of nowhere. She wants me to bring you back for a burial.” “I’ll send another message,” he says. “I’ll say I’ve been cremated. I’ll say my ashes have been scattered over the sands.” I shake my head, my disbelief turning to pain and disgust. “Dad, this is vile,” I tell him miserably. “This is truly perverse.” He swings around towards me, glaring. “Don’t you sit in judgment of your father, my boy,” he says savagely. I flush and swallow. There’s a menacing pause. “There are certain things,” he says, “about life, about which you are in no posi—” He clutches at the closet door, grimacing. “What’s wrong?” I ask. “My gout,” he mutters, clenching his teeth. “Damn!” He shakes a stockinged foot. “I have it too,” I blurt out. “Nonsense,” he snorts, “you’re much too young. Anyway,” he says, easing the foot back gingerly into its ornate slipper, “why are we arguing! I’m only here for a short while.” He grins. “Come, I brought you something, I want you to have a taste of it.”
He stoops with a great deal of effort and at last emerges from the depths of the bag with a little clay pot. He takes off the lid and holds the pot out to me, beaming. I peer at it, at the puddle of slimy purple and green and brown it contains. A terrible, pungent odor rises to my nose. “What … stewed fruit?” I stammer. “Not ‘stewed fruit’,” he cries. “Ambrosia! It’s like nothing you’ve ever had before.” “No, thanks, really,” I protest, turning my head away. “I mean I’m not a great stewed fruit fan, and for God’s sake. Dad, under the circumstances—” “Oh but you must try some,” he insists, pushing the pot at me. “No, but really,” I tell him, leaning away and holding up my hands. “And for another thing I’ve heard it’s really dangerous!” “Nonsense, will you just taste a little bit!” he cries, exasperated. I hesitate unhappily; then petulantly I swipe a finger into the pot and poke it into my mouth.
A taste of something pre-civilized shocks me—an intensely coarse sweetness that is part animal fat and hair. I stand swallowing with all my might. “Isn’t it out of this world?” says my father, grinning expectantly. I open my mouth as if to answer, but the only noise that comes out is a gasp. I double over, clutching at my stomach with both hands. “What’s wrong?” my father asks. It feels as if someone were squeezing my intestines with a pair of pliers. Still doubled over, I whirl around and waddle frantically out the door, towards the bathroom.
I huddle on the pot, hanging on to the towel rack for support, sweat standing out on my forehead. Piercing shudders roll through me. I press my face into the towels, groaning. There’s a knock on the door. “I have to leave now,” says my father’s voice. “I’m saying goodbye.” “No, Dad, wait,” I call out, wincing. “Just a minute.” “No, no, I must be going, I have to make my connection,” he says through the door. “Goodbye! “Take care of your mother.” “Dad, please, wait!” I cry, twisting painfully. “Don’t desert us like this!” But I can hear the slapping of his footsteps going down the hall; then the door closing.
I come out at last from the bathroom, white-faced and shaky-legged. The hall is empty. I go back into the bedroom. There’s no sign of him there either; just some sand from his slippers by the half-empty closet. I look at the tracings of fine grains. Then I look at the bed, where my mother lies, snoring, her frail head showing out of the great rippled mass of the bed-clothes. After a long while, I turn off the lamp and go slowly back upstairs.
My mother comes to me with a jacket. “This was your father’s,” she says. “What do you think?” I shrug. “I don’t know,” I tell her. I try it on. The shoulders are too wide and bulky for me. My forearms protrude past the bottoms of the sleeves like peg legs. The tweed is scratchy and smells un-nice. “It’s not for me,” I tell my mother, taking it off and handing it back to her.
That night I wake up suddenly. My father’s ghost stands shimmering beside my bed. “What’s the matter, you don’t like my coat?” it says. “Dad,” I say. I sit up against the pillows and rub my eyes wearily. “It’s a fine coat, it just doesn’t fit me.” “It’s a fabulous coat,” says my father. “You couldn’t find a coat made that well anywhere in the world anymore. You should be thankful you have even a chance to own a coat like that.” “Please,” I explain, “I love the coat. I was honored to be considered a legatee for it. But I wonder if you’ve noticed, I happen to be tall and on the thin side while you’re short and—and broad.” “I was as slim as a reed when I was your age,” my father says, drawing himself to full, wavering height. “Slimmer than you are, if you want to know the truth. Of course I always had very broad shoulders.” “You looked great. Dad,” I agree. “I’ve seen the photographs. But do you understand what I’m telling you? The sleeves barely reach past my elbows. It looks ridiculous on me.” “You could have it altered,” he says. “I suppose so,” I admit forlornly. “What do you think tailors are for,” he says. “Why, any tailor today would give his eyeteeth to work with cloth like that—I’m sure they haven’t seen its like in years! Have you felt that tweed, have you run your fingers over it?” “Yes I have,” I tell him. “And my neck. It’s a great tweed, a true tweed. Like heather and bramble.” “I don’t know what you mean by ‘bramble’,” he says, “It’s as soft as cashmere against the skin. But ‘heather’ is very accurate, very juste. A tweed that caliber, it’s like wearing the earth of the highlands around your shoulders. The Scottish highlands, where tweed comes from.” “I know perfectly well where tweed comes from!” I tell him. “In point of fact it’s from a part of Scotland which is a bunch of offshore islands, for your information, not highlands.” “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” says my father. “Tweed is from Scotland—the highlands.” “Look, why are we arguing about this,” I tell him. “The point is, I like my clothes to fit. I have several very nice jackets that meet this specification already, so thank you very much all the same.” “What, that ridiculous black thing you wear, with the funny collar?” he says. “Please,” I tell him. “It’s very late, I’m tired, I have to get to sleep, I’m very sorry about the coat. Can we say goodnight?” “Yes, goodnight, goodnight,” says my father. “If I were alive, you wouldn’t even come near that coat, you would be lucky just to be allowed to look at it.” “Gee, thanks so much,” I tell him, plumping my pillow. “Do you know what it’s like being dead and having your precious memories flung back in your face?” he says. “For pity’s sake the coat just doesn’t fit!” I protest. “What do you want from me?” “Don’t you raise your voice to me,” he says. “Don’t you think just because I’m gone you can forget your place with me.” “But what do you want?” I ask him. “Why are you making such a terrible fuss about this?” “I just want to pass on to you what was mine,” he says. “You’re my son, I want you to have the things that were mine …”
I don’t know what to say to this. The room falls silent. My father’s ghost trembles pathetically in the dimness. “Alright,” I mumble finally. “Alright … if it means that much to you. Alright. I’ll wear it … even though—No,” I blurt out desperately, “I won’t, I won’t wear that itchy, stumpy, evil-smelling thing! I’ll accept it and cherish it as a gift from you, but I won’t wear it, because it simply doesn’t fit, and that’s all there is to it. Dad,” I say. I push off the covers and get out of bed. “Dad, don’t be like that. Where are you going, come back.” I go over to the window. “Dad,” I call out, over the dark bushes.
“What’s all the shouting?”
My mother stands in the doorway in her nightgown. She blinks at me sleepily. “Oh, he got all upset about that stupid tweed coat,” I tell her. She looks at me. She looks away and shakes her head, wearily. “Even in the grave,” she says, “he’s a lunatic.” Before she closes the door she says, “Go to bed, go to sleep. I’ll give it to the neighbors in the morning.”
I have a bottle in which I keep my father. Fate has decreed that he die and return as a ghostly miniature in a glass container. Fate has decreed further that he do so dressed up as a cavalier, a role in which he liked to fancy himself in life just past. It is not however a lean, lithe, glimmering figure of a cavalier my father cuts. His is portly and solid and squat. But he is properly equipped with a great, opulently feathered hat on his head; a soft spray of ruffles under his double chin; lacy, lampshade cuffs at the ends of puffed sleeves; an embroidered sash diagonally over his girth, from which wobbles the deep, bowled guard of his rapier; suede boots that struggle, rumpled, up to his mid-thigh. Spurs clank faintly when he walks.
The bottle itself is furnished simply, to my father’s needs. It holds a bed, a carpet, a couple of chairs, and a table at which my father spends most days fittingly at work on his memoirs. He looks sober and substantial and squire-like as he scratches away with his quill, his inkpot open on one side of the pages, his great hat carefully set down on the other.
Once a week, on Sundays, he makes a practice of reading aloud his progress, in a tiny, orotund voice. These are not pleasant times for me. Sometimes I can’t restrain myself from breaking into his declamations to let him know what I think: that his language is ostentatious, his tone cornball and melodramatic, his selection of facts preposterously self-serving. Naturally I don’t use these exact words, but even so my father is violently insulted. He draws himself erect in his finery to dismiss my opinion out of hand. I am callow, I am uninformed; I know, for all intents and purposes, nothing about anything. Haughtily my father flaunts his seniority, the numerous achievements of his lifetime. “You should listen,” he concludes, “and per- haps learn something for a change.” “Perhaps, perhaps,” I mutter, shifting in my seat, as his piping drone resumes.
Then there are days when memoirs are not the issue. A black mood descends on my father. He slumps in his chair in sumptuous, velvety gloom. His splendid hat lies upside-down on its feather on the floor. The deckled pages of his manuscript are scattered over the carpet, useless. My father drinks from a flagon and rails against his death and his imprisonment as a homunculus in a knick-knack. His hair is tangled, his little eyes are red, drunk, obsessed. He pleads with me suddenly to pull the cork from the bottle, to release him from captivity. But I don’t think this is a good idea, as I try to explain. Besides, I don’t see how he could ever hope to fit through the neck of the bottle. He curses me for this. He seizes his rapier from the other chair and thrusts bellowing at the confines of the bottle. Again and again the glinting needle of his sword buckles against the glass walls. With a howl he heaves the rapier from him and tramples his hat on his way to the bed, where he sprawls in agony, his teeth sunk gnawing into his wrist, the tears coursing down his cheeks.
When my father’s exhibitions reach this piteous stage, I take the bottle down from its wooden cradle on the mantle. I hurry with it into the bathroom. I fill the tub with water and I set the bottle into it. The gentle undulations of the surface exert a calming influence on my father’s anguish. His writhing begins to subside; his sobbing diminishes. I stir the water quietly with my fingers. At last my father’s hands slacken and fall away; his breathing changes. His room bobs placidly. I listen for it to fill with vinous snores. My father’s suede is scuffed, his velvet bruised, his lace torn in places; but at last, he sleeps. Gingerly I lift the bottle out of the tub and dry it with a towel. Tenderness and irony mingle in me equally at these moments. I carry my little, sodden, miserable father back into the living room. Without jostling, I lift him and gently as I can I set him back, snoring, onto the wooden struts of his cradle.
Barry Yourgrau is a writer and performance artist. He is the author of Mess: One Man’s Struggle to Clean Up His House and His Act as well as A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane, Haunted Traveller, and The Sadness of Sex.