What Are You Doing in my Father's House?
Dennis Must is the author of two short story collections: Oh, Don't Ask Why, Red Hen Press, Los Angeles, CA (2007), and Banjo Grease, Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, CA (2000), plus a forthcoming novel, The World's Smallest Bible, to be published by Red Hen Press, spring 2014. His plays have been performed Off Off Broadway and his fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary reviews. He resides with his wife in Salem, Massachusetts. For more information, visit him at www.dennismust.com.
He'd insisted that his ashes be sprinkled like sawdust on the floor of the saloon, where I often found him.
Snow from a storm several days earlier remained on the ground. His footprints trailed from the stoop out to the street. I entered by the back door. Our front door was opened only for preachers and bill collectors.
Inside I ignited the stove's gas jets to temper the bone-chilling cold.
On the kitchen table lay his yellow pad and pencil. Each morning he'd add up his bills, listing those that were most urgent at the top. The scribbled date read January 27.
Dated photographs of each of us still adorned the living room walls. Pantomiming a furniture display window from the forties, the overstuffed umber sofa and matching chair shared a bronze standing lamp with its illuminated marble base. She might have received the new preacher from our church there, or a member of the congregation, each visiting in a vain effort to convince her to return to worship. He would have sat mute in the kitchen or fled to the cellar.
The dining room had become the actual living room once they purchased their first television. With the room's single window's opaque green blind drawn, a lounge chair now sat opposite. A neighbor said he'd found him sitting before the set that remained on.
Upstairs his bed appeared as if he'd just crawled out of it.
That gave me a start because it's exactly how, as a boy, I'd encounter him numerous mornings. In the buff, he'd either be ascending the stairs from the bathroom or stepping out of the clothes closet, surprising me.
Not trusting my better judgment, I called down.
"You down there, Dad? Hello?"
A car with a damaged muffler slowed outside our house.
Pajamas that lay at the bottom of the bed wafted vaguely of several nights' wear. An embracing odor, reminiscent of when he'd pull me close and rub his day-old stubble against my face.
Stifling the childlike fear that he might jump out at me from between his suits, the summer-weights next to the winter-weights, I gingerly opened the closet doors. The paired shoes underneath glowed as if varnished.
Neatly brushed fedoras sat on the top shelf and, to the closet's left, an abandoned clothes rod and bare floor underneath. Her dresses and dour two-piece church suit had long since been donated to Goodwill.
"Aren't you going to frighten me?" I asked, and reached inside as if to touch her hair or grasp an arm, coercing her to present herself.
"Please," I prayed. "Who am I to be afraid of?"
In an effort to get a grip on myself, I glanced at my image in the vanity's mirror.
At first I stepped back in horror.
"What are you doing in my father's house?" I exhorted.
It wasn't the child who would enter their room at night, mewling that he was suffering some bad dream, and could he crawl in alongside them?
"Have you no respect for the dead?"
I turned to the closet again and jerked his blue serge pin-striped suit off the hanger, brandishing it at the mirror. "Go away!" I bawled.
But then I observed a faint grin emerge on the intruder's face. I stepped closer to the vanity and saw reflected a white tin container of talc and, alongside, an indigo-blue bottle of cologne.
"Put it on," the face in the mirror cajoled.
"It has a kind of magic. Can't you see that's why Papa uses it?"
The visage grinned, full of good humor.
I began to sprinkle the talc across my body and then exuberantly beat my hands against my pants and shirt like I was going up in smoke.
The blue cologne drizzle followed.
Once caught in the haze and redolent fragrance of remembrance . . . it came to me.
How, as a boy of ten, I'd visited this room alone one midwinter morning and undressed before this very mirror, baptizing myself in talc and blue water, lusting to be someone other than who I was. One who had the privilege of entering that closet and climbing into a suit that made him a man, or slipping into a shirtwaist dress that would magically transform him into a woman.
Alone, lusting after an identity.
For I felt like a child was locked up inside mine.
Another glance in the mirror, and I saw my father's hearty face. That he really wasn't dead at all but stood there behind me in the bedroom's doorway, smiling broadly.
"Go ahead, Chris, put it on," he said. "There's a pair of black bluchers underneath that go with it. Black silk hose in the vanity's drawer. And be sure to talc your privates."
He laughed uproariously as I shed my smoking talc garments and climbed into the blue pinstripe. First, the trousers.
"Oh, you'll need a shirt and tie. In the second drawer is one that your sweet mother starched and ironed before she passed. How times have changed, huh? What we did to our women, we should be ashamed of.
"The tie—any one from the rack will do. Four-in-hand, Son. Now the jacket."
Staring at myself in the glass, I could only see the suit, not my face but his . . . as if he were the one who had just put it on.
"Where are we headed tonight, Dad?" I asked.
"I can't say," he said.
"Why? Nobody else will hear."
"Who is it, Dad?"
"Not who you might imagine," he said.
Then turned facing me in the mirror. "Please don't ask me, Son."
I sat on his unmade bed. The suit was much too small: its trouser legs barely covered my shins. I couldn't button the pants. Or the jacket that threatened to rip at the seams if I squinched my shoulders.
The paisley tie bore a mustard stain.
The room, still deathly cold, now reeked as if someone were attempting to blot out the aroma of death.