Friday, February 16, 2007

Written by Aaron Ingram

“The phone’s for you, Ben. Your dad.”

“Oh god.” He sighed. “Just tell him I’m not here, will you?”

“What? This is a hard time, he needs you.”

He watched the ceiling fan as it didn’t move and scratched at his chest. He groaned, and his palms grew moist.

“Give me the phone… What is it, dad? I’m trying to sleep.”

“Oh. Well, I was just wondering if you’d decided about this weekend –”

“I already told you I’m not sure yet, I might have to work. I will call you when I know.”

“Fine.” His father snorted. “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen you, I just –” But he didn’t finish the thought. “Danny’s coming, too. We’d love to have you down.”

“I know,” he sighed again. “I’ll call you when I hear for sure, okay?” They exchanged goodbyes.

“You can’t brush him off forever.” Hanna still leaned against the doorjamb.

“Good old cancer, eh?” Ben rolled over onto his stomach, pulling up the sheet. He didn’t close his eyes, just waited for her to leave.

She was gone when he awoke. His eyes wandered about the room as he tried to rouse himself and they settled on a baseball resting on a shelf. He could see the blue smudge from where he laid. He knew what it said by heart.

“‘To Ben – all the best, Joe Carter.’” His father’s hand rested on his shoulder as he spoke, guiding him through the crowded parking lot. “You know, this is going to be a collector’s item one day. Hold onto it.”

Ben remembered that scuff where the ground had bruised it, the leather that grated against his skin as he took the homerun ball back from his father.

The cracked windowpane rattled next to his head at a gust of wind. He blinked. The phone was ringing on his desk.

“What is it now?”

“What the hell’s wrong with you? Why are you avoiding Dad?”

“Danny? I’m not avoiding him. I just –” Ben exhaled, something between a yawn and a sigh. He threw the covers off and sat up, shivering.

“Just what? He’s in that old house by himself and you tell him you might have to work? DAD IS DYING, what’s with you?”

“And what about us, huh? You must have been out, but cancer called and left a message. Ever hear of genetics? ”He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. He scratched his chest, his fingers lingering in the hair. “No thanks, brother.” His words hung in the silence and he wondered if Danny was still there.

“I’ve got to go.” Danny’s voice was forceful. “But you have to think hard about this. I’ll talk to you soon.”

“What are you up to this weekend?”

“I don’t know yet. I might try to pick up another shift. I still want to go somewhere this summer, and I’m going to need the cash for it.”

“Where are you thinking?” Hanna said, rinsing the basil from her hands and drying them on the front of her dress. She stirred the tomato sauce.

“I’m not to sure yet, maybe Eastern Europe. Just a thought, though.”

“Well, Canada’s an amazing place. You could just take a bus somewhere, and save money, you know? And still have a great trip.”

“Yeah, well, I think I have some family in Europe, a few places.” Ben looked out the window. A police cruiser had pulled up to the curb, the lights refracting off the raindrops dotting the glass.

“You’ve got family here,” she murmured, but his back was to her and only the sauce and the noodles heard. “It’s ready. Oh, I almost forgot, your Aunt called earlier. What’s her name? Nadine?”

Ben nodded vaguely and poured her a glass of wine. They moved to the table. Hanna lit the candle in the centre and watched him above the flame as they began to eat.

“She’s going to visit your father, too, offered you a ride. Said she’d call you early tomorrow.” Each took a bite of pasta, mouthfuls of silence, only disturbed by the clink of Hanna’s fork as she set it down. “Why don’t you want to visit your dad, Ben?”

He drained his glass and peered at the bottom of it before he rose and walked over to the bottle of Merlot on the counter.

“I want to visit him, don’t be ridiculous. But what does he need me there for, anyway? He’s got Danny and Aunt Nadia.”

He moved again to the window, searching for something to focus on. The cops were gone. No one was down on the street. No traffic. Not even a cat.

“Is it unreasonable of him to want to see his family before he dies?”

“Look, can’t we just have a nice dinner, talk about something else, anything, please?” He poured himself more wine and rubbed his eyes. “I really don’t want to talk about this right now, okay?”

“Whatever...” She took a sip from her glass.

* * *
His father looked up at him from under heavy brows, deep bags close below his eyes. “Hey dad. It’s…good to see you.”

“Not much to look at, huh?” He gave a chuckle and managed a gesture around him, at the IV poles and machines. “You kind of get used to it, I’m told.”

Ben looked around, avoiding his father’s eyes. The room was much as he remembered it.

“So, uh, how have you been?” Immediately he knew how stupid it sounded.

His father didn’t respond.

“Well, you know what I mean.”

“I’ve been better. I mean, I’d rather not be dying. And to top it off, the nurse they assigned me is poor company. But, as far as it goes, I guess I’m not doing too bad.”

Ben nodded, then saw the hand-knitted toque on his father's head and looked away, but his father had already noticed. He forced his hand up to drag the cap from his head.

“I’m going for a new look, what do you think?”

He had known, of course, Danny had told him. He hadn’t been ready for it. Looking at his father’s face he noticed the skin above his eyes.

“Are you going to stay awhile? I’m not a leper, for Christ’s sake! Sit down, tell me how you’re doing. How’s school, anyways? How long have you been seeing that girl? What’s her name?”

“Easy on the third degree, dad. Her name’s Hanna. And about… eight months, now.”

“She seems nice. On the phone at least.”

“Yeah, she is.” He couldn’t help but smile.

His father grinned at the look on Ben’s face, and nodded.

“So. How’s everything else? Fill me in before your dinner.”

* * *
The grass was still brown in some places, but that would soon change. Dew made the new blades glint like scimitars in the light. Around him, the smell of earth was a vapour to be inhaled. He placed his jacket and bag on the ground at his side, keeping hold of the flowers. They were Syringa, picked from his father’s garden and they were lavender. He bent before the headstone, placing them at its base.

* * *
“Do you remember that one time? It was just me and you, moving boxes over here from the old place.” His father was smiling at the memory. “We’d propped the door open to make things easier and when we came back from the car –”

“And there was that possum!” Ben laughed as the scene returned to him.

“It was a cheeky little bugger, wasn’t it?”

“Then you shoved that broom in my hands and sent me to chase it back down the stairs so you could herd it out. And you had Danny’s old hockey stick.”

“You scared the hell out of the thing the way you came trampling after it. Practically ransacked the house,” his father said, chuckling.

“Perhaps if someone wouldn’t have let it slip by, I wouldn’t have had to chase it around for so long, hmm?”

“He only ditched me that once.”

“Yeah…and then bang! Slap shot right out the door!” Ben slapped his hands together and laughed again as he pictured the possum, curled into a ball, and the crash of the box knocked over by the follow-through.

“Right off the door, for Pete’s sake!” Despite himself, his father chuckled more. “And hit the ground running,” he managed before bursting fully into laughter. Only for a moment though. Sudden pain silenced him. His father signaled he was all right. Ben looked away, towards the clock.

“Well, I’m glad I came, Dad. I wish I would’ve… could have made it sooner.”

“I know. But what matters is that you made it now.” They nodded.

“Well, I’d better get going. I want to visit Mom before my bus leaves.”

“I think she’d appreciate that. It was really good to see you, Ben.” He opened his mouth to continue, but said nothing. “You know, I have so many things I want to say to you, I just don’t…know where to start.” He looked into his lap.

Ben hesitated, not sure what to do.

“I know, Dad.” He tried to smile as he squeezed his father’s shoulder. “I’m coming back next weekend, though. We can talk some more then.”

“I’d like that,” he said wearily.

* * *
Ben contemplated the marble though he knew the words well. He had made a rubbing long ago. It was ragged now, and hidden in a shoebox in the closet with other things he wanted to forget, but only partially. He still took it out at times.


He stood to the left of the grave, on the plot where his father would soon rest, once again at his wife’s side. When he realized he shifted off it and shivered. Standing on that ground was a little different, now. He wondered if his father had felt anything.

He imagined the grave like a wound in the earth, the clay exposed in the air. He could see a moment not far in the future, he in his suit, Hanna and Danny at his sides, people in black rows behind them. A fleeting image.

He heard the church bell toll, and he glanced over his shoulder, through the wrought iron bars towards the bus station, where several coaches idled. He was never sure what to do at this point, though he always had the awkward feeling he should say something.

“I've got to get going, but I, um, heard this joke the other day, I think you would’ve liked it. So there are these two snowmen, just standing around in a field, right? Then the one says to the other, ‘That’s weird. I smell carrots, too.’” He tried to chuckle, looking at the muddy toes of his shoes. “Well, until next time, then, Mom”

He crossed the street and boarded his bus, taking a window seat at the rear. There were few passengers. He thought of Hanna.

On the highway, Ben gazed at the trees. He raised his fingers to his chest, probing, as he watched them pass. After the briefest of searches he found it. More trees came and went as he shifted it around beneath the skin with his fingertips. The tiny pellet that had become so familiar. A patient scarab or a simple lump of clay… He thought of his father.

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