Fiction

Pieces of our Father


Jacob, holding a bouquet of flowers, put his ear to the front door, listening to the orchestra on the other side. “One of Dad’s old records. Wagner,” he whispered to himself, adjusting his slack tie. The door thrust open and Jacob stood at the doorstep face to face with the maid, swearing unintelligibly, screaming scathing, unforgivable things all drowned out by the cacophony of percussions and brass instruments. She cast ethnic curses in Punjabi, condemning the family to infertility and diabetes, types one and two before storming off into the snow, a scenario he had gotten used to over the years when coming to visit his father. Jacob was always the first one to arrive and the last to leave.

Inside, trombone notes bounced off the walls. Cymbals crashed through air vents. Soprano voices of heavyset divas rumbled through lead plumbing, launching week old turds against the ceiling. Just like when Mom was around. Not so long ago, china and ceramic used to fly in opposing directions, crashing against mirrors for the slightest marital offense.

Despite the many rooms in the house furnished with French divans and Monet prints, Jacob knew exactly where to start looking for his father; in the smoking room, puffing on imported cigars, perpetuating the smoky illusion that the company’s finances were in order—that his health was in order. That nothing has gone under though everybody knew the family business was to be sold for table scraps. The violins and cellos eased before racing as Jacob approached the smoking room door, building up to an atom bomb heart attack. He opened the door and the record player screeched to a halt. Climactically, it fell to the ground from the cabinet. The outstretched needle seemed to reach for the doorknob like a pleading arm. To his surprise, the room was empty. He examined it: paper shredder full of documents sealing the company’s fate; furniture transformed into coasters for half sipped bourbons; cigar butts botched on the carpet like little islands surrounded by ash waves; smoking chair cushions gutted and turned on their sides, and the window opened wide inviting the harsh January draft. Jacob closed the window, mentally tracing his father’s steps, concluding that he’d been drunk on bourbon and defiance.

With ears still ringing from the record, he caught a glimpse of himself in the broken mirror His eyes had wrinkled, oval face had narrowed, making his nose and ears appear larger and his blonde hair was quickly graying, a snapshot of a man in the financial red. He’d made bad investments, trusting his uncle, a ponzi scheming deadbeat broker who had conveniently disappeared after accruing insurmountable gambling debts. “Good as gold,” his uncle assured him before taking off with everything and vanishing to some multisyllabic Southeast Asian island with a cocktail servant economy.

From down the hall, a voice hummed, as if conducting a mute orchestra, note by note, peaks, crashes, and all. It came from the living room, echoing arrogantly. Jacob followed, attentive of his footsteps, counting the shards of broken chandelier glass along the way. When he reached the room, the conductor ceased, abruptly ending the simulated piece. The room was dark and with a flick of the light switch the room revealed itself theatrically.

His father lay strewn across the living room in pieces just like his sister Jean had described it over the phone. Hands. Ribs. Eyes. Fingers. Each piece stubbornly trying to function independently of the whole. There had been a breakdown. An ear squirmed atop a lamp like a suffocating fish; toes wiggled on the carpet like windup toys; hands scratched each other’s itches; a limbless torso twitched, prostrated in a loose bathrobe; the jaw lay mounted on a sofa cushion frowning through a silver-tooth cavity smile. Jacob looked around, meeting his father’s nearsighted eye in an eggcup, and then the other eye at the bottom of a whiskey glass, staring without eyelids to blink.

“When things fall, they break…You’re late,” mumbled the disembodied voice of his father.

Jacob looked around, trying to identify which part was responsible for the voice before settling with the jaw. It sounded like it came from everywhere and nowhere all at once.

“I never set a time,” he answered.

“Make yourself at home,” said Father’s jaw, ironically.

“I heard you had a fall,” Jacob replied, not wanting to get lost in small talk.

“That’s what the medical people will say.”

“But you won’t see one?”

“Won’t see whom?”

“A doctor,” Jacob snapped.

“Why should I? They only state the obvious.”

Jacob circled around the room, careful not to step on the pieces. There was a temporary silence. But he hadn’t come for silence. He wanted to be able to give him the flowers, to tell him he would soon recover, to forgive him, to say he loved him and mean it. Instead, he sat in the old rocking chair, his long, lean body settled awkwardly, like a caricature with the bouquet on his lap.

“Did you fall down the stairs?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Did you slip?”

“I don’t remember.”

“So what are you, we, going to do now, then?”

“Ask your mother.”

“We buried her last year.”

“Then I guess she won’t have much to say,” Father’s jaw smiled. “I loved your mother.”

“No you didn’t,” Jacob snapped, showing more emotion than he’d wanted to.

“You say tomato, I say–”

“Stop.” There was a silence. “What’s going to happen now?”

“Ask the maid.”

“She didn’t look very talkative.”

“That’s because I fired her. Can’t even pass a broom for fuck’s sake. Swept my nose into a dustbin somewhere and it’s been sneezing ever since. Do you hear it?”

“No,” he responded, ignoring the aggravated sniffle somewhere across the room.

Jacob got up, poured himself a drink of water, but didn’t drink it. He let it sit on the counter by the mirror and looked at his reflection still holding the bouquet.

“Jacob, I want you to come work for me. What you say pal?”

Jacob ignored the empty gesture, stoking the embers of the fireplace. They both knew the company had gone belly up in the mud. There was nothing to add.

Besides, he’s preferred to cut himself off, always refusing any form of parental bribe.

“Daffodils?” Father’s jaw inquired, changing the subject.

Jacob looked at the whiskey glass containing Father’s eye, then back at the bouquet before answering: “No.”

“Daisies?”

“No.”

“Dandelions?”

“Lilies,” Jacob said, ending the guessing game.

“Lilies? What is this, a funeral?”

The house fell silent for a moment.

“Has she come?”

“Jean?”

“Yes.”

“She came,” Father said without elaborating.

“Did she get what she came for? What you promised? ”

“Not yet. She’ll be back soon enough.”

“What about the paperwork?”

“The legal mumbo-jumbo?”

“Everything.”

“All in motion,”

“As we speak?”

“As we speak,” the lips pronounced slowly on the smug smiling jaw. His finger snapped from somewhere. “Everybody gets what they want. It’s a happy ending. Your sister,” his finger snapped. “Your mother,” his finger snapped.

“We buried mother last year,” Jacob said with resigned disgust.

“Exactly. Say, do you have a light?”

“I quit.”

“Have you, now?” Father’s jaw asked mockingly. Doubtfully.

“Trying.”

“Which means you haven’t really quit.”

Jacob did not answer.

“Then how about a light and a cigarette?”

Jacob got up from the rocking chair set a cigarette into the lips, lit it, and set an ashtray in front of the chin.

“One more thing before I forget. Before your sister returns,” Father’s jaw muttered, puffing dirty smoke through gums and all around the severed half of his face. “Something out of my control really,” he continued, chuckling. “Morning wood. It’s up. What can I say? Not sure where it is. Sorry, goes up with the sun.”

Jacob, red in the face, looked for his father’s source of pride and shame. He found the erect and severed phallus. Embarrassed at its prominence on the coffee table, he covered it with a hand towel.

“Like I said,” Father’s jaw laughed, “out of my control.” His cigarette creased itself into the filter and dropped into the ashtray in a plume of smoke.

At that moment, there was a knock at the door, followed by the sound of keys turning. Jacob listened in closely to the sound of high heels clicking down the corridor. Jean’s steps, he guessed, counting the number of clicks before she reached them as father’s jaw began to sing Sinatra: “And now, the end is here. And so I face the final curtain. I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain, I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried. I’ve had my fill, my share of losing. And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing…”

Jean entered eighteen steps later, unbuttoned her long, designer coat, fixed her scarf, but stood stiff and businesslike as her attorney entered the room behind her, catching his breath. Jacob had never seen him before, but the word “lawyer” emerged through his suspicion, seeing the man’s briefcase, comb over, and safe, but pricey looking tie. He hobbled, pushing himself forward with his cane, blowing his nose into a handkerchief. Father would get a real kick out of him.

Jean looked at her younger brother from across the room, sitting uncomfortably in the old rocking chair. They vaguely resembled each other, more dissimilar than either of them remembered, like the shapes of their faces and the colours of their eyes had subtly changed since their last encounter. She gave him a nod before glancing at her watch, like acknowledging the presence of an acquaintance, a nod that erased history between them. Growing up, Jacob was claimed as his father’s favourite, and Jean, their mother’s, and like pawns and assets they were played against each other in the divorce saga.

Father’s eyes surveyed the attorney from the eggcup and whiskey glass while the jaw and lips twisted in annoyance. The attorney wiped his glasses and set his comb-over in place with his fingers. Jacob and his sister followed the movements and expressions on Father’s many pieces, anticipating the inevitable tension. There would be theatrics.

“Who’s this strapping young lad?” Father’s jaw burst forth.

“This is my attorney,” Jean barged in, interrupting her attorney before he could speak.

Father exclaimed: “In that case, honesty is a good policy. Who is that varicose vain putz?”

The attorney lifted his hand to speak, but was interrupted by his client.

“Dad, ” she stumbled, “we’re all adults here, aren’t we?”

“Mercy,” the jaw cried sarcastically, cutting her plea short. “The safety deposit box is yours. Number twenty-three.”

Jean was taken aback, having expected more resistance.

The attorney, wanting to seize the moment of silence, raised his cane, but was interrupted before he could speak by Jean who in turn was interrupted by the father’s remains once more.

“Don’t worry love, find my hand, hold the paper to my eye and my hand will sign. Come back with the paperwork.”

“We have all the necessary documents here,” the attorney blurted out, clumsily, almost leaping in front of his client, raising the papers to the eye before moving to the father’s hand to sign. “Your signature is required here and here.”

Father’s hand signed in smudged ink while Jacob watched attentively like a stranger behind glass. For his part, Jacob showed little interest in his own inheritance. Though he needed the money, he did not want to extend his father’s reign beyond the grave.

The attorney looked at Jean, and then to her father’s jaw, then from eye to eye, unsuccessfully searching for a hand to shake before Jean whispered into his ear. He nodded. She fixed her scarf and buttoned her long coat, glancing at her watch again.

The attorney cleared his throat to speak like a phony politician behind a soapbox. “The safety deposit box, promised to my client in a critical event such as what has befallen here, is officially her possession henceforth,” he rushed, stopping to collect his breath. “My client, Miss Favreau, would like to express her satisfaction. Mr. Favreau, we shall contact you if necessary. On behalf of my client, I have a statement in which she expresses her deepest condolences–” The attorney, seeing his client already on her way out the door without saying goodbye, stopped his sentence short, blew his nose into the handkerchief, and hobbled off, trailing his client from behind. Click, click, click went her heels. The door closed as quickly as it had been opened.

Click. Click. Click. Eighteen steps. Away.

The light bulb flickered on and off.

“What’s in the box? “ Jacob asked.

“How do you mean?”

“You’ve never said what was in the box. All these years, none of us ever knew what was in the box. Only that there’s something of value.”

“And what’s in it for you?”

“What’s in it at all?”

“The box is worth more than its contents.”

“What’s in it?”

“Stamps,… cologne, newspapers,” uttered Father’s jaw after a pause, taking a deep breath, “and a hand-carved crucifix.”

Jacob’s face wrinkled up in disbelief as he sunk into the cushion of the chair. He attempted to get to his feet, but let himself fall back into place, rocking back and forth, lean and awkward.

“Stamps?” He mumbled in shock.

“Right.”

“Cologne?”

“Right.”

“Newspapers?” He pleaded.

“Right.”

“And a crucifix?” He asked, raising his voice.

“And some photos. Any questions?”

“Many.”

“Do all questions need answers?”

“Was there ever something inside?” he asked, chocking the flowers.

“I’m not sure. Don’t remember. Does it matter?”

“Yes,” Jacob replied.

“It’s nice to have nice things so long as you’re told they’re nice so long as people around you wink and smile when you’re around, laugh at your jokes. When you have nice things, you can wink and laugh, talking about nothing as like it’s something and everybody listens even if nobody cares–”

“So the answer is no.”

“My answer is I don’t know.

“But you do,” Jacob snapped.

“I don’t remember. I had a fall.”

Jacob got up, letting the bouquet drop to the floor. He drank the glass of water that he had previously poured and let sit idle on the counter before heading toward the door.

“Jacob, tell me a joke, will you?”

“A what?” He turned back with furrowed eyebrows.

“A joke.”

Jacob stood perfectly still. His posture was long and narrow, casting a flimsy shadow on Father’s parts.

“Is this a joke?” asked.

“A story then. That’s a fair compromise. No singing or dancing. Just tell me a story. Make me the protagonist. You know, a real life story with real grit, but not too dark, not too morbid. A coming-of-age tale about success despite the odds. An admirable little tale with a good laugh at the end. Something that will leave a crowd clapping and content and not forget. No, not forget.”

“My mind’s a blank.”

“Blank? Didn’t I ever read to you when you were young? Didn’t I ever do–” the jaw stopped abruptly, thinking about the smoky, imperceptible past.

“I don’t know. I don’t remember,” insisted Jacob, looking at his reflection in the mirror.

“You remember fine,” the jaw broke in.

“Well,” he said, turning to the lonely jaw, “there once was a man. Not a great man, not a moral man, but he lived in a large house covered in snow. He invested in the right things. Started a family business. Imports and exports, the works. This man had a lot of things. A wife. A daughter. Two sons. And a safety deposit box full of promises. And then one day, he fell.”

Father’s jaw and lips formed a smile through a frown and the lips wrinkled as the hands prepared to clap. His heart slowed down so his ears across the room could hear, hanging on every syllable. “And how does it end?”

Jacob, throwing the pack of cigarettes into the trashcan, turned to the dismembered pieces of his father. “In the end, everybody in the snow-covered left through the front door. I can’t recall what happened next. It’s already forgotten,” he added dismissively, turning off the light switch before exiting through the front door with a slam.

Father’s ears hoped for the sound of a turning doorknob, for his son, daughter, anyone to return. The bare pieces of his body stopped fidgeting, increasingly idle and broken, shrivelling. Father’s jaw clenched, holding in a scream, but was too tired to curse, too proud to sigh, as the eyes slowly shut in the silent dark.

Joe Bongiorno Joe Bongiorno has published both poetry and short fiction in a variety of literary journals including The Headlight Anthology. He is currently living in Taiwan working as an ESL teacher in a junior high school.