My father comes to me in shorts and a button-up shirt only half-buttoned up; these are not the clothes in which we buried him. A file of chigger bites runs the length of his shinbone and he shuffles pigeon-toed into my kitchen as if after a long day of clearing brush or chopping wood. There are many things I want to ask him, once the surprise and suspicion wear off. I offer him a chair.
He doesn’t sigh so much as expel an odd odor between his lips as he sits down, gases forced out by the act of bending slightly over. I offer him a beer and he accepts. He seems to look just over my shoulder as I make perfunctory attempts at initiating conversation. There is a film over his eyes, once so much like mine, and a meanness to his expression that was never there before. He drains the first can and whispers, “One more, son. One more.” I rise and head for the fridge, glad for a chance to look away.
He seems gentle and disinterested. He doesn’t ask after anyone, and inquiries from me about other dead relatives and acquaintances are met with shrugs accompanied by sharp clicks somewhere deep inside one of his shoulders. He drinks can after can and soon the whole room reeks of beer; I rise dutifully to retrieve another each time he repeats his request for one more. He is entirely unapologetic, and I am thankful. In the span of an hour he downs just shy of twenty beers and says less than forty words. His head rolls with metronomic rhythm on his neck and the fumes in the kitchen have become unbearable. I am choking back tears when I fetch the last can.
He is digging a finger deep in his ear canal when I return to the table; something seems to be troubling him. When I ask him what is wrong and if there is anything I can do he offers me the can. I pop it open and return it, and I think for a moment that he is smiling before realizing that he is trying to determine how best to fit his mouth to the opening. The automatic things are coming less easily now.
I have given up on questions. As he drinks I tell him, somewhat embarrassed but glad of the opportunity, of the theory I concocted when I was younger about ghosts being like marionettes we swing around for our own entertainment or out of some sort of masochism, the way we bandy former lovers back and forth in our brains out of a weird refusal to appreciate the current. I tell him that I basically believe that we haunt ourselves using whatever happens to be handy. And then I ask him, half-joking and smirking to make it clear, if he has come here at my command. He finishes the final swallow of beer, his throat a riot of incongruous muscle movements, then places the empty can on the table before him, his hand vibrating as he draws it back.
“One more, son. One more drink.”
I tell him that there is no more, that the box is empty, that I usually don’t even have this much in the house but that Emily is gone and it’s been a hard time for me.
He rises and swats his hand vaguely in my direction, as if in a halfhearted effort to pat me on the head, then goes to the door, working the latch with some difficulty and shuffling out into the night without a backward glance. I watch the empty black rectangle of the window for a moment before becoming conscious again of the smell, the pervasive yeasty beer smell that it will take a solid month of open windows and scrubbing and air freshener to banish from the house. I walk around the table to find massive quantities of beer on the chair, flowing down the legs onto the floor, frothy globs and deteriorating wisps of foam drifting sluggishly outward, toward the walls, disappearing slowly under the fridge, under the stove. The puddle has spread under the table, from his end to mine, has been underfoot all along. And I never heard it. I never felt it.
For a moment I contemplate the mess, absurdly (as if I had ingested the quantity of alcohol he did, or seemed to) considering moving to a new house rather than just rolling up my sleeves and cleaning up the floor. My first thought is that he would never be able to find me again, and I begin to cry at the thought of him wandering into some stranger’s house which used to be his son’s, of him being chased out or assaulted or reported to the law. And then something clicks into place and it comes to me: all those people I asked about, and I never asked about my mother. It never once occurred to me.
I wade away from the table, stupefied, the hour and the shock starting to tell. Opening the door, the door that his hand touched just moments before, I find it cold and wet. I look out into the night, bleary-eyed and sniffling, and it is only a few moments before I hear a slow, insistent thumping off to my left and turn to see a light inside my neighbor’s house come on.
Jeffrey Winter graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a BA in English. He is a married father of two small children and a high school English teacher in Cypress, TX. His work has previously been published in Eunoia Review, Pif Magazine, Denver Syntax, The Zodiac Review, Black Heart Magazine and others.