This is the conclusion of a two-part story. Read the first part here. Copyright is held by the author.
I RUSHED to the side door. Chelsea’s head flipped around, her pencil stopped mid air as if glue had been poured, locking it in place. She stepped towards me. But I was too fast and out the door before she could say a word. I tucked my chin down to my chest and walked to my truck. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied the man enter the place and sit down. He looked up and a jolt of recognition hit me so hard that it took my breath away. I had seen pictures of him of course, but in person he looked older, more fragile.
My hands shook as I pulled at my keys and inserted them into the locked car door. It opened at once I and dove in, sliding down in the seat as I turned the ignition. The F150 roared to life as my mind whirled. I pushed hard on the gas pedal tearing out of the parking lot. What would I tell Mom? She set up this meeting. Should I go back? But some force kept my foot down and I drove down the street in full flight mode. My eyes scanning for a random bar but I forced myself to keep driving. Houses whizzed past as sweat trickled down my back. I turned on the air conditioner and wound down a window. Each time the breeze hit my cheeks, my racing heart slowed down. The shimmering water of the lake called as I whizzed past the houses. I turned towards the park. The closer I drove away from the strip malls, the desire for a drink lessened. At last, I pulled into the small parking lot. The small lookout was a quiet spot at this time of the day. Typically filled with people during lunch hours or for summer walks, it seemed the best place for a man to consider his options as he watched the waves ripple towards the shore. Too hot to walk, I parked the truck, opened the windows and tugged at the glove box. The small box was almost empty but I tapped out one slim cigarette, my last indulgence. If I couldn’t drink, I wasn’t giving up smoking.
Striking the lighter, I took a deep inhale enjoying a moment of peace. That is until a black sedan with a small white sign pulled into the spot beside me, a funeral car. A woman and younger man stepped out of the vehicle, nodding at the driver and walked down the grassy knoll to the large boulders lining the shoreline. They walked side by side, their heads tilted towards each other. Wondering what they were doing, I got out of my truck, puffed on the last of the cigarette and watched as the man dug out a tissue and dabbed the older woman’s face.
“Sad isn’t it?”
The driver sat in the car, the windows rolled down. His black cap was pushed back, the cuffs on his white shirt were rolled up.
“It’s damn hot today.” He nodded at the couple. “The funeral was for her husband. Died of a massive heart attack. They wanted to get some air before facing the relatives at the house. Her son has been wonderful with her all day. It’s rare to see that. He even told his own family to go on ahead and he stayed with her. They’ve been driving around for an hour, visiting some of his father’s favourite spots. I only hope my own sons are as considerate with their mother when my time comes.”
“How old was he, the man who died?” I asked, throwing the cigarette onto the pavement and stomping on the red ember with my shoe.
The driver looked down to the ground, a wistful look on his face. “The father, not too old, around 70. They had no warning. He just went in his sleep. I see it every day man, people popping off just like that.” The driver snapped his fingers. “Live life to the fullest, know what I mean? No point holding onto your crap.”
“Yeah, I do.” I took one last look and waved at the driver before getting back into the cab of my truck. Backing up, I turned slowly onto the shoreline road. My hands knew what to do at the wheel, which was good because my mind was elsewhere. Maybe I should go back, find out about this guy. Perhaps not. Maybe I didn’t need to know my birth father. Would it really change my life that much, or did I hope it would fix all the shit that was wrong in my life?
The questions rolled around and around. I knew what my mother would tell me to do. I had been angry with her for months after I found out the truth. Trust was something we were still working on.
“Why did you keep it from me all these years?” I had shouted hours after they buried Pat.
Mom’s mascara was smudged around her eyes. All day she had been breaking into tears, surrounded by Pat’s frosty family. No one would guess she had divorced him years before. Her new husband was a kind, quiet man who didn’t mind staying in the background while she played the grieving widow. I had stood beside her and my sisters, blankly accepting handshake after handshake, knowing I was a complete fraud. I didn’t care if the old man croaked in his sleep. By the end of the service, my sisters were hysterical, reminding people what a saint Pat had been. I remembered drinking a few shots of whiskey before the priest took the pulpit, just enough to keep everything numb. That is until an old aunt let it slip. She had grasped my hand with her papery palm and glared at my mom.
“You must have been so grateful for dear Pattie.” Her voice sounded like a bullfrog lived in her throat.
“Sure,” I had replied, thinking what a strange comment. Pat should have been grateful I never went to the police.
“I always heard you took after your real father, but I didn’t realize how much. You look nothing like your mother either.”
“Sorry?” I was caught off guard by her statement.
The old crone placed her hand on her chest with a dramatic sigh. “Such a good deed, taking your mother in, claiming a bastard child as his own. A saint our Pat was, you must have been grateful my dear.” She nodded at my mom with a sly smile.
Mom stopped crying, horror spreading across her face. “Whhattt?”
“For taking you and this child in, well you were still pregnant when you got married weren’t you? Oh, it was so long ago I can’t remember.”
“Mom?” I felt as if the world was shaking beneath my feet. “Mom, what is she talking about?”
“Shut up, you old witch.” Mom hissed at the woman.
“Everyone knew, dear. Pattie never kept secrets from us.”
I watched their conversation like it was a bad dream. Everyone in the room had stopped moving and looked at our grieving family. Some with pity, some with interest like they were watching a live reality show. Others nodded to each other with knowing looks, leaning forward as if they had waited for this for years. My youngest sister grabbed my arm.
“Robbie, what is she talking about?”
“I don’t know. Mom?”
The old woman laughed, “They don’t know? You’re kidding me? They are all grown now, surely you’ve told them? Pat wanted to tell him you know, years ago when you left. Was tired of keeping your dirty secret but he didn’t want it to hurt the girls. Loved those girls he did. Said he would wait for you to tell him. Guess you never did.”
She had patted my arm before leaving. “Sorry Robbie. Someone had to say it.”
I never wanted a drink more in my life at that moment. I wanted to taste the liquor, have it burn down my throat filling my empty gut with fire. Mom looked up at me, worry and fear in her tear-filled eyes.
“Oh Robbie, honey. I’m so sorry.” She wept into my handkerchief.
After that, the rest of the funeral went by without a further incident, but the damage was done. Somehow we all got home, talked to people, stood upright and put away the food. Finally, after the last person left, the fight started. The screaming accusations echoed in the house. It was not only the revelations that Pat was not my birth father but that, in fact, my real father was alive, living a couple of hours away in a different town.
“He’s a nice man Robbie. It was just a bad time and I got scared and he was angry that I left. I told him never to contact me or try to find us. That I would keep him updated but would disappear if he came near us. He had another family, got married and the years just slipped by. You have three more siblings you know. I’ve seen pictures. You look like them.”
“You’ve been in touch with him?”
“Off and on for the last 10 years.”
“You never thought to tell me?” She had tried to explain, but everything went south after that and I self-destructed.
A horn honked and I jumped, looking up at the green light. Turning on the blinker, I turned left down a main street, away from the diner. I couldn’t do it. Five years of soul searching, two years of sobriety and countless visits to a therapist. I had invested too much to get a portion of my life back. I couldn’t risk upsetting my whole life if this meeting failed. Not for anyone.
Looking up, I realized I was driving in my old neighbourhood — Pat’s neighbourhood. My stomach still clenched as I looked at the houses with peeling paint. I remembered running through the backyards, Pat chasing me with a bat. I had hidden in Ms. Tripp’s garden shed for hours, waiting for Pat’s demons to pass. I got it as an adult, the rages against me. I was the son he desperately wanted but had not fathered. He hated the fact my mother had been pregnant, but he had done the right thing, married her anyway. Kept her secret. For a man like Pat, it had been too much for him to handle. It was no excuse but at least I knew what drove his insane bouts of anger. I was not his son.
But the same question circled in my mind. What if my birth father was the same? Wrecked or emotionally damaged? Mom swore he wasn’t, that time had mellowed a headstrong man in his 20s into a tender, soft-spoken one well into his 60s. But what assurance did I have? None.
Driving past the old white side-boarded house, the weeds almost reached the windows. Pat’s family still owned it, renting it out at low prices just to pay the bills. The day we left, I never went back. But here it stood, a silent witness to the horror of my childhood.
I pulled up to the curb, remembering the strong pushes up the porch stairs and the hard hits across the back of my head as I knelt down, weeding the garden for the third time on a weekend. I could still smell the stench of sweat and alcohol from the small master bedroom where Pat slept when he wasn’t working.
A wizened man came out on the porch, a watering can in his hand. He drenched the plants, tomatoes or something. The man could have been Pat if had lived — grey hair slicked back, his white-ribbed tank top hanging from his bony shoulders. The man looked up, pointed and shouted something holding up his middle finger. Just like Pat would have done. He had a beer bottle in his hand. As the old man weaved back into the house, a pair of doves cooed overhead. They sat still, side by side on the electric wire, peaceful and content. Shit. That old bastard could be me. I pulled away from the curb turning the corner and paused at the stop sign. With a new determination, I made a U-turn and pointed the pick-up back towards the diner. It was time to make new memories.