Standing next to a modest floral basket, Bill looked down into the coffin at the face that was so similar to his own and felt nothing. He saw the same light olive skin, brown hair, and squarish face with that same jaw that he saw every day in the mirror. But his father’s face, even in death, was permanently lined with dissatisfaction. Seeing those angry lines brought back memories of arguments and violence, though even now, he blocked out the emotions those memories brought forth. He had loved his father as a young child, but that love had dissolved years ago, and now even the hatred had died. He felt only surprise at his lack of emotion. He felt a hand on his back and turned to look down at his wife.
“You ready to go to dinner, honey?” Lisa asked. “Bobby’s kids are getting antsy and ours are bored. David’s tugging on his tie and has already untucked his shirt. We should get going before he starts shedding his clothes,” she said with a shake of her head and a half grin.
Bill smiled back, “Yeah, that kid can’t stand anything but jeans and a T-shirt. What’s he gonna do when he finishes college in a few years and gets out in the real world?” He wrapped his arm around her waist, gave her a light hug and they walked together out of the dimly lighted viewing room out to the cold marble and dark wood of the funeral home’s lobby.
His brother, Bobby, and his wife, Karen, had located the coat closet in an alcove under the imposing dark oak stairs and were trying to hustle their three pre-teen children into their coats. Bobby turned to Bill, “I’m not sure where the restaurant is, can we follow you?”
“Sure,” Bill answered. “It’s only a mile or so away, so we should have plenty of time between the calling hours. We don’t have to be back until six o’clock.”
“Okay, Karen and I will get the kids in the car and wait for you guys.”
“We’ll be right behind you,” Bill answered and turned back to his own family, “Well, let’s get going.” He helped Lisa on with her coat and saw that Julie already had her coat on and was standing next to the door. As usual, his daughter was organized and ready to go before anyone else, looking at her he felt pride growing in his chest. She was something he could be proud of, she reflected well on him and Lisa. Bill turned to look at David, standing there with his shirt untucked, tie askew, and his suit coat a jumbled mess in his arms.
“Jesus Christ, David. Shake out that jacket, it’s going to be a mass of wrinkles,” his voice starting to rise at the end.
“Bill, it’s fine,” Lisa jumped in, grabbing the jacket from David and shaking it out. “Look, it isn’t wrinkled at all.”
“What are you talking about, Lisa? It’s a mess.” His voice continued to become louder, until he was almost shouting.
Lisa peered around the hallway to see if any of the funeral home employees were nearby, “Shh. Bill, don’t make a scene. Please.” She held the jacket out for David to put his arms through the sleeves.
David’s face had turned bright red and he had opened his mouth, but Lisa tugged on his arm and he looked at her and saw something in her face. He closed his mouth and let her help him put the jacket on. She patted his shoulders, smoothing the material as she patted.
Bill frowned, having caught that look between Lisa and David; she always sided with David when he acted irresponsibly. Bill didn’t understand it, she should have supported him when he reprimanded David, but instead her only concern was that someone might hear them arguing. He turned to walk out the door, but stopped short when he saw his brother staring at him.
Bobby raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything and with a head shake followed his wife and kids out the door.
Bill wondered what that raised eyebrow meant. It distracted him from his anger. Still wondering about that raised eyebrow, he walked over to stand next to Julie. He turned back to Lisa and David, “Well, let’s get some dinner.”
Julie smiled and winked at her younger brother.
David grinned back at Julie.
Smiling, Lisa said, “I think that’s a great idea.”
It was only four thirty and the restaurant was quiet, there were some men in dusty T-shirts and jeans watching a baseball game on the flat screen TV hanging over the bar and there were a few elderly people scattered through the dining room, taking advantage of the early bird specials. Most of the servers were lounging around the hostess desk waiting for customers, so the nine of them were able to get a table quickly.
The five kids sat at one end of the long table, the two older kids, aged seventeen and twenty, really didn’t have anything in common with their much younger cousins. They couldn’t even discuss their dead grandfather because their fathers had cut off all contact with him twelve years earlier when their grandmother died. So the five kids didn’t talk much, but mostly watched the action at the other end of the table.
As they were waiting for their food to be served, Bobby leaned across the table and asked Bill when the funeral service was scheduled the next day.
“The service is at ten. It should be just us. I put ‘private service’ in the paper as we agreed, so I don’t think anyone else will show up.”
“Who would, anyway?” Bobby said with a grimace.
“True, who would?” Bill agreed, but then he remembered his father’s work friends and a few couples his parents used to play cards with, and realized that there might be people who cared about his father’s death and want to pay their respects. Maybe he shouldn’t have listed the service as private. He continued, “Though a few people who worked with him in the past might show up tonight. But most people he was friendly with moved south when they retired.” Bill grabbed a roll and buttered it as they talked.
Karen and Lisa sat quietly while the two brothers discussed their father and their childhood. It was such a touchy topic that the two women always kept out of it until it appeared to be time to change the subject.
“Like the aunts and uncles did,” Bobby responded shaking his head. “You’re right, some might show up tonight. You know, I was always surprised by how many friends he did have.”
“Well, that’s easy to understand. He had one face for family and a totally different one for outsiders. None of them knew him the way we did. They only knew his public face. I don’t know how many people have asked me over the years if I was related to him and when I admitted it, told me what a great guy he was.” Bill took an angry bite of his roll and had to take a quick drink of water to wash it down.
“True. Even his brothers and sisters never knew him. I mean they knew he was brutal to us. But they never tried to stop him or do anything about it.” Bobby shook his head. “Maybe if someone held him accountable, he would have changed.”
“I doubt it. Mom’s sisters made it clear how they felt. They never forgave him for the way he treated her. He just didn’t care.” Bill slowly chewed his roll as he thought about the family members his father had alienated and those members of the family that Bill had never forgiven for not protecting him, Bobby, and their mother.
“I know. I don’t think he even cared that we couldn’t forgive him,” answered Bobby.
The two men grew silent for a few minutes remembering the past. Bill remembered the tears and anger of their mother’s funeral a dozen years earlier. That was the night Bill turned his father out of his life. He blamed the years of abuse his mother had suffered at his father’s hands for her early death. Even though Bill and Bobby had tried to protect her, the years had faded his mother until she was a living ghost, just passing time until burial.
“I don’t know about you, Bill, but I made it my life’s ambition to be nothing like the old…man,” Bobby said with a quick glance at the children’s end of the table.
“What do you mean, you don’t know about me? I’m nothing like him either,” Bill wasn’t sure, but he felt an accusation beneath the surface of Bobby’s words.
“Oh yeah, in most ways you’re not.”
“What do you mean, most ways? I’m not like him,” Bill’s voice was rising. The kids got even quieter. Karen was shaking her head at Bobby and Lisa was looking from one brother to the other.
“No, of course you’re not, Bill. Hey, I’m not accusing you of anything. I think the important thing is that we have both worked really hard to not be like him,” Bobby’s voice was soft, conciliatory. “Who knows, I’m probably like him in some ways I’m not aware of.”
Bill just got angrier, but he lowered his voice in response to Bobby’s lowered tones, “What are you talking about?” He wasn’t shouting, but his voice was emphatic, demanding an explanation. He asked himself what the hell Bobby was talking about, he was not like that bastard.
“Look, Bill, don’t get angry. You were always the one who protected me from him. You took beatings so I wouldn’t have to. So I know you’re not like him in that way.”
“You better believe it. I have never, I mean never, laid a hand on my kids or Lisa.”
“Of course you haven’t. I didn’t mean that at all,” Bobby spread his hands out in a gesture meant to calm his brother down.
“Just spit it out, Bobby,” Bill wasn’t getting any calmer.
“Okay, well, it’s the way you are with David.”
Bill glanced quickly down the table and saw David staring at his uncle, white-faced. He turned back to his brother, “What do you mean?”
“You don’t see it, Bill?”
Bill sat there shaking his head, unable to figure out what Bobby meant, so Bobby continued, “You’re hyper-critical of David. Just like dad was of you. Don’t you remember? Whatever you did wasn’t good enough, quick enough or bright enough. For some reason he always knocked you down—physically and verbally—way more than he did me. Maybe he just had lower expectations for me, but he was never satisfied with anything you did.”
Bill had stopped shaking his head, but stared at Bobby, “I really don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re right about him being critical of everything I did, my grades weren’t high enough, I should have worked more hours, I should have been in more sports, and on and on. No way am I like that with David.”
Bobby looked at him. He opened his mouth and then closed it without saying anything. Bill opened his mouth to speak.
Then Lisa said, “Oh, look. Here comes our food.”
The table seemed to let out an audible sigh in relief and everyone sat back for the waitress to serve their food.
That evening, after calling hours at the funeral home had ended, Bill and Lisa watched television at home for a couple hours until Lisa yawned for about the fifth time.
“You go on to bed,” Bill said. For some reason he didn’t feel at all tired. “I know it’s late, but I’m too wound up for bed. I’m just going to watch some more TV for a little while.”
“Okay, honey. It has been a really long day. Don’t stay up too late,” Lisa got up from her chair, leaned over to give him a kiss, said good night and then went up the stairs to their bedroom.
Bill stretched out on the sofa and turned to the television with the remote in his hand, looking for something that would relax him enough for sleep. He surfed the channels for a while, watched a little news, then a cooking show, finally settling on a channel that played old sit-coms.
Those old comedies did the trick and Bill started to nod off. He wasn’t completely asleep, just too drowsy to change the channel from the old episode of Ozzie and Harriet that his surfing fingers had landed on. Through the haze he heard Ozzie’s voice as he reasoned with David and Ricky and explained why they couldn’t do something they wanted to do.
Ozzie’s calm voice changed to his own father’s much more abrasive voice. Bill pictured the room in detail, the gold flowered chair that Bobby hid behind when his father started yelling, the pile of Lincoln Logs on the floor and the sun shining through the multi-paned picture window. He heard his father yelling about the mess in the living room and then the tell-tale sound of a slap. Bill, only seven, was very familiar with that sound. He remembered running with Bobby to their room, putting away their toys and hoping their father would forget what had made him angry.
With a snort Bill sat up, disoriented. He reached up to rub his eyes and clunked himself in the forehead with the remote that he still held in his right hand. Dropping the remote, he rubbed his forehead and stood up. Shaking his head he headed for the stairs, shutting off the buzzing of the television as he walked by.
Upstairs, Bill blearily looked into the bathroom mirror as he brushed his teeth. He stopped brushing and peered into the glass, seeing something he never noticed before. Maybe it’s just the toothbrush stuck in his mouth, he thought. So he did a final spit, rinsed and put the toothbrush away. Almost afraid, he looked in the mirror again. Yup, there they were: those same lines that he had just seen on his father’s face. He didn’t remember ever seeing them before. Where did they come from? He wasn’t dissatisfied with his life. Was he? He certainly wasn’t the same angry and bitter man that his father had been.
He thought to himself that he was just upset about Bobby’s words at dinner and seeing things that weren’t there. Bobby was clearly not thinking right, because there was no way he was like his old man in any way.
All he wanted was for David to be the best he could be. Why be satisfied with Cs when he could so easily get a B or an A. David was smart, smarter than Bill ever was. There was no limit to what he could accomplish. If only he could be made to work harder and think through the consequences of his actions. If only he had ever been interested in team sports, he would have learned a lot from playing on a team.
That’s why he had to ride David so hard. If he wasn’t pushing him, David wouldn’t get anywhere.
For the first time that explanation didn’t feel right to him. He stood there and as he stared at those angry vertical lines he remembered a conversation he had had last summer with Lisa. After one of his huge fights with David she had accused him of the very things Bobby had said. He couldn’t see it at the time; she was just taking David’s side, jumping into the middle of the fight, protecting her little boy. She was wrong.
Was she wrong? Or was he like his father?
He stumbled his way into the darkened bedroom, lit only by the greenish glow of the alarm clock and the filtered moonlight coming through the blinds. Sitting down on the edge of Lisa’s side of the bed, Bill watched her sleep for a few minutes; could a woman like Lisa have stayed with him all these years if he was the same bastard his father was? He answered his own question—of course she could, his mother had.
“Lisa. Lisa, wake up,” he reached over and gently shook her shoulder. “Honey, wake up.”
Rolling over, she brushed the hair out of her eyes and struggled to a semi-seated position, leaning on her elbows, “Wha…Bill, what is it?”
“Am I the same as my father?”
Lisa seemed to wake up at that question, “Bill, what are you doing? It’s the middle of the night.”
“I know. I’m sorry, but I can’t go to sleep without your answer. Am I like him?”
“No, of course you’re not,” she answered, peering at him through the gloom.
“Bobby said that I was at dinner.”
“Well…a wake…the emotions of the…” she stammered.
“And you said the same to me last summer. That when it came to David, I was just like him. Don’t you remember?” Bill could tell that she was stalling. She didn’t want to answer his question, which in a way did answer it. If she was afraid to tell the truth, then the truth couldn’t be what he wanted to hear. He could feel a tear trace its way down his face, followed by another, and another. He didn’t care. All he cared about was her answer; she had to say the words.
“I remember that day. Honey, I was really angry. You can’t…”
“But was it true?”
Lisa reached up and tried to wipe away the tears running down his face, “Are you sure you want to do this now?” She watched him closely for his answer. He nodded. She pushed herself up to lean against the headboard, took a deep breath and said, “Yes.”
Bill reached for Lisa and held her close as the tears traveled down the lines in his face.