by Brian Howlett
I can make out a dim silhouette of the first step in the corner of the church basement. It’s an eternity away across the heaving, sweaty dance floor – but as I look down upon my father I know it’s on me to help him ascend from this Catholic hell. We stand well beneath the grandeur of marbled altar and stained glass, and the arched ceilings straining so pompously heavenward, in a lower hall that is poorly tiled, modestly furnished, and unevenly lit. This is home not to dreams of the hereafter, but to PTA meetings, badminton tourneys and the cheap wedding receptions people such as my cousin Nancy must settle for. Tonight, we pretend we are in the Waldorf Astoria.
The makeshift plywood stage that we cobbled together this morning seems strong enough to hold cousin Jeremy the DJ as he gamely spins through decades of 45s, trying to find common ground for aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and grandchildren. KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (I Like It)” currently works its magic across the generations, and the dance floor is teeming. This is my cue to leave, but I know that one bad song can quickly clear the floor, so I need to move.
I gently move the chairs away from the table. My Aunt Dell, who has come in all the way from Vermont and taken great pains to let everyone know it, is watching me but I find the courage to turn my back to her. I gather my father up carefully in my arms, every resigned and defeated limb of him, knocking his head slightly on the table’s edge as he comes up from the floor, and then I zero in on the pale red exit sign.
The fluorescent tubes hanging low in the watermarked ceiling panels may do little to illuminate the path, but the flickering lights play upon my father’s forehead in wan yellows and whites, and call into relief deep lines that I have never had moment to consider before. I see now that time isn’t just a thief, but a sorcerer, turning a man full of anger and sinewy, protesting muscles into something feebler, finally resigned to what the rest of us know to be true.
“Grand-uncle is already asleep?” My young niece Amanda has looped her finger into the shoelace of my father’s one pair of dress shoes. The shoes are badly scuffed along the sides and back, and likely fooled no one earlier today when all the relatives gathered on the church steps before the ceremony.
“He is,” I say. “Or else he would most certainly dance with you.”
“He can’t dance with me,” she says laughing. “He can’t be my boyfriend!”
“Of course. That was stupid of me,” I respond. “I’m just taking grand-uncle away from the noise so he can sleep a little bit more, but we’ll be back before the cake and candies.”
Amanda twirls her finger around his shoelace one final time and then reluctantly lets us go. She curtsies, caught up in the wedding magic, before being drawn back into the party. I catch a black-and-white swirl of bride and groom in the center of the dance floor, a dizzy beacon of the promise their new life holds. We have made it to the first step, and I have a firm grip. My father and I are finally alone. The carpet on the stairs is blood red, worn in the center to reveal the pale pulp of the wood beneath. It strikes me that families don’t have black sheep. To me, we are just brothers and nephews and grandmothers and cousins and in-laws of every stripe.
Each of us is simply on our own path. We should walk it without judgment and be free to come back at any point along the way without suffering questions.
The light is burned out above us on the second step – so much for the parish doing anything extra to prepare for the wedding reception. The basement is damp and hot, but I can already feel a gentle coolness falling toward us from above. I have walked this staircase countless times preparing for Sunday service as a child, frightened and cowed by the rich spectacle above. It was my father who insisted that I become an altar boy like my cousins. He and my mother would sit at the far back row, but during mass I could feel him staring at me.
We make it to the third step. I think back to my sixteenth birthday. My father took me out to his neighborhood bar and insisted that the bartender pour me a drink. His friends were there, happy to wish me a happy birthday and even happier to see me drink. Neither of them had kids of their own, and they treated me different that night, like I had finally turned a corner in my life. They shared one goofball story about my dad after another, and he listened, smiling into his glass. They told me about the night he drove backward twenty miles along Route 12, all the way into Evansford. They told me about the senior football playoff game when he dropped two hits of acid and still went out and scored three touchdowns in the snow. They told me how he never went to class once they got to grade eleven. They loved him to death, and it was as if they had been waiting all these years to introduce me to the man they knew.
The fourth step is easy and I’m relieved that my knee is holding out. I think back to the humid August day when I was working in the warehouse. My father had fixed things to get me the job, which was a huge favor because work was especially tough to find for students. It was the year before college, and I knew I was fortunate to have made a lot of money, but I was still eager to be done with it, and him.
I wasn’t certified to drive the heavy-duty forklift, but the unofficial floor rules were pretty much written by my dad. Even the supervisors checked in with him before making any kind of work announcement. Why he never actually got a promotion I don’t know.
“Nothing to it,” he said, leading me into the driver’s seat. I didn’t want to try it, but everyone was watching. “Just straight and slow. This could be your last chance before college,” he continued. “Maybe before ever.”
He stood back as I started the engine. I was scared, but couldn’t show it. I turned the forklift toward the third shelf towering above me and guided the forks.
“That’s it,” he cried. “Just go for the first skid right there.”
In. Up. Out. Easy. Or so I thought. I didn’t have a proper angle, and as I backed out the skid came off the forks and crashing down. Most of it fell onto the protective cage above me, but my leg was outside of it and I bore the brunt of the deflection. Before I knew it, my father was at my side and threw the entire skid off. I had no idea where he found the strength. He was never reprimanded, as far as I know.
The supervisor loved him to death.
We are at the fifth step. The music below begins to fade. My father only visited me at college once. He dropped me off at the dorm on my first day. He refused to go up to my room, and waited while my mother and I moved my stuff in. I came back down to say good-bye, and he just chuckled to himself before getting in the car.
At the sixth step, the hallway grows darker. The deeper a man stands in the darkness, the longer the shadow he casts. I don’t know where the thought comes from but it strikes me. I stop a moment before addressing the seventh step. I lean my father against the wall so that I can brush the hair from his eyes. His whiskers are already growing back even though he just shaved this morning. His collar is stained. I wonder if that stain is new. And is it tomato sauce or wine? I had tried to buy him a new suit for today, but he had refused. He never once allowed me the privilege of helping him. I adjust my grip and test my strength by climbing the next two steps in one stride. Seven, eight…
Nine. I don’t remember the first time I rode a bike or caught a baseball or ice skated or read a book on my own, so I can’t say if my father was there for me for all of it or any of it. Maybe that’s my fault. Maybe I should have been paying more attention to my own life as my childhood was slipping out of my grasp.
I reach the tenth step, the halfway point and most private part of the staircase. This is where I would stop with Craig, my fellow altar boy, and we would giggle while Father Norbert droned on at the altar above. We figured we were safe at this point, neither up nor down, but somewhere happily in between. We would share a furtive sip of sacrificial wine from the chalice, wiping the gold rim with the inside of our tunics, before proceeding upward to proceed with the offertory. It was bitter but it was a taste you couldn’t forget. Craig always took bolder, bigger sips. I never asked Craig if he actually believed this was the blood of Christ. I knew I didn’t.
I have a sudden desire to just drop my father here and watch the silly bugger’s hammered body slinky down to the bottom of the stairs. The alcohol would render his torso utterly flexible. He’d wake up, bruised and maybe broken, but he wouldn’t say anything. He wouldn’t ask what happen. He’d just soldier on, making the rest of us crazy.
The eleventh step comes and goes and the twelfth I don’t even notice, as I think back upon Father William. He was the youngest priest to ever serve St. Jerome’s. He liked sports and drove a motorcycle and seemed more like one of us, and within months of his arrival he had become by far our favorite. But he left the parish without warning in my last year of serving. No one ever talked of him again. Craig suddenly moved away that year, too, never to be heard from. My mother stopped going to church, but my father continued, taking his same seat in the back with my aunts and uncles.
At the thirteenth step I feel myself getting stronger rather than weaker. My father belches softly, and some spittle drips down his chin. I take him easily with the one arm in order to wipe his face. He groans softly. If he’s going to puke, then I got him out just in time. The white carnation pinned to his lapel is slipping so I also adjust that. This is the man his friends also told me on the night of my sixteenth birthday was the best-looking guy in town, though I never once heard my mother say such a thing.
The fourteenth step comes quickly. I remember a Friday night my father came home from the bar early. It must have been grade nine or ten. I was in the rec room, smoking dope with my friends. He usually went straight to the garage but that night he tumbled down the steps in a fury.
“What the hell is this shit?” he screamed. We tried putting out the bong but the air was thick with its smoke. There were beer bottles littering the card table.
“Just laying around here like slugs on a weekend?” he continued. “You goddam losers. You make me sick!”
At the fifteenth step, I remember how my friends hustled out of the room that night, with their eyes down.
“What are you all going to do with your life?” He screamed up the stairs at them as they left and I heard their steps quickening. Then it was just him and me.
“Dope, eh?” he said to me. “Goddamnit!”
He came over to me, staring at me longer than I think he ever had. Luckily I was still straight but I couldn’t say the same for him. I punched him in the side of the face. He fell back, stunned. He shook his head and then came close again. I knew he wanted to retaliate, but I also knew that he wouldn’t. At that moment I understood how well I knew the man.
The sixteenth step is underfoot and I can faintly hear the speeches begin downstairs. My cousin’s husband will address the crowd first and then introduce the expected lineup of childhood friends who will tell ribald jokes about him in an attempt to present his formative years in epic terms, but we have all heard those jokes before, and all they will manage to do is convince the room of his sheer ordinariness. I can also hear the beat of massive new ceiling fans in the church cutting through the silence above me.
At the seventeenth step I wonder if my father ever doubted his own faith. Does he still actually believe, when the rest of us have clearly moved on to live a Christian, but certainly not Catholic, life? Did he ever believe?
The eighteenth step brings purpose. I decide I won’t return to the ceremony but will drive to Jennifer’s apartment and first apologize and second insist that I am ready to commit after all, that I realize now that I am not the same man without her.
I stride across the nineteenth step filled with optimism. My father is on his path; I am on mine. For better or worse, we can either strengthen or weaken the relationships we already have in place.
We make it to the top of the staircase. Twenty. We are free. I rearrange his limp body one final time, and pat my front pocket for the car keys. I’ll lay him in the back seat while I drive to Jen’s. He’ll have no idea either way.
I step into the church, and resist the impulse to genuflect at the sight of the crucifix. The threadbare carpet that was on the steps has turned into lush new broadloom. The flowers from Nancy’s wedding are in vases hanging from the end of each pew. The church is bathed in the soft expensive light of polished brass chandeliers and the warm glow is charitable to my father. The lines in his face have smoothed away.
We turn to the door. And it strikes me that he is much lighter than I ever expected.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing