Papa

Young Jack looks to his father for answers about his mother’s strange behavior.

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At midday in the early summer Jack stood alone in the driveway. The pavement was hot against the soles of his feet. He had been at it for some time when his father came out very serious.

“Jack, go inside,” said his father.

Jack kept on, looking down at his feet. Above him the sun was spread out full and all around the sky was clear and blue to the ends. In the distance there was the sound of boys playing all the time.

“Not right now, Papa,” Jack said. “I’m working on my feet.”

His father moved towards him. “Go inside,” he said. “I won’t say it again.”

Jack put both feet to the pavement. He did not feel the heat now. It wasn’t important. He looked up at his father, his eyes squinted to the sun.

“But Papa,” he said, “you know how the other boys like to run when it’s hot out. I need to get my feet ready. If I don’t get my feet ready —”

“I know it,” his father said, all the severity in his voice gone out. “Another day. Go inside, please.”

Jack saw there was no game to play. He walked back to the house.

When he reached the door, Uncle Jim was coming out. Uncle Jim was a big man. He was always smoking Marlboro cigarettes.

“Go on inside, Jackie,” Uncle Jim said. “We’ll be back in soon. We’ll make lunch. Banana and peanut butter sandwiches. You know how we like those.” He put his hand on Jack’s head. “Go on.”

“Okay,” Jack said, moving past Uncle Jim into the house. He was glad to have something to do.

In the house, Jack went to his mother’s bedroom. The door was closed. She had not come out all morning. She had not been happy for a long time.

Jack went to the kitchen. He brought a chair from the dining room and set it down in the pantry. The chair was heavy and when it met the wooden floor he wished he had set it down so there was no attention. When he found the bananas, he came off the chair and saw his father standing in the kitchen.

“Hi, Papa,” Jack said timidly.

His father put one hand on the counter, leaning against it, the other hand on his waist. His face was serious again. He said, “What did I tell you about standing on that chair?”

Jack did not answer.

“Go on,” said his father, “what did I tell you?”

“Don’t do it.”

“Why?”

“It’s dangerous.”

“That’s right.”

Jack held the bananas up with both hands. He showed his father. “I had to get the bananas, Papa. Mom has been in her room all day.”

“I know it,” his father said, now forgiving the boy. He came over to Jack, pulling him in close and pushing the hair back off his forehead. “Were you careful?”

“Yes, Papa.”

“Good.” His father walked into the pantry. He came out with the jar of peanut butter. “You’ll need this, too.”

“Thanks, Papa. I forgot about the peanut butter.”

His father picked him up playfully, holding him suspended over his head. “You forgot about the peanut butter? That’s the best part!”

Jack laughed as his father lowered him to the floor. He knew it was all right.

After he had settled, Jack looked up at his father soberly. “What is Mom doing in there?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” said his father. “She’ll be out soon, I’m sure. Don’t bother her, please. We can’t bother her today.”

“Okay.”

When his father moved towards the garage, Jack spoke again. “Papa?”

“Yes?”

“Will you go check on her?”

His father did not look mad but not happy either. It was a lot to ask. “Sure,” he said. “Stay here.”

Jack listened from the kitchen. He heard his father knock softly on the door. The door did not open. There was silence for a long time until Jack heard his father speak through the door. At first he could not make it out, but the voices grew louder. His father was asking her to come out. She spoke louder each time and each time his father repeated calmly, “Please come out, please come out.”

Then Jack heard his name. He listened closely. He heard the door open and heard his mother, her voice now cool and without emotion, say to his father, “You tell him why,” and then the door shut and it was over and there was nothing else between them.

When Jack’s father returned to the kitchen he walked past the boy, opening the door to the garage. He stopped in the doorway. His back was to Jack when he spoke. “Stay inside for a bit,” he said. “It’s too hot to be running around outside today.”

The door shut and Jack stood alone in the kitchen.

Some time later the men came in from the garage and sat down at the big table. They were ready to eat. Jack went into the kitchen to put the sandwiches together.

“What are you doing in the garage?” Jack asked.

Both men looked over at Jack, then back at each other. Uncle Jim spoke first.

“Working on the old car,” he said.

“What’s wrong with it?” Jack asked.

“We’re just fixing it up, that’s all,” he said. “You see, Jack, even things like the old car, things that seem to be going on all right, sometimes they need fixing up. That’s how it is with old things.”

“Oh,” said Jack. Now he looked at his father. He wanted to know what it all meant. But there was nothing else. The men sat at the table, looking at each other deliberately. They were speaking with their eyes.

Jack brought the sandwiches to the table and set them down eagerly.

“Thanks, Jackie,” said Uncle Jim. “These look good.” Uncle Jim bit into a sandwich. Jack watched him finish it, chewing it up quickly.

“That was good,” said Uncle Jim. “Thanks, Jackie.” Then Uncle Jim looked over at Jack’s father. “Tell him,” he said.

“What?”

Uncle Jim said nothing. Jack’s father looked at him, confused. Then he understood it. “Oh, no,” he said. “Not now.”

“Go on,” Uncle Jim told him. “You said you would.”

“Knock it off, Jim.”

“Tell him. The boy needs to know how it’s all going to go.”

Jack’s father picked up a sandwich. “Not now,” he said, biting into the sandwich. He would not look at Uncle Jim.

All the time Jack was watching the men talk and trying to understand it.

“You’ll have to, eventually,” Uncle Jim said.

Jack’s father was looking straight ahead, chewing. When he finished, he said, “Not now, Jim. Leave it alone.”

“Fine,” said Uncle Jim. He stood up and walked back into the garage, closing the door behind him.

Jack’s father watched Uncle Jim go out. Jack sat quietly at the table. His father looked across the room for a long time thinking.

“Papa?” Jack said after a while.

His father looked at him, but still he was thinking. “Yes?” he said it hesitantly.

“What did Uncle Jim mean, ‘Tell him’?” Jack asked shyly. He wasn’t sure if it was right to ask it.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” his father said. “Your Uncle Jim was being funny. You can’t always listen to him. Uncle Jim, he’s always being funny like that.”

“Oh,” said Jack.

For a while they sat at the table not speaking. It was very difficult for Jack to keep the silence so long but he was sure it was not his turn now.

His father finished his sandwich and pushed the plate forward.

“Jack —” he stopped. He was trying to get into it.

“Yes, Papa?” Jack said to get him going.

His father rolled the bottom of his glass in circles on the table. “Never mind,” he said. “I should be getting back to the garage.”

“Okay,” Jack said.

His father stood up from the table. “Remember not to bother your mother,” he said.

“Okay, Papa.”

Then his father was gone again into the garage.

The afternoon passed. Outside it was beginning to grow dark and still the men had not come in. Jack had not seen his mother, either. He waited in his room, listening for anything. It was late when he heard the men. In the hallway he met Uncle Jim.

“Jackie, what are you doing up still?” Uncle Jim said in a low voice.

“Looking for Papa.”

“He’s in his room. You should go back to bed. It’s late.” Uncle Jim nodded towards Jack’s bedroom.

“I need to see Papa.”

“You’d better not tonight,” Uncle Jim said. “Go on to bed.”

Jack looked up at Uncle Jim. The smell of cigarettes was heavy and Jack didn’t want to argue any longer. “Okay, Uncle Jim,” he said. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

Jack went to his room. He lay on his bed for a long time watching the ceiling fan go around. He liked the soft buzz the fan made and the cool air on his face. He listened for stillness across the house and when there had not been any new sounds for some time, he went to his father’s bedroom.

As he neared his father’s bedroom he could hear it through the door. He put his ear to the door, listening until he was sure. Then he pushed the door open enough to see it. His father was sitting on the far side of his bed. His head was in his hands, his back was to the door.

Jack watched his father, the only man he really knew, crying on his bed. He watched for a long time that way. But after a while he began to understand it and then he didn’t want to see it anymore. The curiosity was gone and there was only the feeling that it would not change, not any of it. He pulled the door closed and went back to his room.

After he had turned off the lights and got into bed he pulled the blanket tight to his chin. Lying still against the silence he watched the moonlight float in and now for the first time he felt very much alone. He thought of Papa, and he wondered if it is right for men to cry like that when they know so much.

Featured image: Shutterstock.com.

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Comments

  1. An interesting, well told descriptive story of one day in this boy’s life, where the ‘conclusion’ is inconclusive. This is unusual, but it’s fine. Only you (the writer) knows what it is…or isn’t. I think I know, but won’t say either.

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