To Life



To Life

By Daniel Martin



I come home late on the night of my thirteenth birthday, slowly unlocking, opening, and closing the door behind me so as to not make any noise. I tiptoe into the kitchen for a drink of water, where I find the outline of a man sitting at the table. It’s my father. Although the room is dark, the sparse beams of moonlight coming in through the windows are enough to see a glass of wine clutched in his left hand and the fingers of his right lightly tapping a tall, green, opened bottle. I greet him and walk over to the light switch, but before I can press it—
“You're home,” he says. It's not a question, just a statement, a matter of fact. Something in the tone of his voice tells me not to turn on the lights. He stops tapping on the bottle.
“Yeah,” I reply, unsure if he merely wanted his observation to be affirmed. He does not speak more, so I elaborate. “Mike's mom, she just dropped me off.” Is this enough now? “I couldn't stay there, they have people over. Cousins or something.”
He takes a drink of the wine in his glass. Somehow the sound of liquid passing down his throat is exaggerated; when he swallows, it's deafening. He holds the glass in his hand and stares down at it. Anything more to say? When the silence seems to answer that, I go to the cupboard, get a plastic cup, and just before I place it under the faucet, my father speaks up again.
“Come here,” he says. “Sit with me.”
I obey, take my hand off the faucet, pull up the chair opposite him, and sit. I look around at our kitchen, the kitchen I’ve known my entire life. Cream-colored wallpaper with little green leaf-like patterns, a gray refrigerator, devoid of magnets, with a freezer of the same color on top, a few rows of pale brown cabinets, some high and some low, a round, wooden, chestnut- colored table surrounded by four chairs of a slightly but noticeably lighter shade, and all of this atop a floor of yellow ceramic tiles. Physically, it’s the same as it ever was, but somehow, in the moonlight, at this moment, sitting there with my father, there is something, something I don't have a name for, something in the air of this room that is simply off. Maybe I'm just tired—well, I know I'm tired. Still, I can feel it with every sense I have and even with senses I'm not sure exist.
“Have a drink,” he says, interrupting these thoughts. He motions for my cup, so I slide it over. He pours the wine in, and slides it back, also refilling his empty glass, and as he’s doing this, I get a better look at the bottle. I’m not sure what type of wine it is exactly, but then again how could I? It's not Manischewitz, I can tell that much. He raises his glass for a toast and so I follow his lead.
“L’chaim,” he says, almost shouting, and I detect hints of pride in his voice and think I see something like a smile, only without the typical shape, on his face. It's a straight mouth smile, if there are such things. He finishes his toast, “Today you are a man.”
We're too far apart to clink our glasses together, so we skip that part and go straight to sipping our wine. I close my eyes to enjoy the taste. It's good. Sweet. Fruity. When I open them, I see my father still drinking. Drinking. Gulping. I count the seconds to myself—one, two, three, four—and when he finally stops drinking, his glass is empty.
“So,” he says, as if this were a normal thing, “how was the movie?” He pauses. “That’s where you were, right?”
“Right,” I say, surprised that he even remembered. “Good. It was fine.”
“Who went?”
“The whole group, mostly.”
“From temple?”
“Yeah.” I thought about this briefly. For some reason that I wasn’t sure of, I wanted to be completely truthful, even though it wouldn’t have mattered at the moment. “No, not everyone. Alex was sick.”
At this my father nods and refills his glass. He takes a drink, leaving some in the glass this time, and looks at me, all but saying, “Go on.”
“Like I said earlier, Mike’s mom—”
“Debbie,” he interrupts, not speaking to me or anyone in particular, it seems, his eyes pointed up towards the motionless ceiling fan.
After a short pause to see if my father has anything else to say, I continue. “Mrs. Resh dropped us off at the theater and took us out to eat afterward.”
“How is Deb—Mrs. Resh, I mean. How's she doing?” he asks. This is unexpected, I think, but try my best to answer.
“Fine . . . she seems fine.” What else can I say?
“Divorce is hard, you know.”
I nod, even though, no, I don't know. I know about Mike’s parents separating, sure, it wasn't a secret or anything. But all my knowledge of the subject came from Mike himself, and from his perspective, nothing seemed particularly hard about the whole thing.
“It's like,” Mike told me a few months ago, “your parents are two baseball teams and you’re the best damn player in the world.” In his words, they didn't fight each other for his love but for his loyalty. I laughed then, but in truth, this struggle that he spoke of seemed entirely alien. Ever since I was a little kid it’s only been my father and me, and so we never spoke of love or loyalty, because we didn’t have to. They were implied, weren't they? You didn't need to fight for them. They were just there. Invisible, yes, or at least somewhat transparent, but there.
“Deborah Resh . . .  my father says contemplatively, interrupting my thoughts once again. The strangest thing about it is the way he says her name. Not deb-ruh or even deb-er-uh, but something like duh-ebb-errrr-uh. Every syllable is slightly off.
He points his eyes directly at mine, and says, “She and your mother were good friends.”
At this, my ears perk up. We never talked of her, my mother. No one I knew did, really, none of our friends, because it was just so long ago, at least that’s what I figured. My only memories of her are of a vague feminine figure and a disjointed melody, a tune followed by gaps of silence, followed by another tune, and so on. Of course, there were pictures of her. She had black hair, somewhat puffy and short in length, the style at the time, I imagine, and tanned skin made all the more dark by the pale figure of my father standing next to her. She was always well dressed, always wore earrings and necklaces adorned with colorful, but not too gaudy, jewels, and was always, always smiling. This was her, the mother I knew in pictures, the five or six of them framed throughout the house, several others tucked away in photo albums. When I was younger, first or second grade it had to be, I found them all and memorized each one, every detail. And yet now, in this moment, when my father says the word mother, it is not any of those photographs that form the image of her, but the almost shapeless woman, the silhouetted figure shrouded in the fog of old memories.
“Really?” I ask, a poor response, but the only response I could come up with after searching for a question that encapsulated all my thoughts about that word, mother. I reach for my cup, almost instinctively, and take a sip of wine.
My father answers, “Sure, sure. Grew up together, high school together, college together. Roommates, they were.” He pauses, as if to collect his thoughts. “She even got them together, Deborah and her husband. Ex-husband, I should say,” and at this point he starts to chuckle. “I never cared for him anyway.” He takes another drink.
I have nothing more to ask about this, and it appears he has nothing more to say. So then comes the familiar silence, the good kind of silence. We’re smiling, the both of us, at each other, periodically taking sips of wine, happy without talking. I suspect he’s thinking of Mrs. Resh, but I don’t mind. I’m thinking of her too, but in a different way. I see her and my mom, talking like Mike and I do with each other, about nothing or life or girls—boys, in their case, I imagine. As I invent these scenes in my mind, my father finishes his glass and reaches towards the bottle to pour himself another. But nothing comes out. Suddenly, everything snaps into place and I realize just how much he’s drunk tonight. It’s clear now that he’s had much more than three glasses.
“All out,” I say, and then push my seat back to stand. “Well, it's late—“
“Sit down,” he shouts. The laughter in his voice is gone and whatever semblance of a smile he had has disappeared. “I'll be back. Wait here.”
He gets up and places his hand on my shoulder for a brief moment as he passes by. I look up and, in that instant, I see him clearly, I see things about him, things I hadn't noticed or maybe I did and ignored them, for whatever reason. There is a wine stain on his shirt. His eyes are squinted, as if keeping them open were a struggle. And, as he makes his way out of the kitchen, he walks with a stagger. Still, I remain seated. I listen to him and sit and wait, unsure if this fear is real or a trick of the wine. The only sound is coming from the neighbor’s dog, who has been barking ever since my father yelled. Silence. Bark. Silence. Bark. What can I do to stop it? I don’t know. I don’t know. So I take a drink of the wine and see if that helps. The taste is sweet, but not enough to overwhelm my senses. My father’s footsteps have joined the barking dog; they do not harmonize. The hardwood floor creaks with every step of his burgundy dress shoes. They’re getting louder. He’s approaching. Louder. He’s close. Stop. The dog’s still barking. He’s here.
When my father sits down again, he places a bottle of something unlabeled on the table. It’s a clear liquid, whatever is inside it, and I can smell it from where I’m sitting as it's poured into his glass. He stretches his hand, holds the bottle out to me, but I shake my head in refusal. He understands, right? I hope so, and it would seem I am right, as he merely shrugs and raises his glass.
“L’chaim,” he toasts, more quietly than the first time. He doesn’t wait for me to find my cup of wine and drink, but gulps down his half-full glass at once and begins to refill it again to the same volume.
“So what were we talking about?” he asks once he finishes pouring, not taking his eyes off the drink. I hesitate to reply, fearing the path any answer I give might lead to. “Your mother, right?”
I nod. “And Mrs. Resh.”
He takes his eyes off the drink and glares at me. “She was sad, Debbie. When your mother died.”
I take a sip of the wine, inviting him to finish his thought.
“Do you remember it?” He’s never asked that before.
“The day she died?” I ask.       
“That. . .  the funeral. Anything about her?”
I think about sharing everything I’ve thought about her tonight, about the scenarios of her life I imagined, about how I had committed every picture of her in the house to memory, about the shapeless shadow of a woman and the bits and pieces of what sounded like a song. But I decide against it and answer, “No, not really.”
He closes his eyes for a moment. More than a moment. It's minutes now, and he hasn’t said anything or touched his drinks. But he isn’t sleeping.
“Today you are a man,” he finally says.
And what do I say to this? I’m not sure, so I have another drink of wine, careful not to empty it, fearing that he will insist I refill it with whatever it is that’s in his glass.
“You're a man,” he repeats, “so I can tell you.”
I stare back at him, hoping my eyes alone convey the message, “Tell me how she died?”
“It was our anniversary,” he says. “We went out and you stayed at Reshs’s. The time you spent there, it was like a second house. Anyway, we had a boat then. Remember it? No, of course not. You were so little.”
He was right. I had no memories of any boat. Somewhere, somewhere very early—it’s fuzzy—there are images, flashes of water, just water and sky like they were the only things in the world. A big mass of blue. Was that from the boat?
“We decided that night, we’d go out on the boat,” he continues. “We’d celebrate it there, our anniversary. We brought food and wine and other things.” At the word things, he lets out a snicker.
“We set out onto the lake and decided to just float in the middle of it until morning. We drank. We drank a lot, more than we should have, I’m sure. We didn’t sleep that night, we passed out. And when I woke up, it had happened.”
“What?” I ask, but I think I can guess the answer. Still, I want to hear it.
“She fell. She must have fallen.”
“Fallen?” I ask. He lets out a heavy breath, and I can smell it, the inebriation on it, even at this distance, but I ignore it. Fell. That’s the only word on my mind.
“I don’t know how or why or even when it happened, but she was gone when I woke up that morning. It was after dawn, no red in the sky. When she wasn’t there, in our bed, I forced myself awake to look for her. I said her name, but she didn’t answer. I shouted it, but still, nothing. So I run outside the little bedroom, and there’s ringing in my head from the night before, but I run anyway, and there, on the deck, by the rail, I see it. A wine glass, shattered into pieces, right where it would have dropped when she fell.”
She fell? Fell? I can hardly believe it. The mother in my head is not a drunk who falls and kills herself. She’s graceful. She’s kind. Every step of hers has purpose. She makes no errors, no mistakes. She’s well dressed, well groomed, and always smiling.
“What did you do?” I ask, leaning my body towards him.
“Nothing.” He sighs and repeats himself. “Nothing. What could I do? The police found her that day, drowned. Dead. Alcohol in her system, that’s what they told me later. You, you probably don’t remember, but you stayed at the Resh house for a week or two, just while things got sorted out. And that’s that.” Period, the tone of his voice implies.
“Wow,” I say. “It's just, well . . . it's” just—” but no word comes to mind. Difficult? Hard? Hard to accept? Hard to believe? I don’t know, but that seems right, how it should be. What kind of person would know what to say at this point?
My father seems to understand. He nods, just nods, silently, when I find no words to speak. He finishes his glass, and—thank God—does not refill it. We sit in silence for a moment. Silence, if not for the neighbor's dog, still barking.
But I can’t settle for silence. It takes me a moment to realize it, but I can’t. I want to know more. I need to know every detail. This desire to know, if just for the sake of knowing, suddenly swells up inside me after being absent all these years. There’s so much I’ve missed, so many pieces needed to fill the gaps in my memories of her, my mother. There are so many questions to ask that I have trouble settling on one. And I know, I know this is not the best time or even a good time to ask these things, but I have to, don’t I? So I finally spit out a question.
“There was a funeral, right?”
My father waits a moment, waits with an expression that I translate as What kind of question is that? before he finally answers, “Of course.”
I ask him if I was there, and he nods. “Debbie, she handled the whole thing. She’s a great woman, you know. Great woman, that Debbie.”
“So did you say anything? At the funeral?”
“She was pretty then, Debbie. Still is for her age.” There’s laughter every time he speaks, chilling cackles overlaid on slurred words. “I wonder if she’d fuck me.”
What?” I ask, which is matched by my stunned expression. He pauses for a few seconds, like he's thinking things over, oblivious to this look on my face. This is my father, the lawyer, the community leader. He's said the word before, the word, but never like this. Never in this way, so—what is it? Malicious? Savage? Cruel?
He sighs and refills his glass. “She wouldn’t, would she, with the way she looks at me . . .   with that face.”
“What?” I want to ask again, but I can’t seem to form the words. I’m thirsty. No, I’m parched. Actually parched. So I drink what’s left of the wine in my cup, and when it’s all gone, my father, like he was waiting for me, like it would only be courteous to do so, speaks up.
“She’s never asked about it, but I can tell what she thinks. She knows. She has to know! They were so close, weren’t they? She hates—” 
He pushes his glass aside. I wait, but he stays silent. He’s done, I think. There is nothing more to say. In the silence, it hits me that I’m tired. I have been for a while, I realize now, glancing at the clock, seeing that it’s just a little after midnight. When did I get home? Eleven? Have we been here for an hour? Has it been that long? 
I rest my eyes, yawn, and get ready to leave. But when I open them, just as I’m about to rise, I see that he’s put his mouth to the bottle. He’s gulping it down, chugging it. One. Two. Three. Six. Ten. Fifteen. Fifteen is the number I’m on—fifteen seconds—when he finally removes it from his grinning lips, pale and pink and moist in inebriation.
“I pushed her that night,” he says. “The night she drowned to death.”
Pushed? Night? Death? Before these words make any sense to me, I find that he’s still talking.  
“It’s the middle of the night on the boat, and I’m sitting on the chair and having some wine and she’s standing with her hands on the rail and humming. Do you remember that fucking tune of hers? She was humming it, like she always did, big on humming, that one. Maybe it was that. Or it might have been the way she was just looking at the water, like there was something to see. Either way, I couldn’t take it, so I thought to myself, what if she just stopped? What if she just fell in that water she was so fucking fond of, fell in there and drowned, what about that? So I get out of my seat and walk up to her and put my hands on her back, you know, romantic like, and push her over.”
Suddenly, he raises his voice and begins to act out, with his hands, the entire scene.
“Down she goes! She’s screaming! Then. . . wait for it. . . yes! Splash!” He lowers his voice back down to normal. “What’s she saying now? That’s right, she’s mumbling, isn’t she? The water’s in her mouth. She can’t speak. She’s splashing all over, I can hear it. I couldn’t see her, it was so dark, but I could hear that. Splashing. And when it stopped, when she stopped with that splashing, it was so quiet. So, so quiet.”
He starts laughing, like he was before, with that chilling cackle. He grabs his bottle and brings it to his mouth. It must be empty, because he taps the bottom. Tap. Tap. Tap. And what can I do? What can I say? Pushed her? That night? Drowned? Death? Wine? Humming? Tune? Water? Screams? Gone? Quiet? Everything is splashing around inside my brain. The words and his laughter.
Wait. Maybe I heard wrong. Maybe the wine is clouding my ears tonight. No, that’s not it. I can still hear the neighbor’s dog—why haven't they shut him up? Or maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe drink after drink after drink after drink has created in my father this impossible fiction. No, no, no no. Something tells me, something in the back of my brain, something in my soul, or at least what feels like my soul, tells me this is not a lie. It’s not even a feeling. It’s knowledge, like any other fact.
As I’m thinking these things over, he must have decided to get up, because he’s standing now, still cackling, and holding his belly as he does so. But it only takes a few steps before he falls and tumbles onto the floor, grazing the table with his knuckles and knocking the two empty bottles on their sides. Instinctively, I rush over to him and kneel down. He’s muttering something, over and over, but I can’t quite make it out. Despite the odor, a pungent mix of cologne and alcohol, I manage to maneuver my ears over his mouth.
"L’chaim. . . l’chaim . . .L’chaim,” he’s murmuring. He repeats it, over and over, slurring the phrase bit by bit until, just before he passes out, it’s nothing more than gibberish. And now here I am, standing over him, wondering what to do. What can I do? Should I just leave? The kitchen? The house? Do I call someone? Who? Michael? Mrs. Resh? No, it’s too late. Then who? The police? No. What would they say? What could they say?
I notice that I am staring at my father's neck. I've been staring at it all this time, the soft, pale flesh of it exposed in the moonlight. I bring my hands to my eyes, and wonder why they're so still, so perfectly still, when they should be trembling like every other part of me. For a moment, a brief moment, less than a second, my vision shifts towards the knife rack on the counter. And then, as I blink, I see flashes. Flashes of paper. Paper with words. A book. Torah. Deuteronomy. I see it written, as if it were tattooed on the inside of my eyelids: Show no pity; Life for Life, Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth, Hand for Hand, Foot for Foot.
What is this? A memory? A vision from God? Both, somehow? Show no pity, show no pity, show no pity. I see his neck. I see the knives. Neck. Knives. Neck. Knives. But then, when I see him on the floor, the whole picture of him, drool escaping from his mouth and dripping down onto his wine-stained shirt, why is pity the only thing I feel?
There's nothing to be done. So I step over him, empty my glass, fill it with water, and make my way upstairs. The dog has stopped barking. Everything is silent. Perfect, I think, as I take a drink of water, lie down on the bed, and shut my eyes.
I wish I could say everything changed after that night. But it didn’t, not really. Sure, he drinks more. And sure, we speak less. But there was always silence between us, as far back as I can remember. We were content with it, though. Happy, possibly. Now the silence is just there, like an odor. When I graduate high school, it’s there. When I graduate college, it’s there. When I become a lawyer—like him—it’s there. When I introduce him to my fiancée, it’s there. When he comes to visit, to see his grandchildren, it’s there. And when I go with him to the hospital, when we hear the news together that he has cancer, that he has months, six at the most, to live, it’s there. We lived with it, for years and years, that constricting silence.
Now I’m alone with him, at the side of his hospital bed, no sounds in the room besides the steady beeping of his heart monitor. I grab his hand and look into his eyes, trying all I can to have mine say: I know what you did. It’s okay. You can say it.
But his eyes say nothing back. Why? Why won’t he do this, for my sake, if not his own? He’s dying soon. I know it and he knows it. My wife and children know it, even my little girl. So why won’t he offer me this simple thing, a deathbed confession? That’s what they’re for, aren't they? Deathbeds. I don’t even need remorse. No apology, no contrition, no tearful groveling for forgiveness. Can’t he see it in my eyes, what I’m asking of him? Maybe he does, I think, as he opens his eyes wide, like he’s actually looking at me, for the first time since I’ve been here.
“Rachel,” he says, struggling a bit to make the sounds.
“Your wife,” I add, hoping this will trigger something.
“Yes.” He swallows. He squeezes my hand with his own, his decrepit, bony hand, and clutches it with more force than I thought was left in him. “I think,” he pauses to swallow again, “I'll be seeing her soon.”
Seeing her soon? Where? In some kind of heaven? What is this, this cliché of last words? It does not befit him, the man who revealed himself to me as a killer, who grinned and laughed as he did so. I can't even think of it, that night, and his face, and the way he said, “L'chaim, l'chaim,” over and over again, without grimacing in pain. When I do, they ask me what’s wrong, my wife or my kids, and I tell them nothing. It’s not a lie exactly. It’s nothing I can speak about, not with them or anyone, or even myself. Not until he says it first. He has to be the one to say it first, otherwise I—I just can't be certain. Beyond a reasonable doubt.
But he says nothing. He removes his hand from mine when I try to hold onto it, and looks away when I glare at him. He ignores me completely when I try to speak, says nothing else that day, and says nothing else the next. The day after that, in the middle of the afternoon, he dies.
Arrangements, which we have planned for since his diagnosis, are carried out. I’m asked to speak at the funeral, but I say I can’t. No one asks why. They understand. Everyone understands. At the reception after the ceremony, I catch bits and pieces of conversation.
“They were close,” “He was so young when his mother died,” “They only had each other,” “It’s not a wonder he can’t speak.” They all understand, it seems.
The night after the funeral, I tell my wife that I’m going out for a drive. She doesn’t question it. I heard her earlier, talking to her friends, our friends, I suppose, saying that people cope in different ways.
I drive to the cemetery where my father is buried, and from there I walk along the path of graves until I find myself standing in front of his. This isn’t so different, I think to myself. All that’s changed is a column of dirt between us. I bend down and lightly tap it with my hand, testing the thickness—why, I’m not sure. But as I do this the sound of the verses we recited earlier that day enter my head. We sang-spoke in Hebrew, but what it meant was this: Your transgression will depart and your sin will be atoned.
Then something, something inside me, something activates, something detonates, something explodes, if it can be described at all, and I’m punching the ground below me. I punch it, and, even as my knuckles ache, even as they bleed, I punch and punch and punch and punch, hammering down the soil. Then suddenly I stop. I bring my open palms to the dirt, and I find myself kneeling there, crying. Weeping. Actually weeping.
A few minutes pass like this, although I feel them as hours. When it’s all done, just a moment after the last tear falls, I rise and dry my eyes with the sleeve of my jacket, and look again at the dirt beneath me, cracked and wet on the surface, almost like mud. I check my watch and see that it’s nearing midnight. Enough, I think. It’s time to go. And as I find myself walking back to the parking lot, I realize it. That these years and years of one long strangulation are at an end. That, at last, the words, those words, have lost their venom. L’chaim, l’chaim, l’chaim, l’chaim. That now, only now, I can stomach saying to myself: Today, you are a man.
Copyright © Daniel Martin 2014

Daniel Martin was born in 1990 to a Jewish mother and a non-traditional Baptist father. He lived most of his life in Northern Virginia, although he attended college in North Carolina, attending the state university's Charlotte campus and graduating in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in English. Although this is his first published story, writing is one of his chief interests, drawing on his experiences with two large families: one Jewish and one Gentile.


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