My Father's Shoes
"Are you sure this is the right road?" she says.
"Well, youíre a jackass with directions. Just like your father." I glance at Mary, but sheís hugging the passenger-side door, her face against the window. She wonít look at me.
Every year I drive this road to the graveyard while Mom stares at the map and accuses me of being lost. I know she canít read it, not with her cataracts. I wonder if she can even tell where the blue highways stop and the veins in the back of her hands begin.
I hear the map rustle and glance back. Sheís taking a long pull from her bottle of Courvoisier, little bubbles scrambling up the neck.
"Youíre driving too goddam slow," she says. "Weíll never get there. I want to get this over with."
Iím sweating in Dadís suit and tie, and I run a finger around the inside of my soggy shirt collar. The suitís too big for me, but she insists that I wear it, just like she wears her black dress and veil. Itís creepy, wearing a dead manís clothes. Iím even wearing his shoes; at least they fit. When I put them on I try not to think about how they smell.
We finally reach the cemetery turnoff. A faded wooden sign says "Shady Rest Acres" and a red arrow points down a dirt driveway into a field of stumpy, crooked headstones dotted here and there with flowers -- plastic, Iím guessing, but not a single tree. A guy in a baseball cap is riding a mower along the fence.
I park next to his pickup and help Mom get out. Sheís still holding the map, which I take and toss into the backseat, and the brandy, which I know not to mess with. Mary gets out by herself and stands looking at her reflection in the fender. She hasnít said two words since we left the house. I hold Momís elbow and we walk to Dadís grave.
I stand to the side, my hands clasped in front of my crotch, looking down at the little patch of grass. I donít want to, but I picture the state of his corpse now, after all these years, like I have x-ray vision I canít shut off. A skeleton with wispy hair lying there in a blue suit, a gold wedding band dangling from a finger bone. The eyeballs are intact, which makes no sense, but thatís the way I see him, staring in the dark.
Mom stands at the foot of the grave and takes another pull from the bottle, then steps forward so sheís standing where the top of the coffin would be. She pours brandy on the grave, enough for a snifter, then sets the open bottle on top of his headstone. She bends down, getting her face as close to the ground as her gnarly spine will allow.
"Have a drink, you cocksucker," she says. Her voice is quiet until she gets to "cocksucker," which she throws like a rock. "Iím glad youíre dead! You think I didnít know about that bitch? You think she comes out here to visit your fucking grave?" Sheís screaming now. I picture the skeleton wincing, covering its eyes. Her hat falls to the grass; she leaves it.
I stare at a blade of grass. I canít look at Mary. I know what sheís thinking: like father, like son. She could be the one screaming, but sheís not a screamer. The lawnmower shuts off and its drone is replaced by the chirring of crickets. I donít look at the maintenance man, but I picture him staring, eyes big in their sockets.
"Are you glad you fucked her?" Mom yells. "Well, whoís fucking you now?" Her voice cracks on "fucking," and her lips quiver, then she straightens up and takes a deep breath. She makes her face stony, and itís over.
She picks up the brandy and puts it to her lips, her eyes closed, and tilts the bottle up. Then she jerks the bottle away, spluttering and spitting. "Oh, goddam, goddam," she says. She pulls at her tongue with her fingers and staggers back.
"Mom, whatís wrong?" I say, helpless. She jabs the bottle at me. I look inside and see a wasp floating in the brandy, its wings still twitching. Mom sways, both hands clamped over her mouth. "Did it sting you?" I say.
"Yeth, goddamn it, what doeth it look like? Oh, fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck." I help her back to the car. Her face is pale, her forehead pearled with sweat. I get the first aid kit from the trunk and find an ointment for insect bites and bee stings. Not to be taken orally. I shrug.
"Open up," I tell her. Her tongue is already swollen to an alarming thickness. I dab ointment on the purple flare.
She makes a disgusted face. "Brandy," she croaks, grasping for the bottle. I start to hand it to her and see the wasp, still struggling within. I pick up a twig and poke it in the bottle until the wasp latches on so I can pull him out. I think I see a barbed leg still floating inside, but let it go.
As I drive back down the dirt road, Mom moans and curses in the backseat. Her entire face is lumpy and swollen, puckered with pain. I picture Dadís skeleton, lying in the dark, grinning with those big yellow skeleton teeth. I think about Dadís shoes, and how they stunk when Mom gave them to me after the funeral. I didnít want them. "Youíve got your fatherís feet," she said. "Take the damn things."
Now, after all these years, when I put the shoes on I donít know where his stink ends and mine begins. I glance sidelong at Mary, but sheís still not talking.