There was a peaceful corrosion about him. His hairline was a little different than it used to be, receding only in specific places, and in others it remained where it had started, but wiry. His skin was loose, wrinkled, and had turned yellow. And even though he hadn’t breathed a drunken breath in over twenty-five years, his liver was failing. He knew it, and he didn’t care. There was nothing he could do about it. Might as well care about the phases of Callisto, the eighth moon of Jupiter. He knew as much about it as he did about livers. All he knew is that he needed one to live, and his had already bought the ticket for the midnight ferry.
The day before his sixty-third birthday, his wife died. He knew it was coming and so did she. He didn’t much care about that either. There was nothing he could do to stop it. He could only accept it. He realized, as he watched her close her eyes for the final curtain, that he wasn’t as tough as everyone said he was. He’d just learned acceptance. At any rate, he’d never cried for her. Not once in the last three days. And he accepted that, too.
It was Thursday and they’d promised rain, but a voodoo curse of sun mixed with drizzle burned off by noon and the July day was as it normally is. Hot. He came out of the front door to the funeral parlor and kicked around the idea of going left, but he knew he had to take a right. So that’s what he did. He had taken enough lefts in his life.
I was waiting for him in front of the 99-cent store. There were plenty of people milling around, so it wasn’t going to be a private rendezvous. We didn’t make eye contact as he got closer. He had this way of walking with his head low and shoulders square, but he could still keep aware of everything going on around him. Two tours in Viet Nam had taught him to have eleven extra sets of eyes that never closed. I knew he saw me. And I knew he knew I saw him.
When he got about three feet from me, he slipped his hand inside his suit coat. I stood firm and adjusted my hat. I was taller than he was, but his chiseled chin and biceps that strained against his sleeves told me he could still take me. All of a sudden I was eleven years old again.
“Hey, Dad,” I said like I had just gotten home from baseball practice.
He pulled a white envelope from his inside pocket and stuck it in my hand. For a mere second we made eye contact. I took the envelope and felt the thick skin of his fingers.
“I said hey, Dad.”
“I heard you, and don’t ‘hey Dad’ me. You gave up your ‘hey Dad’ privileges six years ago, John Marion.”
“Dad, come on, call me Duke.”
“And you call me Mr. Bradley, or sir. I have earned it.”
I lowered my eyes. “Yes, sir.”
“The only reason I even agreed to meet up with you is to give you that envelope your mother wanted you to have,” he said. “And don’t get too excited, there’s no money in it.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Nothing has changed. We don’t talk. If you come to the funeral tomorrow, you can sit in the back or on the other side. Don’t get any romantic ideas about being a pallbearer, your sister’s husband will —”
“I’m not coming,” I told him.
He chuckled. “Well, I would expect that. Planning on a good bender?”
“No, sir, I don’t drink anymore. Been over two years. I’m going to a meeting right now.”
He blew a quick wisp of air through his teeth. “Meetings. And what do you do at your meetings? Cry on each other’s shoulder? You know I did a lot of hard drinking after the war, remember?”
“And one day I said that’s enough and quit. Just got up one morning and didn’t drink. I didn’t need to go to any meetings and cry about it.”
I didn’t say anything. He stared at me with his dark brown eyes on fire. Lines and wrinkles crisscrossing around the outside. He always had these… looks. This way of making me feel ashamed with just one glance. I’d rather get hit in the kisser with a sack of nickels than get one of those looks.
“Dad, listen, I’m sorry for what I did.”
“Sorry doesn’t cut it. I’ve had enough of your lame-ass excuses. You pushed a gun into my mouth, John Marion.”
“I know, I know, I’m sorry. I was drunk. How can I make amends for —”
“You can’t.” His eyes narrowed and his chest filled with air. “You’re a grade-A disgrace. You not only disgraced me and your mother, but the FBI, your country, and the flag that I fought to protect. At least Julia had the sense to drop you like a bad habit.”
“Ah Jesus, Dad, can’t we —”
“No, we can’t do anything. I’m going to go this way and you go the other way. And what did I tell you about calling me Dad? Your sister’s the only one who can call me Dad. She did something with her life.”
At this point, I knew this confrontation was over. He was a tough old-timer and nothing was going to change his mind. For six years I’d rehearsed every line, every word of what I would spit out if we ever went face-to-face again. I didn’t get a Chinaman’s chance to utter a syllable of it and I didn’t want to anymore. Besides, I was getting late for my meeting and had six blocks to cover on foot to get there. I shoved the envelope in the back pocket of my jeans and took a slide to the left to clear his path.
He took two steps, then stopped and looked me square in the pupils. “Goodbye, John Marion.”
I adjusted my coconut-straw fedora again and gave him a half-smile. “Yeah, take it easy, doc. And you can call me Duke. Duke Bradley, Private Eye. I’ve earned it.”