This is a true story.
I am walking down the street. Late winter. Late morning. Dull cold. Chicago. Everything overexposed in the too bright light.
I look down at my feet and see the stuff that’s been accumulating all winter caught in the dirty ice on the sidewalk and in the gutter. Things abandoned, lost, or discarded: Christmas wrapping paper, a broken umbrella, a child’s scarf.
I’m wearing an overcoat that’s too long for me, the fabric flapping around my shins. Harris Tweed. The first thing I said when I was given the coat and tried it on (I’m always being given things, I rarely give) I said, “This coat is too long. I’ll have to have it hemmed.” So, for years on my list of things to do: Have Harris Tweed overcoat hemmed.
It’s a long list, my to-do list. I’ve always been good at making lists. I like to see where it is I have to go, what needs doing. But the list only grows, it seems, longer. All talk I am. All list. I am my list. I am what I do not get done.
But I am walking down my street. Well, not my street. I don’t have a street of my own. That’s nothing to which I aspire. I don’t knock myself out trying to obtain my own street.
I’m just walking down this sunlit March late morning street on which I merely live, listening to the sound of a hammer hitting wood and the sound of the sound echoing off the gray stone; the townhouses on the good end of the block. The hammering goes inside my head. (Or is it in there already?) It feels gray, like the stones of the houses by which I am walking.
Inside my head I do a lot of walking. I traffic in the past. It’s my specialty, trying to undo mistakes and make things right. Trying to turn disappointment into hope. Rectify wrongs. To even the column of slights on the scorecard of life. Re-woo a lover who slipped through my fingers. Bring back friends from the dead. Inside my head, I do not let them lie. They are not sleeping dogs. Can’t go to an animal shelter or a pet store and pick out new ones. But I can’t get started with that because I am walking down the street..
Listening to the hammering coming from atop the scaffolding in front of one of the gray houses. What’s going on? A renovation? A tuck-pointing of the stones? Cornices being brought back to life? Late winter sunlight fills my eyes as I look up to see who’s hammering above me. It’s the old man who’s been there all week. There’s no one else around except us–the old man who is hammering and the young, not so young man, who hears the hammering. On this street in this city people work for a living! Why was I ever allowed to live here anyway? Doesn’t look right, a grown man walking around in a too long Harris Tweed coat. Should have a proper job. Sit at a desk and talk into a telephone like everybody else, but right now I am walking down the gray hammering garbage gutter filled street, which is not mine.
Suddenly, the sound of breaking wood and the scaffolding falling. The old man crying out and then he falling..
Falling out of the winter sky. Off the beam. The wooden grip of the plank deserting him. Falling to earth. Gravity possessing him. Plummeting. Body turning. Face twisting. Head first. Eyes open wide his mouth wider. Screaming.
I step forward, my arms stretched out to catch him. “No!” I yell as I reach toward the mass of flesh that Earth calls to her. His body eclipses the sun and his shadow blocks the light from my eyes.
“Dad! (He is now my own father,) falling into unconsciousness, his guts full of tumors; malignant, inoperable; morphine easing him into death. My farmer father, smelling of cattle, wet soil and brandy. War-frozen foxhole feet. With words I try to pull him back, to keep him longer in this world, hoping he’ll finally tell me he loves me.
The screams of the falling man brings me back to the winter morning . “Oh, God, please!” (I implore the silent and indifferent deity.) I strain to catch the old man’s plunging bulk, my outstretched arms ready to be his salvation. Almost! I feel his rough workman’s jacket brushing my fingertips before he lands at my feet, the hard concrete yielding not to flesh and bone. Thud: his head. Thud, thud: his body, cracking, breaking. The whoosh of air forced from his lungs.
I am now over him, shadowing his ruined body. Gurgling of vomit and blood in his throat. Eyes open wide, wildly looking into and past me. Smell of shit. “God, please help!” (But God still answers not). I take off my too-long overcoat and put it over him. “Can you hear me?”
But my father doesn’t hear me. The sound of tractors, combines and milking machines; the sound of plowing, mowing and raking; the sound of grenades, artillery fire and bombs fills up the distance between us rendering him mute and me destitute from the waiting. The ache of wanting him to hear me. To see me. To say that I am his.
“Can you hear me?” But the old man hears nothing as he in stillness lies beneath my coat. “I tried to catch you; to break your fall.” His eyes now stare emptily into the sky.
“Dad! Say it! Tell me you love me!” His eyes open. His lips part and begin to tremble. I put my head next to his. To listen. To hear what it is he will say to me, his son.
But he says nothing. I am too late.