Welcome to the first chapter of “December, 1919”, a serialized novel written by Oliver Gray. New chapters will be published every Wednesday.
Face red and flecked with sweat, he held his cap chest-height, scrunched between fidgeting fingers.
“G’d morning ma’am. That’s not to say it’s a good one. I’ve just come from down the docks,” the boy said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, as if trying to buy time before speaking again. “I’da telephoned you see, but then I remembered y’ain’t got one. I came running when I seen it. There’s been an accident ma’am.”
“Yer husband…” he said, dropping his head.
Mother’s face completed his sentence. Sickly pale and expressionless, like her spirit had already moved on to join my father, leaving her body behind as a barely breathing husk. We both lingered in the kitchen as seconds sludged by in agonizing silence. I wanted to speak, hug her, lie, conjure some linguistic magic to tell her we’d be OK without him. But instead I just stood, watching the sky turn rotten apple orange in a cloud-muddled sunset. At some point, my mother broke her silence, and left me alone at the kitchen table. Her shock faded into sobs, which, as the night’s shadows sank ever deeper, crescendoed into unrestrained wails. I couldn’t do anything except listen to her mourn and refill my glass.
The boy had offered little in his bumbling description of the events, just a blunt announcement that my father would never come bounding through that door into our home again. It wasn’t his fault that he didn’t know what really happened, he’d come of his own accord, in a rush, in the face of a situation that would have taken the heart of most boys. The police didn’t come to report his death for several hours, but when he hadn’t come trudging down that side alley after work the previous day like he did with machined consistency, we had braced ourselves for bad news. Part of me felt something change in the energy of our little home that night, a goodbye winked in the streetlights reflecting on the snow, in the quiet mewling of Andy, our alley cat, like the world was letting me know he was already gone.
It was hard to tell whether I’d fallen asleep, or if the bourbon had eloped with my consciousness at some point in the night. Solar knives cut through kitchen, piercing the Philadelphia air, highlighting the emotional hangover that had slung itself over the house. My mother still sobbed, but now her cries sounded pathetic, not angry. I cracked three eggs into a bowl. I wished I could do the same to my brain to relieve the pressure. As the clear turned white against the black of the cast iron and my mind focused back on painful reality, I heard a knock on the front door.
Before I could take the eggs off the heat, my mother emerged from her room, wiped her face, and forced a smile through puffy cheeks. She’d changed into a black dress. Sharp juxtaposition to her normal vibrant purples and blues. “I’ll get it,” she said.
I followed, not wanting her to be alone with anyone quite yet. I could see a man through the side window, but the sun glared at just the right angle to obscure his face. I was wary it might be the police again, or some nosy neighbor that wouldn’t want to leave my mother in peace until she has all the details to share with the church gossips. She cracked the door slightly, hiding most of her body behind the wood and hinges like a shield, and peeked out into the morning.
In perfectly pressed tweed stood my father’s oldest friend, Elmer Green. I hadn’t seen him in years. He’d put on quite a bit of weight, but those wrinkles – the natural tattoos of a man who smiles and smokes too much – gave him away. He took off his hat. “Sorry t’ bother you so early Meredith. And you, Jack. I was in New York. Came down as soon as I heard.”
Mother made some tea. Earl Grey. His favorite. Elmer slurped it thankfully, trying to shake December’s romantic advances. “I can’t believe it,” he said, steam from the cup obscuring his eyes, “Shot? And by the police no less? What did the inspector say? I just can’t believe Andrew made it through that hell for something like this to happen.” He stopped talking when mother’s eyes went dewy. “I’m sorry Mere, it just seems so…unfair.”
It was unfair. My father, the proud and loquacious Corporal Andrew Cooper, served two years in the blood-slick mud of the French countryside. He’d beaten the statistical odds and returned relatively unharmed, save for a shrapnel scar on his right cheek and some memories he’d rather have left on the other side of the Atlantic. He’d faced down Germany and death, emerging from the stink of the trenches victorious.
All to be mistakenly gunned down by some flatfoot who thought he’d make a name for himself by catching a thief. “They thought he’d robbed a bank,” I said, trying to fill in some details for Elmer, “he was lugging a sack of barley. In the dark the police thought it was a bag of money.”
From the police recount, my father had acted suspiciously and refused to step out into the light to show himself to the officer. The officer in return felt threatened, and was forced to fire. This version of the story conflicted greatly with my father’s personality and with what the dockboy had told us. I didn’t know what to believe, except that a man had killed my father and wouldn’t face any justice for doing so.
Elmer reached into his bag and pulled out a stack of papers.
“I hate to do this now, but it’s important,” he said, shuffling through the mess of yellowing sheets. “Before we left for the War, Andrew asked me to witness for ‘im. I’ve got all the correspondence. He was worried he’d never come back from France, and wanted to make sure you and Mere was taken care of.”
“A will?” I asked. It was unlike my father to think so far ahead.
“Of sorts,” Elmer said, handing a careworn, fold-marked letter to me. “More like a contingency. Not officially legal, but a judge wouldn’t be denying these if you presented ’em. He left the house and service pension to Meredith. What little is left of his grandfather’s money is hers, too.”
I couldn’t handle it anymore. I’d forced the idea of his death from my mind when he went to war, imagined my father a modern day Achilles, nearly invulnerable, incapable of succumbing to a force so common as death. And now, after celebrating his return, finally settling back into some kind of familial normalcy, I had to face the senselessness of it all. I thanked Elmer for taking the time to see us, and excused myself before the dam behind my eyes gave way to the building torrent.
“Wait, Jack, there’s one more thing,” Elmer fished around in a separate pocket of the bag for another, much cleaner and official looking document.
“He left the brewery to you.”
To be continued…