The longest trip a son can take is the one he makes to bring his father’s body home.
The call came at 4 in the morning the day before St Patrick’s Day. I knew what it was before I answered the phone. I had been waiting for that call, it seemed, for years. They had found my father in a bar in Boston. The Full Moon Bar & Grill. He had been drinking. His prodigious capacity for alcohol, for self-remorse, for self-immolation, was not enough in the end. He died as he had lived the last several years – drunk, spewing up things that wouldn’t stay down, spewing up things that you could not identify. He was, in short, a drunk.
And now he was dead drunk.
I was on the road by 5. I took the new SUV; it was as big as a boat. I figured for this task it would serve me well. I drove straight but it was a long way to Boston from my home in Philadelphia. I had a long time to remember many of the things about my father that I would have preferred to forget. The times that he went away. The times he left me alone, just a twenty dollar bill on the counter in the kitchen and a note telling me he’d be back soon – I should just go to school and order pizza. But then he’d be gone for weeks and the money would run out and I’d be eating anything that moved.
By the time I reached the bar it was almost dark and there was a crowd. There was an “e” in the Full Moon’s Grille. Tricky. There were men in jeans and down vests with knit hats. Older men in heavy suits with ties askew. Women with hard faces and long cigarettes. There were shiny foil shamrocks on the walls and mugs of green beer on the bar. Already the air was full of the oversweet and slightly rancid smell of spilled beer. Many in the crowd were wearing green paper hats. The forced hilarity of St Patrick’s Day.
I was wearing a camel’s hair overcoat and my usual dark lawyer suit. I did not fit in. I was used to that.
As I pushed to the bar, a middle aged woman with pockmarks and a chin that protruded from the plane of her face by a good inch and a half, grabbed me around my neck and gave me a kiss so full with lipstick it was as if I had been stamped rather than greeted.
“Its Captain Jimmy’s boy!” she yelled into the dense and throbbing crowd. “Captain Jimmy’s boy is here.”
For a moment there was no reaction. But then it was if the air had been let out of the room’s tires. A dense quiet, followed immediately by whispering. Intense whispering. From the back of the crowd I could hear one voice distinctly: “Shush, you moron. It’s Little Jimmy. He doesn’t know.”
The crowd parted my way to the bar. The woman with the pockmarks pushed me forward as if I was a tanker unable to maneuver in a harbor without the push of a tug. Behind the bar there was a giant of a man. He must have been seven feet tall and the way he had his arms folded across his chest made him look as wide as a Sub Zero. I felt like I had fallen from a plane into a remote wilderness and now I was being presented to the chief of the tribe.
“Hello,” I said. “I have come for my father.”
The giant looked down on me. His face was so broad and flat that you could project a movie on it. I thought he was going to say something but he just jerked his thumb behind him.
The woman with the pockmarks started pushing me again. “Oh, he’s in the back. He’s in the back. Come on Little Jimmy, your old Dad’s in the back.”
The crowd parted again and now we were maneuvering down a long narrow hall. The walls were done in pine paneling and there were brightly light neon beer signs on the wall. The hall was so narrow that we had to walk single file as if we were passing deeper into the earth.
Behind me the woman continued her non-stop commentary, “Oh we cleaned him up good, Little Jimmy, your Dad was a mess. But he is fine now. He is with the Lord now. He is just fine. Oh he was proud of you. Oh my, was he proud of you, Little Jimmy.”
Something in me just burst out. I swivelled around, nearly knocking a sign for Harpoon Ale off the wall, “I am not Little Jimmy. I have never been Little Jimmy. I will never be Little Jimmy. I am a lawyer. I am a goddam lawyer.”
“There there.” She looked up at my face with pity. “It will be all right. We’ve done the best we could for him.” She patted my arm. “What’s your name lad, what’s your proper name?”
“It doesn’t really matter,” I said, “call me Ishmael.”
“Okay,” she said, “Listen Izzie, your Dad was a fine man. A fine fine man. We are so sorry to lose him.” She gestured out towards the throng in the bar, “We had to have a proper wake for Captain Jimmy. Everybody loved him. They’ve been coming from all over to pay their respects. By tonight you won’t be able to get into the place.”
“It is St Patrick’s Day.”
“That it is. That it is.” She grabbed me again and pulled so that I faced her. She whispered insistently into my face, a long whistle of beer and cigarettes and lipstick. “She is here you know.”
“Who is here?”
“Wanda. She won’t leave his side. She just sits there besides him grieving for all she is worth. She has been crying ever since”
“Who is Wanda?”
“You don’t know Wanda?” She seemed stunned.
“No. Who is Wanda? One of his girlfriends?”
“He never mentioned her to you?”
“I never heard of any Wanda.”
“That’s odd. That’s very odd. She said she was an old friend. His oldest friend was what she said.”
“That’s her name. Wanda.”
“What does she look like?”
“Oh you won’t have any problem recognizing her. She is the one who drinks like a fish.”
“Honestly, I don’t know any Wanda.”
She gave me a queer look. Then she turned me around and gave me another push and I emerged into a banquet room in the back of the bar. A large room. There must have been a hundred people in the room with space for a hundred more. There was a huge exhaust fan on the back wall. The walls were the same pine paneling as the hall. The same neon signs, touting beers from around the world: “Salty Dog,” “Flying Fish.” One of the signs was for “Lighthouse Ale”, and it had a rotating light in the center to give the effect of a lighthouse light whirling by.
In the center of the room, there was a long table, like a banquet table, covered with fruit and cheese. For some reason there was a small boat – an old fashioned skiff – on the table.
“You see what we done for our Jimmy.” She pushed me forward again, right up to the table.
“Good Lord.” He was in the boat, lying on his back, his arms at his sides. He was wearing a sailor suit, like out of an old novel. There was a decorative harpoon at his side. He had three stripes on his right sleeve and a little sailor cap. His gray beard. His red nose. Those metallic eyes, the burst red whites. It was my father. There could be no doubt.
The crowd from the bar poured into the banquet room behind us. It was hot in the press of the room. Someone turned on the big fan in the back The blades were as big as airplane propellers. The woman with the pockmarks was talking again. “She’s looking at you Izzie. You better go and pay your respects.” She nudged me toward the center of the table.
There was no doubt who Wanda was. Monumental. Blowsy. All in black. Her breasts so large that her shapeless black mourning attire – what even to call it: her habit, her robes, her shroud – had separated on the sides as if she had gills. And she dripped. There was a pool beneath her. Hour after hour of salty tears had left her drenched and dripping, her sodden black clothing like canvas or the rough hide of some sea creature.
She started to rise. She was massive. Her eyes were set so far apart that to see me approach she had to turn her head to the side. She had a mole on the back of her neck as big as a blowhole. I had a sudden and uncontrollable desire to shout “Thar’ she blows!” but I restrained myself.
And then I was in front of her. Her massive bulk streaming, her blunt head vertical, that long gash of a mouth larger than my head.
“I don’t know what to say,” I said.
She was silent but she listed to the side as if I had wounded her in some deep and primordial way. My shoes filled with water.
“He was my father.”
From behind the pockmocked woman was hissing at me: “tell her you are sorry.”
I started to say that, but I couldn’t make my mouth move.
“Izzie. Tell her you are sorry. Seriously, lad, don’t mess around.”
I looked at her again. This woman. This Wanda. Had my father really loved her? Had he wrapped his arms around her blubberous bulk and murmured to her the little endearments he had long ago favored my mother with? Had he really gone amorous into her fishy stink, her sea change, her bed of kelp?
And at once, I knew it was not so.
She stiffened. As if she realized that I knew the truth.
I started to step back.
“Oh Jesus, don’t do that Izzie. You’ve never seen her mad.”
The crowd was deep behind us. The room suddenly was filled with shouting. The big fan in the back of the banquet hall whooshed as if there was a violent wind blowing. With the water on the floor it seemed as if I was on the deck of a ship.
The Wanda creature turned and moved into the crowd. I could not believe how quickly she streamed away. The crowd churned in her wake. The table where my father lay rose and settled as if a wave had run underneath it.
“Oh shit!” the lady with the pockmarks cried out over the din, “she’s coming back!”
Now the crowd was in rout. People were screaming. The wind had risen. Half of the lights had gone out and, in the dimness, the sea washed over the deck. “Oh Lord!” I heard a scream from behind me. And, coming from the far end of the banquet hall, there was the unmistakable snubbed brow of Wanda’s head plowing towards me, speeding as if she were swimming.
I leapt out of her way. Behind me I heard the moans and screams of St. Patrick’s Day partygoers dashed onto the rocky shoals of this Boston bar. I heard the whistling of the buoys. The clanging bells. The whip of the lighthouse light.
“Here she comes! Here she comes again!”
I jumped for my life. This time I had the fortune to land safely in the little skiff, flat on top of my father.
Now the wind was blowing out of control. The waves were breaking right over us. I could hear the wailing of drowning men and women. We were bucked and buffeted by the surging waters.
“Here she comes! Oh my Lord!”
And at the moment the light from the lighthouse lit Wanda up. She was half out of the sea, the size of a house, speeding directly for our little skiff. And her gash of a mouth was open. Wide open. Her teeth were as brown and nasty as arrowheads.
There was nothing to do. The little skiff would never survive this impact. I was a goner.
But at just that moment, my father rose up behind me. He was alive! He pushed me aside. He stood in the boat. He pulled the harpoon from the seat beside me. He reared back. The wind wailed, the thunder cracked. A flash of lightning and him illuminated just as he hurled the harpoon deep into Wanda’s blowhole.
And then Wanda hit the skiff.
I was thrown into the pitching sea. I was pitched into the hurling waves.
I pitched. I hurled.
I sank below the surface. I could not breathe. I struggled for the surface. I grabbed for a barstool that came floating by. I hung on for my life.
All around me there was shrieking. The whale that was Wanda was grievously wounded and in her frenzy she skittered through the waters erratically, leaving destruction and devastation in her wake. Men and women and pieces of fruit came bobbing past me. I could not help anyone. I could only hang on and hope that Wanda would go down before I did.
What happened next was so surreal that I cannot be sure that I actually saw it. In the whipping light of the lighthouse, it was a scene from an ancient movie. Frame by frame. My father on Wanda’s back, holding onto the shaft of the harpoon imbedded deep into her center. My father using the shaft to steer her as if she were some kind of hideous motorboat. My father flushed with abandon, out for a wild ride through the dark and frothing waters, leaving me in his wake, at his wake, hoping to wake from the nightmare into which I had wandered.
But there was a mad method to his course. He was driving that woman, that Wanda, directly towards the fan at the end of the room.
It was a big fan.
It was an exhaust fan.
“Daddy!” I sputtered, “Save yourself! Leap off! Leap off!”
But I knew he couldn’t hear me. He drove the Wanda boat into the distant reaches of the room, beyond where I could see. I heard him sing out “Baby, I am your biggest fan!”
There was a horrible sound.
And then there was a bad smell. Real bad.
For a minute, the sea all round me turned a horrible black. A deep lethargy began to overcome me.
Then the giant of a bartender came into the banquet room. He snapped on the light. He surveyed the wreckage. He shook his rueful head as if to say that he knew he should never have allowed a wake in his bar. He waded to the closet in the back and extracted a large cardboard box. He opened it up. It was full of a green powder used to make green beer. He started shoveling the mix into the black waters. I have never seen anything like it; when that stuff mixed with the remains of Wanda – and, I hate to say it, my father – it turned into an emerald green velvety liquid, slightly sweet but not cloying. Like Crème de Menthe. And potent. Very potent. I began to feel better very quickly.
The giant bartender bellowed, “It is St Patrick Day! Drinks on the house!”
In moments it seemed as if every lad and lass in Boston was in that room, drinking the new green drink, laughing and toasting my father. By the end of the evening they were calling it a “Mint Jimmy”. And, as for me, I stayed up all night, drinking and dancing with the woman with the pockmarks.