The call that Dad had frozen to death in a snowbank in Deering Oaks Park came from Mom. She liked keeping me abreast of family matters, even though Dad hadn’t been family for years.
In my more cynical moments I thought of family as strange outlying islets, related only by caprices of geography, the waters between crossed by bridges that weren’t so easy to burn. Not like friends, who drifted close or offshore or somewhere in the middle distance, but ultimately untethered, free to float off with the tides. Bridges may corrode with the years of salt spray that chew them into spans of twisted trash, uncrossable without considerable risk to life and limb, but they don’t fall so easily into the sea. These bridges linked me to businessman uncles talking about stocks and bonds and other monetary instruments that sound made-up. Sun-pecked cousins passing around pictures of diving trips with their boyfriends to Turks and Caicos, showing off tans and necklaces of equatorial whelks. Boston aunts who opened dingy-by-design coffee shops, hoping that they would become gathering places for whatever last shreds of the city’s Boheme hadn’t fled for cheaper rents.
The islet of Dad, though, I didn’t think of as family at all. A lone rock unreachable.
“So the funeral will be Wednesday,” Mom said, her voice distracted. I heard some clinking sounds in the background. Maybe she was unloading the dishwasher. “I think they said Wednesday.”
“Won’t be meeting your father.” Mom’s voice shook a little. I pictured her twirling a phone cord around her finger like she was talking to her girlfriends in a 1960s sitcom, something to keep her hands occupied. “Your uncle Jack is taking care of everything. All we’ve got to do is show up. Long enough since we’ve been to a church, isn’t it?”
“Did he…” I realized how stupid what I was about to say sounded but said it anyway. “Did he suffer at all?”
“They said there was enough alcohol in his system to slaughter a pack of frat boys, so no, Em. I don’t think he suffered.” The soft incandescent flare in her voice—the Dad Tone, my brother and I called it when we were kids, a specially beveled edge reserved for words to him, for him, against him. No duller now that he was gone.
“Listen, I’ve got to run. I’ll talk to you tonight, okay?”
“Yeah. Bye, Mom.”
I dropped my phone on the avocado-green sofa next to me and stared out the window. It was a Sunday morning, snowing outside. My apartment wasn’t that far from the park—I mean, Portland’s a small city. Nobody’s apartment is that far from the park. Knowing that I could pull on my hat and boots and walk the eight minutes to the place where Dad had died the night before, where they held farmers’ markets and free Shakespeare productions in the summer, was… it was weird. Right up the road.
My roommate, Moira, was a student at the Maine College of Art. She studied sculpture and was really into mixed media and found materials. The college gave her studio space, but I guess she didn’t feel comfortable unless her living space was also a studio, so she brought home pieces of abandoned bicycles, shreds of discarded clothing, and one time, a shopping bag filled with every single cigarette butt she’d picked up on a journey from one end of Cumberland Ave to the other. I made her throw it in the trash outside our building, despite her protests that she was going to make a “snipe-mobile” out of them, whatever that was.
“And by the time I got to the end of the street,” she’d said, returning unfazed from the bins beside the entry, fixing a concoction of chocolate milk and Grand Marnier, “the great thing is, I could have turned right around and done it all again. The supply of cast-off things is one of the world’s few definites.”
Art student stuff. I wouldn’t have put up with it from anyone else, but Moira made me comfortable somehow. Not like, best friend comfortable. The weirder kind of comfort that comes from knowing that you interact with the world in completely different but non-exclusive ways. Like I had my approach, she had hers. Both sometimes seemed valid to me.
She came out of her room with heavy eyes unseeing, barefoot in a paint-stained orange sweater and threadbare denim overalls. She disappeared into the kitchen, where there was half a cold French press sitting on the island from earlier that morning. While the snow fell in front of me I heard some coffee-collecting sounds—the wooden thunk of opening cabinets, the clink as Moira pulled down her favorite mug, chipped and painted with loons that a thousand washes had begun to fade, the soft swish of cold coffee falling. A minute later she returned to the living room and reclined her stout frame on the couch beside me.
“I don’t really love cold coffee,” she said, revived now by the turbid stuff in her mug, watching the window and sipping. “But it’s fine.”
“My dad died last night,” I said. I wasn’t trying to infuse my voice with any particular emotion. It was just a thing that needed to be said before we could get on with our roommatey interactions. Morning. Morning. My dad died. I’ll get the trash, could you get the recyclables? I’m running some errands, back around four. Okay.
“Fuuuuuuuuuuck,” she said. “Oh my god, Em. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know.” I don’t know why I said it, knowing perfectly well that Dad had been pulled out of a snowbank by Portland police about four hours ago, stiff and blue. I wasn’t embarrassed. I had long since decided that I could not be embarrassed by someone with whom I had had no contact for years. Moira knew what Dad was like. Or, she knew what I thought Dad was like. Maybe I just didn’t feel like explaining right then, that was all.
Moira leaned over and gave me a hug, spilling a little coffee on my sweater in the process. One thing I appreciated about Moira and her opposite-but-non-exclusive worldview was that she genuinely believed that if everyone on the planet would give everyone else on the planet an honest hug, the world would be a great place.
“That’s impossible,” I said to her once. “That could never happen.”
“But hang on, hang on,” she had said, sipping some sort of herbal tea that she’d mixed for herself. Based on the smell, I suspected it was mostly weed and spearmint. “What if it did?”
Moira ignored that people find ways to hate each other more readily by far than they find ways to love.
“It’ll be okay,” she said, her jaw gently massaging my collarbone as she spoke. “I’m here if you need anything.”
“Thanks. I think I need to go out for a bit.”
“I’ll make miso tonight.”
It only occurred to me when I said it that I would be going to Deering Oaks, but I knew that there was no other possible place a walk in Portland could take me. What would I find there? My father’s spread-eagle depression atop one of the massive banks pushed up by the plows around the edge of the park? Whatever I was looking for, the prospect of interacting with him in any way, now that he was gone, was far easier to face than it was when he was alive.
I had seen him once, one summer night in the Old Port, slumped against the wall in the dark of a close brick alley, mumbling quietly. His hair was long, oily, ashy brown spattered with gray, and he was wrapped in his old mothy plaid hunting jacket against some chill intangible to the rest of us. But when he looked up and squinted towards the street, towards me, his blue eyes swimming wildly, I could not reconcile the being I saw with Dad. No—Dad had simply loaned his jacket to a friend. He was always generous. The boy I was with pulled a quarter from his pocket and, reeling from the cocktails we had shared, settled it on his thumb.
“Heads I win, tails you lose!” he laughed, and flipped it into the alley. A stray beam of light danced off its face as it twirled and winked out in the dark. I never saw either of them again.
I pulled on rubber boots, wool coat, scarf, and a shapeless red hat Moira had knitted for me that Christmas. Outside in the gnawing cold, there were a couple faceless people wrapped in dark clothes, stark against the white of the falling snow, trudging the streets in search of things of their own. Someone tripped and fell as he stepped up onto a snow-covered sidewalk, and a friend in a pom-pommed hat hurried over to help him up. Snowplows churned here and there, approaching and receding as their flashing orange lights illuminated the flurry. The city smelled cold and hard.
A few people were walking the park, smoking on benches, holding hands with boyfriends or girlfriends. The eastern part of the park was usually the most crowded—the stretch between the huge Forest Ave intersection and the post office was prime real estate for panhandling, and a lot of them slept under the trees in the summer. I don’t know how much time Dad had spent there. My weekday commute took me in the opposite direction.
There was almost no traffic on Forest, so nobody was standing on the median strip with their tattered backpacks and cardboard signs. I walked the edge of the park. I’d heard of them freezing to death in snowbanks, but never thought the phrasing was literal. They froze on park benches or streetcorners where they huddled up to try and sleep when the shelter up on Preble Street was full. No one purposefully crawled into a snowbank looking for their eight hours. Unless they drank as much as Dad, I guess.
“Spare some change, ma’am?”
The voice came from behind me as I was staring at a drift that had piled up near one of the park’s wide spreading oaks, caught by some strange wind and deposited in a neat egg shape like an ancient burial mound. I had such a hateful reaction to that phrase. You hear it all the time downtown, wherever you are, from doorways and corners and benches and ATM lobbies. West End to Munjoy Hill, Commercial Street to Park Ave, it’s the chorus of peninsular Portland. Every time I heard it, it was Dad and what he had become.
I turned around. A guy in a shredded parka and stained jeans had his arms wrapped around himself, swaying back and forth a little. He might have been thirty, he might have been fifty. He might have been drunk, he might have just been a swayer.
My reply was always to ignore them and walk on. Who am I helping, offering another dollar to the Natty Daddy collection plate? Sometimes I said sorry, most of the time I didn’t. But it’s easier to ignore people when you’re walking away than when you’re standing right in front of them.
“Hey,” I said. “Do you know, uh.” I hated saying Dad’s street name. I hated that I knew it. It gave that version of him a reality that I never wanted to face. I had talked to him once or twice during his first few months out of the house, late-night phone calls that didn’t last long, and he was proud that he’d had a title bestowed upon him. You couldn’t make up your own nickname, after all. It was given or it was not had at all. “You know Chops?” A relic from the days before Dad could no longer afford razor blades and lacked the steady hand to shave himself even if he could. A relic of those huge whiskers Mom used to laugh at, that he kept because they made his wife and his kids happy.
“What do you want with Chops?” the guy said. He sniffed and dropped a stream of yellow spit into the snow.
“Just wondering if you’d seen him lately.”
“No. No, I ain’t seen Chops.”
“Know anyone who has?”
“Look, I don’t know what you want…”
“He died here last night, right?”
The guy shivered and stared at the ground. “Yeah. Yeah, he died last night.”
“Just wanted to see where.”
“Don’t know. Go ask Handsome. He’s the one that found him.”
“Handsome? Where’s he?”
“Don’t know. He’s somewhere.”
I took two bucks out of my pocket and handed them to the guy, and I walked away.
Dad said that he loved his family, but Dad had demonstrated repeatedly that he loved drinking and coke a good deal more. That’s what Mom had said—Walk the walk, Henry. Walk the walk or you’re fucking out. The last time he came to the house—an iron gray day at the end of March, I had just turned fifteen—he could hardly stand straight and screamed up at my bedroom window that he hoped I was happy, little bitch, that paying my child support had ruined his entire goddamn life. He staggered off howling down the street and into the darkness after Mom shot him in the ass with the pellet gun my brother had left behind when he went to San Diego for college. The furthest in the continental US he could get from Portland.
Maybe Dad loved us, somehow, but Dad wasn’t addicted to family. His well-being didn’t depend on having a good supply of family. He didn’t start selling little white pills to support his family habit. He didn’t go through family withdrawal any of the half-dozen times he was dumped in York County Jail. At least not that we knew of. The tweaker kids that started showing up at our house with dirty wads of ones called him Pops. That’s what I was thinking about when I went around looking for Handsome. Pops. You got a dad and I didn’t. You stupid fuckers.
There was a group over by the tennis courts, sharing a pack of cigarettes, puffing hard. Keeping themselves warm. As I walked towards them I realized that I had never in my life intentionally approached them, singly, in a group, in any way. I avoided them, because you never knew when they were going to shout from a stoop that you were a stupid cunt for the singular action of walking down the sidewalk or, pacing in agitated circles, embark on incomprehensible rants about genocidal racists. I now had to ask them about a dead man who might have been similarly declaiming to passersby for years. I didn’t have the first idea of who Dad was, not really. I knew who he was eight years ago, I knew that screaming wreck of a man, but this thing called Chops was a secret kept by the streets and the shelters and the others like him.
No one asked for change, I guess because I headed straight for them. Like they knew I was going to be the one asking for something.
“Hey,” I said. I shoved my hands into the pockets of my coat. I wanted to make myself small, compress myself inwards, and noticed that I was holding my stomach tight, like I was bracing for a punch. I do that when I’m nervous talking to people, like if I put one toe over the line they’ll sock me and leave me gasping on the ground.
No one said anything. They kept smoking. Some looked at me, most didn’t. Six or seven of them, wearing castoff Carhartt jackets and flayed white sneakers.
“I’m looking for Handsome?” I said. I didn’t mean for the question to creep into my voice, but there it was. And now they knew, She has no idea what she’s doing here. And it was true. I was afraid. They were going to jump me, steal my bag and insulated rubber boots, leave me to walk back to my apartment bloodied in my socks.
“Why?” one of them said. I didn’t know who. The voice seemed to rise from all of them.
“I heard he found Chops.”
From the way he stepped forward I knew the guy who spoke next was Handsome.
“Yeah,” he said. “I found him.” It looked like his nose had been broken a half dozen times, and one of his bottom front teeth was shriveled and brown. “Who’s asking?”
He had a smooth voice, a thick southern Maine accent. Some people said southern Maine accents sounded the same as Boston accents, but I knew that wasn’t true. I had a lot of family in Boston, I knew how they sounded. I had a dad from southern Maine, who used to sound like Handsome.
After a few seconds, Handsome said, “He talked about you a lot.”
That meant nothing, though. He could have said anything when he talked about me. Let me tell you about the little bitch who ruined my life. Never visited me in prison. Hope her mother chokes on a fishbone.
I opened my mouth to ask Handsome what Chops really said about me. Then I shut it, and I realized that it was far easier not to know. That if my assumption of Dad ran unchallenged, he could live forever in my head and heart as the deadbeat drunk. The hating was simple, unidirectional, content to exist without analysis. Unconditional.
“Where was he?” I asked, and Handsome shrugged and took off walking.
I followed him across an open stretch of park towards the flyover, where Deering Ave crosses over I-295 and the train tracks. Down under the bridge I could see drifts of trash—faded newspapers, styrofoam cups, a yellowed pillow torn in two, half of a cushionless sofa. There was a footpath winding up the side of the hill to the overpass, and off to the side was a little mound of snow. Handsome dipped his chin at it. The flurry had coated it freshly, and there was no trace of an imprint. But like some part of him lingered there, waiting for a visit that never came in life, I heard my dad’s voice.
“Spread your arms out, far as they can go!”
I was six and my brother was eleven, and we were out in the front yard with Dad. It was covered in a foot of wet pasty snow, the kind you get when the temperature’s hovering a little above freezing. Snowman snow, we called it, not the sub-zero powder that even your most concerted efforts can’t convince to stick together. We were flopped on our backs making snow angels next to the sidewalk, a whole line of them to watch over walkers as they went past, while Mom smiled at us out the window. Flakes landed in my eyes and I blinked them away. Carefully, so that his footprints wouldn’t disturb his creation, Dad stood, then reached down and lifted me out of my angel by my tiny arms, bundled in a puffy pink coat. He laughed and hefted me onto his broad shoulders and I reached down to rub his whiskers. My brother hopped up to walk beside us and put his mitten in Dad’s warming hand. We’d made a dozen or more between us, three shapes, three sizes, arrayed along the side of the street. On Dad’s shoulders I spread my arms and fanned them up and down, imagining that I left angels hanging in the air behind me.
“It’s kind of out of the wind,” Handsome said. “Came to check on him this morning.” He fell silent, probably as uncomfortable as I was.
It was so easy to hate my father that I ignored the things I knew. When I caught myself thinking that he ended up in jail so many times for the crime of physically needing things that were destroying him, I stopped. I thought, You chose this. I thought, You keep taking the cap off the bottle, You keep making paper-bag deals outside dim gas stations at two in the morning. No one’s got a gun to your head, Dad.
“He was awful glad he got to talk to you,” Handsome said. Trying to fill the silence that is so heavy when it snows. “Meant a lot to him.”
“What?” I hadn’t talked to Dad since he screamed bitch through my window eight years ago. “When did we talk?”
“March,” Handsome said, looking at me, confused. “Twenty-third, every year? He called it his holiday.”
“Yeah, of course, right,” I said, understanding nothing. March twenty-third was my birthday.
“If you’re okay, I think I’m going to…”
“No, yeah. Thanks for showing me.”
Handsome nodded and turned to walk back the way we came. But I grabbed him, and I hugged him. I didn’t think about it. It just happened, kind of like how you hug friends and family sometimes—not because you’ve considered it deeply, but because they’re right there in front of you, and it feels like the right thing to do. Handsome smelled bad, but of course he smelled bad. No extra clothes, no access to a public shower. What did I want? He patted me on the back a couple times, and I thought, here you go, Moira. It’s a start. He must have been confused, unsolicited hugs from the daughter of his most recently departed friend, but I saw him smile a little as he walked back towards the tennis courts.
I heard a plow rumble by on the overpass above me, watched the flurry light up in flashing orange. I laid down where my dad had died and spread my arms and legs out as far as they would go. With the soft snow beneath me, the chill of the wind around me, if I closed my eyes, it was easy to think I was floating.
* * *
Moira and I sipped hot miso while we watched one of her Japanese art-house DVDs with the subtitles off. She said it was her favorite way to get her mind off things, but the unknowable dialogue and grainy music sank me back into my own thoughts. Dad died with mystery. He died when I hated him and left me without the possibility that I would ever love him like I had when he carried me on his shoulders after we made angels together. Maybe he had called me. Maybe Mom didn’t want him talking to me, wouldn’t give him my cell number. It’s the kind of thing she would do. But maybe he hadn’t. The only thing that I knew was that a conclusion would be difficult to find, and I didn’t know whether I wanted the chase. It was so much easier to ignore.
Wide-eyed, Moira clutched my hand at the movie’s climax. A feudal lord, trapped with no escape against the walls of his castle, blasted with dozens of arrows, screaming, grimacing, scared, because he had lost every last semblance of control over his situation, until a final arrow pierced his neck and he fell silent. He reached for his sword, for one last chance at fighting a world that has turned against him wholeheartedly, but before he could draw he fell to the dirt.
Moira took our bowls to the kitchen and refilled them. She put them on the coffee table along with a plate of very potent brownies.
“I made something for you,” she said. Experimentally she dunked a brownie into her soup and bit off a corner. She shrugged and put it back on the plate.
“Yeah. Let me get it.”
She popped into her room and brought out a small sculpture mounted on a flat wooden base. Entirely scrap metal. Links from a busted bicycle chain, a broken money clip, flattened bottlecaps, a lost key, in a form suggestive of a human.
“Castaway,” she said. “For your dad.”
It was true, I thought. Castaway. A sailor marooned on an island as punishment while the rest of the world sailed on, whose chances of escaping were very slim.
I leaned over and gave Moira a clumsy hug.
She leaned her head on top of mine for a minute, then she got up to put another DVD in the player. She set the plate of brownies on the couch between us, and although the language and the world of the characters was foreign to me, I thought that maybe if I paid close enough attention I could still understand what they were saying, as the hard obscuring static of snow kept falling outside, blazing orange in the glow of the streetlights beyond our window.
Noah Codega is a writer, musician, gardener, and amateurish sailor from Maine. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Dark Matter Magazine, Hexagon, and Idle Ink, and he first-reads for Orion’s Belt. He doesn’t really understand Twitter, but every once in a while you can find him at @noahcodega.