Sitting on the edge of the bed, Gregory emptied his mind of all thoughts. With a hand on each knee, he concentrated only on his breathing, a steady flow of air in and out. The walls of the room fell away from him and the bed melted into nothing. Images and sounds and emotions tried to reach him, but he fought them off until he was alone in the vacuum. He remained suspended in this nothingness, devoid of any feeling that might interfere with the task ahead. Gradually the noise of the TV crept from the living room, down the hall, and into Gregory’s ears. The sound brought with it other sensations and he felt the room around him and his weight again on the bed. Without moving his body, he reached with his right hand to the revolver lying beside him. He slid his hand beneath the metal and gripped the gun.
Gregory stood, and without making a sound, took the solemn walk toward the living room, the noise of the TV, and his father.
There is the chaos. There is light and noise. There is a current running through the air the color of sunshine. There are jovial voices bouncing off the cinder blocks. Then there is quiet. There is stillness and grey light. There is one man with no voice, staring into the void. If we get close we can feel the mild heat of anxiety emanating from his body and we can feel the slow rise and fall of his chest as he waits for his turn.
Today is a day he should be looking forward to. A day of extended visitation. A day for men like him to have their children surround them, pretending to be a family for a few hours.
For him, today is filled with sweet anticipation as well as a bitter loathing. Soon, he will be called from his cell along with several other men on this wing. They will be escorted to the yard, specially decorated for the occasion in balloons and streamers of blue and green.
Each man will be assigned a table where his family will already be seated, neatly combed hair, freshly washed shirts, all to make a good impression on Dad. The reunions will be bittersweet, some more than others. There will be happy faces tinged with sadness, some the other way around. There will be laughter, there will be yelling. But for that short time they will be together, a family again, though briefly.
The man lying still in his dingy cell is not thinking about any of that. To be fair, he began the day with visions of his young son upon his knee, cherubic face tilted up toward his, beaming. That pride triggered his guilt and then he was in another place, in another time, reliving the moments which brought him here.
Gregory was at the park, pushing his son in a swing, relishing the gurgling laughter coming from the toddler. His cell phone rang and he reached for it with one hand while continuing his gentle pushes on the boy’s back. It was his mother on the other end, explaining the diagnosis just given to his father. He’s got emphysema, she told him, and a visit from his son would lift his spirits. “Gregory, be a good boy and come see your father.”
He made arrangements with work and said good-bye to his son. “Your daddy has to go visit his own daddy. But I’ll be back soon.”
Although it was Gregory’s house for sixteen years, it felt like a stranger’s. His father sat in front of his TV, a small oxygen tank on his left and a small table to his right. The table held an empty beer can as well as a full one, and next to them was an unused ashtray, still occupied by a few smashed cigarette butts.
His mother flitted about, taking his coat, offering to make him a snack, asking a series of rhetorical questions about his life since leaving home. Through the din, Gregory’s father bellowed at his wife to pick up his empty beer can, which she did. As she reached for it, he grabbed hold of her wrist and pulled her close. With noticeable effort he chided his wife for making such a fuss over their son. She was quiet for a moment as she avoided his glare and waited for him to release his grasp. As Gregory watched this confrontation, the heaviness in his gut told him he was home.
Over the next few days, the family fell into a routine. The father would call out a demand. The mother would comply. The son would ask his father not to bully his mother while offering to help his mother with her task. Neither parent would hear their son’s words. At breakfast, Gregory would notice a new bruise on his mother’s arm or on her cheek, but any query would be answered with more pancakes or fresh coffee.
It was if he were sixteen again. And now he was given a second chance to act. He had been able to escape, but his mother had not, and would not. She had been pounded on and badgered for as long as he could remember. Even crippled by his emphysema, his father did not let up on his mother. She would only be free once his father was gone.
After a week, Gregory needed a break from his parents. He walked out the front door, and after the slam, heard silence for the first time since his arrival. He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked, head down, to nowhere in particular. The neighborhood had not changed much since he had left home. The kids still congregated at the drive-in burger joint. The old men still sat outside the smoke shop. Gregory walked on, hoping he wouldn’t be recognized, and soon found himself across from a gun shop. He stopped, and his heart raced. Without thinking, he crossed the street and walked into the store.
Gregory’s knowledge of guns did not extend past whatever he had seen on TV or in movies. The man behind the counter grunted a greeting but otherwise let Gregory be. He scanned the glass case, not really seeing what was inside. The words “six gun” made their way into his thoughts, and so that was what he purchased. The man behind the counter sold him a box of bullets as well, though Gregory knew he would only need what would fit in the cylinder. He stashed his new purchases into his jacket pockets and stepped back out into the street.
Gregory took a different, longer route back to his parents’ house. His mind raced along with his heart. Images rushed through his mind – his father’s dark fingers tight around his mother’s pale flesh, her eyes brimming with tears as she stifled her cries. He heard his father’s gruff voice shouting obscenities at them both, calling Gregory stupid, and his mother worse, in as many colorful words he could come up with. His ears grew hot with anger and started to ring. His palms were sweaty and his breathing too fast.
The sun was well below the horizon when Gregory eventually returned to the front porch of his parents’ house. He opened the door and the sound of the TV spilled out toward him, and he became calm. He entered and got to his bedroom without being noticed by either of them. He shut the door quietly and sighed long and heavy. He reached into his jacket and pulled out the revolver. He loaded the cylinder from the box of bullets, which he had set on the dresser. He laid the gun on the bed and sat on the edge next to it.
There is the chaos. There is light and noise. There is silence and grey light encapsulated within the cacophony and sunshine. There is a man, thinking about what it is to be a good father, and what it is to be a good son, awaiting his turn for Father’s Day.