My father’s finger nail bed, picked raw from worry, would’ve hugged the trigger of the gun. After hesitating, maybe not, the finger would’ve curled shut. The gun would’ve erupted, its bullet would’ve split his temple. No matter how long he had planned to end his life, even he couldn’t have escaped the surprise of death, which would have eventually trickled away, the deep crease of his brown unfurling, finally soft.
It had probably been a moan not a shot. A tired exhale.
This is what I thought of, in the middle of the quiet and dark hospital room, as I cradled my newborn son.
His eyes opened slightly. They were the same as my father’s.
After a long and tiring birth, Jean’s frame rose and fell under a white hospital sheet. It was the same kind of sheet I laid on my father’s face when I found his body.
It’d been right before the baby came when Jean told me, again, that it was insane to keep paying the rent on my father’s apartment, that we were wasting money.
She wasn’t wrong but I kept paying it.
He’d been dead almost a year.
Before I found out I was going to become a father I sat across from my own father in his studio apartment, littered with canvases, reeking of the type of despair that only an artist could manage.
“You have to eat something,” I said. I pushed a bowl of oatmeal at him.
He just stared at it and left the oatmeal untouched.
He’s taken a bite. Some of it gets caught in his throat. He can’t breathe. I do nothing. I watch him choke.
“Fine. We’re going to the gallery then,” I said.
I drove him to the art gallery to see his favourite painting, Francis Bacon’s The Crucifixion. I had started to take him as soon as I could drive and kept doing it when his dark passenger arrived. Its coming and going lasted through my college degree in art history, through my Phd., my tenure, through all the art reviews I’d written — since mom died.
We stood shoulder to shoulder at the painting. An abstract form of Jesus was nailed on the cross, its frame white and ghostly, cut open like a pig, pale against the black, engulfing chasm. I didn’t understand why he loved it so much.
He smelt like stagnant water. The silence between us, as still and thick. Other patrons meandered quietly around us, looking at the art but never seeing it.
“It’s usually so beautiful,” he said finally.
His hand shook as he reached into his pocket. Parkinsons.
“Maybe this will get you painting again?” I said.
“When are you going to start? Instead of sitting up on your pedestal, watching us roll around in the mud, judging us when our hands get dirty.”
I felt the urgent buzz of my cell phone. I checked the screen and twisted the gold band around my ring finger.
“It’s Jean,” I said, backing away.
He ignored me, as he always did when he got sour, and focused on the painting.
My father’s urn was front and centre on the living room mantle, surrounded by a collection of newspaper clippings about his life — the great painter version of it. One night, while Jean was putting the baby to bed for the first time, I fixated on the articles, frowning at the praise he’d gotten over his lifetime.
Her arms came around my waist. Her cheek pressed into my back. I tightened.
I throw her off of me. She falls to the ground. She stared over my shoulder at the clippings and whispered, “Don’t you think it’s time?”
Will it ever be?
“I don’t know if it helps having them out.”
It doesn’t. It does. It can’t. It must.
Shut up, Jean.
“Won’t you talk to me about it?”
The baby cried out. She sighed and left.
She eventually stopped asking.
I grab my keys and I run. I will never come back.
Instead, I boil some water for tea.
Jean went to take a bath and left me with the baby. I looked down at him from the couch. He squirmed on the living room carpet, helpless, his chubby feet kicking at funny angles. The kicking stopped. His face bunched up. His cheeks turned red. He wailed. I considered consoling him.
Maybe if I do nothing he’ll stop forever.
He must have cried for a long time because Jean ran naked out of the bathroom with suds dripping from her shoulders. She snatched him up.
“Didn’t you hear him?!” She yelled at me. “What is wrong with you?”
I was supposed to be different than my father.
“I can’t keep living like this, Tom. Stay somewhere else for a few days,” she said, rushing him away. Protecting him from me.
“Where am I supposed to stay?” I said.
My father’s place.
After the funeral I promised Jean that I’d go to therapy.
How does that make me feel?
The therapist prescribed antidepressants. I took them.
Until I get better.
With the pills life became a puzzle made with the wrong pieces. What was the final picture? A landscape? A portrait? Surrealism? Cubism? Hyperrealism?
I couldn’t tell.
For a while I attended group therapy for the bereaved. People wore those red and white Hello My Name Is stickers. So pointless. Everybody’s name ended up in an illegible sharpie scrawl.
I’m relieved my father is dead. It should’ve happened sooner. I miss him. I hate him. I love him.
Pity-filled looks. Tight, awkward smiles.
It’s not like I shot myself. But it’s like he shot me.
They’d never understand the guilt. Or the relief.
I opened the door to my father’s apartment. It had been a year since I’d stepped foot in it but it still smelt like that water. When I found his body, I left it just as it was after the blood had been cleaned up. It was the same except dust covered, entombed, canvases and paints and brushes, all failed attempts, half-finished works, beacons of failure locked away in a crypt. Besides the paintings of his that hung on gallery walls or affluent households this was what was left of him. Well, and me. But I think I only added to his list of failures. The lack of family photos were testament to that.
I straightened out one of the garbage bags I brought and shoved anything and everything inside it starting with his paints.
He loved them more than you, you know? They deserve to go into the trash. Maybe you do too.
The bedroom door was closed but it was gaping nonetheless. To open it would be to relive it. His body had splayed in an odd way on his bed, like Jesus on the cross, a halo of red around him on the dirty sheets.
Inside, now, the bed was stripped, mattress and all — as if violence had never slept here.
I opened the closet.
What? That fucking prick. How could he? I’m going to cherish these. I’m going to rip them apart.
The closet overflowed with large portraits of my mother. Of me. Blue drips and cascading lines wept with nothing but love and remembrance. He swore he hadn’t finished anything in years. That he couldn’t finish anything.
I can’t believe it. I won’t. He’s such an asshole. I love him.
As I sifted through them, each portrait was more distressing than the last.
Now I know what he did with his love. He’d locked it away.
When my mother died, whatever space she occupied in my father, he replaced it with two things: painting and Jack Daniels. No capacity for a third, which would have been me. Night after night he’d stumble home drunk from some opening or some bougie show. More times than not he’d barge into my room. I’d shoot up in my bed, pulling the covers towards me like some sort of safety blanket as he shouted, slurred and growled things like Did you touch my paints?! I can’t paint because of you. Nothing is coming because you breathe.
In the middle of the day, he’d get angry for no reason and throw plates at walls. From a crack in my bedroom door I’d watch him sob into the floor. He’d often kick the pieces of the most recent casualty into a dustpan.
I had to cut my foot on a few forgotten pieces more than once before I learned that it was me who had to pick up the pieces he missed.
This was the same man who had brought my mother flowers every Sunday before she got sick. He was the one that hid in the bathroom of the ICU after visiting hours when she did. I was thirteen when she died of cancer.
This was the same man who had given me my first paint set and taught me how to impasto and crosshatch. When I would frown at anything I had painted, he would tap the tip of my nose with acrylic just to make me giggle. He would cook dinner — he’d set the plates down so gently on the table. He had taken us to exhibition openings and sometimes, when they would run late, I would pretend to be asleep so he would carry me from the car to the bed like a god.
I struggled to get his secret shame paintings of my mother and I out of the bedroom, out of the apartment — almost into the back of my car but I stopped.
It’s not a son’s job to carry.
Jazeen Hollings is a multi-genre writer. She was the winner of the Cherie Smith Prize in Creative Writing and quarterfinalist of the Screencraft Short Screenplay Competition. Her short stories and poems have been published in Literally Stories, Faze Magazine and Flora Fiction. She’s an MFA candidate of the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia.