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Dennis Must

Grief

"I need a woman!" he bawled.

She hadn't been dead but two days. One might have expected a whimper
of grief, like "Christ, I miss her. What am I going to do alone?" I
climbed out of bed and opened the door. He was standing naked in our
hallway, his face pressed against the window glass; it buzzed.

"Go back to bed," I said. "Circumstance always looks better in the
morning." I pulled the blind so the neighbors wouldn't see.

"You don't understand," he cried.

"It's what I'm discovering the older I become. I don't like
surprises." I draped my arm about his shoulders and escorted him toward
their bedroom . . . he bristled at its threshold.

"Her dresses. Her shoes. The toiletries on the bureau. Her
undergarments in our chiffonier." He pulled away from me, and again
wailed, "I need a woman!"

If he weren't my father, I would have laughed. Hell, every man I've
ever known has felt that way at least once in his life. Why should my
old man be any different? One humiliates himself among other men to ever
admit this. So we murmur it to ourselves, more often than we like to
admit perhaps.

There have been times lying alongside my wife of twenty years when
I've smothered the identical cry . . . the need so profound that even a
faithful spouse couldn't satisfy it.

"Look," I said, "there are plenty of single women out there, widows
who would love to share your company. Women outlive men. You know that.
They get lonely, too. So look on the bright side. You may have a whole
new life ahead of you."

He wasn't buying it. "You don't understand."

"What don't I understand?"

"It's not about getting laid, James." The look he shot me was a
rebuke.

"I didn't say it was."

"Your mother's just passed. Christ, give me some credit. You may not
believe it, but I do have some self-respect, you know."

"I was talking about companionship."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. That's what they all say. Will you go in there
and grab my briefs for me, please?"

As if his room had suddenly become radioactive. Moments later we
were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table. I'd put up some
coffee. The irony of the scene was delicious. How many nights when I was
a kid I'd wait up for him so I could tell him my girl problems. Christ,
I was always torn up inside, and he had this calming influence . . .
plus an uncanny way with women. They were beguiled, charmed by him. I
knew that he saw several on the side. Mother always suspected it, but
never chose to explore it. Obviously she didn't want the evidence.

"Hey, Pap, tell me what I should do?"

He'd reel off divers wise saws that more or less amounted to: "Be
stronger than the opposite sex. Make like you can take 'em or leave 'em.
Always have at least one other on the side. Don't make a big show of
it--she'll scent the competition. Never, ever, let her think you'd die
for her. Oh, you can bull shit and say that you will, and all that
coo-coo. But don't let your heart shit you--for it always will. This
girl stuff . . . all very rudimentary, Son."

And the next morning I'd awake reborn.

Now, at the fall interval of his life, his dam had ruptured--brought
on by Mother's death. Here's my father unable to sleep because he's
blubbering "I need a woman!" and I'm trying to sober him up with Irish
coffee. It's existential. What the hell was I going to tell him?

"Do you understand what I'm talking about, Son?"

"What about Mrs. Calucca, Dad?"

"Fuck Mrs. Calucca!"

We both laughed. That was a good sign.

"Well . . ." I said.

"You just don't get it. Come here." He took my hand and pulled me
back up the stairs. We stood outside their bedroom again. "Go in there
and pull open the top drawer of the chiffonier."

The room was dark save for the streetlight laying an amber puddle
across the bed. One side slept in.

"Go on, open it."

Inside, neatly piled were panties, camisoles and slips, and--bunched
in one corner--a cluster of brassieres. The drawer let loose a breath of
sachet.

"That's what I'm talking about," he said. "Now, open the closet
door. Go on, do it, James."

Plaid knife-pleated skirts, georgette shifts, crÍpe de Chine empire
dresses, blazers, all draped on wire hangers; mules, espadrilles, and
spaghetti-strap heels assembled underneath. On the upper
shelf--black-pill box hats whose veils she'd let fall at weddings or
funerals. On his side, prosaic two-piece suits in summer and winter
blends. The closet was redolent of gardenia.

"Do you get it yet, boy?"

He ambled back down the stairs.

"No damn way are we ever going to get rid of her presence. You can
throw all that shit outside, clean every nook and cranny of her
belongings, toss out the creams and face lotions, the prescription
bottles, her Bible, her photograph . . . you name it. Scour her out of
every board and the plaster in this house . . . and she still won't
leave."

I poured us another coffee.

"I need a woman," he whispered, his face a hairsbreadth from mine.

"I don't get it, Pap. What are you telling me?"

"You really want to know?"

"This isn't like you."

"Do you grasp why she wore those things up there? That smokey sun
dress with jasmine flowers, for instance? She'd stand there admiring
herself in the mirror, watching me button it up her backside. Those
peekaboo nets she'd drop over her china blue eyes. Undergarments the
shade of her blush?"

"Why?"

"So I wouldn't have to wear them."

"Yeah, I get it," I said. The damn whiskey was blubbering.

"Listen to what I'm telling you. It's your mother's stain . . ."

"Finish your coffee so we can go back to bed."

"No. You don't get it!" he bellowed, bounding out of his chair. A
gingham napkin from the buffet drawer he tied under his chin--a
babushka. Like she might have, he pressed his face to mine, and, sotto
voce, mewled again . . . "I need a woman."

I followed him up the stairs.

We entered the darkened room and in a fury Father snatched her
garments out of the closet, the chiffonier, the bureau drawer--heaping
everything onto the bed they had shared for decades. With each item his
frenzy accelerated. The last garment on the clothes pole, a navy blue
button-down-the-front frock with a stiff sailor's collar, he held up to
his torso. "How about this, Junior, with my patent leather
please-fuck-me shoes? Are my seams straight?" He turned like I'd
witnessed her do many times, bending a calf up toward his derriere while
staring over a bare shoulder.

The streetlight's corrugated shade serrated the room's shadows. With
one swipe he pitched the bureau's opaque perfume bottles and pearly
emollient jars across the floor and under the bed, a chromium lipstick
tube the lone survivor. He opened it and studied himself in the mirror,
my face his double.

Was he going to paint both our lips?

"Pap, please, stop this absurdity."

"I've no bosom!" he cried. "My chest is a goddamned void. Look at
me!" A salmon brassiere dangled from his neck. The circle he'd drawn
around his mouth exaggerated our pathos.

"What's left for me, James? Will she ever come home?"

Father lay down upon her wrappings, burying himself .

Grief.

Causes people to do the strangest things. His was implacable. I
still had him. Her departure hurt, but I could abide it. Yet a piece of
him was half gone. It was as if the heart was now eating itself in some
kind of bizarre, comic remorse.

I slept downstairs that evening.

At first light I softly opened his door. Their room had been
restored. Father was sound asleep. His frozen magenta "O" faintly
smudged.

© Dennis Must