Closing the door

Hopeless old drunk.

I stand in the paint-peeled doorway looking into the one-room bedsitter that my father had so recently inhabited. My stomach lurches. No wonder he kicked the bucket at age 59. Although he’d made a valiant effort in the last decade – never touched a drop in all that time, so he said – the previous 30-odd years must have turned his liver to Swiss cheese. I remember that that self-same liver is probably hell-bound in the crematorium at this exact moment, along with the rest of his used and abused body.

And here am I, stuck with clearing out the hopeless old drunk’s place. Before me stands a pathetic array of cheap, scarred, worn junk in a bedsitter in the worst part of town, requiring final distribution. I step in and close the door.

I notice his slippers sitting side by side just at the edge of the bed. I sit on the faded patchwork quilt (probably a gift from the Salvation Army) and pick them up. They’re brown plaid, seams wore out down the front so that bits of fleece are finding their way out. The rubber heels are flattened on the outside. On an impulse, I undo my own shoes and slip his on. They fit like gloves. I’d forgotten we were the same size. They are familiar in a way that I’ve been feeling all day, to my great discomfort. It’s as if a little of his soul has slipped into my feet. I almost kick the slippers off, but I don’t. I flex my toes inside them, surrendering to this feeling of profoundly knowing/not knowing my father.

I inspect the bedside table. There’s a photo of three boys by a lake. I’m not sure I’ve seen this photo before but it’s certainly Sammy, Bert and me. I’m the one holding a foot-long trout. I remember the day. It had been a good one. Dad had taken us out to Johnson Lake, where we’d spent the afternoon alternatively casting off the main pier and leaping off it into the lake. I remember the joy of catching that fish, and can feel Dad’s pride as he helped me get it off the hook.

I study the faces of Sammy and Bert. I feel a little wash of affection mixed with regret, and I can’t tell if it’s me or if it’s Dad’s slippers talking. Anyway, they sure as hell weren’t here for the service this morning – couldn’t locate them anywhere among the seven people who gathered to say goodbye to Dad.

I get up from the bed, shuffling a bit in the slippers as I cross the room. There’s an old laminated closet. Three shirts are hanging neatly in there, along with two pairs of trousers folded carefully over wooden hangers, a summer jacket, a winter coat and a threadbare plaid dressing gown. There’s a pair of shoes, old as the hills but spit-polished to a high shine. It’s hard to reconcile this neat and tidy existence with the chaotic one I knew as a boy growing up.

I close the closet door. The slippers drag a little on the threadbare carpet, where a worn path takes me through the little archway into the kitchen area. I see his teacup on the table, on its side. They said he was sitting at the table when the heart attack got him. The cup is stained with tannin and there’s a little ring of tea on the bottom. I give the cup a careful rinse at the sink.

There’s a canister of tea on the shelf, and I take out a teabag. I spill a little water into the old electric kettle, which promptly sighs into action. I find a litre of milk in the fridge. I don’t generally have sugar or milk with my tea but today the slippers seem to be calling the shots.

I bring the tea with me as I trundle over to the old arm chair in front of the TV. God, I haven’t seen a TV like that for a few years. I thumb through a magazine rack sitting at the side of the chair. There’s a Reader’s Digest, a couple issues of McLeans, and to my surprise a dozen New Scientists. Who’d have thought the old man had an interest in science?

I think about this morning at the chapel, where a couple of Dad’s old AA buddies had shown up. They’d both pumped my hand and told me what a great gin rummy player he was. “Oh, we had a lot of laughs together,” one of them had said. “He was a great guy, your dad.” They asked about me, and I told them I’m a science teacher with a wife and a couple of kids in Vancouver. They’d liked that.

There was also a buxom middle-aged woman who was dropping a few tears into a tissue. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” she’d said to me in a shaky voice, obviously feeling a lot more loss than I did. “He was a wonderful man.” I stood completely still while she patted my shoulder, neither of us able to say anything. I thought, it’s clear he didn’t break your face on numerous occasions like he did Mum’s. Obviously you didn’t see him whacking his sons around. You didn’t see what he could do to a dog that annoyed him. You didn’t see him hurling the phone through the window when the landlord called.

I get up to take the cup to the kitchen table. There’s a deck of cards there and I sit down. I surprise myself by remembering how to play solitaire with a real deck.

I hear a car pull up outside and realise it’s Sally back already with the rental. I snap the cards back into the box, kick the slippers off, and swing the door open just as she’s about to knock. She gives me a big kiss, then looks around my shoulder. A look of dismay crosses her face.

“Geez, Dave, didn’t you get anything done?” Her glance takes in the whole of this little dump. “Look at this place. Imagine living like this! What a hopeless old drunk.” She speaks with distaste but I hear a note of sympathy leaking into her tone, whether for me or my father I don‘t know.

“He hasn’t been a drunk for years,” I say. I grab a plastic bag and stick in the slippers, the tea cup and the photo. “Anyway, let’s get outta here. I’ll get the Salvation Army people over in the morning and I’ll have it finished before we have to catch the plane.”

Sally looks relieved. We step outside and I close the door firmly behind me.

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