My brother gave me an album of photographs and important papers that my father left behind. I keep it out of sight in the basement. But sometimes, late at night, when the rest of my family is asleep, I drink too much wine and think about the past.
My father sits on a stool in blue jeans with a coffee mug held on his thigh. His back is straight as he smiles broadly for the camera. He is barrel-chested and powerful. His hair and beard are dark. He wears a khaki military shirt and cap without insignia. He looks like Fidel Castro.
He smiles wryly at me from another photograph, his senior portrait. He is nattily attired in a suit and tie. It shocks me to see how much we look alike. He is thin and handsome. Alcohol and age have yet to thicken his features. His dark eyes convey a youthful hunger for adventure and experience. I perceive a fragile sensitivity in the lines of his clean-shaven face that I never knew in the eighteen years I shared a roof with him. He is a stranger to me.
It is hard to reconcile the differences in the two photographs. Somewhere between them lies the Vietnam War–a time and a place my father almost never spoke about. They are potent images. They remind me of my long-held belief that time is not destroyed by its progression, that each moment continues to exist somewhere out of view as if behind a hill.
A part of me welcomed the closure when I heard that he was dead. I wasn’t sure that it would ever come. I thought he might disappear into the desert and never be heard from again, swallowed up by the Gila monsters. I felt bad for my brother when he told me the news. Four years younger, he was softer in his feelings or so I supposed. I was at my letter case at the post office when he called. I heard the cell phone and thought, what next? Because right then I was dealing with as much as I could handle. It surprised me to see his name on the caller ID and not my wife’s. I wondered what he wanted. We really didn’t talk much.
I went out to the loading dock for some privacy as he shared what little he knew. Our father had sold off the UFO store he had been running a couple of years ago. He was living in a little mobile home park. The doctor said his belly was distended. It didn’t sound like he had been taking very good care of himself. He had finally scheduled an appointment for his stomach pain. But he had waited too long. Alone in his trailer, he experienced a heart attack and phoned for an ambulance. They airlifted him from the hospital in Roswell to a heart facility in Lubbock, Texas. He died somewhere mid-flight.
I immediately thought back to my father’s warnings to me as a child to stay away from helicopters. He had seen a lot of crashes in Vietnam. His fears seemed prescient as he ended up losing his life in one. High above the ground, his heart struggled like a frantic bird inside his chest. Did he think of me in those last moments? Could I have saved him? Did his soul cast a shadow on the Earth?
I went outside. I looked blankly at the anonymous postal vehicles lined up behind each other in the parking lot. I thought of my son and my wife too sick to care for him. I reminded myself that I no longer had the luxury of being weak. My brother said that he was going to drive down to arrange for the body and his possessions.
“I have no idea what I’m going to find when I get there,” he said. “That trailer could be scary.”
“I really would like to go with you,” I told him. “But Emily is so sick from the chemo right now that I really don’t think I can get away.”
I offered to put up the money for the cremation. It was the least I could do. If Emily hadn’t been sick I would have gone with him. But truthfully, I was happy not to go. I had shut him out of my life a long time ago. Now his death had forced me to recognize his existence.
I had thought about him a lot after my son was born, every time I passed by the Veteran’s Bridge or saw a vet holding a cardboard sign. I had considered contacting him and letting him know, at least share a picture. But I was afraid to and I didn’t have a phone number or address. If he had shown up at my door, I wouldn’t have invited him into my home. I would probably have called the police. I couldn’t envision that scene without it ending up in violence. I still hated him. I had lived too many years believing at some point he would murder my mother. The cell phone was held to my ear. I was a grown man with a wife and a kid and house of my own. I thought of those years as a scared boy and I was glad he was dead. I wished my brother good luck and told him to keep in touch. Then I hung up and went back inside the brick building to do my job.
In the evenings that followed, I would get Miles to bed as early as possible, then pound some quick glasses of wine before turning in myself. I was so exhausted and stressed that I really had nothing to give my wife. Face down, the couch had become her cancer nest. “Just take care of Miles,” she responded painfully. “That’s all you have to do for me.”
I didn’t have time to deal with my father. I just pushed it to the side and drank. I felt like I was floating helplessly in space–orbited by my dead father, my young son, and my sick wife. The world had become imbued with this sick wan light, as if I were looking at everything through a dirty aquarium. I began noticing crows. They seemed to be everywhere, flying over the house in great cawing flocks. When I drove along the Parkway at dawn with Miles in the back seat, I looked to the pink horizon and watched them fly over the bony silhouettes of the oak trees along the creek. Sometimes one would call down at me from a tree or wire as I delivered my postal route. I observed the purposefulness of their bobbing heads as they waded through the green grass grazing on acorns. I watched them converge on dead rabbits and wage dog-fights with bald eagles. It seemed as if crows ran the city.
I went to the East Lake library to research the subject. It was December. The Mississippi River looked black that day, the wind cold on the Peace Bridge. I saw a man who looked homeless get chastised for sleeping by a security guard. I felt sorry for him and wondered if he was a Vietnam veteran like my father. I learned there were more crows now than at any time in history, their numbers having risen proportionally with their human counterparts. More people simply equaled more crow food. People thought of crows as dirty, but they didn’t create the garbage they feasted on, we did. I began to think of crows as public service providers. They were keeping our streets clean as they sucked down the intestines of unfortunate squirrels. These crow demographics made me entertain notions of reincarnation. A crow by the side of the road would look at me with a scrap of flesh in his beak. Could that be my father, I wondered, serving out some twisted form of purgatory? And then my thoughts would inevitable turn to my own son. What if something happened to me and I was unable to care for him? I imagined myself watching over him from the afterlife as one of these black-feathered birds.
With their scavenging habits and melancholy coloration, crows are a constant reminder of death. If I were to expire on my route, how long would it take before one of these avian hyenas started picking at me? Our technologies buffer us from the deprivations of nature. But when the soul departs what’s left is meat and none of it is wasted. You can pretend death is something sexy and get a tattoo, or you can pretend it isn’t there. But either way it’s everywhere. It watches you carefully, but askance, with a flat-black eye that reflects no light. It laughs at you with a cawing bray and then flies away if you try to confront it. Crows, like death, seemed to exist at the margin of our collective conscious. We were all just too distracted by our smartphones and television sets to notice.
One day I spied a crow feather in the grass as I walked between mailboxes. I picked it up and examined it briefly before returning it to its place on the ground. It evoked thoughts of disease and filth that had never entered my mind when at odd times I had discovered the tail feather of a blue jay or some other bird. Everyone knows that crows don’t like it when you stare at them. When I was a boy pheasant hunting with my father, he told me he had always wanted to shoot a crow, but that it was impossible. If you were out walking without a gun one might fly by or even land near you, but if you were armed you could forget about it. You would never even see one. I privately aspired to outdo him and take down a crow one day, but it never happened. About this, if nothing else, he was completely right.