A LOVELY AFTERNOON
by Tom Lakin
We sat three abreast in hard white pews. At our backs, an open door laid rectangles of sun on the salt-smoothed pine floor. It was an old Puritan church—Built in 1772, read a small plaque by the door. You could tell: the ceiling was crossed with bare beams, the floor was hard and cold. As a boy, I’d been brought to the church from time to time for a service, usually the wedding or funeral of a summer neighbor. I recalled the starkness of it, the chilly severity. Across the street, at the base of a hill that sloped down to the ocean, my mother’s ashes lay beneath a weathered stone.
The pastor climbed to the pulpit. He was a short, round man whose redly perspiring face put me in mind of a carnival barker or the proprietor of an adult video store. I pictured him sweeping back a curtain of beads, beckoning me into a dimly lit room. We waited for him to speak. He labored over a sheath of papers; the pages stuck to his fingertips, caught and tore. From the chancel a portrait of my father, whom I hadn’t spoken to in years, regarded me with stern blue eyes and a curling grin.
“Well,” the pastor said finally, cupping the back of his neck with a fat red hand. “I don’t quite know what to say. I knew John, but not well. Frankly, I was shocked by the invitation to speak today—”
Here he paused and shuffled his papers. One page slipped from the lectern and floated to the floor.
“Like I said,” he said, adjusting his glasses, “I don’t really know what to say.” He trailed off.
The fifteen of us gathered before him—cousins, a brother and sister, a couple of my father’s summer friends—stared with open mouths. Into mine flew a mosquito, buzzing hysterically. Up front, my aunt stood in a rage, harrumphing into her program, the pew door swinging shut with a clack.
It was then that the first ghost appeared—my father’s older brother Steven, wearing a dentist’s white coat and a pair of polished loafers. He stood by the open door, shimmering slightly, his face vaguely drawn and lacking the ruddy flush he’d had in life. My aunt sat down.
Sneering, Steven strolled to the pulpit, shuffling the pastor aside.
“If no one else is going to say it, I will,” he began, his chin jutting, glasses low on the bridge of his narrow nose. “My brother John was a royal prick, as all of you know. Let’s not pretend he wasn’t now, just because he’s dead.” A brief moment of stunned silence gave way to assenting murmurs and a few vigorous nods.
“There wasn’t a kind bone in his body,” Steven went on. “When we were boys, he used to torment me in all sorts of different ways. One time, here at the shore, we were swimming out by the dock and he held me under until I thought I would drown. When I came up in a shower of spray, there he was, bobbing nearby like a seal, laughing his head off. I don’t think there was anyone in all the world who really liked him.”
As if to answer his claim, there came then a parade of ghosts, some familiar and others unknown to me, materializing with a kind of fizzy static, like an old TV turning on. One by one they ascended the chancel and took the pulpit. There was Chet, our old gardener, wearing coveralls and a work cap. John was the cheapest sonofabitch I ever met,” he said, shaking a trowel at us. “He used to tip me with handfuls of change. Change!” Jeffrey, my father’s longtime driver, said they’d never exchanged more than a couple of words in all their years together. “He’d just sit there in the backseat, reading the newspaper and grunting that low grunt of his. Occasionally I’d ask him a question, just to break the silence, but he’d peer at me over his glasses and shake his head.” A woman, who introduced herself as Mrs. Watson and claimed to have taught my father in the first grade, said he was the worst student she’d ever had. “His spitballs were monstrous. He picked on all the other kids and once peed in the broom closet.”
“He was a horrible boor,” said Cynthia Mix, a neighbor.
“A crook,” said Neil Coughlin, a customer at the bank.
“The worst kind of drunk, that man,” said Jimmy, who tended bar at a club in the city. Nobody knew his last name.
The ghost of the family dog trotted to the pulpit then, limping a bit on his left side. “He used to kick me,” the spaniel growled, gesturing with a hazy paw. A gasp went up from the crowd. “He’d shout and swat at me with the paper.”
I stood to offer my own take—a story had come to me in the pew, a long-ago memory of my father cursing at me on a sailboat—but just then a particularly lanky ghost glimmered into view by the open door. We all turned to look, and I was shocked to see my younger brother Tim, wearing khakis and a flannel shirt, a pencil behind his ear. He was tall and rangy, just as he’d been in life. He looked like a ballplayer, a shortstop with three-day stubble and a dirty uniform, a gaggle of bright-eyed gals waiting for him after the game. His shirt hung open at the neck, his shoes were loose at the sole. He’d been killed in a car accident at nineteen. Drunk, he’d missed a turn and crashed into a tree. My father had showed up soused to the funeral, his blazer wrinkled and his breath sweetly stinking.
“It’s strange,” Tim said in a sort of windy voice, faint and much lower than the one he’d had when he was alive. We leaned forward in our pews, straining to hear. “I’ve forgotten all the bad things. All of ‘em. It’s only the good stuff I can remember now.”
He walked toward us, palms hanging open at his sides. “Dad at Christmas, tinsel draped over his arms, the strands glittering like slivers of glass. His back to us, that broad, sloping back. He’s dwarfed by the tree, its boughs sagging under the weight of gold and silver balls. A drink in his hand, he sways, dances a little jig, laughs—a sound like pealing bells. That’s the kind of thing I see.”
He was looking at me now, his eyes soft. I fidgeted in the pew. The other ghosts grew quiet; the dog slunk toward the door.
“I see him in his workshop,” Tim went on, “bent over an elegant figurine—a fisherman in a pair of painted yellow waders, a toothpick rod at his side. A bare bulb casts the room in a copper glow. Dad’s canvas slacks are covered in shavings. Little curls of wood litter the concrete floor. You—” he raised a flickering hand in my direction—“are beneath him, playing by his feet. From time to time you sneak a shaving into your mouth, and, silently, without glancing up from his work, Dad reaches down and plucks the curl from where you’ve hidden it in your cheek.
“I see him on the boat, sunglasses hiding his eyes, a gust tugging his hair to the sky. I see him in the yard, at the hardware store, striding up our brick front walk. I see his work gloves hanging from a nail in the garage—the coarse leather, that close grassy smell that never seemed to wash off.”
“I can see him on the night I was born, Danny.” Tim was talking directly to me at this point, as if nobody else was in the room. “Isn’t that strange? I can see everything now. It was a cold night in October. You’re all at the hospital. Mom’s in bed. You’re in a chair outside the door. Dad’s pacing the hallway, his hands in his hair. His shirttail’s hanging out, there’s a dark oval of sweat across his back. He’d come straight from the office; Jeffrey ran three red lights and nearly wore out the horn on the way. Suddenly there’s a commotion in the hospital room. The doctor is hollering, a pack of nurses streams through the door. You can’t see anything from your chair, but you can hear the tinkle of medical instruments, the bark of raised voices. You press your ear to the door, straining to listen.
“After a time, the clamor dies down, replaced by cries of another sort. Then the door opens, and you feel a warm hand on your shoulder. ‘Danny,’ Dad says, ‘come meet your brother Tim.’ Dad’s hand trembles; his shirtfront is soaked with sweat. Inside, you creep to the bed, where Dad scoops me from Mom’s chest and hands the bundle to you. Our parents watch as carefully you rock me side to side and attempt a small kiss on my damp forehead. You grin, the nurses applaud, Mom’s doctor claps Dad on his huge back. He looks at us there and softly shakes his head. His eyes are wet with tears.”
Tim’s face flickered then, but still I could see his sad smile, his tender eyes. His words had torn loose something inside me; I felt it as a kind of jangling in my belly, a thawing of innards I’d let chill a long time. I leapt to my feet and ran to where he stood. I wanted to hold him, to clutch his stubbled neck, to shout that I remembered, I remembered, oh, I remembered it all!
The night Tim died, I was home from college on spring break. I’d come home the week before, and we’d spent most of our time together fighting over one thing or another: his clothes (shabby, unwashed), his hair (long), his cadre of shady friends. Mostly I chided him about his recent decision to drop out of the local community college he’d been attending for the past couple of years. Not once did he get angry with me; in that way he was the opposite of Dad. Instead, while I ranted and raved, carped and cajoled, he merely smiled that curling little smile of his and shrugged, eyes twinkling, and sidled toward the nearest door.
That night he’d fled an argument about laundry, of all things. He’d been throwing his clothes in with mine, and as I was the only one of us who actually knew how to run the machine, I’d grown sick of finding his ratty jeans tangled with my pressed khakis. I told him so by depositing a pile of still-wet clothes on his pillow, and then trailed him into the kitchen when that failed to elicit what I deemed a sufficiently contrite response. I harangued him all through dinner, and by the time our mother brought out the dessert—chocolate pudding, Tim’s favorite—I’d all but chased him out of the house. “Okay, okay,” he called finally, waving his napkin in surrender. “I give up. Uncle. No more laundry. I’ll do it myself, I promise.” Then he peered at me strangely, squinting at a spot on my chest. “Wait, Danny, I think you’ve got something on your shirt—” He pointed, and when I looked down, he catapulted a spoonful of pudding onto the collar of my cable knit sweater.
It was a footrace to the door. Always the faster runner, he beat me by an arms-length and disappeared laughing into the night. I heard the car start, and watched from the doorway as he pulled onto the road with a whoop. He idled at our yard’s edge, one arm slung out the window, a grin on his face. For a moment he simply sat there, smiling at me through the open window. A streetlight washed him in a silver glow. I said nothing, just crossed my arms and glared at the bright bar of his teeth. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then seemed to think better of it and instead leaned back and laughed—a buoyant, boyish sound. He threw a little wave, then he gunned the engine and roared off into the dark. I stood awhile in the doorway, wondering what he’d been about to say. When the streetlight clicked off, as it did each night at nine, I turned and stomped back into the house.
The knock came just after midnight. A young officer, his cheeks frosted with peach fuzz, blue cap in hand. In a splintering voice he told us. The car, the tree, the bottle of Wild Turkey found in the grass. His eyes, fringed with dark lashes, were aimed at the ground. My mother’s wails drew neighbors into the side yard, where they stood huddled in terrycloth bathrobes, slippers slick on the dew.
We slept that night on the floor of Tim’s bedroom. We dragged sleeping bags to the foot of his bed and tossed fitfully beneath posters of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac and Billie Holiday. My mother and I on either side of my father, his enormous arms hugging us close. At some point in the night I awoke to the sound of him weeping—great heaving sobs that caused his chest to tremble under my reclined head. I stayed absolutely still, listening. It was the first time I’d heard him cry. My own undershirt was wet with sweat and tears, but his sorrow—fierce, elemental—seemed another thing entirely.
Back in the churchly gloom, all at once I realized I too was crying. Tears soaked my necktie, chilled the bare skin at my collar. By the open door, Tim’s ghost stood quivering in the spilled daylight, his edges already beginning to melt away. I became frantic, desperate to keep him from leaving. I leapt for his hands, for his waist. I threw myself at his vanishing feet, shouted for him to wait, to stop, to stay, but my hands passed through his retreating body like vapor.
“Tim!” I screamed as he withdrew toward the doorway, his form now little more than a flickering disturbance in the heavy air. “Tim, what was it you were going to say that night in the car? Before you left, before you—before you drove away. You were about to say something. What was it?”
I’d wondered for so long; it haunted me, that pause, that wordless empty void. I had to know, I’d never stopped needing to know.
Tim turned, and his face fizzed back into focus for a moment. I could see his eyes, vivid and gray like new nickels. A kind of hush came over the church. Even the birds outside seemed to stop their chirping. Total silence descended. I implored the line of his mouth to fill it with sound.
And then, before I could take another breath, there it was: that slanted grin, that brightly curling smile. No noise, not a word. Simply the smile—the same one he’d beamed at me that night in the bedroom, at the dinner table, from the idling car. The same one I’d seen so many times on his face, on the face of my father. The same smile I wore now, kneeling on the hard church floor, grinning up at a ghost.
We stayed like that for an oddly frozen moment—it seemed timeless, eternal, but was probably only a couple of seconds—and then Tim turned and whistled for the spaniel, and it rose from its spot by the pulpit and trotted to his side. My brother waved and the dog gave a hollow bark, and then together they stepped through the doorway and were gone.
The other ghosts filed out then, in a cloudy curving line—Steven and Jeffrey and our cranky neighbor Cynthia Mix. At the doorway each vanished with a little fogburst and a sound like a pulled zipper, leaving a wake that smelled of woodsmoke and the sea. The rest of us stood and followed them out. The day was bright. Bells chimed from the steeple, gulls called to each other across the sky. It was a lovely afternoon.
Tom Lakin is a writer from Boston. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative, Pleiades, Ruminate, Pembroke Magazine, and Lunch Ticket, among others. He is the recipient of Pleiades’s 2018 G. B. Crump Prize in Experimental Fiction, and his work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Tom holds an MFA from Emerson College, where he was a full-tuition fellow.
Image credit: Public Domain Pictures