BLUE SKIES • by Janice Hager

The sky is a brilliant blue on the day we gather to mourn him.

It should be raining. It’s always raining during funerals in the movies.

This isn’t a funeral. He’ll be cremated when the coroner is done with him, and we can’t afford a real funeral anyway. He didn’t leave anything behind to pay for a service. So we just gather, his family and his friends, at his ex-wife’s house. We eat his favorite foods, cry and get drunk, laugh and remember.

“He was a good man,” his sister says.

“He was the best dad,” his youngest daughter says.

“He’s in a better place,” his best friend says.

They repeat these phrases like a mantra. None of these things are true. He wasn’t a good man, not really. He fought with his children too often, was unkind far too frequently. He was selfish and rude, and his temper was too large for his small frame. He indulged in drugs and drinking, spent a few too many months in jail. If there’s a heaven, he likely won’t be welcome there.

“He was a good man.”

“He was the best dad.”

“He’s in a better place.”

All of these things are true. He adored his children, despite his ineptitude at showing it, and he was proud of them. He tried to be a good person, was convinced that his drugs and his drinking and his wild nights were strictly his own and never touched those he loved. He lived in a trailer in a field full of abandoned boats and half-stripped cars, and he was dead for four days before anyone noticed. Even if all there is after this is an oven and ashes being sprinkled in a garden somewhere, he might be better off than he was before.

We’re outside because the walls of the house feel too confining, filled as they are with his absence. We drink too much beer, eat too many helpings of macaroni and cheese and barbequed chicken. He would have loved this meal, would have eaten three or four heaping plates full, not paying any mind to his struggling heart. He never paid it any attention, never saw a doctor or took his blood pressure at the supermarket. He never doubted that it would just keep on beating, and slept through its refusal to continue. No one knew it was coming. He was only fifty-five.

The last time I saw him, he looked seventy. Years of working under the Florida sun and smoking meth had aged his skin into a wrinkled mess of lines and sunburns, leather piled loosely over a thin skull and a mouth full of missing teeth. He never cut his hair, and it hung around his face like a curtain, layered in sweat and grease and neglect, breaking and falling away as quickly as it grew. Cigarette smoke clung to him like an aura, clutching to his long, sparse beard and staining it yellow.

He was disgusting. He was pitiful.

He was my father. I loved him.

My brother-in-law’s parents arrive late. They’re always late for everything. They’re already drunk. They bring a helium tank that they rented from a party store and three bags of balloons, and we write notes to send off into the sky. The children draw pictures to tuck into the balloons. My sisters write novels worth of emotions in fifteen minutes. My brother doesn’t write anything. I scribble out, “I miss you. I love you. I wish you were here to read this.” We release the balloons and watch them float away until they’re just pinpricks in the clouds. A few people claim they can still see them, but I can’t see anything. Everything is blurry, tears clouding my vision.

I haven’t cried over my disappointing father or my disappointing life in over a decade. I cry now, but it’s like an afterthought, tears that have come too late to do any good.

Everyone is going to stay at my mother’s tonight. She’s spent the last three days alternating between sorrow over the loss of her ex-husband and indignation that her children are too upset to give her the comfort and attention she needs. Once upon a time she mastered the unselfishness that usually comes with motherhood, but ten years of cocaine and meth have made her forget.

Everyone will pile into her one-bedroom shack of a home and pretend to be a family again for one more night.

I’ll go home after the makeshift memorial. I’m too old for sleeping on bare terrazzo floors, too exhausted after three days of watching them all connect in their grief while I sit beside them, sharing space but still a thousand miles apart. I’ve never known how to connect with them and our father’s death hasn’t changed that, hasn’t fixed anything. Death never fixes anything.

People trickle out after the balloons are gone. They write messages in a notebook as they go, memories and thoughts and prayers. My sister promises to give us all copies, but I know none will ever be sent. I don’t care. I don’t want to remember anything about this day.

I’ll never forget this day.

I just want to go home. My father has never been to my home, and his memory doesn’t linger there. I want to leave him here, with my family and their tears and their grief. It’s where he belongs, and I’ve never belonged here.

I say goodbye and promise we’ll all talk soon, and all of us know that’s a lie.

My father’s memory hovers somewhere behind me when I go, taking up the whole back seat. I pretend not to notice. I’m miles away before the blue has even started to leech out of the sky.

Janice Hager lives in Orlando, FL, with her wonderful boyfriend and a house full of pets. She studies English and Creative Writing, and has been writing short stories since she was seven. She is, thankfully, much better at it now.

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