I opened the curtains.
Charlie, in his giant recliner, flinched, as if I’d thrown a bucket of water in his face. “What’re you doing here?”
“Letting in the light, bro,” I said. “It’s good to see you, too.”
Charlie wore a Hawaiian shirt and joggers. The shirt was at the gaudy end of the Hawaiian shirt spectrum. It had belonged to our father. He died in it.
History aside, Charlie saw the shirt as a good-luck charm. A year ago, he couldn’t wear it buttoned. Now he was swimming in it.
“What’s that?” he said, eying the six-pack on the coffee table.
“Red Dog Deluxe. Ninety percent head, but good for what ails you.”
“I can’t drink that. The doctors say no alcohol.”
“But smokes are okay?”
“Who says I’m smoking? Gina?”
I sniffed. “The air told me.” Also, Gina, but she’d made me promise not to tell Charlie we’d talked. It would only complicate my errand of mercy. I sat down on the sofa. “Where is Gina?”
“Church. Helping with a funeral lunch.”
“You’re married to a good person. How did that happen?”
“Maybe God was making up for you. Once a year, you show up bearing gifts.”
“Gifts? What gifts? The shirt looks good on you. Better than it did on Dad.”
The story is Dad wore the Hawaiian shirt to a Jimmy Buffett concert, picked up a woman two-thirds his age, and died of a heart attack at the door of his motel room. He went with a hard-on and an anticipatory grin. Some of this is true: he died wearing the shirt in a Florida motel room.
Charlie snorted. “When did you ever see him wear it?”
“That winter. I visited him in Miami.”
“Liar!” He shouted the word, bringing on a coughing fit.
I didn’t argue with him. If you knew me, you wouldn’t argue, either.
“The old man took me to this hole-in-the-wall where they served hot wings and cheap booze. We didn’t drink. He thought he was being good, but the wings weren’t exactly health-food. He was getting cold feet about the surgery.”
Charlie nodded. “He told me as much on the phone.”
“He was scared. Too scared to act.”
Our dad feared many things, starting with married life and needy kids. I didn’t say that to Charlie, though, who saw the guy as a rebel driven into tropical exile by a nagging wife and ungrateful son. I’ll give you one guess who Charlie cast as ungrateful son. That didn’t matter. I resented his judgment of our mother.
The most rebellious thing our old man ever did was drink margaritas without salt on the rim. I knew him better than Charlie did. God help me.
Charlie said, “Do you blame him?”
“Not for being scared.”
“What about for his decision?”
I shrugged. “It was his call.”
I’d said as much at the time. “It’s your life, Dad. Your decision.”
The words came easy to me, then and now. Too easy? For a second, I was in that dive in Miami, lifting a chicken wing toward my lips, facing a dying man in a gaudy shirt. Why had I gone? What good had I done?
“Something wrong?” Charlie said.
A lot of things, I thought, but I said, “At least he got to see Buffett one last time.”
“And I got his shirt.”
“It could still be a lucky shirt. But you need to make it lucky.”
Too short for a sermon. More like the wisdom of a fortune cookie. Is this why I came? I could’ve sent a card.
Charlie deserved more. He was wrong about his father, but maybe right about his brother.
The room was very bright. I understood why Charlie kept the curtains drawn. I leaned forward and lifted a bottle out of the carton. I twisted off the cap. Foam rolled out and ran down the side over my fingers. You could count on Red Dog Deluxe.
Charlie got a laugh out of it. The only gift I’d brought him.
I hoisted the bottle in salute.
Jim Anderson is a retired college teacher, former labor leader, sometimes blogger, and frequent writer of small fictions who lives in southeast Michigan with his wife and five cats.