Father’s Day

Colin O’Connell

My grandfather smelled like cigarettes and coffee. The inside of his car smelled like cigarettes and coffee. All of his clothes—cigarettes and coffee. Even when my grandmother would bake a tray of brownies, and the scent of chocolate sailed through the hot summer air inside of their home, my grandfather’s smell of cigarettes and coffee remained.

My grandfather was a Navy man. He had volunteered during Korea instead of sitting around and getting drafted in the Army. My grandfather rarely talked about his days in the Navy. He never spoke about his Navy buddies or what they went through.

One lazy Saturday afternoon my sister pried me away from an episode of Pokémon and led me down into the dark, damp basement. A small cardboard box sat on the grey concrete floor with a few photos scattered around its base. My sister picked up one of the photos and held it out for me to see. There were four people huddled around each other including my grandfather. He had less grey in his hair and mustache. My grandmother, who looked exactly the same as always but with more purple eyeshadow, sat to his left. To the left of my grandfather was a tall, handsome man with black hair combed over to the side. His suit was tan and a little too big for his lanky body, still he was handsome. It was Dad. To the right of my grandmother was our aunt, with her giant frizzy 80’s hair and a giant butterfly brooch pinned to the left flap of her collar.

I looked at my dad’s face, then up to my sister’s. They were exactly the same except for the eyes. Dad had brown eyes, my sister had green. I hadn’t noticed how similar they looked. Maybe I was starting to forget what he looked like. Maybe I was too young to notice at all.

“Look at this one,” she said, flipping another photo in front of me like a projector.

This one was just my grandfather, but he was much younger. He stood up straight. His hair and mustache were even blacker than the previous picture. His hair combed over the same as my father’s in the previous picture. He had on his Navy uniform, but unlike my father this suit fit my grandfather perfectly. Not a single crease from head to toe. He wore a small smile as he stood in front of an old blue Chevy Impala.

“Grandpa probably killed lots of people,” my sister said. “He did fight in a pretty famous war.”

I shook my head, “But not all people in war kill people. He could have been a medic.”

“He wasn’t a medic,” my sister said.

She rooted around the box for a few more seconds, digging to the bottom and eventually pulling out a little felt blue box. Inside was a small ribbon. It had seven colored sections. On the left was a thick blue section, followed by a thick yellow one, then a thin red, thin white, thin blue, thick yellow, and a thick red section. My sister plucked it out of the box and placed it in the palm of her hand.

“See? This means he killed people,” she said.

“They give awards to Army men who don’t kill people!” I said.

“He was in the Navy, first of all,” she said. “And second of all, you’re just too little to understand.”

I hated when she said that. Just because I was little, didn’t mean I couldn’t understand. My grandfather was always old and bent. How could someone that old and bent kill anyone? He wore big thick glasses. How could a man with glasses that thick kill anyone? He stood on his porch and quietly smoked his cigarettes, enjoying every drag. How could my simple grandfather kill anyone?

A loud creaking broke my concentration on the ribbon. My sister shoved it in my hand. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I shoved it into my pajama pockets. Seconds later my grandmother reached the bottom of the stairs.

“What are you two doing in here?” she asked.

“Just looking at old pictures,” my sister said. “Look, there’s one of you with Dad!”

Their voices drifted off as my fist clenched the ribbon tightly. My grandfather couldn’t be a killer. I had seen the man who killed my parents. His mugshot was on the television a couple days after their deaths. His eyes were puffy and half-closed. He had a receding hairline and a missing tooth. I don’t know if he was missing a tooth before the accident or not. I try not to think about him very much, but when I think of killers I see his face. When I see someone stood up a liquor store and blew away the clerk, I think of his face. I know he didn’t mean to, but he still did it. My grandfather didn’t have a face like that, not in all of the years I’d known him and not in any of the photographs my sister showed me.

My grandfather would sit on the stoop and listen to baseball in the summer. He would suck down his cigarettes as he did. My grandmother wouldn’t allow him to smoke in the house, especially with my sister and I running around. He could have resented us for it, but he didn’t. He sat outside and listened to the Phillies lose. He would swear a lot. My sister hated when he listened to the radio because it was the only time he was mad. He never raised his voice at us, never yelled at our grandmother, but I would hear him yell at the radio. I never saw his face when he listened to the radio, only his stoic silhouette beyond the off-white shades that blocked the main window of the living room. My sister would watch TV in the afternoons during the game. I would watch my grandfather. His shadow never moved except for when he raised his hand to his mouth and then lowered it down to the ashtray.

I remember the day he came home with Phillies tickets. It was Friday, the day before Father’s Day. I didn’t understand why he was so happy. That team had only made him swear. He hated the manager, hated the shortstop, and hated just about half of the bullpen. Still, it was the happiest I had ever seen him.

I had never been to the city. Instead, I grew up in an old, broken-down steel town. I used to ride my bike along the rail tracks and up past the old steel plant. Even though it was a crumbling, abandoned mess, it was still formidable. Shattered windows peppered the front of the building and overgrown patches of grass danced in the wind all around it. There was a rusty chain-link fence that secured the border, but even that had massive holes. When I was a little older, I would sneak under there with a couple of friends every now and then. It’s where I smoked weed for the first time. It’s where I drank for the first time. It’s where I lost my virginity. I did a lot of things in that old plant that nobody else knew about.

When I think about that plant and about that town, I often think about my grandfather and the night before we left for Philadelphia. He made my sister and I go to sleep early. He wanted to get into the city as early as possible and make an entire day of it. I was tucked in bed under my Star Wars sheets. I hugged my raggedy stuffed puppy tightly. He hadn’t ever been cleaned as I refused to let my grandmother wash him. He had a hard black nose and shiny black eyes, but they were covered by his light brown fake fur. He reminded me of Mom. I’m told she gave him to me when I was two, but I just remember him being around a few years before the accident.

As I cradled my stuffed dog, passed out under my Star Wars sheets, there was a loud bang. I shot up. My heart slammed against the front of my chest and then sunk down to my back. Up and down it thumped, banging against the edges of my body. I squinted in the darkness, unable to see. I grabbed at my glasses and shoved them on my face, scrambling out of bed. I threw open my bedroom door and peered into an even deeper darkness.

I knew the layout of my grandparents’ house, so I felt around for the railing. Once I got a thick grasp of the laminated wood, I used it as a guide to down the stairs. I could see the moonlight flooding the lower level, so I made my way to it. The stairs were old and wooden. They creaked with every step. I tried to keep as quiet as possible, as I tiptoed down the sides of the stairs. At the base of the stairs was a window, still concealed behind those off-white shades my grandmother had picked out at least decade ago. Slipping my finger between two of the shades, I peeked into alleyway where my grandfather’s Volvo sat. There were two men, one with a crowbar, both wearing black t-shirts and jeans.

I heard heavy footsteps coming down the stairs. I turned and saw my grandfather standing there. He wasn’t as bent and didn’t look nearly as old. His face wasn’t its normal content nature. It did not hold any proud joy, like it did when he told us about the ballgame. Instead I saw a face I had known too well. I saw the same face of the man who had killed my parents all of those years ago, only it was on my grandfather’s body. I saw the face of a killer.

“Get back up to bed,” he told me.

I looked down to his hands. He was grasping a wooden baseball bat. The tape around the base was browned and the barrel of the bat looked worn. My grandfather walked by me with a heavy purpose, through the living room, and out the front door. I heard his steps as he walked down the porch. I peered through the window again, looking at the men who had just noticed my grandfather. I don’t know why, but my hands slid into my pockets. There was something in there. Without taking my eyes off of the men, I pulled out the ribbon from the box. I clenched it tight as I saw my grandfather slowly creep into view. He pointed the bat at the larger man’s face. His mouth moved, but I couldn’t hear anything.

“What are you doing down here?” my grandmother’s words flew at me as I turned and dropped the shades from my hands. “Get back upstairs, now!”

“But, Grandpa,” I said.

“Upstairs. Now!”

She tugged me by my collar and started to walk me back upstairs. The door opened again and she stopped. Her hand squeezed my shoulder for a second and then released. In the frame of the door stood my grandfather. He walked a few feet forward and then closed the door, locking it behind him. He shuffled through the living room, no longer marching with that same purpose he had just a few seconds ago.

“Carol,” he said. “Call the police.”

He switched on the light to the living room and I looked at his bat. It was clean. I looked at his face, and the killer wasn’t there anymore. It was the man who had raised me the last few years. He looked at me and with a small smile gestured me over to him. I made my way down the stairs slowly, still unsure that this was the same man I had seen moments ago. I walked up to him and he crouched down slowly. I reached out my hand and he cupped his underneath it. I dropped the ribbon into his hands. My grandfather lifted it up into the light and looked at it. He let out a long, sad sigh then hugged me tightly as I took in the smell of cigarettes and coffee.