need a woman!" he bawled.
She hadn't been dead but two days. One might have
expected a whimper of grief, like "Christ, I miss her. What am I going to do
alone?" I climbed out of bed and opened the door. He was standing naked in our
hallway, his face pressed against the window glass; it buzzed.
"Go back to bed," I said. "Circumstance always
looks better in the morning." I pulled the blind so the neighbors wouldn't see.
"You don't understand," he cried.
"It's what I'm discovering the older I become.
I don't like surprises." I draped my arm about his shoulders and escorted him
toward their bedroom . . . he bristled at its threshold.
"Her dresses. Her shoes. The toiletries on the
bureau. Her undergarments in our chiffonier." He pulled away from me, and again
wailed, "I need a woman!" If he weren't my father, I would have laughed.
Hell, every man I've ever known has felt that way at least once in his life.
Why should my old man be any different? One humiliates himself among other men
to ever admit this. So we murmur it to ourselves, more often than we like to
There have been times lying alongside my wife
of twenty years when I've smothered the identical cry . . . the need so profound
that even a faithful spouse couldn't satisfy it.
"Look," I said, "there are plenty of single women
out there, widows who would love to share your company. Women outlive men. You
know that. They get lonely, too. So look on the bright side. You may have a
whole new life ahead of you."
He wasn't buying it. "You don't understand."
"What don't I understand?"
"It's not about getting laid, James." The look
he shot me was a rebuke.
"I didn't say it was."
"Your mother's just passed. Christ, give me some
credit. You may not believe it, but I do have some self-respect, you know."
"I was talking about companionship."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. That's what they all say.
Will you go in there and grab my briefs for me, please?"
As if his room had suddenly become radioactive.
Moments later we were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table. I'd
put up some coffee. The irony of the scene was delicious. How many nights when
I was a kid I'd wait up for him so I could tell him my girl problems. Christ,
I was always torn up inside, and he had this calming influence . . . plus an
uncanny way with women. They were beguiled, charmed by him. I knew that he saw
several on the side. Mother always suspected it, but never chose to explore
it. Obviously she didn't want the evidence.
"Hey, Pap, tell me what I should do?"
He'd reel off divers wise saws that more or less
amounted to: "Be stronger than the opposite sex. Make like you can take 'em
or leave 'em. Always have at least one other on the side. Don't make a big show
of it--she'll scent the competition. Never, ever, let her think you'd
die for her. Oh, you can bull shit and say that you will, and all that coo-coo.
But don't let your heart shit you--for it always will. This girl stuff . . .
all very rudimentary, Son."
And the next morning I'd awake reborn.
Now, at the fall interval of his life, his
dam had ruptured--brought on by Mother's death. Here's my father unable to sleep
because he's blubbering "I need a woman!" and I'm trying to sober him up with
Irish coffee. It's existential. What the hell was I going to tell him?
"Do you understand what I'm talking about, Son?"
"What about Mrs. Calucca, Dad?"
"Fuck Mrs. Calucca!"
We both laughed. That was a good sign.
"Well . . ." I said.
"You just don't get it. Come here." He took my
hand and pulled me back up the stairs. We stood outside their bedroom again.
"Go in there and pull open the top drawer of the chiffonier."
The room was dark save for the streetlight laying
an amber puddle across the bed. One side slept in.
"Go on, open it."
Inside, neatly piled were panties, camisoles and
slips, and--bunched in one corner--a cluster of brassieres. The drawer let loose
a breath of sachet.
"That's what I'm talking about," he said. "Now,
open the closet door. Go on, do it, James."
Plaid knife-pleated skirts, georgette shifts,
crêpe de Chine empire dresses, blazers, all draped on wire hangers; mules,
espadrilles, and spaghetti-strap heels assembled underneath. On the upper shelf--black-pill
box hats whose veils she'd let fall at weddings or funerals. On his side, prosaic
two-piece suits in summer and winter blends. The closet was redolent of gardenia.
"Do you get it yet, boy?"
He ambled back down the stairs.
"No damn way are we ever going to get rid of her
presence. You can throw all that shit outside, clean every nook and cranny of
her belongings, toss out the creams and face lotions, the prescription bottles,
her Bible, her photograph . . . you name it. Scour her out of every board and
the plaster in this house . . . and she still won't leave."
I poured us another coffee.
"I need a woman," he whispered, his face
a hairsbreadth from mine.
"I don't get it, Pap. What are you telling me?"
"You really want to know?"
"This isn't like you."
"Do you grasp why she wore those things up there?
That smokey sun dress with jasmine flowers, for instance? She'd stand there
admiring herself in the mirror, watching me button it up her backside. Those
peekaboo nets she'd drop over her china blue eyes. Undergarments the shade of
"So I wouldn't have to wear them."
"Yeah, I get it," I said. The damn whiskey was
"Listen to what I'm telling you. It's your
mother's stain . . ."
"Finish your coffee so we can go back to bed."
"No. You don't get it!" he bellowed, bounding
out of his chair. A gingham napkin from the buffet drawer he tied under his
chin--a babushka. Like she might have, he pressed his face to mine, and, sotto
voce, mewled again . . . "I need a woman."
I followed him up the stairs.
We entered the darkened room and in a fury Father
snatched her garments out of the closet, the chiffonier, the bureau drawer--heaping
everything onto the bed they had shared for decades. With each item his frenzy
accelerated. The last garment on the clothes pole, a navy blue button-down-the-front
frock with a stiff sailor's collar, he held up to his torso. "How about this,
Junior, with my patent leather please-fuck-me shoes? Are my seams straight?"
He turned like I'd witnessed her do many times, bending a calf up toward his
derriere while staring over a bare shoulder.
The streetlight's corrugated shade serrated the
room's shadows. With one swipe he pitched the bureau's opaque perfume bottles
and pearly emollient jars across the floor and under the bed, a chromium lipstick
tube the lone survivor. He opened it and studied himself in the mirror, my face
Was he going to paint both our lips?
"Pap, please, stop this absurdity."
"I've no bosom!" he cried. "My chest is a goddamned
void. Look at me!" A salmon brassiere dangled from his neck. The circle he'd
drawn around his mouth exaggerated our pathos.
"What's left for me, James? Will she ever come
Father lay down upon her wrappings, burying himself
Causes people to do the strangest things. His
was implacable. I still had him. Her departure hurt, but I could abide it. Yet
a piece of him was half gone. It was as if the heart was now eating itself in
some kind of bizarre, comic remorse.
I slept downstairs that evening.
At first light I softly opened his door. Their
room had been restored. Father was sound asleep. His frozen magenta "O" faintly