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by Dennis Must

"I 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 admit perhaps.                                    
     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 her blush?"
     "So I wouldn't have to wear them."
     "Yeah, I get it," I said. The damn whiskey was blubbering.
     "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 his double.
     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 home?"

     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 smudged.                          


Dennis Must plays have been performed Off Off Broadway, and he has published work in Rosebud, Red Hen Press' Blue Cathedral, Short Fiction for the New Millennium anthology, Writer's Forum, Salt Hill Journal, Sun Dog-The Southeast Review, Southern Indiana Review, RE:AL, Red Cedar Review, Sou'wester, Blue Moon Review, CrossConnect, Southern Ocean Review, Big Bridge and many other print and online journals. He was awarded First Place in The Alsop Review's 1999, Taproot Literary Journal's 1998, and The Oval's 1996 fiction contests. A collection of his short stories, BANJO GREASE, was recently published by Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, CA. He resides in Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters.


Links: www.alsopreview.com/must/must.htm

Email: must19@idt.net

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