“I figured it was my last chance to be somebody, to make something of my life,” Alex said. “So at thirty during the war. I enlisted. I wanted to be an officer. It seemed like it was all stacked against me.”
Alex lay in his bed sunken and wasting away from a sickness no one could diagnose. It was unsettling seeing a man who just a few years ago stood six three and two hundred pounds. He still had massive hands and a barrel chest. Grey stubble covered his face like a burned forest.
The room was the bedroom of a small home purchased a couple of years earlier. Present was an odor like a load of soiled laundry. A light layer of dust covered everything. The sun struggled to cast its rays through water-stained windows.
“What do you mean, Dad?” AJ said.
“When I went through the physical in basic training they asked me to do a deep knee bend. My knee was so swollen I could hardly walk on it. That disqualified me from OCS. In basic, they all called me ‘Dad’ or ‘Pop.’ I was the oldest guy in my company; hell I was the oldest guy in the battalion. War is for young men made up of old men. They took care of me. There were things that a guy my age and with my knees couldn‘t do. Yeah, they were a great bunch of guys. I‘d like to see them all one more time before I go.”
“Don’t talk that way, Dad,” AJ said. “You’re going to be okay.”
“No, I’m not, son. No, I’m not.” Alex looked at a framed photo of himself taken when he was in the Army. “I’m only half the man now that I was then, maybe even less than that. It’s amazing what years of hard living can do to you. Take care of yourself, son. Don’t let yourself go to hell.”
“I love you, Dad,” AJ said.
“I love you too, son,” Alex said and smiled.
“You’ve been a good Dad,” AJ said.
“No I haven’t,” Alex said. “Not even close. If I had it to do over I swear to god it would be different.”
“I know you would, Dad,” AJ said. “You tried your best.”
“No, I didn’t, son,” Alex said. “But there’s some unfinished business. I have to get it off my chest. Nobody else knows.”
“Dad, you don’t have to tell me anything,” AJ said.
“Yes I do,” Alex said. “If I don’t tell you it will be gone forever. I must tell you.”
“Dad, let it be between you and god,” AJ said.
Alex smiled and chuckled with a cough. “God has nothing to do with it. Some things will die with me. You’ll never get that out of me.” Alex cleared his throat. “Go fix some coffee, son, I want you to stay for a while. I got a story to tell you.”
“Sure, Dad,” AJ said. “I’ll put some coffee on.”
“Make it strong, son,” Alex said. “Make it good and strong.”
The coffee was started and AJ walked back the hallway to Alex’s bedroom. He had fallen asleep. AJ sat on a chair next to the bed for a moment expecting him to awaken. He wondered what heavy secret he had locked in his mind and wanted to allow it to escape. Alex seldom spoke of trivialities, it had to be something important to him.
The sound of the coffee percolating started slow and hurried like a snare drum.
AJ stood to check on the coffee. Alex said, “Um, that smells good. Put a little cream in it for me.”
“Sure thing, Dad, just the way you like it.”
Carefully AJ walked back the hallway with two cups of coffee on saucers. By the time he entered the room, Alex was sitting in bed.
“That little snooze helped,” Alex said. “I feel pretty fresh. Not good enough to go fishin’, but fresh enough to tell you a story.”
AJ handed the coffee to him and he sipped it slowly. He smiled. “That’s good. Thank you, son.” He sat the coffee on the table next to the bed where a pack of Camels, a silver lighter, and a Louis L’Amour book, The Tall Stranger, lay face down and open.
In many ways, Alex was a character from a L’Amour novel. He was tough and could carry his own with anyone who cared to do so. Alex lived out the lives of characters from L’Amour novels in the bars, honky-tonks, and dives throughout Muncie, Indiana. He was a tough man to follow. Everyone expected AJ to be a ’chip off the old block,’ but he cared little for revel rousing and the like. It was difficult for AJ to harmonize fatherhood with Alex’s lifestyle. That, though, was in the past. AJ thought his Dad was at a time in his life when it was necessary to atone for past inequities. At least that is what AJ was prepared for at this time.
Alex’s demeanor was gruff and seldom showed sentimentality or pity. AJ suspected little had been offered him in his time. He was reared in a tough era. He grew up learning to solve conflicts with his fists. This was going to be his memoir and AJ expected little to change.
“It’s a long story, son,” he said, “But it’s got to be told. What you do with it is for you to decide.”
“Sure, Dad,” AJ said and sipped the coffee. He placed it on the table next to him.
Alex looked at the two coffees. “That’s us, very different. You drink yours like a man, black. I could never drink it black. I sometimes add sugar.” He chuckled and slightly coughed. “At one time I wanted you to be like me, but the older I got I didn’t want that for you. Nobody told me how to be. I wished I had that. My dad tried, but I was too bull-headed. I was a know-it-all. My dad was really a good man. I wished he’d lived long enough for you to know him, but even by the time I was born he was an old man.”
“I would have liked to have known him too,” AJ said. “But, Dad, the man you are describing is yourself, I never knew. You were a good father.
Alex continued as if AJ said nothing. “He had a gentle side like you, but ya didn’t dare cross him,” Alex said. “I did it once. He put me on the ground so fast I didn’t know what happened. He was so strong and quick. That was the last time I said anything that resembled a crossword to him. I miss that old man. I wanted to please him, but he died before I really had a start in life. I suppose if he lived I would have done things to please him. I wanted his approval above all else. I don’t think he ever knew that.”
Alex reached for his coffee and sipped it. “The clock is ticking,” he said nodding to the clock on the dresser. “I got to get to the story.”