Death of a Failed Man


As the small, twenty foot fisherman’s boat cut across the smooth ocean surface, I couldn’t help but stare at the line that separates the ocean and the sky. Fluffy white clouds scattered the blue sky, and the sun beamed with exuberant enthusiasm. Nature was clearly in a better mood than I was.

“How much longer till we stop?” I ask my stepfather, Harry. The boat begins to lose speed and he replies, “I think this is far enough.” Like there was some kind of boundary as to when it’s acceptable to dump someone’s ashes into the ocean. People aren’t even this considerate when they are dumping their garbage into the water.

Two weeks before I found myself on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico, two miles off the West Coast of Florida, Bill Dawson died. He died a slow and terrible death from pancreatic cancer. It ate away his insides, until there was nothing left, and then it took his spirit. Bill Dawson was my father. There was no formal funeral. His cremation was paid for before his death, and in an unofficial, handwritten will that I found in the nightstand next to his death bed he expressed a desire to, “be scattered in the most convenient dumpster, which would be fitting for a life like mine.” He also left me any property or earnings he had, which amounted to two hundred and sixty four dollars, a nineteen inch Sanyo TV, a fairly new laptop, an uncomfortable, faded leather couch, an air mattress, and a lot of clothes that were either too big, or too stupid for me to wear (he liked to wear Hawaiian shirts and cowboy boots).

While the Gulf wasn’t the most convenient dumpster, we still picked a dumpster of sorts, with all the oil and trash and whatnot, though not as squalid as the one I think he imagined. The boat buoyed ever so slightly in the calm ocean water as the three of us, my mother, Harry, and I, sat there, not knowing exactly what to do next. In my lap was an urn made out of metal, which I assumed was aluminum but I couldn’t be sure. It was trivial to think about anyway, but I found myself thinking more and more about trivial nonsense to escape the reality that faces me. Looking back to where the ocean met the sky, I could see, though just barely, a rainbow that shoot up from the shimmering water.

I remember a time when I was just a boy, maybe five or six years old. My father picked me up from school. I pretended to be sick so I could go home and watch cartoons. I had decided even then that I was too smart for school, a trend that would continue throughout my education.

“Dad, I’m hungry,” I said as the car turned down the street and away from the school.

“Oh really?” he laughed and then became semi-serious, “Scott, I thought you were supposed to be sick.”

“I am!” I made a feeble attempt at a cough.

“Well, what do you want to eat?” he apparently accepted my ruse.

“McDonald’s!”

“Well alright, let’s get some McDonald’s.”

Shortly after, we arrived at McDonald’s. We ordered Big Mac combos. As we pulled out of the drive-through, the bag full of warm, delicious, trans fats resting on my lap, I noticed a rainbow streaking across the sky.

“Dad, is it true that there are pots of gold at the end of every rainbow?” I asked.

“Of course it is, but there are leprechauns that guard each one too.” A smile crept across his face.

“We could just catch that leprechaun and take all his gold!”

“How are we gonna catch him?” he inquired.

“With a trap!”

“Ohh ok. Well that’s good because we could really use that gold. I know your mother would love a new necklace. What’s that new game-thingy you’ve been clamoring over?”

“Nintendo 64!!”

“Oh yes that’s right. We could get one of those too.”

And so we drove around town, looking for the end of that rainbow. We drove and ate our Big Macs and talked about all thing things we would buy with that pot of gold. We discussed how much money a pot of gold would actually equal (which we concluded was somewhere between one and ten million dollars). It turned out to be a fruitless effort, as one could imagine, but it was one of the few times I remember being happy with my dad.

“Scott?” Back on the boat, my mother is trying to get my attention.

“Huh?”

“What are you staring at?”

“Look, there’s a rainbow,” I pointed in front of me to the line where the sea meets the sky, but the rainbow was gone.

“I don’t see any rainbow. Come on, it’s time.”

It’s time. It’s time to bury my father. An uneasy feeling crept into my stomach and I felt a slight choking sensation. I wondered why he thought he deserved to be scattered in a dumpster. Sure, he wasn’t the best dad, but he wasn’t the worst. Some people never have a dad; at least I had one for the first thirteen years of my life. Then I thought it was strange how death makes us forget the bad things about a person. If he was an important man, hundreds of people might have came to his funeral, each pretending that they knew him very well, each swearing how he was such a good man. They would have lined up to catch a glimpse of him, to say their condolences to me and my mother. But he wasn’t an important man, and there are only three people at his “funeral”. And we don’t have the luxury of people telling us stories to help us forget that bad things my father did. I’ll always remember how my dad left my mother and I—like many other middle-aged men before him, he left us for a much younger woman with much bigger tits. Once the divorce was final, he was gone. My father and his whore took off for California. My father even bought a convertible, as though he was trying to become a cliché (and in the process, make me one).

After that I was lucky to get a call from him every month. Eventually I considered myself lucky when he didn’t call. The drawn out, awkward conversations, with him pretending to care how my life was going began to wear on me. I think he caught on to this though, as the calls became less and less frequent. By the time I was sixteen, three years after he left us, the calls stopped completely. But three months ago, I got this voicemail:

“Scott, it’s your father. I know we haven’t spoken in awhile but I have something I need to tell you. I’m dying. Call me back when you get a chance.”

The way he said it, so casually, I thought it had to be some kind of joke. You are dying but you want me to call you when I get a chance? When I did have a chance, however, I learned that this was not a joke. My father, long removed from his middle-aged romance with Ms. Titties, was out of a job, and out of money. This was something that happened quite frequently with him, not having any money. Even when he was still with my mother, my father was always trying to convince other people that he was more important than he really was, it must have been the salesman in him. He told me he was back in Florida, and he was dying. Years of expensive cars that he couldn’t afford the payments on, rounds for everyone in the bars, and gifts for girls he had no chance with had left him on the verge of being homeless, just in time to die from cancer.

“Scott, are you ok?” my mother asks, interrupting my thoughts.

“I’m fine, I was just thinking about dad.”

“Do you want to say a few words?” she suggests more than asks.

“No ma, I don’t think I could contribute much.” She looks at Harry who shifts around awkwardly—I  can tell he doesn’t want to be here. He’d rather be at home smoking a joint, and to be honest, I would too.

A month before my father died, he asked me to get him some pot. I told him I would see what I could do, then I packed a bowl and forgot about it.

My mother’s gaze was planted firmly on me.

“Fine, then I guess I’ll do it.” She takes the urn from my lap and stands at the head of the boat, Harry and I follow her and bow our heads as she begins to speak, “Bill Dawson was a good man, though he had his faults. He did the best he could with what he had. Besides the hookers, the bars, the gluttony, he really was a good person,” She paused for a moment. Her sarcasm here was evident, and I could tell how angry she was by how much her left eye would twitch. Harry put his arm around her and whispered something in her ear, and she continued, “He will surely be missed. Hopefully he’s is in a better place now, free from the pain that this world has brought him, or that he has brought on himself.”

“Amen,” the three of us said together.

“Thanks ma, that was…interesting,” I added, feeling that someone should remark on our highly unorthodox sending off. She couldn’t resist taking jabs at him, even in his eulogy. It’s hard for me to argue with her. I didn’t mind, and I’m almost positive Bill didn’t, after all he was dead. But I was glad that Harry stepped in to calm her down. Just as my mother was emptying the urn into the water, a breeze blew across the boat, blowing the ashes back at us. In a matter of seconds, the three of us were coughing in a cloud of my dead father.

The last time I saw my father was the week before he died. At this point he was living in a house just outside of Gainesville, Florida. He chose to die twenty-five minutes from me and I couldn’t help but feel a little angry at this decision. Why couldn’t the old man face this alone? He didn’t mind not having me around when he wasn’t dying. He had forgone conventional treatments for the cancer, they were painful and debilitating, and even the doctors admitted that at this stage, there was no use. He accepted his fate and now just wanted to die heavily medicated and in a house, not a hospital (if only we could all be so lucky).

I knocked on the door and heard him try to yell “come in” but what came out was more like a gravelly moan. I saw him sitting on his couch; the once robust man of nearly three hundred pounds had been reduced to a mere one-hundred and fifty. His full head of hair, that not even age could thin, was non-existent. Only thin strands around the crown of his head remained. I wanted to cry looking at him, this pale skeleton of a man. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I felt nothing but pity and a sick sense of hope. Hope that I don’t turn out like him. As I came in and sat next to him he lifted a cigarette to his lips, his hands shaking violently as he moved it upwards. I grabbed the lighter next to him and lit the cigarette for him.

“Pops, what are you doing, smoking these things?”

“What’s it matter I’m gonna be dead in a few days anyway?!” he replied, and then coughed harshly.

“Don’t say that, I’m sure you’ve got plenty of time,” I was lying, each time I visited (about once a week), he looked worse than before, soon each time I came over I would imagine that I’d be the one to find him dead. Our visits were mostly superficial, but as much as I hated him for leaving me, and as angry as I was for him coming back into my life just to die, I couldn’t condemn him. That day, before I left, he grabbed my arm. He was trembling, “Son, I know I haven’t been a very good father”

“I’d say you haven’t been much of a father at all” the sharpness of these words surprised me and I tried to take them back, “I’m sorry I didn’t mean that.”

“No, it’s true,” he agreed. “Son, I don’t believe in God, or Buddha or whatever those Hindus believe in. I have nothing to look forward to in death, except for the fact that I’ll be dead and not dying of cancer,” he let out a shrill laugh and coughed. “I just don’t want you to think I was all bad, I always loved you.” I wanted to say, then where the hell were you for the last ten years? I wanted to yell at him and tell him he’s a terrible person that never loved me. But I didn’t say any of these things. Instead I told him that I loved him too, and I promised I wasn’t going to let him face this alone. This comforted him. He released his feeble clutch on my arm, we hugged (which I could endure only shortly as the man smelt like rotten eggs scrambled with burnt hair), and I left.

A week later I got a call from him while I was out drinking with my friends. I ignored the call and decided that I would call him back the next day. But the next day his call was out of my mind, a night of drinking erased it from my conscious. A week after that, I visited him again. When I knocked on the door there was no response. I opened the door and was instantly overcome by a stench I had never experienced before, but I knew right away what it meant. I tried to control my gagging, and not throw up when I saw him once again sitting on the couch, as though he hadn’t moved since the last time I was there. He was sitting there, slouched and lifeless, with the phone clutched in his hand. I wanted to cry, but I only felt pity.

 

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