Hands that Had
by James Seals
Father rocked in his rocking chair. He half watched from his porch as I exited my car. Father’s jaw clenched. I stood for a moment outside his garden gate, remembering the yellow, brown, and green meld of food that often lingered just inside Father’s mouth. I remember how the sight of his puréed dinner turned my stomach. I often thought, Father’s a hypocrite, or something age-appropriate as he showed the contents of his mouth to his guests just hours or days after having thumped the back of my head for my ill manners: elbows on the table, milk mustache, and of course chewing with my mouth open. Those times that I could stomach the sight of his mashed food, I hid my embarrassment for my father and for myself from those same visitors.
During family parties Father often stood near his prized, mahogany bar, surrounded by Filipino ladies, telling hackneyed jokes when children happened by and bawdy jokes when Father thought the children could no longer hear. I watched as he corralled the usual Filipinas – Auntie Corina, Auntie Kia, and Auntie Raina – near the staircase, near the sliding-glass door, or near the kitchen. When Mother started inviting the newly imported Filipinas, who were in search of a husband and American citizenship, Father detained those girls with his charm and bravado. Loud music often prevented me from hearing the particulars of each individual conversation, but I always took notice of Father’s buttery laugh.
The first time Father’s laugh disturbed my concentration, Daffy Duck had just attempted to convince others that it was hunting season: FIRE! I heard splinters of conversation: No, really; Oh, yeah; That’s amazing. Then Father’s laugh rebounded off of Mr. Richards’s pudgy face. I could see something churned inside of Mr. Richards, but Elmer Fudd had just shotgunned Daffy, turning Daffy’s bill upside-down, causing my little laugh to mingle with Father’s charm.
Before parties Father said very little. He moved mechanically. Father wandered – from station to station – about the house aligning picture frames, dress-right-dressing metal folding chairs, and picking large blocks of ice. My sister and I for years referred to Father’s Zen-like state as his “game face.” If Cindy were to notice Father first, she would whisper to me, “Look, there it is: he’s got his game face on.” Then we would giggle as our eyes locked on Father’s meanderings. Cindy and I learned early on not to allow Father to catch us spying him or to catch us remaining at rest. “Get your lazy asses up and help your Mother”; “Stop looking so stupid and comb that nappy hair”; “Take this over there; put that here; what the hell am I going to do with you kids,” Father shouted as means to inspire Cindy and me to work.
Father’s slender knuckles turned opaque during the act of ice picking. From across the room I watched Father’s precise strikes throw shards of frozen water three feet into the air and five feet away in each direction. On one occasion I retrieved my plastic pirate knife from my toy chest, so I could mimic Father’s actions. I wrapped my left hand around the grey knife, clutching it with all my might. No matter how many times I tried, my brown knuckles never turned as white or appeared as angry as Father’s knuckles had.
Eventually I grew uninterested and too mature for Daffy and Elmer and for that insane bunny, but I grew more interested in Father, especially his hands, which constantly held something. During holiday gatherings Father’s left hand held paper plates loaded with his favorite foods: dark-turkey meat, cranberries from a can, yams smothered in marshmallows, egg rolls, fried rice, chicken adobo and other foods. His right hand, early in the evening, held cheap beer. As the night progressed Father’s right hand began holding clear and dark liquors, holding a variety of shoulders, holding Mother’s right pants pocket, and when Mother’s pocket was no longer available, Father’s right hand found some other pocket to rest inside.
Perhaps this memory led me to again take note of Father’s hands: age-spotted and dangling over the edges of his rocking chair’s armrests. He remained silent as he scrutinized my approach.
“Nice day, huh?”
“No different than yesterday.”
I listened to Father’s rocking chair as it whispered groans within the hollows of his ramshackle porch. His black suit had turned stale, and I could see some of the undersides of his shirt’s buttons as his portliness had doubled in the fifteen years since he had yelled for me to never return to his home.
Mother called Father beautiful during their youth. In the ’70s, Father’s preferred white turtlenecked, long-sleeved shirts that hugged his V-shaped frame. Then button-up paisley shirts became the craze in the ’80s, which Father fit smartly in his many different colors. I invited Jenny, a thirteen-year-old friend, to our Thanksgiving festivities in 1986. Father had worn his blue paisley shirt – the one that made him appear slim, now that time had begun weighing him down. Father had consumed beer after beer. Jenny and I had watched as Father’s sway became more conspicuous. At one point Jenny had excused herself to find food or to find drink or to find an available bathroom, something other than standing around the television set. I waited for her. Then I heard Jenny plead for help. I found Father’s hands clutching Jenny’s right elbow, trying to pull her up the stairs into his bedroom because he had wanted to “talk to her about you and other important issues.”
“How are things?”
“You know,” Father said.
“What’s that mean?”
Father averted his gaze, looking through the neighbors’ dining-room window. I could see the remnants of the scar just above his left eye: I never thought that my slow, straight jab could leave such a hideous wound.
The night I struck Father he had allowed his angry hands to throw a vase against a wall, to throw white rice across the kitchen floor, and to throw punches into Mother’s delicate face. Father, though, failed to notice Cindy’s wind-milling arms. She had raced into the kitchen, frightened by the strange sounds emanating from Mother. Cindy struck Father five or six times before he had the opportunity to turn to defend himself. Father reared back – his face contorted out of confusion, fear, and wrath – Cindy raised her chubby arms to protect her face from Father. But Father found Cindy’s unguarded area, her right ribcage. Father took his opportunity, walloping her exposed ribs; he watched as Cindy crumpled, gasping for new breath. Father cocked his right arm once more, neglecting to see my straight jab as it connected with his left eye, thus concluding the night’s violence.
“Don’t mean nothing,” Father said.
“You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to,” I replied. “I thought today would be a little different: you know.”
“Your sister invited you. Not me.”
“I know who invited me.”
“Plus, I’ll talk to whoever I choose to talk to.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
I stood when I noticed the limousine stop near the curb in front of Father’s two-story home. I looked at Father’s green carpeted porch. Many of the staples Father and I had pounded into place had vanished. I cried for hours that day, never again insisting to be daddy’s little helper. “Get me the box of staples, idiot,” he shouted two or three times. “Stop your damn crying,” he demanded. When Father’s yelling had stopped his hands had continued to point out my wrongs: slapping my ears, socking my shoulders, belting my thighs.
The limo driver exited the vehicle, coming around to the passenger side. He stood, waiting the arrival of his fare. Father continued to rock back then forth on his rocking chair – his throne, as Cindy and I had deemed it. Father and I stared at the driver waiting beside the car, perhaps masking his displeasure of the humid day.
“I don’t know why I’m doing this,” Father said. “Your mother left me years ago.”
“Cindy thought it would be nice. A bit of closure, if you understand.”
“Of course I understand what closure means. I ain’t stupid.”
“Never said you were.”
“I know what you said. I know what you meant.”
“How about we just get into the car? I’ll ride up front with the driver while you sit in back and get drunk like the good old days.”
“Do whatever makes you happy,” Father said as he struggled to bring himself to an upright position.
I watched as Father balled his hands into fists, knuckles opaque. He seemed to be collecting his balance, his wits, and perhaps his confidence. Father has lived alone for many years now, now that his second wife had become “fed up with his crotchety demeanor and his insuperable misdoings.” I felt no remorse as he shuffled down the porch’s three steps and stumbled onto the car’s backseat.
“Are we ready to go, sir?” the driver asked.
“I can’t answer for the two of you,” Father said, “but I’m ready to get this done.” Father went on to mumble something about the use of the word “we” and something that neither the driver nor I understood.
“Yes, sir,” the driver replied.
“Sorry about that,” I said.
“No problem, sir. No problem at all,” the drive replied, smiling.
The driver eased the limousine into the street. I took one last glimpse at Father’s outdated house: the upstairs attic room I hated, the white gutters I climbed down when I had believed everyone had fallen asleep, and the overgrown yard where Father had tackled me the night I had returned to Father’s home drunk.
Father had been enjoying the cool breeze and a cold beer when I stumbled across his property line. “Boy, have you been drinking?” he shouted. I cannot recall whether or not I answered, but I can remember that his dark figure sprang onto its feet. I can remember having been shoved into Father’s wrought-iron fence, and I can remember Father slapping me and asking, “Where have you been?”
Years later Mother informed me that Father had, again and again, yanked me from the ground to my feet, so he could throw me into the bed of his garden, throw me into the concrete foundation of his house, and throw me into the neighborhood street, where the police – “thank God,” Mother said –found and arrested me for underage drinking and for disturbing the peace. Early the next morning after I had sobered up, a neighbor – who had witnessed the late-night bout – bailed me out of jail on behalf of Mother.
“Can you turn that crappy music off?” Father shouted from the back of the limo.
“Yes, sir, we can,” the driver said, once more smiling.
“Is there a particular station you want to listen to?” I asked.
“Are you sure you want the radio off?”
“Isn’t that want I said?”
“Just making sure,” I replied.
“Still don’t listen, do you,” Father mumbled.
We rode in near-silence for the two hours it took to travel from Eugene to Coos Bay, Mother’s favorite Oregon coastline. The rattle and the shifting of melting ice were the only sounds heard from the backseat. Father used to come home from work, place his briefcase at the base of the staircase, remove his shoes, and head to his bar before greeting any member of the family. Ice would clink against his crystal glass, and Dewar’s scotch would glunk, glunk, glunk, out of his matching square crystal decanter. The ice would sizzle and pop even after the glass had reached Father’s lips. I used to observe him as he swallowed the scotch in two or three gulps then finally greet Mother or Cindy or me as he refilled his empty glass.
“Want a drink?” Father asked.
Both the driver and I started at the sound of Father’s voice.
“No thanks,” I said.
“Give it up?”
“Give what up?”
“What the hell do you think we’re talking about?”
“I didn’t know we were talking about anything,” I said.
“You’re just like your Mother, you know. Did you give up drinking?”
“I’ll drink a glass of wine every now and again.”
“Wine, huh,” Father said.
“Yup, but not often.”
“Do you remember the first time I allowed you to have a drink?”
“No. I was too young.”
“You were ten,” Father said.
“No, I was a few months old.”
“No, you were ten.”
“Mother sent me that picture with you holding my bottle to my mouth. You were smiling and pointing at the whisky bottle that was a tad bit smaller than me.”
“There was no alcohol in your bottle,” Father said.
“That’s not what Mother wrote on the back of the photo.”
“Your Mother didn’t know everything I did.”
“I know. No one knows everything you did,” I replied.
Father leaned back against the limo’s bucket seat. He turned his eyes away from me and fixed them on the large boulders and on the petrified debris that dotted the coastline. Father had taken Mother to Coos Bay for their official honeymoon after he had parted ways with the Air Force and after he had brought Mother to the United States from the Philippines. No one had expected him to return to Oregon after having tried to evade the Vietnam draft – running away to Vancouver, Canada – and after having been turned in to authorities by his parents, two weeks before the military shipped him to boot camp then on to the Philippines.
Mother had confessed to Cindy that Father had stayed intoxicated and had yelled at her most of their honeymoon. She had not been afraid of Father’s bark, but she had cowered away from his swinging arms, his opaque knuckles. Mother’s lack of understanding of the English language had frustrated Father. Mother said he had shouted the words “whore” and “savior” and “filthy” along with “freedom” and “America” over and over until the hotel manager had asked him to quiet down before he at last threatened to call the police. Mother had told Cindy that she would have left him years earlier if only she had understood the meaning of his harsh language.
“Hey, how was the drive?” Maureen asked after opening the parked limo door.
“Better than expected,” I replied.
“How’s Dad?” Cindy asked. She was standing next to Maureen, arms crossed.
“Same as usual,” I said.
“Come on, try to make today work,” Cindy said.
“I didn’t do or say anything wrong,” I said to Cindy.
Then to Maureen, I said, “Honestly, I tried.”
“I know you did. I believe you,” Maureen replied. Then she kissed my forehead.
Cindy hustled to Father’s opened door. She greeted and thanked the driver, placing some money in his hand. Cindy ducked into the limousine. When she stood up, Cindy had a grasp of Father’s left elbow and shoulder.
“I can do it,” Father shouted. “Leave me be.”
“Just let me help for once,” Cindy said. But Father flipped his arm away from Cindy’s hands, causing
Cindy to back away a few steps. Cindy cast her eyes down at the ground, looking defeated as father struggled free of the limousine.
“I told you I didn’t want to come,” Father said.
“Thank you anyway,” Cindy replied.
“Don’t thank me. I didn’t do nothing.”
“Come on Dad. Please be nice today.”
“I didn’t ask to come to this hippie event.”
Cindy smiled, “Mom would have wanted you here.”
“Your mom is dead. You don’t know what she would’ve wanted.”
“You’re right. John and I want you here.”
Father surveyed me, then Maureen, then the other guests who loitered along the black sand of Coos Bay. He refused to say anything as he watched old friends socialize, as he watched teenagers avoid their parents, and as he watched his bare-footed grandchildren chase one another along the beach. Cindy grabbed Father’s right hand. He tried to withdraw from her grip. “Please, Dad,” Cindy said. Father looked into Cindy’s bronze eyes; he remained tight-lipped; but he surrendered to his daughter’s beseeching stare, allowing her to guide him toward the ocean front.
It took Cindy six years before she would again touch Father after having interrupted his weekday rendezvous with one of Mother’s so-called friends. Cindy had come home for lunch, her normal routine, and she had heard noises resonating from the heating ducts. Cindy walked into Mother’s room, coming upon the horrifying sight of our naked Father and of a face-down Auntie Lena. Cindy shrieked. Cindy threw Father’s clothes onto the bed. Cindy smashed a lamp into the wall where the headboard had been situated, showering shards of glass onto a terrified Auntie Lena. Father tried to calm Cindy, but she shouted “You are disgusting” as she departed the bedroom then the house.
Cindy escorted Father to one of the few available chairs while I listened to the violent ebbs and flows of Coos Bay. Mother loved the eerie look of the black sand and the large black boulders that rose from the ground, as if still standing guard to protect the city from legendary tsunamis or infamous pirates or the fabled World War II kamikaze pilots. Mother for a short time adored watching the low clouds and the ocean spray consume the black beach after she had escaped the hold Father had on her.
“The skin on his hands feels like paper,” Cindy said.
“Excuse me,” I replied.
“Did you feel his hands? The skin feels like paper.”
“Really? I didn’t touch him. I don’t want to touch him.”
“Why don’t you just let it go,” Cindy said.
“How can I just let it go?”
“It’s been 15 years. You have a family now. Dad has no one left but us.”
Cindy turned to look me in my eyes. “What happened died when mom died. Get over it or at least act like you have.”
Fifteen years ago Mother and I had sat in Father’s living room, talking about her future. “I going to divorce your father,” she said in her broken-Filipino English. “I save money. I move to Oklahoma.” Mother continued to tell me about the Filipino connections and the International Philippines Baptist Church members who had agreed to shelter her and who had agreed to help her financially.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
Mother began crying, “I have no choice.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
I had heard the crack of wood against my skull before I felt the severe pain and before I began to fade in and out of consciousness. Father had repeated the words “whore” and “freedom” as he swung his baseball bat at Mother. At one moment I could see, out of the corner of my blurred vision, Mother retreating from Father as he hacked his Louisville Slugger. Then the next moment the television lay in front of me on the carpet, smashed. Later, hole after hole began to appear in the plaster of different walls. Then I noticed Mother’s head began to spew red.
“Stop it,” I gasped. “Please, stop.”
Father snatched Mother by her blood-soaked hair. He dragged her into the bedroom. I could hear the sound of ripping cloth. Mother, however, neither screamed nor asked for mercy.
“Please stop,” I gasped once more.
The sound of ripping continued. I could taste and smell sulfur. Then I heard the sound of a gunshot.
Father raced out of the bedroom. He tripped over the broken television set, crashing into the far wall. Mother limped from around the corner.
“Put that gun away,” Father shouted.
Mother limped over to me, grabbed my arm, helped me to my feet.
“Get out of my house,” Father said.
Mother and I hobbled through the front door. She placed me on Father’s rocking chair before re-entering the house. I heard a popping sound and saw the flash of two gunshots. When Mother exited the house I could hear Father moaning.
“Is he going to die?” I asked.
“No,” Mother said.
I cried in Mother’s arms as she cried above me. We made our way to her Volvo, driving until we reached Coos Bay. It took three months for me to properly heal. Mother though remained broken, mentally, and she began weeping in her sleep. During the early morning hours she walked the beaches of Coos Bay, collecting – in her sundress – dried-up sand dollars and tossing the furry, still-living sand dollars back into the ocean. She spent hours drifting along the black beach, sometimes stopping to stare at the horizon.
Mother after a few years moved to Oklahoma City with Cindy. Cindy had married someone similar to Father but escaped him before he had time to turn violent. Mother never again married; Father, of course, did.
“I would like to thank everyone for coming,” Cindy said. “Mother would have liked that all of you chose to be here today. She loved this city,” Cindy continued. “Today is the anniversary of her arrival in the United States. And she often talked about how she evaded poverty and perhaps death by coming here.”
I noticed Father staring at the ocean, but I could tell he heard everything Cindy said.
“Mother loved Coos Bay. She said it reminded her of the Philippines, but I don’t know what she meant by that. Before she died she asked me to scatter her ashes on this beach,” Cindy hesitated, “Mother said the tide would bring her back to the Philippines.”
I could see Father had begun to tear up. Father turned his gaze farther away from those who he thought could see him. I wanted to holler at him. I wanted to ask him why he was crying. I wanted to yell at him and to call him an idiot, call him lazy, call him filthy, tell him to stop his stupid crying. I watched as he rubbed the wounds on his hands where Mother had expertly left her mark, on the hands that had brought her to America and the hands that had never allowed her to forget it.
I said nothing. Instead I watched as Cindy scattered Mother into the Pacific. I felt relieved watching Mother make her way home.
James Seals earned his MFA in Fiction from Southern New Hampshire University. James served twelve years in the Navy as an Electronics Technician. His stories have been published in Amoskeag Journal, Forge Journal, Rio Grande Review, and others.