My father called with the news. His best friend Dusty had suddenly passed away and he asked that my sister and I come home for the funeral.
“It’ll be on the beach,” he said. “The way Dusty’d have wanted.”
His words cracked and squeaked like the wheel of laundry line after winter before the summer could burn the rust from the hinges. It startled me hearing him this way. My dad didn’t have many friends. After the divorce, everyone sided with my even-tempered mother except for Dusty, Dad’s old war buddy from Vietnam.
I lived down in Austin, Texas with my business partner. My sister Milne bounced around the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes she took up residency in Portland, and other times she sent letters from Washington State saying that she was ok, but she needed to go off the grid for a while. My dad seemed to enjoy having another survivalist in the family. Apparently, running a food truck wasn’t as manly as he’d wanted from a son.
I flew home two days later. Milne picked me up from the airport in a rented car that smelled like corporate America – suits and ties and paid time off, the type of life none of us could stomach.
“How’s he doing?” I asked.
“Don’t know, Gerard” she said. “Haven’t seen him yet.”
“I thought you got in yesterday,” I said, and my sister shrugged with a tight-lipped smile. Her skin looked like oiled leather, her hair unkempt and windswept. Wooden bracelets dangled from her wrists, a medallion necklace hanging low.
I’d only ever seen Milne cry once. It happened the summer after the divorce. I was seventeen, she was fifteen, and we went to Maine to visit our father for two weeks.
My father stumbled out of his house drunk, Dusty close behind. The two of them looked like feral dogs clomping down the steps, mongrels living on the edge of society by the ocean, a place where they could catch their own dinners or run unleashed when sleepless nights nipped their heels. Army tattoos faded by the sun, the designs looked more like watercolor outlines than anything etched by a needle. A globe and a dagger, an eagle and a waving flag. Their bulky arms hung like sausages out of surfer’s tanks. Dog tags jingled around their necks. Dusty had a half-smoked Marlboro Red pinched between his lips. It filled the ocean breeze with pungent, heavy tobacco.
My father hugged me in the way that soldier father’s hug, the quick wrap and back-pat. He kissed my sister on the cheek. We could smell the booze in his pores. Some people had zits filled with puss and oil, our father had acne stuffed with whiskey and coke.
“Look how big you are,” he said. “Both of yas. How’s your ma?”
“Got the range of a boxer, this one,” Dusty said, and nudged me in the shoulder with his closed fist and made like he was in the ring bobbing and weaving. I smiled politely. Neither man had a temper worth testing.
“He ain’t no fighter, though,” my dad said. “Cooks like heaven, but ain’t no fighter.”
Dusty turned to my sister and hugged her with arms wrapped and bodies pressed.
“Jesus, look at you,” he said. “Where does the time go?”
Milne shrugged and took the overnight bag from the car. She hugged it to her chest. We went inside and I cooked up dinner, even though I was dead tired.
Our mother had prepared us for this. She explained that our father got what he wanted and knew how to chop a person down to get it and now that we were older, he’d start to do the same to us. These same traits allowed him to survive the war so she could never fully fault him. Still, a person has limits, my mother explained, and everything wasn’t a war.
“You gonna wash them dishes?” my father asked after eating.
“I cook, you clean,” I said.
“Them’s your mother’s rules. You’re in my house now, so I’ll ask you again…you gonna wash them dishes?”
I sighed. It had already begun.
“Yes, sir,” I said, and took the plates and ran them under hot water until they glistened. Milne watched from the couch with large, apologetic eyes before retreating to brush her hair.
The summer town that my father moved to thrived with tourists during a relentless three-month push and sat nearly empty for the rest of the year. Tucked along a fishing channel surrounded by habitable islands for the wealthy, a constant gathering of boats pocked the water. During the day, fishing vessels cast their nets and lines. At night, ferries carted automobiles from the mainland to the islands and back again. Their green lights blinked against the dark like the eyes of some nighttime scavenger.
That summer, Milne and I slept in the same room on twin beds against opposite sides of the wall. The first-floor window opened to a path the cut through dunes to the beach. Sometimes we heard our father talking in his sleep, though talking, perhaps, isn’t accurate. Barking is closer, incoherent orders and radio commands coming through the bead-board walls of the oceanside cottage.
Some nights, Milne got up from bed, put on an oversized sweatshirt and escaped through the window to walk along the beach by herself. Most nights, I could also smell Dusty’s tobacco caught in the breeze, too. The jingle of his dog tags rang like a nautical wind chime as he went out for a walk to battle whatever demons kept him awake.
Milne never struck me as vulnerable, so I never crept out to follow her. I’d seen her fist-fight other girls who mouthed off, pulling their hair and whipping their head down until someone latched on with a bear hug and peeled her off. I’d even seen her go off boys when they got a little too handsy at dances. She’d lock the front choke our father taught us and squeeze until they went unconscious. Every teacher asked what she had done to start the confrontation. What had she said? And maybe if she dressed differently the whole situation could have been avoided. The administration blamed her for everything, and for some reason, she just took it.
“They started it, I ended it,” she liked to say, and that was that.
Milne had a thing that I didn’t have, that thing my father had that allowed him to survive the war. I imagined it as an ability to act, to fiercely self-preserve, to carry regret with little more than a whisper. Whatever it was, I didn’t have it.
Dusty lived down the street, but he only used his place for sleeping and showering as far as I could tell. That summer, he ate with us and played board games on our porch. Dusty would howl with laughter. At night, he’d get so drunk that he’d fall asleep on my dad’s couch, his red face scorched by sun and booze, until he got up and either went for a walk, or stumbled home mumbling the same incoherent orders that my father barked in his sleep.
The routine worked, and that summer I thought that maybe this whole separation thing was good for everyone and all those tears I cried were the result of silly imaginings.
And then it happened. On the second to last day of our visit, we lugged our folding chairs and towels to the beach. Dusty and my father brought an umbrella and cooler. It was hot with no wind, the type of heat that gets a person bothered just by being outside and I could see my father uncomfortable his chair.
We had a good view of the ocean. The fishing ships milled as the ferry’s blew their horns bouncing island to island. Milne stretched out on a towel in her shorts and tank while I read through a weather-beaten paperback. Dusty trotted through the shallows bending to pick up shells and send them skipping across the surface. My father stole sips from a flask tucked into the ice of the cooler and began talking under his breath.
A short time later, two guys strolled up and dropped their gear dead smack in front of us. Mid-twenties, athletic bodies, backward hats. They spit into the sand, swore, talked about getting action, and played loud music from a battery-powered speaker.
“Hey guys, do you mind turning it down?” Milne asked, sitting up. One of the guys turned and saw her.
“Why don’t you come over here and ask me nicely,” he said, grinning. He patted his lap and his buddy laughed. Milne rolled her eyes and turned over.
“Our chairs are facing the wrong way. Look at that view,” the other guy said, and they both laughed. I closed my book to say something, but before I could, my father was on them. He grabbed one by the back of the neck and shoved his face so hard in the sand it was like something out of a cartoon.
“That’s my daughter,” my father said. Foam frothed from the corners of his mouth as his arms and shoulders trembled.
“We didn’t know,” said the guy standing upright. He held out his palms in surrender.
“Get your stuff and move along. I ain’t asking again.” My father let go of the first guy and started for his chair. The first guy and tackled my father with a great war cry. Milne screamed, I reared back in horror, and Dusty high-tailed it from the water’s edge to return fire.
They sounded like wild dogs snapping, colliding teeth, yelping in pain until both of the young pups backed off with bloodied mouths and noses. They retreated. Dusty barked after them in victory. My fingers shook. It hurt to breathe. I wanted no part of any of it, but there I was.
“Let’s go cool off,” my father said, and he and Dusty went to the water’s edge, dove under a breaking wave, and came up glistening. Milne got up and walked home as a police siren came to life in the distance. I trotted after her ready to leave this vacation behind.
My father collected his things and came after me. Dusty went after Milne to debrief, to make sure we were all on the same page. He put his arm around her shoulder talking with his other hand until they were out in front of Dusty’s door. I lost sight of them when my father pulled me inside his cottage as a ferry sounded over the ocean.
“They started it, we ended it,” my father said. “Simple as that.”
“There was nothing to start, or end,” I said.
“That’s how I know you’re not a fighter,” my father said, and left me in my room while he took a nap. Because somehow, he could nap.
For the rest of the day, I sat by the window waiting for the cops to come, but they never showed. I waited for Milne, but she never showed either.
That night, Milne came home with wild hair and got into it with my father about this wrong, and that wrong, and how she hated this whole stupid trip, and the divorce, and it wasn’t fair for anyone to be so pigheaded. I got out of bed and walked into the kitchen.
“I want to leave,” Milne shouted. She waved her arms around like a soldier swatting flies in the Mekong Delta while my father stood stone-faced with arms crossed.
“I get two weeks a year. You understand? Two. You’re staying,” he growled.
“I hate it here,” Milne said. She slapped her palm against the countertop like gunshots until my father grabbed her in a bear hug.
“Stand down,” he said. “Stand down. What’s gotten into you?”
Shocked, I watched my sister seethe in a way I’d never seen before. My father let her struggle, a way to burn that aggression to ash. He hugged and rocked her until she calmed.
Milne didn’t sneak out that night and asked if we could switch beds.
“Of course,” I told her. “You ok?”
“I just don’t like change,” she said. “Mom and dad, the whole thing on the beach, I dunno. Sometimes I feel like I make bad decisions on purpose because I don’t know how to be the person I want to be. The real me feels violated, but it’s easier to play the part.”
“I understand,” I said, because I did.
The next morning, our father saw us off.
“No Dusty?” I asked, wondering why he hadn’t come out to see us off and chase the car down the street with my father.
“Probably passed out drunk,” my father said, chuckling.
We waved goodbye and left. The summer air moved with hints of approaching autumn, the slightest chill like a whisper down our spines. I pulled into a local gas station to fill up before hitting the highway. Milne stayed in the passenger seat, windows down.
As we were about to leave, a car pulled up opposite us and a man stepped out smoking a Marlboro Red. The heavy, pungent stench of tobacco wafted into the car and as I got into the driver’s side, fired up the engine, and pulled onto the street, I turned on the AC on and closed the windows. The smell of smoke caught itself near the dash and Milne lost it. She shrunk down in her seat and covered her eyes with her palm. The tears came so hard and fast that I thought she’d come undone.
“Are you ok?” I asked, putting on my blinker to pull over.
“Don’t stop driving,” she demanded. “Please god, just get me home.” She sobbed so hard and so deep that I didn’t know what to say. I had no clue what to do.
“Do you need anything?” I asked.
“Can you erase the past?” she said, and cried until I, too, started crying without understanding why.
Something had changed in her that summer and a specific darkness followed her around that next year. She dyed her hair black and listened to frenetic rock music until my mother asked if she would please consider being considerate. A few times, the school called to say she had been caught smoking out by the track. She invited boys over by the handful and I’d come home to four or five of them crowded into the living room.
“Sup, Gerard,” they’d say, and act like we were friends. “What’s good?”
“Leave him alone,” Milne told them, and they obeyed.
By the time I left for college, she had a small army of guys ready to drive her places, help her with things, and give her whatever she asked of them. My mother hated it, but what could she do? Eventually, she gave in and let it happen. She couldn’t go through another war.
After she graduated high school, Milne moved to the west coast on a whim and that was that.
Sitting in the rental car outside of the airport, we hadn’t seen each other in years.
“How’s life?” I asked.
“Stupid,” she said. “You still truckin’?”
“Still truckin’,” I said. “Business is boomin’.”
“Like a pimple,” she joked.
“Filled with whiskey and coke,” I said, and we both laughed until an eerie hush fell over the car.
“Crazy about Dusty,” I said after a while, and Milne just nodded without taking her eyes off the road.
We got to my dad’s place about two hours later and he came outside with low-hung shoulders, his body more rounded than hard. The dog tags jingled.
“Thank you for coming,” he said, and put a hand on my shoulder. He cupped the side of Milne’s face and then asked if we were hungry. I said I’d put something together and made sandwiches from the turkey cold cuts and bits of remaining cheese left in the refrigerator.
After we ate, we walked to the beach and stared at the ocean. Waves pushed toward the shore in long, rippled lines until they broke with whitewater and fizzled out. The water looked vast, endless. Ships waded. I turned to look at my father who stood with his stoic eyes and stone face and I knew he was trying to make sense of life and death and his place in it all. That’s who he was, a constant war of present and past. Milne sat along the dunes running her palms through the long blades of grass.
“Ceremony kicks off at 1700 hours,” my father said. The golden hour that time of year. An hour before sunset.
We went back and changed. Milne and I took up space in the guest room, the beds still on opposite corners. I slid on my pressed black pants, white shirt, and black tie.
“You look like a waiter,” Milne said. She hadn’t changed into funeral clothes and sat on the edge of her old bed. The jeans, thrift store army jacket, and bare feet felt very her.
“You look like you’re fifteen,” I said. I smiled, but Milne shrunk into herself.
“How come you never told dad?” she asked.
“Told him what?” I asked.
“About your business partner,” she said, and my blood ran cold. I looked out the window at the lazy clouds drifting through the afternoon sky and thought about my life in Austin, about how nice it was, about how I finally lived the life I wanted to.
“He wouldn’t understand,” I said. “He already thinks so little of me.”
“You’re afraid he’d do something bad?” she asked, and I nodded with tight lips. She stood up and hugged me. “I know exactly what you mean,” she whispered, and I felt more connected to my sister in that moment than I had for my entire childhood. Those things that we carried, the heaviness of secrets, if we didn’t confront them sooner or later, they’d drown us all.
We didn’t say much to each other for the remaining hours until the ceremony started. The three of us convened in the living room and then walked to the beach barefoot, the cold sand filled with bites of dry static. A handful of people showed, other soldiers with wild, feral eyes. Those thinning men with long beards and hands crammed into too-large jackets, with sun-bleached baseball caps and dark aviator shades, with warring hearts and track-marked arms, they spread out along the beach near a wall of rocks against an inlet. A pastor in blue jeans and sweater led the ceremony.
“Let us bow our heads,” he said, and I looked at the sand. Milne didn’t. She looked out over the ocean, and then up into the sky. I nudged her with my elbow and motioned with my face to look down. She rolled her eyes and followed suit.
“Dusty was, at his core, a good man. Had his demons, but don’t we all?” the speaker said, and a groan of agreement spread the crowd. I looked at Milne and she was struggling to contain a laugh. My insides went hot, that famous family temper boiling in me.
“Behave,” I said.
“Yes sir,” Milne said, fighting another smile. I wanted to throttle her for being so unkind. Hadn’t the treks through the Pacific Northwest taught her the value of reflection?
“If anyone would like to share a memory of Dusty, please do.”
I stood with hands clasped in front of my navel listening to these scattered men recall wild nights of drinking, fisticuffs with locals in Vietnamese bars, Dusty’s lust for women and persistence in bedding them.
Then, my father spoke.
“He was my best friend. Saved my ass who knows how many times. We’d walk the beach ‘til there was no more beach to walk. Them’s the days, I tell ya. Gone, but not forgotten. Dusty loved Marlboro Reds and I knew when he wanted to go for a walk because I’d smell the smoke in the breeze. His signature scent, ya know?”
My father dug into his pocket and pulled out a box of Reds. He held them up like a magician priming a card trick.
“Ash to ash,” he said, and pulled out a single cigarette. He approached the pastor, and the pastor produced a zippo. Together, they lit the tip, my father took a puff, and then placed it in the sand like a finger pointed toward heaven, the smoke swirling into the sky like letters from the Vietnamese alphabet.
“Amen,” the pastor man said, and the crowd echoed with mumbles. Milne audibly chuckled and I nudged her again, harder this time. The blue sky had begun its descent into night.
“Show some respect,” I said.
“You really don’t get it, do you,” she said. Wind pushed through her wild hair.
“Get what?” I asked.
“I’m glad that fucker’s gone,” Milne whispered, and shoved her hands into her jacket pockets as the crowd of mourners began to disperse. It took her saying it aloud for me to put the pieces together, and I felt foolish for not seeing it sooner.
My father announced drinks at his place and headed down the path. I stayed behind with Milne until we were alone.
“Why didn’t you tell Dad?” I asked.
“Imagine what he would’ve done,” she said, and I felt the weight of every secret we were forced to carry out of fear of our father. “Maybe he did.”
I wondered if he did know, that maybe he found out what happened between Milne and Dusty that day, that if given the choice between his best friend and his family, he chose family.
But I hated guessing. Some things we just have to live with.
A small breeze kicked up and some seagull cawed like a battlefield general. Milne approached the smoking cigarette and stared down at the winking cherry. Her hair caught the wind and mirrored the smoke. She bent over and pinched the thing between her fingers.
I watched her do it and there, in the fading light of day, she smoked that cigarette to a nub blowing the thick, pungent smoke into the sky savoring each pull. Into her lungs she ripped, and out to the world she exhaled. All but gone, Milne stood on a rock as the inlet swept beneath. She flicked the final remains into the moving water where it flowed through rippled currents to the sea and lost itself beneath the white crash of a great breaker.
About the author
W. T. Paterson is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee. His work has appeared in over 90 publications worldwide including The Saturday Evening Post, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Dalhousie Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Fresh Ink.