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Ben can’t help but wonder, as he watches the water plummet past his apartment window in a sludgy deluge, whether he is a sociopath for not being able to cry when he thinks of his father. It has been weeks since the funeral, almost a month since the day his father died. Standing in his apartment with the lights off, watching his upstairs neighbor’s daily downpour catch the red light of the rising sun, Ben thinks of actors who can make themselves cry on command and wonders if he could learn to make himself feel worse.
Toward the end, Ben had taken to carrying a photo of himself in his wallet. On the surface, he knew it seemed an act of extreme and unfounded vanity but, in reality, he did it out of necessity – a desperate desire for survival. In those days, his father had taken to mistaking him so frequently and so convincingly for Ben’s uncle that Ben himself had started to wonder. He’d carried that photo to ensure that, in clinging to his father’s thin ankle in an effort to keep him from floating up far from the earth, he too wouldn’t lose his tethers to reality and simply drift away.
The funeral had begun and persisted under black umbrellas and heavy, weeping skies. Ben had hoped that the other mourners would mistake the rain on his face for tears. By the end, the sky had returned to an amiable blue, and Ben had driven home with a dry face and a suit so wet that it soaked through the fabric of his driver’s seat and left a slight musty smell for days after. He had jettisoned the wet fabric as soon as his front door was closed and left it in a puddle on the floor. While puttering mechanically around his kitchen to heat up a desperation dinner of macaroni and cheese, peas, and chicken nuggets, he had stopped short at the sight of rain flooding down his window under a sunny sky.
In his boxers, in front of the window, he had stood with a tight throat and loose fists as he watched the impossible rain run until it trickled and ceased. The microwave’s ding declared his dinner ready. Only when he saw that the water had dried into filthy trails did he consider that it hadn’t been rain.
Ben’s father had been serious about many things, but cleanliness was perhaps chief among them. He had organized compulsively, cleaned meticulously, and tolerated no material disorder in his household. He had, through repetition of habit and of punishment, raised children who operated about the same.
The first time the water came, Ben called building management and asked for his windows to be cleaned. Delayed but diligent, they arrived three days later in a lift to scrub the dirty streaks clean. And Ben was, for some time, something resembling satisfied.
And then the water returned. He watched in annoyance and astonishment as it raced down the glass, until it once again dried in grey-brown tracks like earthy stained glass as it refracted the light over his walls.
“You have to let the light in,” his father had said. “Always, no matter what, the light must get in.”
He had been referring primarily to the blinds that Ben had kept perennially closed as a teenager, but Ben was struck by a sudden urge to break the glass with his fists, to let the sun in unimpeded. He wanted to feel the rays, to bask until he burned.
“It’s so dark in here,” his father had said, at the beginning of the end, before the illness stole his words. “I keep opening the blinds, but I…” He would trail off, lost again on the winding roads of his own thoughts.
Sometimes, the complaint was instead, “It’s musty, and they won’t even let me open the windows.”
“Who are they, Dad?” Ben had asked. “I can talk to them.”
“Who are they? You know who, the people, the ones who run the place, this place, the–” Then there was the slight flicker in his eyes, the one that signaled a change in his train of thought, like a flicked switch. “Oh, speaking of, I meant to ask your mother how they’re doing.”
“Ask mom how who’s doing, Dad?”
Ben’s maternal grandparents had been gone for years. He never quite knew how to answer that one. He usually provided a vague “good, good” and went on.
Sometimes, Ben’s father just looked up at his son with wide, hopeful eyes. Sometimes, he held his son’s hand. Sometimes, he smiled, and in doing so wordlessly proclaimed his great love for his son. This was the worst. Of everything, all of it, this was what cut him like glass, a wound that never quite healed, and that he couldn’t help but worry continuously, like a toothache touched constantly by the tongue.
The third – and fourth, and fifth – time that the water came back, Ben seized his broom and used it to bang on the roof. He lived on the second floor from the top, Unit 515, so he knew it had to be the residents of 615 that were so carelessly dumping their water. But in spite of the muffled thuds of his complaints, he received no respite from his upstairs neighbor. Management had asked that he stop putting in such frequent window-cleaning requests, so the streaks remained, a constant barrier to the light.
Sometimes Ben had been afraid for his father. Not afraid of, although the man was tall and wide and his voice boomed low and with such self-possession that it seemed to expand, to almost suffocatingly fill the space it was in. No, Ben had never been afraid of his father, but he had sensed the great distance that lay between his father and everyone he loved, a distance that he created for reasons Ben could not as a child quite understand, but that became second nature to him. And Ben had feared for his father’s inevitable loneliness, an isolation that he curated with practiced precision.
Ben’s father had grown up in exactly those circumstances that make a man large, his voice resounding, and his presence altogether separate from his company. Ben had seen the home he grew up in, whitewashed clapboard on 400 acres, encircled by a thicket of apple trees so dense they seemed to shut out all sound. He had turned in circles until he was almost certain that he would never make his way out of his little wooded cove, would never reach the road and drive far and fast away.
Inside, while his grandparents had moved unhurriedly about their kitchen – it was jam-canning season – Ben had wandered upstairs, his feet creaking on the old wooden steps. In his father’s childhood bedroom, he stared at an army uniform laid out on the bed. He stared with his mouth just slightly ajar for so long that his throat began to feel like the scratchy old twill in front of him. His father had never spoken of war, and Ben had spent a young lifetime unknowing.
There, in that room, Ben imagined – because he could not understand – what it would be like to grow up here within the still, lonely ring of these trees, and then to be thrust so suddenly into a world that screamed and burned. In that moment of his imagining, he felt a sudden, crippling pang in his chest – he had never expected how painful it would be to begin to know his father.
When the water came again and again and again, Ben lost count. Now, he lies dry-eyed on his bed and stares at the ceiling until he knows his head will spin when he tries to rise.
Having exhausted all of his personal days and bereavement leave, and knowing that he can’t afford to lose his job, Ben dresses in black slacks, a white button down, and the striped, maroon tie that his father had given him upon graduation. As he mechanically pours coffee from the carafe into his thermos, he hears the tell-tale rush of water and, for a reason he cannot place, slams the thermos onto the counter so hard that coffee sloshes over the sides. Hand dripping and heart pounding, he races into the hall and up the stairs. He does not think to put on his dress shoes, and his socked feet make a hard hushing sound on the steps.
Throwing open the door, he makes a beeline back down the hall, and begins banging as hard as his fists can take on the door of Unit 615. He pounds on the door for a full minute, and then two, until he finally hears the susurration of well-oiled hinges. It is not the door against which he now leans his entire body, but that of Unit 617 to its right, and out pokes the downy head of a peeved neighbor.
“Can I help you, pal?” the scruffy man asks.
Ben speaks through heaving breaths, “This asshole has been pouring fucking water out their window and onto mine for the past week, and I’m fucking done with it.”
The neighbor’s annoyance gives way to puzzlement. “What are you talking about? No one’s lived there for months.” The man glances at Ben’s socked feet, and then his coffee-stained hand, and clears his throat. “Look, whatever, good luck figuring out that mystery. Just quit your banging.”
The neighbor retreats. Ben is once again alone.
Ben had been a sick child, so frequently and powerfully ill that many of his memories from the time took place in his bed, where he would cough, turn, cough, turn again. The rolling-over allowed him enough of a change of perspective that he could occasionally feel that he was somewhere else entirely.
He had been self-conscious of it, mostly because the kids at school teased him mercilessly, for his gaunt, consumptive face and his frail, thin limbs. They called him “Toothpick” and, with that signature creativity possessed only by the cruelest of children, would bring illustrative props to snap in two to prove their point. The worst of it was that Ben couldn’t be certain that they wouldn’t be able to break him if they wanted to badly enough. He was painfully aware of his own frailty.
His insecurity had also stemmed from his adoration of his father, a man whose solidity was undeniable, the picture of strength and good health. He wanted to be like his father – to be his father – and the stark contrast between them pained him.
On Ben’s myriad days in bed, his father would come bearing soup and a handheld vacuum and, once finished cleaning, he would sit beside the bed for a time with a newspaper. They would read in silence. Ben’s father would ensure that the blinds were kept open so that his son could feel the sun on his face even if he could not venture out into it. He would wipe down the glass every day with a fresh-scented concoction and would leave the room smelling of lemon and verbena, basil and the spice of his cologne.
Trudging as though weighed down by every single drop of the water that has rushed past his window over the past week, Ben makes his way down one flight of stairs, and doesn’t stop at his floor. He continues his descent until he has reached the ground floor and then slips outside.
The air is cold. Ben hadn’t quite noticed when it ceased to be fall and became winter. He tiptoes down the sidewalk, trying to expose the soles of his feet to as little of the frigid cement as possible, and tilts his head back.
There, high above his head, so far he has to squint to see it against the overcast sky – a broken gutter. The metal gave way, and the water followed. And Ben, his whole body shaking, begins to laugh – a laugh that starts small, and then grows until it reverberates through his body, through the air, until he feels as big as his father. From the clouds miles above him, a flake of snow drifts toward Ben’s face.
And now he remembers – more than remembers, he’s there, seeing it ever so clearly. His father, sitting silhouetted in the window of his room when a much younger Ben blinks open his eyes from a long and dreamless sleep. Seeing his father there, his head angled such that Ben can recollect tenderly that growing bald patch on the back of his head with the new white hairs glowing faintly about it like a saintly halo, Ben’s breath leaves his chest entirely. Yes, he is eight years old now, and this sickly boy who does not yet know grief finds himself wondering if he has really awoken from his fever dreams or if he is simply slipping into a new dreamscape.
His father seems to sense him waking and turns with a smile so joyful that it shines in its unfamiliarity. The man beckons his son to the window, and the boy stands, drifting like a ship on peaceful tides to a soft and sandy shore. His father’s arm encircles his shoulder, tentative, as though – with this gesture that is commonplace to many fathers and sons but not to these watchers at the window – he is afraid to press too much weight upon Ben’s bony shoulders. He points out the glass to what could easily have been one of the snowy Monet pieces Ben’s mother loved so dearly. Framed perfectly by the pale pine window frame, the landscape outside is composed of whites so soft they could almost be powder blues, settling against trees deep and dark and richly shadowed. Huge, carefree flakes spin and dance on gusts just beyond the window, and Ben watches his father press his fingertips against the chilled glass with the yearning of a child. After many years in hotter climes, Ben’s father’s smile is so open, so delighted, at the sight of all the spun-sugar snow, close enough that he can hold it vividly in his mind, but far enough that it won’t melt at his touch.
When his father turns at last back to his son, Ben is 30 years old and barely able to breathe at the feeling of his father’s smiling gaze on his face and the weight of his arm wrapped gingerly about his shoulder. Standing in the first snowfall of the season and the eleven thousand and forty-first sunrise of his life, Ben raises a hand to his cheek and feels a dampness there. He can’t be sure whether it’s the snow or something equally raw but less simple, a bit saltier. He’s not even sure that it matters anymore.
Ben sees the smile still in his mind, a smile glimpsed as a child that he came only to comprehend many years later after his father became a different and drifting man. Ben will carry with him a mixture of sorrow and joy at the thought of that expression in the years to come. With the memory of the smile, he holds his father in his mind so carefully and so dearly, unmelting like a snowflake just beyond a window.
Andie Weber (she/her) is a Minneapolis-based writer with a love for the surreal. Her work has previously appeared in Overheard and The Foundationalist. At any given moment, you can find her in pursuit of good food, weird roadside attractions, or a song to play on loop for three days straight and then never listen to again. Learn more about her work at anweber.com.