I keep running into my dead father outside the Dunkin Donuts on 20th and Chestnut. Well, I don’t run into him exactly. I stand across the street and wait for him to step through the wide double glass doors at the front of the store. It’s a strange thing, too, because I don’t think he ever went into a Dunkin when he was alive. He hated donuts. Still, there he is, every hour or so, stepping out for a smoke in an orange uniform caked in donut batter. He stands in the damp and the cold, squeezing a cigarette between thumb and forefinger, taking long heavy drags. Above him an awning protrudes like a snout, two exhaust-caked icicles bucktoothing from the end of it. I worry that one will snap off and impale the top of his head. It would be a shame for him to go out violently again.
He stares into space as he blows smoke through his nostrils. I don’t want him to recognize me, so I duck into the Wawa convenience store and deli at the corner. Wawas are especially good cover. They are as plentiful to Philadelphia as rodents are to sewers. No one ever thinks to look at one unless they want a hoagie, and luckily it’s too early for hoagies. Waiting for my dead father isn’t an altogether unpleasant business, either. His hours are pretty consistent, considering D&D is open from four to eleven Monday through Saturday and until ten on Sundays. On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, he arrives at eight and leaves at six. He’s lucky to have Mondays and Sundays off. On Saturdays he works mornings. Not the greatest of schedules, but much better than when he was alive, where he woke at 4 AM to work the docks on Delaware Avenue.
The way I discovered my dead father should be a story of cosmic inevitability, like him appearing on the exact anniversary of his death or by way of a vague angelic figure knocking on my door in the deep of night. Neither happened. The very first time I saw him, I was waiting for the 43 bus. A heavy snow clouded the city in a sinister white pall. Traffic moved sluggishly through slush-drowned streets. When the 43 finally arrived, my shoes were soaked, and I was ecstatic for the possibilities of heat. But as I was stepping on, I see a man stepping off. Normally, I notice very little on buses, each face as nondescript to me as one locust’s face is to another. Yet, there was something disturbingly familiar about this man, and when I turned to get a better look, I saw clearly that he wasn’t a stranger at all, but was, in fact, my dead father. Suffice it to say, I didn’t get on the bus, but watched him cross Chestnut Street then enter Dunkin Donuts. Seeing him that first time created a real dilemma. What’s the protocol when seeing your dead father in the middle of the day? In the beginning, I didn’t follow. I just stared until he became too small to see.
The first time I followed, he got on a packed bus. A pole stood just beyond my reach. The bus accelerated and stopped without mercy, and the only reason I wasn’t thrown about was because I was pressed between a very large woman in a track suit and middle aged man smelling of garlic. My dead father, however, lucked out. His height allowed him to comfortably grip one of the ceiling polls, and very close to him was a very attractive woman in yoga pants and a pink coat. I wondered if he met my mother in a similar fashion, while pressed in smothering close. This would explain a lot. As anyone knows, something born of misery will return to misery sooner rather than later. Mom used to tell me what a Romeo he was as a young man. It was hard for me to picture the lumbering balding figure who slouched out the door every morning as a lady’s man. A lady’s man, at the very least, needed to speak in something more than a grunt.
He’s now walking up Chestnut, wiping the perspiration from his thick nerd glasses. That’s what he would’ve called them when he was alive. He boasted 20/20 vision, but it was a lie. Whenever he whistled at some lady passing through his line of vision, he’d jab me with his elbow and point in the direction of the lady. When I looked, I saw clearly that the person who he thought was a pretty lady was actually a man, a young boy, or even an old woman.
My dead father never seems to have on clothes appropriate for the weather. Wind rages, yet there he walks in a too light jacket and long Philadelphia 76ers shorts. When alive, he was not a fan of the Sixers or any other sports team for that matter. “I still got to go to work in the morning,” he’d say. “So why do I give a shit?”
He now turns his big handsome face towards Broad Street. The face is what gets me most. He looks nothing like my father how I remember him. His hair is slick and black as freshly laid asphalt. His bushy sideburns don’t have a trace of white in them. But I know the face. It’s the one I saw in pictures, old pictures full of guys wearing leisure suits, their fat fingers glimmering with want-to-be gold rings. My father’s left hand held a wad of bills he planned to lay down on a pony at the track, when going to the track was a thing. I was the spitting image of the man in those pictures.
I watch him descend the stony pissed-stained subway steps, waiting a few minutes before following so I won’t look suspicious. When I get down there, he’s sitting on a bench with his heavy forearms leaned on his knees. He stares at his Nikes, not looking up once, even when a train comes into the station. I get on the train, expecting to follow him farther, but when I turn to find out which car he is getting on, I see that he’s still sitting in the same spot. He remains there as the doors close and the train pulls away.
Today he is sitting in a bar called the 15th Round. The snows have stopped, but the razor winds are still slashing and relentless. Inside the bar is dim and sweaty. I curl myself tightly in my stool trying not to be recognized. He has a rapport with the bartender. When he was alive, he didn’t seem to have a rapport with anyone. One time, when I was twelve, I tried to change this dynamic. I moseyed up to him after he’d gotten home from work and asked how the docks were treating him. He looked down at me confused and oblivious before climbing the steep steps to the sanctuary of his room. Of course it lost sanctuary status once my equally silent mother came home in the deep bowels of the night from her job waiting tables at South Street Diner. The only picture I kept of them together was from their wedding. They’re both sticking their tongues out at the camera, ready to fall apart from laughter?
So, I watch my dead father drink, beer at first then shots of Jamison. I try to keep up, but I know this is stupid. It will be harder to track him if my mind is cloudy, so I slow down. With every three drinks he downs, I drink one, all the while imagining us clanking glasses and toasting the world.
It’s late when he’s finished, but the bar is still packed, so he doesn’t notice me rise a minute or so after he does. He mumbles a slurred farewell to the bartender as he makes his way to the door. Outside, cars slosh icy puddles, and a few bundled up hipsters on bikes slide unimpeded across slick intersections when trying to stop. My dead father laughs at this. He even stops to watch. I try my best to stay as far away as possible. When he starts up again, I do also. This version of my father walks fast, nothing like the version that I knew. But maybe this was his speed before I was born. Maybe it was my birth that slowed him down. He turns on Walnut, making his way past Rittenhouse Park toward where, I don’t know. You’d think that I’d have his routine down by this point. I mostly do, but sometimes he surprises me. One time, he even led me to where he lived, in a row house in one of those parts of Philly where gentrification had yet to reach. I pretended to be in a hurry and walked past him. I glimpse into the house as he opened the front door. Inside was dark and lifeless. Even the bedroom windows above bore no light.
It’s Christmas time, so downtown teems, making it harder to keep pace with my dead father. A couple times I even get complaints, the loudest coming from these two teenagers who take my hurry as an obvious challenge to their post-pubescent man-hoods.
“Who you pushing old-ass mother-fucker?”
They yell it pretty loudly, and for a brief and terrifying moment, I think it’s going to draw my dead father’s attention. It doesn’t. I grovel a “sorry” to the teenagers and half-jog away from them, fast enough to catch up to my dead father, but slow enough not to trigger the meat-headed chase instinct in the kids. They think my running is funny. One even fashions a perfectly proportioned snowball and nails me in the back of the head. My father wouldn’t have stood such an insult. He never met an insult he could stand. His temper made him something like a cross between an undersexed bull and an alligator with a toothache. The year before I graduated high school, we were on our way to pick up my mother from work, and I got to see the end-results of this temper firsthand. Rush-hour meant bumper to bumper. It was July, and my father’s rusted can of a Ford didn’t have air conditioning. Every window was open to brick-oven heat. There was a black Mercedes just ahead of us. I don’t completely remember how it started, if my father bumped the Mercedes or if the Mercedes backed into my father, but something brought the cars into contact. This is when the window of the Mercedes opened and a tanned, clean shaven face peeked out.
“Watch what you do with that piece of shit,” the face yelled.
My father, without a word to me or any indication that he even heard what the man said, opened his door, got out, and casually walked over to the Mercedes. The next thing I knew, my father had dragged the man and his expensive suit through the driver’s-side window and was pummeling him mercilessly in the middle of Market Street. People in cars and on the street turned to look, but no one made any attempt to intervene. I kept looking around, hoping to see the cops, not because I wanted my father arrested, but because I wanted to keep him from doing something he’d regret. Well, there wasn’t a cop to be found anywhere. Only after having his fill of battering the man did my father finally come back to the car. As luck would have it, there was a break in traffic and we rode through. I waited for him to explain why he did what he did or, at the very least, tell me not to tell my mother. But he said nothing, and when my mother got in the passenger seat, he reached his lips to hers and kissed her as though nothing had happened. Later that night, the cops showed up at our door and took my father to jail. He would eventually get three years for assault and battery (Mercedes Man had a very good lawyer) but only served one. One night, as he slept, the cellmate he didn’t get along with crept over from his bunk, took out a razor that he had purchased with four cartons of cigarettes, and cut my living father’s throat from ear to ear.
My dead father sits on a bench in Rittenhouse Park, shivering in his jacket and shorts. It’s past five, and he is supposed to be at work. I wonder if he has lost his job, and I worry that he is going to catch cold. No one else is sitting in the park. I am watching him from the window of a café across the street. Once in a while a yuppie walks by with a yippy dog on a leash or a tourist stops to stare at the Victorian fountain that will remain dry until spring. My dead father doesn’t seem to notice their presence. He just stares at his Nikes. For the first time, I have a desire to actually speak to him. The desire is a shock. It had never crossed my mind to do so. He has a different life now, and it would be wrong for me to intrude. Yet, it’s obvious that he is going through something. Dead or not, I may be the only family he has left. By the time I wave down a waiter, pay for my overpriced cup of coffee, and make my way out of the café, my dead father is moving again.
He makes his way up 18th then turns on Chestnut. Since it’s Christmas Eve, the stores are lit up like rainbows and have speakers blasting Silent Night, Joy to the World, and Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer. He looks aimless. At first, I think he is going to D&D, but he passes it and keeps walking on Chestnut until he comes to the Schuylkill River. I pretend to cross to the other side of the street. He stops on the bridge that looks down into the frigid water and climbs up onto the railing. I wait for some voice in me to scream, but no such voice comes, nor do I run to intervene. If this is how he wants to go out, then who am I to interrupt?
But he doesn’t jump. He only sits on the railing, dangling his feet over the edge. He stares down at the Schuylkill’s gray tumbling water chunked with ice. It doesn’t take a mind reader to know that he is seriously considering it, and that those considerations aren’t going away anytime soon. Eventually, he climbs back over the railing then turns up Chestnut in the direction of D&D. His pace has quickened, and I have to hurry if I don’t want to lose him. Suddenly, though, and without warning, he turns and sees me, or at least I think he does. We stare in the direction of the other. There’s only a single stretch of asphalt separating us, but I don’t make any attempt to bridge it, nor does he. He stares a moment longer before continuing on his way. Only this time, I don’t follow. Instead, I raise a gloved hand to wave, but his back is to me, so he doesn’t see my gesture. I watch and wave as he slowly walks up the block in the lamp-lit snow-gleam until disappearing, finally, into the dark.
Brian Patrick Heston’s first book, If You Find Yourself, recently won the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Prize. His chapbook, Latchkey Kids, is due out from Finishing Line Press in the summer of 2014. Presently, he is a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at Georgia State University.