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Father Figure is Copyright © 2003 by Ralph Robert Moore. All Rights Reserved. Father Figure was published in trade paperback and e-book editions in 2003 by Bookbooters.
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the coldness people walk over
excerpt from the novel Father Figure by ralph robert moore
Through the loudness of the alarm he saw 9:00 instead of 6:30 on his bedside clock. Head off the pillow, everything came rushing in: the dream, the feet in the closet, the dead body, the note he left on his supervisor's dark desk at five in the morning explaining why he would be late for work.
He took his time walking down Mountainview Lane towards town, enjoying the novelty of being outside in the middle of a business day.
Beyond the two-story buildings of town, the bright green wideness of Little Muncho Lake glittered, its center still frozen, ice the color of limesicles.
On the lake's far shore, stepping shyly out of the lodgepole pines, a straggle of deer sniffed along the cobblestones.
That autopsy was the first he had performed in over two years. It was reassuring to know he still had the courage to open a person, could still hold organs.
As he rounded the corner from Mountainview onto Alaska Street, stepping up onto the sidewalk that came with the town's business district, an older woman, once probably beautiful, now stylish, looked over her shoulder at him and smiled as she walked ahead on the sidewalk.
He smiled back.
From behind him, further up the slope of Mountainview, a loud, ugly voice said, "I can tell you're not wearing a bra."
Daryl turned around, feet still walking forward, but the sun filled his eyes, preventing him from seeing anything. He faced forward again, frowning.
In front of him, the back of the woman's shoulders rose. Her legs moved automatically against her skirt.
"Know how I can tell? 'Cause I can see those big, beautiful teats of yours swinging back and forth."
The woman lowered her coifed head, walking forward determinedly.
"Maybe if I keep talking about 'em, I'll see those fat nipples of yours get hard."
Daryl turned around. Blinding sun. Faced forward again.
The woman veered off the sidewalk, arms clamped across her breasts, dodging around a car, crossing to the other side of Alaska Street.
"Dumb stupid fucking hole. I'll core your cunt."
Daryl picked up his pace, the footsteps staying right behind him.
Outside the Lodgepole Grocery the bespectacled owner was up on a step ladder, fussing with the striped awning in the bright sunlight.
"You've got cancer."
The owner turned around awkwardly on top of the step ladder, holding onto his glasses with one hand, looking behind Daryl.
"You heard me."
The owner set his mouth, but said nothing.
Daryl kept walking down the sidewalk, the footsteps stuck behind him like a shadow.
Alaska Street was moderately crowded at this hour, men and women coming out of the doorways on their coffee breaks.
Daryl walked through the crowds, eyes straight ahead, feet rising and falling, arms swinging like an automaton.
Trailing behind his shoulders, the man start hawking up deep wells of phlegm, noisily spitting out the gobs.
Is he spitting at the sidewalk, or at the back of my jacket?
Daryl swerved towards a storefront, palms on the wall of glass, pretending to examine the pyramided display of Slap men's cologne.
The man's reflection passed over the pyramid, staring straight ahead.
Hands still on the glass, Daryl turned sideways to look.
Longish black and grey hair combed straight back. Stark features. Fiftyish. Eyes like an angry dog's.
Daryl waited until a safe distance had passed, then fell in step behind the wide shoulders and swinging arms.
Up ahead, a lanky woman wearing sunglasses, dress shop boxes dangling from her hands like suitcases, sidled away from the center of the sidewalk to the storefronts, moving forward timidly with one shoulder rubbing against the glass.
The stranger headed into her path.
She froze, then drew her rectangular boxes up around her breasts.
The stranger snorted. As he passed her he pointed his snout in her direction, letting out a loud, carefree belch.
By the time the two of them had reached the end of the shops, the stranger in front, Daryl behind, the stranger had challenged a dozen men and women. None had answered back.
They reached the residential section beyond the shops, elms and maples overhead, private homes on either side. At the end of the street, on the lake side, the square beige corners of Sacred Heart Hospital stood above the treetops.
Daryl crossed the street. The stranger continued down, broad back getting smaller and smaller as he passed through the sunlight and limb shadows falling across the sidewalk.
The stranger stopped at the bottom of one of the driveways. At its top, on the left, a half wall of cement blocks separating properties. On top of the cement block wall was a long green box holding nine different-colored tulips.
A small boy alongside the wall lifted a watering can up over his head, tilting thin streams of water through the nozzle's perforations into the box.
The front yard didn't have a lawn, only a big oak with a tire hung from a lowering limb. On the square porch were milk cans.
The stranger stood at the foot of the driveway, pumping each leg up in turn, the extra long zipper on his fly buckling.
The face swiveled to stare up the dirt driveway at the boy, watching him conscientiously water each tulip.
"Those sure are pretty flowers you got there."
The little boy turned, holding the watering can aloft with both hands. Round eyes, open mouth.
"Whaddaya call those flowers, anyway? Those aren't roses, are they?"
The kid shook his head.
"Didn't think they were." He started slowly up the dirt driveway. "So whaddaya call them?"
The boy looked around nervously. "Tulips."
"Tulips! I thought they might be tulips." He walked past the boy to look at the tulips.
"They sure are pretty." He turned away from the tulips to the boy, blue eyes glittering. "Did you grow them yourself?"
The boy nodded shyly, watering can sloshing.
The stranger lowered his jaw. "Not all by yourself! I've never seen tulips this pretty before."
"My dad put in the dirt, but I put in the bulbs. I water them." He lowered the can.
"How old are you?"
"I'm nine years old," the boy answered solemnly.
"And when would these beautiful tulips be ready to be picked?"
The stranger leaned forward to smell one, dark nostrils dipping into the cup of color. He studied the boy for a moment, black eyebrows arching. "I would imagine that someone who grows tulips as well as you do--" his large hand swept out over the nine-- "must have something very special planned for them. Am I right?"
The boy brightened. "They're for my mom."
"I would have thought so."
"They're for Mother's Day."
"Well, I think your mother's going to be very proud." He looked at the row of tulips, each bowl of shapely petals enclosing a space of fragrance. Then he looked at the tight slit in the lapel of his houndstooth jacket.
The little boy stepped backwards, showing an uneasy smile.
"You're shy, aren't you, son?"
The boy rubbed his small thumbs over the perforated cover of the watering can's spout. "I dunno."
The stranger took a casual step forward. "I'd consider it an honor to wear one of your tulips in my lapel."
The boy let out an embarrassed laugh. "They're my mom's." He looked up at the stranger, scrunching his eyebrows together.
"Of course, of course. But surely your mom wouldn't mind if I took just one. One small flower still leaves eight, doesn't it?"
The boy's laugh became even more embarrassed. He looked around. "They're for my mom." He set the watering can down.
"Tell you what-- I'll pick the least prettiest one."
The boy didn't say anything.
"Is it all right with you if I pick the least prettiest one?"
"If I say no are you gonna take it anyway?"
The stranger laughed. "No. I don't want to do that. I want you to give me one. Voluntarily."
The boy dug his hands into the pockets of his small jeans, jerking his head a few times. "Okay, but just one."
The stranger reached down and gave the boy a rubbing pat on his head. "Thank you." He turned back to the tulips, black and grey hair slicked straight back, blue eyes glittering. "Now then, I think I'll pick..." He scanned the tops of the tulips carefully, large hands on his knees, the boy standing tensely beside him. The stranger's eyes fell on the ninth tulip, a brilliant white one with shots of the purest pink deep in the flesh. The boy straightened with alarm. "I think I'll pick this one." The stranger's hand reached out quickly, thumb and index finger neatly plucking the head from the very top of the eighth stem.
The boy pointed in exasperation at the tall yellow bowl in the stranger's hand. "You picked it wrong! You're supposed to pick it from the bottom of the stem, not all the way at the top!"
"How stupid of me. Here, I'll pick this one instead." He snagged another tulip, the seventh, red one, mangling the stem so badly the heavy head wobbled.
"Hey, I said just one!" The boy looked at the remaining seven. "It took me a long, long time to grow these!"
The stranger bent over the boy's upset face, one black lock falling over his forehead. "You still have seven left. It's not my fault you didn't tell me how to pick it."
"Anybody knows how to--"
"Isn't that true?"
The boy made a sour face. "Well you got your flower now."
"It isn't the one I wanted though. I picked this one only because you rushed me."
The little boy stared at him. "Yeah well, I rushed you because you picked the first one wrong. For cryin' out loud."
"That's the one I really wanted, that one over there." The stranger pointed a steady finger towards the end of the row.
The boy's eyes shifted. "That's the one you want?"
"May I have it, please?"
The boy stood back, mouth sickled. "Pick it."
"I have a much better idea." The stranger lowered himself onto his haunches in front of the little boy, so that he had to look up into the unformed face. "You pick it for me, dear." He spread his big hands apart. "That way there can't be any mistakes."
The boy warily considered. "I pick it?"
The stranger nodded quietly. "And then there can be no mistake." His left eyelid lowered, flexing a wink.
The boy looked down into the large face. "Which one did you point to?"
"That one over there, by the end."
The boy trudged over to the end of the window box.
The bloom was orange and pink, like a small tropical bird.
He put the bulb in dirt on Christmas, covering it.
Two months later a sectioned tip poked up out of the black.
Each day after school he'd check the slow green ascension, the gradual pastel separation above blades.
This time the earth gave back what was buried.
His hand reached up carefully over the edge of the long box, touching the hard stem for the first time. He tilted it, opposite side bulging and paling. His fingers felt between them the mortality he had twice envied the stranger feeling. The tilt lowered. With a moist crack, like celery breaking, the tulip tore free from its bulb.
"Not that one, Brandon. I pointed to the one next to it."
The little boy turned his head sorrowfully around, milk from the rupture sticky on his fingers. "Which one? This one?" He snapped the next one's head off. "This one? This one?" He yanked down the line.
"You forgot one." The stranger waggled his finger at the lone tulip still upright. "That's the one I wanted all along."
The boy marched up and snapped it off its stem, the brilliant white ninth tulip with the purest pink in the flesh.
The stranger looked at the blooms and bulbs scattered in the dirt driveway, then quietly picked the flowers up in his arms. "These were going to be for your mom, weren't they?"
The boy burst into tears.
"Don't be upset. There's a flower shop in town. You can buy all new ones."
"I can't buy any new flowers," the boy cried. "I spent all my allowance on the bulbs!"
"Then I guess you'll have to explain to your mother that you lost your temper and destroyed her gift."
"I can't do that!"
"Because she's dead." The boy let out a fresh flood of hopeless tears.
"When did she die?"
"Long time ago."
"How long ago?"
The naked little face tilted up at the stranger and crumpled. "My mom died when I was born, okay?"
"Your mom died because you were born."
"My dad told me she really, really..." He burst into tears. When his mouth opened again, it stretched behind the mucous of his grief.
"Look what you did to her flowers." The stranger leaned over, blue eyes glittering. "Your mom's waiting down in the ground, down in the coldness people walk over, waiting for her flowers. Now there'll be none, because of you."
The little boy blubbered, reaching out his hands.
"These? These here? Sure." The stranger rearranged them in his arms to pass them over, but the one without a stem, the first one he plucked, fell out of the bouquet onto the dirt driveway.
"Hey! Careful, you dropped one!"
"Where? Where?" The stranger started turning around, looking for the head that had fallen, forgetting the others still in his arms. One by one they fell as he turned around.
"Hey! Careful! You're--"
The stranger kept shuffling around, looking for the fallen flowers, black wingtip shoes stepping on all of them, breaking their stems, flattening their heads, until all that was left in the dirt was a doughnut of trampled colors.
The little boy stopped crying. A line of saliva hung off the side of his lips. One eyebrow was twisted way, way up on his mottled face.
The stranger scraped the soles of his shoes clean on the side of the cement block wall.
He turned to look back at the frozen face.
"As before, again. In between, remembering nothing."
He walked down the driveway to the road. In a moment he was behind the blue and white mail collection box, then behind the bough of an oak, then gone.
background on the excerpt
Here we first meet Sam, the antagonist of the story.
At the end of this excerpt is only one of two times where we see Sam alone, outside the two main characters, Daryl and Sally (the other instance occurs during Daryl and Sally's dinner at Sam's, where we briefly, for a paragraph, see things from Sam's perspective).
Sam's walk down the avenue was inspired by two punks I saw walking down the business district in Portland, Maine several years prior, trying to get a rise out of everyone.
When I was a little boy growing up in Greenwich, Connecticut, my mother used to take me for walks. A few blocks past the residential section on Lake Avenue where we lived there were some shops along Lake Avenue Circle; outside one, I believe a Realtor's, I tottered over to a row of tulips outside the entrance while my mother chatted with the white-haired proprietor, and gleefully uprooted all the pretty, bright blooms, scattering dirt on the walkway, before she and he realized what I was doing, surely the inspiration, forty years later, for the 'coldness people walk over' scene.