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Joshua James Wilson Mattern


My grandmother smoked two packs of Marlboro Red 100's a day, from when she was 16 all the way up until 27 days after her 62nd birthday, and that's what killed her.

Don't get me wrong. This isn't going to be an anti-smoking story. This isn't a cautionary tale or anything like that. I'm just telling you what happened to her, and why it happened, as it kind of works in to what I really mean to say.

My dad, he was a sonofabitch. He did all that shit you see on TV movies, the ones where the man's a sonofabitch and the woman's just a firecracker waiting for her chance to explode all over the evening news. He was that man, my dad. He never hit me, or my sister, and as far as I know he never hit Mom either, and so rest assured this isn't that kind of story, either.

But he drank all the time, woke up in the morning and had a bottle of Jack sitting beside the bed and took a big swig out of it before getting up. Then he'd go on down to the mines in Gilbert, get dirty and pissed off and get that black shit all up in his lungs, and he'd get off work about 5 or so, and head down to the gambling place, one of those places that have the casino machines. They only made those damn things legal in the state a couple of year ago, but once they did, swear to God, you started seeing those little gambling bars popping up all up and down Route 119. I knew people who'd take a hundred dollars in food stamps down to the Minute Mart and buy a pack of gum with them, just because they knew that Paul, the old bastard who worked day shift, would give them the change back in cash. Then they'd take all their money, the money they didn't even really have, down to the gambling place and put every goddamn cent into one of those machines. But that's the West Virginia economy, I guess: go from peddling scrip for booze money, to trading food stamps for gambling money.

My dad, he was just like the rest of those poor people, except the money he put in the machines was money he had earned down in the mines. No matter, though; the machines ate it up just the same as anyone else's.

Then of course he'd come home, dirty and pissed off and with all that black shit still up in his lungs, only now, he's even more pissed off because he's wasted something like 200 dollars in the machines, and he'd just plop down in the front of the TV and start drinking and the only way you'd get him to talk to you is if you walked in front of the screen and he'd yell, “Get the fuck out of the way!”

That was my dad.

My dad died when he was 58, never smoked a goddamn cigarette in his life, and standing in the funeral parlor, wearing a suit for the first time since my cousin Nance got married when I was 13 and I had to be the ring bearer, I'm standing there and I'm wishing to God he had smoked, because goddamnit then we'd probably have been rid of him a long time ago.

This time, this day in the suit, when I'm standing in that funeral parlor, I'm 32 years old, been smoking a pack of lights a day since I was 17, and Pastor Michael walks up to me and he says, “You look nervous, Daniel.”

“No one calls me Daniel,” I say. My hands are shoved in my pockets, and I'm looking down at the floor. “It's Dan.”

Out of the corner of my eye I see Pastor Michael looking at me all cock-eyed, and he probably thinks I'm upset about my Dad's dying. Truth is, I just don't like funerals. First one I went to was my grandmother's. Didn't like that one a bit. Been to three others since then, not counting this one, and I haven't liked any of them.

Pastor Michael, he says to me, “I know this is probably rough for you, Dan, and I don't want to upset you.”

“Then don't,” I say.

He hesitates a little. Probably wondering if I'm going to hit him. Probably wondering if I'm anything like my dad. Then he says, like I haven't even said anything, “I don't want to upset you, but I need to know if you're going to speak.”

They want me to Say a Few Words. That's the way Sherry, my sister, said it over the phone when she called me from where's she living in Charleston and told me my dad was dead. One second she's asking me how I've been, on account of the fact that I moved away to North Carolina and hadn't seen any of them for over 4 years. The next second she's telling me my dad's dead. The next second she's asking me if I'd Say a Few Words.

When she asked me, I said, “Why the fuck would I wanna say anything about that sonofabitch, other than I'm glad he's dead?”

“Don't say that!” she said, and I could hear it in her voice she was trying not to cry.

But I kept pressing it. “Just ‘cause he ain't never left no bruises don't mean he was a good man. You tell me you ain't glad he's dead. You just tell me that right now.”

“You shut up, Dan Palmer. You shut up right now!”

“And after what he almost done…,” but I realized, even as I was saying it, that I was speaking more for myself than for her. And so I felt bad, because the only person I ever loved as much as my mom was my sister, and I didn't want to make her cry, and so I said, just so she'd stop, “I'm sorry, Sherry. I'll say somethin'.”

Of course, as soon as I hung up the phone I regretted it. What the hell was I going to say? “My dad was a goddamn asshole. Now let's all head down to SideBars and get shit faced”? Hell no, I wasn't going to say that; even if that was where most of us would all end up after the funeral anyway.

Thing is, everyone knew how I felt about my dad, probably secretly respected me for being the only one with the balls to ever actually tell him how I felt, how much of an asshole I thought he was, and so by the time I got back up to Gilbert, word was spread out everywhere that I was going say something at my dad's funeral. It was bigger news in that shit hole little town than his death was.

Pastor Michael, standing beside me, he takes a step closer to me and he says, “Dan, are you going to speak?”

I look at him, and for some reason I feel like I'm going cry, and I fucking hate him for that. “I need a smoke,” I say, and I step past him, through the doors and out onto the porch of the funeral parlor building.

When I light up, for some reason it makes me think of when my grandmother died, and one of the only times my dad was ever nice to me. One of the only times he ever acted like a dad.

Morning she died, the phone rang and I was the first person to answer it. I was only 11 at the time, I think, and I heard my grandfather say, “Jimmy!”

“It's me, Granpa,” I said.

“Danny!” he yelled. “Where's your daddy!”

“He's at work, Granpa,” I said. My hands started shaking, but I didn't know why. “What's wrong?” I asked him.

“Where's your mommy?” he said.

“She's outside, Granpa. You want me to—”

“Put her on the goddamn phone!” he said.

I guess what happened is my grandfather woke up that morning and made breakfast like he had always done, letting my grandmother sleep in. And when he came back into the bedroom, she was laying just the way she was when he first got up. He said he knew just then that she was dead. He said the first person he called wasn't the ambulance, because he knew she was already dead and it wouldn't have done any good. They can barely save people still alive, he said once, and they sure as hell can't bring them back from the dead.

And so when he knew that my grandmother, his wife of 42 years, was dead, he went back into the kitchen, scraped all the food he had just made into the trash can, took a beer out of the fridge and drank it on the front porch. Then he threw the bottle as far as he could into his yard, came back inside and called us.

Mom got off the phone and called a bunch of people, and then when noon rolled around and she knew Dad would be out of the mines, she called there and I heard her say, “My mommy's dead! My mommy's dead!” It was one of the strangest things, hearing my mom say that.

Dad didn't come home for another 3 hours or so, and when he got there he reeked of booze; but no one said much about that, we were so caught up in everything else.

He looked as lost as I did—and I was only 11, remember—and he came up to me after giving Mom a hug and he said, “You alright?”

I didn't know what else to say and so I said, “You gonna take me to football practice? I don't think Mom's gonna.”

“Sure,” he said. “Go wait in the truck.”

After he came out to the truck, just a few minutes later, he threw all my football stuff in the bed of the truck and got in and we started driving.

The practice field was only about 2 or 3 minutes away, so it didn't feel too weird, us not talking to each other at all. But when we were a block away from the field, he stopped the truck in the middle of the road, and he looked over at me.

He didn't say anything for a long time and it made me real uncomfortable, and I said, “Ain't we going?”

And he said, his voice real quiet, I swear to God I've never heard his voice sound like that, not before and never since, “Are you okay, Danny?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You sure you wanna go to football today? ‘Cause you don't have to.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I'm sure,” though now that he said it, I wasn't so sure.

“‘Cause really, you don't have to go. I'll call Coach Hasling later and tell him what's goin' on and I promise no one will give you hell.”

And then I said, “I have to do something Dad, because if I don't, I think I'll go crazy.” It was the first completely honest, deep-down-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach-true thing I ever said to anyone.

“Yeah,” he said, and his eyes were focused on something out the front of the windshield. “Me, too.”

And then he started the truck again, and we drove on to football practice.

And so I'm standing outside the funeral parlor, smoking a cigarette, thinking about that day, and for a second, just one goddamn second, I wonder if maybe my dad wasn't such a bad guy. I think that maybe he just had his own way of doing things, is all. Then of course, like most thoughts that come about during death and midnight and being drunk, as soon as it rolls the rest of the way through my head, I almost laugh at how stupid it is.

Inside I hear music on an organ. Then after that some mumbling, which I can only assume is Pastor Michael starting to speak, and I know it's almost my turn.

I hear someone's dog barking across the parking lot, and then I remember something else my dad did for me. I light another cigarette, thinking, Why can't the world just let me hate him in peace?

I had a black lab, a pure bred, and it was my best friend in the world for the 7 years we had her, before cancer finally got her. One day during the winter, I was 13, I took her for a walk down by the crick and we were playing on the ice where the water had frozen over. We had crossed once, and then once again, then once again, and were on our way back over to the side we started from, when I heard the crack. It sounded like Sherry's back when it cracked when she had me walk on it when I was little.

I'd made it over to the bank, but Dookie was still on the ice, real close to the bank but not quite. As soon as the ice cracked she just froze and wouldn't move another inch. I reached out to her from the crick bank, tried to grab her collar and pull her to me. But as soon as my hand got near her, she snarled and snapped at me, and I barely got my hand back in time. I wasn't mad, though. I knew she was just scared. I was scared, too.

So I ran all the way home, must have been nearly a mile, and I saw Dad in the living room sitting in front of the TV and he said to me, “Get the fuck out of the way!”

And I said, “Dookie's trapped down by the crick!”

He jumped up and ran right with me all the way, and I pointed down to where we had been, and sure enough, Dookie's still standing on the ice, not moved an inch from where I had left her.

Dad went down to the crick bank and he reached out a hand, just like I had done, and just like before, Dookie snarled and snapped at him. But Dad didn't pull back his hand. He jittered it a bit, trying not to get bit, but he didn't pull his hand back either. She missed him the first time, but the second time she got him clean, and he howled something horrible. But he didn't pull his hand back. He just kept reaching. Finally, finally he got ahold of her collar, and now Dookie's snarling and snapping, and she got him a couple more times, but he started pulling. And finally, he got her back to the bank, and as soon as she's off the ice, she just started whimpering and licking at his hand, the one she bit, as if to say she was sorry. And Dad scratched her head, as if to say, Don't worry about it.

Dad looked up at me, one hand bleeding, the other one scratching Dookie's head, and he smiled.

I don't hear Pastor Michael mumbling any more, and I figure it's about my time, if I am going do this, anyway.

He hated working in the mines, my dad did. I guess you could say it's part of the reason I moved down to Carolina. Growing up, I'd seen how much money people make when they work down in the mine, and I thought Hell, long as I don't drink it all away or feed it all into the machines, I'd be pretty well off. I told my mom what I planned to do, that I planned to go down into the mines as soon as I turned 18, and she just started crying. Well, I didn't like seeing that, so I just dropped it. Planned on doing it anyway, just wasn't going to say anything to her about it.

Then one night, not too long after my 18th birthday, I came home from wherever and my dad's sitting on the couch in front of the TV, and for once he wasn't drunk. I could tell he wasn't drunk, because he looked at me, just as soon as I came in the door.

I said, “Hi Dad.”

He said, “Don't you dare ever go down in no coal mine.”

I kind of shrugged. “Well…What'll I do, then? Nothin' else around here for me to do.”

“Then go somewhere else,” he said. “I'm telling you, Danny. You ain't got no idea what that does to a man. I don't want that to happen to you.”

When he said that, made it seem like he actually gave a shit, I thought he was drunk, so I just said, “Okay, Dad,” and I went off to bed.

About a week later I took a job in the mine, and I didn't tell my mom or dad about it. Gilbert's got one of the smaller mines in the state, but I still figured I could keep it something of a secret, anyway, because one of the smaller coal mines in West Virginia is kind of like one of the shorter skyscrapers in New York City.

But Dad found out, anyway.

I was walking up to the hill to the mine, and there, at the very top, I saw a man standing with his hands on his hips. For a minute, I thought maybe it was my new boss—thought I'd screwed up and showed up late my first day. But as I got closer, I saw it was my dad.

He wasn't wearing his work clothes, just a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, and he was drunker than I'd ever seen him before. In one hand he was holding one of the big bottles of Jack, and it was over half-empty.

At first he acted like he didn't even see me, but then all at once he started screaming, “I told you, Danny! Goddamnit! You ain't going down there!!”

I'd seen my dad drunk, and I'd seen him mad, too. All those other times, all it did was make me shake my head and wonder if there was ever a time that he hadn't been an asshole. But this time, I was scared. His eyes were bloodshot, his face was red, and there were dark sweat stains on his chest and under his arms. The way he looked at me, I thought he would kill me without blinking, if he thought it would keep me out of the mine.

“You can't tell me what to do,” I said, calmly, though every part of every bone and nerve ending was telling me that a fight had been a long time coming and that this was the time to take a swing.

He walked down to me, and I held still, though I balled my hands into fists just in case. And when he got so close that I could smell the liquor enough to almost taste it through my nose, he lowered his head and said, “I said that once, too.” Then, in nearly a whisper, “Now look at me.” I didn't say anything. I didn't move. He turned his eyes back toward mine, grabbed me by the shoulder with his free hand and started shaking me. “You look at me, goddamnit!” he screamed.

I jerked away from him and said, “Don't you fucking touch me!” But instead of going into the mine, I just turned around and went home.

By the time Dad got home that night, I almost had everything I owned packed up. He stood outside my bedroom, and he said, “What're you doin'?”

I said, “I'm leaving. I can't live here no more.”

He was still standing in the doorway, and he said, “Where you gonna go?”

“I don't know.”

He took a deep breath. “Go down to North Carolina,” he said. “Even if you can't find good work, least the sun'll always be shining. More than you can say for here.”

I looked down at the floor, and I felt myself start to shake. “I need to go to bed now.”

“When you leaving?” he asked me.

“In the morning,” I said. “Early.”

He just nodded, and walked on down the hallway.

The next morning, I got up before anyone else did, mostly so I wouldn't have to hear Mom or Sherry or my dad try to talk me out of it, and as I walked through the kitchen I saw a stack of money setting on the kitchen table. It was 500 dollars, all in 20's. I hated to take it, but I knew my dad had put it there for me, and I didn't have any money of my own.

I found myself a job selling produce to vacationers in North Carolina. Me and two others guys who worked for the man who owned the farm, we spent the first half of the day picking fruit from the trees and vegetables from the ground, then after we'd cleaned everything we took the farmer's truck up to this wooden shed that was set out by the highway where we sold everything from, and we'd relieve the three guys already there.

I was gone about 6 months the first time I went home to visit. Waited a year after that. After that second visit, I told myself I'd make it home once a year, figuring on traveling in the winter when business was slowest. But after starting the trek that third time, I was on the road an hour and a half when a white-out of a snowstorm hit, and I had to turn back. I planned on trying the trip again, maybe a month or so later, but things…well, they just came up.

Dad was drunk when he died, and he was driving his truck home from work at about 2 in the afternoon. They'd fired him that morning. They told him he was a drunk, everyone knew he was a drunk, but his drinking had never been a problem before. Lately, though, he was starting to let himself slip. And that's all they said.

He spent the better part of the rest of the day getting drunk and feeding money into the goddamn casino machines. He was half a mile away from home when he ran into a telephone pole. His head flew through the glass. The glass nearly cut his head clean off.

The lady in the van he almost hit told the police it must have been a goddamn miracle he went right and into the pole when he passed out behind the wheel, instead of left across the center line and into her. She had a baby in the back seat. Her son. He's 3, I think. And that boy would have died had my dad gone left, and it would have been a whole hell of a lot messier than Dad's head nearly getting chopped off in the windshield.

Pastor Michael comes outside to where I'm chain-smoking. He looks at me, and he says, “Are you going to say anything?”

I throw my cigarette out over the railing, and I say, “You goddamn bet I am.”

He frowns at me, probably thinking it's a bad idea. Can't blame him, really.

But he turns around, and he goes back inside the building, and I wait a minute or two, but I do go in after him.

I pass by the flowers people have brought, and I think, either they don't know what kind of man it is they think they're remembering, or they're as fucked up and useless as he was.

And I go into the sanctuary, all the people lined up on both sides of the room, leaving a little path in the middle like they had just been parted by Moses (and their faces saying nearly as much), and I look at them as I walk by and I think, It could have been any one of you he ran into instead of that goddamn phone pole.

And I get up to his casket. It's closed because they couldn't fix his head right enough, and I think to myself, Goddamnit if this box was open I'd spit right on your fucking head you dumb sonofabitch. You fucking bastard. You had no fucking idea what you had and you pissed it all away into those goddamn machines and your goddamn beer you motherfucker.

I hate you, I think. And I hope you're burning in hell, right fucking now.

And I stand up at the podium. And I face everyone sitting in front of me. They no doubt can see the tears streaming down my cheeks, but they probably think it's because I'm so sad, because I'm so torn up.

Because I miss my dad.

And suddenly, I can't explain how, but it makes sense. I don't put much stock in it, because it's just like those things I mentioned earlier: it's a thought that'll be gone in a minute. But it's there now. And it makes sense.

I take a big, deep breath.

I open my big, stupid mouth.

Because this isn't about what's true. Looking at my mom, and at Sherry, and thinking about Dookie and selling peaches by the side of the highway, this isn't about what's true. It's about what's right.

I say, “My dad would have been glad to see you all here today.”

Joshua Mattern has lived most of his life in West Virginia. He earned his M.A. in English from Marshall University, and in 2006 served as editor-in-chief for Marshall's student literary journal, EtCetera. He is a past contributor to online political magazine Culture 11, and was a regular political columnist for Myrtle Beach, South Carolina's Weekly Surge magazine. Joshua currently lives in Huntington, West Virginia, working in community outreach with the Cabell-Huntington Coalition for the Homeless.

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