by Stanley McFarland
I was grieving. People believe odd things when they grieve.
I didn't cry at Jordan's funeral. I walked stone-faced with Grace's brother, Jeff, my father, and Kent as we carried the small coffin out of the church. We placed it into a hearse that was far larger than necessary.
"I think it would have fit in my trunk," said Jeff.
Grace was crying, embracing people, as a grieving parent should. I stood and watched. I was an observer, unable to feel, unable to reach out for comfort. Jordan went into the ground without a tear from me.
After all the ways I'd failed Jordan, being out of town on his birthday, divorcing his mother, watching him melt away in that hospital bed, this felt like the greatest betrayal in a fatherhood that was nothing but failure and betrayal. If only I could manage one tear, he would know that I loved him, that I was sorry, that I wished I could have been the kind of father he deserved.
Shelly from human resources approached me after the internment.
"I'm so sorry, Steve," she said.
"Thank you for coming," I said, though I didn't know why she had. I barely knew her.
"You probably know," said Shelly, "that I've put you on bereavement leave."
"Yes," she said. "It's one of your benefits. You have the next two weeks to work through things, to do all the things you need to do. There's no need to be worrying about work at a time like this."
"Oh," I said.
Neither one of us had anything else to say, so after an awkward pause, Shelly patted me on the arm and left.
Later, Dad hugged me. I tried to hug back, but my arms weren't working right. He was in tears, Kent was in tears, even Jeff who never did or said an appropriate thing in his life was sobbing softly. Eventually, they all circled around Grace, while I stood alone, like a tall stump, or a short pillar, or just a bad father failing my little boy one last time.
An hour later I was back at the condo. There wasn't much to do. Jordan had a toothbrush, a set of PJs, and a couple of toys that I had bought him that he didn't like enough to bring to his real home.
It didn't even fill a box.
"Well, Shelly, I said to the eggshell cream walls, "I've done everything I need to do. Should I go back to work now?"
It was quiet. Not even my neighbors were making noise.
Mechanically, I went into the kitchen and made a sandwich. I put it on a plate like Grace had always harped on me to do, but I hadn't done till I moved out.
I stood there with the plate in my hand and looked at the kitchen table, then the dining table, then the couch. I couldn't bring myself to sit anywhere even though my legs were aching now.
My condo had a little courtyard with two patio chairs I'd never sat in, next to a grill I’d never used. I pushed open the sliding glass doors displacing leaves and other debris that had settled in the tracks. I stepped out into the courtyard, shut the door behind me, and sat on a filthy chair and held the plate in my lap.
The remains of some kind of bush brooded in the corner, partially drowned in leaves and trash. There were weeds sprouting up through the cracks in the tile. Some green plant was crawling up the fence. I couldn't identify it. Everything else in the courtyard was dead.
I sat and ignored my sandwich. The rain had left a pattern on the wall. I tried pretending it was a passing cloud and name its shape. I couldn't resolve it into anything other than a stain.
I don't know how long I sat there, staring at the wall-stain, but the shadows from the setting sun grew longer and finally swallowed the courtyard. It wasn't yet dark, but the sun wasn't shining on anything I could see.
I heard a sound behind me. It wasn't a big sound, but in such a quiet day, it sounded loud. I turned my head to see a chipmunk on the fence. I watched as he ran along the top of the fence and then ran back again. He looked over at me. He didn't seem frightened - more curious.
"Is it my sandwich you want?" I asked. I tore off a piece of crust and tossed it to the base of the fence.
The chipmunk scrambled down the fence and picked up the crust with his front paws while sitting back on his haunches. He watched me as he ate.
"I can't promise you good company," I said, "but I'm glad you're here."
The chipmunk finished the crust and I threw him some more.
"I buried my boy today," I told him. "I don't suppose that means much to you. The only things you bury are nuts. Or is that squirrels?"
The chipmunk looked at me as I spoke. I threw down more bread. He didn't pick up this piece, but he didn't run away, either.
"He was a good boy," I said, "much better than I had any right to expect. He was a sweet kid. He hardly ever whined or complained, and man did he have good reasons to complain."
The chipmunk got up and ran over to the bush. He dug around in the leaves and came away with an acorn.
"Good for you!" I said. The chipmunk looked over his shoulder at me, stuffed the nut in his cheek and then slowly walked towards me. He sat a foot away, staring up at me as if it was a perfectly natural thing for a chipmunk to do, and there he remained for hours as I poured out my heart about Jordan, telling the chipmunk all the things I wished I could tell my boy.
I was in tears long before I finished.
The sun woke me. I was still in the filthy chair; the chipmunk was gone. I wondered if he was ever there. The third piece of bread I tossed was still on the tiles, but the first two crusts were gone.
Mostly, I wonder what or who I was talking to, crying with that night.
I've never told the story to anyone. How would I explain it? The chipmunk had been someone's pet, or the previous tenant in the condo had fed him? That's why he stayed by me all that time. These explanations were the most feasible I could think of, but not what I believe to be true.
I can't help it. I believe that as in some Native-American myth, my son visited me that night transformed into a chipmunk.
And in so doing, transformed me back into a human.