A superficial gash to his temple, sustained as he collapsed on the kitchen floor. The telephone receiver dangling from its cradle, its buzz expired hours earlier.
Was Mr. Taps wearing a pillbox hat with its veil down? Oh, Jesus, Son, will you look who's here!
That evening we were planning a cookout. I'd invited the Widow Prioletti from one street over. She worked in the corner grocery, a feisty redhead, younger than Papa, who was forever gifting him a baker's dozen of corn or eggs.
"Don't do it, Tom," he pled. "I don't give a damn about that woman."
"You dream about removing her soiled butcher's apron when you lie down for your afternoon nap," I said. "You fantasize reaching under her black widow's mufti rolling her garters and black hose off her chalky thighs."
"She's bringin' the sweet sausage," I said. "I'm gonna let her operate the grill."
I was forever trying to prick his libido alive.
"Bury your problems in a woman" had been his automatic response to any problem I'd confess to him while growing up. "D'ya hear me, boy? I don't mean somebody like your saint mother. Find a dame and hold a wake for all your troubles. They be gone by morning."
Exactly how I pictured it, for I'd never known a woman intimately. Grass to three sides of a rectangle box perched alongside an earth-brown grave. A canopy flapping overhead in the event of rain. A priest gripping the Bible as loved ones in dark attire grieved.
"You do it often, Papa?"
They kept flying back out, coming to life.
It's why his refusal to "know" Widow Prioletti stymied me. For years, following dinner, he'd sprinkle his body with talc, slip into a three-piece suit then back out of the driveway in our Chevrolet sedan. Mornings after, the pungent aroma of a woman's perfume in its backseat was redolent as daybreak alongside the wharves.
The day I passed my driver's test, Papa handed me the car keys. "There's a blanket in the backseat, Son."
Mother stood proudly by.
"Be a man now," he admonished.
I nodded that I would.
But unknown to my parents, weeks earlier a voice had mysteriously appeared in my head to incessantly taunt: What the hell is the sense of living? It's stupid, Tom. You know it, and so do I. If you had any courage, you'd take us off the viaduct bridge downtown.
That evening I drove the city streets alone, then the country lanes, looking in vain for an accommodating woman who'd accompany me to her graveyard.
"Are you doing what I told you, for chrissake?" Papa said on a day he spotted me looking particularly glum. "You look like you lost your best friend."
I stared at my shoes.
"Well, speak up, Tom."
"I can't find one."
"You can't find a woman?"
"No," I said.
"A son of mine, a husky, all-American Mueller and you tellin' me, boy, you can't get yourself a woman?"
"That's what I'm sayin'."
He walked me into the dining room over by the upright Kimball piano that had most of its ivories missing.
"I wouldn't want any of my friends to know this," he whispered.
"Whadaya mean, Pap?"
"I'm saying there's nothin' wrong with you, is there?" He wiggled his ass like Eddie Tinsley one street over.
Tinsley played the William Tell Overture on the piano, practiced at least three hours every day, and got straight A's in school. He lived alone with his mother.
Papa sat on the piano stool. "Tom, do me a favor. I want to speak to Dr. Stutz. Just a friendly talk among the three of us. Mama doesn't have to know," he sighed. "You're my only flesh and blood."
It wasn't natural what was occurring inside my head. The voice, over the days, had grown unrelenting. I couldn't even cross the viaduct bridge on the way to school any longer for fear it'd push me over to our certain death.
Dr. Stutz, a kindly man who'd removed my appendix, sat waiting in a dark anteroom in a leather club chair, smoking a cigar and listening to Gabriel Heater on a Philco console.
"How's the old man here treating you, son?"
The study smelled medicinally. Shelves were stocked with texts and brown cork-stopped bottles.
"What can I do for you, Joseph?"
"My boy's having troubles, Doc."
Stutz addressed me in an avuncular way. "How old are you, Tom?"
"What sort of problems are you experiencing?"
The doctor's chair had wheels. He stubbed out his cigar and rolled closer.
"I worry a lot," I said.
The doctor nodded. I could see the look of concern on Papa's face.
"What do you think it is, Doc?" Papa asked.
"You have a girlfriend yet?" Doc asked.
I shook my head.
"Would you like one?"
Stutz is going to talk to me about burying my troubles, I thought. You go to your doctor for prescriptions. Why'd Papa bring me here?
"It's not what's troublin' me, sir."
Stutz nodded sagely like finally we were getting somewhere. "Tell me, then, what is it, Tom?"
"I hear a voice."
Papa's saturnine expression deepened.
"What's it saying?" Stutz' breath reeked of an El Producto.
"Well, tell the doctor, Tom."
I couldn't bear to frighten Papa.
Ah, there's good news tonight! Gabriel Heater droned in the waiting room.
"I believe I know what's troublin' him, Joseph." The physician's expression glistened. "The boy's conscience is causing him to look so glum. Isn't it so, Tom?"
The men arched their eyebrows.
"It happens to most lads his age."
"You mean he's ?"
Stutz nodded vigorously.
"Well I'll be damned!" Papa exclaimed.
The men began chortling.
"Why, even your old man and I continue to do it on occasion don't we, Joseph?"
"A woman isn't man's only recourse to relieving misery," Papa quipped.
"And any chap who says he doesn't do it is a shameless prevaricator!" The doctor rolled off to the center of the room, drumming his thighs. "No charge for this visit, boys!"
Papa stopped at Coney Island Lunch on the way back to our house and bought us several chili dogs, loaded his grin fixed as if Stutz had told him I wasn't headed to Dixmont, the state hospital for the mentally infirm.
Maybe it was Papa's perseverance.
For him the entire course of man's existence was bathed in an overhead light naked, unadorned. What you see is what you get.
There were no hidden roads in our consciousness.
His admonishment to "bury my troubles in a woman" simply meant that troubles don't exist only if you permit them.
I was being hoodwinked by my own mind.
"Follow me, Son not into the dark waters of the Neshannock, but into the body of one who opens her thighs to you. For there you can perish a thousand deaths and still get up for work tomorrow.
"It's Mr. Taps. And he's up to no good, Tom."
The day Papa named him was the day the voice mysteriously disappeared.
Jesus, yes, I thought.
Mr. Taps. Suddenly the voice took shape. I saw what kind of footwear he preferred captoed black shoes. The color of his eyes were gray, and he wore a felt homburg because he'd no hair. His hands were priestly white.
The viaduct bridge, I could now cross again with impunity, look down into the dark Neshannock coursing towards the Ohio, and laugh. No voice down there spouting Coward, insisting I jump in. I could sing now crossing.
Yes! I cried, my first orgasm.
Friends commented, "You're so much like your father, Tom. I can't get over it."
It's for this very reason I anguished his lack of interest in Widow Prioletti. Dr. Stutz was deceased. Mother had departed, too. Just Papa and I now occupied the house.
He preferred sitting alone in the living room or taking long afternoon naps. Still, he indulged my efforts to stoke him up vaguely libidinous flicks on television, slick magazines I'd slip in among the morning papers.
"Come on, Papa. Snap out of it. Tonight Widow Prioletti will invite you back to her and her deceased's boudoir. She'll undress and welcome you into her arms, cajoling you to bury your troubles
"Before she ties the butcher's apron around her ample waist, and returns to the produce section to spritz the red peppers with water."
But he'd closed shop, Papa had.
Understood that the real truth roamed alive behind the scrim. That Widow Prioletti held no interest for him.
"It's all on the other side, Tom."
Mr. Taps had returned. Dressed like a woman, wearing sheers that hung down to his pale ankles. A veil disguising his gray eyes.
Did Papa fall for her embrace like a handshake?
Had he sought to phone me, announcing Widow Prioletti had stopped by unexpectedly and could I spare them a couple hours alone?
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Dennis Must. All rights reserved.
The sheers drift out an unscreened window, beckoning me into the dark, airy interior of the house. A sash undressed I found uncouth, too matter-of-fact, the moral equivalent of a room illuminated by a single ceiling fixture.
Beyond the proscenium arch always more fetching what was occurring behind the scrim; it was the ether world there and in the wings that stirred my curiosity.
And the woman who awaits me behind the boudoir door, covered like a gift with pollen dust on an ebony grand piano's lid exposed by the dying sunlight if she meets me like a handshake, my will expires. Abruptly.
In essence, my father's words shortly before I discovered him dead: