Ira awoke with a yawn to a beam of the glaring winter sun falling across his eyes from his window. His head felt like a metal band was locked around it, squeezing his skull together too tightly. The tip of his nose felt cold and watery. He reached above the covers to feel it, and quickly yanked his arm back; his father hadn’t gotten the fire going in the old, crusty enamel woodstove yet, and the air was bitter.
Ira’s head throbbed dully. He closed his eyes, rolling out of the sun’s path and began to drift off again.
But the sun was high in the sky! The realization pushed into Ira’s mind, and he sat up in dismay, throwing off the bedcovers. The quilt which his mother had given to him when he was nine, because it was too ugly to go in any other room, and the sheet underneath hit the wall beside the bed. He leaped onto the frozen floorboards and crossed the room in a single stride.
“Dad?!” The only reply was the dignified silence of the old house. The doorway to the kitchen and the passage to the spare room seemed to scowl at him for disturbing them. A cold draft washed over him as he yanked the door open farther. The top hinge shrilled next to his ear, and a fleck of lavender paint, a color from a happier time, chipped off to land on his shirt.
“Dad?!” The walls creaked, absorbing his voice better; the house was waking. Ira ran through the house, the echo of his socked feet muted on the bare, hardwood floor. The old man wasn’t in his room. The worn plaid coverlet on the bed was neat; the bed was still made.
The cold seeping from the floor was making Ira’s feet ache. He hopped and hurried back to his own room for his coat and winter boots, his heart flipping around in his chest like a fish on a riverbank, and his thoughts searching here and there around the homestead, quite scattered, randomly alighting on places where his father might have gone.
The old man might be in the garage. Ira didn’t want to think about that. If his father had died in Ira’s Oldsmobile, he was most definitely not going to drive it again.
He checked the two tatty, navy-colored, corduroy-covered armchairs and the sofa in the den, still dim from the closed drapes, and poked the worn lumpy cushions to make sure they weren’t his dad. Then he went outside.
The sun off the snow was blinding, offering even less warmth than the sun that shone coldly on his back. The dip in temperature the night before had caused the top layer of snow to freeze over solid so Ira could walk on top of it.
His dad’s blue Ford was parked in the driveway, as always, and buried up to its hood in snow. The sight of it hit Ira in the chest like a big rubber mallet. He had hoped it would be gone. With a brush of his sleeve, Ira knocked away the snow that had built up on the window and peered inside. The cab was empty.
Ira went round the back corner of the house. He had forgotten his gloves, and the sharp air was curling his fingers into claws, making them go numb.
He stopped. His stomach gave a jolt and then squeezed. Everything flew out of his mind, leaving only what he saw in front of him.
On the bottom step of the porch, with a lapful of last night’s snow, sat his father. The hand that wasn’t buried held a half empty rum bottle.
Ira blundered over the glittering white ground, his feet beginning to break through the now melting snowfall. When he reached the porch, he scooped the snow off his dad, then off the steps beside him, making room for himself to sit. The sun was beginning to ascend the roof and shine down on that side.
“Well, I missed saying goodbye to you.” Ira said at last. “What I said last night at the table about the mug being cracked... that wasn’t a goodbye.” The corpse beside him didn’t move. Ira looked away, feeling queasy.
The sun crept higher. Ira fished out the cigarette pack he knew was in the old man’s coat. He methodically tapped the box on the cleared step and retrieved one, stuffed it between his lips, then lit it with his own lighter.
He didn’t usually smoke; he just carried the lighter around. It was shell pink, given to him by a girl in Vegas. The smoke showed in the cold only slightly more than his own breath. Ira looked over at his father to see what his breath looked like in the air and looked quickly back down.
He’d almost hoped for a moment.
Maybe I could thaw him out, Ira speculated. “You still wouldn’t come alive, though.” He pondered for a minute. “Reason conquers.” Pessimistically, he blew out another cloud of smoke, ignoring the faint urge to cough.
“You’d have thought you’d wanted to get to somewhere warm, Dad. Maybe it skipped your mind.” He flicked the cigarette. “If you’d died in my car I wouldn’t have drove it no more. Not that it was warm.”
The dazzle of the sun brought with it the wind. Ira huddled deeper in his coat, correcting his own grammar, “driven it anymore.” With a pop and a crash, the whiskey bottle the old man was holding slipped out of his hand and clattered on the step below. Ira jumped and glared at the dead man. “Jesus, Dad!” He settled down again, puffing on the cigarette and looking over the white expanse in front of them. He winced. It was like looking at a tableau of how he felt inside his chest. As if the snow had invaded him, leaving behind a cold, raw stretch of nothing.
“I didn’t know what to do with it before,” he said when the quiet started beating at his head. He gestured to the land that lay before them. “Now I really don’t. I’m glad I have it, though.” Ira tossed the cigarette away; it fell on the snow with a quelling hiss.