Fiction · 04/27/2016

Returning

At the Saturday farmer’s market on our town green I buy late lettuce and inhale the first smoky whiff of fall. My son is across the street going through boxes of used books at the library society’s paperback sale. Will’s fifteen now, tall and skinny, into horror and science fiction.

I’m tempted by homespun knitting wool, then move on to the next stand. From the back of a faded station wagon hangs a hand-painted sign saying MEAT & GAME and below that:

Venison     Rabbit     Bison     Duck     Homemade Sausage & Jerky

An “Out” sticker overlaps Duck. The seller is an old man in a plaid shirt, weighing sausages on a hanging scale. I notice his unkempt eyebrows, high cheekbones, the seamed and pleated skin of cheek and neck. I look again, and he’s my father. Yes, that’s his twice-broken nose, his truculent lower lip.

Eighty-one years old, my father would be, if he were alive. He was not yet fifty when he died. When he first reappeared like this, he was coming up the steps to a diner just as I was going out: a tall man with white hair, carrying a newspaper, looking hung-over on a Saturday morning. My husband went on past him, but I paused, trying to think what to say.

I felt ashamed that I’d believed he was dead. When my mother told me he was gone— that was the word she used, “gone”—I was away at college, not there to see him die. The body in the coffin, couldn’t that have been some kind of fake? I’d been fooled, stupid. At the diner doorway I blurted an apology, but it only made him disappear back into a stranger who gave me a confused smile as he brushed by. I was three months pregnant, just beginning to show. We’d gone out for pancakes because I craved them. I wondered if pregnancy was making me imagine things.

In the years since, he’s shown up now and then and let me see him. He was on a park bench, smoking, once when I had Will out in the stroller. The time I saw him dressed in a sports coat, happily having a pan roast at Grand Central’s oyster bar, I learned he will talk to me as a stranger if I don’t acknowledge the recognition.

He’s turned away from me now, wrapping a customer’s meat in parchment paper, his shoulders stiff, like the rake-shoulders of the scarecrow I built for Halloween the year we moved back here to New Jersey, way farther out in the country than where I grew up. The scarecrow, too, was my father, the afternoon I set him up outside in the wind, but that was my fault. Without thinking, I’d made him in my father’s image.

I glance over at my son. He’s standing up, reading, oblivious.

The old man turns to me. “What’ll it be?” Eyes gray-green, with the fleck below the right pupil I have, too.

I ask, “What’s good that’ll be easy to make, tonight, for three people?”

And the ghost says, “I’d go for the bison. Make a stew from that, or a great chili.”

I nod, and he opens a cooler’s dented chrome lid, releasing vapor from dry ice. I watch my father’s hands, gnarled, with a torn knuckle, fishing out a plastic-wrapped package. “How much is there?” I ask.

“Pound and a half, about. Little over, maybe.”

“I’ll take it.” I watch as he weighs the meat.

Why shouldn’t my father return? He enjoyed being alive. He liked shacks that sold smoked fish, newsstands where they took bets on the side, lumberyards, little bakeries, and the VFW. His work was assessing damage as an insurance investigator, judging what was accident and what deliberate, which suffering was fraud and which sincere. I used to think it was the nights that killed him, shooting the shit at bars, chasing shots of rye with Schaefers, eating red hot cherry peppers and running through packs of Camels, but I’ve come to believe it was the days, the pile-up of unending disasters, that brought him down. And what if they hadn’t? He’d be here and ill and on my hands, a voice whispers. Or the terror of an old age home. Instead, he’s dead but free to slip around and visit, to sell venison and rabbit.

“Cook it slow,” he says, “and it’ll fall apart at the touch of a fork. You want to try something different with it instead of the beans, hominy’s good.” He winks. “Never hurts to add a shot of something warming.” He pops the packet into a fresh plastic bag, twirls and knots it, and tells me the price. “Interested in some sausages? Made them myself. Pork with sage and my own pepper blend.”

I’m not really a fan of sausage and wonder if homemade is safe, but it’s my father looking at me and so I agree to take half a dozen, just as my son comes up beside me. Taller than the old man, the height of my father in his youth.

“Mom,” Will says, “they’ve got roasted chestnuts. You always say you like those.” He gestures towards the other end of the green, where young people stand under a banner that reads “Bring Back the American Chestnut.” Will says they’re from a group trying to encourage awareness of programs to breed and plant blight-resistant trees, but what they’re selling for fundraising are European sweet chestnuts.

I say, “Sure, get us some,” and hand him money.

When I turn back, my father is waiting, the sausages wrapped and set on top of the meat. “Would you like something else, maybe rabbit?”

I say, reluctantly, “Not this time,” and ask the total.

I might have the exact amount, but, delaying, I hand him two twenties and he pulls out a roll of bills to make change. A few years ago, he was taking tolls where I got off the Turnpike. When I passed him my money, he said, “Hello, pretty girl,” just the way he used to when I came downstairs in a party dress. I held a quarter he gave me in my hand for miles, resisting the urge to take the next exit and circle back to him.

Will comes up and holds a paper bag open under my face. I inhale. To me, chestnuts never taste as wonderful as they smell, dusky and irresistible as regret.

I say to the old man, “Have some?” and Will holds the bag out to the grandfather he knows only from cautionary stories about tobacco and booze. The old man hesitates, then takes one, still smoking hot, rubs it between his hands, digs his thumbnail where the X is cut into it, and swiftly peels it. He smiles—he’s missing the eye tooth from his partial plate—and pops the meat into his mouth, chews, and grunts approval.

“Will you be here next week?” I ask, and, with that, the seller is a stranger who shrugs. He gives me my change and my package, which I stow in my shopping bag.

Will and I move away, passing a stand with handmade wooden toys. I reach into the sack Will holds and take a chestnut. Like my dad, I peel it and pop the meat in my mouth. Too hot. I wiggle my tongue to move it around, trying to cool it before I chew.

Will is talking about the blight: how fungus killed three billion, really, billion, American chestnut trees between Maine and the Mississippi before World War II. I let him lead me to the young people and munch chestnuts as they talk about 1/16th Chinese blight-resistant root stock, genetic backcrossing to get out undesirable traits, and young trees that have started to produce nuts. What they are bringing back is, I see, something renewed, stronger. Will’s face shines with a reflection of their belief, and I wonder how soon he’ll be taking part in such adventures in optimism. I accept their brochure and sign up for their email list.

“So did you get a book?” I ask Will.

“I liked a couple of paperbacks. But I’ve got too many other books I haven’t read yet.”

“Let’s go over and get them,” I say. “It’s for the library.”

“What did you buy from the meat guy?” my son asks as we cross the street.

“Bison. I’m going to make chili. It’ll be good. Spicy and warm. It’s supposed to be cold tonight. And I got some sausage.”

“Mom, “ he says, throwing an arm around my shoulder, so I smell his stink of youth and sweet deodorant, “you don’t even eat sausage. You just bought it cause you always like strange old guys.”

“I do,“ I admit. When I reach the curb, I turn back to look. The old man has marked Bison with an “out” sticker. He stands with his arms folded, gazing across at us. He looks ancient. I am, I realize, two years older than he was when he died.

Will stoops to retrieve two paperbacks and shows me their covers, gaudy with retro visions of the future..

I take a deep breath of smoke. “I just hope,” I say, “when you grow up, you’ll be kind when you meet strange old women.”

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Lynne Barrett’s most recent story collection is Magpies (Carnegie Mellon). Her short fiction can be found in Fort Lauderdale Magazine, Wraparound South, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and the anthologies Trouble in the Heartland, Blue Christmas, and Delta Blues. She lives in Miami and teaches in the MFA program at Florida International University. You can read more at LynneBarrett.com and reach her via Twitter @LynneBarrett.