I woke up in the hospital with my legs wrapped in bandages and my wife sitting next to my bed, saying, Your father wanted you to have this. She reached over and placed my father’s old black fedora on my head, pressing it down comfortably and sobbing uncontrollably, telling me, Jesus, you look just like him. She stood up with her chest heaving and the sun leaking through the hospital room window and said with her eyes red and streaming, I’m leaving.
“Where?” I managed to say, the word coagulated in my throat. She told me through her sobs that she’d caused too much suffering here, she has to leave, and then she left the room guided by howls of despair echoing all the way down the hall and back, leaving me alone with her dying voice to distill my memories and cringe at the sharp cosmetic pains in my legs.
The doctor walked into the room smiling. Nice hat, he said. What’s happened to my father, I asked him. He ignored my question and looked down to a file open in his hands and said, I’ve got some good news and bad news. Don’t we all, I said.
“The good news,” he said, “is the fire mostly just burned up your pants. Your legs sustained superficial burns from the thighs down. Very little serious damage, and none of it permanent. And today you’re a local hero.” He reached over to my bedside table for a remote control and pointed it at the TV up on the wall, the television flashing video images from the fire, my house a volcano in the night, a machine of roaring light and smoke. The video looked like raw amateur footage from a mobile phone or some other compact device and the lens panned up to the sky awash in rolling white and gray smoke blackened at the edges, and then it swept over the lawn and my father lying unconscious in his boxer shorts looking as white as the ivory cross on his future grave. I followed the camera as it zoomed in to a figure stumbling from the front door of the eruption, and it’s me with my wife slung onto my back, a hobbling two-headed creature bathed in black and carrying the flames out with it, a fugitive from hell. The crowd surrounding the cameraperson scattered its awed noises as I dropped my wife on the lawn, blurred splotches edited into the video to cover her exposed breasts and genitalia. Then the camera zoomed out again as I collapsed onto the lawn with my legs on fire and either I’m laughing hysterically or it’s Harvey barking at the firestorm or it’s the roar of fire engines speeding onto the block, maybe it’s all three, and then the doctor turned the television off.
“It was quite a night,” he said, smiling. “And today every reporter in the country wants to have a stab at you, buddy.”
“This isn’t exactly good news, doctor.”
“Well, then, I’ve got some even less good news. Your father was treated here and released with no apparent injuries, and then he just disappeared, according to your wife. And she’s been taking it especially hard, I must say.”
“Disappeared?” I said. “He’s seventy years old.”
“And in great shape, for his age,” he said. “I examined him myself.”
“So where did my wife go?”
“I don’t know, but she’s really shaken up.”
I looked over to the bedside table and there was a piece of paper folded up with my name written on it. I picked it up and unfolded it and began reading.
Your father’s gone. He left in the middle of the night. I talked to him once we both got home and he was suffering, he was feeling real bad. He told me he was disgusted with himself for betraying you, for taking me away from you. He said he was going to leave, that he had to go, he just didn’t know where to. He told me to give you his hat.
Baby, I’m so sorry. I never meant for any of this to happen. I love you, I never wanted to hurt you. I don’t know what else to say. Your father and I are just soul mates, I guess.
I can’t be here anymore. I feel like I’ve wrecked everything. I hope you can forgive me. Goodbye.
p.s.: Harvey’s staying with Mrs. Wilkerson if you still want him.
The doctor had already left the room. I folded up the paper and put it back on the bedside table and looked up at the ceiling. After a while I took the hat off my head and held it in my hands. The room began to shrink and grow dark.
Darkness like fog all webbed and malleable, alive and breathing. My legs are healed and I’m searching for my father and can see his wavering figure alighted barely at the edge of total black, and he’s always turning away from me toward the shadows just before he dips headlong into them and disappears again. I lunge after him breathing heavily but encounter only darkness, only emptiness and moist cold, until he emerges halfway into the light spectrum again, forcing me to continue my pursuit. He’s there and then he’s gone, a sideward glance, grasping at nothingness, and then he’s there again in a different spot, half-man-half-shadow, his left arm spotted with age and vanishing from view. I breathe and run harder, measured footfalls in a mad zigzagging route, our minds and bodies submerged in an empty dreamscape.
The insurance people set me up in a hotel downtown and that first night I couldn’t sleep. Sometime after midnight I dressed and put on the fedora and went down to the empty lobby bar. The bartender was mopping and I ordered a bourbon and sat there looking at it, then I looked at my hands. I looked at the deep black grooves in the wood of the bar and then I took the hat from my head and looked at that and from the corner of my eye I saw someone walk up and sit on the stool next to me. I glanced over and nodded at the young man and then looked back down to my hat.
“Nice hat,” the young man said. Thanks, I said. The bartender came over and asked him what he wanted. The young man looked down to my drink. “I’ll have what he’s having.” He looked to be a little too young for drinking age but the bartender poured the drink without a word and walked back to his mop. Wanna see a magic trick? the young man said. I just looked at him.
“In the inside band of your hat, there’s a tag with the numbers six two dash five five two sewn into it.”
I looked at the young man, down to the hat, then back at the young man. He smiled calmly, reassuringly. He had pleasant brown eyes and I wanted to trust them immediately. There was nothing stark or stylish about his appearance other than he seemed completely devoid of style but he was very comfortable with it, confident about it. I felt like I’d met him before, I tried to remember all my family members who might be that age, my cousins and nephews, I tried to remember my wife’s nephews and step-nephews, sons and second-uncles, and then I tried to sift through all the memorized faces from out on the road, those miles and miles of hair and eyes and smiles and skin tones that no one could ever properly archive and store away, not anyone, anywhere. I reached for the hat and flipped it over in my hands and in the inside band there was a tag with the numbers 62-552 sewn into it. I looked over to the young man.
To read the story in its entirety, you’re gonna have to buy the book when it comes out.