Dead Daddy Comes Home
For decades his body had deteriorated from bottled oxygen and inactivity. He slowly suffocated and was keenly aware of each exhausting breath. He was jumpy and he might lash out. There was the gasping sense, gills flexed, with headaches, muscle aches, aching joints. The cold core of his body cradled his half-dead heart. Emphysema Daddy was blind, seeing life as a blur during the day and a night shroud in the dark. Emphysema Daddy was no joy to be around but one had to imagine Emphysema Daddy’s worst day to get a whiff of the condition of Dead Daddy.
Responding to his cries, the groundskeeper opened the mausoleum with a crowbar, a rush of warm air coughed, and Dead Daddy walked into daylight in a white suit, a Mark Twain jacket one wore in spring — except he had no shoes or pants. Dead Daddy had returned to life. His movements were slower, more angular, and more pronounced. His hue had gone pasty, his skin parchment white, except where there were bruises, blemishes from age, chemical burns, or where the flesh had turned green or black with mold. There was one side of him with a long discoloration that suggested inner-rot. His blood had gone stale, like the stuff that pooled in the Styrofoam package of a discounted supermarket rib eye. The mortician had cut costs by partially draining bodies, Dead Daddy’s blood and fluids a mix of himself and the embalmer’s cocktail, with bacteria and fungi bloomed throughout his bloated body. Continual flatulence seeped from his pores.
Dead Daddy’s movements were tired. He didn’t breathe. He struggled to form words in strained whispers. He waved at the groundskeeper and walked away, toward town, the burgeoning former Civil War battlefield known as Murphy. Dead Daddy’s corpse haunted the earth and he would find his way back to the house.
Petey Barnum’s billboard was out near the interstate, seen from the cemetery hill, and Dead Daddy picked up one of Petey’sScenic Routes and Local Attractions pamphlets at the Texaco along the way. In their youth, Petey had been a suitor to Daddy’s wife, Greta, and now that Daddy was back from the dead, he remembered his lifelong desire to keep Petey away from her. While Daddy had been a successful chemist, engineer, and mathematician, Petey Barnum tinkered as a hobbyist. Petey’s famed accomplishment was that he’d built an enormous lighted map of the Battle of Pone Creek with a recorded tape loop where Petey narrated the Union invasion and embellished a kind of headless horseman legend. Murphy was a convenient sleepover for vacationers on their way to Florida, and Petey’s dynamic map continued to attract enough road-weary historians to keep him flush, though post-9/11 the draw was more for the kitsch of the lighted map’s dated technology, with young couples filming it on phones to write about on blogs.
To Greta he was still dead, and since death done parted them, she was no longer obligated to share his marriage bed. His body had been oppressive to her when he was alive, always looking out for his needs. Once again she was confronted with his blind, bloated, incontinent, uninspired, ineffectual, selfish, worn, stinking, whining, repulsiveness. Here he was back alive and moving about the exhibit, like a child, fascinated and allowed to walk around.
“You’re not sleeping in my room,” Greta told him. This should have been obvious. The offence of his bucolic flesh made coupling unlikely, despite his appearing alive. The molds and infectious lesions had settled into deep tissue and his movements were painful.
In Dead Daddy, Petey recognized the opportunity to make some real money, especially since these days the Battle of Pone Creek was only ever enjoyed ironically, and it was soon closed for good. Daddy went through his old things and began to assemble a lab in the kitchen, ordering glassware and solutions through manufacturer’s catalogs. Petey transformed the map exhibit into a lab for him and this became the hook in Petey’s sideshow: Dead Daddy was going to save himself. His own body had become the alchemist’s challenge. He would flush out the stench with noxious chemicals. It took him twenty years to die of emphysema, and it seemed likely he would stretch out his current puling state of existence.
In the Oldsmobile where Dead Daddy slept, the grandson had to tap him awake. He always felt cold and his limbs were slack. The grandson preferred to leave him in the car but his putrefaction would accelerate in the heat of day. The grandson had taken to riding his mountain bike or riding the city bus, because now that Dead Daddy slept in it, the grandson rarely drove the Oldsmobile.
“Move over,” the grandson said. The grandson heaved a large book bag on his shoulder. It was 6:30 in the evening, ticket sales were down, and no one had yet roused Dead Daddy on this particular Thursday. He’d been left to fester unconscious all afternoon.
The grandson was on an errand. Greta was a reader and the grandson stuffed her novels one at a time into the night depository of the Murphy Public Library.
“Where’s my bed?” Dead Daddy said and he slumped over.
“You don’t need blankets,” the grandson said and he eased Dead Daddy back into the passenger’s seat. “Remember how you like being cold? That it’s a feeling at least?”
“You don’t want me stinking up your things.”
Dead Daddy was always conjuring the sting of the forsaken, something Emphysema Daddy had down pat.
By the time they got home, Dead Daddy had settled back into his comatose state and the grandson looped around the circle drive instead of parking — so air would circulate. He looked over at the corpse of his grandfather and said something to himself, a line from an old Russian short story that he’d come across on one of his errands to the library: “Tell me, Lazarus, what it’s like. Tell me what you’ve seen.”
John Minichillo wrote the series “How to be a Better Teacher-Person Through Apathy” at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His dystopian novel EOB is out now on Kindle Press.
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Image: Richard Reid