Written by Padraic A. Harrison
Joseph’s hands lifted his wife’s shirt off of her and smiled. He couldn’t remember the last time they’d made love. He pulled her close for a kiss as their daughter walked in.
“Sophie had a nightmare,” she declared. Joseph broke off the kiss and bit back a sigh. Mary faced Delilah and picked her up.
“What did Sophie dream about?” She asked. Joseph suspected his daughter’s imaginary friend only had nightmares when he was about to get laid.
“She dreamed you and Daddy were dead,” Delilah cried, burying her face in her mother’s hair.
“Shh, sweetie. Daddy and Mommy are right here.” He reached out to the three year old and stroked her hair. Assuring her of his presence. He loved his daughter, the tiny life he and Mary created. He started to hum her favorite song. Simon & Garfunkel always calmed her down.
“What’s a temnent hall?” The little girl asked.
“A tenement hall,” Joseph explained. “Is an apartment house. Like the building we live in.”
“Why didn’t they just say that?”
“Doesn’t sound as good, does it?” They managed to get Delilah to sleep. Mary drifted off soon after her. She slipped him an apologetic look beforehand. He couldn’t rest though. His fingers itched. If his daughter had only inherited one thing from him it was the ability to sleep through almost anything.
He whispered a grateful prayer to the universe as he sneaked into his practice room and grabbed his saxophone. His horn. The woodwind was the most versatile of its type. Blues, Jazz, Rock, and Classical all had parts written for it. Whenever he touched it he felt like he was touching something holy.
He loosened his fingers by playing scales first. The notes rent the air, ripping the silence to shreds. He poured his sexual frustration into the instrument. His anger at being a nobody in a small town on the edge of the continent. His love for his family and the humble people of the state in which he couldn’t escape.
Couldn’t? He asked himself. Or did you just not try hard enough? He layered the question into his music. No answer came but he didn’t expect one. He didn’t play to get answers, he played to release himself. To let out all the horrible feelings inside him so they didn’t claw him apart.
When he was done he put down the golden object on its stand. It was harder to carve out time to play since Delilah was born. Fatherhood was changing him deep down but this would not. He refused to give up his music. If he gave it up even for her he wouldn’t be him. I’d be less than a ghost
Joseph climbed into bed and let sleep take him. Just before he closed his eyes he noticed the earplugs Mary was wearing.
Joseph walked along the docks with his daughter in the late afternoon. The sound of lobster traps being dropped to the ground resonating in the air. The red creatures crawled on top of each other in the cramped confines of their cages. The old tired men lugging them along to marketplace were cages just as defining, but invisible. He tried not think about the fate of poor crustaceans as he held Delilah’s hand.
“Sophie says, I have to draw her,” she told her aged father.
“When we get home you can draw,” he answered. His eyes searching for hidden dangers. The dad part of him on high alert while in public. Even amongst people he knew his whole life. The walk was five heart pounding minutes of paranoia. Analyzing every person he saw as a threat. Deciding how he’d defend his child in case each one attacked. When his grip grew too tight with anxiety she would draw his attention to it.
At an intersection he put his hand on the back of her neck.
“Don’t do that, Daddy,” she squirmed in his grip.
“Sorry, darling,” he apologized. A flash of a memory interrupted his thoughts. His older brother doing the same thing to him in a mall in Bangor. He held out his arm and she wrapped her smaller hand around his larger. When they were home he breathed a sigh of relief.
He locked the door behind them. To keep the monsters at bay. Joseph got the colored pencils out and monitored Delilah as she sketched. He made lunch while he watched her work. He was quiet, knowing silence would aid her. Speech would only interrupt her art.
She put the pencils down when she finished. He handed her the bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese before grabbing one for himself. He was sick to death of the stuff but he ate anyway.
“What did you draw, sweetie?” He asked. He remembered feeling his father asked with reluctance. He hoped his voice portrayed more interest in her life.
“I drew Sophie,” she exclaimed proudly. Delilah slide the drawing across the table to her father with her right hand, keeping the left on her fork. Sophie was a cat it seemed. A black one with wings. He held her drawing in his left while his right spooned the macaroni into his mouth.
“Very pretty, love,” He told her. Smiling she forked another mouthful and consumed the yellow-orange mass.
That night he didn’t play. He felt the urge but the old depression lay heavy upon him. It was all he could do not to cry. Mary lay next to him silent as she slept. She’d fallen into bed after returning home. Even if the darkness hadn’t laid heavy on him he would get no love tonight. A pressure was in his head. As if his mood were a physical ailment. It was a migraine without pain. A storm inside his head that he couldn’t stop. He grit his teeth to keep from screaming. The questions started. Joseph hated the questions.
Where’s the proof? His darker half whispered. The proof you’re human. He examined his knuckles. Noticing not for the first time how his skin resembled scales. He manipulated his wife into pitying him. She couldn’t possibly love this poor imitation of a human being. Now she was trapped in an eternal spiral of poverty and disappointment. Trapped with a daughter doomed never to reach her full potential. Her father’s genes damned her to mediocrity.
As his damned him. It all came down to genes in the end. No one escaped the imperceptible flaws of their ancestors, or the perceptible ones. And his were all too perceptible.
He got out of bed with the dark storm raging in his frontal lobe. He dressed in the dark, nearly knocking his glasses to the floor instead of grabbing them off the night stand. He went for a walk allowing his feet to carry him into the night. He ended up at the bar.
Like most towns in Maine there was only one. A watering hole that catered to all walks of life, the walks that could be found in Sarajevo which weren’t that many. Fishermen, lawyers, and schoolteachers.
And the unemployed musician, he said to himself sitting at the bar. He ordered a beer hoping it would calm the raging emotions in his head. Or ease the pressure. Let it ease just a little, he prayed. Focused as he was on his internal struggle he’d forgotten what he ordered. He thanked the grizzled bartender and handed over his money. The sharp taste of pumpkin filled his mouth. The only good thing to come out of Portland.
The bar was quiet. He wanted noise, something to distract from the vastness of the feelings inside of him. He sipped the beer hoping it could somehow dull a pain that wasn’t physical.
“Joey!” The voice of his old neighbor assaulted him from behind.
“Mr. Briggs,” Joseph turned around to greet the elder Mainer. Holding out his hand. John Briggs gripped it tight. He was a believer in telling a man by his hand shake. Joseph was a believer in crushing a man’s hand if he sought to crush yours. “How are you, sir?”
“Fine,” he said. Briggs’ face was weathered by the wind and sea. He looked like a rock that the waves beat into on a constant basis. He was the same size and shape of a boulder too. Vestiges of black clung to his hair out of stubborn will. His long beard all white but still impressive. “I hear you sold The Chamberlain.” The old man couldn’t keep the disapproval from his voice.
“To pay for the medical expenses,” Joseph said nodding. It’d been a relief to sell it. The one good thing to ever come from the old man and that fucking boat.
“More people are selling their boats out heah,” John opined. “Fewah clinging to the old ways. The sea’s in youah blood, Joey. You can’t run from that.” The man pulled a business card out of his wallet. His giant sausage fingers laid it on the bar. The hands rough and calloused from handling rope. Hands like his father’s. “Little John’s had a run of good luck. Give him a call. He’ll take you on. Think of youah girl.” Little John was little only in a planetary sense. The man dwarfed his father at ten and developed his own gravitational field at twelve.
“I’m always thinking of her, Mr. Briggs,” Joseph let his anger put an edge to his voice. Everyone was pushing him back to the sea. He hated the smell of fish. His neighbors thought it strange but never bothered to ask why. Why the ocean filled him with a vast terror and memories of being tied to the mast in storms. Of being beaten, the bruises and the broken bones. They all just looked away. “Which is why you can take that goddamn card and shove it up your ass.” His fingers were much thinner than his neighbor’s. Joseph had musician’s hands. Weak hands according to Old Joe.
“Heah now, sonny. I was just trying to help.”
“I didn’t ask for your fucking help.” In that moment all Joseph’s rage burst from him in a single punch. One that Big John weathered like all the other storms in his life. The fact he turned his head would be the talk of the town for months.
Big John spat out a drop of blood on the floor. “Thank God your mothah’s dead. Woulda killed her to see this.” As Big John left the shame welled up inside him. He turned back to the bar to finish his beer but he found he no longer had the taste for it. He walked outside to go home when he tripped over the body.
John Briggs stomach was ripped open with his intestines hanging out. They looked like something chewed on them. He puked in the alley between the bar and the shoe store. When he looked up there was a cat with wings sat on the roof grinning at him. He called the sheriff’s office. Joseph sat with the body for twenty minutes waiting for them to show up.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Briggs,” he told the corpse. It was necessary to say something. The silence of the night was driving him insane. “Everyone wants me to be someone I’m not.” He could’ve gone on. Told it all but the weight of too many years stopped his tongue. Nothing made a sound except the lapping of the waves. Until the siren on the cars broke the stillness. Joseph looked up but Sophie was gone.
When he got home it was dawn. Mary was on the phone while Delilah was eating breakfast.
“Daddy!” She exclaimed running into his arms.
“Never mind he just walked in the door,” Mary said to the person on the end of the line. “Where the hell were you?”
“Not in front of D,” he told her. Mary’s brow furrowed to tell him the conversation would be long and pointed. He took his daughter to daycare while she chatted about Sophie. He tried to listen but the sight of his neighbor lying on the ground distracted him.
When he got home Mary waited for him at the table. She didn’t say a word. She sipped at a cup of coffee while a second mug steamed across from her. He took it and breathed in the fumes. He set it back down without drinking it.
“Big John is dead.”
“What? How?” She asked. He described what he found outside the bar. He skipped the fight not knowing what to say about it. “That’s horrible.” He left out seeing Sophie. He hoped it was an aberration and not the hallucinations again. Old Joe’s second legacy.
“The cops were questioning me,” he explained.
“And you didn’t tell me?!” It seems he was not going to avoid a fight after all.
“You wanted me to tell you in front of our daughter?”
“Of course not. But you could’ve called!” She rushed out for work before the fight could continue. He dumped the coffee down the sink. His sleep was fitful. He dreamed of demons ripping out his insides.
When he woke there was another body on the news. It was Cathy Sims his old English teacher from high school. Now retired she taught convicts at the local prison. The sheriff denied a serial killer was on the loose. Delilah was tired and wouldn’t eat. She fell asleep at the dinner table.
When he put her to bed Sophie was there. Sitting on the bed with her Cheshire grin. The cat hissed and its tail bristled. Joseph backed out of the room as slow as possible.
“Honey,” he said. “Open the door to the music room.” Mary did the exact opposite. He watched as the woman he loved was ripped to pieces. He knew he was a coward but he ran for the closed door of his inner sanctum. He fumbled for the knob with his daughter in his arms. The door yielded but he had no time to close it. Sophie was coming for him. Her grin now stained with blood and gore. He put his daughter down to grab his horn. A madness seized him. If he was going to die, he would die playing. He would die not the Young Joe but Joseph Smith, Jr.
He played notes, not even a scale until he fell into a song. He lost himself in the song. He played like he never played before. When he put the saxophone down it was covered in blood. His hands too. When he wiped his mouth what he thought was sweat turned out to be more blood. He grinned a Cheshire grin.