He feels the creaking in his aged knees as he ascends the steps onto the porch upon his return from a walk that had found him, despite the autumn rain, passing the beachside park where his habit had long been to turn around, but instead, today he had walked into the town on the other side of the bay across from the lighthouse his family had tended since it was built in 1886, the lighthouse where still he lives, alone now, and he had considered stopping at the Bayside Bar when he passed, but there would be no one he knew, since Bernie, the old bartender and Ed and Cecil, his drinking buddies had all long since passed away and besides, he was in no mood for company, better to drink alone for an old man like me he thought, especially on this night, the night that marked his 60th wedding anniversary, or would have, had Edith not died in the spring, a torture he tried to subdue by concentrating on the sound of fallen leaves crunching beneath his feet and the distant Lake Superior waves crashing against the rocky coast, but it was no use, her death was all around him, and—like his declining vision, arthritic bones, embarrassment of failing memory and bladder—inescapable; so he trudged his way through town and into the neighborhoods he once knew so well but now seemed foreign, as he did not recognize the people he passed on the street, the children playing football in yards, the new cars parked in the driveways, and he was struck again with the weighty agony that his friends and family were all dead and he carried this with him back to the only home he had ever known, the empty lighthouse that was built to save lives of sailors lost in fog but now only carried a small plaque—like a grave marker—that recognized the lighthouse as a National Historic Landmark, and now he stands on the porch looking out over the lake, fog moving in and he takes the key in his shaking hands, turns it in the lock, opens the door, takes off his coat and hat, neatly hanging them in the closet, blows warmth into his stiff hands, walks into the living room to turn up the furnace, then back in the kitchen where he opens the cupboard above the sink, pulls out the old bottle that had been given them many years before by the Coast Guard at a dinner banquet to honor the tending of that light that beaconed boats away from dangerous cliffs and he wipes the dust from the bottle, remembers the story of its discovery by Lake Superior divers investigating a shipwreck and it was then at least seventy years old, and it survived—where so many sailors had not—without so much as a chip in the thick glass of the bottle, and he curses the fact he will drink it alone after all those years they had talked about one day sharing its mystery on a special occasion that only the two of them would understand, but for all those years it sat on the shelf, and though he isn’t sure what, something draws him to the bottle now, and he takes out a corkscrew, drives it deep into cork, feels the ache in his joints, his fingers, his wrist as he pulls with what little strength he has left, until, finally, with a loud pop that causes him to stagger, the bottle comes uncorked and he carries it into the living room, slumps into his E-Z chair, pours a drink, takes a sip, leans back, closes his eyes, to you, he says tips the glass toward the ceiling, takes another sip and it is thick like syrup and strong, unlike any drink he has ever known, and he feels a draft, but, oddly, it does not feel cool, but warm, and he turns to look at the door which he has indeed closed tightly—must be the fireplace vent—and he sits back in his chair, lets the effects of the drink fill him, allows the memories, the ones that he has been suppressing all day, and he thinks of her, the life they had, that summer in ‘48, when they met at a bazaar in Marquette where he helped his father, who besides tending lighthouse was a portrait photographer, and she was working at the bake sale where he bought three pies and a cake before finally gathering courage to talk to her, and a year later they were married and on a honeymoon in Chicago, having taken the train, a first for them both, and that night in the old hotel in the dark neighborhood, the one with the paint chipping off the walls, the water that only ran cold, the heater that was stuck, making the room so hot that he had slumped onto the bed, dripping with sweat, frustrated and embarrassed, had wanted so badly to impress her, but she simply opened the window and sidled next to him, whispered, it’s all right, and the sweating continued into the morning and for the next 59 years she amazed him time and again the way she could take a small catastrophe and make it something good, until that day they lost their one and only, the child Abigail, in the fire and Edith had lived her remaining days never far from the grief, never, he knew fully forgiving him for the loss, and finally they moved back into the lighthouse after his parents passed away, where he tended it full time upon his retirement from the packing company, and then, when the lighthouse closed, he was allowed to stay on as primary caretaker, so that when she retired, they had spent evenings in solitude watching liners pass on their way to the Locks at Sault Ste. Marie, weathering the many winter storms that rose from the lake, listened to jazz records on the old phonograph and he continues to drink as the memories flow, and again he feels the draft, but when he rises to check, the fireplace vent is closed, the fireplace, that fire, that damned night that haunts him, haunts him, and he hears a noise from outside, tires, a car pulling into the driveway, he thinks, but when he peers out his window, all he sees is the empty gravel road covered with leaves and the near-barren trees that line it and as he stands quiet and listens, he hears the waves crash against shore, thinks of the many tricks winds off the lake can play on a man, and he sits back, continues to drink and when he hears another noise from the hallway, he thinks maybe it is the booze, but he doesn’t stop, can’t stop drinking it, and after darkness sets in, he lights two candles, sets them on the table beside him, then lifts the top of the phonograph, chooses a record from the interior storage rack, sees it is Billie Holiday, Edith’s favorite, places it on the turntable, and moves the arm to the right, so that the old album will play continuously, and he sits back down, listens to the familiar voice that he has refused to hear since Edith’s death, and he remembers the night they had seen Holiday perform in Milwaukee, a concert they had driven over five hours in the fog and rain to see, and he gets up, takes Edith’s picture off the wall, looks at her while he continues to drink, Billie Holiday sings, and then the room gets blurry, he is drunk—had he fallen asleep?—he isn’t sure, but he starts, sits up straight, suddenly feels a warm breeze sidling beside him like fingertips against his skin and his breathing becomes deeper, he closes his eyes, thinks about the men gone down in that shipwreck, the breeze continues embracing, caressing, he had not meant to start that fire, the old wood burning stove, the spark, the kindling too close, he has lived with the shame, could not save the child that day, or her, or himself, for the rest of their days, those flames rising and swirling, the heat and smoke a horror and he dreams the flames now, wakes screaming, the candles flickering and Holiday still singing the same songs, that sultry voice enticing him back to sleep and then he is with Edith, an old club, dancing, Milwaukee, a slow dance, she is also on stage singing, and he watches her, and he feels now the old tingly feeling he hasn’t felt in years, and it is all so vivid, and they are dancing, and there are the three of them now, they hold him, the child‘s hands in his own, he listens to her sing at the same time, she is singing, he knows, he has left the old record on all night, but it is her, and the people in the bar are his friends, his family, and he looks down and notices that she wears the wedding dress, but he is wearing an old pullover sweater, a short sleeved work shirt, dirty brown pants, no shoes, and he feels embarrassed, tells her he must go change, but she just laughs, tells him he looks fine, you look fine, Daddy, the child, it is her, she is laughing, and they dance, but are outside, it is night and they are alone, beneath stars, he no longer feels cold just an unfamiliar warmth, and she kisses him, says she must leave, and he clings to her, begs her, NO!, but she is fading, fading, and the child hugs him, then they are all but gone, he calls to her frantically, take me with you, I want to be with you, and she is gone and he wakes, rubs his eyes, glances around the room—candle wax on the table, he feels warm, a dim light through the windows, morning, and he takes the bottle looks at it and sees that it is less than half full, he doesn’t remember drinking that much, he looks for the cork, but can’t find it—it isn’t on the counter where he’d left it, isn’t under his chair, isn’t on the stereo cabinet, or under the coffee table, and he finally gives up, covers the bottle with foil, puts it in the refrigerator and then considers going to the bedroom to lie down, but realizes he isn’t tired and he looks out the kitchen window, sees the morning covered in fog, can barely make out the shoreline, feels restless, walks outside, heads down the tree-lined road, amazed at his pace, remembers how they used to go to the Dougherty’s for barbecues, how he had taught their kids to ride their bikes, given them tours of the lighthouse, told them stories, how they would ride horses on the beach, the many moonlit walks, he and Edith, and long drives together after weekend camping trips, talking about their life together, as if it could never end, and when he arrives at the end of the gravel road, he turns and on the road that led through town, makes his way through the fog, past the park, the Bayside Bar, the neighborhoods and, finally, to the road that leads through the woods, where his walk grows steadier and he is moving effortlessly, until, at last, he is at the cemetery, weaves his way through the remembrances of other people’s beloved ones until he is at their graves, the small stone that simply says, Edith Borgeson, 1925-2013, and the one beside it, Abigail, 1949-1952, and he looks down, looks again, disbelief, for there it lay, the cork, and he picks it up, feels the same breeze touch his hand and it is the child, and she points to the trees and he looks where she points and she is there, Edith, motioning for him to follow and when he looks behind him one last time, he can just make out the lighthouse in the fog and he looks down at the child, who leads him toward the woman ahead, into the forest they walk into the forest, the mist, the forest is dressed in mist and as he walks, he wonders who will find the by-then stiffened body and Billie Holiday on the phonograph, singing the same songs, over and over again.
Daryl Farmer’s first book Bicycling beyond the Divide received a Barnes and Noble Discover Award. His recent work has appeared in The Whitefish Review, The Potomac Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and Fourth River. He is an assistant professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks where he teaches creative writing and literature.
Artwork: Catrin Welz-Stein, “To the Lighthouse”