an excerpt from the novel, Danish Fall by Thomas E. Kennedy, published in 2005, First Runner-Up for the 2007 Eric Hoffer Book Award, General Fiction Category. This excerpt was also a Finalist in the Glimmer Train “Very Short Fiction Competition”
Brandt rose at six-thirty and woke his son who asked to be allowed to sleep for another fifteen minutes. He lit the oven in the kitchen and went out to the bathroom, washed his hands, rinsed his mouth, returned to the kitchen, halved two sesame sandwich rolls and put them on a pan beneath the now orange-glowing grill.
He shredded and washed crisp leaves of lettuce, cut thin slices of ecological tomatoes, then removed the rolls from the oven, juggling them from hand to hand not to burn his fingers, and lay them open on the cutting board, buttered them top and bottom, all the way to the edge as his ex-wife had taught him, applied Muenster cheese, thinly sliced lunch meats, Dijon mustard, lettuce, tomato, cucumber.
He pressed the top of the sesame roll down onto the sandwich and wrapped it tightly in cellophane paper, placed the two tight thick cellophane-wrapped sandwiches into a plastic bag with a sheet of paper towel, a tiny envelope of salt and pepper, a quarter dill pickle, also packed in plastic, and a mini-candy bar or two – Milky Way, Three Musketeers, Mounds – which he purchased in large quantities from the Grand Union. He tied off the mouth of the bag with a strip of paperized wire.
Then he went in once again to wake his son who asked for another fifteen minutes. Brandt used that fifteen minutes to wash and shave and dress, then woke his son again, and they sat at the kitchen table by the window over freshly squeezed orange-grapefruit juice and a thermos can of freshly brewed ecological Brazilian coffee.
Brandt shook a multivitamin and C-vitamin from the two jars which always stood at the end of the table and lay them alongside his son’s juice glass, watched with pleasure as the boy dashed them into his mouth, swallowed them with the high quality juice, sighed with pleasure at the taste.
He asked if the boy would like fruit – a banana, half a grapefruit, a few slices of cantaloupe, honeydew. The boy took a banana, peeled and wolfed it down. Then he poured coffee from the thermos pot, laced it with milk and sugar, slipped a cigarette straight from the pack in his breast pocket and lit it.
Brandt regretted this profoundly. He himself had smoked at that age and for nearly twenty years hence, but quit the day his son was born. He had feared the boy would think smoking was desirable and acceptable if he saw his father doing it. So Brandt took the cure, got fat, but never again lit up.
Two years before, Brandt caught the boy in the mall with a Lucky Strike nonfilter wobbling between his lips. Brandt begged him to stop. The boy explained that he didn’t really smoke, only bummed an occasional butt from a friend to feel like one of the guys. Then Brandt caught him again, twice, and then began to smell it on his clothes that he washed on the weekends and began to find crumpled Lucky Strike nonfilter packs in the garbage bag beneath the kitchen sink.
Brandt was very sad about this. He said to his boy, “What can I give you to make you quit? You name it.”
The boy shrugged.
Brandt said, “Let me give you a piece of advice, son: You could kick it now, right away, easy as pie. If you don’t, within a very short time, you’ll be hooked, addicted, and it will ruin your health, son.”
His son stared at him for a long moment. Then he said, “Fuck you, Dad. Keep your advice to yourself. I’m not interested in your advice.”
Brandt’s eyes filled with water. He could not believe what he was hearing. He remembered his own father had given him permission to smoke when he was fourteen, had even given him permission to help himself to the cigarettes in the carton in the pantry. People didn’t know in those days how dangerous it was. But tobacco hardly seemed the issue now. He could not believe his son had spoken those words to him. With a quiet smouldering anger, the boy had addressed him with those words.
“I only want to help you,” Brandt said.
“I don’t want your help,” his son said.
Later in the day the boy apologized. Brandt allowed that he understood how he felt. He too had smoked. Slowly they accommodated each other. The boy asked permission to light up once or twice a day for a few weeks, and then it became a part of their lives, and now he lit a cigarette each morning over their coffee.
In truth, Brandt had to admit that the memory of that moment when his son said fuck you to him was fascinating, even cherished. He could remember practically every detail of it, the way the boy’s eyes had suddenly narrowed, the way the mask of his face had seemed to decompose, the force of emotion remolding it as his lips formed the words that flew with a fine spray of spittle on his breath. He felt very close to his son at that moment, felt as though they were sharing something of great power, even if it was tinged with brutality.
Once he dreamed that the boy was Jesus Christ and tore asunder his breast to reveal a heart of crowned thorns on which were emblazoned the words, Fuck you, Dad.
Sometimes over breakfast he and his son shared their dreams with one another, although Brandt never managed to find a way to share that one with the boy. They told each other about the odd conglomerations of detail that clustered in their sleeping brains the night before. When they shared their dreams, breakfast was a cozy time. His son once dreamt of a white man with a white beard on a white bench. Brandt once dreamt of meeting his father on a strange deserted street and being amazed to find him alive again, though he was much smaller than he had been in life. During these cozy breakfast times, Brandt almost felt like lighting up himself, like sharing that, too, with his son, but of course, he did not.
They chatted, drank coffee, looked out the round window in the slanted wall at the corner of the kitchen. The window made Brandt think of a porthole in a boat, and it was pleasant to look through the round glass to see what kind of weather the day might offer.
Reluctantly Brandt kept track of the time. Now he glanced at his watch. “Quarter to eight, son.”
The boy groaned and reached for the clear plastic bag on the table with the two sandwiches and napkin and pickle and mini candy bars. “Thanks for lunch, Dad,” he said.
“Was it okay yesterday?” Brandt asked.
“Perfect. Delish,” the boy said, and Brandt felt blessed, delivered from the sadness that his marriage had failed. Brandt had so many happy memories of his boy’s childhood. He wished that his life had more meaning so he could share that meaning with the boy, but how could he explain to him that the only real meaning life had for him was that his work enabled him to provide the boy with food and shelter and clothes and an education, though he did not know for sure where these provisions would lead the boy, to what kind of life. Everything seemed all broken into pieces, dead grandparents, divorced siblings, divorced self, divorced cousins, emptiness, fragmentation.
Perhaps Brandt was the only one who felt life was empty, the work life. Perhaps to his son, it would be meaningful in the way that his own life caring for his son was meaningful to Brandt. He certainly hoped so, and it pleased him immensely each morning to see the boy swallow his vitamins, his freshly squeezed juice. It pleased him to see the boy pouring milk into his coffee, spooning in sugar, stirring. These were positive things, the actions of someone with an appetite for the day.
Brandt watched his son put the lunch into his knapsack in which he carried his books as he bicycled to school. Brandt stood at the door of their little house and watched the boy swing his leg up to mount his bike.
“Have a good day, son,” he called. “Love you.”
“You, too, Dad,” the boy called back, “Love you, too,” and Brandt watched him cycle off on strong legs, standing on the pedals to get up speed, signal and turn at the corner, Brandt’s hand poised to wave in case the boy looked back.
Brandt didn’t have to be in until noon today, thank god, and decided to use the morning to clean up a bit, get a head-start on the weekend chores. He went into his son’s room to gather laundry for the wash. From the floor, beneath the bed, beside the dresser, he gathered socks, pajamas, tee shirts, underwear. He glanced into the closet. Behind a carton there, he noticed something curious, a kind of duffel bag, its top puckered slightly open so he glimpsed something green and brown wrapped in plastic. He looked closer and saw it was lettuce on bread, closer still and saw it was one of the lunches he had made for his son, the bag torn open but the lunch intact.
Stooping, he stepped deeper into the closet and reached for the duffel, saw both sandwiches were there. He pulled open the top of the duffel, and the stench of rot touched his nose. He gagged. The duffel bag was stuffed full of sandwiches.
“May I ask why,” Brandt asked the boy that evening, ”you didn’t just tell me you didn’t want the sandwiches?”
The boy looked blankly at him. Then,” I don’t know,” he said from behind that blank expression.
“Every day I asked you how was lunch and every day you said delish, thanks Dad. And you weren’t even eating it.”
“Sometimes I did. Sometimes I ate it. But a lot of times, most times, I just wasn’t hungry.”
“Did you think you were doing me a favour? Letting me make sandwiches for you?” He asked this sincerely, without rancor or accusation, he so wanted to know, to understand.
“No,” the boy said.
“I guess I just didn’t… want to rock the boat.”
“Why didn’t you just throw them out, then? Why did you keep them like that? In your closet?”
“Well…” The boy squinted, as though trying to peer deep into his own mind. “Well, you never liked us to throw out food.”
Brandt stared at the boy, at the way his lower lip hung wetly. Was he trying to provoke his father? Brandt spun away into the kitchen, swallowing, drawing draughts of air into his nostrils, his lungs. On the kitchen counter lay a half empty plastic bag of sesame rolls. His eyes lifted to the round window in the corner of the room. That sense of looking out the porthole of a boat became intense. A dizziness rose in him, and the floor seemed to tip, the one way, the other. He reached in fear for the edge of the table to steady himself and hollered out, “Son! Son! Come help me!”