Bucks County Writers Workshop
FATHER'S DAY by David Jarret
My father, Davenport Considine, lived an enviable life. He was the Chairman of Egalitarian Mutual, one of the largest insurance firms in the world, and devoted his spare time to charity, raising millions of dollars a year for High Beaver Hospital, St. Constantine's Home for Wayward Children, East Northwestern Sanitarium, and the like.
Chronic illness has shriveled him into pupa, wound up in bed sheets, covered under a thin white blanket at Sandstrom's Home for the Elderly and Incapacitated. Father, everyone called him Dave, existed at Sandstrom's for the past seven years, ever since Mother passed away. One day several weeks after her funeral he fell down the stairs at home, breaking both his legs, and lying on the floor for hours until my sister Margie found him writhing in agony, wet and soiled.
* * *
Father was a brave man at an early age. He joined the U.S. Army at fifteen, the last of six brothers who also served. After basic training he was shipped out to Great Britain and landed at Dover where he sailed across the choppy English Channel in one of hundreds of ships. He stormed the beach at Calais, running up the cliffs and shooting at Jerry while his mates were slaughtered on the sand below.
The rest of his unit was being shelled on the beach when a deafening concussion hurled him against a rock, knocking his rifle into the brush, leaving him winded and shaking in fear. After Father recovered he ran through the countryside until, in the tiny village of Valciennes, he met a slim, dark-haired Frenchwoman named Helene who gave him a bed for a night. It seemed to be a woman's boarding house, judging by the variety of feminine voices.
He heard a knock on his door after he had settled under the covers. Helene walked in, sat on the bed and stroked his hair, cooing French nonsense to him. She reached under the covers and Father shook his head, revealing his tender age by counting on his fingers. She kissed him goodnight on the cheek.
A rooster crowed at dawn, waking him. He walked down a hall, passing through delicate scraps of laughter coming from other rooms. Helene was in the kitchen and offered him fried eggs and a glass of milk for breakfast, gesturing with her arms and speaking in rapid-fire French.
He shrugged. "American. I'm from the United States."
"Ooh, la la," Helene said, picking up a pencil and writing on a tablet. She tore the paper off and gave it to him. He glanced at the incomprehensible language. She took it and folded it, slipped it into his pocket, and placed her index finger to her lips, implying the secret nature of the note. She gave him a paper sack of vegetables for lunch, and showed him to the door, kissing him, and shooing him away with a wave of her hand.
Father, still dressed in his American uniform, walked out of Valciennes looking for Allied troops. He trod the countryside for hours amidst the thunder of distant artillery and watched huge clouds of smoke erupt into the dull sky.
Lost, he turned down a road following a sign pointing to Amiens. A troop of Jerrys was marching on the road when they saw him and leveled their rifles. He waved the paper Helene had given him. The captain looked at it, and shouted something in German. A tall, blond soldier walked up and translated the paper aloud. The troops laughed, shoved Father out of way, dropped the paper, and ran down the road yelling, "Valciennes." Father could not understand German of course, but was surprised and happy they did not molest him, so he picked the paper back up and continued on his way.
An hour later when Father had been picking berries, he heard an engine whine. He ducked for cover behind a tree until he saw the U.S. Army insignia painted on the hood of a truck and jumped onto the road. The truck pulled up. "Considine, I'll be damned. Is that you?" the passenger asked.
"Sergeant Phillips? Thank God. I've been lost for two days." Father saluted him and Phillips offered him his canteen. "Jerry's here, Sergeant. Real close.
"We've been chasing Krauts all the way back to the Rhineland, Considine. What did you see?" The truck idled in the middle of the road as they spoke. He told Phillips of his encounters with the Germans, and how a note saved his life.
"What note Considine?"
"A nice French lady wrote this for me. As soon as Jerry read it, they left me unhurt and drove off." He gave the paper to Phillips. The driver gunned the engine to keep it running.
"What's it say? I can't read this shit. What is it, French?"
"I expect so, sir. The lady spoke French."
"Helene. In a little town about ten miles from here I'd guess, Sergeant. It's called Valciennes."
"Jerry's only ten miles from here? How many?"
"About twenty, I'd say, sir." Father took a swig from the canteen.
"Hm," Phillips said, squinting at the note. "Could be espionage. Jump in. We'll take it to Roulon. He's a Frenchy."
"Well, to tell the truth, Sergeant, I wish I was in Valciennes," Sergeant Roulon said, reading the note at the camp thirty minutes later.
"For what, to kill Jerry?" Father said.
"No, to fuck the fair sex of Valciennes."
"It's an invitation to a whorehouse, Considine," Roulon said. "It says, 'Attention all sexy, able-bodied German soldiers. Travel to Valciennes for sex good enough to last the whole trip back to the Fatherland.' Is this some kind of joke?"
"No joke. Sex?" Father asked.
"They must be holed up at the whorehouse," Phillips said. "Let's get 'em." He clapped his hands together.
"Sergeant Phillips," Father said, "Would you mind if I went along on the assault?"
"Why Private Considine," Phillips said, "You haven't had a chance to eat after being lost for two days on the road. Stay here."
"Yes sir. I mean sir, you think those ladies could get killed along with Jerry?"
"There could be collateral, Considine. Happens plenty in this war."
"Sergeant Phillips, could I please go with you to help those ladies? After all, had it not been for them, Jerry would have killed me for sure." Phillips lit a Chesterfield and eyed Father.
"You can come under one condition. If we have to use heavy weapons on that house, you will just have to live with it." Father nodded. "We'll leave on the hour," Phillips said, tossing his Chesterfield and barking orders.
"Give me ten minutes to get them out, sir," Father told Phillips, who was studying the house with binoculars. "Jerry knows me. They'll think I'm the girls' pimp."
"Forget it, Considine. Too dangerous."
"I know it, Sergeant. But I owe those ladies my life."
"Those girls wouldn't want you to risk your sorry ass trying to take on twenty Jerrys, for Christ sake, Considine. Forget it. For-fucking-get it. Got it?"
"Got it, sir." Father put his rifle down and walked out toward the house.
"Goddamn it, Considine. Get back here. I'll court martial your ass."
Father waved his arms over his head, shouting "Helene!" A German opened the door and Father walked into uproarious activity. The soldiers were drunk, chasing and grabbing several nude women. The German captain he had handed Helene's note to saw him and clapped his arm around him. Father shouted, "Pimp! Pimp!"
The captain smiled and said, "Ja, ja."
Father found Helene pouring wine. Her jaw dropped open in surprise. She muttered in gusts of French.
"Sh, Helene. You must leave. Get out." He tugged her arm. "Take all the girls." He pantomimed a rifle, "Pow. Bang bang."
Helene appeared to understand. "Adele! Bridgette!" The girls gathered in the kitchen banging pots and pans, pretending to cook. There was a volley of gunshots in the yard and the girls dashed outside with Father into the arms of the Americans. A mortar round took out the house before one German had stepped outside.
* * *
He lives. I can see him breathing, swaddled in sheets, a shroud. And once the end is here, all one needs to do is cover his head with the flap. The head, shrunken; jaws sticking out as the mandible of some disgusting insect. This is not Father, the Chairman, the husband, the philanthropist, and the brave soldier. He is a shell, empty and discarded years ago by a locust.
I close the door and reach for a pillow. Father deserves better, would want it
this way. I place the pillow over his face and lean my body into it. There is not the slightest movement as I watch the ticking second hand on the wall clock.