A QUIET MAN
by A. Elizabeth Herting
They came from every corner of the land, making the long, sad pilgrimage to the place in the middle he called home. To say the man would be missed was a grievous understatement. His five children were as different as it was possible for children to be, all holding a singular, vital thread between them. A thread that crackled and hummed with his spirit, a quiet but inescapable imprint.
They grieved as one in their separate corners. Almost in spite of themselves, they came together as the winter solstice drew near. This would be one cold, dark Christmas for each of them. He may not have been able to draw them close during his lifespan, but on this occasion he would have the final say.
No, they would come. Whether or not there were professional conflicts or children demanding their attention or a million other details and annoyances that occupied an average life. Death was bigger than all of those things, a sobering reminder that all things were temporary. In the end, all any of them would be able to give him would be day-old flowers laid at a marble stone. They were rendered powerless against the relentless marching of time and circumstance, finding themselves next in line on the chain of mortality.
So they came in the dead of winter, in the year of our Lord, nineteen-hundred-aught-six, to pay their final respects, one by one.
The figure in the casket was like a mannequin, a freakish wax-like approximation of the great man himself. They cringed as they approached him, his heartbroken widow finally placing an old pair of spectacles on his nose in order to make him seem more like himself.
Mick French took his rightful place beside the head of the casket, his prerogative, as a firstborn son should do. His younger brother Charles lingered at their father’s feet, rivalry dancing between them as they stood in silent vigil, together but worlds apart. Charles was two feet taller and one year younger than his more compact brother, long a point of contention that Charles used to full advantage. Mick cleared his throat, attempting to rid himself of the old bitterness to be the first in their father’s affection. Even after death it would seem.
Charlie, ever the “fair-haired boy” following their father around the farm, learning to work with his hands just as Da did. First in stature, first in sporting pursuits, first in everything was his handsome younger brother. It really was unbearable.
Mick was short and squat. He had the unfortunate trait of having longish arms that hung down his reduced frame, giving him an uneven appearance. He was under no illusions about which of the two of them was more pleasing to the eye.
Charles had married the girl from Miller’s farm down the hill. The girl that Mick had dreamed about and loved from afar in younger, more carefree days. Erika, with her dark beauty and flashing eyes had given his brother four healthy sons over the years, tall and strapping like their father. Charles moved them all out west to a much different life, settling on the wide open plains of Colorado, where “a man could take in the air” as his brother would always say. Their father’s training served him well as he and his bride carved out a life and ranching business from the open, untamed land.
Erika stayed behind on the ranch with their boys, Charles telling him the trip was still harrowing even with the latest modern railroads criss-crossing the land. He well knew if there was anyone who could handle four boys and the daily operations of a semi-successful cattle ranch on her own, it was Erika Miller. Mick remembered her fiery temper and bold nature, competing with them even as a young girl, proving her mettle in every childish conquest. Charlie may have won the battle for her heart, but he certainly had his hands full. Mick surmised that their life together was never dull. He chuckled softly to himself at the thought of it.
Mick sighed and felt the old, melancholy longing, reminding him that Ang was no longer here to help him through this day. He was grateful that Erika had never looked his way all those years ago, his Angela was everything he could have ever asked for in a partner. He’d laid her to rest in the same cemetery Da would be placed, just two years back. They’d had over twenty happy years together before the bloody flux carried her away. It was Mick’s one true regret they were never blessed with children of their own. Ang had a good heart, would have been an excellent mother. He still felt her loss like a physical pain.
Before Ang came into his life, Mick made his living in back-room bars and alleys, participating in pick-up fights throughout the county. He was an expert with his fists, as Charles could certainly attest to, cool and calculating in a fight. This skill had served him well. Even approaching the age of fifty, Mick was still in demand as a man of action and part time fighter.
Half the men in town were indebted to him, wagering their pay on his successful bouts throughout the years. Ang never liked it much, but Mick excelled in the ring. In later years, she would allow him a prize fight every couple of months as long as things on the farm were in order. He supposed he would need to give it all up now, the years were certainly catching up with him.
Besides his distinguished place in the family birth order, his fighting ability was the one thing he held over his brother, height and frame losing out to raw power in the end. Charles had best not forget his place. Mick might need to remind him.
Mick’s stern expression softened as his only sister approached with her family in tow. Soft and frilly she was, her black mourning gown unable to disguise the glow of her natural beauty. Her children were Sasha in miniature, towheaded twin girls that reminded Mick of herself at that age. Her husband Henry stood, respectfully, two paces behind his wife, giving Mick a curt nod in greeting. Mick and his brothers had never taken to Henry, failing to find any spark of ambition or spirit in the lad. In fairness to him, Mick figured pretty much any man would never be good enough for his baby sister and the only girl in the family to boot. No wonder Henry always gave them all a wide berth. Mick honestly couldn’t fault him for it.
The years had been kind to his sister, only a slight crinkle at the outside of each eye gave away the fact that she had just celebrated her thirty-seventh year. Sasha threw herself into Mick’s open arms, tears flowing down her pretty face. She loved her stocky brother, finding tenderness underneath his gruff exterior. He was twelve years her senior, protective and doting like a second father. Nothing was said between them, nothing needed to be. She broke off their embrace, making her way over to Charles. She had to stretch out on her toes as high as she could to reach him, causing a fresh wave of bile to wash over Mick.
A burst of nervous energy approaching told Mick that Eddie had arrived. The third of the French brethren never simply walked into a room, he scurried, Mick thought in amusement. Maybe it was the fact of his placement in the family that caused Eddie to be in a constant state of flux, always grasping to get his fair share. He was relentless in his habits and studies, becoming the only one in their family to go to university.
A true numbers man, Eddie set himself up in a respectable situation as an accountant for the local businesses in town. The man lived and breathed figures, even earning enough to own one of the first motorcars in the county. He traveled the dusty backroads of Dubuque, Iowa, his contraption sputtering and popping like some sort of deranged monster, terrifying livestock in its noisy wake.
Martha, his wife, matched Eddie perfectly in temperament, scurrying right along by his side. With their brood of six children in tow, the family reminded Mick of nothing more than a large pack of mongeese. Mick tried to tamp down his mirth as Eddie sidled up and stuck out his hand.
“Mick, good Christ, what happened to him? That surely is not our father!”
His brother’s hand was clammy, grasping onto Mick’s meaty fist and pumping it with abandon.
“There’ll be time for that later, boyo. Go to Ma now.”
Tears ran down Eddie’s face in silent tracks as he went off in search of their mother.
Mick looked up and caught Charles’ eye as their youngest brother finally decided to make an appearance. Cravat loosened and hanging around his neck, Theodore looked as if he had come in directly from a long night on the town. The family dandy, he was known as “Darby,” a rakish, effortless rogue that cut through the female population like a scythe. Darby gallivanted through life, living off of his charms and not much else. He had long ago wrapped their mother around his little finger, a fact that rankled Mick as well as Charles. It was their only real source of agreement.
“I see he couldn’t keep his promise, even on the day of his own father’s funeral, goddamn him!”
Charles snarled into Mick’s ear, hunching over conspiratorially. They both glared at Darby as he crossed the room and fell into their mother’s outstretched arms. His dramatic sobbing pierced the solemnity of the room, theatrical and loud. It was rumored that Darby had a child in every county and looking at the female interest around the room in his wayward brother even at a moment like this, Mick could definitely believe it.
“A wastrel and a scoundrel!” Charles harrumphed in incredulity, “Da would be ashamed, he would. He should have taken a switch to that boy far more than he did, God bless him.”
It was a hotly debated point amongst the three eldest brothers that their parents had been far more lenient with their younger siblings, they would lament upon the situation at every possible occasion.
“Och, Charlie, let it go. Today is not the day for such talk, go and see to him.”
As his brother begrudgingly crossed the room to greet Darby, Mick studied his mother. There were fresh lines criss-crossing her lovely face, all the worry and turmoil of their father’s ill health permanently etched upon her countenance. She looked older, more frail, and Mick felt the cold dread of mortality wrap around his heart like a coil.
Mourners came from every part of the tri-state area, a long line of humanity stretching around the parlor and out the door. Relatives of every stripe and possible familial connection passed by in an unending line. Mick and his brothers shaking each hand, with their sister and mother quietly crying by the casket.
His Da had been a simple man, a man of very few words. A quiet man. Ma was always the talkative one, chirping about the farm in a constant state of flux. Mick guessed his stillness melded perfectly with her exuberance, two halves making a perfect whole. His father had no need for such eloquence since his mother spoke more than enough for both of them. When he did grace them with his words, it really mattered.
“Mickey, d’ya think young Hagel got him right? Does he not resemble himself more with the spectacles?” Tears streamed down her face. His parents had just celebrated their fifty-fourth year of marriage.
“Yes, Ma, Hagel did the best that he could, I am sure of it.”
Mick cringed at the thought of the undertaker’s grim services. “Hagel and Sons” had been prepping the folks of Dubuque for eternity for nearly a century. Charles Hagel, III was of Mick’s generation, they’d even fought each other in a few friendly bouts long ago. The man stood unobtrusively at the foot of the coffin, quietly overseeing the proceedings. Hagel had a unique talent, that of being seen and unseen, both at the same time.
Dying had drastically altered his father’s appearance. Even under Hagel’s deft attentions, Da was a husk of his proper self, all the heart and life and strength of him vanished in the span of a single heartbeat.
“Hags, I salute you, old sport. When it comes to corpses, you are a prince amongst men! Hear, hear!” A strong wave of whiskey filled the air as Darby held up a large, silver flask and raised it high over the casket. Hagel sniffed in distaste, his face carefully absent of any expression.
“Och, it’s sorry I am, Hags. I forgot you are running the show now. D’ya no’ have an old person to pester, drum up some future business? You pompous old buzzard!”
“Darby, boyo,” Mick intervened, gently placing his hands on his wayward brother’s shoulders, “Step back now. Hagel does not deserve your abuse and Ma is watching.”
“Sweet boy, come sit awhile with me. Your Da would not want you to suffer so.” Mick and Hagel watched his mother lead her errant son over to a chair, where he promptly crumpled into her lap, sobbing hysterically.
“I am very sorry, Hagel. It would appear that my dear brother is an only child.”
Hagel gave Mick a compassionate squeeze on the shoulder, stealthily slipping away without ever saying a word. Mick had only a moment to wonder at his old classmate’s composure before Sasha waylaid him.
“Brother, no good will come of those two in the same room, Charlie has the look of murder in his eye.”
Mick turned to see his brother glowering at the prostrate Darby, fists clenching and unclenching in righteous anger. It was only a matter of time before things got out of hand.
“Peace, love. I will handle Charlie if you can get Ma to calm Darby a little. On my soul, that boy could never do any wrong in her eyes.”
Sasha nervously crossed the room to her mother as Eddie kneeled at the casket, his lips silently moving while his fingers feverishly worked a long string of rosary beads. He’d kept the old religion well, Mick noted. Certainly his large brood attested to that fact.
A sudden memory of Charlie winding their old grandfather clock forward every Sunday made Mick smile. That lad never could abide our weekly late entrance to mass, God’s honest truth! Father Dominic’s angry scowl always made Charlie cringe beet red with embarrassment. Mick suspected it was actually Erika’s giggling in the pew behind them that forced his brother into such drastic action. Ma was madder than a wet hen each time he did it, but Da could never bring himself to discipline the boy. Every week Charlie would change the clock and every week Ma would holler when they showed up to church one hour early, and every week Da would quietly laugh about the matter and nod off five minutes after they sat down in the pew. Da never had much use for church, he only went to keep the peace.
Mick sighed at the memory, squaring his shoulders in preparation for the confrontation to come. He found Charlie across the room and set out to intercept him. A large, square man broke away from the group and stepped in front of Mick, blocking his path.
“Mickey, lad, the missus and I was stunned to hear of it. Your Da was a good man, a fine friend to our family. I am truly sorry, lad.”
“Mr. McFee, I thank you, sir. If you will pardon me for one moment…”
Charles stood up in slow, simmering anger, one large vein pulsating just above his right eye. Darby let out a fresh bellow, drunkenly swaying on his feet and stumbled back toward the coffin. Mick had precious seconds left.
“I was hoping to talk to you about the walnut trees on your back forty. Now, for just a wee share of the profit, mind, my boys could help you harvest ‘em, they would do a fine job, you’d find no one better…”
“Yes Sir, if you would give me just a moment, I must…”
“Seamus, lad, you must call me Seamus….”
Mick watched helplessly as Charlie came up behind Darby, his temper rising with with each long stride. The old farmer continued to stand in front of him like a mountain. Mick gently placed his hands upon each of the man’s massive shoulders in a futile attempt to guide him out of the way.
“Mr. McFee, I really must…if you will pardon me, Mr…Seamus….”
Charlie reached Darby and violently spun him around, launching Darby’s outstretched flask into the air. Whiskey sprayed in all directions as Charlie prepared to strike. Instantly, Eddie leapt up between them from his vigil at the coffin and heartily punched Darby square in the nose, his well manicured hand smarting from the impact.
Even in that moment of impending disaster, Mick could appreciate the hit. He certainly knew a good punch when he saw one, it was truly admirable. Who knew Eddie had it in him? He certainly picked an interesting time to discover his fighting spirit, a true French at the last! Och, Da, how you would be happy to know it!
Darby flew backwards and struck the foot of the coffin, barreling into Hagel, both of them going down in an undignified heap. The casket lifted straight up off the stand, briefly standing on end from the sudden impact. Mick and the assembled mourners watched in horror as his father sat up like an avenging angel, rendering his silent judgment upon them all, before the coffin rediscovered its gravity and rocked back, hard, into place.
Incredibly, Da stayed upright a few seconds more, his old spectacles still perched upon the end of his nose. He looked just as he did in life, when Mick and his brothers would argue and set to quarreling. Now, just as then, Da said nothing. He’d never had to.
The coffin wobbled precariously before settling itself back onto the stand. Da appeared to give them one final, disapproving look before falling back into repose, the entire episode over in the span of a single heartbeat. Darby’s silver flask came hurtling back to earth, landing hard on to Da’s chest before the coffin lid slammed shut with an otherworldly bang.
For a full minute, the room’s inhabitants fell completely silent. Mick, unaware that he had been holding his breath, let it out in a long, tuneless whistle. He met Charlie’s gaze over the assembly, both of them struck dumb with astonishment. Darby seemed coldcocked into sudden sobriety. Eddie grabbed his hand, both of them caught in an awkward, unintentional embrace as Darby roughly stumbled to his feet.
Mick turned to find his mother and Sasha. Ma had fallen to her knees, a look of pure joy brightening her upturned face. Sasha was burrowing herself into Henry’s chest, he could see her husband whispering quiet words of comfort into her ear. Maybe I judged the lad a bit too harshly, it might be worth giving him a second look, especially now. Da would do no less. I am sure of it.
Hagel smoothly pulled his lanky body up from the floor. He was like a second ghost, tastefully rising up from the grave. He straightened his tie and loudly cleared his voice, preparing to address the stunned assembly. As he opened his mouth to speak, the doors to the parlor burst open and an old, familiar voice shattered the silence, like a rock thrown through glass.
“ I see I have made it not a moment too soon!”
Erika held aloft a large jug of dark, caramel colored whiskey in each hand, freshly brewed on the wild plains of Colorado. Of that, Mick had no doubt.
“Let us all celebrate his life, give him a good Irish wake. He was a fine man, he deserves a proper send off!”
Charlie dashed across the room as their handsome sons filed in behind her. Mick could see that they were tired and wore the dirt and grime of a long journey. He could only imagine what they’d gone through to get here in time for this day.
Picking up Erika in a great embrace, Charlie swung her around in joyful abandon. Mick, thinking of Angela, always Angela, felt a tear forming in his eye. He quickly wiped it away before anyone was the wiser. Ma walked towards them, arms outstretched. If anything or anyone could have saved this day, Mick was certain it was the force of nature named Erika Miller from the farm down the hill. God bless her.
It was quite a to-do later that evening, Mick couldn’t remember a better one in the annals of French family history. Erika’s whiskey was well spent as they toasted Da over and over, the many stories of his long life giving each of them solace. Darby was waylaid by Erika’s pretty younger sister, Debra Miller. They sat off in a corner, holding hands while Debra patiently listened to his story, holding up a cut of raw beef to his bruised and purple eye as he railed against his unfair circumstances. Eddie apologized to Darby many times over, not knowing what madness had possessed him. He only knew that his oldest brother Mick had a sudden, new-found respect for him. Eddie discovered that he really liked that feeling.
Mick and Charlie had many, many toasts together, enough so that Mick agreed to let Charlie’s oldest son, James, come to Iowa to live with him and work the land. Mick knew he would never have any children of his own and Jimmy was a fine boy. He’d also asked Henry and Sasha to take over the day to day operations of his farm, knowing that they would benefit from such an arrangement and be close enough to take care of Ma to boot. Seamus McFee’s boys would harvest and collect the walnuts for a fair wage. Everything was as it should be.
The whiskey may have been doing the talking, but Mick had a hankering to travel, maybe do a little fighting here and there. As much as Ang hated the fighting, he knew she would approve of his new-found freedom. As he raised his glass in a final toast with his brothers, Mick could feel Da’s calming presence in the room.
Da never cared about the day to day drama that surrounded his family, he was only happy to exist in its turbulent wake. Mick found it fitting that his final, most powerful statement had come from beyond the grave, delivered without ever saying a word. A quiet man to the last, was their Da. Christ, how he would be missed!
Mick French hoisted his glass high in tribute, each of his siblings looking up to him as he claimed his rightful place as head of their family.
They all drank and lowered their glasses, knowing that everything had changed. The assembled generations sharing in that moment, closed ranks around him. Mick was the new head of the family now. For good or ill, this was to be their fate. So they drank, and laughed, and cried as all families do, swearing to hold on to their rediscovered bond and really meaning it. The cold, hard light of day would send each of them back into their separate worlds soon enough. At least until the next family tragedy. Or celebration. Whichever came first.
Such was the madness of living.
Sasha affectionately hooked her arm through Mick’s, both of them amused at the unlikely duo stumbling ahead of them. They’d all accompanied Charlie and his family to the train station early the next morning, bidding them farewell as the first cracks of light broke through the dreary winter sky of Dubuque. Darby and Eddie swayed drunkenly together, an unusual pair of friends, singing old pub songs wildly out of tune.
Each of Charlie’s boys heartily shook his hand as they boarded the car, Erika giving his arm a firm squeeze before kissing him on the cheek.
“I’ll take care of your boy, if you’ll take care of mine, Mickey! Swear it, now…”
Mick looked up at Charlie, standing by her side and promised on his life, that he would. Jimmy was the very image of his father at that age and Mick felt a sudden wave of nostalgia, the passing of years washing over him.
“I do so swear, Erika, ‘tis happy I’ll be to have the lad. Send him to me in the spring.”
Mick and Charlie shook hands warmly, moving into a brief, awkward embrace. No words passed between them, for neither trusted their ability to speak at that moment. All was said that needed to be. Mick was content.
As he sent his wayward brothers off with Sasha, Mick watched them all fondly. There would surely be a doghouse in Eddie’s future this day, for he doubted Martha would be quite so understanding of his present condition. Darby danced a little jig as he waved goodbye, graceful on his feet, even at this early hour. Debra Miller would have quite a project on her hands, but who knew? Maybe a wedding would bring them all together again. No easy feat, but if anyone could tame the beast that was his youngest brother, it was a Miller girl from the farm down the hill. Of that, Mick had absolutely no doubt.
Charlie’s train headed west, as Mick decided to go east, jumping on the early train to Rockford, Illinois. He had no idea of his final destination, only that he couldn’t wait to get there. Mick had only a few short months until the spring, after all, and there was no time like the present.
The trains left the station with each brother, as they always were, heading in the opposite direction of the other. The thread of the old man’s influence would always bind them together, no matter the time or distance or how many millions of obstacles intervened to keep them apart. It was inescapable, there was no way to get around it for they were family.
Somehow, somewhere, from his lofty perch above, Mick knew that Da was smiling. It just might be a good Christmas after all, Mick thought fondly, as the train slowly pulled away, leaving Dubuque, and his past, behind in its snowy wake.
About the Author:
A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has had over 60 short stories published and also has two collections of short stories that will be published by “Adelaide Books.” “Whistling Past the Veil” in April 2019 and “Postcards From Waupaca” which comes out in February 2020. For more of her work/contact her at https://aeherting.weebly.com, twitter.com/AmyHerting or facebook.com/AElizabethHerting