BloodLines: "Shadows" by JJ Lee
We’ve partnered with the Canada Council for the Arts to present a new literary series: BloodLines. Inspired by this year’s Massey Lectures by Lawrence Hill, Blood: The Stuff of Life, BloodLines features new fiction, nonfiction and poetry inspired by the theme of blood—written by ten Canadian writers who have won or been nominated for Governor General’s Literary Awards. We're also asking you to share a story from your bloodline for a chance to win $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts.
In JJ Lee’s BloodLines piece, the death of the father brings a fear of his legacy upon the sons.
“Shadows” by JJ Lee
When the police entered my father's ground floor apartment, they heard the crying first. I'm sure they also detected, as I did later on, the smell of urine.
I've always imagined the scene with the boy, five years old, sitting on the bathroom floor beside my father. My father's body sprawls, his arms akimbo, his arms like the crooks of a swastika, or a running man, like the victim’s taped outline on the cover of a murder mystery. The boy cries and the police constable picks him up. Though he is kindergarten age, I can't shake the idea that he wears a soaked diaper. There was that smell. Maybe he pissed himself. Maybe it was from when he was a toddler and he wet a mattress. Maybe this is what had become of the smell of my father. My father, when he was young, smelled of vanilla, cigarettes and sweat, but maybe it had simply come down to piss.
The boy attended the funeral with his two half-sisters. They were 23 and 15 at the time. The boy’s mother did not. I suppose she knew we didn’t like her. Not her fault. Not really. But there was anger. How could she let herself become entangled in our misery? Did she not see the bottles and the rages? I suppose she made us feel ashamed. Our family lived in Montreal, and when my mother divorced my father in 1991, he moved out West and met the boy’s mother. And we knew that my father had brought all his demons to the new relationship. He drank. He shouted, he pushed, he shoved, and worse. History repeating itself. And we were responsible. We made it happen again. We cut our father out from our family and in doing so we inflicted him on another. Our private misery now would be shared.
Then there was the boy. After the chapel service we went to a local restaurant and ate wings and drank beer. I drank lustily. Not out of deep sorrow. Not then. Not yet. I drank from relief. We all did. I’m sure we did. My father, who could promise to kill you as easily as he could promise to take you out for an ice cream, could promise no more.
I watched my father’s boy. He originally sat between his sisters but got up and began to walk around the table, visiting his momentarily enlarged family. I saw his face. It had a softness and a fineness that must have belonged to his mother. My father did have a slender look when he was young, but I always saw my father’s face as full and heavy-featured. Greasy and meaty flesh. A pitbull head.
I was 27 years old and he was 46 when my father told me he was going to have another child. “You’re going to have a little brother.”
I said, “A half-brother.”
The boy sat beside my father in the last hours. A neighbour said he heard the crying. When the morning had passed into a hot August afternoon and the crying hadn’t stopped, the man called the police. The boy spent hours with my father, helpless to do anything. The coroner called weeks later to tell me of lesions on my father's legs. His blood, weakened by years of alcohol abuse, infected by bacteria, had become poison and made his heart stop beating.
I have not seen the boy since. He must be 17 years old. I sometimes wonder if he looks like me or my father. Sometimes I fantasize about sweeping back into his life when he’s ready. I’ll show him how to smoke cigars, knot a tie, and other ridiculous shit one picks up from the movies, like how to whittle a stick. Overcompensating, lavish promises, and foolish, presumptuous plans. Come over for dinner. See a movie. Look at our family pictures. Let me see yours. The boy whittles a stick and thinks, “Where the hell have you been?”
I have been afraid. That I will feel a pang of jealousy. He was there when my father died. For some reason that matters.
I am afraid to see the shadow of my father in the boy as I am afraid to see the shadow in myself. I am afraid he will see my father in me.
That he will look like me when I was young. Lanky with greasy hair. A nervous smile and a painful awkwardness. If I pulled him to me and breathed him in. Would I know the scent? Blood is secret. Blood is beneath. Blood never lies.
JJ Lee is the author of the memoir The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit. It was shortlisted for the 2011 Governor-General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction, the 2011 BC Book Prizes Hubert Evans Prize for Non-Fiction, and the 2012 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize. JJ writes essays for ELLE Canada and The National Post and is a National Magazine Award winner.
Photo credit: Melissa Stephens
Read the other works in our BloodLines series: