It was after Gus
O’Malley, at the age of eighty-two, was
put on the sexual offenders list that his
daughter started buying him puzzles.
“Do I like puzzles?”
“You used to,” Molly
answered while she washed the dishes.
Molly insisted that she could get them
cleaner than the dishwasher could.
“Did I build them with
you?” he asked.
“No, Dad, you liked to
build them by yourself.”
“You can build it with
me now, Molly.”
“I have to get dinner
Gus picked up the
puzzle box. It had a picture of a
windmill in a field of sunflowers.
“It’s Holland,” Gus
“It’s called the
“What did they go
changing the name for?”
“I don’t know, I think
it was always the Netherlands. Maybe
Holland was just a nickname.”
“Have I been there?”
“I’m not sure.
Maybe during the war?”
“I’ll have to check my
map,” he said.
In Gus’s bedroom he had
a map of the world pinned to the
wall. There were red pins to mark
all the places he had been during the war.
When his grandson, Dylan, was younger he
would point to a pin and ask him to tell
him a story about it. Dylan doesn't
Six months ago Molly
found Gus staring at the map, all the pins
at his feet like tiny drops of blood.
“I thought I told you
kids not to mess around with my map!
Whose been putting goddamn pins in my
“Nobody has, Dad.”
“I haven’t been to any
of those places. I haven’t been
After that, Molly would
sneak into his room when he was working on
the puzzle and replace all the pins he’d
After the war, Gus
became an accident inspector for CP
Rail. His brother worked there and
got him the job. If his brother had
been a plumber, Gus would have been a
plumber. If he’d been an executioner
he would’ve been an executioner.
That’s how it worked in those post-war
days. That’s how brothers
worked. Gus was given a Rolleiflex
camera that hung around his neck like an
albatross and a portable typewriter he
carried in a silver case. He was
called out to accident sites to photograph
the dead and write reports. They were
almost always drunk hobos who’d passed out
on the tracks. Poor Bastards. He
took pictures of their crushed skulls and
dismantled limbs, measured how far their
body parts landed from the tracks.
His wife Martha would tell him he was
doing a good thing. He was a witness
to their final moments. Gus knew he
was a pawn to help the insurance companies
get away without paying.
Gus thought he could
escape death after the war, but he went
from one kind of death to another.
He spent forty years documenting the
dying. At least this time he wasn’t
holding a gun, or wasn’t the poor bloke
driving the train. He was just there
to witness it, to capture it in a little
black box. The irony wasn’t lost on
him: instead of a scope, he stared through
a lens, with the feeling of cold steel
against his cheek, the smell of metal,
point and shoot. He had to remind
himself, he wasn’t doing the
killing. They were dead before he
got there. The war had hardened
him. He had seen men blown to
pieces, hell, he was even the one to blow
them to pieces, but nothing could have
prepared him for a three-year-old girl
dead on a railroad track – her bones
shattered like glass.
After that Gus was
tortured by nightmares of his children
crushed by trains. He avoided shell
shock, but couldn’t cope with
fatherhood. He would wake in cold
sweats, balling like a baby, grabbing the
air like he was climbing an invisible
ladder. Sometimes he would shake
them awake, Don’t go near the tracks, he
would say in harsh
When Molly and her
brother, Sam, had been young children, Gus
laid out a series of accident photos on
the dining room table.
“Do you want this to
happen to you?” he asked. They shook
their heads. They asked if they could
please go to their rooms. Gus wished
it was still the days when the photos were
in black and white, when the blood looked
like dark grey splotches. Sam threw up at
the picture of a detached foot with blood
splashed across the Nike stripe.
“Don’t go near the
tracks,” Gus said, frantically waving the
photos in their faces.
“We never do!” Molly
screamed as Sam stared at his
vomit-covered shoes, their shoulders
touching like they were one person.
Molly remembered her
dad taking her and Sam to the train tracks
only once. He let them line the
track with pennies. As the train
drew near he held both their hands so
tightly she felt like he’d crush her
fingers like twigs. She remembered
the engine car the colour of coal, a chain
of passenger cars trailing behind.
She remembered a boy waving at her from
the window. She wanted so badly to
get on that train and go far, far
away. When the train swished by, the
force of the wind blew her straw hat off
her head. There was something
thrilling about it, the rush. It was
After the train sped
by, she and Sam collected the
pennies. They were warm in their
palms. Molly looked at the copper,
smooth as glass, the queen’s face worn
right off of it. Erased.
“You see what that
train did to that penny?” Gus asked
The park bench felt
cold beneath Gus. Cold was another
thing old age made more acute. He
remembered his mother yelling at him to
wear his mittens, he remembered Martha
yelling the same thing to Sam. They
had both ignored their mothers immune to
the cold, immune to danger. He
wished he had taken his kids to the
park. Gus wished he’d done a lot of
things with his kids. He started his
park visits when Molly was at work and
Dylan at school. Gus wanted to be
near young people. He wanted to hear
their laughter, watch them being pushed on
swings. The neighbourhood mothers
complained to the police. He told
them all he was doing was watching.
He wasn’t bothering nobody. The
policeman told him to move along. So
he did. Then he got lost. He
wandered around for hours and couldn’t
find the house. He said all the
houses looked the same. Probably
because they were.
Gus had to go to the
bathroom. His bladder was as weak as
the rest of him. Eventually he found
his way back to the park and started
struggling with this zipper. He
briefly caught the eye of a woman and
shrugged an apology. She called the
police again. Gus wet himself before
he could get his pants down. The
police found him sitting on the park
bench, his pants unbuckled and
soaking. When Molly arrived at the
police station, his pants were still wet.
“What took you so
long?” he asked.
“I came as soon as I
heard,” she said.
“No one notices
me. Once you’re old you become
invisible. The waitresses don’t
notice you, the clerks don’t notice you,
but you whip it out when nature calls and
suddenly the whole world notices you.”
“I notice you,” Molly
“They think I'm a dirty
“Well, you do stink a
little,” she said.
“You used to tell me
not to care what people think.”
“I used to be
somebody.” Gus thought of Marlon
Brando. I coulda been somebody, I
coulda been a contender.
“No, I ain’t.
Even Marlon Brando died fat and lonely.”
Molly reached out and
held her father’s hand. Her hand was
only slightly smaller than his. She
remembered how large his hand used to feel
when she was a little girl. The only
time they ever held hands was to cross the
street and once they were safely across he
would drop it.
When Gus first moved in
with Molly after her mother died, they
lived together like timid roommates.
They were overly polite, each one trying
not to be a nuisance to the other
one. She realized one day that she’d
hardly spoken more than two sentences to
her father since adulthood. Hardly
anything beyond, please pass the potatoes
at family dinners. It was her mother
who had answered the phone when she would
call. Her mother would relay
messages between them, things like, Dad is
wondering if you got the furnace fixed, or
how is the car running or Dad wants to
know if you need any money. He was
like background music. Always there,
but never imposing himself. Gus
believed that you left the daughters to
their mothers. It wasn’t that he
didn’t love Molly, it was that he wasn’t
sure what to do with a girl. It was
Sam he tried to teach how to catch a ball,
drive a car, cast a line. All things
Sam was hopeless at.
When they returned
home, Dylan was working on the
puzzle. He jumped away from the
table when he saw his mother and
grandfather. Molly and Dylan had
been finishing the puzzle when Gus wasn’t
around. It gave him the illusion he
“Wash your hands for
dinner,” Molly said to Dylan.
“Let me smell them,”
Dylan held out hands
that looked too large for his
wrists. At sixteen, he was all arms
and legs bumping into things like he
wasn’t used to his new size – his voice
cracking at the edges, fighting
manhood. Gus remembered being that
age. He longed for the recklessness
of his youth, the invincibility. He
remembered tobogganing down Tobacco Hill
narrowly missing trees. He wanted to
feel the crack of a baseball hitting a
bat. He wanted to feel the crushing
flesh of someone’s cheek against his
knuckles. He wanted to feel the soft
weight of a woman’s breast in his
hands. He would never feel any of
those things again.
“You want to smell my
hands too, Old Guy?” Dylan asked.
“Not if they smell like
shit,” Gus answered.
Dylan tipped his head
up and laughed. It had been a long
time since Gus was able to make Dylan
laugh. When Dylan was little he used
to watch Gus shave. He’d sit on the
toilet, in his Superman pajamas with the
red cape velcroed to his
Gus would say to Dylan,
“Hey, who’s that old guy in the
mirror?” Which is how Gus came to be
called Old Guy instead of Grampa like his
cronies. Dylan’s favourite line was,
“I’m so hairy I worry people might hunt me
for my fur. You’re not a hunter, are
you?” Dylan would laugh so hard he’d
fall off the toilet. That’s the
great thing about kids, they’re so easily
entertained, Gus thought. Now
everything bored Dylan.
smelling like piss,” Dylan answered.
Molly slapped him
across the face. A red mark bloomed
on his cheek.
“You are such a bitch!”
he yelled and ran out of the room.
Gus and Molly both looked towards the
hallway waiting to hear the slam of his
“He didn’t mean
anything by it,” Gus said.
Molly stared at her
hand. “He hates me.”
“Your kids are supposed
to hate you. That’s how you know
you’re doing it right.”
“I never hated you,”
Molly said pulling off her coat.
“Sam hated me enough
for both of you.”
Gus cupped his
daughter’s face in his hands. They
weren’t used to touching each other.
He wasn’t sure what to do once he did it
so he just patted her cheek. He noticed
the smile lines around her tight lips, the
dark shadows carved under her eyes.
How was this middle-aged woman also his
little girl? He wondered what Sam
looked like now. He saw him briefly
at Martha’s funeral from across the
room. He hadn’t sat with the
family. Gus walked towards him, but
Sam disappeared into the crowd.
Time, like his
children, always refused to obey
him. It seemed to him that thirty
years had passed while he was
napping. As though time was passing
for him faster than it was for other
people. After awhile it felt like he
was neither moving forwards or backwards,
but enduring the same day over and over
At dinner they have a
different version of the same
conversation. It would appear to an
outsider that the family was rehearsing a
play. Like most families there were
things they talked about to avoid the
things they couldn’t talk
“When are you going to
get your license?” Gus would ask.
“I dunno,” Dylan
shrugged holding his fork with his fist
like he’s still a kid.
“When I was your age I
couldn’t wait to get my license.
Hell, I was driving a combine on the farm
when I was ten.”
“My first car was a
Buick,” Gus said between bites. “I
wonder whatever happened to that Buick?”
Molly and Dylan had to
tread very carefully. They had to
try to talk about his missing car, whose
whereabouts Gus was incessantly interested
in, without mentioning his missing wife
and son. They answer in a variety of
ways. Only once did they tell him
the truth, that he gave the Buick to Sam
who crashed it. This led to Gus
refusing to speak to Sam for an entire
year. But if they bring this up,
something inside of him will crack open
and he’ll sob right there in his
“I shouldn’t a done
that,” he had said as he shook his mop of
grey hair. “I shouldn’t a done
Sometimes they tell him
that the Buick is at the shop or Martha
took it to the market. Anything to
keep him from thinking about Sam.
Their answer to the Buick would determine
the rest of the evening. Molly’s
latest strategy was to change the subject.
“How did your chemistry
test go?” She asked Dylan this particular
Dylan smiled at his
mother. He wasn’t taking Chemistry
and she knew it.
“I aced it,” he
“You sweet on any
girls?” Gus asked Dylan.
“Nah,” he answered with
a slight smirk.
“You sweet on any
“Leave him alone,”
Molly interjected wishing they were
talking about the Buick again.
“I’m just teasing ya,”
Gus said. “Not suggestin you’re in
the way of uncles, if you catch my
“Yeah, yeah, I catch
it,” Dylan said as he made a track pattern
in his potatoes with his fork.
“When I was in the war,
there was this whore in Barcelona…”
“Dad, please,” Molly
said. “No more, um, war stories.”
“No, no, I want to hear
all about it,” Dylan said smirking.
“All I’m saying
is I don’t care if the kids a fairy, but
we ought to get his oil cleaned first to
“Don’t,” she took a
deep breath. “We don’t use that word
“Who keeps changing all
the words?” Gus asked.
“Can we please change
the subject?” Molly said as she buttered
the bread so hard it crumbled.
“Did I ever tell you
that my brother was a pilot?”
No one answers.
“That means he flew
“We know what a pilot
is, Old Guy,” Dylan said.
“I thought that maybe
they changed the word for that too.
Anywho, he was in a plane crash once,
lived to tell about it. He told me
the darndest thing; he said that while the
plane was going down no one said a damn
thing. Nothing. You’d think
there’d be screamin’ and cryin’ and
cussin’, maybe even prayin’ but it was
“I thought I said no
more war stories.”
“Oh, I thought you said
no more whore stories,” Gus said tapping
the side of his hearing aid. “Nobody
wants to hear about the war.” Gus picked
up his butter knife and pointed it
accusingly at his daughter. “Someday
there will be nobody left alive who
remembers the war.”
“Maybe it’s okay to
forget some things,” Molly said.
“The things you want to
forget are the last to go,” Gus said.
They lost Gus in bits
and pieces. One afternoon Dylan came
home to find his grandfather holding a
puzzle piece in each hand. He was
staring at half of the Champs-Élysées like
he couldn’t figure out how the pieces
connected to the half-formed
picture. His hands shook like the
wings of a bird. Underneath his
chair was a puddle.
“Ma?” Dylan called out.
“I’ll get the mop,” she
said without turning around.
connecting to the world in small
handfuls. One night he walked up
behind Molly as she stood at the sink, her
hands immersed up to her elbows in soapy
water. He put his hands on her
shoulders and said, “Your mother is dead
and it’s time you accept that.” Then
he sat down and worked on his
“I shoulda taken her to
Paris,” Gus muttered.
“What was that,
Dad?” Molly asked.
answer. He wondered sometimes if all
life was is a series of mistakes we were
all hoping to be forgiven for. He
was worried about how he’d be
remembered. One piss in a park and
he’ll be remembered as a pervert.
None of us get to control what memories
will stick. He wondered if he’d been
a good husband and father. He
wondered if he’d been a good man.
At dinner, he ate
slowly and silently. He stopped
asking about his Buick. He stopped
talking about the war. He stopped
warning everyone to stay away from the
In the morning, Gus
examined the contents of his life.
He wished someone had warned him how much
a life can shrink. You spend half
your life building something, and the
second half watching it all
disappear. In the end,
everything you own can fit on top of one
dresser. A picture of his
wife. An ashtray made out of clay,
underneath it says To Dad: 1962. Gus
couldn’t remember if it was Molly or Sam
who made it. Gus couldn’t remember
if he smoked. In the corner sat a
pile of faceless pennies. He grabbed
a handful and put them in his
Gus looked at his map
of the world. It seemed to him there
were pins in places he’d never been.
Damn kids. He pulled out pins placed
in Paris, Brussels, Barcelona,
Milan. He kept pulling out pins
until there was only one left.
He looked in the mirror
at the sagging skin under his eyes, hair
poking out of his ear like a half blown
dandelion. He wondered when was the
last time he combed his hair. Gus
realized after his wife died he’d only
combed it for her. He’d done
everything for her. He took his
heart meds for her, brushed his teeth for
her, woke up in the morning for her.
After she was gone he did it for Molly.
After Dylan got on the
school bus and Molly left for work Gus put
his old Rollieflex camera around his
neck. He had forgotten how heavy it
felt. Time had a way of distorting
the weight of things.
Gus put on his
galoshes, his winter coat, the red scarf
Molly had knit him, but he forgot his
gloves. When he slammed the front
door behind him, the map of the world
detached from the wall. It lay in a
crumpled heap on the bedroom floor.
Still stuck to the wall was one red pin.
Gus wandered up and
down the street looking for his Buick,
avoiding icy patches. The fragility of old
age had taken him by surprise. He wasn’t
used to feeling so breakable. A man, older
than him, walked towards the bus stop as
though each step was dangerous and the
ground could no longer be trusted.
It reminded him of the war, walking
through tall grass worried about land
mines, knowing one wrong step and you’d be
blasted to smithereens. Sometimes
Gus wished he had been.
Gus was going to be
late for work and he couldn’t find his
car. A yellow cab pulled up to a
house across the street. Gus hurried
across and hopped in before the neighbors
could emerge from the front door.
“Headed to the
Gus didn’t answer, but
handed him a hundred dollar bill.
“Step on it,” Gus
said. He’d always wanted to say
The cabbie shrugged and
shoved the cash into his front pocket.
“Where ya headed?”
answered. He placed his head against
the cold glass of the window and read the
words decaled on the side view
mirror. Objects in the mirror are
closer than they appear.
directed him to stop, the cabbie said,
“You sure? This is the middle of
Gus didn’t answer.
“You gonna be
okay out here Old Man? It’s awfully
“It’s Old Guy,” Gus
“Old Guy not Old Man.”
He waited for the
cabbie to drive away before walking
towards the tracks.
Gus turned his hearing
aid off. In the beginning he’d
enjoyed his hearing loss: the endless
prattling of his wife about who wore what,
and how much beef cost, and all the
nagging. It wasn’t until she was
gone that he realized how much she filled
Gus thought of the many
times he walked along this railroad, all
the photos he’d taken. He remembered
the sinking feeling when he’d first see a
shadowy lump in the distance. It was
like watching a photo being
developed. Blank as snow, then an
outline forms from the edges in, a shadow,
then a fully formed person. The invisible
becomes visible. It struck Gus as
the opposite of
He could feel the crunch of snow beneath
his boots, without hearing it. With
his hearing aid off it was like watching a
silent film. It reminded him of the
time Molly watched an old black and white
movie of a lady tied up on a train track,
her screams silent.
“Is that how women die?” she had asked
He told her yes, but only if they go near