The Weight of Things

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?” Gus asked.
    “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 ready.”
    Gus picked up the puzzle box.  It had a picture of a windmill in a field of sunflowers.
    “It’s Holland,” Gus said.
    “It’s called the Netherlands now.”
    “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 ask anymore.
    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 goddamn maps?” 
    “Nobody has, Dad.”
    “I haven’t been to any of those places.  I haven’t been nowhere.”
    After that, Molly would sneak into his room when he was working on the puzzle and replace all the pins he’d taken out. 
    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 whispers.   
    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 intoxicating. 
    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 his kids. 
    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 said.
    “They think I'm a dirty old man.”
    “Well, you do stink a little,” she said. 
    He laughed softly. 
    “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.
    “You’re still somebody.”
    “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 accomplished something.
    “Wash your hands for dinner,” Molly said to Dylan.
     “I did.”
    “Let me smell them,” Molly said. 
    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 shoulders.   
    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. 
     “Better than 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 door.
    “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 again. 
    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 about.   
    “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.”
    Dylan didn’t answer.  
    “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 spaghetti. 
    “I shouldn’t a done that,” he had said as he shook his mop of grey hair.  “I shouldn’t a done that.”
    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 evening.
    Dylan smiled at his mother.  He wasn’t taking Chemistry and she knew it.
    “I aced it,” he answered. 
    “You sweet on any girls?” Gus asked Dylan. 
    “Nah,” he answered with a slight smirk. 
    “You sweet on any boys?”
    “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 drift.” 
    “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 find out.”
    “Don’t,” she took a deep breath.  “We don’t use that word anymore.”
    “No, fairy.”
    “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 planes.”
    “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 completely silent.”
    “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.
     Gus was 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 puzzle. 
    “I shoulda taken her to Paris,” Gus muttered.  
    “What was that, Dad?”  Molly asked.
    Gus didn’t 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 tracks. 
    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 pockets. 
    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 airport?”
    Gus didn’t answer, but handed him a hundred dollar bill. 
    “Step on it,” Gus said.  He’d always wanted to say that.
    The cabbie shrugged and shoved the cash into his front pocket.
    “Where ya headed?”
    “Nowhere,” Gus 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. 
       When Gus directed him to stop, the cabbie said, “You sure?  This is the middle of nowhere.”
    Gus didn’t answer.
     “You gonna be okay out here Old Man?  It’s awfully cold.”
    “It’s Old Guy,” Gus replied. 
    “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 every moment. 
    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 dying.    
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 him. 
He told her yes, but only if they go near the tracks. 

Bronwyn Berg is a fucking cool name.


Published On: March 23, 2017
Permanent Location:

Volume 9, Issue 2
  March 23, 2017


An Introduction
Forget Magazine

Remember to Remember
Cole Mash

Saskatoon Celebrity
Erin Hiebert

The Arches
Douglas Walbourne-Gough

The Weight of Things
Bronwyn Berg

Middle Initial Sequel

Feb 12, 2001 - Present

1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7


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ISSN: 1710 193X

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