by Nathaniel R. Fuller

Nobody expected my mother to go first. She was the one who had quit smoking, quit drinking, exercised, wore sunscreen with SPFs that a mathematician couldn't calculate. She started eating healthier, cutting out red meat, adding chicken and fish and vegetables you had to travel to the city to get. I never would have guessed she would die of bone cancer and so quickly. Even now, it seemed too fast-even when six months is considered a long time to survive.

I sat next to my father at the funeral. He still smelled like cigarettes and marijuana, hay and cows. It could have been comforting, had anything that I ever associated with my father been comforting. The man who painted graffiti portraying the pope as a demon on the church walls outside meant more to me than my father. As it was, I felt nothing.

My son, Isaac, just barely three years old, grabbed my tie and jerked, then bawled for his KiroDaddy. I glanced at the seat next to me, empty except for my boyfriend Kiro's green leather cell phone case and my son's diaper bag. When we had walked in-Kiro, Isaac, and I-my father and the minister, a man who had more warts than prayers God actually listened to, greeted us. We went up to my father to make the perfunctory funeral greeting. I had Isaac grappled around my neck, the diaper bag pulling down my left shoulder. "Dad." I didn't have much else to say.

He glared at me. "I told you not to bring him here, Travis." He motioned towards Kiro.

"You know I don't drive." I struggled to get rid of the diaper bag. Kiro grabbed the strap and slid it off, taking it to the front of the church.


I had to keep my face neutral, though it was difficult. My mother, the peacemaker, was dead. All I wanted to do was cry for her, the one who had kissed my nightmares away, the one who knew all along that I was gay, the one who only got to see her grandson once before she died. And now my father wanted me to send away the one who had held my hand when that despised phone call had come, the one who held me when I cried those first mourning tears, the one who played peek-a-boo with our son while I sobbed in the bathroom. It wasn't as if his reaction was unexpected. We just never talked about it. Before he would engage Kiro as if he were just a friend I brought home, not a romantic interest. It hadn't been enough, for me. But it wasn't the exclusion we got now.

Grief turned to anger. I balled up my fist. A hand fell on my shoulder, squeezing softly. "It's alright. I'll go. I don't want to make a scene," Kiro said. He walked out of the church.

My father shrugged. I scowled.

The minister turned to my father and tilted his head. "Frank, we discussed this. You said...."

I strode to the front of the church as quickly as possible, not caring to listen, though I noticed my father had bowed his head. It didn't matter. I just wanted the service to start.

The minister spoke about purity, Christ and his love, God's redemption of my mother's soul. My son was asleep on my shoulder; drool seeped into my suit coat. I could hear a woman sniffling in the back. My father amened along with the priest and the crowd. My mother would have been rolling her eyes the entire time.

The minister asked if anyone else had anything they wanted to say to remember my mother. Friends, relatives, even acquaintances lined up to say their piece. The room echoed with cheesy little anecdotes, half of which I wasn't even sure were about my mother and half that were definitely only half-truths.

I remembered my last phone conversation with my mother. Many of the details of the beginning of the conversation escape me now, having to do with my aunt's fourth husband and getting my father to accept him into the family fold. I remembered saying something about it being a waste of time, considering the length of my aunt's marriages. She said, "Nothing's a waste of time." On topic, I asked her how the Kiro-supplication was going.

She said, "Oh, you know."

I didn't. "Mom."

"I'm really trying dear. But your father, he's a stubborn one. Much like you and I." She laughed.

This I did know. It didn't make me feel any better. "So? It's been almost three years. And Kiro's not going anywhere, not if I have anything to say about it. Especially now, with Isaac."

My mother hmmed. "I would hope so." Her voice tinkled over the line. "I really don't think it is Kiro he has a problem with. I think he just has to get used to the idea."

"Whatever. He doesn't care about me. He hates me because I'm gay."

"Now." Her voice was stern. "He loves you dearly. And when I told him he was a grandfather, you should have seen him. I've never seen him smile so much or so widely."

What an outright lie.

My mother must have sensed my disbelief because she moved our conversation on to the recent death of the family dog.

"Remember when he would roll around in the snow and make snow-doggie angels," she said.

"Oh yeah. Remember when we got that barking robo-dog that he always thought was real. That was hilarious."

We both laughed. But, for a moment, neither of us said anything. My mother snuffled. "Are you okay?" I said.

"I'm fine." She paused. "If I die, promise me you won't go up and tell stupid stories about me."

Something in her voice bothered me, though I couldn't pinpoint it. Like she was trying to tell me something I needed to know. But I only said, "Mom…"

"And promise me you won't desert your father."

"I don't know..."

"Promise me."

"I won't."


Our conversation ended there. I didn't take the last part seriously, even with my gut saying something different entirely. I figured it as that little twinge of mortality that comes whenever someone or something close to you dies. I didn't know at that time, in June, that my mother was already ill, already dying. Instead , we talked about her garden, a dead dog.

But, as I sat there, with a sopping shoulder and ears full of half-truths, I knew I would keep the promises that I had made, whether I wanted to or not.

After the long line dissipated, I got up to leave. My father grabbed my sleeve as I bent down to pick up the diaper bag.

"Where are you going?" His face reminded me of Isaac's when he first fell while walking, Kiro's when we were rejected by that first adoption agency.

I thought my face might have reflected his for a moment. This man was not, could not be my father.

"I'll be at the house for the wake. Don't worry."

"Granpa," my son murmured. I stopped. The two of them looked at each other, the new and the middle-aged, the innocent and the mournful, and I knew that my face reflected my father's in that moment. I stood there, Isaac holding my tie in one hand, the other hand held out toward my father.

I walked out, looking only at the drab heavy doors of the church. I saw the graffiti man sitting on the bench underneath the awning of the church, surrounded by a litter of cigarette butts and Coca-Cola cans. He saluted me with his current pair, as if to say "Good for you." For what, I wasn't sure. I don't think it mattered. I just was happy to have someone salute me and not care whether or not I responded.

It was raining, one of those late summer rains, still warm, yet between murky sky, drizzle, and downpour. Kiro leaned against our car, the rain wetting his face and hair. He looked me up and down as I pulled up my suit jacket to protect Isaac from the downpour. A moment passed where we said nothing at all. Eventually, he pushed himself away from the car and we strapped Isaac and ourselves in. I didn't ask why he had refused to get in the car; it just seemed like what Kiro would do.

Kiro parked the car, the key still in the ignition. The radio played one of those tinny love songs that always seem to be on when happy-go-lucky love is the last thing you want to think about. Kiro grasped the steering wheel, staring out the windshield, perhaps looking at my mother's garden or my parents' gravel driveway. I looked out the passenger window, at the cows chewing their cud, rain trickling down their sides. They looked carefree. I laid my head into my hand and listened to Isaac's sleeping breaths.

"You could have put up a bigger fight to your father," Kiro said.

I could already tell where it was going, the same place it always seemed to go. Neither of us was very good at dealing with the big things. Give us a diaper change, a ruined dinner, even a lost job or a college rejection, we were fine. Throw our parents into it, the things we know our fathers have in common? We start sniping at each other, two hunters in the forest, in bright orange gear and rifles loaded.

Even knowing this, I turned to him, ready to attack. His hands still clenched the steering wheel, his eyes still stared out the windshield. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. I folded my arms across my chest. "Like you're one to talk. The last time we saw your father the only time he addressed me at all was as 'my son's faggot boyfriend.'" I waited for a reaction. Kiro stayed in the same position. "Plus you're the one who didn't want to make a scene."

He laid his head back. "I know."

That's all it took, all it ever really takes. "I'm sorry. It's just…" I wiped my eyes with my suit coat. "I'm all messed up." I needed to say something else. "I shouldn't have said that. That was uncalled for." We both knew what I was talking about.

He turned his face from me, looking out the driver-side window. I saw rivulets of water flowing down his face. I reached out to wipe some of them away and he flinched.

"You're punishing yourself again." His way of redemption to me, something I'm never sure I'll understand. Punishment by denying himself my touch. I reached out and he let me touch him this time. The water from his hair dripped over the back of my hand as I stroked his cheek with my thumb.

He leaned into my touch. "It's my fault. If I hadn't..."

I knew we shouldn't, that people would be arriving, but I thought, screw it. I did check on Isaac, still sleeping, quiet. But I wanted to feel a little loved today, somewhere, someplace, and I knew I could get it here. I shrugged off my suit coat and moved the seat arm, scooting closer to Kiro. I held his face in my hands. "If you hadn't asked me out, we'd both be miserable bastards and Isaac would probably be in a foster home."

We leaned together, forehead against forehead. "I just feel guilty," he said.

I realized my mother was being interred without me. "Sometimes I do too." I kissed his temple. "I like this kind of guilt. Happy guilt." I needed to throw myself into him right now, no matter what.

He stroked my hips. "You're right."

He didn't say about what. It didn't really matter. We held each other, his head tucked under my chin, my face in his hair, smelling the August rain and his shampoo. We grieved, for what I'm not sure. Perhaps for my mother, or needing to learn how to live a reality we hated, or what we thought would have been an easier life at least a few days out of the year.

I heard another car pull into the driveway. I lifted my head, wiping my face off with my hand. I glanced out the window. I saw my father frowning at me through the last drops of rain.

Kiro turned his face to see what I was looking at. My father scowled, his eyebrows and forehead furrowing. I stared at him. Kiro tried to push me off his lap but I gripped his shoulders. I shook my head, signaling to both of them that, this time, I would not budge.

My father scowled again. He stomped off in the direction of the house and the wake. I put my suit coat back on and crawled towards the passenger door. Kiro grabbed my hand.

I squeezed his hand. "It's time for me to take care of this."

I caught up with my father by my mother's vegetable garden. He held a red bell pepper in his hands, turning it over and over. I went up to him and pulled on his jacket sleeve, feeling like I was just a little kid again. He looked at me, for a moment, then returned to the pepper.

"Can I see it?" I said.

He held the pepper out to me. I took it from his hands and turned it over in my own. Splotches of skin had blackened, tiny but noticeable. It sagged, rotten juice spilling on my hands as I kept turning it. I gave the pepper back to him.

"I haven't been taking very good care of it," he said. He gestured at the garden. Shriveled, black tomatoes drooped off their stems. Cantaloupes and watermelons had collapsed into themselves, surrounded by swarms of fruit flies and smashing their growing mounds. The pea and bean plants had shrunken, all dried up into the ground, not a pod in sight.

I nodded. I stared at the garden, the trees, the ground, the cows, my father's pepper-stained calloused hands. I had come here ready to give my spiel, but I didn't know how to start. I didn't even know if I was right, if he really despised what we were, or if it was something else. I didn't know my father, but I needed my father to give me a reason. "Talk to me Dad. Tell me what you have against Kiro. Or Kiro and me. I need to know."

"I don't know how," he said. He turned to me, the same expression on his face as when I had left the funeral. "When I saw you walking into the funeral with that boy, I just lost it."

I floundered. "Why?"

He rubbed his face, dragging his fingers through his beard. He didn't say anything, never much of a talkative man except when I cursed too much-or now. Now, I wished he would say something, but instead he focused on the dried up strawberry plants, leaves wilted and wet, as if hoping he could make them grow back.

I knew we were feeling the same thing. Lost. I tugged at the sleeves of my suit coat. Suddenly, it was too big. I knew, in a way, he wanted me to fill a role. My mother was an obedient rebel. I just wanted to be left alone, or, at least, to not be lost anymore.

I only knew one thing I could say. "I'm not her, Dad."

He nodded. "Yes. But you're all that's left of her." He bent down to touch a tomato that looked almost entirely edible.

I wondered what was on the inside.

I turned towards him. "It still doesn't explain how or why you act the way you do towards Kiro."

"I know that." His shoulders fell.

We just stood there, looking at each other until we couldn't anymore. He looked back at the garden; I looked at the sky, gray clouds moving, looking like another rainstorm was coming. I wanted to say something else, something right. I think he did too. But we didn't say anything.

Eventually, he grabbed my shoulder and squeezed. It wasn't a comfortable squeeze, but I didn't feel so distant for once. My shoulder stung a little, but I let him hold on, didn't flinch or say a word.

And we stood together in that uncomfortable haze of our first ever father-son conversation, admiring the asters growing through the weeds and rot of my mother's old garden, overcast clouds still overhead. We didn't look up until there was the sound of multiple cars pulling into the driveway, of trucks scraping at the shoulder next to the electric fence. I could picture them all before I looked back to confirm what I already knew, as they had come for my great-grandfather's funeral and other funerals onward. Kiro leaned against our car, holding Isaac. The two of them watched us. I waved at them. Kiro tipped his head, mouthing "I love you. Is it safe?" I didn't beckon him towards us, but my father read his lips and stiffened. As Kiro walked in our direction, Isaac in his arms, my father stepped away. I let him go, hearing the click of a screen door closing shut.

I picked a lavender and yellow aster and started pulling off the petals.

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