Rob Magnuson Smith


My father cackled and drew me inside. The smell brought back memories of childhood—waking each morning to the fumes of gin and cigarettes.


He hobbled into his kitchen. One of his legs was apparently out of order. My father had dark hair the last time I’d seen him, and now it was white. He stood gawking at me with his trousers hanging loosely from his hips, his face working a series of nonsense expressions. After fifteen years, I’d expected a few changes, but nothing like this.


“You’re in England!” he shouted. “Why?”


He’d forgotten that I called to tell him I was coming. I lived in California, and it was curiosity that brought me to Inkberrow. This was my father’s childhood home, and after my parents’ divorce he’d moved back in. He shared the house with his brother Edward.


“I’m in a state, damn it to hell. Tom, you son of a bitch—you’ve come to see your old dad? Where’s my drink?”


He belched in my face. Slapping the air with his hand, he drifted into the living room and plopped down on the couch. The TV had an antenna, and it was tuned to a talk show.


“I’m just taking the piss out of the telly,” my father said.


I sat beside him. He tilted sideways, righted himself, and reached for the tea tray on the carpet. He had everything he needed—Pall Malls, matches, a two-gallon plastic petrol jug full of beer. A milk pitcher served as a mug. He brought the pitcher to his mouth and drained it. Refilling from the jug, he leaned back on the sofa and studied me. I moved back in time through fragmented memories.


Growing up, my father had been drunk every day—in England and in the States—and he kept us on the move in the fallouts of his love affairs and fistfights. The last time I visited Inkberrow, I was a sophomore in high school. It was only two years after the divorce, and our reunion did not go well. My father stole my travel money and went on a bender at The Ox, the pub across the road. By default, I became acquainted with Uncle Edward, in whose company I might have been a piece of furniture.


“Don’t think poorly of me,” my father said, reaching for his cigarettes. “I am what I am.”


Faded, curling photos were thumbtacked to the wall above the television: Granny in a summer hat, my brother’s high school graduation, me in seventh grade. I barely recognized myself from so long ago. I went into the kitchen for something to eat. The fridge was empty except for a single brown egg.


It wasn’t long before my dad was in the kitchen, too. He bore down on me with the pitcher in his hand. “What do you think you’re doing?”


I remembered what I told myself growing up: Look him in the eye, tell the truth, take what comes. “I haven’t had lunch,” I said. “I’m starving.”


He stared at me as if I’d revealed an innermost secret. “My boy’s hungry? Why didn’t you say so? There, have the rest of my lunch.” He pointed at a frying pan on the stove, where two sausages lay congealed in white fat.


“They’re absolutely fine,” he said, when he saw my expression. “You’ve always been so finicky. I cooked them two nights ago, for God’s sake!” Diving into the pantry, he produced a jar of horseradish sauce. “Here. Put this on them. Delicious.”


I opened the jar. Inside, a half-eaten sausage poked out from under the curdling sauce. “You’d be better off chucking this,” I said.


He grabbed the jar out of my hand and looked inside. “Don’t be silly.”


“What’s a sausage doing inside the horseradish?”


“I was done eating it. Are you really hungry? Go on, have those sausages in the pan.”


“I don’t think so.”


“Imagine a boy turning away food from his own father!”


I sat at the kitchen table and ate the sausages. I even used the horseradish sauce. My father sat across from me and watched, as if gauging the extent of my discomfort. I wondered if he’d been testing me the whole time. Why did I still need his approval after fifteen years?


When I was finished, my father stood up and squeezed my shoulder. “Stay here,” he said. “I’ve got something to show you.” He hobbled upstairs.


I waited in my chair. He was brushing off a family heirloom, I thought. He had a letter, a family photo I hadn’t seen. The minutes passed. I went upstairs and peered into his room. He was passed out on top of his bed with his clothes on.


Surrounding his bed lay a sea of empties. A saucepan waited in easy reach on the nightstand, just like always. Watching him sleep off a drunk made me want to shake him awake. I’d come all this way to be reminded of what I already knew. Closing the door behind me, I went back downstairs.


Uncle Edward stood in the kitchen. He hadn’t changed. Tall, with dark clumps of hair sprouting from his cheeks, he kept his eyes on the corner of the room like an absurd, frightened rabbit. He had milk in one hand and a jar of instant coffee in the other. He’d never married. A few years back, he’d retired from his job as a mechanic.


I had to greet him first. If I’d waited for him to speak, we’d still be in the kitchen. “Hello, Uncle,” I said.


He put down the coffee and the milk. He shifted his eyes to the ground around his shoes. “Has your father shown you your room?”


“Not yet. He’s asleep.”


He headed for the staircase. I collected my bag from the entryway and followed him. Upstairs, he opened the second of three rooms. Uncle Edward had Granny’s old room at the end of the hall. Next came my room. After that was my father’s, nearest the bathroom. He and my uncle had to swap because of my father’s incontinence.


My room had been recently cleaned. The bed was made, the floors swept. There was even a pillow on the mattress. I turned to Uncle Edward, who looked away, caught. “Thanks for this,” I said. Blushing, he slipped downstairs.


I sat on the bed and looked around. The walls were bare except for a framed watercolor of the dead family dog—a golden Labrador named Thurber. The portrait was from the shoulders up, and Thurber’s head hung thoughtfully, eyes dripping with sadness, as if she struggled with the nature of evil. Her portrait brought back memories. When Granny was alive, my brother and I visited more often.


Constitutionally repressed, my father’s family rarely showed affection. The dog became the object of their sublimated love. Thurber was up to the task. It seemed she’d been bred for empathy. She whimpered during arguments, flattened her ears to beseech calm, licked the faces of the tormented. She often knocked over my grandfather’s whiskey glass with her tail. But the depravity was too much for one dog to bear. Thurber didn’t die of old age, the neighbors whispered, but of a heavy heart. Thurber was exalted to martyrdom, and the anecdotes of her life became scripture.


The painting captured her melancholy. Framed high on the wall, Thurber might have been the Virgin Mary. My father probably made nightly pilgrimages to absolve himself before her—the all-forgiving Dog of Light, Dog of Goodness, Dog of Understanding—kneeling to beg forgiveness for all the fallen drunks. He always loved a good cry.


I went back into his room and roused him. “Get up,” I said, kicking his feet hanging off the bed. “Time to go to Granny’s grave. Get up!”


Granny was buried in the churchyard beside The Ox. I wanted to see my father mourn a little. I must have been pretty determined because he sat right up in bed, groaning and cinching up his trousers. He wedged his bare feet into his dirty tennis shoes. He walked straight downstairs and out the front door, his game leg acting as a sort of propeller.


My father could move quickly when he wanted. He made it across the road, all the way to the churchyard gate, by the time I reached the bottom of the driveway. When I found Granny’s grave, he was already standing on top of it. My grandparents had a simple slab of granite—just their names, along with their dates of birth and death. Their skeletons lay under their son’s tennis shoes, laces untied.


“They were good people, mate,” he said, shaking his head.


I was surprised at that statement. He always said he hated his father. “What would they think of you now?” I asked him. “If they could look down on you, do you think they’d be proud?”


He didn’t look at me. He just stepped off the grave and headed home. As I came inside, I could hear his bedroom door close upstairs. I went up to the top of the landing and listened. He was crying. My father loved to indulge his sadness, to squeeze out every ounce of possible grief. Soon, he was sobbing like a baby. The sound filled the house. It was awful.


Uncle Edward came out of his room. He stood beside me on the landing in his socks and looked at the ground. For a while we listened to my dad sob.


“It probably wants cutting, that grave,” Uncle Edward said. The words could have come out of his ear. You could stare at my uncle all day and you’d never see his mouth move.


He went into his room and came back out with his shoes on. I followed him down to the kitchen. He reached under the sink for the grass clippers and went out the door. Upstairs, my father was wailing. I felt guilty for taking him to the grave, then mad at myself for caring.


Finally I heard him blow his nose. When he came downstairs, he didn’t look at me. He went straight for the jug in the living room. He didn’t bother with the milk pitcher. He drank from the jug as if he’d been sober for months. Some color found its way into his cheeks.


I sat beside him on the sofa. I picked up the pitcher and poured out a glass of beer. The jug was getting empty.


He slapped me on the knee. “I say, Tom. I’ve got something to tell you...” His unfinished thought ran aground. “I love taking the piss out of the telly.” Belching, he switched gears again. “Then I shagged her good, I did.” He pointed his chin at me. Stretching his legs and kicking out his bare feet, he said, “Listen, Tom, you know that I’m your father. You know that, don’t you?” He drank another pull from the jug. “This girl I had—she was a bonnie lass, she was…”


I looked away. I didn’t want to hear about his exploits. He’d cheated on my mother so many times she begged him to be discreet. I noticed he wasn’t talking anymore. When I looked over at him, he was glaring.


“I don’t miss a trick,” he said. “And I can chop you down in three seconds flat.”


He was on his feet. Before I knew it, his fist went across my face. It was hard, but not as hard as I remembered. I took it as I’d always done, without giving him the benefit of my pain. The tears came anyway. I don’t know if I cried for myself or for him.


He hovered over me, watching me dry my eyes. I thought he might give me another. Finally he sat down. I watched his movements carefully, repeating them in my head as a sort of salve: Lights a cigarette. Goes to the jug. Swats his hand at the TV. Narrows his eyes. Back to the jug. Drag of the cigarette. Holds his head in his hand. Back again to the jug. A really big pull this time.


“These chat show hosts—I see right through them!”


Kicks his bare feet together. Swigs from the jug. Yells at the TV. Another drag of the cigarette. Another big swig from the jug.


“Who do these bloody Americans think they are?” He leaned forward and turned the channels, not watching, not listening, just dividing his rage among the four programs.


I tried to look at him as objectively as I could. The man had no wife, no job, no regular contact with his children. What money he had went to alcohol. But he also had no obligations. He probably hadn’t made dinner reservations in twenty years.


There was a pint or so left in his jug. He lifted it with both hands and poured the beer down his throat. Lurching to his feet, he climbed the stairs and closed his door. Once again, the house fell silent. A little later Uncle Edward came home. He put the clippers under the sink and went upstairs without a word.


It was nearly five o’clock. I was jet-lagged and needed a walk to keep myself awake until bedtime.


Outside, Inkberrow’s roads were empty. I went across the road, and even the door to The Ox was locked. A man from the shop next door came out to greet me. He wore a yellow scarf tucked into his cardigan. “Pub’s closed from three to five,” he said. “Hello, you’re Henry’s son.”


Henry’s son—it sounded strange. “How did you know?”


“You look just like him.” He tugged at his scarf and grinned. “He’s mighty proud of you, Henry is.”


“Are you his friend?”


He just kept grinning. “It’s a right shame—Henry’s not allowed in The Ox any longer.”


I looked over at my dad’s bedroom window, curtains drawn. He’d managed to get thrown out of hundreds of bars. We moved each year, just so he could find a place to drink. I didn’t feel like hearing about what happened in The Ox, but the shopkeeper was already telling me.


“He had a row with this chap from Worcester. The man was just trying to enjoy a quiet pint. He was sending a text on his mobile phone, and your dad called him ‘a stinking middle-class prick.’ The Ox is a decent pub. Management doesn’t allow that kind of language, you understand—your dad was cut off for good, I’m afraid.”


The shopkeeper nodded at the pub at the top of the road. “He’s still welcome at The Ram, of course.”


The Ram was fifty yards away. In Inkberrow, that was miles. “Mind you, he doesn’t sit inside.” The shopkeeper came closer, lowered his voice to a whisper. “He just fills up that jug and carries it home. Sad, isn’t it?”


I didn’t say anything. I started to understand why most people in England preferred the company of dogs.


The church bell rang five. The door to The Ox swung open, and an elderly man stepped outside to sniff the air. He did a double take when he saw me, then he swept up the cigarette butts in front of the pub. Up the road, a woman unlocked the door to The Ram.


The drinkers of Inkberrow emerged. They came streaming out of their homes and filled the road—men in tweed coats, men in work clothes, men with dogs, men alone and in pairs, men with walking sticks. Half went to The Ox and the other half filed into The Ram—drawn by favorite armchairs, pints of beer, corners that stayed dark.


My dad limped out of the house. He had his two-gallon petrol tank. He hobbled up to The Ram without saying hello.


The shopkeeper made a clucking noise. “Awful thing when a father doesn’t acknowledge his own son.”


I left in a hurry, to prevent what might have become a scene. I went up the road to The Ram. It was a pub that felt too big and cold. Inside, hushed conversations came from the scattered tables of men. A Great Dane sat staring into the empty stone fireplace. The bar was up a short set of steps. A few men were already ordering second pints.


My father stood beside the bar. His jug was under the tap, and he was watching the beer rise inside it. “Jiminy Christmas!” he said, when he spotted me.


The men at the bar turned around.


"That’s my son! He’s in England!”


I went up and paid for my dad’s beer. We came home with the jug, sat on the sofa, and watched television. We both hit the beer hard. When it was empty, my dad didn’t seem changed, but I was drunk. I kept thinking about The Ox.


Just before eleven and the pubs were about to close, my dad told me to get up to The Ram for a refill. I went across the road instead.


Inside The Ox, there was a din. It was a smaller and darker pub than The Ram. It was filled with men, a few women, and even a couple of children sitting on the barstools. As I opened the door, the pub went silent. I could feel everyone’s eyes travel to the jug in my hand.


Someone said, “That’s him. That’s Henry’s son.”


I went to the bar, squeezed between an old farmer and his pint of Guinness, and asked the bartender to fill me up.


“Your dad could use a funnel with that,” the farmer said.


I heard a few chuckles. All at once, I felt sober. I took the farmer’s Guinness off the bar and polished it off. Then I brought the empty pint glass down on his head. He wobbled on his feet but didn’t fall. Someone tackled me from behind, and all I could think of, as my legs and ribs were getting kicked, was my dad would have been proud, he would have laughed his head off if he’d seen me nail that farmer.


They made a mess of me. I was chucked in the road with the empty jug. I picked it up, fell into some shrubs, and kept going until I reached the house. My father didn’t notice my torn clothes. He didn’t see all the blood. He just saw the empty jug.


“Where the hell’s my beer?” A big vein popped out of his forehead. He had been waiting for me in the kitchen, and he followed me as I came inside. “It’s gone eleven, Tom! How am I going to get beer?”


I dropped the jug at his feet and headed for the downstairs bathroom. I wanted to wash my face and assess the damage. I didn’t even have a chance to turn on the tap.


“Don’t you walk away from me,” my father said.


He swung me around. I could have stopped him, but I just squinted. He hit me hard this time. I fell to the bathroom floor, and he bent over me with his fist raised. Then he saw the blood.


“Jesus! I didn’t mean it...” He blinked at me, dabbed at the blood on my neck. Then he curled into a ball at my feet and cried.  


“It’s okay, Dad.” I sat up and put a hand on his head. He was rocking on the floor like a baby.


I got on my feet and looked in the mirror. What I saw wasn’t anyone I recognized. One of my eyes was swollen shut. My upper lip hung in shreds and my nostrils were encrusted with blood. I splashed cold water on my face until the pain made me stop.


I left my dad in the bathroom and hobbled upstairs. Down the hall, my uncle’s light was on. I avoided Thurber on the wall of my room and crawled into bed. The longer I lay there, the more I hated myself. I’ve always turned away from violence, and that night I’d indulged in the giving and the receiving of it. I wanted to leave Inkberrow and never come back. There wasn’t much waiting for me in California, but it was a hell of a lot more than this.




Early next morning I brought my bag downstairs. It was still dark. I had decided to take something and leave before anyone woke up. I would claim a piece of my family and escape for good.


In the living room there was just a few worthless knickknacks on the mantle. My dad’s tea tray was too big to fit into my bag.


I drifted into the hallway leading to the back garden. I turned on the light and rifled through a wooden bureau by the door. I soon found what I wanted—a silver corkscrew, nestled in a velvet-lined case. My grandfather’s name was engraved into the handle. He had held down his job, but he was supposed to have been a raging drunk, too.


I took the corkscrew out of its case. The silver was heavy in my hand. I slipped it into my pocket and returned to the living room. Uncle Edward stood in the shadows against the opposite wall. He didn’t speak until I looked away.


“Don’t leave, Tom. Not just yet. His doctor gave him two years, our last visit. You and your brother are all he cares about now.”


I kept my eyes on the floor. “When was that visit to the doctor?”


“Two years back,” Uncle Edward said.


When I looked up, my uncle was gone.


I returned the corkscrew to its case. I sat on the sofa and waited. A little later, my dad came down. I was staring out the window at the rain. He came right up to me, swinging his jug. “Let’s go to The Ram,” he said.


It was the beginning of a three-day binge. In many ways the binge hasn’t stopped for me. We drank beer and wine and finished with gin. We drank in the mornings and continued into the evenings, watching TV and eating greasy food until we passed out with our bottles in our hands.


Each afternoon, my dad’s drinking friends appeared at The Ram—Roger the handyman, out of work and keeping up appearances in his oily red overalls, Glenn the Scotsman who introduced himself as “the other village idiot,” Graham the redundant teacher who drank sweet vermouth, neat, while his ten-year-old daughter sat alone with soda water and a paper bag of chocolates. The men were a rough and troubled bunch. They were the kinds of men I would have once called failures.


Word of my altercation at The Ox hadn’t taken long to get around. For three nights I listened in embarrassed silence as my dad’s friends embellished the story. I’d taken the farmer down, they said. I’d given the barman a slash across his face with my broken glass. I’d single-handedly kept the pub at bay before succumbing to Billy-club-wielding police called in from Worcester. The Ram’s regulars bickered over telling rights to newcomers. Each evening, as closing time approached, they put my dad’s empty jug on the bar and implored me to add to the story. My sole achievement was a cheap shot, I said, a precursor to a thrashing. The Ram’s faithful dismissed my protestations with drunken fraternal fervor. My dad laughed hysterically.


By the third night I was ready for home. As we walked back from the pub, I told my dad I was leaving in the morning.


He didn’t break stride. “I’ve got something to give you before you leave,” he said.


When we reached the house, he went up to his room. I waited in the chair at the kitchen table, as I’d done when I arrived. This time he came back down with a black-and-white photo. It was of his father—a handsome, vicious man with a crumpled nose. In the photo he stood on a beach in swimming trunks and a pipe jammed in his mouth. My dad stood beside him, a little boy on his tiptoes, his arm around his father’s waist.


“This was taken in Wales,” he said, “right before he died. My father was a bastard, but I loved him. I never told him I loved him, and then he died. Take this, Tom. Take this and remember me.”


He headed upstairs. I stayed in the kitchen, listening to the rain on the window. I studied the cups and saucers on the drainer, the frying pan on the stove. I had a vision of myself in the future, a premonition of the man I am now.


The next morning, I crept into my dad’s room. He was asleep on his back with a dingy white sheet over his head. An empty bottle of gin lay under his hand. On the nightstand, the saucepan held vomit.


My dad’s bloated foot stuck out from under the sheet. I reached over and tugged his big toe. “Wake up,” I said.


He didn’t move. I pulled the sheet off him. He was naked, dick tucked in, flesh so pale I could see the veins in his chest. I shook his shoulders until his head bobbed around.


“Wake up!”


Finally he convulsed, spat up, threw out his hands. Sputtering, he reached for the saucepan and filled it the rest of the way. Then he looked around and saw that I didn’t have any alcohol for him.


“Didn’t you bring another? God damn it, Tom—why not?”


I sat on the edge of his bed. I had failed as a son, he said, I would never amount to anything. I had no backbone, no talent, no value to anyone in the world. I waited for him to finish and prepared to say goodbye.



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Photo by Christine Tran


Rob Magnuson Smith’s debut novel The Gravedigger (University of New Orleans Press) won the Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Award. His fiction has appeared most recently in the Guardian, The Istanbul Review, Inkwell Magazine, Fiction International, The Greensboro Review, and The Reader. A Contributing Editor for Playboy, Rob is currently a Lecturer and Doctoral Research Fellow in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.


This story was published in Issue 12 of The Literarian