01 Feb I Answered a Late Night Knocking
Last night, I woke up at three in the morning to someone knocking on my door.
The sound shot me out of bed and sent a chill down my spine.
The rapping came quiet and steady. It was so soft, I almost didn’t hear it at all. My wife certainly didn’t appear bothered. Eloise snored evenly from her side of the sheets. A strand of long blonde hair tangled with my beard and spot of drool had formed on my shoulder. El had a long shift at the hospital that day. I decided not to wake her.
My bare feet found purchase on the cold wood floor as the knock got a little louder. I shucked on some sweatpants in the dark. I found my tee shirt stuck in the sheets. I peaked out the bay window to see a shadow huddled nervously under the flickering porch light. A familiar tan windbreaker and a mess of curly brown hair clued me into the mystery guest’s identity.
“What the hell could pop want at this hour?” I muttered to the shape of our snoozing German Shepherd. “Not that you care.”
Thunder cracked ominously as I rushed through the living room for the front door. Lightning illuminated the driveway. I opened up to find Dad wide eyed and apologetic.
“Hey, Matt, so sorry to bother you guys. The power is out at my house.”
A biblical force of wind nearly threw him off the porch. Rain upended the sky in uniform white sheets that gave my gutters more than they could handle. I pulled Rich inside and slammed the door behind him just as a second bolt of lightning danced across the trees.
“You should have called, we would have picked you up,” I scolded whilst grabbing his jacket. “Dangerous to be driving out there.”
His normally relaxed face grew serious as he sat down to pull his boots off on the tile.
“I didn’t want to be a bother.”
I recoiled a little. Something about his tone threw me.
“You’re never a bother. You know that.”
He nodded and pushed his shoes into the rack.
“Is Eloise sleeping?” Rich asked.
I nodded and led him into the kitchen.
“She had the double shift again today. Same thing tomorrow. No idea how she does it.”
Rich smiled at that. A warm, nostalgic smile, as if remembering something someone told him.
“She’s a good kid. Her mother always knew she would be. I’m so proud of her. Will you tell her that for me?”
I eyed him suspiciously.
“Yeah, she is. You can tell her tomorrow at breakfast.”
But he kept on with that same sad smile.
“Not sure I’ll get the chance,” he murmured.
I stood awkwardly for a moment, unsure what to do next.
“You feeling okay, Dad? You want a beer, or a coffee? I think we’ve got some tea, too.”
Rich jumped at the opportunity.
“I’d love a beer with you, son-in-law.”
I dug through the fridge for two Coronas at the back. Rich pulled a pack of smokes from his pocket and lit one at the table.
“Do you mind?”
I shook my head. A long, ugly tail of smoke poured from his lips.
“You know what’s funny? She’s such a good kid, and her mother and I, we had no idea what we were doing.”
I nodded with a smile and took a swig of my drink.
“Nobody prepares you for it. Sure, there’s books and classes and whatnot. But nobody prepares you for the moment you get that little kid home and plopped in the crib.”
Rich offered that same nostalgic stare as he pulled on his menthol.
“It’s like, now what?”
I returned a hearty laugh. I had heard the story before. Every Christmas, Easter, or New Year; he would recount the story of being Eloise home.
“Don’t laugh too much. That’ll be you someday,” he teased.
“Some day,” I agreed. “We want to be stable in our careers first,”
Rich didn’t like that. He grimaced and reached out across the table to squeeze my hand. He squeezed so hard that I felt the circulation cut off. I felt my hand go numb. Strength coursed through his veined arm in a way I never recognized before. I tried to pull away but the old man’s liver spots must have held some secret strength.
“Don’t wait too long, son.”
I noticed bright bruises forming on my fingers.
He ignored me and squeezed harder.
“My daughter deserves everything this world has to offer. Promise me you’ll give it to her. Promise me.”
I stared into his lonely blue eyes. He looked drunk. I was sure of that at the time. But there was something else there. He looked scared.
Rich smiled again. He let go of my hand. The seriousness of our conversation fell from the table as he pulled out his menthols and slid one from formation.
“I’m sorry. My instinct is to protect her. I have to know she’s okay before I go. It’s built into your DNA as a dad. You’ll understand that one day.”
I nodded even though I didn’t know what he meant.
“Do you want me to wake her? El has been known to sleep through a hurricane…”
He thought about that for a second. He pulled deeply on the cigarette and eyed our bay window nervously.
“Nah, I don’t want her to see me like this. You’ll tell her I stopped by?”
“Stopped by? Dad, it’s pouring out there. Sleep on the couch. It’ll be morning soon. We’ll all do something in the morning and then you can talk to Elly yourself.”
Rich kept his eyes fixed to the window.
“No, I don’t want to a bother. You tell her. You’re the man in her life now.”
I stared. I had never heard the man be so serious for more than five minutes. I didn’t know how to react.
“JUST TELL HER, OKAY? Tell her pop loves her. Pop will always love her”
Tears started to form in my eyes from the confusion and fear. I angrily swiped them back. What did he mean? Why couldn’t he tell her? Why was he leaving? Why was he screaming?
“I’m sorry, Matt. I didn’t mean to frighten you,”
Rich finished his beer and got up to place it on the counter next to mine. A rush of white light filled the bay window. A black Mercedes pulled into my driveway.
“There’s my ride home, kid.”
“Who’s driving?” I asked.
A flash of fear played on his face. Then he caught himself. That same old easygoing chuckle hit the corners of his lips.
“Don’t know. Hopefully somebody who can get this old drunk home.”
I laughed. I didn’t know what else to say again. Rich retrieved his boots from the shoe rack and laced them up evenly. The Benz in the driveway waited patiently as I twiddled my thumbs and tried to come up with an excuse for him to stay.
“You know, Eloise will be mad at me if she hears you stopped by and I didn’t wake her.”
He ignored me completely. Once the boots were on, Rich found his jacket in the closet and his wallet in the tray.
“He’s here now. I have to go. Take care of yourself son. And take care of her. I’ll be watching. If you don’t, well, I’ll know about it. And I’ll be back. I’ll find a way back.” I shivered.
“I love you. I love her. I love my family and I love this wonderful life.”
With that he opened the door and danced down the steps into the storm. The passenger door to the black Mercedes opened gently. Rich got in and slammed it shut behind him. The car retreated down my long driveway, backed out, and disappeared towards the highway.
I was left dumbfounded and alone on my porch in the middle of a thunderstorm.
I went back inside and locked all the doors. I turned out the lights and took the dog out to pee one final time. I thought about cleaning up the beer and spraying some air freshener, but as sleep forced its way into my drooping eyelids, I decided to leave it for the next morning.
I collapsed in bed between Eloise and the dog and let myself fall asleep to the steady dripping of rain on the window ledge.
I woke up to a pair of wild blue eyes in front of mine.
“He’s gone. I can’t believe it. He’s really gone.”
I mumbled a reply of ‘Huh’ and ‘What’ as tears dripped down my wife’s cheeks.
“My dad had a heart attack last night. They rushed him to the hospital. But he never woke up. He never woke up. He’s dead, Matt. My dad died.”
I stared at her. The pieces started to slide into place as my brain frantically tried to work out the details.
“When did this happen?”
Eloise continued to sob and stared down at her phone in detachment.
“Don’t know. A neighbor drove him. He got the hospital sometime around seven last night. Why does that matter? My father is dead.”
Did I dream it?
I sprinted out of the room without a word for my bewildered wife.
How could that happen? He died at seven but stopped by at three? I had to be dreaming. I had to have made it all up in my mind. That seemed to be the only rational thing that could have happened. And there was only one semi rational way to confirm it.
I slid into the kitchen to find one lonely beer bottle on the counter. The room still smelled like menthol. Puddles of water remained stagnant by the door. Everything about my encounter aligned with reality.
He was gone. He was really gone. I think he just wanted to say goodbye, one last time.
Rich’s final threat repeated itself in my mind.