TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 4

The Zippo

 · Fiction

He knew he should never have come here. He should have taken the wrong directions Google Maps had spat out at him as a sign, a bad omen, foreshadowing. That wrong turn had cost him half an hour and because he could never seem to leave on time, even when he meant to, he was already cutting it close. Pulling up into the gravel lot of the little wooden church, he was late, and he knew it. It wasn’t raining yet, but there were charcoal-colored clouds knitting together in the distance, so he figured that he’d be driving home in the mess they’d be bringing. The dress shoes that Jessie had scoured Goodwill to find for him pinched his toes. They crunched like ice between teeth over the stones of the church driveway. Nearing the door, Mitch could hear the creak of a rickety organ playing; his brief tenure as an altar boy helped him identify the song as “Rock of Ages.” It was a fairly standard selection for a funeral. As he stepped inside, he realized that this door led to the coatroom and the hallway to the vestibule of the church. The room was full of coats and umbrellas. Everyone else was already inside. He checked his watch: twenty-five minutes late. That meant that this had to be the second, if not the third hymn of the service. This side of family was the devout Southern Baptist side. There were sure to be at least three more hymns. There was still a chance that he could slip in unnoticed, take a seat at the back of the church and be gone before anyone ever knew he had been there. He hung his coat and placed the umbrella — black, like all the others — in a bucket near the door. He took a deep breath and pressed on the gold bar of the door that opened to the back of the church. It squawked like an angry goose, alerting the parishioners and the attendees who had been on time to his tardiness. He had not realized that he was holding his breath until the embarrassment of the noise caused him to expel it in an angry hiss, like the defeat of an air mattress losing its buoyancy. He did not meet the eyes that were on him, though he could feel the heat rise in his cheeks with each set, and he knew that the Irish tendency to turn scarlet in the face — inherited from his father — was giving him away. There were memorial leaflets in two tidy stacks on a small table beside the door. Resigned, angry at himself for coming, and unsure what it was that he thought he expected, he took one and dropped his weight into the closest empty seat at the back with a defiant thump. The wood of the pew rasped under his weight. He sighed and shook his head. Of course it did. He wished he’d taken Jessie up on her offer to come with him. He clasped the empty air where her hand usually was. It helped a little bit.

If he’d left the house a little earlier, he would have arrived before the service began, but in truth, he’d hoped to avoid the meet-and-greet that usually preceded the service. He kept his head down as the hymn concluded, looking down to the photocopied picture of a man preserved in youth on the front of the handout. The man smiled from the forward crew compartment of a B-52 Stratofortress. His hair was tousled; he wore protective ear guards and a leather bomber jacket. Like Yossarian had been, in Catch-22, the man in this frozen moment embodied the iconic image of a bombardier, though time had taken the name and changed it to radar navigator. Mitch knew the smile only through this photograph, one of few his mother had of the man that had been his father. There was a hint of the Irish flush in his cheeks. John Fitzpatrick McGrath, born 18 April 1947, died 3 January 2011. His son, Mitchell Fitzpatrick McGrath, born 18 December, 1972: entered the world a squalling red thing as his father guided a B-52 D-model toward the target over Haiphong and released the aircraft’s bomb load during Operation Linebacker II. John Fitzpatrick McGrath came back to Barksdale Air Force Base but never back to Mitch or his mother, went on to start a new family with a new wife: Catch-22. Mitch knew him only in the sporadic letters, the photographs, and the one uncomfortable summer he’d insisted on spending with his father and half-brothers the summer of his fourteenth year. His mother never spoke badly of CSO Bombardier McGrath because he was regular with his support checks. Both she and Mitch were insured through his military benefits, even after his remarriage; all the out-of-pocket expenses incurred were covered on time and without complaint. His careful attention to savings and accounts had helped to put Mitch through college; the new Mrs. McGrath was always respectful of the first Mrs. McGrath and her son, sending cordial Christmas newsletters and updated photographs of the half-brothers that Mitch, over time, grew to hate. Mitch’s mother, the first Mrs. McGrath, never remarried, and Mitch noticed that both she and he were politely mentioned in the lines of the service handout as among the bereaved.

Once he felt confident that there were no eyes left on him, Mitch looked towards the front of the church, the flag-draped casket, and the smooth whorl of silver making up the French twist at the back of his stepmother’s head. Two men in their thirties, flanked by their wives on either side, buffeted the second Mrs. McGrath in the front pew. The church reverend introduced a man to speak, who rose from his seat at the front of the church, shaking hands with the second Mrs. McGrath and her sons as he approached the podium. He was dressed in uniform, trim for a man of mid-sixty, indicating a commitment to the physical fitness required of pilots in his youth. Mitch had never heard any of the stories, and rather than listening in rapt attention to glean something about his father, he promptly tuned out, even as the man began to speak. It was a petty act of rebellion witnessed by no one. He guessed at the story being narrated: some scrape they’d gotten into when they were young men overseas, how CSO McGrath had shown spunk, bravery or character, how that incident had led to their lifelong friendship and mutual respect, how the military, the church, the community and the (second) McGrath family would miss his presence, his intelligence, his sense of humor, his dedication to his fellow man. It would say everything that was good about Mitch’s father. The things that made him angry, because they were things he had never experienced firsthand, not really, they were aspects of his unknown father that he was not privy to. He had not been so naïve as to think that at a funeral a parade of failings would meander through the pews; he had, however, decided to attend the funeral in order to symbolize that no matter what kind of a man he had been to his second family, there had, in fact, been — namely, a beginner family, abandoned shortly before or shortly after coming home from Vietnam. Mitch didn’t doubt the truth of anything his father’s friend said about him. He knew that the support checks, the insurance, and the college account testified to the inherent virtues and sense of honor his father had possessed. However, duty and obligation were no replacement for true nobility in the form of the guiding hand of a father figure and his love.

Which was not to say that Mitch had turned out badly — he hadn’t — though whether or not this could be attributed to his father’s conspicuous absence or not would have been anyone’s guess. Mitch had grown up adored and strictly governed by his mother, four uncles, corresponding aunts, and the gaggle of cousins living within a four-block radius of the house he grew up in. It was a house that the first Mrs. McGrath did not have to worry about how to pay for; Mitch’s father was more than fair in the support checks he sent, which arrived regularly and always prior to the first of the month. In spite of having no immediate father figure, and the first Mrs. McGrath never dating, much less marrying again, Mitch was nonetheless ushered into manhood by the uncles and older cousins of his mother’s family: he learned to play baseball, broke his arm in the fourth grade, caught bullfrogs in the pond during summer vacation, learned to shave and drive stick shift in a timely manner and with no indication of his upbringing having lacked anything. Growing up in the immediacy of a female-headed household indirectly taught Mitch the inherent strengths of women, instilling a deep respect and emotional connection to women that most could sense upon meeting him. Throughout high school and college, Mitch enjoyed a wealth of female friendships, a minimum of broken hearts, and a devotion to his girlfriends that they could circuitously thank his father for. As a young man, Mitch made the vow that many young men make, to never be like their father — though in most cases, once the hotheadedness of youth wears off, the realization that they could do far worse than to be like their father usually causes this vow to fall by the wayside. In Mitch’s case, however, it was the ghostliness of his father against which the vow was taken. By observing his peer group, and how many of the fathers of his friends disappeared after divorce without taking the same measures that his father had, Mitch always understood that he could have fared far worse than he did. In a way, this knowledge made his father’s absence all the more unbearable: He knew that his father was good man, and he knew that his father had simply moved on to another family. The very fact that he took care of the first one, long-abandoned, was, for Mitch, akin to swallowing a stick. It scraped a raw path the entire way down and sat, like a splinter, in his stomach.

It was that splinter, still rolling around inside of Mitch’s stomach that caused him to dawdle more than usual, leaving the house late that day, despite Jessie’s fussing and prompting him to get in the car. A splinter that rubbed and chafed inside, irritating him as his father’s friend concluded his speech. The reverend rose again to the podium and signaled to the organist to begin playing; he motioned the congregation to rise and led them in the next hymn, “There Is a Green Hill Far Away.” Mitch sat, though he flipped the hymnal to the correct page and followed the chorus with his index finger. He did not understand how the Irish branch of the family had ended up Southern Baptist; he figured this to be one of the great mysteries of pioneer America. His mother, born Episcopalian and never particularly devout, briefly sent him to church with one of the married-in aunts, who attended faithfully, in keeping with her Catholic upbringing. Aside from the incense and stained-glass iconography, Mitch had not taken to it and his mother delicately made apologies to the aunt, thus concluding Mitch’s religious education. His brief time as an altar boy, however, did familiarize him with some of the songs, though, in truth, Southern Baptist hymns and Catholic hymns would never consider themselves to be kin. Likewise, Mitch sat alone in the back pew of the church, though rightfully his place was in the front row, as the first-born son to the first Mrs. McGrath. But like a creed sung in Latin, though born of the same man, he had no place in this church with them. He did his best to tune out the preacher, who was introducing the next speaker. As the eldest son of the second Mrs. McGrath approached the podium, his half-brother managed to escape soundlessly back into the coatroom. Mitch collected his coat and umbrella, and quietly shut the door behind him.

In the cemetery, the air was still, quiet, and cold. The rain had not begun, but the clouds overhead were heavy and dark. The barometric pressure dropped sharply, giving new life to the headache Mitch was trying to ignore. There was a small stone bench behind the church beneath an overhang with smokers’ outposts at the corners of the cement block. Though he knew that every moment he stayed was a risk that the service would conclude and the mourners would come spilling into the cemetery, he hoped that the threat or onset of rain would keep them inside longer, or make the burial and small-talk part of the service delayed or circumvented altogether. He sat at the stone bench and dug in his pocket for the pack of cigarettes that Jessie kept nagging him to give up. He was trying, he told her, but the withdrawal gave him a headache. As he lit one, the taste of smoke was flavored with the sweetness of relief. The rain began. He blotted out every sound except the gentle sound of the rain and chain-smoked behind the church. Four cigarettes later, the coatroom doors opened and the mourners hugged goodbye and darted for their cars. He watched them go, in pairs or by themselves, until the parking lot was nearly empty. He had drifted unknowingly into daydreaming, letting his attention wander as the rain continued to streak down in a steady cloudburst.

The distinctive siss of a Zippo wheel being flicked, the click of the flint, and the nearly inaudible but unmistakable whoosh of the lighter fluid igniting, pulled him out of his inattention. Menthol smoke joined the clean, grassy scent of rain and mud on the air.

“Fitz hated me smoking. For thirty-five years, I’ve hidden a pack of cigarettes in the cupboard.”

“And now you don’t have to.”

“And now I don’t have to.”

She blew the smoke out in rings — fat, round, and as perfectly symmetrical as something as ephemeral as smoke would allow. Her hair was the shiny silver color that inspired envy in women over fifty and, as he noted from the back pew, it was expertly swooped into an elegant French twist. He remembered her frosted blond, with the Krystle Carrington haircut of 1986. She was still beautiful, even with smudges of mascara and twenty years worth of lines on her face. She was tentative as she asked, “How is Jessie?”

He was surprised.

“She’s… fine?”

“That’s good. I’m sorry you didn’t bring her. Your mom really likes her, you know.”

“Yeah, I know she does… but how do you know that?”

“Mitch, just because your father wasn’t good at talking, doesn’t mean that your mom and I weren’t.”

She allowed him the spaciousness of silence, with only the rain punctuating the thoughts racing and ricocheting inside his head. He pulled out another cigarette. The second Mrs. McGrath cupped her hand around his, lighting it with her Zippo. The taste of a cigarette lit with a Zippo was one of the tiny joys of smoking, and she smiled at him as she clicked the lid back down over the wick. He exhaled.

“I wish I’d brought her, too.”

“Well, maybe, sometime, you could, if you wanted to.”

He remembered visiting for the summer, how she turned the office into a room for him, even though it was only for the summer, and that she made every attempt to include Mitch in everything, from chores to allowances. He remembered how awkward and quiet the summer was, because his brothers were still little boys and he was teetering on the precipice of adolescence, because they knew and loved their father and Mitch was a stranger. His half-brothers, Johnny and Pat, had adapted well to Mitch’s presence, and liked playing baseball in the backyard with him because he was a good catcher. It was Mitch’s father who was suddenly quiet when Mitch came into the room, who stiffened the one time Mitch had tried to hug him. The second Mrs. McGrath had given him a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, taken him to RadioShack to buy his first Walkman, and didn’t embarrass him in the food court of the mall when the older girls with heavy black eyeliner and black lace leggings asked if he was listening to The Smiths. She had hugged him at the end of the summer and told him that he was welcome to visit whenever he wanted to. He had never gone back, and never thought to say thank you, though he should have. He reached for her hand. It was smooth and warm. He felt the gold band on her finger as she squeezed.

“I’m really glad that you came, Mitchell.”

“Me, too, I think.”

“Can you stay a while longer?”

“Sure.”

They smoked in silence together, hands clasped. The silence rolled around them and collected in puddles with the rain. She rose, dropping the butt of her cigarette into the ash receptacle, and motioned out towards the cemetery.

“He’s being interred in the mausoleum. John and Pat are probably already over there, they were hoping you’d be able to stay and be there for it. And me, too. This part is only for the family.”

Mitch shrugged. It wasn’t a cruel gesture; it was like the raindrops that had made their way onto the shoulder of his coat, despite being sheltered by the overhang. The shrug was only meant to shake it away.

“Are you sure you want me there?”

“You’re supposed to be there, Mitchell.”

He rose, and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, splinter still scraping away at the inside of his stomach, irritated again, this time by the dozens of questions swallowed down on top of it. The rain had slowed to a drizzle; fractures of sunshine cracked out from behind the wooly gray cloud cover. The second Mrs. McGrath brushed away the flecks of ash that had collected on the black jersey of her dress.

“His plot is on the fifth tier. He has to go up in a forklift. It’s sort of fitting for a man who spent most of his life in the sky, and the rest of it wishing he was back there, don’t you think?”

Mitch took a few steps towards the grass and craned his neck up to the sky, wondering if the rain would follow him back home.

“I can’t really say, because I didn’t know him.”

The second Mrs. McGrath frowned a bit, and brushed away the tears that have collected in the corners of her eyes. She flicked the cap of the Zippo back and forth. The ssssshhuck ssssshuck sound was a comfort in the silence of the churchyard.

“Did you know that your grandfather was a bombardier, too, back in World War II?”

“No.”

“Well, he was. It’s what made Fitz want to go into the Air Force. He never got to fly a B-25, though, that’s what your granddad flew. That was his favorite plane.”

“I don’t know much about planes.”

She smiled at this.

“Neither do your brothers. Funny, that.”

“I suppose.”

“Mitchell, he did love you. I know there’s nothing I can tell you that’ll change the fact that you grew up without him, and nothing really should excuse that, to be honest. I wish I could tell you why, but even after being married to the man for thirty-five years, I still don’t know. He was very closed when he wanted to be. But I know he loved you. And your mom, too. I always thought it was pretty amazing that she could be a friend to me, considering.”

“She’s pretty great.”

“He named you after the plane.”

“Huh?”

“The plane. He named you after the plane he loved.”

“I don’t follow.”

“The B-25 your granddad flew, the one your dad loved more than anything, that made him want to become a navigator. It was a B-25 Mitchell. When your mom found out she was pregnant, he asked her to name you Mitchell if you were a boy. He loved you, Mitchell; he named you after the plane. I know it’s not much to hold on to, but please…try to. He wasn’t perfect, but he tried to do right by you. And he wanted to name you after the something he loved, the thing that his dreams were made of.”

Across the damp green of the cemetery, the mausoleum stood proud, like a monument. There was a forklift parked off to the side and Mitch could see a small group of figures, like Fisher-Price people, gathered and dressed in black. The sky above was still overcast but the rain had slowed again, now just an intermittent sprinkle, and every so often, a beam of light would break through.

“One more smoke before we go over?”

She smiled and flicked the wheel to light his first. It remained lit as she bent to touch her cigarette to the flame, and then closed it with a firm click. She rolled the lighter over in her hands a few times, clicked its lid open and closed a few more times, then held it up for Mitch to take a closer look. It was engraved with a bulldog on one side; the reverse of it bore the phrase, C’est La Vie. She took Mitch’s empty hand and pressed the Zippo into it.

“Keep it. I want you to have it.”

“Don’t you want to keep it? It was his, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. But I want you to have it now. You want to know something funny? He hated me smoking. He quit just after we got married, so I pretty much had to hide my smoking the whole time we were married. The other day, when I was cleaning his drawers out, I found a pack of Pall Malls and this Zippo. I smoke Benson & Hedges. Makes me wonder if he was hiding it for thirty-five years, too. Anyway. Doesn’t matter now. But it’s funny. And I want you to have it. The bulldog and the French are the gunner mascot and slogan, I think. It may have even been your granddad’s. I don’t know. I never saw it until I found it the other day so I don’t know the story behind it or where it came from. But it’s yours now.”

“Thank you.”

Mitch took a last drag from his cigarette, dropping it into the sandy bottom of the smokers’ outpost like one of the bombs his father had dropped on the coasts of Haiphong the day Mitch was born. It fell and was extinguished with less fanfare, just an inaudible hiss of the ember dying in darkness. He took the second Mrs. McGrath’s hand and navigated her between the rows of headstones, across the lawn of the church cemetery to the steps of the mausoleum where his father’s casket waited for their arrival, the last two stragglers holding up his last ascent. Mitch’s half-brothers hugged him as though he were whole and had always been there. Later, Mitch would drive through the rain, which will follow him all the way home. He would fall into Jessie’s arms, grateful for the soft grazing of her fingertips through his hair. He would re-donate the shoes that pinched his toes back to Goodwill and remember to tell his mother how much he loved her, even if he wouldn’t tell her that he meant it differently than he meant it yesterday. He would spit up the splinter from his stomach and light it with the inherited Zippo, watching the tiny shard of wood spark, ignite, and fall away into the darkness. The man named after the airplane his father loved would use the Zippo to light a cigarette on the porch steps that night. A glowing amber bead and string of blue smoke through the darkness, threading its way into the sky. The same as the trail from a bomber looked to people left behind on the ground.


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