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The Father's Son Job

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THE FATHER'S SON JOB

 

. . . Now you just fought one hell of a fight

And I know you hate me, and you got a right

To kill me now, and I wouldn't blame you if you do

But you ought to thank me before I die

For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in your eye

Cause I'm the son of a bitch who named you Sue.

-Johnny Cash

 

CHAPTER 1

The morgue at Clifden District Hospital was quaint as far as morgues go.

Well, maybe quaint was too strong a word.

Rustic? No. Antiquated? Eh.

The rest of the hospital was freshly remodeled – slate tile floors, shiny new glass and steel atrium, TV screens in the elevators showing the inspirational stories of former patients. Some feng shui design consultant had made a bundle on that place.

The front desk was set in the middle of the atrium, an enormous polished birch half-circle, and the receptionist was pretty, perky, blonde.  The second he cleared the revolving doors, she locked onto him like a guided missile, flashing him a smile so strident that he thought he saw her ponytail tremble.

He had just finished 12 hours in transit – cab to Logan Airport, overnight flight to Shannon, two hour drive to Clifden.  He was tired, his legs ached, his back was stiff, and he was dried out from recycled airplane air and too many tiny bottles of Dewars. Perky was not exactly what he had in mind. But then he didn't have much choice either.

He sighed and trudged towards her, forcing the edges of his own mouth up.

A pair of doctors walked into his path, laughing and talking, so distracted that they almost ran him over. They were angling towards a nurse pushing a young mother in a wheelchair. The Mom had the newborn swaddled in her arms and the father was walking beside her making ridiculous wide-eyed, peek-a-boo faces at the baby. The baby which was most likely asleep. The doctors smiled and waved, and the nurse smiled, and the Mom smiled, and the Dad stopped making an idiot of himself long enough to smile, and the receptionist still had that plastered-on smile, and Nate half expected everyone to burst into song, elbows swinging, like he had stumbled into some cheery alternate Broadway musical universe.

It was irritating.

When he asked the receptionist the way to the morgue, she tilted her head to one side and furrowed her eyebrows, all exaggerated sympathy, a sad puppy with perfect cheekbones.

"Oh, I am so sorry for your loss!"

He felt his teeth clench.


To get to the morgue, one had to take the elevator to the basement (enduring 20 seconds of the triumphant story of Deirdre Collins' gastric bypass surgery on the elevator TV) and then follow the long, brightly-lit hallway past Radiology and Phlebotomy and then take a left down another long hallway past Linen Services, and finally hang a right down a short corridor that ended in front of the elevator to the sub-basement. An elevator that must have been part of the hospital's original construction.

I'm guessing no TVs in that one.

The metal grate doors were manual, closing in the center from the top and bottom, not the sides, and they were open, but not all the way. On the top and bottom, a good six inches of door jutted up and down, like spires on a fence, and how that thing had ever passed a safety inspection he could not fathom.

He tried to ignore the impression it gave him of rows of jagged teeth in front of dark, gaping mouth. It was probably just the jet lag.

The morgue was the only thing in the sub-basement, down a hallway that was not brightly lit. The front door drooped in its hinges, and the furniture was a hodge-podge of cast-offs from other departments. And there was a smell. An aggressive disinfectant smell hit him first, and once he adjusted to that, there was an undercurrent of dampness. And something chemical-y that must have been formaldehyde. And maybe also, there was rot.

He liked all that about the place though. Or, at least, he preferred it to the rest of the hospital.

The rest of the hospital had the modern finishes and the shine, but it was all a lie. Nothing shined in a hospital once you really got into it. Once it really got into you.

The morgue, at least, was honest. It was what it was. Kind of fucked up and kind of sad.

The attendant was a kid, eighteen or nineteen tops, with black hair that hung into his eyes and a cluster of acne on the right side of his chin. He was tall and paper thin, gangly, awkward. Nate repressed a cynical smirk. The hospital, apparently, saved pretty and perky for the front desk.

The kid stared at him for a long few seconds when Nate walked in and then seemed to catch himself and look away, pretending to busy himself with something on his desk. Nate went to the counter, a polite smile on his face, and he noticed with mild surprise that the kid was blushing, the cheeks and the tips of his ears a rosy pink.

"I'm, uh . . . I'm here to identify a body."

The kid nodded without looking up and then sat at his desk behind the counter, at a desktop computer that must have been twenty years old. "Your name?"

Nate narrowed his eyes. He was sure the kid had been the one who called him at McRory's the day before. Why would he bother asking him his name when he knew very well who he was?

"Nathan Ford."

The kid typed it in and hit enter, and then they both stared at the rotating hour glass icon as the computer tried to process. And tried. And tried.

The kid's blush seemed stronger now, the redness sweeping across his nose and chin, coloring his acne a dark purple. And his eyes darted, never fixing on Nate for more than a few seconds at a time. Something about him bothered Nate, tickled the back of his brain, teased him, nagging him for look, but he was too tired and too distracted to fully appreciate his own instincts, and he glossed right over them. The problem was obvious he decided. He intimidated the kid.

It was a mis-read, he would later realize.

And an arrogant one at that, Sophie would point out, just in case he had managed to miss that part.

When the kid finally verified that there was, in fact, a body to be identified, he showed Nate through a back door and down a short hallway that led into a long rectangular room with whitewashed cinderblock walls and green linoleum floors. There were two white exam tables in the middle of the room, each extending from a pedestal base. From a distance, they looked like body-sized sinks, and as Nate got closer, he saw that they were basically just that – shallow ceramic tubs with a table for a corpse in the center, and each table had grooves across it at regular intervals, to direct fluids into a trench that ran around the table.

The body lockers were antiques, too - cast iron coated in white ceramic instead of the more modern stainless steel. The edges of each locker were lined with black trim, and he was struck by how closely they resembled the top of his parent's kitchen table when he was a child.

The kid led him to locker 27 and pulled out the long metal slab, the wheels on it creaking in the otherwise silent room. Nate was surprised to feel his heart suddenly quicken in anticipation, and he chastised himself for it. This was just business, a pain in the ass you had to take care of, like going to the dentist or making Hardison file fake tax returns.

The body itself was covered with a paper shroud the color of hospital scrubs. When the kid pulled it back to reveal the man underneath, Nate heard the sound of himself sighing. He looked at the dead man for nearly a minute, until he became aware of the kid's eyes on him, and he forced himself to look away then, to look at the kid, and he gave his most casual shrug, like someone had just asked him if he wanted Chinese or Thai for dinner.

"That's him," Nate said. "That's Jimmy Ford."


Nate had never been the claustrophobic type, which was a good thing. He might not have survived the paperwork phase if he was. The morgue office was a glorified walk-in closet, with five foot tall file cabinets lining every wall and a too-large wooden desk stuffed in the middle of it. He had to shimmy just to take his seat opposite the kid, and the back of his chair hit file cabinet when he pulled it away from the desk. The only light was a banker's desk lamp, the green glass shade covered with a thin film of dust. Nate stared absently at it, trying to focus on not focusing on the image of dead Jimmy Ford.

The kid picked up the paperwork and fumbled through it, dropping his pen and then smacking his head on the pull-out shelf when he bent down to pick it up. Nate winced in sympathy and watched him contort himself practically in half to fish the pen out from under the desk in the tight space. He decided that he might like the kid. Or at least, he didn't dislike him. The clumsiness and nerves were sort of endearing, and how could you not feel at least a little sympathy for a guy who had to work in this place every day?

When the kid sat upright again in his chair, rubbing his head, he was surprised to find Nate staring directly at him, with an expression that was amused but not at all unkind.

Nate smiled. "So how long have you worked the morgue?"

They got to talking. The kid was hesitant, but Nate could tell that he was a bit starved for conversation, too. It was like turning a spigot on and off – words would pour out in a rush and then he would stop himself, then open up again, then stop. He fiddled with the paperwork as they spoke, ordering and reordering.

His name was Feichin Cleag, and he grew up on a farm in Claddaghduff before moving to the "big city" of Clifden, Connamera in County Galway. His did not like farm life, and he left as soon as he turned 18. He was working to save money for college, he and was planning to enroll at National University in the fall. He wanted to be a doctor, so he had taken the first job he could get at a hospital, and he didn't mind that it was in the morgue, really.

"The people are easy enough to get along with," he cracked, in a way that let Nate know it was not the first time he'd used that particular line.

Nate smiled and relaxed back in his chair a little. He was not normally one for small talk, but it was a good distraction under the circumstances, and he saw a lot of his own young self in Feichin Cleag - responsible, serious to a fault, determined to escape the boundaries he grew up in.

Feichin apologized about the weather, which was rainy and cold, even moreso than usual for March, and about the paperwork, which he knew must seem so inappropriate in a moment like this. He was especially apologetic about the cause of death, which was blunt force trauma and suffocation from strangling.

It was a homicide.

Nate had bitter laugh at that. "I wouldn't have thought he was here long enough to piss somebody off that bad. I should have known better."

Feichin got a tight look, somewhere between a forced smile and a grimace.

Too much information, Nate told himself, but goddammit, when were people going to get it? How many ways could he say that Jimmy Ford was a bastard – to Sophie and Hardison and Cora and a half-dozen old sentimental drunks that had known his dad back in the day and wanted to regale him with their fond war stories of Jimmy Ford? They all gave him that look, that infuriating, patronizing look, like he had issues. It made him crazy, and now he was tired and skewed enough that it set him off.

He leaned forward in his chair, pressing one forearm onto the desk while he gripped his chair with the other hand.

"You know what? Let me tell you a little something about Jimmy Ford. Jimmy Ford was not a nice man. He was a thief and a criminal, and he made a lot of enemies and he just kept making them." Nate tried to ignore the sarcastic voice in his head, the one that sounded an awful lot like Sophie. That doesn't sound like anyone we know. Oh no, not at all. "I didn't even like the man, and I was his son, so that should tell you a thing or two about Jimmy Ford. It's no great loss."

Nate forced himself to stop talking. He was breathing hard now.

He was a sophomore at St. Francis Xavier when he first read John Donne. His teacher assigned parts of Meditation 17 as a reference while they read For Whom the Bell Tolls. The Hemingway was good, but the Donne was stunning. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee. Sitting crossed-legged on his bed, the street sounds humming outside his open window, he had read it and re-read it over and over again.  It was the truth, and he had always known it, his whole life, but he had never realized that he knew it - or how it important that knowledge was - until he saw the words in print.    

And how many times had he come back to them since? It had become like a mantra, especially in prison. Especially after prison, when he had set his feet on the muddy-slippery slope – Mr. Good Bad Guy - and started to climb. It was one of the many tricks he had found to keep his footing, so he didn't slide all the way down to the bottom. And he was always looking for those tricks.

But at that moment in the morgue office, he could find no sadness and no sympathy for Jimmy Ford anywhere inside himself. Just an odd, jangly anger that made him feel dizzy and sick.

He leaned back in the chair, trying to relax again. He rubbed his hand along the top of the desk. The room was hushed, and the kid was going a very nice shade of burgundy, and Nate could hear Sophie's voice in his head again, admonishing him. Nice job there. Maybe he's got a dog you could kick, too?

He focused on breathing, forcing himself to calm down, and then he turned to the forms with exaggerated interest. "So, where am I signing again?"

By the time they finished the paperwork, Feichin Cleag had become quiet and thoughtful. He stood and pulled a quart-sized Ziploc bag out of one of the desk drawers and handed it to Nate. "Your father's personal effects. We didn't save the clothes, I'm afraid."

Nate rolled the bag over in his hands. There was a brown leather wallet, a wedding ring, and a green matchbook with "Mackey's" written in simple white script across the front. This was Jimmy Ford, age 76 – three personal possessions and a forthcoming bag of ashes.

"Don't worry about it." Nate said. He stood and pocketed the bag.

"When the ashes are ready, someone from the crematorium will call you to pick them up." The kid hesitated and then asked, "Should they call your cell or the hotel? I, uh, didn't get where you were staying?"

"The Clifden Inn. Either is fine."

The kid stood and held the door open for him.

Nate waved his hand in the air absently, feeling the need to apologize but not quite sure of how to go about it. "Look, uh . . ."

Feichin shrugged and took his hand, giving it a firm shake. "Not at all. Really. My old man wasn't the nicest guy you ever met, either."

"Ah." Nate looked at the kid and - in an absolutely correct read - saw a mixture of longstanding anger and fresh regret.

"Yeah."

"He pass away recently?"

"Last May."

They stood in the doorway, Feichin staring at the hall floor.

"You know what the priest said?" Feichin finally asked.

"What?"

The kid adopted a gruff voice. "No matter what went between you, Feichin, you'll always be your father's son."

Nate shook his head. "What a fucking idiot," he blurted out.

He expected the kid to be shocked or appalled or maybe call security, but Feichin immediately snorted a short laugh in response.

"That's kind of what I thought, actually."

They stared at each other for a moment, the first time the kid had dared to make real eye contact, half smiles on both their faces.

"Well, I'll try to keep your priest's sage advice in mind," Nate finally smirked, pulling the Ziploc bag from his pocket and tipping it up in a salute before turning and heading out the door.

Had he looked back, he would have seen that behind him, Feichin Cleag's own smile had faded to a troubled frown.