“Substance,”

Fiction by Anthony Picicci

Jack Day half smiled at the sight of his father sipping coffee in the kitchen beside the bay window he helped him install upon his mother’s request weeks before she passed away almost a year ago.

The morning sun revealed deep lines around his swollen eyes as he descended the cedar steps leading to his apartment above the garage behind the four-bedroom saltbox he grew up in. He paused at the bottom step and tucked his paint-splattered T-shirt into his carpenter pants and slipped on a dark green hoodie. Perfectly tuned wind chimes and swaying oak branches penetrated the moment as Jack closed his eyes and took a deep breath before checking in on Joe.

For many years, Jack failed to see the true merit of his actions, sweating under the hot sun stripping paint off of battered coastal wood with a circular grinder before caulking seams and cracks, and filling nail holes with wood putty for a prime coat and a two-coat finish application.

But years of physical labor surrounded by the natural elements had led Jack to the daily ritual of analyzing his thoughts and impressions while commanding a good wage for his self-employment, fortifying his excellent reputation and the relentless exploration of his psyche as he alone fulfilled his obligations for wealthy clients desiring the unparalleled East Hampton oceanside aesthetic.

His father, Joe, at 78 was also self-employed, and was an extremely hard worker — something, Jack realized, as he approached the kitchen door, that was a part of him too, instilled in him as a young boy by his mother and father, that would be a part of him — just as in Joe — until the day he died.

“Good morning, Pop,” Jack said as he entered and immediately reached for the stainless steel percolator coffee pot.

“You’re up early,” Joe said.

Joe was a patient man who could fix just about anything. His father and generations before him supported their families by mastering the surrounding waters with a love for the sea only a local fisherman could fully comprehend. Joe had fished too for many years, but unfortunate changes in the industry led him to a life of carpentry to earn his living.

Joe paused from reading the local police blotter, lifted his mug to his lips, and then took a long drag off the first of three cigarettes he would smoke that day.

“I’ll never get used to you lighting up in the house,” Jack said as he poured coffee into a white mug with indecipherable words written on the side.

Joe chuckled. “Yeah, your mother would have swatted me with the paper and kicked my ass out the back door.”

“You remember the time when Uncle Burk lit up a cigar in the living room?”

Joe’s chuckling increased, “Yeah — Jeez, your uncle didn’t appreciate the wet rag mamma threw in his face.”

Jack laughed. “She kept snapping his ass with it as he ran from her out the front door.”

“Your mother smoked on occasion,” Joe said matter-of-factly, taking another long drag.

Jack’s eyes widened. “Bullshit!”

“When we first dated she would steal a pack of no-­filters from your grandfather’s carton whenever we got drunk.”

“I can’t believe she never told me that she smoked — and drank!”

“Hell, it was so long ago, she probably forgot.”

“Why did she stop?”

Joe began to chuckle again and spilled coffee on The Star, then dropped ashes on top of the wet pages as he tried to rescue it.

“She got so sick at the old drive-in one night, she vowed never to drink again, and she never did, and I never saw the old maid ever smoke again either.”

“So she wasn’t a big prude.” Jack held the mug to his nose.

“Hell no, boy.” Joe’s smile faded as he stared off in remembrance.

A long moment of silence passed between them. Jack watched Joe take one long last drag and stamp out his smoke in an old, chipped, clear glass ashtray. He wondered what else he didn’t know about his mother, and what Clarice would say to break the silence between her husband and son.

“So when the hell is you getting out of my garage and going home, boy?”

Jack stood up and left his mug half full on top of the outdated beige Formica countertop. He was impressed with the old man’s willingness to emulate Clarice.

“She asked me to leave, Pop; I can’t go back if she doesn’t want me there.”

“Oh nonsense, you just go back and tell her you’re coming home.”

“I can’t do that, Pop.”

“Well why not, boy?” Joe folded his paper and tossed it aside.

“Why are you getting so upset?” Jack said.

“Don’t you want to be happy?”

“Happiness is overrated, Pop, and besides I can’t make someone do something against their will.”

“I don’t understand — if nothing happened, why in the hell don’t you tell her exactly that.”

“In her mind something did happen.”

Joe fussed with his paper again, opening the pages to dry them out.

“What about Jacob?”

“What about him?”

“A boy needs his father.”

“He has his father, just not under the same circumstances.”

“Boy, it’s time to go home to your wife and son.”

“I am home, Pop.”

Joe smiled and slightly nodded his head. “Well what about the one you were caught with, what’s her name again?”

Jack sighed. “I wasn’t caught doing anything.”

“So let me get this straight; you ran into the old flame. . . .”

“You know her name, Pop.”

“Ah yes, the lovely Kris.”

Jack pursed his lips and shook his head from side to side.

“And Meredith saw the two of you in town on a bench rehashing old times . . .”

“We were just talking.”

“. . . like two peas in a pod.”

“It had been so long since we last saw each other. Her husband, Tommy, was so possessive, and Meredith so jealous; we just left it alone.

“And that was it?”

“Yes and no.”

Jack walked over to Joe and sat beside him. Joe looked into his son’s tired eyes and saddened face.

“Meredith drove by and saw Kris take my hand. She was apologizing for missing mom’s funeral, and I looked guilty as hell lapping up all the attention.”

“And you told her that.”

“I did! But she refused to listen. I understand her initial reaction, but to keep on insisting it was any more than that is —”

Jack froze. He flashed back to a moment on the job a few days earlier as he was squeezing a ball of glazing inside a rag to soak up the excess linseed oil before repairing a broken window sash. A great sadness overcame him. He tried to meditate on his thoughts, but he couldn’t hold on to the brief moment of clarity he desperately, but reluctantly wanted to recall.

Joe grabbed Jack’s shoulder and gently squeezed, “What is it, son?”

Jack popped up from the table, slipped out the back door, and quickly walked into the open field behind the garage. He circled the tall grass several times before dropping to his heels, tuning his ear to the wind whipping the tall reeds near the edge of the wetlands.

He thought how his son, Jacob’s, constant inquiries into the status of his parent’s relationship mirrored his own underlying propensity to try to decipher Meredith’s true intention. He was through justifying her need for time and space away from him, falsely laying the blame on him, placating Jacob in the process.

Yesterday morning, Jack was two stories up on a 28-foot extension ladder painting a small crescent window below the tallest peak on a renovated ocean view cottage. The reflection of several brown rabbits cautiously grazing in the tall grass dotted with wildflowers commanded his full attention. He placed his brush handle inside the hollow of the rung on the right edge of the ladder and positioned his forearms for a comfortable view.

His interaction with Kris was clear in his mind, playing out in cinematic fashion, giving him multiple angles of perception as he focused on the rabbits’ dull white cottonball tails and the warm steady breeze blowing against him.

He turned his head to meet Meredith’s initial steely glance as Kris took his hand. He no longer denied the clear expression on Meredith’s parted lips and almost lost his bearing, grabbing the ladder rung with both hands, struggling to process the truth he so easily denied. The rabbits disappeared, and once again, doubt crept in and delayed the inevitable.

Jack began to weep. Joe came up behind him, carefully kneeled down, and put his hand on his back.

“You’re okay, boy, let it out.”

“It’s over, Pop.”

A flock of geese flew overhead. The rhythmic flapping of their wings commanded their attention, and both Jack and Joe looked up to appreciate the beautifully displayed V pattern and the sound of muffled squawks growing faint by their swift arrival and graceful departure. Father and son’s mutual appreciation for nature brought peace to Jack as he immediately recognized Joe’s clarity and wisdom as he looked deep into his father’s eyes. Jack finally accepted what he had so easily denied.

“That may be so; tell me why it’s over, son.”

“She smiled, Pop.”

“Who smiled?” Joe said.

Jack lifted his arms and gently brushed the tall grass. He was grateful for the time he had spent alone on the job sifting through his thoughts and emotions.

“My initial reaction was this irrational guilt, as if I did something wrong — and Meredith saw it. She used it to justify her actions, placing blame on me to exit the relationship instead of telling me —”

“The truth,” Joe said.

“She doesn’t love me anymore . . .  someone else is in her life.”

“And you?” Joe said.

Jack took a deep breath and exhaled. He recognized Joe’s discomfort and helped him up.

“I felt more connected with Kris in the few minutes we spent together than I’ve felt with Meredith in a long time; her compassion was intoxicating. Meredith checked out long ago, but I didn’t want to see it.”

“Oh I’d say you did want to see it.”

“I didn’t trust my instincts.”

“Give yourself some credit boy; these things take time, especially when a child’s involved.”

Jack frowned and shook his head from side to side. “What will I tell Jacob?”

“Nothing he hasn’t already assumed.”

Jack took Joe’s arm and led him back to the house. Joe’s uneasy steps took the focus off his troubled marriage and reminded Jack to appreciate the old man.

“You know what, boy?” Joe gently broke free and turned toward him. “I liked that Kris girl. What happened with her and her old man?”

Jack opened the screen door. “She caught him with another woman.”

Joe chuckled. “I bet they weren’t reminiscing on a town bench.”

Jack smiled and held the door open for Joe.

“Off to work, boy?” Joe stood holding the screen door open as Jack turned to leave. A gust of wind kicked up some dry leaves and blew them into the house.

“Time is money, Pop,” Jack said without turning around.

Joe nodded in approval and watched Jack jump into his white cargo van as he pulled the screen door closed. Jack turned the key, fired up the vehicle, and immediately opened the windows. He sat still and watched Joe return to his damp paper. A photo of Jacob at the beach holding a body board hung from the open sun visor. Jack began to sob as he removed it from behind the mirror clip and positioned it in plain view on the center console.

The wind kicked up again and the sun broke free of the passing clouds as Jack reached for his sunglasses and drove away.

He was thankful the homeowner was away as he arrived on the job, immediately embracing the solitude of the pristine coastline by preparing for the workday with a five minute stretch in the cut grass on the ocean side of the house, followed by a quick breakfast, and a willingness to do good work.



Anthony Picicci was a resident of East Hampton for 20 years. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and daughter, where he was recently accepted as a transfer student at the University of North Carolina in Asheville.