Congratulations to Henry Hack, first place winner in the Inspirational/Spiritual Essay category of the 90th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's his winning essay, "Pop."
Joe Brauer shivered in the cold December wind as he stared at the headstone in front of him. Almost fifty years of summer heat and winter frost had succeeded in depressing the stone into the ground, so that only the last name, “BRAUER,” was exposed. Joe knew what was carved on the granite below: “JAMES M., August 9, 1913 – December 15, 1964.” Joe had been a boy of seventeen years when the stone was first set into place, and he had faithfully come to visit every year for these past forty-eight years. He always came in December and it was always cold, bone-deep cold, just as it had been on the day his father was put into the ground forever.
He stared at the stone, blinking back the tears, and wished his father were alive and with him again. He bent down and grabbed its cold sides in his strong hands and attempted to extract it from the ground, imagining that if he could only lift it out, he would somehow also raise his father with it to be with him once more. He wished hard to have him back, to warn him of the danger that lay ahead, to stop him from killing himself. He tugged at the icy, gray stone with all his strength. Pop. Come back! Come back to happier times, to your wife and kids. We want to see you again. There is so much you’ve missed. Come back. Joe strained harder at the stone. He felt all the muscles tighten in his arms, legs and back. The blood pounded in his temples and his cramped fingers lost their feeling. A sensation of dizziness came over him as he gave one last, mighty heave….
* * *
I was sitting on a park bench, the sturdy, cement-end type with green wooden slats, and I immediately knew exactly where I was, but not when I was. Pop was sitting in the window chair in Patsy’s Barber Shop across the avenue not more than twenty yards from me. I stared at him. His lips moved occasionally as he chatted with the immigrant Italian barber. Wait a minute – Pop’s dead! How can I be seeing him now? Dead – his life cut short by lung cancer from the two packs of cigarettes he smoked every day for almost forty years. What the hell was going on here? I looked at myself, my hands, my watch, my clothes. All appeared normal. I pulled out my wallet and checked my picture on my driver’s license. My D.O.B. was correct – 01-09-1946, and I knew I was sixty-six years old. I knew the year was 2012, but if it was 2012, how could I be sitting on a park bench in Collyer’s Square, South Ozone Park, Queens, watching my long-dead father getting a trim from a long-dead barber?
Patsy was finished and Pop came out the front door. He lit up a Camel, inhaled deeply, and slowly released the blue smoke from his mouth and nostrils as a satisfied look came over his face. He came across the avenue, sat on the bench next to mine, and pulled a folded Daily News from his jacket pocket. He opened the paper from the back page, the sports section, and tilted his ever-present fedora back on his head. I knew he was looking over today’s entries at the racetrack. He wasn’t wearing glasses yet, but his arms stretched a bit as he squinted at the small type on the scratch sheet.
He lit another cigarette and the breeze drifted the smoke past my nose. The first puff from that Camel smelled delicious. The rich tobacco odor triggered memories of my own smoking days, and the urge to light up a Lucky arose momentarily in me, although I had not had one between my lips for over twenty years. Such was the power of this aromatic, but deadly, brown leaf. I looked over at him. It was time to make my move. “Good morning,” I said. “Name’s Joe.”
“Good morning,” he said back, drawing deep on the cigarette. “I’m Jim.”
He reached out his hand and we shook on our formal introduction. I choked back a sob as I grasped his strong right hand in mine. The last time I touched that hand it was deathly cold and clutched rosary beads. He coughed that oh-so-familiar hacking cough I had heard each morning as he got out of bed and lit the first cigarette before his feet hit the floor. Had the tumor grown too big already?
“Smoke?” he asked as his hand snapped out a stick from the pack he offered toward me.
“No, thanks, I quit a long time ago.”
“Made me cough too much,” I said thinking, because they killed you and they would have killed me, too. Can’t you see that?
He looked long and hard at me as he exhaled.
“Joe, what?” he repeated. “What’s your last name?”
I decided to take the plunge. He had put his paper down on the bench and turned to look more directly at me. It was now or never.
“Brauer. Same as yours. I’m your son.”
I looked directly into his eyes as I said it, and then continued slowly and evenly, “Pop, it’s me. Joey. Your boy.”
“You are crazy,” he said. “What do you mean, you’re my son? You’re twenty years older than me.”
He coughed and stared at me, but he did not get up to leave.
“Look at me closely, Pop. I’ve come back sixty years to see you. I’m sixty-six years old and it’s the year 2012 in my time, and I have so much to tell you, so please, listen to me and –”
“Stop!” he said. “It’s 1953 and this is a bunch of baloney!”
“Don’t call me that!” he shouted. “I am not your father! You’re drunk or crazy.”
“Do I look drunk? And if I’m crazy, why haven’t you gotten up and left?”
“That’s just what I’m going to do, right now,” he said as he rose from the bench.
I looked into his eyes and said softly, “Please, stay and talk with me a few minutes more. Just a few minutes. That’s all I ask.”
He looked back at me for a long moment, half-sitting, half-standing. Slowly he sat back down. He knows. He knows who I am.
“Pop, you left us too soon. I just wanted to see you again, to tell you that I loved you, that we all loved you.”
“Loved? Then I’m dead, right? In 2012, I’m dead?”
“Yes, in 2012, you are dead. Look, I always dreamed that if I could come back in time, I could convince you who I was and why I’d come back. Now I’m not so sure.”
“Not sure about what?”
“About everything. About the past. About trying to change the past. Maybe I should just be happy to have this time with you on this beautiful spring day in 1953, and let it go at that.”
“So, why did you come back?”
“To save your life. To warn you. To keep you from dying. To let you live longer than you did.”
“When did I die? How did I die?” he asked and then added, “Jesus, I must be nuts asking these questions when I am alive.”
“You died of lung cancer caused by those goddamned cigarettes you have been puffing on since you were ten years old.”
“What the hell is lung cancer?”
“A horrible disease you get from smoking.”
“I figured you’d say that.”
He coughed. I realized then that my mission was doomed to fail. It was 1953 and he died in 1964, only eleven years from now. The tumor was already off to a good start, spreading its deadly tentacles deeper into his insides. If he threw his cigarettes away right now and never lit up again, he would probably continue on his rendezvous with Death on that cold, December day anyway. I was literally talking with a dead man.
“I guess I only imagined I heard you cough.”
He coughed again, realized it, and smiled at me.
I smiled back and said, “Are you still willing to listen to me for a few more minutes?”
He glanced at his watch and said, “Okay, but I have to get home and fix a faucet before I head for the track.”
“You have a tattoo on your wrist.”
“What kind of tattoo?” he said suddenly, snapping me back to reality.
“A bracelet of some type. I used to look at it and you told me you were stupid for getting it and that I should never get one. You said it was put on with needles and it hurt very much. You know what?”
“I got one anyway. Want to see it?”
“Okay,” he said somewhat reluctantly.
I rolled up the right sleeve of my sweatshirt and displayed the heart with the dagger through it that I had Blackie’s Tattoo Parlor in Coney Island engrave forever on my right bicep in the spring of 1965.
He looked at it and said, “It says POP in the middle.”
“That it does.”
“I had it put on in memory of you.”
“I can’t read the numbers under the heart. They’re kind of blurry.”
“It’s a date.”
“The date my father died.”
“What date?” he asked again.
“Do you really want to know?”
No, I guess I don’t. I have to go now,” he said getting up from the bench.
“You believe me now, don’t you?”
“I…I don’t know. It’s so impossible. I just don’t know,” he said, staring at the burning cigarette between his fingers.
“Wait!” I yelled just having thought of something that might convince him once and for all. “Here, look at this. At my birthmark.”
I put my right foot on the bench and drew the leg of my jeans up, exposing the top of my knee. “Look, it’s still there,” I said. “Much lighter, but still there. Look at the shape of it. Like Africa, remember? Now do you believe me?”
He shuddered a little and straightened the fedora on his head. “I’m mixed up. I’d better go,” he said as he turned and began walking away from me.
He stopped and turned back toward me. I extended my hand and said, “Good-bye, Pop.”
He hesitated, then stepped toward me and grabbed my hand and shook it. “Good-bye, whoever the hell you are.”
I wanted to squeeze his hand and pull him toward me and hug him with all my might, but I gradually released my grip and let him go. I called after him as he walked up the avenue, “Pop! I love you! Don’t ever forget that I love you!”
He turned and I saw that he was somewhat pale and unsteady. He knew damn well who I was, but his common sense wouldn’t let him admit it.
“I won’t forget it, Joey,” he said as he walked away, leaving me again – forever.
I watched him as he slowly made his way home. He got blurry in my vision and moved in and out of focus. The sun seemed to suddenly brighten and I felt dizzy. I grabbed the back of the park bench to steady myself. He turned into the driveway. In a moment he would be gone. He stopped, looked back toward me, and tipped his fedora. I frantically waved a suddenly heavy right arm. And then he was no more.
* * *
Joe Brauer was momentarily confused as he winced from the cold blast of air in his face. His right arm ached and he wondered what the hell it was doing extended in the air, palm out, fingers spread, almost as if he had been waving to someone. He brought it to his side and thrust it into his coat pocket. Glancing quickly around, he was relieved to see that no one had seen him. What was it doing up there anyway, he wondered?
He had a strange feeling, as if he had just awakened from an intense dream. His father was in it, and he was young again, but that’s all he could remember of it. He turned to walk away from the headstone when a tremendous pain rocked his chest and bolted down his right arm causing it to jerk upwards as he fell to the ground.
When the cemetery workers found him sitting with his back on his father’s headstone one of them remarked, “Look at that smile on his face. At least he died happy.”
“Yeah,” said the other worker, “and look how his arm stayed raised, as if he was waving to someone,”
They both looked in the direction that Joe’s arm was pointing, but there was no one in sight.
* * *
Joe found himself walking in a grassy park on a mild, spring day. A few seconds after the familiar odor of fresh cigarette smoke reached him, he saw his father sitting on a bench. The bench was not unlike those in the square by the house in which he had grown up – green slats and cement ends.
“Hi ya, chum!” his father said. “Welcome home. It’s good to see you again.”
“Pop! Where are we? What is this place? How did –?”
“I’ll explain it all to you in due time. But now just let me say thanks.”
“Thanks? For what?”
“For everything. For all those visits you made in the cold to the cemetery, but especially for your love. It takes an awful lot of love to do what you did, you know.”
“What did I do, Pop?”
“You came back. It took a lot of love and willpower to do that. Doesn’t happen too often. You came back all those years just to warn me. I appreciated that.”
“You knew it was me then?”
“You know, I felt I had gone back, but afterwards when I came back to the present and found myself in the cemetery I thought it was just a crazy dream. I wanted to believe it, but I wasn’t strong enough to really believe I had done it.”
“Well, you really did it,” he said.
“Then the tremendous pain hit me and…and oh, crap. I’m dead! If I’m talking to you I must be dead. Are we in Heaven?”
“We sure are, Joey. Take a walk with me and I’ll show you around and explain everything. Cigarette?”
He offered the pack of Camels up to me with a grin.
“Still at it, I see,” I said shaking my head.
He poked me in the ribs playfully and said, “They can’t hurt me, or you, anymore, you know.”
We walked, and talked, and smoked together for a long time.
He never coughed once.