Out on the Point
by Geoff Schmidt
We gathered nearly a year after Rollie’s death on Cooke’s Point, in the St. Anne’s chapel, an autumn wind rattling the stained-glass windowpanes. Waves crashed against the bluff. Gulls circled a flagpole. Cars idled slowly to parking spots. Their occupants emerged holding tissues and looked with reserved splendor at the natural beauty surrounding us all. I waited in the back of the chapel to greet them, handing them each a memorial card.
On one side, Rollie, leather tan and broom mustache, large white teeth, and squinted eyes, peered out from behind a slack foresail. On the other, a quote from one of his favorite Steely Dan songs.
Well the danger on the rocks is surely past.
Still I remain tied to the mast.
Could it be that I have found my home at last?
Home at last.
They shuffled in, working their way alone or in distanced pairs to the cordoned off rows. A rope sectioned off every other pew. The programs were set six feet apart on the benches. The projector screen, hanging behind the lectern, displayed the same photo of Rollie that graced the card. Seventies standards hummed low from a speaker system near the holy water. The congregants, as they came to rest in their chosen seats, sat in silence, where they stared off at distant chosen objects. Some whispered. A few prayed.
To my left, my former mother-in-law, Vivian stood, arm-locked-in-arm with Nathan, her second husband. Nathan wore a bowtie fashioned out of turkey feathers, and wing-tip shoes that were gaudy and overshined. Just like his personality.
“It’s almost like he dressed expressly to stand out as Daddy’s antithesis,” Lucia said, chewing at her finger.
“You know, Rollie had told me to, ‘Tell that asshole to wait in the car if he comes.’” I said. “I mentioned that it would be hard to imagine Vivian wouldn’t have him accompany her to the funeral, but promised, anyway.”
Lucia wiped her chewed nail against the back of her dress.
“I told him, ‘I’ll do what I can, Rollie.’ We both knew I was lying.”
I looked down at his wingtips again as he stood there, petting Vivian’s clenched fingers with his free hand. On the toecap the ceiling lights reflected brightly. Nathan, even at the man’s own funeral, seemed permeated by his envy of Rollie.
The specter of his jealousy—to which neither he nor Vivian would ever admit—was omnipresent whenever the two men were in the same room. At our wedding, Nathan, at the time just Vivian’s co-worker, asked Lucia for a dance moments after the ceremonial father-daughter number. This was something Lucia seethed at years later when her mother left Rollie for Nathan. He took a seat at the table during family holidays, which for some reason Vivian insisted they celebrate together, despite Rollie’s increasingly caustic barbs each year.
Rollie could hold a grudge. Nobody knew that better than me.
Rollie held one with me until after Lucia’s brother died. She and I were too far down the path of divorce to go back when it happened. But Lucia invited me back to our home to break the news about Marlon’s death.
A few months prior, I allowed Marlon to crash for a few nights on the pull-out in the one-bedroom apartment I was renting in Washington Heights while his sister and I figured things out. I drove him to a detox in the Catskills, and having some experience with these things, I saw a kid who was nowhere near reaching his limit. When I left him, in the reception area, they were strapping a heart rate monitor to him, taking his vitals.
“If you can do this, anyone can, right?” He asked hopefully.
“Yeah kid. Anyone can.”
Rollie didn’t know this story when, shortly after I refused to sign the divorce papers his daughter gave me, he received a call from a hospital in Syracuse. He had no idea about my trip with his son when, during the eulogy, he mentioned nearly a dozen men whose influence on his son’s life was profound, foregoing my inclusion. It wasn’t until two years later, when his daughter noted it in passing--I suppose assuming he’d already known--that Rollie picked up the phone and invited me up to the fish shack. And for a year after that we grew closer, until the last words he spoke to me, over Facetime, a virus eating at the last living parts of his body: “Auggie needs his father. You know that--.”
Or perhaps it was: “You know that.” I wondered about the difference often in the days to come. Was there an ending to that thought? Or an opening to a new beginning?
I was wondering still, as I watched Auggie move close into his mother’s shoulder in the front pew of St. Anne’s chapel. I swallowed the lump in my throat.
The last guests had found their way to a seat. I straightened my tie and buttoned just one of the buttons of my hound’s-tooth blazer, a hand-me-down from the Old Man himself. Clenching and releasing my fists, I walked down the aisle. From each side, I could feel the eyes follow me. I stood at the lectern and could hear my breath amplified by the microphone. The music stopped. I looked out at a sea of solemn faces, many reddened by sadness.
“Rollie’s request was that nobody speak at his funeral.”
They stared back with pity.
“But for those of you who know both of us, you know there wasn’t a very fair chance I was going to grant that request.”
An awkward laugh from a few in the crowd.
“I will say only this. No man ever loved his family and friends the way Rollie loved his own.” Despite the nods from those before me, I knew how trite this sounded.
“In his last days, Rollie asked me to help him show you all just how true that is. The man loved a good photograph as much as he loved a great song. He hoped his parting memory for us would be some…modicum of the joy he felt when hosting family or friends at the fish shack on a cool, rainy, summer night; he would break out one of the family photo albums, put on some tunes, and pour us a tall glass of our favorite beverages. Well…” I took a deep breath, my shoulders rising, and with an exhale, they dropped. “Shall we?”
I walked slowly back to join the others who gathered to see Rollie’s parting gift to us. To watch what he had prepared, this musical slide show, that told the story—as much of the story as possible—of one man’s life.
Rollie grew up in Providence, one of eleven siblings. His father was a construction worker, who drank. His mother was the owner of a small tailoring shop, who drank.
In those final days, as we looked at one another through the screens of phones and tablets, he told me stories about his childhood. He spoke about how his mother always feared him going off to war and never coming back, like his brother. How his siblings told him that after Tony died, Rollie’s mother saved all her love for him. But I knew they’d grown apart over time. “I think we all preferred to hold onto the few good memories and let the rest…just go.” Through the screen I saw him lift his eyes, as though he was watching something fly away.
I thought about that moment as I looked around the chapel. While I would not have been able to identify Rollie’s living siblings by their faces, even without the masks, I was sure from their regrets and regards that most had not made it. In the end, his brothers and sisters were among the many from whom he’d built a distance. He admitted he was bad at responding to calls or letters.
“You think you’ll have time for people later,” he lamented, as he picked the last photo he wished to pair with the first song. In the image, which looked back at us during the final chorus of Bing Crosby’s Too ra Loo Ra Loo Ral, his father and mother sat on a couch, the upholstery visibly worn down. The children gathered at their hips, on their laps, and even on the floor before them. It was easy to make out young Rollie. Maybe nine years old, he hung over the arm of the couch, examining the rest of his family. Plotting something.
The photos of his friends were a hodge-podge of old and new. They flickered by as Van Morrison’s Caravan filled the corners of the chapel. In no real order they depicted a man who was loved by people from all different walks of life. There were friends Rollie made from his days working the shipping yards in Boston. There were the more refined adult-life friends he and Vivian, a Harvard graduate student, had made together—the ones who stood by him after the divorce, and the ones who did not. Work friends, drinking partners, parenting friends, fishing buddies. In each of the pictures, without fail, Rollie’s smile drew everyone in. He was, without exception, the heart of things.
Twenty-eight seconds of silence. That is what Rollie requested for the first photo of him and Marlon: a simple shot of Rollie, with that special grin only a new father wears, holding a newborn Marlon up for the camera and the world to see. “One second for every year we were lucky enough to hold him.”
Marlon was Rollie’s son in the very same way my boy, Auggie, was Rollie’s grandson. At equal turns introverted and vivacious, the three held an energy that directed the environments around them. When one was joyful, the atmosphere around them was alive with pleasure. When dour, everyone in their orbit took cover from their lashings. “Moody” was the word Auggie’s friends at school used to describe him. “Manic” was the descriptor the family heard medical professionals use regarding Marlon, time and time again. “A beautiful, ornery fucker,” Stan, his fishing buddy, said of Rollie in the days after his passing.
When Marlon died, Rollie retreated. I saw him quietly leaving the Wicksham Pub where we mourned his son over mediocre appetizers and many rounds of drinks. It was years later when I received a call inviting me to visit him at the fish shack. Years, moves, both of our divorces, and months of teen angst and silence between my son Auggie and me.
“You’d be wise to bring some layers,” he said gruffly, after extending the invite. He’d not even allowed time for me to decline, or to rustle up excuses why I might not be able to make it. Simply, he offered advice about how to pack for an October weekend on the coast.
“And if you’re still on the wagon bring whatever it is you like to drink.”
I drove up after work, a simple weekender bag packed as Rollie recommended, some warm gloves and a winter cap stuffed into the pockets of my favorite coat, a gift from Auggie several Christmases before. The last time I’d been to the fish shack, Auggie was 14, my marriage once held together by a commitment to maintaining a level of normalcy for him was in its very last days, and Rollie was still sober. It was the first summer—and I imagined from our call, one of the last—that the two of us were dry at the same time.
Rollie and I spent two nights bundled up in front of the fire, talking about the way things were, and the way they could have been. He urged me to make my amends with my son. Wind, rushing off the cove, rattled the pane of the picture window. Placing his empty tumbler on the ground by the foot of his rocking chair, he looked at me. With wet eyes, half his face glowed in reflection of the fire. “I’ll never stop regretting that I didn’t.”
Thirteen months later I watched him grapple with that lingering remorse all the way to the end. And less than a year after that, on a day that was sunny but with equally blustering chilly winds whipping off the waters, I watched Auggie dab at the tears on his cheeks with the crook of his thumb and forefinger, down to his wrist. He cried like his mother.
“She’ll never forgive you for not being exactly what she wanted you to be.” Rollie told me that October weekend visit, as we pulled his boat up to its winter dry-dock. “It isn’t worth holding out hope. Her mother was the same way.”
In conversation that weekend, we had done our very best to avoid the topic of his daughter. But as we spoke about the condition of my relationship with Auggie, it grew harder to speak around her. They were two ropes, inexorably knotted, which also tied Rollie and I together. Lucia and I had finally signed the papers. On the surface we allowed one another to believe the failure of our marriage was laid bare because I was not righteous or thorough enough about my indignation for social injustices, and that this was exacerbated by the politics around us. In truth, though, our son--and each of our relationships to him--was more at the nexus of our troubles than anything we cared to admit.
After Marlon’s death, I grew overbearing of Auggie. Wanting to protect him, I suppose, I pushed him away. Suspecting in him the seedlings of the worst characteristics his uncle, father, and grandfather shared, I became more intensely focused on his whereabouts. Whatever mischief he got into, in turn, his mother duly blamed on me. I had my beliefs she harbored inside these same resentments towards her father. Where she felt he failed Marlon, she feared I was failing Auggie.
“It’s a thing we can never understand, you know?” Rollie reached into his beat-up Coleman cooler and fished out a can of seltzer for me, and a frosty bottle of beer for himself. He saw me eyeing his hand and groaned.
“Oh, come off it.”
The way they could never understand our battles with our demons, he surmised, it would be irrational for us to imagine the troubles they faced internally when confronted by the truth that they had married well-meaning white men with half-committed principles. Whose politics were worn more as a badge on their sleeves than within their own hearts. Idealists. It didn’t help that I wasn’t passionate enough in my defense of righteous protests, or serious enough in my concern about whether Auggie could grow up in a world that hated his parents’ love. But in the end those things were just manifestations of the problems that already were.
“I hear you,” I said, leaning against the rail of the boat, and hooking my fingers around a rod holder. “I’ve understood what it’s all been about, even longer, I suppose, than she has. Clearer.”
Even as the words came out of my mouth, I did not believe them.
“The thing of it is,” he pointed at me. “You can’t mistake the fact that you’ll never be able to fully repair things with her, with the idea that you’ll never be able to change the state of affairs with him.”
A long silence.“Boy needs his father,” Rollie said, matter-of-factly.
He punctuated the point with one sharp nod, then eased himself, with a loud and long groan, down off the stern of the boat. Rollie strolled, kicking gravel, towards his truck. I turned the idea over in my head like a smooth stone between my fingers. Where things had gone wrong. Whether or not there was anything in my power I could do to make it better.
For much of Auggie’s life Rollie had been sober. And I had not. His Pop had been his hero. His father was not. And though that sad truth of mine had changed a few years back, and I’d made my amends the best I could, the damage had by-and-large already been done.
The montage of Rollie and Auggie were the hardest for me to put together. From his hospital bed, Rollie instructed me over the phone to choose the ones I liked best.
“Be sure to include a few from our fishing trips,” he wheezed. “The rest? I trust you to pick the best ones.” Rollie was getting close to the finish line by the time he gave me the instructions for the final minutes of the slide show: more family photos. More Marlon. And Auggie, Lucia, and Vivian. “I been thinking about these two songs for years,” he sighed, wistfulness in his voice.
I could see him through the video, looking off into the corner of the room. And it was true. Rollie had been planning his own funeral for as long as I’d known him.
“For the kids,” he gasped for a breath, “make it Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. They love that song.”
I wrote it down, and shared my screen with him, flipping through the photos we had, letting him pick them out one-by-one. Some from our wedding. One from Marlon’s high school graduation. Many from the deck and adjacent beach at the fish shack.
“And the song for Viv?” I asked cautiously.
“Oh she’s going to hate this one.” His laugh was abruptly interrupted by a fit of coughing.
“Yer So Bad.” Tears filled his eyes, though he smiled. “Tom Petty.”
I watched Vivian as Petty belted out the opening lines, and one of their wedding pictures graced the screen. She let out a loud singular laugh, followed by a tremble of heaving wails. Momentarily, the wailing ricocheted back again into that universally known cross-over of tears and laughter. The soundtrack of dark humor.
My God they looked happy in those photos. It was jarring, standing there in the back of that chapel, watching the story of a family freed from the perversion of the events that followed, playing for the watchers who couldn’t unsee the time between. For Rollie the story ended with the final photo of them all shoulder-to-shoulder on the deck of the fish shack during the family’s last trip there together, nothing but white teeth and big eyeballs in the gloaming of a seaside dusk. Were it up to Rollie, the world would not have held a single moment after that. But for the rest of us the moments streamed on right through that day in the church, sure as the tears that leaked their way between our masks and upper lips.
When it was over, the reception gathered outside the chapel for several minutes. Small groups mingling at a distance, at first, and then saying their goodbyes. I tracked Auggie as he nodded his gratitude to different attendees, with each step slowly inching his way towards the point. When he’d acknowledged the last group he hung his head and followed his feet, kicking gravel all the way to the last pile of boulders. He stood at the edge of them, hands stuffed in his pockets. The stiff breeze caught and tossed his hair.
I said my goodbyes to Vivian, Nathan, and Auggie’s mother.
When I reached the car, Lucia had followed me.
“Thank you,” Lucia nodded back toward the chapel, “for doing all of that.”
“An old man’s dying wish,” I shrugged.
Her eyes were locked on Auggie.
“If you need anything call me.” She feigned a smile.
I turned the ignition over and sat with the windows down, listening to the ocean, and watching my boy say his last goodbye, alone. Then I closed my eyes, and took deep breaths, flirting with the idea of meditation.
When I heard the passenger side door close I turned to see Auggie wiping at his cheek and his mask folded on his lap. He fiddled with his phone, synching it to the Bluetooth. Auggie turned the stereo on but didn’t turn the music up very loud. Rod Stewart’s gentle guitar strummed the first few chords to The Faces’ Ooh La La.
“The first song Pop taught me how to play on the guitar,” he said matter-of-factly, holding a cry back by pulling his frown tighter.
“I know buddy.” I tapped my palm on his knee.
“This sucks,” Auggie groaned, closing his eyes.
I looked for the words, but all I could find, again, was: “I know it.”
My hand was still on his knee, and we watched the fishing boats weave their way back towards the pier.
Putting the car in reverse, I asked, “Are we ready to try this again?”
“Feels like the thing to say is ‘It’s what the old man would have wanted.’” Auggie replied, dryly.
“Sounds about right,” I agreed.