Scent of Cologne
M. Stanley Bubien
It had been years—nine, ten, something like that—since he’d taken a drink, but having my dad over for Christmas still made me nervous. Some things are just ingrained, I guess, impossible to shake. Like tradition.
“Hi, Keith!” my dad barked with hand outstretched from my doorstep. I met the grip and waved him within. He complied and whisked off his jacket to place it upon the mantle. In that action, I caught a scent of his cologne, which he’d applied with such vigor, it reeked mostly of its base—alcohol, of course.
Clenching fingers into a fist, I sighed and inhaled deeply, a relaxation technique, but it failed me as I sucked another pungent mouthful of that reek.
“You got the gifts, right?” my father asked.
I shook my head—but I was clearing my sinuses, not answering the question. “Yep,” I replied.
“You were right about sending them ahead—saved me big hassles at the airport.”
Was that slur in his voice? It was hard to say. “I’m glad,” I told him.
In the living room, he greeted my wife, Margaret, with his always exuberant, “Marge!” Followed by a sweeping motion that caught his grandson, Matt, unawares, carrying the ten-year-old’s squeaking and giggling mass into a hearty embrace.
“What would you like to drink?” Margaret patted my father.
I blinked at her.
“Cranberry juice, if you’ve got it.”
“For you, always!” Margaret stated, and retreated into the kitchen.
We ended up on the sofa to await the Christmas goose, making idle conversation, which, I must admit, I actually enjoyed. But then a cloud of some sort passed over my father.
“Keith,” he said, cupping his glass with both hands. “I need to ask you a favor.”
“I know it’s traditional for you to give the dinner toast—head of the household and all that—but I wanted to know if you’d let me this year.”
“Um. Well. I’d prepared something.”
“I understand.” Dragging a fingertip across the crystal, he caused it to emit a high-pitched whine. “This is important, though.”
I stared at him. The last time he’d given a toast, he blathered on about family love or some-such, meanwhile swaying madly and dumping most of his Southern Comfort onto his plate.
“Consider it a gift?” he asked.
I inhaled with eyes closed. “Alright, I guess so.”
As if on cue, Margaret called me to carve the bird. There, however, I found myself taking my time, paring meticulously while wondering what my dad was going to do. But, typical when I concentrated on something, it went by quickly, and I soon found my family seated together at the table.
“Um, we’re sort of breaking tradition tonight,” I informed Marge. “Dad’s giving the toast.” I gestured. “Dad?”
“Thank you so much, Keith.” He erected himself to his feet, cranberry juice in hand. “I… I… Ahem!” he cleared his throat against his sleeve. “Sorry. I wanted to say something. Something about Christmas.” He looked down at his plate. “I remember one year—well, ‘remember’ may not be quite right—there was one year when I drank so much, I passed out while you were opening gifts, Keith.”
Memory for him might be hazy, but it was clear as day for me—“How can Daddy fall asleep with so many presents?” I had asked my mom.
“Or,” he continued. “Another year when I stepped on one of your toys and broke it. You were so young, and you cried for almost a half hour. And I…” he cleared his throat once more. “I was a little drunk, but your mom was afraid to let me hold you.”
“Christ, Dad!” I interrupted. “What’s you’re point? This is supposed to be a toast. What’re you doing?”
Looking me in the eye—something he rarely did—he said, “you know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
“Of course, but I don’t see why.”
“Marge,” he turned to my wife. “There was also that Christmas… Matthew’s first…” his voice cracked, but he tried to continue, “when… when—”
“When,” Margaret finished for him, “I had to ask you to leave.”
He nodded and swallowed, which made his adam’s apple bob with the strain. All of us, even Matt, remained silent. I gripped the edge of the table, staring at my father, trying to catch something, some reason or purpose for bringing this stuff up again, stuff I’d been trying to forget for, well, a lifetime, really.
He was gazing downward and rubbing his brow, apparently trying to regain his composure.
“Dad…?” I whispered.
He raised a palm, and looking up, he said, “okay, that was bad. I didn’t like saying it, I swear, but I needed to set some context.”
“For a question.” He raised his glass into the air, holding it in a traditional toast position. “Keith, Marge, Matthew”—he made eye contact with each of us—“for these things that I’ve done so terribly, terribly, wrong. For the hurt and pain I’ve caused you all.” He hefted the crystal forward. “For all this, I am truly sorry. And I ask—no, I beg—please, forgive me.”
Marge and I glanced at each other. Her mouth was pulled tight, and I could tell her teeth were clenched, her usual tense look. I frowned as if to ask, “what do you want me to say?” followed with a shrug. Her jaw simply flexed.
Drawing in a long, haggard breath, I blew it out across the table as the shadow of my father standing over us begged a response.
Filling my lungs again, I took hold of my glass. “Dad, I’m not sure what to say. Um, yeah, those things hurt. But, um…” Blinking at Marge, I rose and lifted my cup, “I accept your apology.”
Without standing, Margaret presented her goblet. “Me too.”
“Me three!” Matt cried. And tension fled with our laughter. And once we had retaken our seats, and filled our plates with goose, and begun a hearty meal, I had a moment to wonder—or hope, honestly—that maybe we hadn’t broken only one tradition tonight, but quite possibly two.