by Jerry Wemple
A few people said you looked like your father, but you weren’t sure whether they meant it or were simply seeking something to say to this stranger who had jumped across decades and into their lives and family. You met cousins and aunt and uncles at the family reunion fish fry. For decades you had wished for something like this, but always thought the odds too long. It’s easy now: spit in a tube, send it off with a bit of money, spin this wheel of chance over and over until you win the prize, try to reclaim what was never yours. You won a couple of years back when a woman who looked like no one in your known family matched as a cousin. Things became things and three-quarters of a year later you found yourself in small-town South Carolina. People were friendly enough. An aunt, elderly and bright eyed, confirmed she knew about you, had always wondered how you turned out. She tells you your father spent most of his adult life in New York, worked as a machinist until he was injured and moved back home. You had your picture taken with her. Someone posted it online. Just before she left, your aunt handed you a photograph of your father. You’re not sure you see the resemblance. A deep bronze-color man in a dark suit, red tie. He sports a mustache and you’ve always stayed clean shaven. Still, the cleft chin, the way he only half smiles for the camera, like you and your son do. You wonder what he sounded like, if he was quick with a joke, liked eggs and potatoes for breakfast. It’s too late in the game. Your father is long dead, had no other children. From what they tell you, he died alone in a state institution over in Columbia, taken into custody after fetching a gun to remove an unwanted house guest, firing it into the wall as she exited the door, a sort of do-not-return notice. It was hard to gather whether he’d grown onery in old age or always had a touch in him. There’s not much left of him. You couldn’t find the grave in the town’s old or new cemeteries. An uncle pointed out an overgrown field where his modular home once stood atop a cement slab. The reunion weekend over, the ride home was long. It was well into the evening until you got back. It took you a month or two until you got around to picking up a picture frame for that 8-by-10 of your father. It took another while to decide where, but then you hung it in the room you use for an office on the second floor, somewhere private where it’s just you and him.
Jerry Wemple is the author of three full-length poetry collections, most recently Artemas & Ark: the Ridge and Valley poems (Finishing Line Press, 2020), and two poetry chapbooks. His nonfiction appears in Ninth Letter, OZY, and other venues. Among his awards are the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, the Word Journal Chapbook Prize, and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship. He teaches in the creative writing program at Bloomsburg University. His website is www.jwemple.com.