Your great-grandmother, she had a jingle jangle laugh. Sweet and timeless, it was the laugh of a woman who had lived a whole lot, seen both good and bad, and was able to keep on chuckling. Yes, without a doubt, it was the ideal laugh for a grand old lady like your grammy. Except, one thing. Underneath the sweetness of it was this short, sharp, growl at the back of her throat.
I can remember this one time, fixing her toilet. The chain in the back had near rusted off. She was standing in the doorway telling me about all the family history, how our people had come over on this boat, the Cornelius.
But midway through her story, she had gotten quiet so I didn’t know what she was doing, and anyway, I was having a heck of a time trying to hook the new chain on.
Then I felt one of her fingernails, I felt it running all the way down my spine.
That made me laugh, so I glanced over my shoulder, and I swear to the Cookie Monster, she was holding a butcher knife in her hand.
The knife pointing at the ceiling, and her shuffling out of the bathroom, that bluish-silvery hair bobbing up and down. That laugh coming all the way in from the kitchen. Man oh man.
A couple days after that, Dad and I were sat out on this same back deck staring at the lake, and he was sitting just where I’m sitting in this chair here, Chair of Death.
I’d been reading about town history. Now you and I both know that most people around here—my people and your mother’s people included—come from the same ancient island off the coast of Scotland: The Isle of Fealla-Dhà.
But my dad didn’t know about The Isle of Fealla-Dhà. Or else maybe he’d forgotten. Or most likely, he was playing dumb just to tease me and make me look foolish.
I was telling him what your great-great grandmother had been telling me, how way, way back the logging company here was looking for people to work the mill and the woods so they filled up the Cornelius with our ancestors and shipped them here to the deep dark of New Brunswick.
Dad cut in while I was telling him all of this, and tapping the side of his chair three times, he asked, “Why go digging into the past, son? It was no different than somebody putting a bunch of plants on a boat from Scotland and shoving them into the dirt in New Brunswick. None of it matters. It’s just going from one place to another. Besides, we’ve come so far. It’s like two different animals between then and now.”
“Our past speaks to our present,” I said.
“How? People were all half nuts. Look at all the crazy old traditions and whacky superstitions. All the zany old beliefs that people used to follow. It’s two different planets. You can’t pretend to know the past.”
I said, “But Dad, we might have something genetic that we need to keep an eye on.”
He took a sip of his beer and shrugged his shoulders.
“You mean, like something in our genes,” he said. “Well, I know for a fact I do have something, and you’ve got the same in yours.”
I waited for him to deliver his punchline.
“We both have—”he paused to run a hand over his jeans”—two legs.”
He slapped his knee.
I was itching to scare him straight, to tell him how I’d read about the myth of the brown cow that haunted our people for centuries, appearing right before someone was about to die.
But mid-laugh, he just sort of sunk into his chair. He was struggling to breathe. His cheeks got all puffy, and his pores started to pump out these massive beads of sweat. His nose turned bright red, and his ears started rattling. His beer tipped over, fizzed all down his jeans, and his eyes got bigger and bigger until they popped right out of his head. He ripped out a fart like an earthquake that seemed to shake the whole house. Then he just dropped dead.
I can remember standing down on that shore with a Darth Vader mug full of gas, a flock of seagulls running against the sky, pulling out the sun.
Dad was lashed to a raft. I’d stayed up most of the night putting it together, and I was beat out, but the clan was all getting here, the yard filling up with Corollas, and Suburbans, and F150s.
I must’ve dumped about ten Darth Vader’s over the old guy. See, when they used to do it way back when on The Isle of Fealla-Dhà, they’d send the souls into the ocean. The God of the Sea would do all the work the fire couldn’t.
But here, I mean we can’t have no body wash ashore, half-toasty like a marshmallow, at the beach of that South African heart surgeon from Thunder Bay. That idiot would probably try to resuscitate the corpse.
The whole clan at my back, I waded out and torched Dad. Then I walked back to the shore and put my arms around my mom and your great-grandmother.
Your great-grandmother said, “He died as his father died and as his father died. The sun goes in a circle, and so do we.”
Mom said, “He was sick as a dog’s ass is what it was. His eyes popped right out of his God damn head! What’re you going on about the sun for?”
Those two were always fighting. That’s the way it always was and always would be.
The flames were lifting up into a mountain of orange and red. I took a bottle of rye and poured some out for Dad and some for me. I raised it up, and I shouted, “Am mac mar an t-athair.”
I had to look that one up on Google. Means, Like father like son.
We drank to Dad and watched him float out to the center of the lake. The day wore on, and we drank and ate and laughed.
The laughter and the tiredness soothed the pain I was feeling. But each laugh came with a cost. Every time somebody told a joke, I’d think, well, this could be it. Whatever happened to dad might happen to me. Like father like son.
Some goof on his sea-doo circled around Dad a few times, and when I looked out, I saw that this guy was buck naked, his pink butt burn red. I paddled out in my kayak and shouted at the naked idiot. He turned, and there was his johnson dangling like a boa constrictor.
What’re you laughing at? You’ve got nothing to boast about. You and I got the same pecker, give or take a few inches, but this fellah, his pecker was like the Hammer of Thor.
The naked idiot sea-doo’d over to me. “You’re burning him alive?” he shouted.
He sounded Australian.
What a stupid question. “No, he’s already dead.”
“Oh, Viking funeral,” said the naked idiot. “Sweet. How’d he die?”
I told the idiot, “He laughed until his eyes popped out of his head.”
The idiot stared at me.
“Who the heck are you?” I asked.
He told me his name and that he was a heart surgeon from Thunder Bay.
I said, “You don’t sound like you’re from Ontario.”
He said, “Let’s do a pop quiz then just for a lark. If you can guess where I’m from originally, I’ll reward you with a killer riesling that is currently soaking in a bath of ice, my friend.”
And I said, “What the heck are you talking about? Get the heck out of here! This is a funeral, you naked idiot!”
The naked idiot turned, his red ass sea-doo’ing off to a cooler full of white wine and tofu dogs.
I paddled back to shore and watched Dad burn. He roared and roared and went down with the sun. It was a beautiful damn sight.
We ordered a big feed of Chinese food and stood out here eating off styrofoam plates.
Your great-grandmother was sitting here in this same chair that Dad had been sitting in when he dropped dead.
She set her plate down on her lap, and motioned for me to walk over to her, so I crouched down right close and listened with both of my ears.
She whispered, “Listen now, there’s something I need to tell you. I don’t like telling it, but I’m the last one who knows it, and if I drop dead, too, then it’ll be forgotten. This is to do with the old island: The Isle of Fealla-Dhà. My own father told it to me the day that he died. He was sitting in this same chair, and after he told it to me he laughed so hard that he passed gas like a roaring thunder, and his eyes squeezed right out his head. But before he went on to glory, he told me that the reason that our people left The Isle of Fealla-Dhà wasn’t just for work. The young people were disappearing. And the thought was that they were just hopping onto boats for Scotland and not coming back. But one day, the body of a young strong boy was found down by the water, a knife wound in his back. That was terrible enough, but then other bodies began to wash ashore. Well, two officers came over from Scotland and took to questioning all the families. Much to their surprise, all signs pointed to one person and one person alone, the island matriarch—a sweet old dear on the surface of course, but there was more than meets the eye. You see, the young folks on The Isle of Fealla-Dhà would hold parties once a week where all types of shenanigans would occur, and this sweet old dear caught wind of their misbehaviour. Our island matriarch would wait for nightfall, and when the young people would have their secret parties, she’d sneak out and slide her knife into their backs. In the end, all was revealed. Of course not long after everything came out, the logging company offered a change of scenery, and everyone who was able to leave—well, they left naturally enough. But you know, it causes one to worry. It causes one to worry about our genes, that we might inherit the old madness from the island. What’s that joke your father used to say about his genes? He knew what he had in his: two legs. That was a good one.”
I must’ve looked stunned because as serious as she’d been, she laughed her laugh—and I swear to Christ, this is the God’s honest truth—she sunk into her chair and started struggling to breathe. Her cheeks got full, and she sweated out these fat beads. The nose on her got bright red and ears started rattling. Then her eyes got bigger and bigger. She ripped out a fart like a rocket. Quaked the whole place. And then her eyes popped right out of her head.
Right then and there, gone on to glory, her two eyeballs and a plate of General Tso’s chicken on her lap, in the same chair that Dad died in just the day before, in the same chair that I’m sitting in right now. The Chair of Death.
Oh, come on! There’s that naked idiot from Thunder Bay out on his seadoo again. Jesus H. Christ. I’ve seen more of his ass than I have of your mothers. He’s going to need to operate on me one of these days, and it’ll be his own damn fault. The idiot.
Where was I? The Chair of Death. That’s right. Every time I sit in this thing, I think about it, her and that knife. All those different stories she used to tell. Man oh man. There’s no end to it all.
Do you find it hot? I find it stuffy as hell.
When it starts to get under my skin—all of the family stuff—I just try to laugh it off, and I think of what Dad said about genes and jeans, but I put a twist on it. Because there’s something else about our DNA that nobody ever talks about. I know for a fact there’s something I’ve got, and you’ve got the same thing yours.
What’s that you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. We both have two legs.
And a short pecker.
Tom Halford lives in Corner Brook, Newfoundland with his wife and two kids. He has been shortlisted and longlisted for the CBC Literary prizes. In 2018, he published his first novel, Deli Meat. He tries to be funny, and sometimes he is. Image: Chair Near the Stove, Vincent van Gogh (1890)