Five Meaningless Words

A father’s hidden past, a mother’s broken spirit, and a dutiful son’s endeavor to do what is right by his family. A short story where weighty truths are revealed as memories begin to fade away…

by: Jurgen Stahl

My father led a pre-programmed life. Every step was planned and his achievements came early. He earned his first degree at twenty-one, garnered a PhD at twenty-four. Throughout his career, he received promotions in two-year intervals. Marriage came later when the time was right.

“He fitted me in between work somewhere,” my mum told me. “He may have even loved me.” 

She lacked the certificates that decorated my father’s study — the chief reason he chose her.

Surprisingly then, fatherhood transpired unscheduled in his forties, a blessing for my mother, a stumbling block for him. His career stalled after that, and he resented my presence perpetually because of this. Mum had been a boisterous woman once. I saw only glimpses of that while I grew up. My old man didn’t appreciate being upstaged and suffocated her spirit. 

“You’re mistaken, son,” he said when I confronted him once in my rebellious teenage years.

“Of course, I love you. Both you and your mother.”

Never once did he call me by my name.

Nor did I call him “Dad.” Mum had given up on life by then, and any remaining love had escaped our home. He let it go.

I decided early on to follow suit and left our cold, silent house as soon as I could.

My father’s days remained organized into thirty-minute units after she died, even after his retirement. Six units piano, two units exercising, and six learning Latin and Roman History. From the first kings to the ultimate defeats by the Goths, Roman everything, he learned it all. 

Ten units were then wasted on sleep. 

Then my father’s mind deserted him. A bitter struggle ensued between his will and the traitorous intellect. He fought back like his ancient heroes. From the lost house keys to the forgotten way home, he went to war.  Roman discipline to the end.

I visited him once a month, pretending to be the dutiful son, only to witness the well-deserved decline of the old dictator. I may have laughed once or twice.

“I must not let it defeat me,” he exclaimed, anger and determination rather than self-pity or sorrow on his face. 

After a while Latin and even history resisted his efforts, but he had another plan. 

“It will not take my memory from me,” he proclaimed, “never.” He vowed to work through the English Dictionary in alphabetical order, from A to Z. At least three daily units’ worth. He’d memorize thirty words in a meaningless mnemonic, one new letter every day, and moved onto the next the day after.

“Once I get to Z, I’ll start again,” he said when he conquered F, eyes glistening in triumph. 

Thirty words soon dropped to twenty-five, then twenty. Ten. He drifted off within minutes of a study unit but commenced reciting when he woke up from his increasingly frequent slumbers.

In his last month before he died, he stalled at the letter L. 

“L for Lara, L for …” He could not go past my mother’s name.

I did not laugh then.

“Can you take me to Italy, Richard?” he begged me on one of my scheduled visits. Richard? Italy? He had never been there before, as far as I knew. Had the enemy conquered his mind? 

Maybe because he called me by my name, maybe I felt something like pity for the old bastard, I took him there. It wasn’t Rome he requested as I expected, but the eastern Italian coast for some peculiar reason. 

Village after village, beach to beach, all looking the same, none good enough for Dad. As if he was searching for something, in a place that he had never been to?

He became more restless the further we drove along the coast, and he mumbled. English words, some Latin fragments. 

In the early evening of the second day of the trip, he yelled out and gesticulated at yet another beach, like any other we had passed. 

Then I understood. This was not his first time here. He knew where to go.

A desolate beach only, a stretch of gravel leading to the sea, a deserted jetty, hills further inland — but three ancient columns standing proud on a crumbling platform. The remnants of a small temple, like others still standing in Rome.

“Why here?” I asked him. He stared ahead not hearing what I had said or ignoring me the way he used to. But he knew this place, and I searched for the answer in his grey eyes.

Something happened here more than my lifetime ago. 

His tears flowed by the time I stopped the car. He threw the door open and stumbled onto the harsh beach. He sat there for hours, staring at the tallest of the three columns that boasted its remaining flowery ornamentations at the top. After a little while, I joined him and wrapped a jumper around his bony shoulders. 

I may have even felt some sorrow for my father then, that proud fighter who had lived his life according to his foolish Roman virtue, now just a pitiful old man. 

“In perpetuum et unum diem,” he muttered again and again. Tears wet his sunken cheeks, and still he stared at the red booth in the middle of nowhere.

We returned the next morning as the rest of his body revolted against him, to take revenge for decades of iron control by humiliating its master, the odor of dried urine following his every step. 

The following March was the last time I saw him. He stood in the center of the community room, one hand clasping the side of his dressing gown like a Roman toga, the other holding up the dictionary in front of him. Stern and proud, a Cicero addressing the Senate. 

“Marvelous marshmallows devoured on marble floors of the Roman market at the Ides of March,” he declared before collapsing into the recliner next to him, as others watched on in silence. A Caesar sunk on the floor, reciting one of his meaningless mnemonics. But he had defeated the letter M.

The book slipped out of his hands and a faded black-and-white photo fell out. The same broken temple facing the sea, the same tall Corinthian column standing proud against the Millenia. And standing in front of it — a teenage girl, long dark hair falling into her face, her arm around the neck of a blond boy, and an unknown dad.

Smiling, carefree. But still — he was my old man. 

With a love other than my mum.

They were kissing and wore loose togas, their shoulders exposed. Their lips held something between them, their eyes closed, laughing. 

I turned the photo and saw a neat woman’s handwriting. I read it aloud, my father whispering with me, an enraptured smile on his grey face.

“Marvelous marshmallows devoured on marble floors of the Roman market at the Ides of March.” 

Five meaningless words under the dictionary’s M.

Five words, all that the enemy had left of Dad’s previous life and stayed hidden from us to the end.

I found no more about my father’s love. No letters, no more photos. Only five inane words that had meant everything to him. 

Leaving no room for Mum.

 

Jurgen Stahl is German-Australian from Adelaide, South Australia. He is a medical specialist in anatomical pathology and writes about the people who spend their lifetimes in the medical world. His work has been published in the Flash Fiction Magazine (March, September 2021) and three micro-fiction stories will appear in The Centifictionist later in September 2021. He currently works on a novel that tells a story in the world of mortuaries, drug trials and human failure in modern medicine.

Read “A Winter’s Tale” by Jurgen Stahl here!

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