Mr. Breslaw’s Parting Shot

by Emily M. Z. Carlyle

When Mr. Breslaw started prophesying, his family realized he could speak again. At first they were relieved he was recovering from the stroke which had left him as helpless, incontinent, and inarticulate as a small child, but then they heard what he had to say and were no longer happy.

“Father, if you don’t stop scaring the neighbors like some fire and brimstone preacher, I’ll lock you up, and Timmy will not take you out for any more walks, do you hear me?”

Mr. Breslaw’s daughter Hannah was an angry woman who had never gotten over her husband’s desertion. Her son Timmy was a shy lad of fifteen. Hannah had high hopes that Timmy would win a basketball scholarship and escape their squalid hometown huddled in the shadow of old steel mills.

Mr. Breslaw had worked in those mills his whole life. It baffled him how his daughter failed to realize the joy that sprouted quietly inside him at the thought that his withered body was not quite as obsolete and inert as the metal husks of those huge factories, bankrupt and closed for over a decade. He did not, however, trouble to explain this to her:the doctor’s opinion was that he had recovered barely sixty percent of his speech capacity; he had far more important things to say before he died.

“My dear Hannah, all I tell them is truth,”he informed his daughter mildly. “Mrs. Lesnik will suffer a fatal heart attack before the year is out if she goes on eating like a famine victim. As for old Miss Sroka, the only reason she started threatening the children with eternal damnation if they make noise after dark is that she can no longer menace them with Fs, now that the elementary school has finally persuaded her to retire. If anyone on this street thinks they have power over fire and brimstone, it is her, not me.”

Hannah Breslaw banged the breakfast dishes so hard two large pink curlers popped out of the mass of black hair piled on top of her head and rolled under the refrigerator. “Oh, go to your room, Father, and don’t let me see you until it’s time for lunch!” she screamed.”Thank goodness Mother didn’t live to see you turn into a raving madman!” Mr.Breslaw’s wheelchair whirred obediently out of the kitchen.

The door to Timmy’s room was open, so he propelled the wheelchair in that direction.

Timmy certainly had the height and build to make a fine basketball player.His room was dutifully decorated with posters of NBA stars. His gear,which Hannah washed with religious care, hung limply in the closet like an abandoned skin. The boy shoved a large notebook under the crumpled bedspread as his grandfather’s form filled the lower part of the doorway like the silhouette of a sinister fairy-tale king on a mobile throne. “Whassup, Gramps?”

Mr. Breslaw raised his bushy gray eyebrows at the boy. “Why did you hide the math book?”

Timmy pretended not to understand, but Mr. Breslaw saw the boy’s throat tighten. “So you still haven’t told your mother you want to take intermediate calculus, have you?” the old man asked amicably.

The boy’s shoulders sagged. He grinned. “Stupid, huh, to think I could hide anything from your all-seeing eye, Gramps.” His tone was affectionate.He fished the notebook from under the bedspread. Mr. Breslaw knew nothing about calculus, but that did not prevent him from perceiving his grandson’s silent passion for mathematics, as well as his dread at the thought of his jock friends or overly ambitious mother finding out about his love of integrals.

“Why don’t you tell her, Timothy? I’m sure there are universities that would give you money to do equations.”

Timmy shrugged. “Basketball’s OK,” he said, not looking at his grandfather. “Math is easy, you know? I just look at the stuff, and I get it somehow. And basketball … I like it, but other guys are good at it, too. You know?”

Mr. Breslaw watched the boy closely. Slowly a smile incised deep lines across the side of his face that was not largely paralyzed. “You are a very lucky boy, Timmy, to have two things that make you happy: one because you find it easy, the other because you have to work at it. And you are doubly lucky to know the difference between the two, yet love them both the same.”

Timmy was startled. He had not suspected for an instant that Mr. Breslaw had gone off the deep end when the old man started predicting imminent death to fat Mrs. Lesnik or dropping uncomfortable hints about Timmy’s secret life as a nerd. Yet he had never before heard his grandfather sound so much like a kindly, eccentric martial-arts master from one of his beloved kung fu movies. “Are you OK, Gramps?” he asked warily.

Before Mr. Breslaw could reply, the lithe form of his daughter-in-law emerged from the dim corridor. “There you are, Papa,” Marion said cheerfully.”Hannah asked me to take you upstairs for a nap.”

Mr. Breslaw was not in the least sleepy but did not protest when Marion backed his wheelchair out of Timmy’s room. Ignoring the little engine the old man used for propelling the wheelchair around the house, she pushed him to the stairs and strapped the wheelchair onto the ramp attached to the railing with all of youth’s enthusiasm for doing things the hard way. She was only five years older than Timmy. Mr. Breslaw wondered if the teenager’s shyness was not due partly to the young woman’s vibrant sexuality.

The wheelchair preceded Marion into the bedroom at the end of the upstairs hall.Hannah had moved her father into that room after his wife’s death,taking the bedroom overlooking the tiny lawn for herself and her husband. A few months later she found herself without a husband, but kept the master bedroom.

“Here we go.” Marion parked Mr. Breslaw near the window, where he could feel the early autumn sunshine on his wrinkled face. “Would you like me to read you the papers until lunchtime?”

Reluctantly Mr. Breslaw turned away from the sun and took in his daughter-in-law’s smile. The corner of his mouth, over which he had full control, described a lopsided grin. He reached for her; in his arthritic, liver-spotted hand, hers looked as soft and fragile as a bird nestled on an ancient branch.

“Dear Marion,” he crooned. “I think of all the members of this godforsaken family, I like you best.”

Marion laughed, and Mr. Breslaw wondered again why this wonderful creature had married his pale son, fifteen years her senior and a lowly manager at the local convenience store, to boot. Marion may have been a high-school dropout, but she reminded Mr. Breslaw of a story his grandmother told him when he was a tiny lad in a faraway land of forests and mountains whose thick accent he still sported after so many years in America, a land of squalid poverty he, unlike so many émigrés of his generation,felt far too old and experienced to idealize. The story concerned a princess who sought her fortune in the world disguised in a donkey skin.

“You are a shameless flatterer, Papa!” Marion gently extricated her hand from Mr. Breslaw’s and went to the window. “Shall I close the curtains? Maybe you’d like to nap after all….”

“My dear, why should I sleep when I will be dead before the sun sets?”

Marion turned and favored her father-in-law with a look of such intense concentration he knew he had her undivided attention. “Come, sit by me.Let us talk frankly.”

She sat on the edge of the single bed. Mr. Breslaw activated the engine on his wheelchair and maneuvered the ungainly contraption until he and the girl sat close enough for their knees to touch.

“How can you be sure?” Marion asked finally.

“Why did you marry my son, dear?” Mr. Breslaw countered. Marion stared in mild shock. “You do not love him,” the old man went on. “You will love someone else very soon.”

“I am faithful to Paul!” she cried indignantly.

Mr. Breslaw patted her knee and she broke off.”I know. What I said was that you will love someone else. You are very young; why rush and marry my son?”

“Because…” She faltered, looked down at her pale yellow slippers. Paul had been her boss, but Mr. Breslaw knew she would not proffer that as a reason.Though hardly accomplished, she was intelligent enough not to stoop to inane excuses.

“You are a treasure, Marion,” he said tenderly. “Very soon you will see that for yourself. All I ask is that you are not too cruel when you leave my son, and look in on Hannah once in a while. She has been drinking more than usual.”

Marion’s head shot up; her blue eyes were clear and liquid, like a baby’s. “So it’s true,” she whispered. “You have become a prophet.”

“No, my dear. I merely say what I see, and you would see the same if only you used your eyes. But prophets need to be believed, and nobody believes the very old or very young.”

Marion burst into tears: her hands lay in her lap as warm, salty water bathed her delicate face, so extraordinary in this steel town, while slow tremors passed through her narrow shoulders as though they were tiny dormant volcanoes.

“Don’t cry, dear,” Mr. Breslaw soothed. “Stay with me, so I won’t be afraid.”

“Why?” Marion sniffed and looked up: the old man was staring fixedly at the blank wall beside the window full of honeyed light. Infinity curved in his eyes. She leaned forward, drinking in his dazed wonder. “What do you see?” she asked tremulously.

“Something … I do not recognize,” came the halting response.

Marion wrapped her young hands around the old man’s crooked fingers. She knelt on the floor beside his wheelchair, wept and kissed his gnarled, rigid hands until her throat felt like sandpaper.

She went downstairs in the early chill of an autumn morning and told Timmy.While Hannah telephoned Paul at the store, sobbing incoherently, and Timmy cajoled her into letting him call the town’s only funeral parlor,Marion went into the small bedroom she shared with her husband and sat thinking about the person she would love very soon.

She supposed it would be a man, a man for whom she would leave her husband,a stranger in town possibly, but she couldn’t be sure. Mr. Breslaw had not been specific, so she considered other possibilities. In a moment of insight that sprang from the solid diamond core of her being, which Mr. Breslaw had seen so clearly, she decided to pick up a home pregnancy test next time she went to the mall by the Interstate, where nobody knew her. Just in case.


Bio: Emily M. Z. Carlyle’s fiction has appeared in Thirteen Magazine and Dead Men(and Women) Walking, an anthology from Bards & Sages; she also has work forthcoming in Ghoti Magazine. She is from Europe and currently earns a meager living as a graduate student in Maryland.

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