Empty Vessels

Abby N. Lewis


        Garrett Lakefield thinks he is dead, but he is just dying. I say just dying because it really isn’t that big of a deal. Now, being born, that’s a big deal. Although, more people are born in a second than those who die, which would make it seem as if dying really were a bigger deal.

        When a child is born, one of the parents gets to cut the umbilical cord and then name the wriggling, splotchy mass. Things happen all at once. People smile, laugh, take pictures. But, when someone dies, one of the parents, if it’s a relatively young person who’s died, picks out the casket and then decides on a location for the funeral. Things still happen all at once, but more slowly. People force a smile, a painful chuckle, or buy some flowers to give to the coffin-shaped remnants of the loved one.

        Garrett Lakefield knows all these things. He’s already gone through both—being born and saying goodbye to someone who is already gone. There’s a picture of a pink baby version of himself on the bookshelf in his father’s living room. Whenever Garrett used to get frustrated, he would stand in front of the picture, stare at the miniature version of himself, and clench his fists, mirroring the posture of his infant self. He always told himself this does not comfort him, but in some strange way, it does.

        Garrett’s sister died in a car crash when he was eight. She was eleven.

        He remembers the day of the funeral because it was the first and last time his father ever held his hand.

        It’s not that Garrett Lakefield’s father is dead, and that’s why he never held Garrett’s hand again. It’s that his father is not the affectionate type. And it isn’t really his father’s fault. He is doing what fathers do, what his father thought all men were supposed to do. That’s why Garrett started visiting the baby picture. It allowed him to do what he feels his father cannot.

        or Garrett, anger is the most powerful emotion. Some may argue that it’s love, but that’s only because they like to believe the best in people. Garrett used to think the strongest emotion was love, but now he knows the anger from the loss of his sister will never be rivaled by any other feeling. This knowledge terrifies him.

        Perhaps that’s why Garrett Lakefield’s father is the way he is, because he let the anger consume him. Garrett still tries his best to be understanding. He wanted to grow up with the man his father was at this best, the one who held his hand at the funeral, but Garrett knows that to always demand the best of someone is unrealistic. Still, he would at least like his father to show more of an effort instead of sitting in the garage all day, methodically stringing and restringing the same three wooden guitars, which he hasn’t played in ten years—since a few months before Garrett’s sister died.

        Garrett misses the way his father used to smile when he played. He would bend his knees and rock back and forth as if he were strumming his guitar and riding a skateboard at the same time.

        Those were the last three guitars his father made. After the accident, his father hung the guitars above his workbench in the garage. They looked like empty cyclopes made from the remains of a sunken ship that once held a hero. Now that hero resides outside the world he created, stripped of his confidence. 


        The car crash was an accident. Garrett’s father had been on his way to drop off one of the guitars at a client’s house. Garrett’s sister was with him; she had a dentist’s appointment that day. As they were backing out of the driveway, a car sped around the corner and hit the passenger’s side of his father’s vehicle with such force the vehicle wrapped itself around that of the other in a passionate embrace. Garrett’s sister was killed instantly. His father had only a few scrapes and a cut across his brow, now a permanent scar.

        It was a closed-casket funeral. The coffin was made of simple white pinewood. It was so unadorned that the Garrett it looked unfinished. It reminded him of his father’s guitars in the early stages, nothing but harsh edges and the faint smell of sawdust.

        As he thinks back on it, Garrett Lakefield is struck by the metaphorical implications that, in a way, the seemingly unfinished casket housed the remains of his sister’s seemingly unfulfilled life. But he knows he cannot call his sister’s life unfulfilled any more than he can his father’s, no matter how true the statement appears to be. It is their decision, not his, to determine how full their lives were—or are, in his father’s case.

        The guitar that survived the crash, a deep mahogany-colored acoustic, now hangs above his father’s workbench. When his father sits down at his bench each day, the guitar hovers directly above his head, nestled between the other two. Garrett does not know why his father insists on torturing himself this way.


        They have not mentioned her to each other since her death. It’s like she never even existed. Garrett cannot even say her name to himself. She is simply “sister” in his mind when he thinks about her.

        Garrett often thinks about waking up early one morning, stealing the Cyclops guitar, and selling it at some pawn shop. He is convinced the hollow eye of the guitar is sucking all the joy out of his father each morning, feeding on the sorrow it has caused.


        Garrett Lakefield is sprawled in a bathtub full of beer. Not beer bottles on ice, but actual, liquid beer, poured out of their respective containers and into the tub in the same manner one pours soap into a bath.

        The music of the party pounds below him. Garrett lifts one leg out of the tub and watches as the booze drips from his jeans before removing his shoe and pouring the contents into his mouth. He wonders what the max is for alcohol consumption, convinced he surpassed it long ago. The room around him seems to tilt. He grips the porcelain side of the tub.

        He assumes he is dying. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, now that he thinks about it, but there’s something he has to do first. He has been planning this for weeks—not getting drunk, that was merely a way to combat the nerves, but the other thing. Garrett Lakefield’s father deserves a full life, and Garrett intends to help; he has intended to help ever since that first day his father sat at his workbench beneath the Cyclops and its two sisters, his shoulders level with his ears, as if he were carrying the weight of an invisible body strung around his neck like some heavy fur scarf. His father has been smothering himself, and he does not even know it, so Garrett places his shoe back on his foot and stands as best he can. He steps out of the tub, leaning his forearm against the wall to support the unnatural weight as the excess beer pours from his clothes. He pauses on the bathmat, waits until the room catches up with him. After a few minutes, he sloshes his way to the door.

        The staircase pretends it’s longer than it is, which causes him to trip on the last few steps and collide with the wall. Garrett looks around. The rest of the party is oblivious to his sudden reappearance—for the moment. He begins to make his way to the door. His shoes seem to mold to the carpet with each step. His left foot gives a loud squelch when he lifts it. Heads turn his way, and Garrett can’t help but think, this is how a beached octopus must feel. Price, the host of the party, sees Garrett’s dripping mess and starts to yell. Garrett lurches to the front door, ignoring Price, who is caught against the tide of his many guests.

        Garrett fumbles with his keys at the car before nearly falling into the driver’s seat. He is a third of the way to his father’s house when he realizes the headlights are off. The car drifts into the median as he searches for the switch. The lights click on. At the same time, he is blinded by the headlights of another car turning the corner ahead. Garrett jerks the wheel at the last second, and he is back in his lane. The other car whizzes by; its shrill horn lingers long after the vehicle is gone. 

        His sister was the glue that held their family together. Their mother died giving birth to Garrett, and her death crushed his father. In agony, Garrett’s father turned to his daughter for support: she was the most precious thing in the world, the last living embodiment of his wife’s essence. He pampered her and confided in her in the way adults rarely confide with their children. Garrett was the black sheep to his father, but Garrett’s sister loved him. She loved both of them.

        He pulls into his father’s driveway—his driveway too, really, when he is home from college. His jeans are beginning to dry. They are cold and stiff. Garrett Lakefield wonders for a moment if he is already dead, if he left his real body comatose in the bathtub of beer. Perhaps this Garrett is nothing more than a ghost. Nevertheless, real or not, Garrett gets out of the car.

        It is there in the garage, above his father’s workbench. 

        He crosses to the bench and steps from the chair to the table to reach the Cyclops. The guitar scrapes the wall as he lifts it, and the chair creaks on his descent, but those small noises no longer matter.

        Garrett Lakefield holds the guitar in his hands, looks into the eye. He brushes the back of his knuckle across the strings. The sound echoes, hollow, a within reverberating without—an empty call into the void behind the eye.

        Calmly, Garrett grasps the neck and hoists the Cyclops above his head He stands frozen for a time, his silhouette that of an executioner.

        His father comes alive in answer to the noise. Feet move about Garrett’s head, then on the stairs to his right. There is the sound of a hand at the door, and then there is his father’s face, frightened. Garrett Lakefield wants to tell his father he no longer has anything to fear. The remains of the Cyclops are a scattered offering at his father’s feet.

        Garrett searches his father’s face as it searches the wreckage on the floor. “Say something,” he says.

        His father moves from the doorway and picks up a crescent piece of the Cyclops eye. He brings it close to his face, as if he does not yet recognize what it is.

        Garrett’s legs feel rubbery and weak. They tremble beneath him. He sits on the floor and draws his knees up to his chest, encircling them with one arm. He reaches out and touches some of the wooden shards of the guitar around him. They clink against the cement floor of the garage. He feels like a child who has just thrown a tantrum and is now waiting, tense with fear, to be punished. 

        Garrett wished he could hug his father. He wishes they could lift the two remaining Cyclopses off the wall and strum them, turn them back into guitars, vessels of hope, love. He wishes he could tell his father that he hears his sister’s voice in his head all the time, that she still teases him about the peculiar way he combs his hair. He wishes he could cry on his father’s shoulder, that he could tell him he would bring them both back if he could. 

        Instead, he settles for asking a question: “Why did you stop making guitars?”

        After a long silence, his father takes in a breath that seems to rattle through his lungs, as if he had not spoken in months. “It just . . . after your sister died, I never found the same comfort in working with wood as I used to.”

        Garrett nods as if he understands, even though he doesn’t. He looks down at the conquered Cyclops. Destroying it had not made Garrett feel better, but it had eased the splintering pain in his heart.

        Perhaps that was enough. To have a father who is there. To have had a sister—even for the briefest of times—was enough to keep him from drowning himself in alcohol. 

        Garrett Lakefield looks at his father. He is clean-shaven—there is a bit of stubble, but Garrett did just wake his father up in the middle of the night, so the shadow is nothing more than that night’s growth. The scar above his father’s eye has healed nicely; it’s little more than a slightly darker shade of pink on his brow. In certain lighting, the mark probably disappears altogether. If his father, the man who had been in the car beside her when it happened—who had been there at the hospital as his wife died—if that man could hold himself together so well, then so could Garrett. 

        Perhaps, Garrett thinks, we could find something that we both find comfort in doing. Sohe takes a chance.

        He walks over and removes the second guitar from above his father’s workbench. It leaves a ghostly outline on the wall. Garrett brushes the dust from the neck of the guitar and settles it on his knee. He strums a few chords. 

        His father seems to startle at the noise, but only for a moment. He walks over to stand in front of his son; he listens for a while. “It’s decent,” his father says, “but it could be better. Try it like this.” His father takes the guitar from him and begins to strum it himself. Garrett smiles and retrieves the third guitar from the wall. Perhaps they do not need to talk to heal. Perhaps they need only listen to the song of the other’s sorrow.

        They sit facing each other, knees almost touching, playing for hours. The sun could have emerged and set numerous times, and neither of them would have noticed. In fact, if you were to ask them later, they would tell you that days probably did pass as they sat there, nestled in the belly of the garage. There were times, they would say, when they could hear a woman singing. The son swayed as he strummed and listened to her voice. And the father stood, bent slightly at the knees, balancing on an invisible skateboard as he played.


Abby N. Lewis is a poet from Dandridge, Tennessee. She earned her associate’s from Walters State Community College, where she received the faculty award in creative writing, and her BA in English from East Tennessee State University in 2017. Reticent, her first poetry collection, was published by Grateful Steps in 2016. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Timber, Cheat River Review, The Mockingbird, Red Mud Review, and Sanctuary, among others. Her chapbook, This Fluid Journey, will be published by Finishing Line Press in September 2018.

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