“What do you see, Dad?”
My father, stretched out in the beat-up, plaid recliner like the corpse he very nearly was, had his face to the window. The lower half of him covered by a thin throw, his position had not changed in the past several hours and his clouded, unblinking eyes had the fixed stare of a sphinx.
“He don’t see nuthin’.”
I resisted the urge to tell Ken, my sister’s latest distraction, that here, even in these more southern United States, the official language was English and, when it was spoken properly, real communication could occur. He lumbered over to the darkening glass to further endow his rudimentary assessment with meaning.
“Ain’t nuthin’ to look at besides that ol’ tree.”
Well, there you go, I didn’t say, a tree, old or otherwise is, in fact, something to look at and Ken, when was the last time you showered or washed those clothes? Ken answered my unasked question with a low, reverberant belch and even (such delight, on my part) scratched at the back seam of his dirty jeans. I felt, I imagined, a little like Margaret Meade.
“Guess I’ll get me a beer. You want one?”
“Not for me, thanks, but you go ahead. Enjoy yourself.”
Ken looked at me with suspicion, the way a dog might when you’re trying to coax him into the car for a visit to the vet; or, when you need to take him out in the back to shoot him. There Ken, nice Ken, here you go, boy.
“I’ll enjoy myself, all right,” he said, still eying me. “Don’t you worry about that.”
I swept him out of the room with the biggest, brightest smile I could muster.
“Thanks for coming to the death watch,” Karen said.
She meant it sincerely and I appreciated that. My sister and I had had our run-ins over the years but, generally speaking, we cared for one another and openly acknowledged our kinship. Our mother had passed almost three years before, quickly, of cancer. I’d been in Cleveland, of all places, with a client, when she’d called. Cleveland is, I think, perhaps the place everyone should be when their mother dies. The geographic redundancy is somehow oddly soothing.
“I really like Ken,” I said.
“No, I do. He’s really something…special.”
Karen looked at me with just the beginning of an angry stare before a wide, white smile split her face.
“He can open a jar,” she said.
“I’ll just bet he can,” I answered. “Probably change the oil, too.”
“I don’t know about that,” Karen said. “We haven’t made it to a three thousand mile check-up just yet.”
A small sound came from our father and we both turned to look but...nothing further. The window he still faced had turned black with the oncoming night and I got up and drew the curtain, just as our mother had, every night of her life.
“Good to be home,” I said, mimicking her memory, “home and healthy, everyone safe and sound.”
“Do you think she loved Dad?” Karen asked me.
Now on the far side of the recliner, when she moved in toward Dad, I stepped forward to join her.
“She tried to,” I said.
I had no ready proof of my statement other than how else does a couple stay together, almost sixty years, in a house as small as this one?
“You won’t believe what he said to me when he was still talking.”
My sister reached down and pulled the blanket up around Dad’s chest, fixing it with her fingers into his armpits. Watching her, I thought I might break down. I could feel the blood rise in my neck and into my ears. “Look at his ears, look at his ears!” My sister used to point at me after she’d gotten me so mad I couldn’t see straight. “They’re going to bust into flame!”
I answered her just so I wouldn’t start bawling.
“What? Tell me.”
“I put him to bed and asked did he need anything. He took forever to answer me, made me mad in fact, taking his time, because I was tired. And then he just said, ‘Your mother.’”
Well, dammit, then I had every right to cry and Karen reached across over top of Dad and put her hands on my shoulders. I lifted my arms in kind and put my hands up on hers.
“We’re about to be orphans,” she said.
“I guess so,” I managed.
I wiped my eyes on my shoulder, one side then the other, at the same time brushing against my sister’s wrists with my lips.
“I’ve already done my crying,” she said.
“I’m catching up,” I said.
We listened while in the kitchen the refrigerator door opened and shut.
“Don’t worry,” Karen assured me, “he isn’t spending the night.”
I went through a rolodex of clever retorts and then, just said, “Thanks.”
I stood near the old tree the next day and wondered if Dad was still looking and, if he was still looking, could he tell that it was me? I’d climbed this thing hundreds of times, often just ahead of our collie-mix, Hecky, after I’d worked the poor dog up into a lather. It was either Hecky or that other dog we had whose name has left me…Digger? I think his name was Digger. Holes all over the yard and Dad hitting at him with a rolled-up newspaper.
“Whaddaya see from up there?”
Dad asked me that when he’d come home from one job and on his way to another, staying long enough to change his shirt and get something to eat. I’d answer any old thing.
“The ocean,” I’d say or, “New York City!”
“New York City,” Dad repeated.
He leaned his back against the tree, too tired to stand.
“You see that big monkey on top of the Empire State?”
I put my hand up flat over my eyebrows, like sailors and explorers did.
“Yup, I see him.”
We’d sat one Saturday afternoon together, watching King Kong on the tv. He was supposed to go to work but then said he wasn’t going to, that he was going to stay home with me and watch this terrific movie. He used the word “terrific” and didn’t look at my mother. Mom told him that he’d probably lose his job if he did and he’d told her he supposed so. “Just a Saturday job,” he said. “I’ll get another.”
And he did lose that one and he did get another.
Karen had done the leg work and signed all the necessary papers weeks before and that’s why we didn’t take Dad to the hospital. The people that came to help were just what my sister said they were, angels, with official sounding titles, simple uniforms and bags filled with all the right things.
“A couple of drops under his tongue, every thirty minutes or so. For pain.”
When the angel left we gently argued about who would be first.
“I’m oldest,” Karen said.
I felt I should try to match her obvious statement.
“I’m the only son.”
“How about we both stay up until one of us gets tired?”
That’s what we did. Karen fixed a great dinner that I helped with and we ate in the living room with Dad. When Ken came by, she cut him off at the pass; he never even made it onto the porch. I hummed to myself, the Star Spangled Banner actually, so I wouldn’t hear his Neanderthal mumblings. After, Karen and I played cards, 500” rummy, and she beat me just like she always used to when we were growing up. Except my ears didn’t get red.
It was close to midnight when Karen said she was going up. I didn’t tell her that I was about to say the same thing and, instead, acted wide awake and glad for the opportunity.
“Come get me if, you know…”
“And come get me anyway in a couple of hours. You need to get some sleep, too.”
“The couch is fine,” I said.
“No it’s not.”
I’d never divulged to her my affinity for couches. Sometimes, in my condo, I actually planned a night on the couch so that, among other reasons, the job of making the bed first thing was moot. No need to mention the stinging accusation from my ex-wife who, with angry tears in her eyes (I was so sorry), shouted, “You like to sleep on the couch!”
“Good night,” Karen said.
“Good night, big sister.”
Hours earlier, the angel named Dana had administered the first drops partly as a demonstration but also because Dad was fussing, the first real movements out of him for a couple of days.
“There’s no way to know,” Dana said, “but he could probably use it.”
I got the gist of it but then had to look away. Even from an angel, it was too kind a gesture for me to bear. But now, as Dad’s hands moved in the air above his chest, I went for the small brown bottle. His neck muscles strained slightly, as though he was trying to rise.
“It’s all right, Dad, it’s me. I’m going to put a couple of these drops under your tongue…”
Dana had said to do that, to talk to him just as if he was conscious.
“They do understand,” she said.
His teeth were coated. The tops of his bottom teeth, from years of Viceroys, were a curve of brown circles and stood in perfect order, like small organ pipes. They were all still his own, he liked to brag. Though his breath was bad it was like a bad but bearable, natural smell, a smell in nature; not at all like a bad, human smell.
Dad’s reaction to the drops was almost instantaneous and I was glad for that. I went into the kitchen and turned the light on over the stove. Then, back in the living room, I turned every light off. The bleed from the kitchen light was perfect. I settled in on the couch and, from my own recline, looked out across Dad’s contours. Then I got up and opened the curtains that, this time, Karen had closed. The tree was out there somewhere, but I couldn’t see it.
Standing in the kitchen doorway, I blinked away sleep. I don’t know about the dark night of the human soul but it was, in fact, precisely 3 a.m. Back in the living room, Dad’s hands were going again, raised above his chest, though not quite so high as before. The foray into the kitchen had stolen my night vision, so I waited a moment, on my knees, before leaning in with the dropper.
“Dad, it’s me again, with some more drops.”
I steadied his chin with my left hand, feeling the stubble there and started squeezing the bulb of the dropper. Too fast, too fast but I finished up anyway and as I started to turn away, Dad coughed. The liquid must have run back into his throat.
“Sorry, Dad, I’m so sorry…”
I slid my arm in under his shoulders and raised him, just a little. I felt only bones against my arm, no flesh at all and, after two more, quiet coughs, he was done. I gently lowered him.
“There you go, Dad. I won’t do that again, I promise. That was bad. I just squirted, stupid…”
His hands had come down to a place alongside of him. When Dad was himself, he liked to sit with one arm crossed and the other up, with a hand under his chin. He’d leave the hand there or rub at the bridge of his nose with it or, maybe, pull at an earlobe. I tended to do that too, the earlobe thing.
“I do things that you did, Dad.”
I leaned in to study him, to listen to the breath that came so slowly now and with so much effort.
“There’s nothing to say, Dad, but I mean all of it.”
Just foolishness, he would tell me, nothing but foolishness. I was beginning to cry a little.
“You just go when you need to, Dad. Karen and I will be all right. We’ll be all right.”
Outside the window, the sky had lightened by a single degree. The tree stood out in shadowy relief. Its bare branches etched out the x-ray of a human lung. I leaned in, very close.
“You were a good father, Dad. Go ahead now. Go ahead.”
The next morning, two men came out to pick up the body. I was outside, standing near the tree when they drove up. Karen had made the most delicious coffee and I was reveling in the fact that here, in the outside, you could stand with your morning cup and enjoy it and no one in the wide world knew anything about it, or judged you for it.
The men were dressed neatly, in dark suits and Karen, perfect soul that she was, held open the screen door and cheerfully waved them in. One raised a hand to her in greeting and then they went to the back of their vehicle and extracted a dolly. They lowered its wheels. Strapped under its tresses was a pristine, black bag. The two men handled the dolly expertly, each of them pausing to say, though I could only hear every other word, that they were truly sorry for our loss. After they had entered Karen found me, out by the tree and waved. I raised my cup to her.
We stood the morning that our father died, orphans like she’d said, looking to one another, until the thing inside the house took her away and I was left, by the tree, alone.