It’s 7 a.m. December 31. I have the whole day off because I quit my job a couple days ago. I’m sitting on my couch, drinking coffee, looking at the Christmas tree, planning the take-down.
The phone rings. Dad?
“I tried to kill myself,” he says. My hand freezes on the phone. Waiting. “I couldn’t do it. Stevie kicked the shit out of me last night. I think he broke some ribs. I started coughing and it hurt so bad I had to get out of the truck.”
Where are you.
“I’m down at the shop.”
Listen, I’m coming down there. After I hang up, I’m going to call Trudy and ask her to call you, and when the phone rings I want you to pick it up. I want you to stay on the line with her until I get there.
“Ok.” He agrees. Meek.
I call my sister. Oh my God. Just call him keep him talking until I get there. Ok.
My girlfriend is already in the driveway warming up the truck. I bolt out the front door in my socks. The sun is blinding against the snow. It’s freezing. I put on my shoes while she backs out. Ice cracks under the tires. A left out of the neighborhood, then it’s a straight shot down a three-lane, one-way street into the industrial section west of downtown. She is methodical, careful on the slick roads. We keep hitting red lights. Past the main jail, over the tracks, take a right on the dirt road in front of his shop.
His shop is an ancient, converted train station. His decrepit blue F150 is parked in front, the only vehicle in sight. Just inside the door, he sits on a battered woodshop stool, his elbows on the pine work bench, his head sagging over the phone receiver. I put my arm around him. I take the phone. My sister’s husband gets on the line. What can I do? Urgent, but controlled. Can you come down here? Yes.
My girlfriend comes in from outside, looks at us, goes back out.
“I should have gotten drunk, like my dad did,” he says. “Then I could’ve done it.”
Probably true. After his dad died, he had to give up his job out on the airfield in Arizona, where he was fueling planes, doing what he could for the war effort. He was nineteen years old. He came back to Los Angeles to support his mother and five younger brothers and sisters, got a job making foundry patterns. Four weeks after the funeral, he spent 30 days in the Los Angeles County jail for speeding—90 miles an hour in a residential area. When his uncles fixed up the family car after his dad burned up the motor killing himself, they souped it up some. His lawyer urged leniency, pointed out that the young man was the sole support of his family. It didn’t sway the judge, whose mother been killed four years before by a drunk driver.
He got his job back after he got out of jail and lived at home for the next nine years. Two brothers and a sister were grown and gone by the time he met my mother at a Catholic Youth Organization dance and memorized her phone number. They went out for awhile and then she disappeared. A few months later he got a letter telling him that he had a daughter. They got married on the third of July and went to Palm Springs for a two-day honeymoon. I was born nine months later. My sister was barely a year old.
He’s shivering. I try to get him to drink a little water and take his new heart pill. He chokes when he sips, and I realize that he is in shock. He begs me not to take him to the emergency room. So we sit in the shop.
I can see our breath when we talk. It’s as cold in here as it is outside. Two days ago I knocked over a five-gallon can of acetone in the little out-building where I work by myself making molds and the fluid ran like a river under the room heater and hit the open flame. The building burned down. When the fire department came they turned the power off in all three buildings. No power, no heat.
He tells me what happened the night before. He was still weak, irritable—he just got out of the hospital on Christmas Eve. He yelled at his teenage stepson to quit galloping through the house and Stevie beat him up. His wife prevented him from getting a glass of water. She was drinking, like always. She and Stevie laughed at him. She told him he was getting old and useless. Early in the morning, while they were still asleep, he crept out and came down to his shop.
He gives me his suicide note. It’s addressed to me. I’m sorry to do this to you, it begins. Followed by instructions about how to dispose of his remains, what do with the business, the shop. What to give to his wife. What to give to my mother.
Through the front window I see my brother in-law outside talking to my girlfriend. Bill is walking around the truck, bending over, looking. He’s dismantling the pipe and fiberglass that my father rigged up to connect the tailpipe to the truck window; he’s hammering the hell out of it, breaking it into small pieces. Last month, I came in on a Monday morning and found PVC pipe remnants and paper cups full of hardened resin, wisps of fiberglass in my out-building. I never leave it like that, messy. Now it makes sense. He must have started mulling it over right after he got the diagnosis about his heart. When I quit, it was the last straw.
Bill finally comes in. He stands across the table from my Dad. I’m taking my Dad back to my house. My girlfriend will drive the F150. Bill will close up the shop and then follow us.
By the time Bill gets to the house, Dad is wrapped in a quilt on the sofa. I set up a space heater, aim it towards the sofa. He has some hot chocolate. Dozes.
The day wears on. He wakes up, goes back to sleep. The sun starts to go down. My sister phones, then shows up with the kids. They laugh at the dog and cat chasing each other around the rocking chair. My dad smiles, relaxed. The tree lights look pretty. It’s New Year’s Eve.