The Last Time, I Think
Nov. 4, in the morning
The day is cold and clear.
It's an inauspicious morning, I feel. For a few years now, I've watched the mountain's shadows shrink away, and drank my tea by the window sill- there is a spider who shares my apartment, and he is sitting here with me, skittering back and forth. He seems elated- could it be that his eggs have hatched?
With me, I have a local rag that only costs me a few dollars a month to deliver. The newspaper is in the business of depressing me, I think. There was an earthquake in California. Forty four gone, and the loss of a popular hotdog stand, God bless them all. There were gunshots heard on 27th, and a new Italian restaurant has opened about a block away from me. I find it more encouraging than perhaps I should. I like linguini. I put the paper down, and cup my cup of tea. It is late in the year, and I can appreciate the warmth.
From my window, I can see snow falling. Some fraction of an inch of glass is keeping my body warm, and yet I feel the season breathing just outside my door. I don't feel like making my self any breakfast- the best thing to do now is just watch what little nature I have in my lawn. I can feel a poem trying to spring to mind, but it catches in the back of my mind when my phone rings.
"Are you awake?" There's a stinging note of impatience in a woman's voice. I feel disappointed, because I know it is my stepmother.
"Well good. Your father's in the hospital- get packed. He says he wants to see you."
"I'll be there, mom."
"That's right you will be. Do you still have a car?"
"What about gas, can you pay for that?"
"Of course, mom."
"Then hurry up." And she hangs up the phone. Left alone in my apartment again, I run my hand along the window. The glass is astonishingly cold, and outside, I can see a squirrel licking the snow from his haunch. He seems put out.
Nov. 4, after driving for a little while.
The day is slightly cloudy, but the sun breaks through.
The ride down is unspectacular, and though clouds creep nervously close to the sun, they don't dare cover her. I listen to a lot of music- I keep it loud, to cover the noise my car likes to make- but it doesn't lift my mood any. There's a dead rabbit by the side of the highway, which seems a little out of season.
The hotel I stay in is cheap. I look around for another spider to be friends with, but it seems the maids are diligent in their housekeeping. Good for them- hard work is an important part of life, and as I remember this, I feel a little embarrassed. The feeling passes as I lay down, and turn the TV on. Feeling unaccomplished, I turn, and nap. Stealing naps like these with no one to punish me is called "cat napping", and I think about that as I fall asleep.
In my dream, a girl holds up a melon to me, saying "This is a good one." When I tell her that it is, she giggles. When I ask her how old she is, she stretches out all five fingers. Rachel was my treasure, and when I remember her, I jar myself awake.
The day stops. When I wake, it is night, and I just go back to sleep.
There are clouds out today.
In the morning, I get out of bed, and yawn. The shower is cold, so I don't stay in it long, and my hair is not completely shampooed. It's colder still when I get out, and look into the grayness of the day. A poem springs to mind, but it is not mine. I can't think of where I've heard it before.
No talent and
A winter day.
Satisfied, I get my things and my keys, and I leave. I come back, and pay, and then I leave again. On my way out to the car, I see a cricket, and ask it what it could possibly be doing this late in the year. It answers by going about its business, hurridly, hurridly.
This time, I don't have to drive as far. The waffle house I stop at smells like heavy sweat and cigarettes. I can see the waitress working hard, with long shadows under her eyes- it's been forever since she's slept. I feel a little ashamed of myself, and then order blueberries with my waffle. As I eat, I reflect on the fact that I haven't talked to my stepmother since our conversation over the phone, and I wonder how sick my father truly is. Am I walking into something? Another of her traps?
There's nothing to think about. Better to go and be punished than to let father writhe in misery with only his wife to comfort him, right? Either way, There are still two hours of driving ahead of me. I thank the waitress on my way out- as defeated people go, she holds herself well. Very pretty.
It's almost colder than I expect, on the outside, and my car doesn't want to start at first. It's not a cheap car, but I've been hard on it, and the old thing has been with me a long time. To hear it start is a pleasant surprise, and to get it up and running in cold weather is nothing short of divine aid, I think- I've been trying to get a replacement engine for a few years now, but the money comes slow.
Nov 5. Later, in the afternoon
The day is softening. I can hear the wind outside.
When I arrive at the hospital, my stepmother is not there- I find only a thin old man, his hands curled in prayer, and his head weakly bowed to the evening sun. He's half asleep, and for a moment, I feel afraid to wake him, in case my presence might make him feel worse. It is too late- he attempts a smile.
"Hi Dad," I say.
"You're here," he said back. "Maybe God is watching me after all?"
"You look like you've had a rough couple of days."
He waves me off with a hand. "I've been fine, I've been fine. The doctor and your stepmother have been taking good care of me. I only wish I'd seen you sooner, when I was actually sick."
"Well, I'm here now. I hope you get to feeling better."
"Yes." He nods. "Yes, me too."
I turn away, so Dad doesn't see me cringe.
The day is overcast, but not especially cold.
I stay through the night with my father, keeping him company. My stepmother doesn't appear, though I feel it completely within her power to do so. Just as well. Dad doesn't need anymore stress. The doctor is glad I'm here, and asks me to take a good watch over his patient, which I agree to- and a nurse arrives, carrying something bitter which she shoves up under Dad's nose. He doesn't fight it, but I can tell he detests whatever medicine has been prescribed to him.
Occasionally, I walk outside the room when I think Dad is asleep, and I hear him coughing. Though he says he is feeling better, I can't escape some nervous impulse that maybe he is not alright, and I stay by his side because of it. I get no sleep.
At just around noon, I am getting tired, but my anxiousness keeps me alert. My stepmother calls, and tells me that she's on her way- she takes until noon to show up. The wait is muffled with silence, peppered only by the sounds of the passing nurses and the beeping of far off machines that are beyond my ability to understand. Seeing them work makes me a little depressed.
My father's wife greets me with a brisk nod, and a demand to know where Dad is- I point the way, wondering how she could have forgotten. When she arrives she gives him a peck on the cheek, and asks if he's feeling any better than the couple of days before. He answers her truthfully, that he has had some chest pain, but nothing more- the doctors are expecting a long recovery, and he will be laid up for a month or so.
"A month?" she howls. "A month? Who will feed this family, hmm? Who will take care of the house? Jeremy is too busy, and what does Paul do? You can't be out for a month."
I try to console her, telling her that I would take father's place for the month.
"Like that will do any good." She says. "You lazy-ass. You haven't made a penny in your life, have you?" I anxiously scratch my neck. "I suppose you expect me to feed you during your stay?"
I hang my head, and nod. She turns her ire back on my father, and we endure it for an hour or so before she tells us that she has an appointment with a stylist, and must be off. Dad and I share a look, and then gaze out the window.
The rest of the day is unremarkable.
The day is overcast again, with a little snow.
I spend the night awake again, occasionally gazing over to see how Dad is doing- aside from the occasional cough, he seems fine. It isn't a troubled sleep. I'm happy to see the morning sun, casting long shadows and painting the sterile white room a deep, resonant red. A fly has gotten into the room, and I watch him wander aimlessly around the stale air, eventually settling down on my fathers arm, folding his little hands in prayer. He looked a little skinny. It's a stupid world, with skinny flies and skinny fathers.
The nurse comes in once the morning has fully broken. She looks exasperated and looks at me painfully. "Here," she says. "Can you give him his medicine? Just makes sure he drinks the whole cap full. I've gotta finish up my shift here."
I ask her why she's in such a rush- her daughter needs to be taken to school. For a moment, I feel very profound. I tell her that I know how she feels, and she smiles at me disbelievingly, beautifully.
Dad grumbles and turns in his sleep, not even stirring when I shake his shoulder. I urge him to wake up, but he just moans into his pillow, and pushes my arm away. I tell him I have the medicine.
"That stuff is bitter. It tastes like shit."
I urge him to take it.
"Leave me alone. Can't you see I'm in pain?"
He groans again, and clutches his chest and looks very pathetic. My nerves are frazzled, and I feel a desperation welling up in my stomach. "Dad," I say. "You have to take it. Come on, now. Tilt your head up. I'll get you some tea. It'll wash the taste right out."
"I don't want tea." He says. "I want coffee."
"I'll get you coffee."
He struggles a little with me, but eventually he empties the lid.
The day is snowing slightly.
Dad is doing worse- today he was asking for some whisky. The doctor has expressly forbidden it, so I'm not likely to give him any- but his pleading has gone on for a while now. I asked a friend about it earlier, and he said to let the old man have a drink. It's not like he has much time to live anyway, right? Despite his suggestion, I'm hesitant.
My stepmother returns around noon. Seeing her, Dad is distressed, a little delirious. She calms him down by saying that Jeremy called, and is on the phone. Though Jeremy and I are brothers, we've never gotten along. I supposed early on that it had to do with his mother being my stepmother. More likely, we were just vicious enemies in a past life.
"Hey, pop." I can hear him say. "How's it going? You feeling alright?"
My dad answers that he is, but coughs and clutches his chest. Worry sparks.
"So what have they got you taking, huh?"
I can see the wheels turning as my Dad attempts to answer that question, or at least pronounce the answer properly. I read the label on the bottle of the medicine. I could feel Jeremy's smile through the phone. If cats could go to medical school, then certainly you could imagine that face.
"What? No, no, no… No father of mine is taking that stuff. Take it from me, you'll be dead within a week…" And he went on like that for a few minutes, criticizing the medical system, criticizing the medicine, saying all sorts of things about the hospital and what was wrong with the doctors. He gave my dad a suggestion, and told him to tell the physicians to give him some different sort of medicine. My mother immediately grabbed the arm of a nurse out in the hall, and made the request.
I was tired. My father, feeling guilty for how little sleep I'd been getting, told me to go home with my stepmother, and catch up on some sleep. I told him that I'd be alright, but he insisted, saying that I wouldn't miss anything. We hugged, and he coughed again. The walk outside with my stepmother was a long one.
We got into the car, and she began to drive. I stared out at the clouds. I remember sitting with my dad on the porch, looking out at the front lawn during a snow day. He used to say to me. "I remember your mother. You never met her, I know, but…" He would look thoughtfully out at the world, when he said this. "Every time I see the snow falling… Every time…"
"How are you getting along?" My stepmother says, driving cautiously on the slick roads.
"I'm getting along."
"You have enough to eat? To pay the bills?"
"Yeah. I'm doing alright."
"So your books are selling?"
I give her a quiet look, and we both decide not to talk about it.
After a moment, I look away again. "Is Jeremy doing alright?"
"He decided to take another year of medical school, just to get everything cemented in."
I looked distressed. "Just to get everything cemented?"
"Don't you talk about him- He's actually out there, doing something for your father and me! Not like your lazy ass. What good have you done this family, huh? What good have you done your poor sick father?"
"At least I'm actually here, mom."
We're silent the rest of the way.
The snow is getting worse.
Returning to Dad's room, I can hear his voice- he's talking to a nurse. "Jeremy came through for once. That other shit was rotten. I can't believe Paul wanted to give me that stuff." His voice is loud and unfocused. Does he even know he's talking to anyone? I look in at his ravaged form, and feel a pang of embarrassment. "What a trick. My own son..." he sighed, and lay back.
I stayed outside the room for a moment, tapping my feet and feeling my wallet inside of my pocket. Why did I feel guilty? I heard him grumble- the nurse came out of the room and shook her head. I asked him what he was so mad about. She said he was angry at his son for disobeying his wishes with the medicine and the whisky. The feeling drives my skin to crawl, and I stalk out of the hospital. So he wants to drink, does he? There's a fly in the lobby, and he's buzzing about, quite lost and confused.
Nov. 12, later
The day has turned dark, and dry.
Father is elated to see me clutching the bottle under my shirt. He gets so excited, he drinks four Dixie cups full of whisky right there- I stoically watch him embrace that spreading haze, and internally wish he wouldn't drink them so fast. He smiles up at the ceiling. I brush the fly off of his arm, and he takes a deep breath. His eyes turn to me.
"I talked with your mother today."
I knelt by him. "Oh, yeah?"
"I wonder what you'll do when I'm gone?" He whispered, and touched his neck. "She won't take care of you… I wish I could leave you the house. I wish you could find a nice girl, and settle down here, and have a family."
"You know that can't happen, dad." I dislike this subject. "I'm through."
"Mmm." He grumbles to himself. "Still… Take care of yourself. Stay warm."
"I will, Dad."
He falls asleep, and I sit down, rubbing my forehead.
That night, he tossed and turned in his bed, groaning and mumbling and clutching himself, in pain. I felt the emotion welling up inside of me, and I felt myself unable to contain the shivers and these awful shakes. I withdrew, and didn't return. I walked all the way to my parents' house.
A beautiful autumn moon. It reminds me of a placid lake.
Dad is faring pretty poorly. He continually asks me for more whisky, but the day after I let him have some, he broke out in swelling and feverish sweat- I resolved never to let him have another drop until he was completely cured. I wondered now if that would ever come about, but the day seemed far off, if not infinitely distant.
My father lays restlessly, my stepmother over him, pacing back and forth, fiddling with her makeup case. She seems annoyed with the fly that keeps buzzing around the lobby, zipping this way and that, looking for a mate. With a clap of her hands, she makes it a buddha.
An hour later, she leaves to talk with a friend, and Dad begins to toss and turn. I can feel my face cringing, and I try and listen to him the best that I can. His voice is soft, and I can barely make out what he's saying.
"Hey," Dad whisperes. "Let's go. Come on, Paul." His withered hand clutches at my shirt. "Come on. Let's go. Come on."
"Yeah, Dad," I said. "Let's go."
"Let's go…" He mumbles, pulling weakly at me. I know he's too weak to walk.
I realized it later. Those were his last words. During the drive home, I can hardly see the road.
I don't go outside today.
I'm awake, alone, in a room I hardly know. My parents' house is so different. Father is delusional, he cannot speak. He is swollen and feverish.
My mother is in the kitchen. She hasn't spoken to me, but she's spoken to Jeremy. He's promised to send her money once she's done paying for medical school, all on Dad's money. I lay in bed for a long time, thinking, tossing and turning, reminding myself disturbingly of the sick father I've left alone in the hospital. I feel embarrassed and cruel.
"I'm sick of you talking in your sleep." I think I hear my stepmother whisper. "Rachel this, Rachel that."
On her bookshelf is a children's book, with bright colors. In it, there's a flea sitting all alone by the side of the road. A farmer comes along and sits under a tree, shading himself from the sun. The flea is tired and hungry, too- and they rest together.
"It is no light thing, being born a flea." The flea says.
"It is no light thing, being born a man." Says the farmer.
Delighted, they share a cup of tea.
I wrote that for my daughter on her fifth birthday, a month before she died. I had a friend illustrate it, and it was published shortly thereafter. The money was enough to get me a small apartment, and pay for the little things- I always thanked Rachel for that. I remember the day I adopted her- I wanted to write a poem, but the words didn't come until four years later. By that time, they had become a book. Why my stepmother bought a copy, I'll never know. She never told me.
But when I leave the room, I see that she has been watching me. Her face softens, and we share a quiet moment together. Love replaces fear.
The day is dark.
Dad dies. I make the funeral arrangements.
The day is dark.
Jeremy calls. He says he'll get some time off for the funeral.
The day is dark.
If Dad were here, I'd watch the highway with him. We'd count the headlights.
I don't go outside today.
A poet wrote this once:
We walk on the roof of Hell
Looking at flowers.