I’m late caught in rush hour traffic on the parkway. I stop at the supermarket across from Dad’s apartment and run in to buy the Lean Cuisine and Stouffer dinners he eats most evenings. “Cheaper than buying everything separate,” he says. Not that Dad can’t cook. He prepared all the meals on family camping trips and later, all the meals once Mom stopped cooking.
Sometimes, he’ll buy a piece of fresh fish and cook it with frozen vegetables. I hate visiting to the apartment when he’s frying fish. The smell sickens me. I’m reminded of my fear and revulsion at nine-years-old when taking a fish off the hook and listening to it flopping to death in the bottom of the boat.
Once, I cut my thumb on a gill. It stung like a paper cut, but I wasn’t upset until I saw how deep the cut was. A few seconds passed before a red thread on my skin welled into drops. I wanted to put the cut in my mouth, but the fish stink was all over my hands.
I never wanted to catch the fish in the first place. I’d be happier sitting in the boat bored out of my mind. At least then I wouldn’t have smelly fingers and a cut bleeding on my jeans. It’s no wonder I hate the smell of fish.
Dad knows exactly what he wants. I breeze through the supermarket collecting the few items he needs. I’m amazed at the number of ways to package poultry. The photo of the chicken and gravy on one box looks tasty and I’m hungry. I throw in a meal for myself.
This morning, Dad called me at work. “Can you stop by and pick up a prescription for me?”
After hanging up, I called Rachel to tell her I’d be home late. “That’s ridiculous.” “Sheridans delivers prescriptions for a couple of bucks.”
“He also asked me to pick up some groceries. He says he’s been under the weather lately.”
My wife’s right. I’m a little annoyed by his last-minute request. Dad forgets that collecting a prescription adds forty-five minutes to my ride home, but sometimes he needs someone to shop for him, and he looks forward to having a visit. I’ll go and be happy to do so. It’s the least I can do.
After the grocery, a quick stop at the pharmacy. Not the convenient one in the supermarket, but the drug store two miles away where my parents shopped all their lives and where, as a child, I bought cigarettes with a note from my mother. A mom-and-pop store, the old building from the turn of the century, has a wooden floor from door to counter worn down by generations of customers.
The pharmacist is sixty, a little older than me. I vaguely remember him from high school, a year or two ahead of me. He finds two prescriptions. Do I want them both? No, I want to say. Let me make an extra trip tomorrow. Instead, I smile and thank him for saving me a trip.
I’m shocked at the cost of Dad’s medicine. Last March I helped him with his taxes. He had every pharmacy receipt sorted by medicine and date. I expected nothing less than this painstaking precision from an engineer. Leslie and I learned not to ask him for help with math homework because his explanations were always long and detailed. In the end, he solved the problem differently from the teacher.
At his apartment, I don’t ring the bell. Dad would get up from his recliner to answer it, and there’s no need to risk a fall. To prevent startling him, I rattle my key in the lock as if having trouble inserting it. He must think I’m going blind. I open the door part way and call inside. “It’s only me.”
“Hello, Mark.” He calls from the living room. He clears his throat, probably not having spoken since we talked this morning. “Did you find everything?”
“I didn’t see your brand of cauliflower. The boy stocking the freezer didn’t have a clue. I got this instead.”
Dad comes out to the kitchen to supervise unpacking and storing the food. “What kind of cheese sauce is it?” He picks up the package of cauliflower, tilts it toward the light and looks over his glasses. “This is fine. Sometimes I buy this when the store brand is out. Just as good. Not as cheap, but tasty.”
“The pharmacist gave me two prescriptions.”
Dad frowns and looks out the window. “Two?”
Uh-oh, I think, anticipating another trip to the pharmacy.
“That’s right,” he says but I doubt he remembers what the other prescription is for. I should help him prepare two weeks of pill trays. He takes the pharmacy bag and sits at the table.
After folding the grocery bags, I get a drink from the fridge. “Do you want anything?”
“Do you want anything to drink?”
“No, I’ve got my water bottle.” It’s an empty Milk of Magnesia bottle he’s washed out. It slips into his pocket like a flask. He unscrews the cap and takes a swig. He holds this in his mouth swishing it around until he has the cap back on the bottle, then swallows. He slips the flask into his pocket. He enjoys shocking people who think he’s taking a nip of gin.
“What’s up at the high school? The parking lot is packed.”
His fourth-floor apartment overlooks the high school across the street. Twenty years ago, the town tore down the greenhouse and floral shop abutting the school property. They used the land to enlarge the parking lot from the street to the brook flowing along the edge of the athletic fields.
“They’re putting on a play.” Dad is preoccupied with restacking the soup cans with their labels facing out. We each have our quirks. I drive Rachel crazy when I create designs with a handful of colored M&Ms. Dad closes the cabinet. “I thought I’d go but I’m not one for Shakespeare.”
I ask him the name of the play. He concentrates, snapping his fingers trying to remember. “I read an ad for it the other day.” He rummages through the town’s weekly paper on the kitchen counter. “Here it is. A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.”
“That’s the play I was in junior year. Do you remember?” Mom, of course, attended both performances, but I can’t recall if he came to the Friday or the Saturday performance. I hope it was Saturday. The memory of Friday’s show still makes me wince with embarrassment.
I played the role of Oberon. In the whirl of activity – the rush of learning lines and daily rehearsals – I neglected to think about how the director might list Oberon in the program’s cast of characters. So, it was a shock when I glanced at the program just before going on stage Friday night. I was listed not as Oberon ‘Ruler of the Wood Sprites’ or Oberon ‘Leader of the Forest Dwellers.’ No. I was Oberon ‘King of the Fairies.’
And there I was backstage, dressed in pink tights and a dark purple cape with loops around my little fingers, and wearing a jeweled crown more suited for the Queen of England. I went cold at the thought of what the jocks would say Monday morning. But I didn’t have time to worry about them. About to go on stage, I was almost comatose with stage fright. I repeated my entrance line, over and over like a mantra:
Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.....Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.....Ill met by...
Then I heard my cue:
PUCK Here comes Oberon.
[Enter, from one side, OBERON, with his train; from the other, TITANIA, with hers.]
OBERON Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania.
TITANIA What, jealous Oberon! Fairies, skip hence:
I have forsworn his bed and company.
In front of the audience, I was dazzled by spotlights and, in an optical illusion, the backs of my eyeballs were visible. Everything except the play melted away. Suddenly, I soared from abject terror to a state of euphoria. I gloried in my new power.
The next day, I walked downtown and bought black tights. That night, after makeup, I hid backstage and transformed myself. I applied extra mascara around my eyes, smudged on a charcoal beard, and spiked my hair with Dad’s brilliantine pomade. I taped twigs to my fingers and ditched the purple cape and crown backstage. Titania was dumfounded when she met me on stage. I wasn’t a fairy. I was a motherfuckin’ fairy!
“Was that the play where you looked like a pirate?”
Thank God, Dad attended Saturday night!
“I went only because you were in it.”
The food put away, we returned to the living room. “Mrs. Robey always said you were the best Oberon she ever saw.” She was a neighbor who told my parents this every time she saw me visiting.
“Do you remember when I did some acting at the church?”
“That’s right! The minstrel shows.” Over fifty years ago. I remember Dad practicing the complicated footwork for the routine in which all the minstrels sat in a row tapping their feet. Dad rehearsed for hours, shuffling his feet, shaking and banging the tambourine on his knees and elbows. With his other hand, he lifted the white straw hat off his head and twirled it around his finger. The finale had each minstrel flipping his hat backward onto his head. To their consternation, most straw hats flew in all directions, but that was the fun of it.
Dad was a tenor and snagged a solo part. I loved watching him sing Mammy, making melodramatic faces as he sang:
The sun shines east, the sun shines west,
I know where the sun shines best!
I memorized every word of the song. Even lying in bed, I could hear him rehearsing in the living room. I’d sing along with him sotto voce. By the end of the song, I’d be out of bed, down on one knee, with my arms flung wide, singing in full voice:
I'd walk a million miles
For one of your smiles,
I was seven or eight when I attended the minstrel show at church. Walking through a side door with Aunt Ellen, I saw a man in blackface scurrying down the hallway. Thinking myself clever, I piped up in my shrill voice, “Look, Aunt Ellen, there’s a nigger.” My beloved great-aunt gave me such a scolding that, even today, I remember my shame.
“The show was lots of fun, but I only remember going once.”
“The minister stopped them when the Jacksons joined the church. A black family in the congregation wasn’t a big deal, although a few parishioners grumbled that they would be better off down the street with the Baptists.” Dad shakes his head. “The minister attended the first meeting to organize the annual show. “Hold on a minute. Let’s think about this.” We never performed another show.”
“Was Reverend Lowden still there at the time?” The minister had been good friends with my parents and popular with the congregation. “What ever happened to him?”
“He was caught fooling around with the organist in one of the pews.”
“What happened to her?”
Dad pauses and pinches the crease in his slacks. “‘Her’ was a ‘him.’ They were gone before we knew anything.” He stares at the wall behind the TV as if reliving the uproar at the church. “Then the search committee hired that son-of-bitch Watson, and we lost half our members. That was the end for your mother and me.” Something clicks, and he stares at me. “Speaking of sons-of-bitches, did my surgeon ever call you?”
Dad asked his doctor to call me once his colonoscopy results came in. “I want to see if he tells you the same story.” Twenty years before, he had a cancerous growth removed along with part of his colon. Since then, each colonoscopy finds a dozen polyps which are routinely removed. His surgeon kept his eye on Dad’s colon. “The doctor said there’s nothing to worry about, but I’m suspicious. I have enough problems without any more blockage.”
“Your surgeon called me at work this morning.
In fact, Dr. Deschamp told me that he found “the expected crop of polyps as well as a suspected cancerous tumor growing near the former tumor. “The new site is too close to the old incision. I’d have to remove that area as well. Your father doesn’t have the strength to undergo an operation. Chemo would make his life hell and radiation would kill whatever appetite he has left. I didn’t tell him it’s malignant because there aren’t any other options. The good news—”
There’s good news? He hadn’t said one thing I wanted to tell Dad.
“The good news is that the tumor is slow growing. One of his other health problems will kill him long before this will.”
So, I tell a white lie to my father. “Your surgeon’s right. Nothing to worry about.”
My father watches me with a frown as if not convinced. Then he relaxes and slumps back in his chair. “By golly, I’ve got a few more years left in the old carcass.” He pushes down on the arms of his chair to stand. “Time for my dinner. I don’t want to keep you from yours.” He walks into the kitchen, slowly unbending his body.
“I bought dinner for myself. Rachel isn’t expecting me home for supper.”
He opens the refrigerator. “Say what?”
“I bought a dinner for myself to eat here.” I speak louder trying not to shout.
Dad sticks his head around the corner, acting delighted at the thought of company. “I’ll set another place at the table.” He disappears back into the kitchen, and I hear him open the silverware drawer. To my surprise, he whistles.
As much as I want to get home, I’m glad I’m staying. I dread saying goodbye and leaving him alone in the silent apartment. His loneliness is the image of old age that terrifies me the most. Yet the situation wasn’t much better when Mom was alive. She had trouble speaking clearly and Dad was hard of hearing. After visiting, I’d leave them, Dad in his recliner and Mom on the couch, each alone with their own thoughts.
I carry another plate to the table. Through the window, I watch the last ticketholders rushing to enter the school’s theater. The building wasn’t new when my parents were there in the 30s. When Rachel and I studied there fifty years later, the main building seemed ancient. The steps to the second floor were worn from decades of students going to class. If I look at the building and think about how much time has passed, I wonder what my father thinks whenever he sees it from his kitchen.
When Dad’s dinner is ready, I put mine in the microwave.
“Get yourself a drink.” He waves his hand in the general direction of the refrigerator. “I think your sister bought some juice the last time she shopped. Or a Diet Coke somewhere around here.”
“Dad, sign up for Peapods and let the supermarket deliver your groceries.”
“Tried that. They only accept orders on the computer now. And I can’t be bothered.”
“I’ll buy you a computer and show you how to use it.” But already I sense his resistance.
He purses his lips and raises an eyebrow. “I can’t play a goddamn DVD on the TV even when I follow your instructions. I’m too old to start learning about computers. One more machine to break down and I don’t need the aggravation. Hell, I don’t fiddle with the TV remotes. Once I clicked the wrong button and couldn’t even watch TV.”
He’d called me at work, asking if I’d come by and fix his TV. In the meantime, he became impatient and telephoned Dietrich’s Electronics two blocks away. He’s bought his TVs there for half a century. The owner has long since died, but his sixty-year-old son came to the apartment and solved the problem.
Dad called me back that afternoon. “Never mind coming. I took care of it myself.” He related his experience. “We got talking and I told him I’d known his father. Guess what? He didn’t charge me. Some people still remember customer loyalty.”
Throughout my childhood, I went shopping with my parents in the stores along Mass Ave. My favorite was Shattuck’s Hardware with its creaking wooden floors and a half-dozen men behind the counters. No self-service. The salesmen used a ladder which rolled along tracks to reach the top shelves. After a customer paid, the money and sales slip were placed in a basket attached to a wire that circled the store, before disappearing through an opening in the wall. Later the basket reappeared with the change and knew where to stop. I was amazed.
Ding. My meal is ready. “Want me to make a salad?”
“I had one for lunch—oh, damn, I forgot to ask you pick up some tomatoes. Well, that’ll be my job tomorrow.”
He’s disinclined to talk during dinner, and we finish the meal in silence. I could talk about his grandchildren, but it saddens me when he mixes up their names or forgets which children are mine and which are Leslie’s. His confusion exasperates her. “Why can’t he remember who’s who?” She tries not to complain, but she’s disappointed when he forgets to ask about them. Dad seems to have misplaced several years of his life although a stranger might never suspect it.
I often wonder if, during those moments when his mind is far away, he’s searching for lost memories. I hope he never realizes many are missing. Years ago, I created a family tree for Mom. I make a note to print one for him.
After dinner, I’m desperate for a cup of coffee, but Dad won’t touch it after three in the afternoon. “If I wake up to pee, it’s over. I can’t fall asleep again.” We return to the living room and I turn on another lamp. An ambulance shrieks down Mass Ave. racing to Symmes Hospital.
“I’ll review the DVD instructions with you before I go.”
“I can do without it. There’s plenty of movies on TV. The old ones are still the best. I watched Robin Hood the other night. By the way, is Olivia deHavilland still alive?”
“I think so. She’s in her nineties. You know she was eighteen when she played Maid Marion.”
“Boy, she was my favorite. Her and Errol Flynn.”
“I read somewhere that Flynn once asked her to sleep with him. She refused.” I laugh. “Years later she told a friend that it was one of the biggest regrets of her life.”
“That’s old age for you. Collecting diseases and regrets.”
“What regrets do you have?” I wonder if he’ll answer.
“Oh, you know the old saying: ‘If I knew then what I know now…’” There’s a long silence which I’m about to break when he adds, “Too many to mention.” Another silence. “I probably wasn’t meant to be married.”
“I’m glad you did for my sake.”
“I could have been a better father—”
“You don’t own a monopoly on feeling that way. Sometimes I think you should have been Jon’s father. He’s more like you than I was. He loved baseball. I would read in the bleachers during his games. But I did look up when he was at bat. We can only do the best we can.”
“—and a better husband. I wasn’t the easiest person to live with. If she were here, Mother would agree. Most of the things I liked to do were those I did alone.” He pauses as if thinking twice about what Mom might have to say. “I hope you won’t have as many regrets when you reach my age.”
Before I say anything, he gestures toward Mom’s desk and the china cabinet on top of it. “I’ve almost finished cleaning it out. You’re welcome to it if you want it. And the cups and saucers too.”
“Are you sure you want to give them away now?”
“I’m not hosting a tea party in the graveyard. I don’t have the energy to dust them anymore. Let Rachel use them. You’ll find another box of cups in the basement storage.”
Rachel has admired those teacups ever since she first came to our house. Mom’s teacup collection had been her pride and joy. Friends bought one for her whenever they traveled abroad. Some might be valuable now, but thinking something is valuable doesn’t make it so when you try to sell it. “She’ll be delighted to have them. Next time I’ll bring boxes and pack them up.”
One morning before grammar school, I went to the dining room to say good-bye to Mom. A painter had arrived after breakfast and was laying ground cloths in preparation for painting the walls.
I kissed Mom still in her bathrobe and slippers.
Behind me I heard a gasp from the painter and then the sickening sound of cups and saucers smashing on the floor. Turning around I saw the tilting china cabinet. He’d realized too late that the cabinet wasn’t attached to the desk. The other glass door unlatched, and a second wave of china tipped over the edge like a waterfall. Everything happened in slow motion.
I looked at the painter, his face frozen in disbelief. Boy, is he in trouble now, I thought, thankful that for once, it wasn’t my fault. At the same time, I was sorry for him, knowing how he must feel.
I looked down at the pile of china. “Here’s one that didn’t break.” I picked it up.
“You’ll cut yourself.” Mom grabbed the cup. She was stunned, unable to grasp what had happened. “Go to school.”
I backed out of the room. Before closing the front door, I heard my mother crying.
“Do you remember the day the painter broke the teacups?”
Dad looks up from scratching a crust of food off the arm of his chair. “How’s that?”
“The painter tried to move the china cabinet and the teacups fell out.” I instantly regret referring to the past. I don’t want to upset him by mentioning something he’s forgotten.
“I don’t remember that. Where were we living then?”
“In the Heights.” Except for this apartment, it’s the only place he’s lived in since I was four.
Dad’s eyes light up. “We had Princess then. The smartest dog I ever had. When my sister and I were in bed at night—”
A cold numbness fills my chest. He’s no longer thinking of my childhood but his own childhood in East Arlington. He’s remembers the dog he’d had as a child and not Duchess. His tangled memories have many loose ends.
“—Princess would sleep on a blanket in the hall at night. Every couple of hours, she’d trot into each bedroom to make sure we were still there. If I was awake, I’d reach out and pat her head. Her tail thumped against the mattress. She’d finished checking the other bedrooms and come back and lick my face. She’d lie by my bed until I fell asleep.”
He stops speaking. here is an eerie silence. I almost expect to see Princess appear in the hall. Maybe it’s best to leave the present behind when there’s nothing but death to look forward to. Better to live in a happier past when everyone you know is alive and you never think of being old.
Bowing my head, I close my eyes and cover my mouth with my hand. Tears would only frighten and confuse him. Maybe he’s looking forward to seeing Princess again when he dies. Maybe she is what holds back his fear of death.
“It’s hard waking up at four o’clock in the morning. I do a lot of thinking. But then the birds start scratching at the feeder outside the window.” His eyes close and he sits quietly, perhaps listening to the birds. “I’m tired now. I think I’ll turn in.” But he doesn’t move as if he hasn’t the energy.
“Dad, let me help you get ready.”
He jerks his head back and frowns. “You go home. I’m fine. I can take care of myself.” On the third try he stands. “I appreciate your coming by, but you have your own life to live.”
I gather up my coat and follow him into the hall. “I’ll call tomorrow and check in.”
“Don’t worry if I don’t pick up. I may be out.”
“Where are you going?” I’m alarmed at the thought of him driving his car.
“I have to get in my walk.”
I embrace him, feeling his ribs and the bones in his spine. “I love you.”
I open the door and pick up the bag of newspapers for the recycling bin. “See you soon.”
He’s turned away already thinking of something else. I close the door. The dead bolt clicks home.
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