Part 2: The Boy
“I don’t want to be scarred just clean shaven. The goal is to look good in my casket and I won’t if I’m covered with scabs.” The gravelly timber of my fathers’ command grates on my every nerve. Despite the fact that I’ve successfully shaved my own face for more than a decade, he is convinced I’m going to screw this up.
“Okay, Dad.” I concede smiling like the idiot he believes me to be.
He’s sitting in the wheelchair that came with the room. He doesn’t really need, but prefers it for convenience sake. I stand behind him waiting and watching as he leans back to nestle his head into the crook of my arm. Now I’m staring down into the abyss of his right nostril where years of overgrowth have compressed the stout, tree-like hairs into a mangled forest of gray packed inside a black hole.
“Hurry up.” He instructs, adjusting himself.
I raise the small, pen-like shaver and begin the process of deforestation. At the first sense of vibration Dad jerks, forcing the dull blade against the rim of his nostril. His worried grimace morphs into fury while one hand flies out. “You’re gonna bleed me dry!”
A last second defensive move saves my right cheek. His blow glances off my forearm. “Dad, you’ve got to stay still.”
I thrust the micro-shaver at him and step to the opposite side of the bathroom, out of patience as well as his reach. It’s no use arguing when he gets like this. Dad is always right and I am always wrong.
There’s no sign of blood, but he’s sure there should be so I hand him a tissue.
“Two weeks from Thursday, huh? You want potted flowers at your service or will a wreath suffice?” I’m smiling, but there’s nothing humorous about my tone or the way his mouth hardens to a thin line beneath the rumpled tissue.
“Two weeks from next Thursday, smart-ass. If you can’t remember, maybe you should write it down. Death is nothing to joke about.” He continues wiping at his nostril and checking the tissue for blood. There is none. “Hear me, kid: no matter what you do or where you go for the rest of your life, you will remember this conversation.”
“Change the subject.” In my head it sounds like an order, but in the convalescent bathroom it comes out like a murmur. My gaze shifts to the ground.
I don’t have to look to know he’s staring. I can feel his eyes burning into the side of my face; feel them measuring me as his retort bites back. “Let’s talk about the floor, instead. Never know what it may do next.”
The sarcasm doesn’t bother me. It’s the timing that feels cruel. I’d dismiss the topic entirely if not for the pointed alarm in my stomach, driving up into my chest, and piercing me with a knowledge that few others would make a connection with.
See, my dad is almost always eerily right. About this sort of thing, anyway. He insists he isn’t psychic, but over the years his peculiar instinct has proven to be little less than second sight. ‘Call it intuition,’ he’ll often say, but no other explanation is plausible. From minor occurrences, like every time I fell off a bicycle to the stock market collapse, the train bombings in London, the tsunami in Thailand, and the Red Socks winning the Series (no one could have foreseen that). All of them, he predicted. At the time, I refused to believe. Mainly because there were other things he said would happen that never did. In this case, I have to hope for the latter. He is right about one thing, though: that no matter how old I live to be or how many women I marry and kids I manage to screw up along the way, I know I’ll never forget this conversation. No matter how hard I try.
Though, I should probably be grateful as he is being his usual belligerent self. I don’t see that side of him often enough anymore. If not for this most recent morbid prediction, I might be very glad to have this time together.
“Your hair will grow back before your funeral.” I take a marker from my pocket and write on my palm. “‘Thursday after next—Dad dies.’ Did you say how it would happen?”
“I’ll tell you whennn . . .”
The last word drags from his mouth. Light leaves his eyes like someone’s flipped a switch. A countenance of absolute vacuity is suddenly staring at me from where my father used to be. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this look. For some reason, I expected it to get easier to deal with, but it doesn’t. Just keeps me awake at night.
Sighing, I lean back against the bathroom wall. There’s nothing to do but wait for the episode to end. I can’t look at him like that, all helpless and empty in his wheelchair. My eyes wander towards the clock hanging over his bed. The numbers are a blur so I stare at the fluffy pillows and crisp sheets.
No wonder he wants to live here. The retirement home gives three squares a day, laundry and turn-down service. There are even a few cute nurses in this wing. Ramblings about electrical outages in Burbank float from the flat screen mounted over his dresser. I shake my head. Even his television is nicer than mine.
To me, Dad has always seemed unconquerable but watching the constant decline, the pieces just vanishing away . . . it’s like watching an eagle being plucked. He hates the way age caps his usefulness. I hate the way it makes him feel and especially his tendency to take his frustrations out on me. He says on the inside he feels the same as he did at my age, that it’s his reflection that doesn’t belong. He believes it with every fiber of his being, too. I see the shock on his face sometimes, when he looks in the mirror or catches sight of the deep wrinkles in his hands. His body has changed without permission and he’s powerless to stop it.
I need to be at work by noon, but it feels wrong to think about leaving. Dad’s journey usually picks up where it left off and I hate the idea that, were I to leave now, to him it would seem as if I disappeared. But there’s no way of knowing how long he’ll be gone. Sometimes its a few minutes, other episodes lasted hours. The latter seems more common lately.
When I look back at him, I can tell by the slack of his jaw that he’s still off someplace else, his one shaking hand still clenching the hair trimmer. He’s not the only one trembling now, because I know one of these times he won’t come back at all.
“Dad?” I test, reaching for his hand.
My touch stops the empty gaping. His face fills with this misplaced childish wonder as he examines his own raised hand. It’s as if he’s never seen his fingers move before. The thin shaver drops into his lap.
“I got it.”
“No, I’ve got it. You’ll bleed me dry!” He suddenly complains, picking up the conversation and the shaver. The light has returned to his eyes, burning brighter than before.
He raises the hair trimmer, hand still trembling. “You gonna help or not?”
I step closely behind his chair, lean over and begin again—this time, only guiding. The hairy terrain is rough and wiry, pointing in every direction. I help set the small edge at various angles to ensure an even cut. This frustrates him but he cooperates. Once Dad is sure I can be trusted enough not to clip the flesh, he lets go.
The fluorescent lighting reflects off his smooth scalp as I work and I can’t help but think how strange it is that a man who can barely gather a fistful of hair on his head could have such thick underbrush in his nose and ears. It’s as if gravity has shifted all follicle growth from the top to the bottom of his head. That gives me something to look forward to. By the time I reach my seventies, I’ll be able to braid it. Maybe use the ropes for hanging my glasses.
Once the lumber from his nasal passages is all clear, I start on the ears. He turns his head to one side and I catch sight of the concave scar on the left side. The depression is barely larger than a dime and I’m intrigued by the mystery it represents. I know he wasn’t born with it, but it’s been there as long as I can remember. How the scar came to be is a subject he refuses to discuss.
I learned very early on, there are some things Dad will not talk about, no matter how much I beg. The origin of this blemish seems to upset him more than any other, so naturally, it’s the subject that provokes the most curiosity. He gets weepy when I ask and Dad has only ever cried when he drank, which he hardly ever does anymore. During the years when I’d frequently find him pickled in beer and feeling liberal with information, all I could ever drag out of him about this scar was a cryptic response. “This is my reminder,” he’d say but would never elaborate.
He was never a member of any armed services, so he’s never been to war. I suppose it might have resulted from a fist fight; a solid crack to the noggin.
“Don’t ask, Gerry.”
I want to answer back, tell him how unfair it is that he’s willing to tell me all about his supposed impending demise but refuses to answer a simple question about a scar on his head. But I don’t. Enough damage has been done for one day. The doctor says his episodes may be triggered by stress.
“I know I don’t tell you enough, but you’re a real good kid. You’ll be okay.” His reflection in the low mirror holds a rare tenderness.
It drives my shoulders into a slump. He’s really and truly convinced of his limited future and I cannot stomach it. Where does that leave me? He’s my whole family. My mother has been gone forever and my little sister . . . We don’t talk about them, either.
“So will you.”
A sudden pressure wrings my chin, which is now locked between the old man’s fingers—a belated alarm that I have overstepped. Dad has always had a quick temper but age, which has slowed and dulled every other sense, has only sharpened his temperament. Today he’s especially cantankerous.
I try and pull away but his grip tightens. “Let me go.”
“Gerry!” He barks my name, commanding me to listen.
I’m twelve years-old again. “Sorry, sir.”
“You. Will. Be. Alright.” His face softens, though the words are firm. “I am trying to tell you something important. Why do you always make jokes about serious things?”
I start to defend myself, but the planned sarcasm will only prove his point. Instead, I lock my lips together and shrug.
“I know you can’t help it. It’s who you are. I suppose that’s my fault.”
I don’t notice my blatant agreement right away. Not until the old man scowls do I identify and put a stop to my subconscious bobble head motion.
Dad sighs, looking very serious. “Son, bear with me. I don’t know how to let you take this burden. We are so alike, Gerry, and I don’t want you to be like me, to make my same mistakes. But here you are: a carbon copied, selfish, dumbass. How am I supposed to hand over my legacy to you, to ensure the—” he stops and inhales deeply.
Beginning again in controlled calm, he says, “I have concerns that I don’t know how to change.”
He looks down and away, softening his rigid posture. “I thought you might be more courageous if I gave some slack. You do the right things sometimes, but nothing is based on how it affects others. That’s a tough lesson to learn, son. My father, your grandfather, was . . . well, strict doesn’t even begin to describe him. Because of that, my decisions were based on what I was taught would work rather than what I thought was right and I hoped by holding out on the teaching—making a different choice within the others—seeing if I could change things that way.” He shakes his head, “I never knew there was such danger in recurrence. My father used to say knowledge is the first line of defense. He was talking about football, of course, but it still applies. I need a way to balance this equation, to make sure you go in the right direction after I’m gone.”
Somewhere in the middle of this rant he began talking more to himself than to me. I thought he’d forgotten I was here until I saw him eyeing my reflection. He spins in his chair, rolling over my shoe to face me with wary eyes.
“It’s a terrible fate, Gerry. Living in fear, letting it make decisions for you—it’s the worst kind of regret and I want more for you. Do you understand?”
My head goes up and down but I say, “No.”
He coughs to clear his throat. “Promise me that when your time comes you won’t hold back, even if you’re afraid. Promise that you will do what is right.”
“Of course, Dad.”
“No, don’t just speak the words. You have to mean them!”
“I promise.” My eyes widen as his nostrils flare.
“Promise what?” He demands and I flinch.
“I won’t be afraid.”
“Dammit, that’s a stupid thing to say!” As he scoffs, air catches in his throat and sends him into a fit of coughing.
The mucus roils in his chest as he hacks and I’m nauseated by the gurgling. His aged hand swipes at me, again. One would think the coughing spasm would keep him from connecting, but it doesn’t. He slaps my wrist and the hair trimmer hits the tile floor. The plastic casing shatters.
His craggy fist then clenches my shirt. “You can’t promise not to feel fear, idiot. Come down here and I’ll knock some sense into that empty shell you call a head!”
He coughs again and his complaint becomes mumbles of indecipherable words mixed with clear insults of my intelligence.
I genuinely do not understand my father. It’s true that we have always been very much alike in looks, but I have never understood him or his need to give cryptic warnings. Why not just come out and say what you mean? Does he think so little of me, that I’m incapable of comprehending his needs? “Tell me why, Dad.”
“You promise me some things, first.”
Of course. “If I do, then will you explain?”
“One: promise you’ll be brave. It’s too hard to live with the easy decisions, Gerry. It’s my dying wish.”
Not exactly the response I was hoping for, but I consent quickly, anxious to get on with it.
Dads’ eyes tighten. “You know, I’m not going to be around forever. You should use this time wisely and avoid pissing me off.”
“Maybe you should stop trying to hit me.”
“Look, I’m not sure why you’re suddenly so convinced you’re gonna die but I promise to do my best to be brave and make you proud.” My words are sincere though it’s clear I’m oblivious.
He releases my shirt and color returns to his knuckles.
“Thank you. Now, the second part,” The same withered hand points out the bathroom door. “Over there, get the box under my bed. Go through it, read everything, memorize every page, even if you don’t understand. Guard it with your life. It’s your legacy.” He coughs loudly again and curses.
My gaze hits the bed and immediately climbs up to the clock. This time, I can’t see anything but the crown of numbers looming larger than they should.
“Gerry, get the box. It’s important. Take it with you.” He rolls out of the restroom behind me.
“Alright.” I have to get out of here.
Bending down, I find a box sticking out from under the edge of the bed. To my relief, it’s small.
“Not that one, look behind it.” Dad waves his hands, motioning, wishing he were able to get it himself.
I touch my knees to the hard floor and bend all the way down. “Is it in one of these shoe boxes?”
“No. It’s a plain brown box.” He’s right beside me now, talking to himself, going over the last conversation he had with his regular nurse, Jeanine. “I told her to put it exactly under the left side of the bed near the headboard. I said, ‘headboard’. What’s so damned difficult about that?”
I stand, dusting my jeans. “Dad, I’m out of time. If I miss the bus, I’ll be late.”
I’m already on thin ice with Ahmed. Too much is riding on my miniscule paychecks and he knows it. He won’t be able to stay in his private room anymore and I’m barely making ends as it is. It would be cheaper to have him with me at my apartment but we can’t tolerate one another for more than a few hours at a stretch. He’d probably end up getting high blood pressure or something.
“Jeanine!” Dad wheels towards the door, yelling. “Where’s my box?”
“I’ll be back right after work, I promise.”
“Don’t forget. Jeanine!”
Running down the passage, past the echoes of my father’s blaring voice, I cut through the nurses’ station and come out near the end of the main hall. I’m nearly at full speed coming around the last corner when a wire laundry cart appears in the middle of the corridor. I veer out to pass without slowing, but still clip my knee on the metal corner. The pain sends me into a dance.
“Mr. Springer, are you alright?”
Jeanine is standing in the doorway of another residents’ room on the opposite side of the cart.
Bending to rub away the pain helps to hide my rolling eyes. It’s the formal address: we’ve known each other for years. “I’m fine, Mrs. Watkins. My father, Mr. Springer, is looking for you.”
The edge of her mouth curves up. “Tell him I’ll be right there, G.”
“Can’t. I’m late. He’s looking for some box. I’ll be back after work to pick it up.”
As I speak, I can’t help but notice how Jeanine’s usually sleek hairdo is messy on one side. She drops an arm-full of crumpled sheets into the laundry cart, revealing her green uniform scrubs are covered in a wet substance. When she turns to face me head on, one of her golden cheeks is a burning cherry red. I want to ask if she’s alright, but it looks like a lengthy explanation. And it’s not like she’s crying or anything.
“I’m off at seven. I’ll hold it for you at the nurses’ station, but don’t forget.”
“Sure thing!” I call down the long corridor on my way out of the air conditioned lobby and into the sweltering summer heat.