For my high school graduation, my father, who left when I was two, sent me a wrist corsage, a chunk of white flowers I didn’t recognize surrounding one red rose. It came in a frosty box, tied with a pink ribbon, and the message on the card read, “Congratulations. Love, Bud.” I wondered how he knew I was graduating and how he’d found me living at my grandmother’s house in Phoenix. She and my mother hated him, and, as far as I knew, hadn’t spoken to him since my parents’ divorce. Growing up, my mother told me he would have made a lousy father so it was a good thing he wasn’t around. “He sees women as either virgins or whores,” she’d said, “and he only married me because I wouldn’t sleep with him.” I guess he liked the whores better. He had an affair with a nightclub singer named Phyllis and when my mother found out, she divorced him. My grandmother called him a bum and told me he’d never paid a dime in child support.
I didn’t remember a thing about him. Then, after fifteen years, there he was in a flower box, provoking me to unpack an abandonment I’d kept hidden in one of the folds of my stomach, like a sleeping stone sitting by a river, unlikely to move but for an earthquake or a hurricane. Or like a girl walking by on a camping trip who picks it up and throws it as far as she can across the water.
I wanted to send the flowers back but there was no return address, and I had no idea where he lived. My grandmother put the unopened box in the refrigerator in case I wanted to open it later. She didn’t like anything to go to waste. When the petals turned brown, I threw the corsage in the trash.
The longing for my father began at age twenty and became chronic three months before I turned twenty-one. About to cross over into adulthood, I was trying to decide if I should stay with Ray, my first serious relationship. We’d been living together for a year. He had a successful career as a costume designer in Hollywood, a nice house in Nichols Canyon, and he wanted to take care of me. He was, however, fifteen years older than I was, and I feared I’d chosen a father substitute.
I knew self-assured women whose fathers had been in their lives at every step. Would my life have been different, better or worse, if my father had been there for me? I’d had two stepfathers, even taken their last names at my mother’s insistence. They only stayed for the duration of the marriages, two and three years. At this point, my father couldn’t help me with life decisions, but like an adopted person, I felt drawn to, seduced by, biology.
As soon as Ray left town to work on a film, I called my mother to ask if she had my father’s address. “I can’t imagine why in God’s name you’d want to contact him,” she said, “but I have his sister Marge’s address in Chicago. I suppose you could write to her.”
Marge wrote back right away, told me to write my father a letter, that I should send it to her and she’d make sure he got it.
I sat at the glass dining room table, looking out through an overcast sky at the spotted hills. Some were green with ice plants, others patched with brown from last summer’s fire. Mourning doves cooed on the back deck. I smoked cigarettes as I thought of what to say. I took deep drags and began to write fast and hard with a squeaky felt tip pen. My hand jerked across the page.
I’m writing because I’d like to see you. I don’t know if you’re interested in seeing me, since you’ve never made the effort. Haven’t you been curious about your own daughter? Maybe you’re scared, but I would like to have some sense who you are. All I know is what Mother has told me over the years. I gave my phone number to Marge.
I lit another cigarette and threw the match into the ashtray. For a second the flame caught on an accordion muffin paper left over from what I’d eaten earlier. I addressed the letter and pulled on a pair of jeans. I drove to the post office, down the hill, still in the t-shirt I’d slept in, hair uncombed, face unwashed. On the way back to the house, I bought an early birthday cake with yellow flowers. I ate slice after slice with chocolate ice cream.
Two weeks later my father called. He talked as if he wasn’t familiar with the telephone, with no extra words or conversation. His voice receded back into the phone and further back into his throat. He said he lived near L.A. and suggested we meet on Saturday at the Radar Room on Santa Monica Boulevard, at noon. I’d driven past the non-descript dive of a tavern that opened at six in the morning; a little neon Budweiser logo flashed off and on in the blackened window. I thought my father would invite me out to lunch or at least to a nice bar.
I arrived first. The place was dark and empty, except for the bartender and an older man and woman sitting at the end of the bar in matching plaid shirts. I sat on a stool facing the red Naugahyde door. Gold buttons punched every few inches in its skin.
After a few minutes, the door swung open. He stood in a cloud of glaring light. I made an awning with my hand above my eyebrows and squinted to refocus. He had a gangly look. I’d known all my life he was exactly six-foot-four.
I remembered a photograph of him, taken when he was twenty-two. The picture shows his face in sunlight, his eyes half-closed, his blond hair slicked back, him holding me away from his body. He appears to be either presenting me to the camera as a gift, or desperate for someone to take me from him. I could never tell which.
I stood up and he came toward me.
“Linda?” he said, extending his hand.
I was afraid he might hug me or try to kiss me and maybe cry. It was a good thing he didn’t do any of those things. I might have had feelings I couldn’t control, and he hadn’t earned the right to see any of that.
He wore loose black pants and a white t-shirt. I’d seen the same outfit in an old golf picture my mother showed me once. He held his neck and head to the right. He must have the same slight scoliosis in his back that I had. I smelled liquor on his breath.
We sat at the bar. He ordered a beer and lit a cigarette with his big Zippo lighter. His hands shook and he had broken capillaries on his cheeks. I was glad I didn’t look like him in the face with his thin jaw and tight little ears too close to his head. We had the same shade of blond hair.
When I pulled out a cigarette, he clicked open the Zippo. He held it out to me with his long fingers. A wiggly bluish flame popped up.
“So, you smoke? Does your mother allow you to smoke and live with a man?”
“What gave you the idea I live with a man?”
“How else could a girl your age be living in the Hollywood Hills? You’re not even twenty-one,” he said.
“That’s what you have to say after all these years?”
“No.” He brushed ashes from his black pants making whitish streaks down his legs.
“Well, you’re wrong,” I lied. “And as far as smoking goes, it’s a little late for you to have an opinion.” I took a dramatic drag on my cigarette and let the smoke escape slowly from my mouth. I drummed my nails on the black fake leather roll wrapped around the edge of the bar top.
“What about college?”
“I’m planning to go to art school.” I thought he might be impressed.
He looked down and shook his head. “Better find yourself a good husband.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“It’s hard to make it in the arts. That’s all I’m saying.”
“How would you know?”
“Never mind. I’m sorry. Forget I said anything.”
“Believe me, I will.” I blew smoke in his direction.
“I’d like to invite you to my house this afternoon.” He clasped his hand over his lighter and looked straight ahead. “How are your mother and Kimberly?”
“Fine I guess.”
“Will you come?”
I took a deep breath. “Where do you live?”
“In Reseda.” He put his cigarette in the ashtray and rubbed his forehead. “Come and meet Phyllis.”
I had to see the “floozy,” as my mother called her, who’d caused their break up when I was a baby. “All right. I’ll follow you.”
His apartment building was near a park with well-groomed grass, flowers, Eucalyptus trees and picnic tables. He lived in an older beige stucco building. The small pool wasn’t very clean and there were faint rust stains on the front of his unit.
One wall of his living room was covered in squares of mirror, streaked with a wavy pattern of gold lines. Pale blue shiny upholstery covered the furniture. A white baby grand piano looked out of place in the corner.
Holding two bottles of beer, the floozy stood in the doorway that separated the kitchen from the living room. My father took one of the beers. Her hand trembled as she offered me the other. “You’re so tall,” she said.
She looked like a younger, shorter version of my mother with more make-up. We sat down and drank our beer. Phyllis told me she worked as a nurse and years ago had been a part-time nightclub singer. She fell in love with my father one night in a bar in Calumet City when she heard him play “After You’re Gone.”
“Your father plays terrific piano. Play something for her, Bud.”
“She doesn’t want that, Phil. She’s angry. She thinks it’s all my fault. Show her the letters.”
Phyllis went to the hall closet. When she opened it, little sweaters, booties and rattles floated out and tumbled to her feet. She explained that these were things left over from the three times she’d miscarried. “I’ve never been able to throw them away.”
I looked at my father. He sat submerged in the soft sofa gulping his beer. Above his head I saw myself and Phyllis reflected back in mirrored pieces, slashed with gold.
“Here they are.” She handed me a box.
“I don’t want it. Really I don’t.”
“You didn’t want me,” said my father. “The proof is in those letters from your mother. You wanted that third husband of hers to legally adopt you and Kimberly.”
“I was only ten. I didn’t know who the hell you were. I still don’t. Whose fault is that? And it never happened. They divorced before the adoption was final, which you would have known if you’d bothered to stay in touch and done something all these years besides send me a stupid wrist corsage.”
I took the dusty Capezio shoebox from Phyllis and threw it across the room. My mother’s lemon colored envelopes scattered through the air as I left Phyllis standing at the hall closet up to her ankles in dead baby clothes and my father on the sofa mumbling, “Just like her mother.”
Soon after, I decided Ray was too set in his ways. I left him and applied to art school.
Twelve years later, when Ben asked me to marry him, I again felt pulled to see my father. I hadn’t wanted him to meet any of the other men I’d been with; the Mexican opera singer who I found out had read my mail and spied on me, the sixty year old Brazilian flamenco guitar player, the married president of my art school, the Texas oilman with a drug problem, the Vanderbilt heir who wore a bad toupee and started drinking at ten in the morning, the seventy year old movie director and the gay dancer I fell in love with who I thought might turn for me.
Ben was neither wealthy nor interested in the arts, but a calm, grounded bodyworker, a successful Rolfer. I felt safe with him and he was my age.
I’d squelched all fantasies of a wedding, a walk down the aisle with a dad. But my biology believed that seeing my father again and introducing him to Ben would help me make the right decision. My mind said, Forget it. This is crazy. He’s a pathetic drunk.
My mother told me she’d heard that Phyllis had divorced him. He’d moved to Rancho Mirage and was working as a tax accountant. “You know in college he was considered a genius at math.”
“Really?” I’d never heard that before. I’d always had trouble with math.
“I hope to God you get this out of your system,” she said.
“I hope so too, Mother.”
I decided to make the trip alone, check out my father’s condition before I brought Ben to meet him.
His stone house on Terrace Road was the only one in the neighborhood that hadn’t been remodeled. Dusty rose paint had peeled and hung in strips on the front of the house. In the yard, a chewed up cactus garden of barrel and saguaro was trying to stay alive. A mailman’s Jeep was parked in the driveway.
As I got out of the car, the early afternoon sun poured over me. I walked to the door and heard piano music. I stood there and listened. It sounded like a recording, and then I realized it must be my father playing a jazz version of “Ebb Tide.” I’d never heard anything like it. My scalp began to perspire. A small rusty wind-bell hung over my head. I took a deep breath, found the round brass buzzer and pushed.
The music stopped and I heard him cough. He opened the door. He wore shorts and a striped t-shirt. He was heavier since I’d seen him last, and his face was scarlet. He shook my hand and started to cry. I didn’t know what to do. He wiped his bloodshot eyes with the bottom of his t-shirt exposing his puffed-out white belly.
He guided me to the kitchen.
The floor was dark green sticky linoleum. I stood behind him while he opened the refrigerator. I saw a pint of milk, a case of beer, and a package of yellow cheese. He handed me a can of beer and I followed him to the living room. Little bits of foam from the couch cushion poked out as I sat down. He sat at an upright piano that was shoved against a wall in a little alcove off the kitchen. He put the beer on the piano bench between his legs.
“How was the drive?” he asked.
“The freeway was wide open.”
My father wiped his eyes again.
Were his tears were for me?
“How’s the art career?”
“Just great. My work hangs in a few galleries now.” It was only one but I wouldn’t tell him that. I wondered if he’d ever tried to make a living as a musician. I lit a cigarette.
“Still smoking?” he asked.
I wanted to scream. I tried to calm myself by looking away, but all I saw out the back window was a swimming pool, half-full of brown water, covered with dead palm fronds from the shriveled date trees. “I have to use the bathroom,” I said.
As I walked down the hallway, I spotted an old man in a mailman’s uniform in one of the bedrooms. He sat on the bed looking down at several pieces of mail stacked in the middle of the floor. He lifted his hand in a wave.
The bathroom hadn’t been cleaned in a long time. The light didn’t come on when I flipped the switch. I held myself up with one hand on the back of the toilet where an assortment of dirty seashells had been arranged on a piece of coral shag carpeting, no doubt by some girlfriend who’d had domestic ideas. Returning to the living room I noticed the mailman was gone, the mail still on the floor.
“Who’s that guy down the hall?” I asked.
“My roommate. We were in the war together.”
He turned toward the keyboard. “You know, I used to play an awful lot of boogie.”
The sun peeked over the backside of the house and a small square of light hit his anklebone.
“Most songs I learned off of records. This one is my own, never picked it up from anyone.”
Had he ever written music for me?
Suddenly his hands came down hard and his fingers began to slide over the keys, his arms gliding, wrists loose, hands flying through the air, fingers flopping down, hitting the right keys with each stroke, his feet bouncing under the piano hitting the pedals, wild, like Jerry Lee Lewis. When he was younger, he must have brought the house down.
He finished playing, and I didn’t know what to do but clap.
“My hands and arms aren’t what they used to be. I can’t play those basses anymore. Those are complicated. But I tried. I used to play all kinds of songs, ‘Walking Bass Man Boogie’, ‘Sleepy Time Down South’, ‘Mood Indigo’, lots of things.”
“Did you play when I was little?” I asked.
“I’ve always played. In high school, my friends used to take me down to the beer parlor. I won’t tell you how old I was. I was much too young to be drinking. This one’s called ‘After You’re Gone.’ ”
As he started to play, I walked over to the piano and watched. I stood as close as I could without touching him. I wanted to take in his breath. As he played harder, I felt a drop of his sweat spray onto my skin. I had a crazy thought. What if I licked my arm, tasted him? I’d seen Muhammad Ali’s trainer do that once. Someone told me that by tasting Ali’s sweat the trainer could tell what vitamins and minerals his body was lacking. Maybe if I tasted my father’s sweat I would know him.
When he finished playing, he turned to me. “Well, that was probably worth one beer anyway.”
I asked him what he played when he and my mother were together.
“Lots of things.” And then as if I weren’t there, he gazed out the window with wet cheeks and reminisced about the times he spent in New York City, in Greenwich Village and on 52nd Street. He said he used to go there on weekends and it was quite an experience. As he was talking, he wiped the sweat off his beer can and then rubbed his calf. “Billie Holiday sang there. Art Tatum played the piano. Albert Johnson. All the great ones.”
My mother had told me she thought she’d be happy married to my father. On their honeymoon they stopped in Greenwich Village. Both of them wanted to stay there and be artists: she an actress and he a jazz pianist. Instead, they went back to live in Chicago and he ended up working for her father.
The sun moved to the other side of the house. A haze of light fell across the piano. He went to the kitchen to get another beer. “In one of those clubs, I got to know these two colored guys. I used to sit in with them once in a while.” He came back to the piano to play again.
As he became lost in the music once again, I realized the impossibility of bonding with him. My father’s life of sadness, failure, and regret permeated my body. I hoped this wasn’t genetic. I had to get away from him. He would never meet Ben. I walked to the couch and picked up my purse. I looked inside for a tissue. “It’s late,” I said. “I should go.”
“So soon? Well, before you do…” He got up and handed me a stack of small papers from the top of the piano. “A few gas receipts, Union 76. In case you need more car expense deductions. If you ever have any tax questions, give me a call.”
“Thanks,” I said. I could hardly move. My blood felt thick, like quicksand. I held onto the doorframe to steady myself as my father grasped my other hand with both of his.
Tears pooled in his blue eyes. “Well, Linda… have a good one.”
“Well, bye,” I said, letting go of his hands. I stepped outside, squinting into the glare of the late afternoon sun.
Ten years later, the stability and safety I’d felt with Ben had gradually become a prison of control. Soon after my divorce, I moved into an apartment in Los Feliz. I paid the first and last month’s rent with money I’d made selling my artwork. If I was careful, I had enough to last for the next few months.
One day, Mr. Haas, the social worker at the Soldiers and Sailors Veterans home in Quincy, Illinois, called to tell me my father was dying of bone cancer. “We’ve been having some talks,” he said. “Your father realizes he made some bad choices. He’s on morphine and pretty much incoherent but he wants to see you. I called your mother and sister. They don’t want anything to do with him.”
I crossed my legs tight. My right foot started to shake. I couldn’t deal with any more grief. I’d unpacked that abandonment stone from my stomach again and again with no resolution.
“I’ll have to think about it,” I said.
“He only has a few days.”
He didn’t deserve my being there. I couldn’t afford a plane ticket, but I didn’t want to regret not going. A crooked branch from the Indigo bush outside the picture window in the dining room scratched back and forth on the glass. My new cat, Camilla, who’d found her way into the apartment through an open cracked window, jumped in my lap.
“All right, I’ll be there,” I said.
I hung up the phone and paced the shiny blond wood floor holding Camilla like a baby.
Mr. Haas, whose first name was Bob, picked me up at the Quincy regional airport the next day. He wore large-lens black-framed glasses, earmuffs and a down jacket with some stains on the front, probably from food he’d eaten in his car. He said the town was named for John Quincy Adams. I told him my mother had gone to school nearby at Lindenwood College for Women. I hadn’t bothered to tell her about the trip.
Bob drove on a slick highway surrounded on either side by bluish-white ground, hard from layers of snow and ice that had frozen into each other. Midwestern trees that I would never see green and flowering stood in the earth like oddly shaped stick statues, roots below ice, below freezing.
“If the nurses seem unfriendly it’s because they have a hard time when relatives don’t come until someone is ready to die.”
“He’s never been part of my life,” I said.
“I told them it goes both ways.”
I’ve come for myself, I thought. To finally end the longing.
We drove through the gray brick-columned entrance under the Soldiers and Sailors Home sign that curved in an arc above us. An uneven wrought-iron fence enclosed the grounds, sloping with the lay of the land. The place was its own town. We passed buildings that looked like barracks scattered around 200 acres of snow and ice-packed land. Bob pointed out the pharmacy, mess hall, bank, and museum.
“There’s the lake,” he said pointing one leather-gloved finger to the left. “It’s in the shape of Illinois. It’s frozen over now. We have beautiful swans in the summertime.” He pulled into the parking lot of Fletcher Hall Infirmary, where my father lived. “Be careful walking. It’s slick.”
We went through the smoking area where a group of about thirty vets sat in wheelchairs, some with missing legs, whispering to each other through stagnant yellowish air, “That’s Bud’s daughter. Hey, good-looking.” A few of them wolf whistled. The smoke stung my eyes. The room smelled rancid, full of the kind of sickness and death I’d never seen. I walked fast, looked straight ahead over the heads of the wounded men.
On the way to my father’s room, I thought of telling him that I’d stopped smoking. But now he probably wouldn’t understand anything I said.
A woman with outstretched arms rushed toward me in the hallway. “I’m your Aunt Marge,” she said. She introduced me to her husband Ed. He shook my hand. She squeezed me hard. I kept my body stiff as she patted her right hand up and down on my back. “You’re as tall as I am.” She acted like she knew me. She seemed genuinely kind. I wanted to feel some immediate kinship, but I didn’t.
We all went to my father’s room. He was squirming around in a twin bed that was too short for his six-foot-four body.
He sat up and said, “My Linda.”
I felt my heart pound through my veins. I sucked my chest in as far as I could, pushing down forty-two years of yearning that now wanted to come pouring out. I could barely breathe.
Marge, Ed, Bob and Sandi, my father’s nurse, all gasped. They couldn’t believe he recognized me. Then he started to squirm and moan again. He was naked. A small sheet covered his torso and thighs. A stuffed lion with a red bow around its neck sat next to his pillow, a gift from Sandi.
She told me how much everyone loved my father, how when he played the piano it seemed to have a healing effect on the men. “They’d all sing. And your dad was funny,” she said in her southern accent. “He made everyone laugh. We think the world of him. It must be driving him crazy to be confined to a bed. He was always so restless, up and down during the night, outside smoking.”
They left me alone with him. I sat by the side of his too-short deathbed and held his hand for the first time. His fingers were shaped like mine, long, with smooth knuckles. He had no gray hair. His shiny eyes rolled as his head jerked back and forth on the pillow. “I wish you’d been around,” I whispered to him.
“Buddy is dying,” he said. “You’re beautiful. Who are you?”
I looked around his doorless cubicle that contained a tiny sink, a closet about two feet wide, the bed, a metal chair and a night table that held a radio and some pill bottles. There were no photographs. He shared a large room with three other men, each with their own separate living cube. There must have been a community bathroom but I didn’t know where it was.
I tuned the radio to a jazz station thinking my father would like to hear the music he loved. I recognized the Bill Evans trio from the sixties, Dexter Gordon was on the saxophone. I wondered if my father knew about these musicians. Maybe they were after his time.
He thrashed around, jerking his body from one side of the bed to the other.
“I’ve got to get to know those girls,” he said.
Hungry for any fragment of recognition that I could construe as love, I pulled his words into my body.
He kicked the sheet to the floor.
I saw his penis laying slack against his leg. It was pink, purple at the tip. I stared at it until a nurse I hadn’t seen before came in and covered him up. She glared at me and then with a shot glass in her hand poured two ounces of bourbon into a paper cup. “The doctor prescribed it for him,” she said. “Because of his alcoholism.” She lifted the cup to his chapped lips. He sucked it in through a straw. He closed his eyes. For a few minutes he was quiet.
The nurse left the room. I laid my hand softly on his chest until I heard Aunt Marge’s voice in the hallway. She came in the room with Dr. Beckton. Decisions had to be made about whether my father should be moved to the hospital. Did I want to authorize giving him more morphine?
“Marge should decide,” I said.
“You’re the next of kin, his daughter. It’s up to you,” said Dr. Beckton.
My father tried to say something but we couldn’t understand.
“Give him more morphine,” I said. “And a bigger bed.”
Marge and Ed took me to dinner that night to the local fish restaurant. The specialty was fried catfish. The dark wood-paneled walls were draped with fish net. We ordered our dinners from a waitress in a long, blue, fish-print dress.
Marge removed the lemon from her iced tea and took a long gulp. Ed began eating his appetizer, a bowl of catfish soup.
“I know it means a lot to your father that you came,” Marge said.
“To us too,” said Ed. “It’s too bad Kimberly couldn’t come. Did you know you’re related to John Smith who came over on the Mayflower?”
“And William Henry Harrison, the ninth President,” said Marge. She told me I had another aunt, Edrey, who used to work for Jonas Salk. She lived in Washington with her husband and two children. “What kinds of things do you want to know, honey?”
“What about my father?”
“He was captain of his high school basketball team, voted best athlete at Ellington Field in Texas where he was stationed for a while during the war. Every sport he tried, he was good at.”
Me too, I thought. I’d been good at ballet, horseback riding, and tennis, Kimberly had been good at modern dance.
Aunt Marge smiled and looked into my eyes. “One day your grandfather, Milton, took him to Beverly Country Club to play golf. Your father had never played before but he was good at it right away. Your mother thought people were impressed with him because he was Milton’s son-in-law. Well, your father was great in his own right. He was a wonderful musician. He played by ear.”
“I’ve heard him. I played piano and classical guitar when I was younger.”
Our catfish dinners came to the table, served with canned peas, marinated tomatoes and pale, runny coleslaw.
“And then, of course, that husband of your mother’s adopted you and your sister,” said Marge.
“No he didn’t. I told Bud.”
“Oh. We thought he did. Poor Buddy. He didn’t know what to do about that. He consulted a counselor at a church and she told him not to fight it.”
As if he would have. I gazed down and scraped the fried breaded skin off my fish. Without its coating, the catfish tasted like the scavenger it was.
Suddenly, I saw my father as a blonde skinny boy, the baby of the family, an ineffectual, excuse-ridden alcoholic, defended and doted on by his big sister. Poor little Buddy.
Marge said there were problems in the marriage from the beginning. My grandfather gave my father an accounting job at the trucking company he owned but wouldn’t give him a full salary. He put most of his earnings into a trust fund for me. For Christmas one year, he gave my father a tie and my mother a new car with her name engraved on the driver’s side door.
I pushed my plate away and asked the waitress for a hot toddy.
“And after your dad was charged with manslaughter,” Marge said, “he tried so hard to stop drinking. He felt just terrible. You were just a baby.”
“What? Mother never told me that.”
“She was in the car, too. They’d both had too much to drink. Your dad swerved off the road and hit a man walking down the side of the highway.”
“Did he go to jail?”
“No, thank God. Jail would have killed him. Your grandfather took care of it somehow, and the charge was dismissed. Soon after it happened, we went to a Christmas party at your mom and dad’s house. Bud wasn’t drinking. He’d started going to A.A. meetings. Your mother kept going up to him, putting a drink under his nose and laughing. I thought to myself, how can this marriage last?”
“Who was the man?” I asked.
“Oh, we never knew,” said Ed.
I looked down at the pieces of ugly fish on my plate and wondered what the man’s name had been. I wondered who he’d left behind. My father had been twenty-three. He must have thought of it and drank over it every day.
With their heads down, Marge and Ed ate cheesecake for dessert. I ordered another drink.
Outside, as the blue-black night air began to freeze, we drove back to my hotel, passing what looked like a tiki lounge called the Firehouse Bar, across the street from the side entrance of the Veterans home. Marge said my father walked there every day to drink, even the day after his hip surgery. She sent the bartender money each month to water down his drinks.
The next morning I sat in the lobby near the nurse’s station waiting for the Sunday service to begin. I asked Aunt Marge what religion she and my father grew up with.
“Christian Science. Your grandfather Royal cured himself of a heart attack sitting in a chair reading Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health.”
“I wish I’d known him.”
Reverend McCoy arrived, took off his pork-pie hat, and walked over to me. “God is very pleased with you, Linda.” During the service he asked everyone to pray for Bud and his family.
Afterward, I went to see my father while Marge and Ed talked to the nurses. They’d given him more morphine.
He turned toward me. His eyes were closed. “Buddy is dead. It’s scary.”
“It is scary.” I kissed him on the cheek.
“It’s too late,” he said.
“For what?” I waited for another fragment about me.
“To get a few drinks,” he said.
My head began to ache. I felt dizzy. I went to the nurse’s station and asked Sandi if there was a room somewhere in the building where I could rest. She took me upstairs to a small conference room. On the walls were photographs of vets in uniforms with medals on their chests, standing or kneeling in front of camouflage-colored tanks and helicopters. Miniature cannons on small carriages, their barrels facing outward, were arranged in a perfect circle on the conference table. I moved the chairs back and made a space in the middle of the floor. I locked the door. I put five layers of tissue on the stained carpet for my head, then lay down and sobbed until some of the clutching in my chest subsided.
When I came back to the room, Marge was there. I told her I’d like to have something of my father’s. She looked in his closet. There was nothing but a pair of pants, a navy blue striped shirt and a pair of bedroom slippers. She took the Timex watch off his wrist and handed it to me. I put it on. The leather watchband smelled like smoke.
She invited me to the mess hall for lunch, grilled cheese sandwiches, and chocolate milkshakes. “We can listen to the jukebox.”
I told her I wanted to take a walk. She patted my arm and handed me her sheepskin-lined gloves. I walked on snowplowed roads under ice-encrusted tree branches to the Firehouse Bar. It was a wooden building that looked like an island shack with a totem pole in front and tiki masks on the door. I guessed it was designed to bring back memories for the World War II vets, like my father, who’d spent time in the South Pacific.
I’d planned to go into the Firehouse Bar, sit where my father sat, talk to the bartender, drink whatever the watered-down drink was. But now I thought I’d done enough. I sat on the tiki god bench by the entrance, flanked by gas-flamed torches, breathing in my father’s losses and my own, each one visible for a moment as I exhaled in the cold air.
The temperature dropped and I walked back to the Veterans home.
Marge gave me a check for $638, which covered my plane fare. “It was all that was left in your father’s bank account. I know he’d want you to have it,” she said.
The next morning, Ed drove me to the airport.
My father died that afternoon while I was flying back to Los Angeles. Marge had his body shipped to Mount Greenwood Cemetery, just outside of Chicago. He was buried next to his cousin Buzz, who’d been killed in the war.
I started taking hour-long walks through my new neighborhood, looking at the art deco houses up and down Los Feliz Boulevard, timing myself by my father’s watch. After a few weeks the smoke smell disappeared, but even with a new battery the Timex had stopped working.
Gleah Powers is the author of the novel EDNA AND LUNA (Vine Leaves Press, 2016). A grantee of an award from the Barbara Deming Memorial fund, her work has appeared in print and online in Southwestern American Literature, Prime Number Magazine, Red Savina Review, New Delta Review and in many other literary journals. She completed her formal art training at the California Institute of the Arts and has worked professionally as a painter, actor and dancer in New York, Los Angeles and Mexico City. Currently, she is at work on a short story collection and a memoir. Visit her website at http://www.gleahpowers.com, and follow Gleah on Twitter at @GPwriterartist.