The hospital is getting smaller in the car’s rear window, as if I have the power to shrink its sprawling brick monolith and close off its merciless little rooms.
Doves huddle around the empty cupola. Deserter, they say.
Tall windows yawn open like mouths echoing the birds. Deserter.
My daughter’s Cadillac is a flawless, shiny white box lined in leather bleached to bone, so soft on my face. Her eyes in the rearview mirror say, My father has his face on the backseat. Perhaps he’s not ready to come home. But I am ready.
“Maybe this is the last time,” she says.
I want to say, It is the last. The very last. You will never have to come back here. But if I said this, she would turn around, and the doves and the windows would laugh and say, We knew you couldn’t leave us. So I nod yes, but not much of a yes.
My son-in-law turns to look at me. He is a jovial man, with a relentlessly contented approach to life and an unwavering belief that everyone is a pal.
“Great to get outta there.” He raises his voice like he thinks I went deaf. His heritage is Italian, a tribe of people who hug and eat with the same satisfied logic. None of them have ever doubted why we are alive. “We’re glad you’re coming home.”
Technically, I’m not coming home, which is miles from Sara and Joe’s. But I smile because they expect it. My wife Hilda is away, and they think I can’t take care of myself. Or my being alone would be a danger. But the danger is in living. Sara and Joe can’t know how real danger is frozen in moments that can’t be altered and in all the time between.
My brother-in-law was capable of killing my sister, and she him. This I sensed, like a vibration that ran through their lives, from the first moment I saw them together. How he spun her around above his shoulders. She was small and light. I thought if he dropped her, she might shatter. But they laughed and tumbled into the grass, and he wrapped his arms over her like a cage, and she kicked her legs in a flurry of stockings and petticoats stained from farm work. Passion drove them. And we all averted our eyes as if what was between them might be scalding. After their children came, he suspected every man of conspiring to take her away and grew so twisted up that he would not, could not let her breathe. The children too.
Love starts innocent, but then it grows to be about blood and pain and loss, my sister had said. It’s a terrible energy. Or was it the birds whispering through the walls?
“The kids can’t wait to see you.” I cannot see Sara’s lips, but those eyes lined in black makeup tell me my daughter is smiling.
Hilda is away with our son and his family. So far away, it’s a different country. The last time I saw my wife, she said she never wanted to see me again. Or maybe she didn’t say that. Maybe it’s what I wanted. Forty years ago I wanted to marry Bessie. To have our child and live out the passion between us with many more children. But I sat at my mother’s table while she stood. Her arms tight across her bosom, as if love required penance. As if she got to say who would be loved and who would not.
Never, not to that foolish trash of a girl, she said. So Bessie was sent away for a while and our child forever. In time Bessie became acceptable for my older brother, as if he’d always wanted her, conspiring for her all along. We married people our parents chose for us, and it was my mother who chose.
Hilda came to visit a month ago and said, “I’m going away with Luke, Gwen, and the children to an island in the Bahamas.”
“What will you do there?” I said.
“Walk on the beach,” she said.
“You don’t even own sandals,” I said.
“I’ll wear shoes,” she said.
“But what about the water,” I said. “Your shoes will get wet.”
“I’ll buy new ones,” she said. “On vacation.”
“You don’t know how to go on a vacation,” I said.
I loved her for reminding me she was stronger than me and that she always had been. And for being gone when I was released. What do you say to someone you love, when that love isn’t enough to sustain life? To keep the specters—as near to living as your own flesh—that haunt you at bay?
Sara turns on the radio and taps her gloved fingers on the steering wheel. My daughter has embraced the color white like a nun takes on a habit. The gloves, the hat, the scarf that peeks from the neckline of her coat. Like fuzzy snow. And of course the car, with its delicious upholstery. I could lick it, the taste like newness. Nothing has tasted good for a year. Everything tasted like medication in the ward. The food, the water, the cigarettes, the sheets. I believe supplies must come into the ward through a tunnel. I imagine this channel filled with medicinal sludge, and all the supplies—the gowns, slippers, apples, soap, meat, toothbrushes, socks, carrots, plastic combs, blankets, everything—are dragged through it. I see these items pulled from the sludge onto a long conveyer belt that runs past an enormous dryer like those used in factories to cure the silvery paint that makes planes shine in the sun above us when we are in the yard. In my mind, the food, the sheets and towels, the cigarettes, everything goes past that great dryer. Then, robotic arms package (because staff cannot become medicated too) and distribute everything to the dispensary, the cafeteria, the cigarette machine, linen supply. And to us in little cups and packets, in syringes, and on plastic plates and trays lined up like military tombstones. So we are highly medicated. And then sometimes, when it doesn’t seem like the medications or the medicated food or the medicated sheets and medication-laced cigarettes are enough, they take us to Doctor Fleischer, who has a machine with dials and levers and buttons that shoots white light through your brain while your teeth clamp onto a rubber guard that tastes like medicine when they put it in your mouth and metal when they take it out.
Joe and Sara’s house sits among others, only different in color. Shutters or no shutters. Garage, no garage. Attached or detached. Trees or shrubs. Theirs is shutters, garage, detached, shrubs. Bright and clean. White. Not the white of the ward, that ward that was also milky green—Why green? I ask. What did green do?—But softer, like the little balls of cotton in a jar on the dresser in Bessie and Otis’ room after his death. I took one small puff from that jar and put it to my lips, almost as soft and warm as she, who I loved and let be sent away to birth our child for adoption. Bessie, the girl who married my brother. Passion was something my mother sought to break in us. Like wild horses tamed to haul wagons. And then my brother put a shotgun to his head. And Bessie was alone. I stood in her and my dead brother’s bedroom with the cotton puff against my lips and thought this was what I deserved. Their punishment was to never have children. Mine was to lose both my brother and sister and my Bessie. To know that love meant pain and loss.
Sara’s house has carpet from one corner to the next. Except the kitchen. The laundry, and baths. Otherwise, they’d be the crazy ones. The living room is down two steps that run along an entire wall. On the floor is Presley. I have a lot of grandchildren, maybe seven, but Presley is my favorite. He is eight. With brown hair and the dark skin and a hard, narrow frame that has branded some of us in the family. Not fair, not round, not voluptuous. Not German in the Germanic sense. We are strung together with flesh tight like rubber bands.
This is the finest moment I’ve experienced in months. To sit here on Sarah’s couch. A long thing that is almost white and actually turns a corner and can seat everyone in the house without any of us touching. But it is just Presley and I now.
“Why did you go away?” he asks. He plays with many small metal cars and trucks on the carpet. He has been waiting to ask this until we are alone. As if he has been told things he doesn’t believe. That I was resting. That it was good for me. As if one can rest in a place with wire over the windows and people crying out like ghouls. Like that kind of world is good for anyone.
“I had to,” I say. For everyone’s peace of mind, I do not say, Because I did not want to live anymore. Because your grandmother found me half dead and took me to the hospital, where they jammed tubes down my throat. They called it lavage. A lovely word, lavage. But I will never experience another lavage.
“Will you go again?” He’s very aware of me, but doesn’t look up when he talks. I smile for him. I think he can see me smile.
“No,” I say. “Never again.”
“When is Gramma coming back?”
“Soon,” I say.
Sara peeks in. “Steaks for dinner,” she says. Then she’s gone.
“Do you like steak?” I ask Presley.
“Only if my mother cuts it,” he says. He runs a red car in a circle around the others. “This one is the fastest car. It can beat all of them.”
“Is that so,” I say.
“My father likes butter on his steak.”
“I’d like that too,” I say.
The tablecloth and china plates are white. Or close to white. Something happened between my generation and my daughter’s, as if color had slowly been eradicated. Unless it is milky green like the hospital or in bright geometrics on a white background. Like the napkins. The pillows on the couch. I find these splotches of color very difficult to look at. Big spirals and circles going nowhere. And there is no wood. Only paint and plastic and metal. I like wood. I made the chest at the foot of Sara and Joe’s bed. The tool kit in the garage. Presley’s toy box. These wooden things are not in view, but away in private spaces. The girls’ rooms are both white, painted wood with ruffled fabric. Girls like ruffles, I guess. I’d like to take my wooden-handled steak knife upstairs and nick the white paint off a bedpost to see what type of wood is there. Cheap pine, no doubt. You don’t paint cherry or walnut. Hopefully, no one did. I want to tell Sara, All this white is not good for children. They need natural things, warm wood and comforting colors. Best to stay away from milky green. I want her to know how good the wood handle of the knife feels in my hand, open, porous, but I can’t. She’d only worry.
My daughter’s face is angled, with wide, deep-set eyes. Pretty, voluptuous. Her daughters look this way too. Rene is oldest, Vanessa youngest, Presley at eight in the middle. Sara and Joe sit at the table’s ends. I sit with Presley, across from the girls, like one of the children.
“Shall I cut your steak, Pop?” Sara’s voice rises at the end as if she doesn’t mean that maybe I shouldn’t use a knife anymore. Or as if feeling that you can’t go on in the world also means you no longer want to cut your own steak.
“I’m fine,” I say, “but thank you.”
Presley smiles and nods at his plate. “My mom cut mine,” he says.
I wonder if he’ll remember us sitting here. Will he understand that I can love him, but still not stay?
When dinner ends, the children run to lie on their stomachs on the white carpet in front of the television. I cannot recall the last time I lay on my stomach. Joe follows them with a hand on his. I help Sara.
“Ma flies back Monday,” Sarah says. Her hands are in the water in pink rubber gloves. “We’ll pick her up at the airport.” I can smell the lemon fragrance used to disguise the smell of detergent. A smell I hate—the perfume of ward sanitization. She glances at me. I’m taking too long to dry a plate, so I put it away. I smile and she smiles.
Smiling wasn’t required in the ward. Or even expected. Randal Muntz smiled a lot. Sometimes, in the dayroom, he let out a whooping laugh that made us all jump like pieces on a chessboard that someone had slammed down. Randal went to isolation more than once. I never smiled while I was there. It’s not my nature. At least it hasn’t been for a long time. I never went to isolation.
“That soon,” I say. It is only days before my wife returns, my wife, who doesn’t want to see me again. Or shouldn’t see me again. I can’t recall. Maybe both. It is almost no time. I have no time.
Joe appears. “Your bags are in Presley’s room. Do you mind the top bunk? Can’t believe we bought bunks for a kid afraid of heights.” He pats my shoulder.
“It’s better if I sleep down here,” I say. I have plans. Plans that must be implemented without Presley. To save him from knowing. So he can remember us at the table. Or when he was playing with the cars.
“Presley won’t go to sleep until you’re all settled in.”
“I’d rather be on the couch,” I say.
“Don’t be silly,” Sara says. “You’re home now.”
I want to say that I’m not home. That it’s a long time since I’ve been home. That I’ve been in a ward for over a year. That my limbs shake in the night. I call out. Even before I got sick, I called out. Sometimes Bessie’s name. Nothing was worse for Hilda. And I never wanted to hurt Hilda. Never wanted to hurt anyone. You can do nothing and cause hurt. Just like I did. And I will again.
Presley has hung pictures of cowboys all around the top bunk. The bunk’s frame is wood painted brown. The blanket is cotton woven into long ridges. It is blue. Not too dark, not too light. Not bright. Just blue. I’m thankful for these colors, even the brown.
“Did they have bunk beds where you were?” Presley asks from below.
“No,” I say. “No bunk beds.”
“Did they have steak?” he asks.
“No steak,” I say.
“Why aren’t you in pajamas?”
“I’ve taken off my belt,” I say. “That’s enough.”
“I’m in pajamas,” he says.
“I’m going to sleep now,” he says. I hear him roll on his side.
Rene’s voice vibrates through the wall the room shares with Sara and Joe’s. Her voice is high and fast like a bird announcing morning. But it is night. At that age, her mother always wanted something. It’s healthier to want than to not want. I hear the little thumps of her feet down the hall. A door almost slams. Or it could have slammed but not sounded like a slam.
“Don’t you close that door, young lady.” Sara is in the hall.
A door creaks open just a bit.
Sara and Joe’s voices resonate back and forth. I move close to the wall and put my hand against a poster of an actor with a short beard and a cowboy hat. The paper is slick. I close my eyes and think of the west. Or at least what I imagine it to be, like the picture’s red aridness with the sun opening up the sky over the plains. I can almost feel the heat on my skin.
The wall carries night noises. Wood framing settling around steel nails. Oak planks popping as another spot of moisture escapes. Reminders that wood rests under the carpet. I imagine the breath of my daughter and her family as they sleep. Feel the pulse of blood moving through my body. When all goes silent, I slip down. Past Presley with his back to me in pajamas covered in horses. His blue blanket kicked away. Not too dark, not too light. Just blue.
The house is still as I go downstairs. The white furnishings glow in light that leaks in from the street, especially in the kitchen, the sheen of vinyl underfoot.
I haven’t had whiskey in a year. In the past, Joe has kept his stash in the cabinet above the refrigerator. So much has changed, but this is the same. I sit at the table and pour a short glass. The only light is the one above the stove. I see faces in the pattern of the Formica tabletop, so I stop looking. The liquid glistens like amber through water and warms my lips, gums, teeth. I hold it there. Once I swallow, it will be done. Like taking pills in the ward. Go on now, the doves would say, swallow.
The hospital had procedures to follow, medicine to take, meals to eat. Mostly we did as we were told. This moment has no requirements. Only quiet and dim light, the last sensation of alcohol on my tongue. It’s an endless moment. My daughter and her family above, my wife with my son and his miles away. Their lives pulse through my veins.
Bessie is somewhere, older like I am. Married to someone I’ll never know. Our child is somewhere too. A boy raised by people we never knew, most likely married now. Maybe with children, grandchildren not counted. Their disconnected threads spin out from me like fishing line caught on rocks. Water flows all around, but beneath the surface only darkness.
My sister was beaten by her husband, and he beat their children.
It is what husbands and wives do, my mother had said. And boys are difficult to raise.
But he is cruel. I was younger than my sister, and just as distracted as she by the blue sky and the
wilderness beyond the endless rolling acres of corn and hay and pasture.
He is not much different than many men, my mother said.
I pour another glass, because it won’t matter if I have another. My sister won’t mind, or her boys, or my brothers. We’ll all be in the same space, and she can say what she wants to say. Do what she can. There’ll be no heaven for us, no peace, no angels. Not for those of us who abandoned who and what we loved and abandoned those who loved us.
I toast no one and let the liquid linger in my mouth, then bite into my throat.
The heavy clump of tangled, jagged keys beside Sara’s white purse in some way signifies my daughter’s life. Her home, her office, mine and Hilda’s home, the Cadillac. I have no keys, no access, no possessions that require unlocking or starting. Not even to my own home. I am here in Sara’s house. I take the Cadillac key from the ring.
I leave the bottle and glass on the table. A clue for Sara that maybe things are not right. She’ll look around for what else is amiss and maybe see the car key gone. She’ll call Joe.
Joe is an organized man. And happy. My daughter married well in those terms. They’ll never be rich, but they’ll always be happy. Joe will see to that. I sit in the Cadillac and stare at the order. The pegboard above Joe’s workbench. Shelves of balls and bats. A line of shoes against one wall. Grass and dirt stained. Scuffed and warped. Worn and weathered. All shapes and sizes. Relics of life. One pair is high-top sneakers. Green with white laces, partially cupped by a catcher’s mitt. The brooms and buckets, trash cans, rakes and shovels. These I imagined as I lay in my bed at the hospital and listened to ward sounds at night. Metal pans banging on metal carts. Patients calling out in their desperate dreams. Wheels rattling down the hall. The whispers of staff. Everything clamoring for attention as I imagined this moment.
But I did not imagine this car. It makes me sad. My daughter’s beautiful Cadillac is the only heaven I’ll know. Turning the key is like petting a cat that purrs so intensely it rumbles. Her old Buick would have been better. I lay my head against the headrest and close my eyes. I’m sorry for Sara that she bought this car and it’s where Joe will find me. He’s the first one outside. The first near the car. I breathe in and wait. Maybe she’ll remember how I put my cheek on the seat and think I came to sit in the car because I liked it so. That I turned the ignition because the night was cold.
It seems like forever. I open my eyes, expecting to smell exhaust. But the air is clear. It feels as if someone struck a board across my forehead. The whiskey’s working on my stomach. Perhaps this is death, the pained head, the wish to curl up on the seat and press my arms against my stomach. The sense that the world is spinning out of control. I could be sick. But not in this perfect place. Sickness here is worse than death. I turn off the car, or I think I do. The door handle is recessed in the armrest. I need both hands to open it. I stagger out, brace myself on a wall. I’m almost on my knees beside those shoes. The weighty twirling in my head and the turmoil in my stomach pull me down. The catcher’s mitt like an anchor. I reach for it, but it’s closer than I think. I knock it to the side.
I struggle to the door as the garage floor rolls beneath me. The door brings a flood of air like water washing over me. This is not how it should be. Not what I wanted. I sit on the stoop and gather my stomach in my arms and rest my head there. The spinning in my brain slows but doesn’t stop. Seconds float over minutes, and hours shrink into wisps of air and fly off in the dark cold. A hand on my shoulder and voice in my ear. So sweet and soft. So familiar. A humming almost. I strain to listen as I lean against the stoop’s railing.
“Almost there,” she says. “Almost home.”
“It’s too much,” I say.
“No, not enough.” She is still unforgiving. My sister in her death.
“I played catch with my grandson and that catcher’s mitt,” I say. “Before the hospital.”
“My sons did not play ball,” she says.
“I know,” I say.
I want to say I’m sorry, but it wouldn’t matter.
“You’re just a hallucination,” I say.
“Perhaps,” she says.
I struggle to stand. Up the back stoop. Into the house. Past the whiskey and glass. I’ll go upstairs. Crawl in the bunk. Die in my sleep.
Walls on both sides of the stairway support me. Headlights sweep through the upstairs hall. People on the road in the middle of the night escaping in a way I never could. The door to Presley’s room is open. I hold myself against the wall. Pivot on the doorframe to slip into the room. In the dimness I see his bed is empty. Gone to the refuge of his parents’ bed, like I did as a boy. But I was sent away.
This empty room is better. A twist of fate I hadn’t imagined, even in my planning as I wrote imaginary notes across the walls of my room. In the white spaces only. Never the green. Analyzing options. Planning this moment.
I cross to the bunks in one lurch, hoist myself up the ladder. The room is a centrifuge filtering and funneling the bad from the good. I will wait for death or morning.
A hand on the side of the bunk. Soft and white. Youth never altered. A young mother when she put a gun to her sons and herself. She has Presley beside her.
“No,” I say. “Not him.”
“Are you sure,” she says, “that he should not come too?”
“Please,” I say. “It’s me you want.”
“I am lonely,” she says.
“But I can’t,” I say. All my planning fades like graphite on the walls.
“I will help you,” she says.
Presley vanishes like vapor.
Her hands over mine, cool and light, like mist. We take the belt I’d pulled off earlier. Together we loop it around my neck and around the bedpost. She or I, I can no longer tell which hand is whose, pull the belt through its buckle until it is tight.
“Let go,” she says. “Fall into my arms.”
“I’m afraid,” I say.
“There is not reason to be,” she says. “I will catch you.”
“I cannot trust you,” I say. I turn to the bearded man in the poster and his red western world. A bird soars in the sky above him.