by Jason Joyce
Through the kitchen window, out past the dog run, is a graveyard. On some mornings I see a person or two park their compact car along the black wrought iron fence and slide through the heavy gate so that they can jog the dirt paths. I wonder why they choose to run here, through winding lanes lined with tombstones, where my mother was buried last month. Like the weather, my father has been soggy and grey since, and I see him scuffling along the dirt paths early every morning in his slippers to my mother’s headstone, a modest piece of marble chiseled with hummingbirds and chrysanthemums.
After my mother’s death, my father slipped into a deep state of depression and had two minor, rapid strokes that were unrelated to the depression, but that were the catalyst for me to sell my loft, ask for a transfer at my advertising firm, and move Northeast to Portland and my childhood home.
I grew apart from my family soon after September 11th. The buildings were falling right outside my office and I called home to tell my parents that I was safe. Neither of them called back during the next few days, and in the months and years since then, they’ve acted as if it was only a movie reel they watched, a work of fiction. This caused me to weigh the burden of taking the time to bother anyone at home each time something important happened in my life. It felt wrong to me, but I kept telling myself that since I’d left home for school at Syracuse, things had changed. Or maybe they hadn’t, but helping out my father gave me a chance to know for sure.
Growing up, my parents would always insist I consume food and drink in the kitchen, even if I was drinking a cup of tea, yet they would rarely tidy up the house, and a fine layer of dust accumulated on all the wood surfaces too high to be reached by vacuum bristles. My mother never watered her plants either. They would sit in corners, bargaining with late bloomed leaves or last minute white tea cup flowers, but to no avail. The wilted brown stems drooped to the floor, ground into the rust colored carpet by careless feet, to be vacuumed on Sundays. When I arrived back home, the exterior of the house had followed suit, and my father’s habitual smoking had begun to stain the interior walls in yellow patterns.
I settled quickly, the piercing, comfortable sting of the nine to five, the apathetic, faked weeknights with my father, where we rarely spoke, watching West Coast weather stations, Hatari!, or any other number of programs that the satellite beamed down to us.
After a late night watching a Clark Gable movie, my longtime girlfriend, Abigail, and I walked up the tan carpeted steps from the basement. I had no novel care for old movies, but she loved anything in black and white, except Ansel Adams photographs, and I could feign interest for two hours at a time. That and she liked to tell me that I looked like a modern age Gable, sans the mustache, and I couldn’t argue with such logic. We had become accustomed to the stale stench of nicotine, immune to it creeping into our clothes and hair, wrapping tightly around knit threads, staining our white’s a subtle yellow, coloring our darks with pale hints of ash. I was even becoming acquainted with the black flecks speckling the shower floor, revealing that my father had taken to smoking in the shower. Abigail had yet to meet him, despite the fact she had been spending most nights with me, and was already talking about us finding a place when my father was well enough to live on his own or when his lack of closure drove him to medical care. She had been positive about the matter, saying there’s no place she’d rather be than visiting her thirty-three year old boyfriend at his smoke and ash stained parent’s house, and I had plans to marry her once we saw this out.
The yellowed bulb in the fridge’s ice dispenser cast the only light at the top of the steps, bathing the kitchen and dining room in murky light, casting water shapes and ripples when it bounced off the colored crystal in the china cabinets. Abigail, with her spotlight hair, jingly laugh, and the red carpet wattage that was her smile, looked like a Broadway actress in her first big scene as she ascended the steps.
Soon after I had moved in, my father sat on the front porch cleaning his guns, drinking cool lemon tea, and had asked me to come sit with him as I headed for my car. We rarely interacted without some form of media staining the background, and that day there had been little noise, besides the occasional clack of metal or the subtle wheeze or whistle originating deep in my father’s sinuses.
“Son,” he said, “tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”
And that’s how he left it, his attempt at convincing himself and I to find closure, using a John Wayne quote printed on the bottom of one of my mother’s collectable ashtrays.
My mother caught me after my first inhale, the one time I had smoked, and ripped the tangy menthol from my lips and broke it in half. I was nine years old and wearing one of her floral print dresses and brown wedge heels. Playing in her closet, I had found a cigarette and lighter in one of her sweater pockets and knew my outfit would not be complete without a lit Capri and one of her oh so valuable collector’s ashtrays in the other hand. No one had been kind enough to take her Capri Lites away from her.
On the porch, again tonight, he stood, this time colored by a green porch light, misplaced Christmas cheer, hands grasping the metal railing and his Wranglers taut at the seams as he leaned over, his back to us, talking to someone in a wheelchair beside him. Seeing that it was too late to steer Abigail out the back door, I swung the heavy oak door open wider and pushed the glass door open. On cue, my father turned toward us, showing his teeth.
“Who’s this ray of sunshine?” he asked.
“I’m Abigail, it’s nice to meet you Mr. Reddick.” She stuck out her hand and my father took it gingerly and moved it up and down. My father hadn’t been looking past us at something that wasn’t quite there, his voice was brighter, still sandpaper-like, but the blue nylon sling he’d taken to wearing lately for no necessary reason, was gone.
“It’s truly nice to meet you little lady, Ryland has told us so much about you.”
There was some skirting of the fact on his part that there had been no mention of any of the women in my life to him in the past five years.
“But you’ll have to excuse Ryland’s mother, she is feeling a bit under the weather tonight. Usually she’s the spryest old hen I’ve seen, but my gal has taken the night off,” he said chortling. He patted his hand on the slumped over form in the wheelchair. The light was dim and the blanket was positioned over the form in such a way that I couldn’t make who was sitting in the chair.
“Since it’s late and I would like more time to talk, especially on account that you seem to make my boy so happy, why don’t you join Ryland’s mother and me for dinner tomorrow night?”
“That sounds great. We would love to,” Abigail said. I could see a shadow moving across her bright features, realizing all that I had told her about my family wasn’t what she was seeing.
“Well let’s plan on seeing you at five tomorrow. You kids have fun tonight. I’m going to get my beauty to bed,” my father said and lit his last call cigarette.
I grabbed Abigail by the arm and guided her past my father and the person in the wheelchair and towards the car. Halfway across the lawn, she pulled away from me and hit me in the chest.
“What kind of fucked up joke are you playing on me Ryland? You tell me your mother has just died and that your father isn’t able to cope and that when the time is right I can meet him. Well, your mother looks pretty goddamn alive to me, and your father isn’t at all the way you made him out to be. Tell me right now that this is a joke, or I swear to God…” She hit me again across the chest to solidify her point.
“It was Abby, I’m sorry. Slow down a second. It’s just that I thought I could joke with you and then I got too deep into it and didn’t know how to tell you. Please, I’m sorry.”
As I said this, I watched over Abigail’s shoulder as my father wrestled with the wheelchair, trying to get it over the front door’s lip and onto the tile entryway. The form, who I assumed was female, jostled back and forth in the chair, giving away my father’s inexperience in maneuvering the chair, and showing his apparent obliviousness to the delicacy of the situation.
“If your father wasn’t such a sweet man, I don’t think I’d come to dinner tomorrow, but I’m not going to disappoint him, so consider this your warning that tomorrow night you impress me and redeem yourself, because right now I have serious doubts about you.”
Abigail snaked a lanyard out of her purse and clutching her keys tight, walked to her blue Mazda without a goodbye or a kiss.
Inside, I bolted the door and wondered what other precautionary measures I should take to cover my father and the hostage he’d taken into the house. I stepped from the tile entryway and sunk ever so slightly into the dated carpet. My father was sitting in his chair watching a fly fishing program.
“Dad, where did this woman come from?” I asked.
“You mean where was your mother born? She’s told you before that she was born in Boston and then moved to Wales when she was five because her father, your great grandfather, was in the Navy.”
Forfeiting the game, realizing nothing less than a polygraph would get me answers, I walked into the dining room. On the serving table lay a yawning manila folder, a teal hospital identification bracelet, and two pill bottles on their sides. I picked up the bracelet and read the typewriter font to find that the woman sleeping in the bedroom was Beatrice Tipman and she was a resident of the Crestview Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center. The pills were valium and prescribed to be taken three at a time, twice a day, and reason for her compliant and comatose state. I glanced up from the copper bottle and looked out the kitchen window. Under the carport sat my father’s tan Silverado with his rusted blue horse trailer on hitch. Pieces began to fit together. The problem this created was not that my manic father had kidnapped a woman, it was that when or if someone noticed this woman was gone, she probably wouldn’t be a high priority case, as she had been parked at the nursing home by her family three years ago, so said her file.
I spent the next day with Beatrice, or Bea as my father fancied. He had left to work, supervising the assembly and tearing down of sky top wooden water towers in the city as he had done for the past twenty-nine years, and when I came upstairs, I found that Bea was sitting alone at the table. Imagining my father thought she would be fine on her own, as my mother had for so many years, he must not have had a second thought before leaving. I found later that she probably would have been fine on her own as I had pushed her near the living room window and there she stayed most of the day, staring at the hummingbirds when they came to eat from the flowers. I moved her once when she began to rock back and forth in her chair, moaning under her breath. I decided she was having a stroke or heart attack, or an embolism, or whatever it was that plagued seniors these days, and needed me to call for help, but before I finished dialing I saw that she was sitting directly in the sun and was simply uncomfortable. I moved her closer towards the wall where the carpet was shaded by the curtains and let her be for the rest of the day.
“It’s just so interesting that you look nothing like your mother. I don’t want to be rude, but if I hadn’t met her I wouldn’t know that she is black,” Abigail said.
My neon girl was still very much unaware of the kidnapped woman about to eat dinner with us, but was in a much peppier mood, acting as if last night hadn’t upset her. She and I stood in the kitchen, placing buttery white rolls into a wicker basket. My father and Bea sat at the table ready to dine on prime rib and mashed potatoes. He wore his best pear colored, pearl snap shirt and was clean shaven, which I noticed was the first time a razor touched his face since I moved in. For now, I decided, it was best to play along and keep Abigail believing that the sedated black woman in the dining room was my mother. Lying came easy for now, and I would make sure to keep Abigail away from the house long enough to fix this situation.
An undertone of patented nursing home smell peppered the seasoned potatoes as I sat down beside Bea. She hunched in her wheelchair, staring intensely at the brown lines running around her plate as if a miniature horse derby was taking place between them. Her hands would tremor in her lap every few minutes, the one lasting will in her body the sedatives had yet to conquer.
“I’m glad you could join us tonight little lady,” my father said. His Camel dangled from his lips, flecking ash into his green beans. “Ryland’s mother and I like it when our boy is happy, and you seem to make him happy.”
My father was acting as he did when I brought my college sweetheart over for dinner after our first year away. As far as I remembered, he was saying the exact same words as before, creating the effect of watching a movie off its reel, replaying one scene over as the corners of the film burned towards the center, the picture discoloring to a hazy melted plastic bottle yellow and brown.
He continued on as we ate, like a starving actor trying to prove he had memorized his scene. He slowed his pace when he was unsure of the next words, and sped up when he felt comfortable. Abigail played along unassumingly, her eyes flashing at stories from my childhood, dabbing her parted lips with the cloth napkin after each bite.
“You know for the longest time his mother and I thought Ryland was experimenting with that friend of his, what was his name… Jeff.” My father laughed, spitting small chunks of prime rib onto his chin, and grabbed Bea’s hand.
“Remember that, sweetie?”
Bea muttered something about the cats getting in the garbage again and that’s when I knew the current dose of her pills was wearing off.
Bea’s shoulders twitched under her cream sweater, her feet banged the metal foot stirrups of the wheelchair, her eyes focused behind double thick glasses. Still intent on talking to Abigail, my father didn’t notice the frequent subtle movements Bea kept making.
Sitting next to her I was able to pick up on the words spilling from her mouth more frequently. My father banged the table then, laughing, coughing, stirring the ice in the water glasses, covering Bea’s voice.
“Who’s ready for pie?” he asked, smiling at Abigail. “Ryland’s mother makes the best blueberry pie in the state of Maine. That’s the reason I married her,” he said as an aside to Abigail.
“Dad, we don’t have any blueberry pie, you know that.”
My father’s face fell as he realized that I was not lying to him. Abigail looked at me, perplexed, registering that my father may not just be an overenthusiastic senior. He excused himself from the table and went into the bathroom.
“Ryland, what’s going on? What’s wrong with your dad? Did your mom just ask me why the walls haven’t been painted yet?”
“They are just tired, babe. I think we should probably go.”
“Are you sure that’s it?”
“Yeah, that’s all it is. My dad will clean up the plates. I’ll take you out for a drink if you grab our coats.”
My father returned from the bathroom as we were sliding our coats on. His face looked sunken and haggard, he slouched as he walked. It was as though a professional make-up crew had been camped in the adjacent room, waiting earnestly to prep my father for this new scene. He was broken again.
Still not noticing Bea’s babbling, which had steadily increased in volume over the past few minutes, he steered her away from the table and into the living room where he parked her in front of the hardwood television set and covered her legs with an afghan.
“Well you kids have fun and don’t be too late,” he mumbled when he walked back to us where we stood at the door. “I think your mother and I will have some coffee and go to bed early. We are going to the botanic gardens in the park tomorrow so I don’t want to stay up late,” he said, half looking at us, half looking at a smoke stain on the wall that resembled a small bird.
“Thanks for the lovely dinner, Mr. Reddick,” said Abigail, as I pulled her towards the door.
I found a new place to live that next week. I convinced Abigail that I was only living with my parents because my apartment wasn’t ready yet and I had wanted it to be a surprise for us. She bit on the lie hard and wasn’t concerned about my family any longer. Now that we had a place together I could do no wrong. My father showed no sign of knowledge of my cracking his illusion he had worked so hard to fabricate, and was back to acting like his old self, before my mother had died. I only saw him twice more that month after the dinner party, but he seemed to be preoccupied with making Bea comfortable at all times. The man is sick, but I can’t bear to send him to a special rest home. I cope my own way, he is fine on his own.
My father makes it routine to call my phone each evening at seven, but I don’t answer anymore. His messages let me know that he is fine and that he and my mother hope I will bring my friend over for dinner again soon. On the nights Abigail works the late shift, I light a Camel and set it in the ashtray under the lamp on my end table and let it disappear down to the filter. The spark takes its time to burn out, like my father, smoldering nicotine, flecks of black ash on a bathroom floor. I guess some things change, or maybe they don’t.
JASON JOYCE just graduated from the University of Wyoming with a bachelors in Business Administration and a minor in Creative Writing. He is pursuing a career in event promotion and entertainment management. He plays bass for the Cheyenne, WY based band “Save My Hero.” Jason is currently working on his first full-length collection of poems. You can find out more about his writing on his blog at jasonrjoyce.blogspot.com.