By: Erik Barca
“Marcus, please stay the week. Dad needs you.”
“He doesn’t want me around. I’ll need to rearrange my work. I can only stay through Wednesday, maybe.”
“But I can’t take care of him until Saturday … Yes, I’m Niki, his daughter… It’s on the healthcare proxy … Marcus, I’ve got to go. The doctor is here. I’ll call you back.”
Marcus lies in bed staring at himself in the black reflection of his phone. The call is a contusion under his skin demanding a response. He sits up, puts his hand to his forehead and lays back down, refusing to pursue this feeling of obligation. He turns off his bed-side light, rolls over and sleeps through the night.
Early Monday morning, Marcus leaves his Boston Brownstone apartment. He throws his overnight bag and soft leather briefcase onto the back seat of his black Mercedes and pulls out of his parking spot on Commonwealth Avenue. His father is home from the hospital, recovering from a fall. Niki said that it was important that Marcus visit, that his father had something pressing to tell him. It’s been a year since Marcus has spoken to his father, a not unusual span of mutual and agreeable silence. Marcus feels as if he has been asked to care for an estranged relative. Which is true.
As he turns onto Storrow Drive, the gray sky-cover rips open and rain pounds down. He flips on the radio and cycles through news stations, straining to see through the fogged windshield and beating rain.
“Brutal road rage punch leaves man unconscious for a week…Loneliness may be a bigger health threat than smoking… Feelings of isolation and emotional detachment on the rise …”
He reaches for the controls on the oak-trimmed center console.
About a year ago, Marcus turned fifty, a milestone he acknowledged by resolving to live more deliberately, to clear the clutter from the edges of his life. One Sunday afternoon after deleting messages and old photos from his phone, he discovered he could block calls, or more accurately, send them directly to voicemail. A revelation. He could lower the volume to the outside world.
Only his sister Niki is given special dispensation. She has permission to vibrate.
Marcus’s phone vibrates.
“Hi Niki. Yeah, I’m on my way … Uh-huh… I’m sure it’s nothing. He probably just doesn’t feel like speaking. He was never a talker. Okay. I’ll call you later.” His father is home resting; this will be a short visit he thinks. The stab of tension in his shoulders subsides, replaced by a warm sensation that extends the length of him.
Marcus recalls when he was small. His father sang to him, played on the floor with him, made up bedtime stories. But by the age of ten, it was as if a light switched off. The climbing, smiling, curious toddler grew into a questioning, challenging boy. That boy, grew into a sighing, sneering, eye-rolling, sleep-until-noon adolescent with dark hair flopping over his eyes. His father wanted no part of that. The space between them became heavy and fraught. And so, the two spoke in two-word sentences for the next ten years. Then Marcus went off to MIT, cut his hair and ten years became forty. They never fought. They never hugged. After college, Marcus visited his father twice a year, and after his mother died, even less.
The heated car seat is like a shallow warm bath. Heavy beats of rain accompany the thump of the windshield wipers. It’s dark outside and difficult to see, like peering through glass smeared with gel. Marcus wonders what could be so pressing. The dashed white passing line strobes to his left and syncs with the sound of the wipers. His eyes flutter and shut briefly. He catches himself and snaps his head up. His eyes close again as the Mercedes drifts into the passing lane. The back of an orange Mini Cooper is suddenly upon him.
Marcus jerks out of sleep. He grips the steering wheel and fixes his eyes wide. A current of fear cuts from under his ear down to his stomach as he yanks the steering wheel to the right and slams the brakes. The Mini Cooper continues ahead, but headlights blind him from behind. A sharp blow. His body is jolted forward and his head snaps back. The Mercedes swerves into the breakdown lane, ricochets off the guardrail and brakes. An SUV nearly swipes his side mirror, arcs around the Mercedes and skids to a stop ahead.
Marcus puts both hands to his forehead and exhales slowly.
A bulky man approaches the Mercedes, screaming. The man peers inside and knocks on the driver window. Marcus can see black, wet strands of hair plastered to his forehead, but the outside darkness and rain blur his features.
“What the FUCK are you doing? You almost killed me. Learn how to drive.”
Marcus stares ahead, his heart pounding in his ears. It’s hard to think. He tries to make sense of this man’s spitting rage – how he can be so disproportionately angry. Marcus wants to rise above this moment, to speak in words that make clear he is sorry, that he and the man are on the same side, just variations of each other. But he stares at his dashboard and does not make eye contact.
The man awkwardly pounds his fists on Marcus’s windshield. “Can you hear me asshole? You almost killed me!”
The man walks away, stops, and turns back. He takes both hands and rips the Mercedes’ wiper out of its socket and beats the metal arm against the windshield until the glass spider-cracks. He throws the wiper onto the side of the road, climbs back into his SUV and peels rubber. Drivers zoom by, sending up arcs of spray without a thought.
Time slows – ugly and out of joint. Several yards ahead the orange Mini Cooper is stopped with its hazards on. He only tapped the car. Why is it stopped? Marcus closes his eyes and considers his options.
He searches his phone for the nearest same-day windshield repair.
There was a woman. She taught Advanced Econometric Techniques and Applications at MIT, a subject that didn’t interest Marcus in the slightest until she appeared. They lived in Cambridge for seven years, and when they were first together, they agreed to marry after Marcus graduated. After he graduated, he worked at Harvard Management Company managing a $25 billion endowment. She was promoted to Associate Professor and Marcus made a lot of money, but he wasn’t happy. He told the Professor they would marry when he got a new job and she believed him. After a couple of years, Marcus got a job at Fidelity Investments and the Professor got pregnant. They agreed to marry after the baby was born. A baby girl was born, and they named her Marisol and they did not marry. Marcus sang to Marisol, played on the floor with her and made up bedtime stories that she couldn’t yet understand and never got a chance to understand. In her eighth month she died in her crib.
After the funeral, Marcus worked hard not to be home. The Professor would make dinner for two and throw the rest away. She would spend evenings alone sorting, re-sorting and then discarding bibs, blankets and stuffed animals. After a year, Marcus moved to an apartment on Beacon Hill and the Professor moved to Hanover New Hampshire to teach at Dartmouth College.
Marcus has replaced his windshield and it is now late afternoon. He turns off Route 28 onto Old Queen Anne Road and drives several more miles until he arrives at his father’s house. Chatham Cape Cod is a seaside town with many large and exclusive homes, but his father’s is not one of them. The yard is ornamented with a rusted grill, a broken croquet stick and a small wooden rowboat, half rotted into the ground. The objects are unfamiliar – remnants of cookouts, games and celebrations that Marcus has forgotten or was never part of. He wonders why his father ever sold his childhood home and moved to this forgotten place.
Pushing open the side door, Marcus steps into the kitchen. He sets his briefcase and overnight bag down by the door. The house has a fruity sewage smell, like a nursing home. A baseball game is blaring from the living room. It’s November.
His father is sunk low in his BarcaLounger under a blue wool blanket. He is watching a replay of game six of the 1975 World Series. Actually, he is not watching. He is sleeping among the muffled sounds of the game. Marcus turns off the TV. He remembers his 14-year-old self, staying up alone in his bedroom watching that game.
The silence brings the living room into relief. A small clock embedded in a miniature globe sits tilted on its axis on the mantel. A faded braided rug, frayed at the edges, covers wide floorboards. The finish on the flooring is worn in several places, to the bare wood. In one corner of the room, framed photographs sit on top of a small antique desk. Most of the photographs are black and white. Others have faded to greenish brown.
The room, the photographs. They impart a feeling Marcus can’t quite unravel; a kind of loss – people and connections that could have enlarged his life of self-contained mildness. But now: his mother, his grandparents, relatives he cannot name. They are all smiling from the picture frames, and they are all dead.
Marcus jostles his father’s shoulder. His eyes open and brighten. He opens his mouth as if to speak, but instead smiles, revealing two broken upper teeth.
His father reaches out and grabs Marcus’s arm, closes his eyes and exhales warily. Marcus stands awkwardly, not sure what to do. His father releases his grip and drifts back into sleep.
Marcus is now settled on the couch across from his dozing father, running stochastic asset models on his laptop. He recalls his years at MIT, burrowed alone in his dorm room, studying for days. He has always been able to work hard. He thinks back to the late nights in his office when he was detaching from the Professor, working to keep from drifting into despair. When he works, things make sense.
At eighty-seven his father is still handsome. His sleeping expression is hard, but not unkind, his chin resting on his chest. Several grayish spots cover his bare head and Marcus wonders if this is normal. He is lean – wiry, but not frail. He has never been frail. This will be a short visit. He considers rescheduling his Wednesday work appointments, but decides to wait.
Marcus is sitting on the toilet when hears a loud thud followed by a sickening moan. A flash of irritation passes through him. He pulls up his blue dress pants and hurries to the living room. His father is sprawled face-down on the floor several feet from his chair. His left arm is outstretched, and his right-hand palm down at a right angle to his body, as if he were trying to push himself up. His bare head is flushed bright red.
Why didn’t he call for help? Marcus reaches for his phone, hesitates, and then kneels next to his father. He can hear him breathing. He thinks, absurdly, about Marisol lying in her crib that morning, not breathing. He did not know what to do.
The worn braided rug pushes hard against his knees. He shifts his weight and turns his father onto his side. His father starts to cough, eyes closed, a wet, gurgling hack that seems like it will never end. But it does end. He looks up at Marcus through pale blue watery eyes. Marcus props him to a sitting position and his father brings the palm of his hand to Marcus’s cheek. Marcus flinches, almost imperceptibly.
He places his arms under his father’s arms and struggles to his feet. He helps his father down the hallway to his bedroom and sits him on his king-size bed. He swings his father’s legs onto the bed, lays him down, pulls up the bed covers and wipes the corners of his mouth. As he turns to leave, he notices his father gesturing. Air kisses. Marcus smiles and looks down at the floor, not knowing how to respond. He turns out the bedroom light and closes the bedroom door. Under the hall light, the wet tissue glistens bright red with blood.
Marcus’s phone vibrates.
“Hi Niki. … Yes, everything is fine. He had a minor fall, but he’s fine. He’s sleeping now… Yes, of course I was watching him. Stop worrying … Uh-huh… What time is she arriving?… Okay, I’ll tell her … Yes, I can probably stay through Saturday. Okay, see you then. Good night.”
Marcus opens his eyes. Yesterday’s rain has passed and early morning light shines through the living room window. He looks around and takes in yesterday’s forms. The BarcaLounger, the photographs in the corner of the room and the braided rug. He rolls over on the couch and looks at his watch. It’s 6:30 AM. His father has slept through the night. Or Marcus has slept through the night without hearing his father. He isn’t sure which. The hospital caregiver will arrive by 10:00 AM, his sister told him. His father must be hungry; he hasn’t eaten since Marcus arrived late yesterday afternoon.
Behind the bedroom door his father is making sounds – garbled sentences and grunts. The bed mattress squeaks, intermittently. Marcus stands behind the closed door. “Dad, do you want some breakfast?” The sounds stop. He knocks gently and opens the door a crack. “Dad?”
He opens the door wider and steps into the room. His father is propped up in his bed. He is looking down to his left and right, as if discovering his bedsheets for the first time. His father looks up. His eyes are questioning with a hint of fear. The smell of urine and excrement is overwhelming and causes Marcus to gag. He puts his hand over his nose and mouth and walks to his father’s bed. He hesitantly pulls back the bed cover.
The next hour is not comfortable.
“Let me take off your pajamas… I’ll get the baby wipes… You need to pull off your boxers… The soap is to help clean you up… Nod if you understand … Dad, it’s okay. You did this for me at one point in my life … Don’t get up… I’ll hold your left hand while you use your right to wash yourself … Do you understand?… Is the water warm enough? … Relax. Wait until your cough stops … It’s okay… More blood… Dad, please don’t cry. Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere…”
The father is sleeping in his bed under clean white sheets and the son is sitting at the kitchen counter. His thoughts are interrupted by an impatient knock at the door. A short, bulky woman with cropped blonde hair and a turned down mouth is standing at the doorstep peering through the side window. She is holding a small leather-bound book and glancing all around. Marcus opens the door.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, my name is Pat. I’m here for Robert.” She grins widely, but her eyes are indifferent. She holds her smile and blinks hard twice until Marcus feels compelled to smile back. She appears older than Marcus, sixty or sixty-five, despite the yellow color of her hair.
“I’m Marcus. Robert is my father.”
“This is my first session with your father. Is he inside?”
“Oh yes, you’re from the hospital. He’s sleeping. He had a small fall yesterday and an accident last night, but he’s cleaned up now. He coughed up a little blood. I can wake him and let him know you’re here for his medical check.”
Pat looks at Marcus quizzically. “Oh, no, no. You don’t understand, dear. I’m not certified for that. I’m from hospice. I could contact the GP if you want, but you must remember, your father is in palliative care.”
Marcus looks at her blankly. A long silence follows, but Pat’s expression does not change.
“I know. This must be hard on you honey.” She reaches for Marcus’s hand and he reflexively pulls back. “We can sit for a talk if you would like. During this difficult phase, we find that connecting with others is important – expressing your feelings about loss as you grieve…”
“No, no, no. I haven’t lost anything. I don’t want your… I don’t need to talk. This is just a bad time. Thank you for coming by. I will tell my father you were here. I’m sorry. This isn’t a good time at all. We will schedule another day.”
Pat concedes quickly and begins to talk about her next appointment: a dying man living alone with no children or relatives. But Marcus isn’t interested in her dying patient with no family. He wants this woman to leave.
He sits alone at the kitchen counter studying the lines in his hands. The comprehension strikes him as suddenly as someone shoving him to the ground from behind. Why didn’t Niki tell him? Or maybe he didn’t hear. He recalls Niki’s comments about his father’s pressing need to tell Marcus something. Perhaps his father knew all along. He struggles to get his mind around the thought – that his father will not recover. That he will soon die.
He thinks back to the night Marisol died. His parents came to visit, to see the baby. His father would not stop holding Marisol – kissing her stomach, nose and ears, singing his ridiculous made-up limericks. Babies brought out the best in him, Marcus’s mother often said.
The new parents hurried home from dinner; this was their first night out. At first, they were relieved. Marisol was a breeze, his father said. She hadn’t stirred all evening. Marcus would seal those brutal words in his thoughts to this day. Why didn’t he check her breathing? Place her on her back or stomach or whatever the fucking rules said you were supposed to do?
It is late afternoon. Marcus stretches his legs and leans back against the headboard, his father sleeping next to him. His thoughts drift oddly to the orange Mini Cooper on the side of the highway. Maybe it was a hit, not a tap. It doesn’t matter.
His father awakes and tries to sit up, but falls back. “Dad, you’re weak from no food. Let me heat up some beef broth with bread and butter.” His father moves his head from side to side on the pillow. “Do you want some water?” His father nods, yes.
Marcus returns from the kitchen with a glass of water. His father is now sitting up in bed. He takes a sip, puts the glass on the bedside table and lays back down under the bed covers. Marcus pulls a chair next to the bed and they are silent for a bit. His father’s eyes are closed, but he is not asleep.
“Dad, I was sort of thinking I would come for Thanksgiving. I could bring turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes. Would that be okay?” His dad smiles, eyes still closed.
Marcus looks around. A bookcase from his childhood stands next to his father’s desk. When he was small, his father would read him a story every night from that bookcase. He remembers the lamp by the bed, the dark glow of his bedroom and the light reflecting off the pages. He remembers the pictures in the books: watercolor-filled pencil drawings of horses, dogs and woodsmen. And he remembers the woody smell of whiskey and the inflections in his father’s voice. He doesn’t remember the stories, but he remembers these things distinctly.
Marcus tries to make sense of the trajectory between those books and his current life. He has wasted time. He pulls a book from the bookcase and reclines on the bed while his father lies next to him. His father, his eyes still closed, searches for Marcus’s face, reaches around and gently tugs Marcus’s ear. Marcus turns away.
He opens the book and beings to read.