Among the many surprises since passing through the equivalent of the celestial gates, was this one: his work with Harry Jr., among others, was not finished. The hell of it was that, in the morning, his son wouldn’t remember one word of this conversation. These night time conversations. Which is not to say they wouldn’t continue to have some influence on his son. Thank God.
Harry Jr. feels he can do most of the workday morning’s routines blindfolded, they are just that familiar. He knows the feeling of getting up earlier than the rest of the household, letting the dogs out in the backyard, plugging in the coffee that had been set up the night before, retrieving the paper from the front porch, booting up the computer and reading the news online rather than in the paper. His wife still wanted the newspaper. She was more the traditionalist.
When his mind drifts, running on auto pilot, he notices periodic interruptions in his thoughts, like unwarranted commercials. They are curious. There are no ghosts. Right? ‘Ghost’, his father would say, has nothing to do with other-worldly. His dad had been a high school physics teacher, and so would have added “i.e. there are natural limitations to hanging out in the first three dimensions exclusively.” He used to love saying ‘i.e’. His saying ‘hanging out’ was a nearly successful attempt to bridge a generation gap or two.
He hadn’t heard her get up, the computer is in a little room off from the kitchen, and she is in the kitchen pouring some coffee for herself. She is asking “Did you bring the paper in?”, while he checks the weather on line.
“On the dining room table,” he says, reading further, announcing to diminishing footsteps, “cloudy, forty three is the high, rain possible in the evening.” He has to raise his voice for the last few words. They do a lot of this lately, speak to each other long distance from room to room. Some of what is said gets lost. He’s been less likely to ask her to repeat herself.
Still, this is better than the voice mail messages from their nearly launched kid. Poorly intoned chants sung in Latin are more comprehensible. The worst of them like an obscure rant, the meaninglessness of a slightly oscillating warble. He will say to his wife, holding the phone up as if this would help, “can you understand a word she is saying?” Mimi, 22 or maybe 23. His wife will ask from one or two rooms away, “What?” loudly. He will, if he has enough energy, walk the phone into the room his wife is occupying, and when he replays the message she will say, as if repeating a refrain from an all too familiar prayer: “I don’t get it, not at all.” He will find this consoling.
When he first woke up, he had to concentrate for a moment to remember what day it was. Sometimes he is momentarily fooled, cruelly, say a Monday morning in March, western New York. But today is the holy Sabbath of Saturday. Saturday, when time is of the essence, blooming with its own fragrance. Saturday, the promised land of the almost retiree, when as the saying goes, everyday seems like every other one. Freedom.
So he actually gets to make choices today about what he is going to do, and he may, or may not, look at the list he keeps putting in his pocket. Some of these tasks do get accomplished, and seeing the notation crossed off brings a measure of surprise, the motivation to continue.
“It’s Saturday!” he announces to his wife, and he checks the computer screen just for confirmation. She is, he imagines, sipping her coffee, getting increasingly entranced with the paper. This time he hears her, the words just within audible range, “welcome to my world.” And a page of newsprint is summarily turned.
When their garage was originally built, it was a time not far removed from the idea of having a barn, an out-building set back 75 feet from the house. He couldn’t recall why today, of all days, he felt compelled to go take a look at what he knew would be the chaotic jumble inside. When he pushed open the door the air would slap his face, its cold, damp, thick aroma of snow blower gas and oil, an old carpet deciding to go or stay, patio chairs stacked high above the unrefinished table, several of Mimi’s plastic tote boxes blocking his way toward a set of tools he might find useful. And there would be Mimi’s dresser from when she was little. A set of bent screen doors, cans of motor oil that might still be useful, three snow tires from the car before the last one. He is a good American with a lot of accumulated stuff. He refuses to consider renting a storage area. He has his garage.
Nothing seemed out of order. So to speak. When he is half way back to the house, he hears a sound of something shifting, sliding abruptly, and it is enough to stop him in his tracks. He waits for the calamity of stored goods to finally crash. This is the price for pushing and shoving things into any available space just for the moment. He stands still. Nothing further. Time to move on.
By the time he opens the door and steps back into the kitchen, he feels the tingling sensation over his whole body. This has been happening lately. He has found himself doing a mental check of the usually televised symptoms for heart disease, acid reflux, diabetes, restless legs. All the ways the body can break down. So many things can go wrong. Eventually will.
When his wife comes into the kitchen for a refill of coffee, she barely looks up from her paper, then resumes what she has been reading. Then something unusual happens, she looks up at him, hesitates, and says, “Are you alright?”
“See,” says the elder, “all of this is clear as a bell, no big deal really, totally natural. The problem is you can’t very well see it from your side.” He pauses, he is trying to help, and in a lowered tone he says “even that kind of speech, ‘your side’, is not precisely the issue.”
“Aren’t there some folks who have been enlightened, you know, Jesus, Buddha?”
And as always happens, a giant fog of sorts rolls in, the next scene is diminished, hazy, difficult to hear, almost damp.
“…be careful how you think you have it figured,” says his dad.
“Wait a minute,” he is beginning to feel a little bit of panic, this in itself seems to push his father away unknowingly, “I didn’t catch everything you said,” and his father is sliding sideways, all the while talking calmly as if it were Harry Jr. who is moving away, and not the father. He focuses in on his father’s mouth, hoping to lip read, his father continues to fade, mouth moving and looking as calm as can be. He had wanted to ask about Mimi, what he could do to help her, whether she would be okay.
She decides to take a different tack. This isn’t the first time it’s happened. Her girlfriend had said to her, “You don’t think it’s… like a seizure? Sorry honey, don’t want to scare you.”
She watches him a moment longer.
“Alright?” he asks. “No, yes, I mean I appreciate your interest.”
“Did you find what you were looking for in the garage?”
He turns his head, dog tilt, trying to understand.
“You were looking for something out there.”
“Oh,” he says, “actually I don’t know what I was looking for.”
It doesn’t take her long to decide what to do. She turns around to the countertop, picks up what she assumes to be his cup and refills it, then adds the milk though she never seems to put in as much as he likes. She turns back around and holds it out toward him, and though it is not necessary to say so, adds “I refilled your coffee.”
“Ah sweet Jesus,” he says, reaching out to accept her offering.
She looks at him. “Mmmmm,” she murmurs. “Whatever helps us get through,” she the nearly fallen away liberal Episcopalian.
“Damn, I got to be careful.”
She is tempted to do her own dog tilt gesture but consciously keeps her head upright. Somebody has to keep their head on their shoulders.
“How I put things away. What I hold onto.”
“Ah,” she says, reassured.
“Mimi has a lot of…”
“…out there. Her dresser, remember?”
She does not remind him that she has wanted to sell the dresser for ages. She actually pulled it out onto the driveway one time. He had brought it back to its apparent final resting place.
“I’m afraid that one day everything will just collapse.”
For a moment, nothing further is said between the two of them.
“Okay, there, I have finally said it,” Harry Jr. adds.
“Of course it will. So what’s to worry?” And then, “You worry about messy?” pronounced with almost unconscionable slowness, and here a virtual eternity seems to pass by, like a lone tractor trailer on the interstate, moving at the top of first gear only, and there is nothing to do for the moment but just watch it move so slowly, taking in the sound of not shifting to second gear, the engine whining at the summit of its limited range, noticing also for the first time a variety of weeds, the randomness of a distant fading billboard, and it seems to take forever for the truck to finally, finally depart, and it is only with the quiet now entering back in that the words also enter back in… “your own…oom, for instance.”
He knows that his hearing is not what it used to be. He is going to be honest this time, “All I heard was ‘oom’.”
“What?” Followed by, “And by the way you don’t have to shout.”
His father had changed, that much was clear. So it was not expected when his father said “Maybe it was ‘vroom’, you know, get up and go. Or maybe,” and now he is doing his Mona Lisa face, “it was ‘om’.”
Later in the day, they are in the car going down Brooks Avenue, a road they have traveled for decades. His wife is driving, occasionally looking over at Harry Jr.
She says, “It’s funny, but I’ve been thinking a lot about your father lately.” When she hears that he isn’t responding, she shoots another quick look and sees that he is simply looking straight ahead.
He takes a moment before he intones, “I’m a little worried about Mimi.”
“I know who Mimi is.”
He readjusts his seatbelt. “Well, that’s a start.”
She doesn’t have to say another word. In fact, what she does, carefully focused as she is on the road ahead, is to shift her weight ever so slightly.
“When I was a kid, I would never have dared to act that way,” he says.
From what she knows, she is not so sure. But she says, “We did the best we could”. Game over.
“She keeps asking for money.”
“And you keep giving it,” she answers. “This isn’t difficult to figure. It’s working for her.”
There is a car load of teens just ahead, heads rapidly moving back and forth in the back seat, someone leans over from the front seat and smacks a back seat passenger, all the while laughing uproariously, not a care in the world. She wants to pull up close and lay on the horn. She thinks about the upcoming annual graduation season of automobile tragedies, the photos of classmates hugging afterward, the little shrines of teddy bears and faded flowers. When did those tacky outdoor altars become the way to express grief? This is not helping her mood.
He says, “She was supposed to finish school. She was supposed to be working by now,” and even he hears the whining tone.
She grips the wheel tightly. He notices. She may be upset with the traffic. There are some discussions they have had too many times, the ones that turn into cul de sacs, motor still running, no forward movement, engine audible but useless.
“Grow up!” she almost yells, emphasizing ‘up’.
He’s not sure if she’s referring to Mimi, he wonders what he might be able to do, but it is too late to offer to drive.
They have the habit of reading in bed. She reads a wide range of romance novels where the cover page shows another dark haired shirtless man embracing a young woman who will soon be undressed by gravity itself. His habits are more heady, non fiction mainly. She will read a book in a couple days. He will read two or three pages a night before his eyes are too heavy.
It is only when he is sound asleep that he remembers how his father does this sideways slide into the moment and he wants, why didn’t he think of this before? he wants, oh does he want, to just let his dad know that this parenting business has been so damn humbling and full of potholes and without speaking a word he already has heard his father intone: “I know.”
And so, says Harry Jr., maybe this is why I don’t get things done and odds and ends pile up in places like the garage and I just don’t have…
To do anything about it
“It’s very inclusive here. But you are getting rest now.”
I am. I am?
“She’s going to be fine.”
He paused, and you know this how?
“Put some of that care toward yourself and that wife of yours.”
And his wife is shaking his shoulder gently. “Harry.” And then he feels his wife shaking his shoulder and he says, “whuh”.
“You were calling out in your sleep again.”
“Oh,” he says, and before letting her know that he appreciates her help, all that she is doing, all that she has done, he is explaining to her that she is making it too complicated, that it is not pre 4th dimension when the wisps or noises appear. Supernatural isn’t really so super, well, not in the way that he had learned in his prior religious instruction. Still, it’s pretty super. And he is glad that his dad helped to explain to her what he has been trying to say, though he is not certain she is really grasping what is going on here, she is almost, almost, about to wink at dad and he wonders what it is that his dad and wife know that he does not know.
When he wakes up, he discovers that he is alone in bed. And then he smells the coffee. It is Sunday morning. Something has changed, she is the first one up. It is a pleasure to put on his robe and slippers and head downstairs into the deepening aroma of the brew. She smiles at him and says “Mimi left a message on the phone. She called about 2 am. You were, by the way, dead to the world.”
“How did she sound?”
“Listen to the message. Sounds ok. She asked for one of us to call her back later in the day.”
His wife is not reading the paper. She is seated at the table, looking up at him continuously all the while holding the cup up to her mouth and intermittently taking a sip, and as he stands there returning her gaze he begins to feel emotionally undressed, the intimacy of her gaze almost too much, and so he moves over to the counter to get his own coffee. The church bulletin is next to the coffee pot, and he wonders if she had already gone to the early service. He checks the date and sees that it was from last week. The top of the page reads:
Psalm 19 One Day tells its tale to another,
And one night imparts knowledge to another.
“Well this is interesting,” he says.
“Not all that interesting,” she says.
“She goes into work at about that time.”
“I mean this quotation here,” holding up last week’s church bulletin.
“I was emptying out my purse. Can I have a warm up?”
When he returns to the table, he is focusing on not spilling his freshly poured cup while he holds the coffee pot in the other hand. He places his cup on the table, and as he shifts his focus toward the pot and her awaiting cup, he sees from the corner of his eye a lumpy parcel on the table. This takes his attention away from the task at hand. The coffee pot and her cup remain a foot apart at the moment he recognizes the deflated shape of his old football.
His wife says, “Cowboy, you haven’t quite made it yet,” as she dangles her cup closer to the pot in his hand.
He had not put the football on the table, had he? He hadn’t even brought it in from the garage. Had he? What possessed her to go out and retrieve it? Had she?
“My football,” he says.
“My coffee cup,” she says.
He succeeds, nearly, in pouring her cup, though he pulled away a bit quickly, leaving just a smidgeon dripping down one side of the cup.
“My football,” he says again.
“Yes,” she says, taking a sip and replacing the cup on the table, “I assume so.”
“How did it get here?”
“Well you never got rid of it.” She reaches over and picks it up, with all the tenderness of a well versed archaeologist, “Let me see,” she intones lovingly, playfully, because it is a football, after all. She turns it over as if it were a large piece of exotic brown fruit, covered in years of forgetfulness, dismay, regret. There is a dishtowel nearby that she picks up, and she begins to wipe away some of the grime. The color changes from grey-black to bright brown. “See?,” she says, holding up the prized object.
He takes his seat.
“I think,” says his wife, “that this football is a remarkable find.”
“You do?” He can’t really tell if that look on her face is a smirk.
She says, “All you have to do now is pump it back up.”
“That’s all I have to do?”
And the words have, for the time being, stopped. She is merely nodding with her head, affirmative.