First he refused treatment. Then he checked himself out of hospice. I waited under his building’s blue awning and when a tattooed blond and a buff Israeli bumped him over the curb I followed them, into the lobby with its artificial evergreen and empty wrapped boxes. We boarded the elevator. “I’m his mistress,” I said. The guys looked at me, deeply doubting, then at my dapper, sleeping father. My corduroys had seen better days. So had my thrift store army coat and my hair, now a punkish magenta. I flashed the apartment key. “His daughter,” I said. “He wouldn’t date me if he could.”
They pushed him past the Alaskan caribou, a china hutch painted inside like The Birth of Venus, the den with its antler chandelier and grandfather clock and forty prints of ducks. One, a mallard, had always scared me because it looked like it had two faces, two beaks; the second on its tail, low and dark and mean.
They slid him into bed and left us.
I removed my shoes and my wet socks and hung the latter on the radiator to dry. From the window I could see the Christmas trees along Park Avenue, perfect symmetrical cones like starry witches’ hats, and a low rooftop where this Asian couple liked to sunbathe nude in the summer. I straightened my father’s green silk coverlet. A collection of Chekhov stories sat on his night table, collecting dust beside an empty Perrier. I opened the book to an earmarked page. Outside, a delivery truck door crashed shut and tires rolled through slush and a Salvation Army Santa Claus rang his bell on the corner. Inside, the radiator hissed and my father opened his eyes.
“Get me a gun,” he said. “The twenty-gauge double-barrel. Hall closet. Key’s with the others.”
“Mine.” It had belonged to his mother. He’d given it—a pretty, feminine gun—to me for my eighteenth birthday.
“Mine now.” He’d taken me quail hunting and took the gun back when I refused to shoot the quail. “You can help me or I’ll get it myself.”
I indicated the Chekhov. “You haven’t finished this.”
“I’ve read it before.”
“What about Rafe?” Rafe, my father’s closest friend and a physician, was en route from London. “Anyhow,” I said. “No chance in hell.”
He grabbed for the Perrier. I ducked. The bottle shattered against the Waverly wallpaper and fell in pieces to the carpet.
I channeled my sweet and sensible boyfriend—home in Seattle, worrying over why I’d wanted to do this alone. The truth was, the prospect of Ethan and my father meeting alarmed me. I shrank from it, as if living by two separate identities—both false, both in need of camouflage.
“I’m going to give you some space,” I said.
I found coffee in the fridge, behind a cluster of brownish grapes, a cigar box, and the birthday cake I’d picked up the previous evening as Dumas was closing. I took a cup and saucer from my parents’ wedding china. As my mother told it, he’d soundly rejected her pick of something floral and, as usual, gotten his way. What he’d chosen was the magenta of dried blood, thick with branches and wild birds. Something brutal about the pattern set off the fragility of the dishes themselves. He’d never liked me to use the stuff, still didn’t. I kept a spoon in the cup as I poured to protect the china from the heat, then lifted the liquor cabinet key from a deer hoof hook. It wasn’t like he had teenagers to worry about. He enjoyed—I knew he did—the ceremony of the locking and unlocking, the taking hold of something small and mysterious and exact. I bolstered my coffee with a shot of Glenfiddich, took an extra swig, and replaced the bottle. Then I stirred the coffee and sat at the table by the window and removed the spoon, mainly because it used to drive my father nuts when I didn’t. He said I would poke my eye out and, more importantly, that it was bad manners. Liquid seeped from spoon to table. A brown starfish spread across the grain. The bell rang. I opened the front door to a slender black man with a sweet, childish face. He consulted a piece of paper. “Thayer?” His eyes rested for a moment on the caribou. “I’m Derek. You’re his daughter?”
“Where do I wash up?” He held out his hands. I stopped for another shot on my way to the bedroom.
“The nurse is here,” I told my father. “Be nice, okay?”
He cleared his sinuses.
I straightened the sheet. “I’ll read if you want.”
“I don’t.”
I went to his Bang & Olufsen and put on Respighi. The case shone with a scene from Primavera: three nymphs twirling through greenery, wrists bent, hair bound, heads tilted. I stood with my hands on my hips. “Do you have anything you’d like to say to me?” I didn’t know what I wanted, but something—an apology, perhaps.
“Drink half as much as you do,” he said. “And spend twice as much on what you drink.”
I passed Derek in the hall. For a while, all I heard from the room was the music, ancient airs and dances.
His last girlfriend had left because of the caribou. They’d met at a party and he’d impressed her with his good looks and artistic sensibilities. The woman, a gallery director, lived downtown near the hippest restaurants, and they dated for a month before making it to my father’s place. Once they did she took one look at the rack and ran.
Back in Seattle Ethan and I shared a bungalow. We’d painted it ourselves—the white-gray of rain—and furnished it with remnants from college. The bare windows overlooked a bottle packing plant. I liked to imagine an employee, some late night office troll, watching me and waiting for me to do something substantial, always disappointed. As with Ethan, I made up for it with my body. I got home from work and shed my office clothes and walked, naked, towards the glass.
My father had employed a British decorator. Vines adorned his walls. A tray occupied his ottoman. A shepherdess frolicked on his mantle. Green velvet curtains closed off his dining room—so beautiful I wanted to wrap myself in them and cry.
As a kid I’d always found Rafe sexy—pirate-like, with his gold fillings and missing tooth. He arrived at six and I brought him to the bedroom. Derek had dressed my father in polka dot boxer shorts—some girlfriend’s idea of a cute gift—and a T-shirt with the name of my college on it. I’d sent it when I was in school but I’d never seen him wear it—in fact, I’d never seen him wear a T-shirt at all. He grabbed Rafe by the collar and pulled him close. He said, “Don’t shoot till you see the whites of their eyes.”
Rafe kissed his forehead. “Indeed.”
“Tessa. Will you get our guest a drink?”
Rafe followed me to the kitchen. He dropped ice into two crystal old-fashioned glasses and poured the Glenfiddich. I said, “He’s asking for a gun.”
“There are better ways.”
I picked up the Scotch. “Something less messy, you mean.”
Back we went with our drinks. In the feeble darkness the witches’ hats worked their tricky magic all down Park Avenue, casting the illusion of beauty. Rafe examined the morphine drip and looked at Derek. “He could use a bit more.”
Derek turned up the drip. “That’s about all I can do.”
“Good,” Rafe said. He put his doctor face on and checked the dosage. “Brilliant.”
I used to wish Rafe were my father, and, when I got older, my lover. Now he had an ex-wife in Geneva and a five-year-old daughter he saw twice a month. He showed me her photo as we sat in the den, under the antler chandelier. He showed me her drawing, of a princess wearing high heels. Shoes met legs at a right angle, as if the ankles had been snapped.
We’d spent my parents’ last married Christmas in London. We took a cab from Heathrow to Rafe’s house in St. John’s Wood and he set out a tray of crackers and pate and the adults listened to Edith Piaf and I fell asleep on the couch. Someone carried me to my room. Rafe had set me up on the third floor, in a full-size bed—too small for two adults—and my parents in the adjoining room in two twin-sized beds. I woke to my father complaining.
“Let’s push the beds together,” he said.
“You’re drunk,” my mother said.
The bedcovers rustled. “Goddamnit to hell.”
“Oh just adapt, for once.”
He knocked something off the night table.
“If you’re so miserable you should go to a hotel.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“We all would.”
“Rafe is my dear friend.”
“You don’t deserve Rafe.”
“Just say you hate me and get it over with.”
“I hate you.”
Floorboards creaked. Footsteps approached and stopped beside my bed. He picked me up and carried me across the room. I kicked at him and he dropped me. I landed on my feet, jumped back into the bed and huddled into its warmth, pulling the blankets over my head.
“I’d like this bed please.”
“You take my bed.”
“Do I need to get serious here?” He pulled the blankets off. Again he picked me up. I bit his arm. He carried me into my mother. She moaned and turned away. He dropped me on the empty twin bed and went into the other room and locked the door.
Rafe got the living room, Derek the den. I laid my hoops on the guest room bureau, cracked the window, and huddled into the narrow sleigh bed I’d occupied as a teenager on Friday nights. I woke at three from a dream in which my father peeled back my eyelids like the shells of two hard-boiled eggs. “Done,” he said. He pulled the eggs from my head and placed them, cool and quivering, in my hands. “Don’t squeeze too tight,” he said. “You’ll need those later.” I got up and pulled an oxford over my T-shirt and walked out into the hot apartment. I glanced into the den where Derek slept, Vogue closed over his chest. The two-faced duck watched me with its evil, posterior eye. Rafe snored in the living room, infusing the air with his British breath: tea, cigarettes, a dearth of brushing and cleaning. My father’s bed turned up empty. I found him in the front hall, crawling toward the gun closet. His boxer shorts rode down his backside and his elbows seemed caught in the T-shirt. I tackled him and felt the key in his palm. I took it and put my hands on his cheeks—refined and hollow, big spoonfuls of air. “I’ll read to you until you fall asleep.”
“I might not wake up.”
I leaned my forehead against his. He said, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be. Late to bed and early to rise. Keep your eyes open. You just might see something useful, or at least pretty.”
“Okay, Polonius.” I tossed the key away and helped him back to the room. I arranged the sheet over his body and lay beside him. “It’s your birthday,” I said. “At least it was. Yesterday. I got you a cake.” He didn’t answer. He was sleeping already, or pretending to.
The kitchen vibrated with city light. I took a fork from the drawer and the cake from the fridge, and I stood at the counter and ate the whole rich thing myself. I didn’t sing. I didn’t cut slices. I didn’t even light a candle.
“Dance with your old father,” he’d said once in San Moritz.
I walked away from him and Maura, his young girlfriend, to the German boy I’d picked up. I turned my back to my father but felt him watching me across the dance floor of the hotel nightclub. Maura’s seven-year-old sat with them, his cheek crushed against the table. A Dire Straits song thudded from the speakers over the bar. Maura leaned toward my father. The disco lights cast shadows in the dry hollow of her cleavage. Like an Italian woman she drank Campari and didn’t shave her pits. My father stood and came over to me.
“The witching hour,” he said. “Lev’s had it.”
Too young to sleep alone, Lev room-hopped between theirs and mine. “Your turn,” I said. “I had him last night.” If anything I enjoyed having his cot at the foot of my bed, telling him horror stories and tucking the blanket around his blue pajamas. But I knew why my father wanted him out and if I could get in the way of what he wanted, I would.
“Are you paying for this hotel? We’ll take him tomorrow. Tonight he goes with you.”
“So you can fuck?” I jumped up as soon as he started for me, toppling my chair. The German boy also rose, as ponderously as a bull. I ran. Through the lobby, up wide marble stairs, down muted hallways, into the room. I slammed the door and drew the chain. Then I got a Coke from the mini bar and went to the window. The slopes glimmered white and clear. The mountains spread out below and above, the tallest ones disappearing into blue night, the snow sparkling in the hotel lights like piles of diamonds filling in the tracks, settling on the chairlift cable. I felt my lip. I’d wiped out that day and split it and ripped my favorite flannel shirt.
My father pounded on the door. “You can come out on your own,” he said. “Or I can call management.” He waited. “You’re not too old for me to take off my belt and beat you with it, young lady.” He said this as if it was something he’d done before, which it wasn’t.
I cringed at the corniness of the threat. Once the door was open, would he, really? I picked runs in my stockings and tried to envision him beating me with his Hermes belt. Was such a thing even legal? I crossed the room in my ruined stockings. The doorknob slipped around my palm. He stepped back and glared. The vein down the middle of his forehead pulsed. He said, “Were you being fresh with me?”
“Would I tell you if I was?”
He smacked the Coke bottle out of my hand. It flew towards the window. The drink spilled on the carpet. “Fresh,” he said. He let the door slam shut behind him and left me and the sticky, syrupy stain—shaped, I observed, just like Switzerland.
An alarm set by a previous houseguest woke me at eight. In the kitchen Rafe was flipping eggs. “I did a shop,” he said. He poured me coffee and I added sugar, left the spoon in for spite. “You have to tell me what you want. I don’t know what you want. Either of you.” He put two eggs on plates but I pushed mine away, still full from the cake. “Should we check in?”
Taking my coffee, I followed Rafe into the bedroom. My father zeroed in on the spoon. “You’ll poke your eye out,” he shouted. He rolled towards the edge of the bed. Rafe and Derek rushed him from either side. He flipped onto his stomach and vomited. Derek thrust a bedpan under his mouth in the nick of time.
“He needs a cot,” I said. “He needs rails.”
“We can handle him,” Rafe said. “This good man and I.”
I turned on the radio. Ronnie Spector sang “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” I leaned close to Rafe and whispered, “He got out last night.”
“The gun?” Rafe said.
“Yes.” I sat on the bed. My father grabbed my ear, then my earring. He pulled. I felt the skin strain and begin to rip.
“Hurt yourself…” he said. “Those crazy things.”
I got ice for my ear. In the nap of the hallway carpet I saw the gun closet key. I seized it and flung it to the top of the Botticelli hutch.
Derek and Rafe lifted him from the celadon sheets and carried him to the cot. Derek pushed the rail into place. I gathered up the Egyptian cotton and dropped it in the laundry alcove. I ate three brown grapes and threw the rest away. It was night already and I hadn’t left the apartment, hadn’t even brushed my teeth. It was the solstice, I realized, the shortest day of the year. I went into the bathroom and brushed, threw warm, then cold water on my face. I arranged a fresh towel over the Czech & Speake rod. My father slept in the cot, the sheet kicked off, morphine dripping through his veins. My socks hardened on the radiator like squirrel hides. Winter air leaked through the window behind him. I drew the drapes. I wanted him away from that window. I wanted him back in the bed. A doorman’s whistle shrilled and my father woke, confused, in this place of all places. He reached towards me, as if for my earrings, but I’d taken them out. He said, “Did you know your grandfather was an Eagle Scout?” Something smelled terrible. Vomit traced his chin and the Berkeley T-shirt. Derek brushed up beside me with towels, a giant sponge, a pail of soapy water. “Bath time,” he said. I looked. It wasn’t like something I’d never seen before. As a family we’d been withholding with each other but never particularly modest. Still, I braced myself. His uncircumcised penis flopped across his one remaining testicle as if guarding it. He was pale where my lover was Mediterranean brown, pointed where Ethan sported a mushroom cap. He reposed like a line drawing against the polyester blend bedding, a drawing someone had begun to rub out.
I sank into the sofa where Rafe had slept. He collapsed next to me. The full cushion billowed under his weight and I fell into him. He wore a ring around one thick finger. “This is it,” he said. “It’s your decision. I’ll send Derek away, if that’s what you want.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
I reached past the rails and touched my father’s face. He sighed: a draft, an open door.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” he said. “You get the gun and I’ll leave you everything.”
“I get that anyway.”
“Rafe can help us. Help you. You know what I mean.”
“I can’t burden him with that.”
“The attention,” I said. “That’s what you want. A big noise. A big mess.”
“Let me go with some pride,” he said. “Remember Antony? Remember Cleopatra?”
“Your wallpaper. The headboard. I might want it someday, you know.”
“You want to shack up in my bed?”
“Well. When you put it that way.”
His fingers shook on the sheet. “I do love that gun,” he said. “I think of my mother. Duck hunting down at the lake. Her hair pinned up. She wore this brown jacket. Very sporty.”
“But come on.” I crossed my arms across my chest. “What a way to die.”
“Let me tell you something, Tessa. You don’t know your ass from your elbow.”
I dragged the leather stepladder to the dining room and leaned it against the Botticelli hutch and held the doors as I ascended. I went to the gun closet and took down the shotgun and cradled it, recalling its parts and the kick of firing it, target-shooting, blasting that black eye apart, tearing through paper and wood. I carried the gun carefully and pointing down. “Dad,” I said. “This one?”
He nodded. “Put that Respighi on again.” I pressed the Bang & Olufsen with my toe. He said, “When you were a baby, you used to twitch and start in your sleep. The way babies do. Your mother and I would stand over you and watch. She’d say you were dreaming of rabbits.”
“How sweet.”
“Yes. It was.”
I held the gun to my chest.
“How is your mother?”
“Dating a doctor. From her piano group.”
“How about you?”
“What.” The music lifted off the metal, circular and sweet. The disc spun. The nymphs danced.
“For god’s sake. Do you have somebody. A man.”
“Ethan Singer. Nice Jewish boy.”
“You’re engaged?”
“You know I’m not.”
“Too bad.” Outside it was snowing again. Icy flakes rang against the window.
“When your parents go,” he said, “you should have someone. One should. Someone to keep you. Your soul, your self, your what have you.”
I laid the gun across the bed and opened the breech and removed the shells and placed them on the night table. He pulled himself up in the cot. I set the empty gun on the hearth then pushed aside the screen and dragged out the andiron, old ash and soot falling away onto my fingers, arms, the front of my corduroys. I put one foot on the barrel of the gun and heaved the iron down. The weight pulled me to my knees. Gashes appeared in the pretty wood. My wrist ached. I pushed myself up and kept going. Some splintering happened along the barrel. The butt cracked. The barrel opened. I set the iron down on the hearth. He looked at me with something I could have, in a pinch, called love.
“We’ll do it your way, then,” he said. “Get Rafe.”
Toward morning I fell into a light, foolish sleep. Rafe had to shake me and wake me and tell me to pay attention. “It’s happening,” he said. We held his hands. We watched. We said his name. We waited. It happened. It wasn’t much. A small flurry of breath, then the last one slipping out through the window. Rafe closed the blue eyes and disengaged the pump and went to call Frank Campbell’s Funeral Home on Madison where all the wealthy Upper East Siders went. It was rush hour already. I kicked the ruined gun into the fireplace and picked out clothes: Paul Smith shirt, pants and jacket, a red silk handkerchief, a crazy, ugly tie with a fish on it, black dress shoes, an Hermes belt to match. I sat by the cot and watched my father as if waiting for him to rise up and criticize my choices. His mouth hung open slightly, giving him an uncharacteristically startled look.
The undertakers lifted him from the cot to a trolley. I signed papers. “Here’s this,” I said. I held out the bag of clothes. “You can bring them later,” the shorter guy said, “some people like a little time”—but he took them from me anyway. He zipped the body bag over my father’s face. Rafe and I followed them from the apartment. The back elevator was too small for the trolley so we went down the front. The elevator paused on the fifth floor and a woman I recognized got on—my father had remarked on her, explaining how her husband had been decapitated by a patio table during a windstorm, right outside the building. She looked curiously at the thing with my father on it but then turned away and watched the numbers descending.
We crossed the lobby floor and passed the gilded mirror, the polished entry table, the dried hydrangeas. The doorman took off his hat and held it to his chest. We stepped onto the sidewalk.
The white morning hit me with explosive and stunning brightness. Down here, everywhere around us, it was Christmas time. The Salvation Army Santa swung his bell and wreaths hung from lobby doors. Inside, the artificial trees twinkled, sheltering the wrapped empty boxes. The undertakers halted, leaning on the trolley, then turned left. “We’re on Lex,” the tall one said. He gestured. A delivery truck obstructed eastbound traffic. On Lexington cars jammed, honking and inching their way out of the mess. A kid threw himself onto a saucer and coasted in the empty street. Well-dressed women rushed by with bags, not looking twice or even once as Rafe and I took up after the guys and the trolley. A group of teenagers clustered against the side of a building, smoking, flipping their butts into a sewer grate. One, a freckled boy-child, spotted us and pointed. “Holy shit,” I heard him say, and they all swiveled to see.
Wind slapped the body bag. The undertakers kept their eyes ahead and walked steadily. The kids flocked curiously forward. They clutched each others’ gloved hands, hanging together in their bright striped caps and scarves, their cheeks clear as bells, so red and fresh I wanted to bite them. They crowded about us, talking all together—body, dead, shit, god god god—skipping and running and circling, following us up the block like so many maverick attendants, hopping and flapping their arms like so many colorful birds. At the avenue we halted and they retreated respectfully and a few of them lit fresh cigarettes. The van resembled any other white van. I watched the guys load my father into the back. The kids watched too. Outside an upscale hamburger joint, one of those typically Upper East Side places that were already beginning to disappear, four men in overcoats and fur hats sang Christmas carols. They were finishing up Adeste Fidelis and then they launched into Three Kings. They harmonized on the chorus, which sounded amazing. One of the singers saw me looking and winked. He had a tiny piece of toilet paper stuck to his cheek as if he’d been whisked away in the middle of shaving. They all took a deep breath and sang the part about Balthazar, the myrrh and the tomb and the gathering gloom. Then they paused and stamped their feet and broke out a thermos of something hot and began to talk about the Giants. It seemed like there should be another verse, but there wasn’t.

Willow Springs, Issue 62

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