Kit wouldn’t wish harm on her worst enemy. But can she wish him well?
When Duane called to say that he’d contracted cancer, I’m not going to lie, I raised a gloating fist like my team had scored in overtime. I’m not a ghoulish woman. I hadn’t looked forward to it. Hadn’t caused it. Terrible but satisfying is what I thought, holding the receiver, collecting myself to keep from making a sound. Then I cautioned myself. Medical science has a way of fixing this stuff.
Now that he’s gone, and I’ve gotten my wish (even though I hadn’t wished for it, not once), I think back to what I did, over the news of a man’s pain, a life that was at stake. I’ve had cause to wonder.
It makes total sense from a clinical perspective (I imagine). Someone who has gotten away with it for so long (him) is visited by a struggle. Even years after your last direct contact with this family member, a father in the biological sense, an inhuman side of you, maybe a too-human side, responds to the news: hell yeah.
The land-line was cradled to my ear, as I removed groceries from stringy plastic sacks that pass for customer service at our nation’s grocery stores. He said, “Kit, I have something to tell you.” I made a face, bracing for a sloppy sentiment that would make me hang up.
“Yeah?” I held a box of Triscuits.
It was cancer down in the male area. Justice went further than you would. You saw it online. Some celebrity you thought could learn humility is found dead of an overdose. You winced, embarrassed.
The cabinet was right there. I opened it and slid the box onto an upper shelf.
Next item was a loaf of bread, in a tinted sack.
“It a bad time?” he said.
“Just stepped in.”
“I can call back.”
“Or you can just ….”
“They’re not giving me a lot of time. Didn’t want to waste any more between us.”
His first blow—that inclusive two-letter word, spoken as forthrightly as if my umbilical cord had connected to him instead of my mother, under folds of a flannel shirt—us.
The milk carton sweated on my counter. On impulse, irritated—it’s spoiled—I pressed my toe on a latch and dropped the thing into the open-mouthed trash. “How long, then?”
Of this situation he painted, a spreading, poor health, he didn’t say a year, or six months. Three-to-six months, which he fully planned to outlast, but the longer he lived, the more he’d suffer until the end.
The years, I felt, had been generous. “Why are you telling me?”
“You’re my daughter.”
“And this is real.”
He spoke to Margie then. I remembered I was on a land-line. I couldn’t ‘drop the call.’
“It’s serious.” He was talking to me.
“Everything works out for the best, though, right?”
“You know what I mean by that,” he said.
“Life happens, but pencils have erasers.”
Instead of launching in, he hesitated. Maybe he told a more factual truth than usual. “Thing is, I feel pretty fine,” he said.
The second blow, that little word dropped in to make you reasonable. Aren’t we all fine here? “Glad someone is,” I said.
“I want to meet. I mean, I’d come alone, like you requested, or maybe you could let me off the hook and come here?”
Not having kids to save me from this call, to crowd around shouting Mommy, Mommy, a moment of triumph that you saw parents claim for doing nothing more than being taller than their excitable children, I had to say a fumbling, childless thing. “I left my car door open.” He kept talking as if it could wait, but I added with some insistence that it was snowing. And a cat crawled in there.
It got him to stop. I’d already said goodbye, sort of, so gave a breath and lowered the cheap plastic phone. Waiting for its chirp again, I made short work of the groceries, stuffing all the plastic bags into one for the store recycling bin.
The phone was constantly in view now.
We didn’t even need a land-line, reinforced by every unwanted call from the cable company that provided the service, and occasionally Duane, those whom we withheld our cell phone numbers from. This link to the past was only in our home because they bundled it when we ordered cable TV, which we needed only for sports channels. Cord-cutters we weren’t. I turned on ESPN and found that agreeable mood as when someone won and someone lost. I poured myself a glass of wine and heard both outcomes, over and over and over.
Terry ate without complaint the dry Chicken marsala I’d prepared. More wine had gone into my glass than the pan. I may have overcooked it, checking my phone too often for texts and tweets and even emails, a sure sign of restlessness. How many email lists was I on for various stores, and how many flyers needed reviewing at six-forty-two on a Tuesday evening?
He came in late, waving his racquet for form. Terry played tennis. He was a throwback. (His fuzzy headband I, um, lost in the wash.) I mentioned the call over dinner. Then, whenever I opened my mouth he halted, waiting for where I’d take this sad subject.
“He had it coming,” I said, finally. “I don’t mean ‘it,’ specifically.”
Terry sipped wine in too-small sips, like he put more back in. “He expect sympathy?”
“In his pauses, I think. Didn’t ask.”
“Though, he’s never had to ask for anything he was given, so why start at the end?”
Terry drained his glass. “Duane had everything handed to him,” I went on. “Can’t believe today, he still sees his pensioned life as owed to him.”
“Kit. I’ve heard the history lesson.”
“The last generation of upper-blue-collar who could afford a new car every three years, a boat, then to retire early, all for showing up and punching out at five.”
Terry drummed his fingers.
“Not his fault, in a way, viewing history,” I said. “Duane’s parent was giddy post-war America. America spoiled him rotten.”
Duane had everything handed to him was my refrain, Terry’s eyes said. I kept on eating. Like those commentators who beat to death the phrase “fourth and inches” on Sunday, my phrase also worked. It described a missed opportunity in the worst possible way. Only a few more inches on the previous downs, and there wouldn’t be 22 men with their helmets bowed and concussions on the line. Only a few more hardships for a man living off the wealth of America, and the lives he touched would’ve been different.
It was a question that wine before dinner could put into the tired mind of a suburban woman, in her late-thirties. Facing the end of the life of my father, there I was. Sad that one life mocked the rest of us. How could a 70-year-old man, his entire generation even, miss the good lesson of Depression-era parents? My bedside reading table was stacked with thick nonfiction (by Brokaw, Kearns Goodwin, and Halberstam), that I’d bought the last time Duane had called. Spurred on by his bold entitlement, I went to experts to explain it to me. It was a 20th century problem, they said. Duane was its unique creation.
The child of a Greatest Generation schooled by a Depression and a world war, Duane’s was the ruined generation birthed in the mid-1940’s that married young and had the kids, but instead of sacrificing like the parents had done, continuing frugal habits (mortgage, mutual funds, government bonds), Duane’s generation lived for itself and spent its way to happy misery, while the children sat in our playpen prisons with our dirty diapers.
Now we paid his pension. The children of these American lottery winners, we paid our way in a ruthless tech economy, where prosperity was only a promise, the overtime unpaid, the promotion delayed, unless you outperformed your friends and enemies. At work, Duane had buddies. It was handed to them, in the name of fairness; heavily-subsidized healthcare, a job for life. It was the right time to be born mediocre.
I’d hit my stride. “American companies back then never went under, ever. Out of high school, he lands in a stockroom. He made ignition switches. Never mind a college degree, he was guaranteed to advance without ever having had a real idea. Then full retirement? I think about it every time I start the car.”
Terry set down his fork. “Every time?”
“Please, hon. Our cars aren’t even made here.”
“You don’t seem too affected.” He meant, by what began all this.
“You kidding? Had to stifle myself on the phone from … cheering.”
“So I can ask then.”
“Had he ever.”
I mumbled probably not into the bowl of my glass.
“Because you’re so mad at him.”
“And that’s the only valid reason?”
Terry presented his no-agenda face, like he were getting an impromptu pat-down. “We’ve been together six ….” He didn’t finish it, his eyeline falling. “I’ve never asked.”
My buzz hit a curve, slowed under me without warning. “This is how I gain sympathy?”
He clasped my hands. “I’m sorry he’s dying.”
I squeezed his wrapped fingers until I felt a pulse. Then came tears of exhaustion, from long hours at work, my breathing heavy from the wine. Knowing that I could explain these feelings, I said thank you into the table, frowned, and added “years,” the word he’d forgotten to say.
Nightstand books rose like law journals, backing my case laid out at dinner. I wouldn’t crack them again.
“Any chance you’d like to talk more about it.” Terry pulled back the bedcovers. We had changed subjects.
“It” was shorthand for the mouthful, he or she. Terry liked making our bed a conference room table. It was the dimensions.
Over the last year, Terry honed his pitch on the practical stuff: who would sacrifice career to be home (him at first), what belief system would we raise it in (cautious optimism), could we afford it (sorta). On the harder questions, he struggled.
What if it were shot in a school massacre, born with a birth defect, didn’t enjoy being born. What if it wasn’t happy. Childhood depression was all over the blogosphere, childhood psychology a growth field—weekly sessions coping with parents’ selfish decision to have unprotected intimacy, to want a little bear cub to cuddle. I spared my good listener tonight an opinion he’d heard before.
Terry believed in people changing their minds. Were the admirable qualities always naïve ones? Terry saw a nobility in people that just wasn’t there, and his banking on it left him sadly ignored. ‘But Terry, the world would already need to be better to accept your idealism.’
Kept it to myself. I’d get confused trying.
We were flat on our backs, over the covers. “The knee joint tightens about four percent per year,” he said.
He was forty-eight. “Where’d you read that.”
“Twitter feed of random facts … no, all insidious.”
Despite a nightstand collection of beach reads, Terry had a vocabulary. He worked maintenance for a luxury apartment building and was smarter than those he smiled at. I worked hard to move us in there, to show them. Now he wanted to spend our money elsewhere.
“At it stands, my son would beat me at basketball by age seven. I’d like to be on the court at least, not on a park bench waving an encouraging cane.”
“You know I’m not good with late-night thinking,” I said.
“I know.” He turned out his light.
I smiled. We were drawn to frivolous things. By talking about a nice car, you talked yourself out of it, realized you could reach for it but didn’t need it. I knew we’d get there.
Next morning, we ate Terry’s breakfast innovation, nuts and seeds from a bag, mixed into yogurt. He wants me to lose weight for me, and I believe him. Whenever he tackles a subject he shouldn’t it helps, and is OK. The seeds were finer than granola. “Birds don’t have teeth,” I quipped, digging out a seed with covered mouth, in ladylike precision. Plain yogurt is sour.
Duane’s call cast a mood over the house, but time passed. The pace in tech is even faster if you want to advance. Doubling your salary is possible, and I was serious about the building where Terry worked. I wanted to surprise him with an appointment to tour at least, and to the disbelief of the leasing agent, pass the credit check. My goal wasn’t a lower floor.
There were the usual hang-ups on our land-line machine. The cable company had recycled the number.
I didn’t do nothing. I wondered about it, Duane’s pain, whatever it would be for a man’s prostate. Did internet research. What he described tracked, the treatment he mentioned.
Though I vowed I wouldn’t, I called my mother out in California. Having married well, finally, Brenda drank wine on coastal terraces and wrote postcards from places I wouldn’t see in this lifetime. A postcard is a little bit of showing off, and I was fine with it.
Weeks later, I hadn’t heard from Brenda, not a text or an email. More power to her, I thought. Why should she care that her ex- was dying? She’d moved on, continents away.
With our team fighting for a wild-card spot, it was as if he knew to call on Sunday.
What set us apart from the coasts, besides our scary diets—wanting a beating heart to have gone into every meal—was our love of brutality, joked my New York City counterpart.
“Football?” I said.
Only delivery men go to their stadium, she said. “It’s ultimately meaningless.”
Her cutting laugh was a running joke in our office, but I’d walked into it. What’re you doing this weekend, she’d asked. She gave an adult answer. I said, the playoffs, of course.
You’re right, I replied. An arts auditorium, a staged performance with lines that had been recited a thousand times, is held up as cultural enlightenment, and a rock concert, where the band plays the song you heard on the album, is where America takes its pulse. But a football game, a live event where you don’t know what will happen next, that’s uncultured. For small minds.
“Why it’s so popular,” she agreed.
I’d cut down our trips to the stadium, which Terry thought was for his reason, while I had mine. We made an event of it at home, leaving the back door open even when it was freezing out, so grill smoke trailed in and choked us half to death, like at the tailgaters we both missed. With friends over we were pretty drunk by noon, for a one p.m. start. A display of obnoxious community pride. An excuse to drink and eat too much. We didn’t overthink it.
“The players get paid by you guys,” I told my New York friend. “They play for us.”
With the kick in the air, I answered the phone, lit up. “Call back in three hours,” I said to whomever.
“It’s your father. It’s time.”
In the cold morning car, Terry was annoyingly level-headed. “Maybe he doesn’t have a lot left. Could you feel for him? How do you know he’s never suffered?”
Terry had pried the news out of me. With my face flush and the phone to my ear, the crowd on our couch cheered an 86-yard kickoff return without me. (Over the shouting, Terry told me it was only a touchback.) I didn’t make it back to the couch until halftime. The plane ride was two hours. I couldn’t decline an invitation to stay in his house, could I? Daughter sleeps at Motel 6 while father passes quietly.
Duane had assumed I thought of him, had planned to call back. Was it three months later?
The news, “it’s a matter of days,” and the usual afternoon drinking, more than usual for a game day, from the adolescent joke I made it to a girl hiding her empties, meant that by day’s end I wasn’t thinking clearly when Terry got me to ‘open the door of possibility,’ and left off the usual precaution. I awoke feeling slow and cheated, like a high school girl.
Terry challenged me during a recent fight ‘to recognize’ my acting out, as if it were a personality mode, a setting on a hairdryer. I had been tense all morning. We were late.
“One night,” I’d said on the phone.
“Fine, fine,” Duane said.
Now, I led Terry through the lonely, bustling airport, hurrying to the plane that would take us to the unavoidable. In the security line, a young family was camped before the pass-through, predictably helpless. We clasped tightly our boarding passes. The kneeling mother calmed her two crying children, while the father wrestled large, outlandish car seats onto the conveyer belt for some reason. Did the kids sit in them? I didn’t know. They were toddlers. Were they thousand-dollar car seats, too expensive to be checked? The father seemed to be more worried about scuffing the high-impact plastic in his hands than helping his wife who, huffing and puffing, lifted her wailing children onto each hip. She looked sad, self-conscious, her family the spectacle of security line two.
I said something. I don’t remember what.
The man’s eyes left his precious cargo, followed an arc up to my shoes and then, as if a fly darted away, drew back to the business at hand. Did the mother’s back stiffen a little?
Her boy received the security wand treatment, freely lifted his little suspicious arms.
I dropped my purse and walked through the detector. Terry was no longer behind me.
It’s a boast you’d say to girlfriends at a bar, over your lasting relationship: I could pick out the back of his head at twenty paces. That distance away, my eye went right to a certain man in a dark coat like Terry’s. He was far down the carpeted concourse, heading the other direction.
I was on the legal side now, and with a bag checked. Not sure how cold outside, how warm inside, I’d packed too well for both. The man I watched in the crowd, on the other side, disappeared A guard stepped forward. Ma’am turned to lady? “I don’t have everything,” I said. They didn’t get it.
I wasn’t detained at the gate, or mildly humiliated for stopping cold in the way of a thousand people, an incident to take away these worse feelings. The way I clutch my ear when I’m nervous, the security staff thought I’d lost a diamond earring. Not here, the machine operator said. I was sent on my way.
That family took over a drinking fountain, a stop on its eight-legged-race. I’d lost my adult back somewhere.
Terry and I never fought in public, rarely argued at home. We went everywhere together. We allowed tracking of each other’s cell phones. I did a quick check. “Unavailable.”
I didn’t understand. Why punish me now, here?
Despite my still-red ears, what I said in the security line was a thing you heard everyday. It would get a dozen likes online, be retweeted a hundred times, probably had been. I’d only passed it under my breath, in that insensitive dad’s general direction. Fatherhood really should require a license.
The name I heard repeated was mine, I realized. “Kimberly?” The car rental desk was right there, but I gave in and turned. A woman at the security gate looked familiar.
Margie brought up her arms in honor of five years. I reluctantly embraced her tan overcoat.
“I reserved a car,” I said.
Now 60, Margie looked well-kept, her hair more blonde, powder thicker, and her smile bright through clenched teeth. “Duane was right on, guessing your flight. He sent me down.”
I clenched my teeth but didn’t smile. My bag slid down the chute.
“We’re not together anymore.”
She nodded and led me to her car.
Through a cracked windshield I saw flatland, where older people lived when they finally stopped choosing. “You left him alone?”
Margie nodded as I spoke. “Members of our church are there. It’s a hospice now.” She pulled into a driveway, with trees stripped bare. I’d never been. The house was empty.
“Where is everyone?” Margie asked, playing hide and seek with no one.
“I sent them away! I want to see my daughter.” From a medical bed in the living room, he assumed the open-armed posture.
“Don’t be like that.” He waved his arms one time, to get a child to jump in.
I stepped between an oxygen canister, and a saline bag on a tall stand. Not wanting to touch his blanket, I patted his shoulder. From the side of his face, I saw how thin he’d become. Relieved that he hadn’t lied, I was sick at the thought. Had I willed this to happen?
He smelled fresh, even clean somehow. I imagined church workers sponging his forehead, wiping his feet, until he was a newborn. Behind him was a small cross that stood out for the wall space given to it. The nearest oil painting, of a moonlit lake, was a wall away.
Duane’s religion. I’d forgotten, a little. Like a mole on someone’s face, you wouldn’t picture it in your mind, but it was all you saw.
“Where’d she go?” I said, turning.
Duane said nothing, still smiling.
Margie stood in a doorway, an observant journalist. Faltering, beginning to think, I heard myself speak. “So, Duane. How long have you been here?”
Margie frowned. How long have you left, she heard.
“We bought in 98.”
Always careful with money, I thought, this one. Never a wild trip to Vegas, or child support, or a daughter’s tuition. “It’s lovely.”
Duane turned to Margie for a scoop, mouthing. “Where’s Terry?”
I stepped into a sizable kitchen. “Terry didn’t make it.”
Margie frowned again. The woman had an imagination.
From the kitchen, the crown of Duane’s ashen head peeked over the angled hospital mattress. Fight in his eyes talked you out of it, but from here Duane’s body was feeble, used up, like 20 years had passed. I knew a friend who went through it younger, and looked better, and died.
“You seem chipper. Are you feeling well?” I said.
“He just took his medication.”
“I am now that you’re here,” he said over his wife. Duane lifted an old wispy arm, black and blue from blood tests and intravenous, I imagined. His hand opened, his fingers separating like you see babies do. Margie cocked her head and smiled, in anticipation of a tender moment when I’d take it.
“Please stop it, both of you,” I said, under my breath.
His wrist turned, questioning. Margie glared.
“I’m sorry you’re sick Duane.”
His getting on email is what finally derailed us. He’d been proud of himself for entering “my world. Only, email released words in me I wouldn’t print out, seal up, mail off. Not intended to be hurtful, but to an older generation, direct, clear, honest words were those very words. Duane threw up his hands. He even typed it, I throw up my hands. Margie took over the computer. I clicked SPAM. It was five years later.
He lifted his head to meet my eye line. “Where’d you go? Come around where I can see you.”
To those rutted dog-doe eyes? To that structurally-long face, the one I had? I pushed up my chin with my hand whenever standing before the mirror for too long. It was why Duane called, why Terry booked tickets, I knew. I was here to create an emotional Disneyland for a dying man whom I despised.
In the kitchen, I passed dishes covered in tinfoil, cooked and donated by loving hands.
Backyard blackberry bushes were like arms waiting to be stumbled into. My call to Terry’s cell went to VM. Our land-line machine beeped. “Hey, it’s me. I went. I’m here. How about let’s not make this about ourselves? Let’s adopt a kid who’s 15, 12 … 10. Disadvantaged. Appreciative. If you call tonight, I know it’ll be OK. Just call. One ring. Don’t leave a message.”
His walking away at the airport had looked sudden, but Terry was deliberate, a crossword puzzler. Would I ever see him again? I shivered in my overcoat while checking to see if he emailed. An email would be bad. But no email …? Requests there from work tried to make me feel wanted.
In the dining room was a display of mahogany furniture, in the style of an old manor house, thousands of dollars given to Ethan Allen for neighbors to view through your windows. The floor plan brought me around to Margie standing over Duane, who leaned. “She’s back.”
“Does your spare room have cable?” Twenty minutes of SportsCenter would calm like a pill. “You’re a cord cutter.”
“Televisions? Gave them up. No time for it.”
No cable. No rental car. Football on your phone. But not mine, I thought. How many hours until Monday night? It looked like noon out the window, overcast. Time stood still.
Their heat was cranked. I removed my jacket, reluctantly. “Closer, Kimberly,” he said. “My eyes aren’t great.”
Passing by the front door like I’d just come in, I faced a human being in a vulnerable position. “I want to talk to you,” he said. “Really talk. You don’t know how long I’ve ….”
Margie adjusted his blankets. “Can you …?” I said.
“I’ll go in here.”
“Margie?” I said.
“I’ll take a drive.” She took her purse and left.
“Don’t know why you don’t like her,” he said weakly, energy from the big show gone.
“She’s fine. Ours aren’t social visits.”
“Restitution. If anything.”
“Duane, you look like hell. You’re going to die. You know this. If you asked me here to ….”
“You’re much older than your mother and I were.”
“You and I weren’t under the same roof long. You don’t know me.”
“I knew you five years. Almost six.” In a display, he touched his belly. “I named you.”
“Brenda told me.”
“Naming a girl like a suburban princess doesn’t make you a king.”
“You don’t think I know.”
“You’re mad at me.”
I rolled my eyes like a girl. “I don’t think you know that?”
His hair was thin and gray, his nose big, eyes low. Breath slight. He folded his hands on his chest. “Let it go, Kimberly Theresa.”
“Let it go? That’s all you have?”
“Let it go.”
“Why did I even?”
“Let it go.”
Humor him, said a good-sense voice. It’s over. “Easy for you to say, right?” I tried to joke.
“I think I turned out OK.”
I nodded, lips pursed. “I’m sure.”
“My dad wasn’t warm, or talkative. I think I’m both of those.” His eyes rose to me, full of a sincerity he projected in recent years. “You don’t remember the wonderful times, either.”
“I remember you teaching me a board game for older kids. You read the directions out loud. When it came to finding a pencil to keep score, you said, ‘we’ll use the honor system.’”
He stared at me with an oxygen plug up his nose.
“Honor system?” I continued. “What was that, amusing yourself at a four-year-old’s expense? Making a little girl feel dumb? You’re the reason why hundreds of hours are spent writing parenting blogs.”
I waved my hand––don’t fake interest in a word so you can parade ignorance.
“It’s good to forgive,” he said.
“Duane, I’m here. Don’t push it.”
“Are you a happy person?”
“Does religion offer relief from being a lousy father? A deadbeat in the eyes of the law?”
“When mother died,” his mother, I knew he meant, “I saw what she’d said. On her deathbed, we prayed.”
“No thank you.”
“Don’t scoff,” he said, quietly.
“I loved your mother. She was a saint, not your kind. Real.”
“None of my younger … you’re shooting a man in his grave. How was I a lousy father?”
Truth at the end. I saw he never believed it, not even 10 years ago, the changed man.
I gripped the metal frame and lowered my face. “You told everyone I was worthless.”
Lulling a little, he almost missed it. “Did Brenda say that?”
“You did, at my first day of school. After my first kiss. My first drive. First day of college. First job. You were nowhere to be found. You said it when you weren’t there for me.”
“There are greater problems in the world, than whether I was there growing up.”
“Created by you who abandoned us.”
“I’m a forgettable person,” he said to the ceiling. “Never did anything, never risked. I have to live with that.” Live with—he heard it, but the time left he took with only a small frown, not a smirk, as I did.
I came back to myself, physically stepped back. “Greater problems, you said? There are greater problems in the world? Not to an eight-year-old. Nights before school, I stared at the dark ceiling. Why should a young kid dread living? Over what? Brenda shooed me away with the remote control in hand. I had no daddy. You were the worst father in the world—my world. For me, it was a war. A famine. Now you summon me like the president? When all the work’s done, you throw open your arms and demand honor?”
He roused himself. “Are you perfect? Is that a thing to wear to a dying man’s house?”
Duane pointed to the replica NFL jersey I wore, a woman’s fit, not draped like a sheet. Terry had agreed with my plan to find a sports bar while Duane napped. I reached for my sweater.
“Why does a woman like football?”
Interrogated by a presumptuous father, I thought. This is how it feels? “Because there are rules. You get to hit and there are rules.”
“No wonder. Such a hard girl. You weren’t always. You came into the world with your face scrunched like a prune, and I said, there’s beauty in there.” He lifted a finger. “I saw it that day, in the screams and cries. It’s there. I believe it, still. No matter how you treat me.”
“You weren’t there.”
“Such beauty. Where’d it go?”
“A fatherless daughter, my last name a phantom. Half a person. I hate you, OK? ‘Hate.’”
Tears streamed on his face.
My lips buzzed, parted. I’d said it, what every adult child I knew had wanted to say. Standing up now, I had righted every wrong for all eternity. On his feet, or in bed, the word was no less true. I glanced down.
His cheek glistened, his ear, his eyes, a pools of tears. “I love you.”
He moved to embrace.
I raised a forearm against this sick, feeble man. “Goodbye.”
Holding out his arms was a strain. “Please.”
I heard my voice crack. I stared at the floor. “It’s too … too late.”
“My precious, remember,” I heard him say. “Everything, everything works out in the end.”
That phrase! His half-assed refrain. My chin snapped up. “Oh it does, does it? How’s this working out?” With that, I threw my leg back and kicked the underside of his bed frame. Then again. “How’s this end?”
Duane’s head rocked back, his eyes going tight. Each kick brought a startling cry.
Kick him in the cancer. Kick him in the cancer.
My shoulder was pulled. A frantic scream came in my ear. “You’re killing him!”
A chill crept over me. I saw the front door open now, and through it, the car door in the driveway, with the window rolled down. Margie had sat guard, waiting.
Even after I drew back, Duane howled with his mouth frozen wide. Margie shoved me aside further, then lowered his shoulders and soothed him. The metal bed was unharmed. My foot throbbed. As I limped outside, I could hear my full name, weakly, the king calling his princess.
The land-line rang two months later. I couldn’t do any more damage now, the voice said.
Margie said he cried the entire day, not from the pain I caused, she admitted, but over my leaving him.
“If not for his religious faith,” and her voice broke on the phone, “he would’ve died a sad, disfigured man.”
He went that same week, she said, had been gone all this time. Margie couldn’t bear to honor one of his dying requests, and had me to thank for living with it.
Duane wanted me at his service. As I heard it, the contents of my stomach poured into the sink. It wasn’t from the call.
I sit in this still house, wondering what is forming inside me. Will she know what I’ve done? Is it in her blood too? Or, will a man’s stubborn belief in a goodness that he didn’t possess, and didn’t deserve, endure?
Over the long days, I try to feel her character through my open palm. Will she hate me too? Will she understand a mother’s frailties? Endure them? Will she feel what’s in my heart—regardless of what I say or do? Will I deserve her to?
Terry says I hope for the worst.
Sand through hands — Ben White