Fiction, Vol. 3.1, March 2009
Around midnight, unable to sleep, Esther gets up. She keeps a fifth of whiskey behind a stack of National Geographics in the hall closet. She gets a juice glass from the kitchen, pours in a couple of jiggers and sits in the dark, curled on the couch, the afghan tucked around her legs, her bathrobe zipped to her chin. She sips, sinking into the silence of the house and imagines what her life could be if her father was in a nursing home and not just down the hall.
“I’m not finished,” she mumbles into the whiskey. Her breasts are still tight. It’s what comes of never having children; she’s been experiencing the twinges of menopause, but no regrets. “Damn kids.” They weren’t what she wanted. A man. It didn’t have to be marriage, just regular sex would help.
A car passes; its headlights whipping across the squat desk her mother had used and the glass-fronted corner cupboard, drawing her eye toward the hall. A dim shadow shuffles past, the rubber feet of the walker silenced by the carpet runner. Ordinarily she would call out, ask him what he needs. Now she rises and follows.
His back bent over the handles, her father labors past the arched opening to the dining room. Esther wonders if he knows she’s there or has forgotten she exists.
He enters his old den. Dim moonlight picks out the display of trophies; bronze and silver ballplayers, bats raised. The last one he’d brought home is inscribed “Jack Rossi, 1966, Team Cully, Portland, Oregon.” As he passes a table, he brushes a stack of magazines with one hand as if caressing them. They slide to the floor with a clatter and sigh. He bends, studying the small pile, and Esther hears the grunted “Fuck.” She grins, relishing in his maleness, proud her dad had been a longshoreman, muscles rippling under his T-shirt, his swagger. The last time she heard him swear was in Mike’s Tavern, a narrow slot between a cleaner’s and a veterinarian’s where the bar runs from the street to the restrooms like a heat-seeking rocket. She’d been sitting in a booth with a girlfriend; he was talking to Mike at the bar and suddenly yelled, “No one gives a fucking goddamn!” and left, pushing people out of his path.
A week later he slipped on spilled coffee, breaking his hip. Everyone except him said the operation was a success.
“You’re walking, Mr. Rossi.”
“Yeah, with a goddamn walker. Shit!”
When it became obvious he couldn’t live alone anymore, the only one who questioned the inevitable was Esther.
“You’re right there, for God’s sake,” said her brother, Jimmy, from Chicago.
“You can hardly expect me to give up my career,” said her sister, Sara, from New York.
That had been three months ago.
“What are you doing, Dad?” Esther flips the overhead light and the night rushes away leaving the den cold and sterile. She takes in his open pajama top and bare feet. The room is icy. “It’s almost one. What are you doing in here?”
He blinks in the light like a mystified child. “My teeth. Where are they?” His lips suck protectively around the vacant gums.
As if made of smoke, her resolution to put him in a home evaporates, replaced by pity.
“Maybe they’re in your bed.” He can’t seem to remember to put them in the overnight Efferdent soak. She doubts he is even brushing them.
Half an hour later, after he’d refused water and pushed her away when she tried to kiss him, Esther creeps back to bed, pulling the blankets around her in a fruitless attempt to comfort herself.
Giving up her job and apartment, and moving back home, had been distressing.
She felt suffocated by the rose-patterned wallpaper in the bedroom she’d once shared with Sarah. She replaced the rose-patterned sheets and rose-patterned spread with her own cream sheets and blue duvet. She removed the picture of her father at Sarah’s graduation. She thought she knew where her father had been the weekend of her own high school graduation. She’d tried to talk to Sarah about it.
“These things happen,” she said.
“You’ve got a dirty mind, you know that Esther?”
Returning home to care for her father had rekindled the rankle. Before Jimmy was born, her father had called her princess and ruffled her hair. He became even more distant after Sarah arrived. Esther couldn’t remember the last time he’d hugged her. Just yesterday, when Dotty-from-next-door had visited for coffee, she’d said, “His mind is slipping. One of these days he’ll look at me and not know who I am.”
“No, he’s not going that way,” said Dotty, whose husband, Al, had died fifteen years earlier after a bout of what she called ‘memory loss, not that Alzwhatit thing’. “Jack’s still sharp as a tack. I hear he wins regular playing Bingo at the center.”
Yes, that was true enough. Every Monday Esther drops him off at the Cully Senior Center for Bingo and lunch. It gives her precious time off. And then there are the Wednesday mornings when Judy comes from Senior Assistance to give him a shower. And, although she isn’t about to tell Dotty, now there is Ben Carpenter.
She’d met Ben the previous Wednesday. Judy had been late, fifteen infuriating minutes, but by eleven, after wandering through Lloyd Center Mall, Esther was on Northwest Broadway considering the stacks of frying pans in the Kitchen Kaboodle window. She didn’t need a new pan, but she wanted something. She pushed through the glass doors and wandered the maze of shelved dishes.
Arriving at the napkin display, she stopped, transfixed by the choices. Breaking the spell, she whipped about to leave, her face suddenly full of rough jacket.
“Oh! I’m sorry!” she cried, backing away.
“Are you all right?” His voice was deep and alarmed.
Looking up, Esther saw the dark brown eyes and neatly combed salt and pepper hair, the weathered face. She blinked. “I’m fine,” she said unable to look away.
His smile displayed rows of neat, small teeth. Probably not a cavity in them, she thought smiling back. “Napkins, you know. I just couldn’t decide.” She waved her hand at the display. He glanced at them and shrugged.
“Not very good ones. You might try the Pottery Barn in Tigard.”
He was shopping for wine glasses. A party, he explained.
“Your wife allows you to select wine glasses?” Esther asked in a coy attempt at humor and information.
“No wife. I’m having friends in Friday night.”
She thought for a moment he might say more. Invite her. But instead he said, “So, I need wine glasses for the Bordeaux I bought.” He told her about the wine shop he’d found on North Russell and the braised beef he would cook.
She could feel her cheeks redden when he bent toward her.
“Do you have time for coffee?” he asked.
It was almost eleven-thirty and Judy left promptly at noon. “I’m sorry,” said Esther with her sweetest smile, screaming inside with frustration, “I can’t today.” He shrugged and she rushed on, “How about Monday. You can tell me all about the Bordeaux and party and all.”
“Sounds good. I work near here. Let’s say ten at Starbucks?”
“Sure. Good,” said Esther.
They parted outside the store, shaking hands. His, big, firm and dry. Driving home, she was giddy with excitement.
At seven twenty Esther wakes, groping at the day, before remembering that it is Monday. She lies in bed imagining Ben rising, shaving, a drop of water escaping his jaw, sliding along his neck over his collar bone down toward the soft hair curling over his nipples. She lets her eye move to his belly, ever so slightly protruding over the band of his briefs. She halts, staring at the outline of his penis pushing against the white cotton.
She slides her hand under the covers and closes her eyes. Her finger, skillful in lovemaking, brings her to climax within a few minutes.
“How do you feel?” she asks as Jack maneuvers his walker through the kitchen door.
“What’d you mean?”
“After last night. Did you sleep okay after—you know, getting back to bed?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know.”
She eyes him, taking in the bathrobe and slippers. He seems okay. “Eggs or cereal?”
“Cereal.” He flops into the kitchen chair and takes a tissue. His nose drips constantly. Nothing serious, she’s been told.
“Dad, the wastebasket is right beside you.”
“Yeah,” he says, pushing the used tissue aside to make room for the cereal bowl.
She sits opposite him and spreads jam on her toast, staring at the backyard: the patchy grass, the swelling buds on the red twig dogwood her mother had loved, the concrete patio and the bottomed-out chaise. “What if I get a new cushion for the chaise?” she asks.
“If you want.”
“You used to like to sit out there. A new cushion and maybe a couple of new chairs.”
“The cushion is enough,” he mutters, frowning at his cereal.
She stares at the top of his head: pinkish-brown with a few dark spots; a fringe of gray sticking out over his ears. “It’s not the money, is it.”
He looks up, his eyes narrowing. “We used to have a perfectly good table. Formica and you kids fit around it just fine. I told your mother she was robbed when she bought this damn thing!” He makes a fist and hits the maple veneer. “Robbed.”
“Okay, she was robbed, but that doesn’t mean we should stop living you know.” Esther waves at the patio and ragged lawn beyond. “This place could look really nice.”
Her father turns slowly toward the window. He rocks gently back and forth, almost a tremor but not quite. And Esther waits.
“My mother used to have roses,” he says. “She’d send me out with a tin can of kerosene and I’d hold that can right under the leaves and flick the Japanese beetles right in it. Boy, they sure didn’t like that. But that was before the war.” He scratches his neck. “You remember that?”
“No. I wasn’t born then.”
“That’s right,” he says, turning back and smiling at her. “You were a cute baby.” He frowns. “I think that was you.”
A little after nine, having made sure her father is safely inside, Esther pulls away from the Cully Senior Center. Normally, it takes twenty minutes to get from the Cully neighborhood to Northwest Broadway and Fifteenth. This time, there are few cars on the road. The sidewalks seem vacant. It is as if there had been a bomb alert or a pandemic exercise everyone knew about except Esther. There is an open parking spot half a block from Starbucks. She is twenty minutes early. She can’t very well sit in the coffee shop all that time. She glances along the opposite block and sees a shop she’s always thought interesting.
Twenty minutes later she dumps the heavy plastic bag holding the quilt she didn’t need on the back seat of her car and hastens toward Starbucks. Ben is already standing in line when she joins him. He looks at her with a slight frown, and for a horrible moment she thinks he’s forgotten their date. Then he raises his hand in a mock wave.
“There you are,” he says. “What will you have?”
He turns to speak to the barista.
Out of the corner of her eye, Esther sees the waving arm. “Hi! Esther!” She feels Ben turn and fixes her mouth in a smile as Lynn reaches to hug her.
“What are you doing here?” asks Lynn.
“Coffee,” replies Esther, praying Lynn will leave.
“A friend of yours, I presume,” says Ben, reaching around Esther to shake Lynn’s hand. “Ben Carpenter.”
There is an awkward silence.
Ben picks up their coffees. “Why don’t you join us when you get yours,” he says, and Esther’s heart sinks. Please, please, she begs, say no. Say no!
“I’d love to,” says Lynn.
Esther can see the three of them mirrored in the window. She had dressed with care that morning, choosing sophistication in black slacks, beige silk blouse, with an understated stripe of off-white, and a black cardigan. But beside Lynn’s short red jacket, pink and white-striped dress with its wide red belt, she feels drab. Her short bob no match for Lynn’s blond curls piled on top of her head with deliberate nonchalance. Lynn’s makeup is flawless and Esther bets she has just come from Macy’s cosmetic bar.
Ben, it seems, loves to cook and has a passion for anything organic. Esther, who considers organic produce an extravagance, if not downright un-American, nods in agreement. Through her beating heart she hears Lynn asking, “So, Ben, what do you do?”
He does something in finance on Northwest Twenty-First. And what does Lynn do? She is the assistant to the director of a non-profit. She names it, he knows it and respects its cause. He turns to Esther. “What do you do?”
Her mouth is dry and the words come out more harshly than she intends. “Well, I used to be a bookkeeper ¾ that’s where Lynn and I met, at Worthington’s.”
“I was assistant to the president,” Lynn says.
“And you’re no longer there?” Ben asks Esther.
“Esther cares for her father,” Lynn says, as if describing a particularly smart child. “Moved back home to be with him.” She pats Esther’s shoulder.
Ben cocks his head. Across the room the second hand brushes past the ear on the grinning face of a huge wall clock. Though she’s seen it dozens of times, only now does Esther realize it’s the face of a clown.
“Is he ill?” Ben asks.
Is he ill, is he well, is he up, is he down, is he. What is he? “He just got old.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” says Ben. He launches into a story of a cousin who is nursing her paraplegic husband at home. He is just describing their morning ritual when Esther’s cell phone rings. It is the Cully Senior Center.
“Excuse me,” she says and moves to a vacant corner of the shop.
The female voice on the other end is sharp.
“Your father has had an accident.”
“Oh, my God. Is he hurt bad?”
“No. Not that kind of accident.” There is a short silence and the woman lowers her voice as if she is about to commit a crime. “It’s the personal kind. You know ¾ di-arr-he-a,” she whispers.
“Is he okay now?” Esther whispers back.
“No.” The woman’s voice is firm but kind. “He’s uncomfortable. He wants to go home.”
“Now? Right now?”
“He’ll be by the front door.”
Esther returns to the table feeling far older than her fifty-one years. “I have to go. My father has had . . . he needs me to pick him up. I’m sorry.” She sees polite concern in their faces and knows they will leave a trail of clothes on the way to bed that night.
Her father is slumped in a wheelchair just inside the center’s plate glass doors. He turns his head away as she enters.
“You okay Dad?”
There is no reply.
Esther watches him as she drives. His face is closed and gray, slumped into his neck like a muddy landslide. An odor of broken sewer pipes fills the car. Had they done nothing for him at the center, she wonders?
“Dad,” she began.
He shook his head, staring out of the side window.
When they get home, he snarls, “Leave me alone” and slams the door to his bedroom.
Esther hopes there is enough whiskey left to get drunk and is about to check when she hears him cry out. She hesitates. “Dad?”
“Esther.” His voice is strangled. “I can’t get up.”
He is seated on the toilet doubled over, his legs pressed together, his trousers and fouled briefs tangled about his stocking feet.
She stares, uncertain, and then it’s as though she disappears inside another Esther, a competent, controlled Esther who stands in the doorway. “It’s all right,” she says, astonished to hear the new Esther’s calm voice. “We’ll have to free your feet first.” She is unable to mention the clothing by name.
“You do it, Esther.” His voice is detached.
She kneels in front of him, keeping her eyes down. She slides his pants out from beneath one leaden foot at a time and pushes them away. He makes no sound, offers no assistance or resistance.
“Can you clean yourself up, Dad?”
“I don’t know.”
When she was about eight, they’d been at the beach. Sarah was a baby and Jimmy a hyper-energetic four-year-old. She dimly remembers her mother, but her father was sitting opposite her, his legs splayed out and she caught a terrifying glimpse of a pinkish fleshy half-moon peeking out between the opening between his bathing suit and his leg. That she might have to deal with this forbidden knowledge that alters him from father to sexual male was something she’d never considered. Yet it had always been there and she’d always known it.
She looks up, forcing herself to view his shriveled penis before looking into his sad face. “You’ll need to stand,” she says softly, rising, offering her arm and bending her knees to lever his weight. She cleans him up, being as gentle as possible with the warm, soapy washrag while he clings to the front of the basin, his legs apart. His balls hang like deflated gourds.
He is silent throughout.
While he naps on the couch, she goes to RiteAid for Kaopectate, driving home in a light rain. She sits in the car in the drive surveying the house as if she were a prospective buyer. Low-to-the ground, a rectangle of dull brown, the prerequisite picture window and white shutters. Rhododendrons framing the lumpy lawn. I’ll have to mow that in April. Maybe May. Certainly June. Petunias would look nice in planters by the door, pink and white. And take down the corrugated roof over the patio for God’s sake. Even he would appreciate it. Or maybe not, who knows what he’ll be aware of by summer. She no longer feels like a separate Esther. That apparition resides deep inside her: a dull ache for what she will lose when he is dead, a certainty that she will have the strength, when she must, to put him in a place where those drifting between life and death cry out for help that never comes.
He’s watching a Leave It To Beaver rerun and looks up as she enters.
“Oh,” he says his face alight with pleasure. “It’s you.”
“It’s me Dad.” She kisses his uplifted face. “Are you enjoying the show?” She motions at the TV feeling pathetically happy and protective.
“You know, your mother puts that woman to shame,” says Jack as June Cleever calls Wally and Beaver in for dinner.
“What do you mean, Dad?” Esther grew up watching the Beav and still considers his parents the height of perfection.
“Just that,” says Jack, smacking his lips. “Your mother was a real mother, not some actress paid to be a mother. I remember she would get up before daylight and have breakfast on the table: pancakes and eggs and ham and you name it. All the hands would gather round and they just dug right in.”
“Grandma, Dad. That was Grandma, not Mom.”
“Yes, sure. They both were good women, that’s what I was saying.” He frowns and slumps further into the La-Z Boy.
“You want the TV off?”
“No.” He stares at the floor, moving one foot back and forth. “You can get the chairs,” he mumbles.
“Yeah, the ones you wanted for outside.”