In July, Dad notices on his clinic printout that he has stage four kidney failure. His doctor hadn’t told him. Despite having had a bad heart for the past twenty years, Dad yells and hangs up when I hesitate to swap his kidney for mine. He’ll be ninety next week.
He leaves messages with my sibs, with parallel results. How are you feeling about this kidney problem? is how the youngest, the cleverest, copes with his question. I’ll bet you’re scared.
I’m not, says Dad. I’m mad.
He’s got the money to buy a new one, but not even quack doctors in Asia will take an order – he’s tried online. Rebuffed but still signed in, he shops for a bride instead. He can’t get his credit card number right. He finds his chequebook and decides to put nine thousand dollars into his caregiver’s checking account to sweeten a marriage proposal, then tells her he’ll fire her if she doesn’t take the money and sleep with him. She refuses, but keeps the money. He fires her anyway when she won’t help him go to a pawn shop to buy another gun.
Her mistake is trying to reason with him. You have six guns already, she says, why waste your money? A rifle with a scope, three shotguns, a handgun and a revolver.
I can never find them, he says. They’re not handy. He doesn’t know she’s moved all of them to a safe in a storage unit, he’s forgotten he’s just fired her. It’s a phase, says the doctor. He doesn’t say dementia. He tells her to hide not just the guns, but the knives too. He doesn’t say if it’s murder or suicide he’s worried about.
It’s hard to shake hands with a guy in a straitjacket, let alone hug him hello, I say to my sister on the phone the week before we arrive for his big birthday party. She says it’s even harder to do it when you’re bleeding from an ice pick wound or while he’s stabbing you with scissors. The witch might come to the party, she says, the caregiver he’s already given the house to for some kind of sex. Not the one who took the money.
A year earlier, we were so happy to have the witch as an aide, as thick-hipped, godawful ugly-mouthed, -faced, and -handed, as she was. Not to mention quick on the fabrication. To be fair, she did take him to music nights at the cafe, put in a first-rate sit-down shower, baled his hay for fun, and did not balk at going on a cruise with him to anywhere. It was on one to Alaska that no one had known about, after Dad came down with a 105 fever and had to be airlifted to a hospital, that worry began to surface. The sudden redecoration of his house at great expense also caught our attention. I’m giving it to her, no problem, said Dad. That’s when we started to seriously visit.
If the witch shows up at the birthday party, she will be difficult. I’ve always thought of ‘will’ as a promising verb, I sigh into the phone, not this noun that has to be forever babysat. There’re already seven of us to consider in this as a noun. I tell my sister there’s no future in the verb at all anymore, and dead air hangs on the phone, deader than before. She begs me to fly in early and spell her, but I can’t. I make an excuse. Other sibs’ excuses, she tells me, are not as lame as mine. Check him into the hospital the whole weekend before the party, I tell her. Tell him it’s his kidney, I suggest.
He doesn’t trust me to tie his shoes.
Play the six-hour cowboy cable series. That will give him time for a good nap.
He’ll just get more wired, sighs my sister. He’s not sleeping at night anymore, he sleeps while I drive him around or cook dinner, he’s fresh while I’m worn out. He woke me at three a.m. to ask if I would sleep with him. I almost said I would, just to get some sleep.
Incest is like asking for a kidney, I say.
You’re on speaker phone now, she says. I’ll expect you early.
Hi, Dad, I say. How tall is the corn?
He says Warren Buffet didn’t buy corn this year. He put his money into transplants. Transplants, he repeats in case I think he’s talking about some other kind of plant.
He calls back to tell me Warren Buffet should have married his wife sooner. The tax consequences alone, he exclaims. I’m writing an editorial for the newspaper all about it. Then he’s onto his kidney again, complaining about our lack of compassion. What’ll it be next time, I don’t say, an arm, a ventricle, my synapses? While I’m thinking it’s enough just to listen, he hangs up again.
I don’t call my sister back that weekend, I don’t fly in to take over. I know one of the caregivers will return in twelve hours, so her vigil will be a kind of late summer thriller deadline where helicopters should be hovering. I take half a sleeping pill instead of worrying, I save the other half to give to my sister at the birthday party.
Dad and I are rounding the first corner of the block, foot by foot. It’s my vigil, months earlier. Do women still like the big flashy ones? asks Dad.
What do I know? I never went for a ring.
You were a grass widow that last time, Dad says, eyeing the break in the sidewalk’s cement he’ll have to negotiate. Divorcees don’t merit big rocks. Begging your pardon, he says, but not taking it back.
I give him a shoulder’s worth of boost up the curb, and we pass the next door neighbor’s open garage. We are not clear of the opening when the neighbor calls from out of its recesses: I thought you were dead.
I’m flattered, says Dad, to be thought alive.
I mean, says the man who has interrupted his troweling, the implement wet and cement on his pant leg, you weren’t in church yesterday.
Nice of you to notice, says Dad, shoving his feet forward.
They keep track? I whisper, out of eye range if not ear, since Dad’s volume is way up on his hearing aid. He’s sweeping his hand out over the lawn-green perspective, so staid and kept, and shouting: So what if I don’t go to church now and then? I’ll show them the flames of hell.
I look back, and the neighbor is just now retreating with his trowel.
We walk farther down the block and stop under a blooming catalpa. Stinks up the place, says Dad, inhaling its perfume. Another good excuse to rest, he says, and he leans against its bark.
Who would be the recipient of this aforementioned flashy diamond? I ask, endeavoring to talk away the slowness of our progress, struggling to make the question sound interest-free.
Dad rubs his grizzled face. I haven’t shaved for two days. That’s a hint, he says. She’s good with a razor.
I make an eye-rolling sound, a smothered chuckle. I don’t call her the witch to his face. The caregiver you took to Alaska?
I guess, says Dad. Unless you and her sisters send me a few more to review.
You’ve got a second one.
She cleans the house, he says. Since we have stopped again, the whole long block and another corner of it looming, Dad pats his jacket and his pants pocket and his inside pocket until at last he produces a ring. Four thousand dollars, he says, cracking the jeweler’s nut of a box hard with his fingers until it opens and the ring flings itself into the adjacent grass.
I’m bad-backed but I swoop down and trap the little glitter in my fingers like an insect. Nice, I say.
I got the house girl to take me to the ring store after my acupuncture. Dad’s chicanery turns him suddenly shy and he doesn’t say more.
I stow the ring back into its box. The witch gives two-hour baths with salts and then powders his toes. We gave her the name after we accused Dad of being bewitched. I propel him forward, past the sprays of an offending sprinkler. What if she doesn’t take the ring?
Dad stops. Why the hell wouldn’t she?
Just saying. I take a few steps past him. Just in case. Think about it. She’s half your age. She’ll put you in a home and leave you there.
Dad thinks that is so unlikely it’s hilarious. I’m going to play sick and have her stay over. Then at three a.m., I’ll climb into bed with her.
That’s a plan, I say. On the other hand, what will you do if she says yes?
You sound like a damn shrink, says Dad. He plants his feet firm and looks around. A lot of robins out tonight.
We talk about robins.
I guess I’d feel sad if she didn’t say yes, he says after the robins fly off. All I’ve got is money. Then he says nothing and removes his glasses, rubs his eyes.
It takes until the birds return to the tree to get him going again.
We play cards and Dad wins. Two scotches later, we inspect his indoor pool: a long crack in the dry cement at one end, leaves from the house next door at the bottom of the other. She comes at eight in the morning, he says with a grin. I’m always up by four.
She could have her own boyfriend, I say. Doesn’t she?
She lives with a Patterson. A cowboy Patterson. He doesn’t move fast enough for her.
I see, I say, watching him move. Those people like to crack heads.
She could be teasing you. Caregivers like to tease, what else do they have to do? I finish the drink in my hand.
She’d look good in a bathing suit, says Dad, raising his glass to the pool.
I’m sure, I say. Although good isn’t the word I’d use in this instance. You’ll have to get that fixed, I say, about the crack.
Why? says Dad. I’m just about dead.
You’ve got plans, I say.
Call the contractor, says Dad, throwing up his hands in excitement.
If I get down on one knee, the fire department will have to come and jerk me back onto my feet again, he says after a long talk about a bad thriller he’d seen.
You’d better practice, I say, stupidly egging him on.
But what if she says no, I say again, hauling him and myself off the floor in a fit of laughter.
I’ll die happy I tried, says Dad.
Dad has the witch dress him in a suit with a shirt that takes a tie. You’ll just stain it, she says, buttoning all those buttons, fetching the tie. Where are you off to, anyway?
Nowhere, he answers. He loves having her this close, he’s told me, tying the tie. He’d endure a week of formal dress to get her breasts to almost touch his chest like this. The witch has bathed him with a bottlebrush, or at least a wash rag on a stick for the crevices, and all the while he imagined her hand on him like this. Her shirt is buttoned too, but not quite to the top, and when she leans down to clip his suspenders in place, he must have seen darkness.
He is so thrilled he falls asleep before she does up his shoes.
I smile at him at breakfast but he just eats his bacon. He says no to cream and no to blueberries. The witch goes off to make his bed. I open the paper between us and read out the headlines. Dad grunts as if he hears them. When she returns, he taps my paper and raises his eyebrows. I have to go to the post office, I say, and do you need anything mailed?
Femaled, says Dad.
She says, you two are so funny.
Dad doesn’t laugh.
When I get back, Dad is sleeping in his La-Z-Boy, his necktie curled in his fingers and his collar open. The ring box sits on the table, closed but looking left behind. The witch is wiping the counter where she’s spilled medicine. She is upset, her face red, her wiping wild. Did you know what he was up to?
Well, I say, the way the incriminated do.
They are always asking, she says. I get offers all the time, at least once a week. You know, she says, turning to me, I’ll take just the house.
My sister, who shows up next, can’t find the painting. It’s French, sailboats at the quay, thick impasto, signed and valuable. What the witch has hung in its place is a reproduction of a powerboat, v’s of gulls overhead, water plowed, framed by the lighter wallpaper that screams gone behind it. A few other items are missing: a clock, a pitcher, two glass birds. Mom kept a lot of stuff on display so it’s hard to keep track. Beside the powerboat is a photo of Dad, newly taken. When he wakes up, it’s the first thing he sees. Who is that white-headed fool at the end of the bed looking down at me? If he doesn’t have dementia, this photo would trigger it. This is what I suggest to my sister when she calls with her discovery, and all the other new changes. By moving things around, the witch puts him out of control, off guard because what he sees is no longer familiar.
Dad says the painting’s in the basement but it’s not, says my sister. There’s a locked closet.
Well, unlock it. It’ll only take a table knife or a credit card.
I’ve tried. It’s something more complicated now.
Call the locksmith.
The witch would flip out. It’s territorial. And Dad would back her up. You know what he said when I suggested someone polish the silver? Sell it at a yard sale.
My sister calls me two days later. More paintings have disappeared. The place looks like an institution, she says. Bare walls. What she puts in their places you can buy by the lot. And she’s taken down the drapes. Says it helps him remember where he is when he can see the tree.
He hates trees, and he can still tell you where to turn in the middle of a snowstorm.
Soon Christmas is upon us, the season of giving and giving up, of abandoning all hope, of realigning oneself with one’s relatives. I fly back to relieve my sister this time, and there it is: no painting here or here or here. I try the knob on the closet door that is locked. Did you ask her for a key?
It’s not that the witch won’t give it; she says she doesn’t have it, says my sister. She knows nothing about a key. But neither does Dad. He just looks sly when I ask.
But what if what’s missing is stolen? I ask Dad.
Dad hates thieves. The bane of capitalism, let alone the socialism he says we are always going on about. He says, Call the cops, if that’s what you think. Instead, my sister and I decide to Nancy Drew the situation but we have to wait until the witch exits. She likes to fill up his water glass with vodka, select the whiny country songs she likes to listen to while she gets him dinner.
We know how to cook, we tell her. He has favorites we can make.
She lays rubber leaving.
After he’s bedded and the TV is blaring, we set to work on the hinges with a screwdriver. We use a headlamp to do it because if he sees the light on, he’ll insist on us turning it off, to save electricity. This lack of light makes it dicey when it comes to the actual removal of the door, at least in the avoiding-dropping-it-on-our-toes part. I drop it on my sister’s, who is directing my twisting. What’s a sister for? I say after her squeak of pain, but I’m already pointing my headlamp into the closet.
Five paintings, stacked. Various glass items, ceramic birds, my mother’s silver talcum shaker. Did Dad forget that he gave her the key? What’s going on? Why is she doing this?
To drive me crazy, says my sister. To drive me away. She knows Dad won’t say anything, that I’m the only one who cares.
She’s sobbing now. Maybe it has to do with her foot as well as her heart. I pat her arm as if it’s an appendage I’ve never noticed before. We are not great huggers.
In the morning Dad is angry about the unhinged door. He is not delighted that we have recovered the paintings. He says put them in the bank vault if they’re so valuable. But Dad, we say, why not just hang them back up?
I didn’t okay this, says Dad and the witch frowns, calls up our brother, the one who hired her.
She’s protecting all of you, says my brother. The assets.
By hiding the paintings?
I know plot, which is just a shortened form of ‘conspiracy theory’. The witch and my brother are in it together. He refuses to hire a second person for her days off, nobody should interfere with her care of Dad. She keeps Dad out of my brother’s hair; he is, after all, the one who lives here.
My sister flies home two days early.
It does seem as if my brother is in cahoots with the witch, because when I suggest, in deference to visiting small grandchildren, that misplaced and relocated furniture be moved, she calls him and he calls us and threatens to beat up anybody who moves anything.
I tell Dad on another walk around the block that he’s caught between a gold digger and a madman. About my brother he says nothing, but about the witch he says, what about her references! Not that he’s checked them. I do and one is from a school friend of mine who is dead. A day later, I receive an email from that friend’s sister-in-law saying the witch was fired for seducing the husband. Then I do a little more research: her sisters have sued her over the custody of her own father. Apparently she let him wander.
Also she’s been arrested for shooting without a license. It’s bad enough she has a gun, I say to Dad, but he’s not interested.
What about coming to New York for New Year’s? I ask. I throw in my highest card: there’s a bar that specializes in bowl games from the Midwest.
He pretends to perk up when really he’s been thinking about this since I arrived.
I doctor Dad fast in the darkness of a winter morning. The witch’s arrival is imminent, she likes to control his every waking moment. I drive the two of us at top speed out of town, despite the ice, and the ice coming down.
Miles later, we breakfast in glamor, eggs benedict, while Dad’s cell phone rings through every chew. My brother or the witch? They work in tandem, their numbers flashing on the marquee of the phone that Dad doesn’t answer. I’m surprised he agreed to the trip, but then there’s nothing like sneaking around, being the center of attention. Last year when a journalist came to interview me for a local magazine, Dad wouldn’t stop talking. When it was time for a picture, he stood in front of me. That night at our hotel he gets twisted in his T-shirt and wrenches his shoulder and curses our trip until I cut the shirt off him. Later, I’m called a kidnapper by my brother, but during the flight and a week of theater and suppers and naps, our father behaves like a kid and enjoys it.
He fires the witch the day before his flight back. I am surprised by that too, if his goal is really romancing the woman.
Then there’s his birthday party.
By the time we wend our way there – rising at five a.m., driving to the airport, waiting on the tarmac for an hour, flying four hours, deplaning to wait four hours for a shuttle that drops us off at a truck stop four hours later, then driving to the pre-birthday party family picnic and bonfire at the lake house – I am not prepared for family revelation. My husband, who does not like the sound of the ‘birthday surprise’ Dad has hinted at, has accompanied me. It turns out that already one sibling out of the seven has been quizzed by Dad about why she’s shown up. Because I love you, she answered. She cut him off when he began a speech about how she’s taking all his money.
He seems to have forgotten about his kidneys. I’m driving him home from the ash of the bonfire when he says he has something very important to tell me.
I park in his driveway and file into his office behind him. Look at how spry he is! He could beat me around the block now. His secret must pour energy into him like a regular pep pill. He takes a seat behind the big cluttered mess of a table I always winnow when I show up, and I take the crying seat, where clients of his used to lay out their legal problems. He doesn’t give me time to take out a handkerchief. He blurts out that he wants me to return all the corporate shares of his family farm so that he can give the proceeds to ‘single women with children’, clearly a category all his various caregivers fit in to, or give it to his alma mater, or else to the witch even if she is fired. Maybe the library would like the money. Okay? he says. Single women?
I stare at the reproduction of a Wyeth behind his head, the one where the crippled woman has a long way to crawl to get to the farmhouse.
All the women you have any contact with are single women with children, I say, is that a coincidence? Or are you making up for when my sister and I were single women with children and you gave us nothing?
A half a beat of lightning flashes between us, metaphorical but literal enough. Get out of the house, he shouts.
It is eleven p.m. I hide in the bedroom at the other end of the house while my sister talks him down, tucks him in, turns off his light. All gratitude, I find half of the sleeping pill I’ve hoarded for her and she drives herself back to the lake house to take it.
I needed it more myself: Dad flicks on my light at three a.m., holding a long kitchen knife. Where are they? he asks.
Who? I say from under the covers.
The guys who cut the lawn.
I move not too quickly toward the drapes under the bright light, I open them to the black outside and I point, They’re almost done. They’ll be here again in the morning.
My husband is pretending to be asleep in the other single bed. I am angry he’s not defending me, but if I scream for him Dad might do something worse. Let’s go back to your room, I say.
Dad’s frowning, silent, standing with the knife at his side as if that’s what you carry with your pajamas, as an accessory. Can’t you fit that in the dishwasher? I say when we pass the kitchen.
He says that will make it dull.
They’ll be here in the morning? You’re sure? he says to me from his bed, where four pocket knives lie open beside him and the big one now peeks out of his covers.
I glance out the window en route to my room. The lawn can’t be cut any shorter.
My husband is sitting up, the light on, when I get back. He says everything is fine. Or it will be in the morning. Delusions are night time events. Don’t take anything your dad says after seven seriously.
But he hooks a chairback under the door knob.
In the morning Dad announces to me and the rest of the assembled family that he’s suing us with all the money he makes from the family farm, every one of us will be sued for not letting him sell our shares, making us pay lawyers that only he can afford. Thanks for all those years of lower taxes, he says, but now I want total control. I will sue you right into the grave and beyond. You can do that, he says. You can keep on suing.
He’s smiling, giving us this news.
But Dad, we say, we’ve spent all of last year taking care of you in rotation, leaving our jobs and children and responsibilities, and staying with you like nursemaids, preventing the witch from robbing you blind.
I paid your airfare, he says.
An hour before his birthday party, cousin Phil drives up in his red Corvette, a model with shiny hubcaps that glitter, a car that radiates wealth. His father distributed all of his estate to each of his children and then committed suicide. It was a sign he was sick, Dad insists.
Take me for a ride, he tells Phil. It is hard to wedge him inside, his thick torso is hard to bend and position in a seat that low, it takes two men to lever him out, but he’s beaming. We went a hundred on a back road, he says, as if he pressed that pedal himself.
Dad could have just been a guy who had a lot of sex with my mother and made money, the man who bragged to his friends that he did not pay for my education or my wedding. He inherited land from his father, a Depression-era real-estate dealer and manure-spreader salesman, and the GI Bill paid for his legal education. He loves pretty girls – my hold is slipping in this category – and horse races, Cadillacs, and a tall glass of vodka. So what if he’s a person and not the god I remembered? I have always been free of those debts: I went to whatever school I could pay for and married more than once anyway – I was free, free to live my own life and not obey him, that first tenant of fealty between children and parent. So why do I think he owes me now? I must have gotten misty in the brain when I flew out to help him every few months, cooked his meals, drove him around and played hand after hand of gin rummy. He watched my cleavage like any other guy.
Am I having these thoughts? No, I am sobbing. Heaves of sobs and tears but not too many, I am too angry. Destroyed. I mean nothing to Dad; that is the revelation. I am standing with this revelation, no, I am squatting. An old lady like me in a squat? The ground is right there, the dirt of it against the back of a barn. I flat-hand myself to standing and wipe my face dry.
Dad and my siblings are lined up inside this faux barn, waiting to order. It is a restaurant but also the site of slaughter, I pass a corral of cows to the right of the door purported to be organic, mouthing what looks like rubber. They could be eating each other.
The siblings smile at me. They have all had their audience and resemble me in my extreme state, variously affected, although not sobbing outside the barn, which I do not admit to. I smile back, but they are nonetheless grim in their rictus, in their I’ll have the fries.
For we must eat. No one has it in them to cook or shop or worse, leftover-up a meal. Starvation is possible and Dad must be fed. Fuel for ourselves is also necessary – someone must call lawyers or decide not to, someone must make new plane reservations so we can leave sooner. I can see the flight in all of them: four around the booth and a fifth flown to the bathroom to tidy up. Tears there too, triggered not by our sadness but anger.
No one could have imagined this change in him, his utter rejection of us. As a father, maybe he fell out of practice. We were gone after he became a judge, when he boasted about reading the fine print, when to fight, how long people could take it. A bellyache of his could get a guy more jail time, he told us after he retired. He wasn’t someone who came to the prom and took pictures, or even to graduation, but he’d slip you a fifty on your way back to campus, he had someone order cakes for everyone at Christmas. His charm is bifold – that is, he expands it to cover the moment. Quip is his best weapon, quick quips that show that even he, with so few hairs still screwed to his head, is still present and accounted for.
Fries arrive. No one is supposed to eat them. Diseases of the heart run in the family (isn’t that Dad’s real problem?) but now is the self-erasing moment, the tack of pleasure, the tasteless potatoes-and-grease taken into our mouths like a sacrament. Where’s the ketchup? We are ungrateful and unworthy, Dad is telling us, beaming as if he’s just discovered the true meaning of being a parent. At our age he figures we don’t need to be coddled, protected from the truth the way we were in our upbringing, not acknowledging all his years of upbringing-neglect, the true truth.
But he did feed us. We were fed; that was costly.
Half a sandwich later I can almost talk. Across from me is Dad. He’s finished, but eyeing my fries as if they have just fallen off his plate.
It is not the money we bemoan. I think I can speak for my siblings in this. Our thin wallets will not expand like arteries, no. The heart is the site of our suffering, our father’s withdrawal at this late date redraws a role that reaches all the way back to when we were children, when we thought we were lucky to have his love, despite his absences, given our awful mother. She smoked too much to use her ivory cigarette holder often, she loved good clothes and food, but only for herself, taking after her mother, who ate a chop every night cooked just for her. When our mother died and left nothing but a single token coat to one sibling, so we would know that she hadn’t forgotten the possibility of bequeathing, we were not surprised. She insisted, as soon as we were old enough – is there an age? – that she never wanted us. By then we had children, so we had some insight: the raising is hard. But she never mentioned the joy. I wasted my life, she told us before she died. She must not have wanted to waste her death.
We get it now – we’re not getting anything from either of them. All that time in the past we were puppets, charmed by this pretend Dad schtick into taking the roles of multiple pie-maker, clucking watchmen and harried caretakers, co-workers at his mercy, without the benefit of love or money.
Okay, if we can’t have love, we want the money.
Of course we sensed the vague outlines of something like this before, we say in the car after lunch, going back to the house where we grew up, where we will pack for a hotel or a plane as soon as the party is over. We are not sniveling adolescents, but the knowledge that someone you’ve loved for so long is not enamored with you makes a person rethink themselves. Who is, at heart, at fault? Who we are seems to have a crack running through it, one side the lovable, on the other some non-Freudian integer or unentangled mitochondria, some heart, smoking and cracked.
Finally, the party. Surprise! We have to pay for the whole of our town to feast at this party, his new idea, although he’s the only one who can afford it. We can’t disagree; we’ve already put it on our cards, assuming reimbursement. Several of us will have to take out loans. As the townspeople file in, I wonder: Have any of them endured rogue elders? Is this another secret they’re keeping until we’re old enough? The doctor coming in late admits at last, sotto voce, Dad’s only a little demented, no problem. What about the guns and the knives? I whisper-shriek. What about all those checks he’s writing?
He’s writing a check to the doctor for a hospital that needs a new wing.
When it comes time to sing the required praises after our paid-for dinner of fish or beef, and no other sibling will approach the podium, I stand, because who am I except the eldest and noisiest? But all that comes out of my mouth is a story about how, in a blizzard, in an airport without money, I wake him with a call for help and he says find Travelers Aid and I say you are Travelers Aid and he laughs. Made you strong, he says from his seat on the dais and the audience – all of them thinking they know everything about everyone – they think the story is so funnyYou kids don’t live here anymore, their laughing suggests. You don’t check out our library books, pump our gas, eat our apple pie. You get to fly away; you deserve airports like that.
At least the witch doesn’t show.
At daylight we look at each other standing in the hallway with our bags and our half-made reservations. The airlines can take us only as far as Minneapolis, and the look we have is a question posed: could any of us be as heartless as Dad? We can’t be divided now or our father will crush us entirely, and there we will be, sobbing behind the barn. Still, we know someone is skulking. We count heads: it’s not the buxom food taster, though her job depends on her being sharp as her knives, not the squishy middle girl, not the clipped-clawed lady lawyer who always wants advice, not the dashing brother smooth as butter.
We know who it is – that brother in cahoots with the witch – and we don’t honk when we pass his place in exit.
Outside my apartment I watch people cross the street. I’ll bet some of them have parents who want to keep everything too, both money and love. Why haven’t I heard about this power problem before? Why do I think the end is all hearts and flowers when I know the beginning – the birthing at least – is agony, and it’s only in the next few post-partum weeks that you are are blessed with hormonally-induced love and sleep-deprived obedience. How else could you endure it? Love kicks in.
This is love kicked out.
A week after the birthday, we lawyer up.
It’s a month later and the witch doesn’t turn Dad’s car into the driveway until four p.m. My husband and I have waited hours parked down the street. We have searched for him at the bank, the drive-in, the library, the car wash, even the cemetery. Every quarter hour the nervousness rachets up. I jump at a grasshopper that pings the car between tombstones, I eat chips, chocolate, cherries with pits, then burritos at Dad’s favorite cafe, sitting in the back by the dishwasher, but he doesn’t show up to take a seat, and afterwards, driving and parking down the street, my husband doesn’t nap, a feat of unusual vigilance. We’re in a movie stakeout but the plot has faltered, the suspense has sagged, but then –
I call the sheriff to tell him Dad’s getting out of his pickup. The sheriff won’t let us serve the papers alone. They like to have guns, he says, the ones who get served.
Knowing Dad’s penchant for weapons, I say, okay, I say fine.
We ring the doorbell, something I’ve never done before. The witch answers, sees the sheriff, skitters elsewhere. Dad knows immediately what the papers are about. He turns to my husband and tells him how he’s beating the sorghum market.
The sheriff smiles, says he’s never seen anybody as gentle as I am, explaining why temporary custody is important and necessary and can’t be avoided. I explain until I turn blue, my father enjoying my struggle, while the sheriff and his sidekick stand in the hall, their hands on their holsters.
At five a.m. the next morning, there’s an ambulance at the door. Dad says his heart hurts him.
Why didn’t you wake me? I say. putting a hat over his grizzled hair, finding his jacket. I could’ve just driven you. I’m your guardian.
You don’t care about me.
I find his medication, let the dog out, take his blood pressure and pack food, as if he’s going to camp. He doesn’t like the food at the hospital. We ride five minutes in the ambulance. Emergency greets him like an old friend; they have his room ready.
At seven, my brother’s at the hospital. When he finds out nothing’s wrong with Dad except sadness, he tells the nurses we’re vultures, we’ve come to take his money when he’s down. They don’t even live here, he says, as if here’s the purgatory he has to put up with. He likes to rage. As a toddler our mother spooned phenobarbital into him to calm him, a nice barbiturate. He’s raged enough to wrest away the power of attorney and the million dollar farm. Nothing to it. Demented? He wishes Dad no other way.
Ah, I say, temporary custody trumps power of attorney.
Dad says, No visitors at all, not even him.
Under my bed I find a brand-new rifle in a cardboard box.
Home again, Dad wakes two hours earlier than the night before. I hear noise and find the sheriff in the kitchen. I couldn’t get my cell phone to work, says Dad. What if it were an emergency?
The sheriff understands. He turns up the volume on Dad’s phone while Dad says, Don’t you think my kids ought to be happy with life? I gave them life, he says. The sheriff shakes his head as if there’s something wrong with his hearing, not Dad’s, and leaves. Dad dials the ambulance.
Soon enough my brother’s wife kneels in front of my father. She has six ovens and has plans for more. I can see her through Dad’s French doors, which she has slammed shut and locked. What is she is saying to him that he nods to? Where does he think she is leading him when she takes him by the hand?
I’m sorry, I have custody, I tell her at the door. You can’t just take him.
She takes him anyway, and an extra shirt.
The lawyer says wait four hours for them to return him. She’s packed none of his medication. I email and text my brother, I telephone and no one picks up. After four hours, the lawyer says Call the sheriff.
The sheriff brings him home, sputtering and furious. When my brother bursts through the door behind him, his ten-year-old daughter trains a camera on me. You watch your step, she snarls.
The next day I don’t spend half the afternoon making Dad meatloaf, I buy frozen.
His doctor, the one my father is giving a wing to, my brother’s friend, says my brother has to leave his own home and come live with us. That’s what Dad wants. The doctor says we can reconcile that way. His idea. I can’t not live with Dad, I have custody. Temporary temporary custody, my brother reminds me. Don’t bother getting too comfy.
We’re sitting on the grass under the shade of a light pole on day twelve. The town has cut down all the trees to make the park easier to mow. It’s a real park though – there is a big public waste container to one side of the pole. The grass is so hot, we crouch under the single strip of shade that light pole makes, we chew and we swallow. Even if the sandwich were other than tasteless, it’s not really eating. We could be dogs, ripping up the grass to vomit.
It’s not like you don’t love him, says my husband.
It’s not like I do, I say back.
After we return for our shift, we discover I am released. The paper Dad holds at the door proclaims that my brother has what I had. We can go.
Patio-lightning, patio-rain, one heating the other to hot. Yet I shiver. The white plastic you-know-the-chair I set over the rails of the sliding door so my feet get wet, but not my bottle. I’ve found one beer in the fridge of the lake house we’re waiting in until it’s time for the dawn drive to the airport, the house the brother installed a new lock on that we had to jimmy open. My husband’s nursing his half of the beer in a glass in the dark inside.
No lights, I say, no lights. Too much drama already.
I remember to breathe. It’s nothing special, a catch in the middle of the chest where, over and over, I forget to inhale. There’s a glow on my phone but I don’t check it. It promises another lightning-hit of lawyering that will zap me into debt hell. I take a sip, you’re not supposed to do this with beer, but I can hardly open my mouth, trauma has frozen it shut. I let the beer in, that’s about it.
All this nice warm rain, like piss. Like being pissed on. Such a thing could happen with leakage from a bad kidney, I say.
Stop making excuses, my husband says from the kitchen.
A psychologist is to decide whether Dad is demented and needs custodianship or not. Demented is not the diagnosis my brother wants, given the timing of the gift of his new farm. Rather than interviewing me like she has the other sibs, the psychologist tells me my brother has been raging at her, hearing her diagnosis of mere intermittent dementia, and what am I going to do about this rage? I say Dad is sick, he’s the one who should be taken care of. A week later, after enduring more raging and my sister-in-law’s begging, she recants her diagnosis, she tells the judge there’s no problem. Even I know that dementia is peek-a-boo, that symptoms can be suppressed.
Now no one has custody.
Not long after this, I tell an audience everything I know about a famous dead writer they love, and how I am like the dead writer and deserve the same love. I make them laugh but I only sell three books. I think delivering that talk will be the hardest part of the gig but in the very back row of the audience sit my brother and Dad.
We haven’t spoken since the custodianship struggle, a long time for our previous close-knittedness, sharing every Christmas for half a century and more. A lot of lawyers have spoken for us, however, at a price that is not merely psychological.
After my speech, I cheek-kiss both of them in the half dark of the auditorium, and hold my Dad’s hand while he tells anyone nearby I am his eldest, as a way to take credit for my talk.
He looks in fine health.
I’m not as shocked as I might be, seeing him looming out of the dark of the audience. The night before, loping down the grand staircase of the hotel to get toothpaste from the gift shop, I spotted his back and my brother’s, the two of them checking in at the front desk. That they should have traveled three hundred miles to hear me extoll the details of my upbringing in parallel with that of the famous author: a Latin teacher who also had many siblings, and lived under the same land and sky as me, is surprising. I am not Dad’s favorite author. My brain veered into paranoia: they were ambushing me, trying to rattle me into incoherence, which would not only ruin the evening but derail my career and force me to give up being an artist. All families who have in their midst an artist harbor this flickering desire. Why are they so special and not me? It’s not just sibling rivalry but paternal – I could have been an artist if I hadn’t been a parent. Of course they could pretend that nothing at all has happened between us, of course time could be bent so as to avoid what happens when a man refuses to consider he won’t be around forever.
The morning after my talk Dad doesn’t come down to breakfast. At the last minute, my brother has arranged a meeting. Neither does my brother show up. I eat watermelon chunks beside the grazing table of the buffet, conspicuous, alone, waiting. The not-dead Dad, the zombie Dad, filled with demented fury – is it possible I would miss him sitting there with a newspaper unfolded in front of him, across the veldt of hotel dining? I learn later that they came to town to change his will again, that they’d seen a newspaper notice about my reading after they checked in. I was amusement for the evening, a chance encounter.
After spotting my Dad and my brother checking out, I spend two hours with new lawyers. We make a plan. I convince them I am not a greedy bitch out to impoverish a lonely old man who is giving out ever bigger checks to his caregivers, the house to the witch, or the million-dollar farm in exchange for a power-of-attorney, never mind that these exchanges might be logical or beneficial or maybe even not coerced. I grow up in that lawyer meeting, the little shoot blossoms and seeds and droops, shucked the infantile and its gurgle of Daddy. I buy a poster at the museum I visit to clear my head. It features the Jetsons, the whole family picnicking at the beach with an atomic bomb exploding in a pink and orange background.
Two years later my sister-in-law takes Dad to the doctor. It is three days before my sibs and I are going to sign an irrevocable trust that divides everything equitably. The lawyers have discovered my father has tax problems, and the signing will eliminate them, thus no love will have to be lost or extended. And my brother will still keep the farm, so he gets twice as much as everyone else. Nevertheless, my sister-in-law is unhappy. How many more ovens could she buy with the entire estate? She tells their friend, the doctor, that Dad is now truly demented and needs stronger medication immediately. Although Dad says no to the doctor, I am not, her begging works. He writes a prescription for a strong anti-psychotic that Dad must take, or must be persuaded to take, regardless of its effect on his heart.
At the signing, each faction has its lawyer or lawyers, six altogether, and we all sit in separate rooms with our wants and our needs, with a mediator flitting between us, our pens ready for autographing our part of the paper that says it’s a trust that we’re sealing. Trust? The legal industry is all about trust, the point of having lawyers is to enforce it. At least the witch is not here. Adult Protective Services hauled her off about a month ago as a result of alienation from my brother. Since no one talks to anyone now without legal counsel, who knows what she did to forfeit her now completely redecorated house.
Hours into the negotiations, I burst into sobs at the mediator’s strongly advised suggestion of our meeting with Dad, individually, to apologize for having tried to deprive him of power. I struggle to be calm, I listen to the mediator putting over his Hallmark idea, that we will all join hands. I am calm, and then I am not. I am too damaged to kneel at the feet of the patriarch. Head bowed, still sobbing, I run from the room to the car on the tarmac.
The lawyer sends the other side our undying love, and our willingness to sign whatever, gambling that this will do. The truth is Dad is grandstanding for the one-on-one humiliation. He takes his time and naps while we wait in our rooms for hours.
Then he signs. My god, he says after the paper is safe inside our lawyer’s briefcase, a couple of days ago, I almost died from those pills your sister-in-law said I had to take.
The lake house is destroyed by fire. So appropriate: the scene of our retreat. My brother moves away and leaves my father to manage the farm all by himself. Take that, is what this means. You didn’t give me everything. My father has color brochures made to sell the farm, and then drops them in a wastebasket. He hires a substitute farmer.
I remember patting the top of Dad’s head at the hospital in an attempt at consolation, flattening his few fine wisps of hair to his pink skull. It was one of the many times he called the ambulance to pick him up. My heart, my heart, he’d insisted. He was sitting, still hooked to EKGs and not looking at me when he said, I have lived too long.
Photograph © Payton Chung