And so my dad mulled around for a bit and flirted with the idea of becoming his own boss. He looked into opening a liquor store, a cafeteria-style restaurant, a wholesale inner tube business . . . But he lacked the one thing a man with a dream needs to get anywhere: capital. He would become a realtor, he decided. He would sell houses. He got his license and tried that for a while – just as the real estate market in the area was entering a major slump. By coincidence, his marriage to my mother was also in a slump; they separated on the eve of their twenty-third wedding anniversary and divorced soon after.
He moved to Virginia. He tried real estate there for a while, couldn’t sell a single property, and got a job at Dulles International Airport overseeing the luggage-handlers for one of the major airlines. A year later, the airline went broke.
At a low point, he filled out an application at a convenience store. They hired him for the night shift, where he mopped the floor and restocked the shelves when he wasn’t carding minors trying to buy beer and cigarettes. The store was part of a nation-wide chain, and they did right by him. More than a dozen years later, he was a regional manager with a whole fleet of stores under his control.
And then, at last, came retirement. Or semi-retirement. He’d remarried by then, and after saying goodbye to the convenience store chain and being presented with a nice mantle clock that bore the store’s logo, he and his second wife moved to South Carolina, where he took a job three days a week washing cars at an Alamo Rental Car agency. He didn’t mind the work. It got him out of the house, allowed him to socialize with several other semi-retirees. But he looked forward to the day when he could, as he put it, ‘be done with all this shit and do nothing. Well, not nothing. I want to sit on my ass, figure out TIVO, and read.’
He was sixty-eight years old. He had bad posture, mild arthritis and a hiatal hernia at the bottom of his oesophagus that spasmed in the middle of the night and made swallowing a challenge every four or five bites; other than that, he seemed to be doing fine. His full head of snow-white hair was buzzed into a high flat-top, he was sporting a chinstrap beard and, as I discovered on a visit to his house that Thanksgiving, an earring. Standing at his backyard grill, wearing a parka and a pair of aviator sunglasses and wielding a spatula, he asked me out of the blue, ‘So how do you think the old man looks?’
I told him he looked like an assassin in an Elmore Leonard novel, and he smiled.
‘Why the earring?’ I asked.
‘Why not?’ he said. ‘I want to get a tattoo on my ankle, too. I just haven’t decided what it should be.’
We’d always read, in my family. We read what is known as popular literature: mass market paperbacks that didn’t cost much and had the word ‘bestseller’ stamped on their covers. Stephen King. V. C. Andrews. The occasional disaster novel and a dip, now and then, into the occult. Rosemary’s Baby and The Amityville Horror. It was communal reading, and the unspoken rule was that the book stayed on the coffee table in the living room when it wasn’t being read so that we could all be reading it simultaneously. I don’t remember ever having family discussions about these books, but by the time they’d been around the house a few weeks, they were dog-eared and curling, their cheap spines well-broken-in.
Like many retired – or semi-retired – couples, my dad and his wife lived on a severely fixed income. While they were both avid readers, they stopped buying books and got everything from the library, putting themselves on waiting lists for the more popular titles, sometimes waiting months for a particular book. My dad read for hours every day. During my visits, I’d do my own reading, sitting across from him in the living room, but I’d also watch him read. He was keen on political thrillers, now, and he would page through one after another with absolutely no reaction in his face. When he finished one of these books and set it on the coffee table, retaining his bookmark for whatever was next, I asked him what he’d thought of it.
‘It was good,’ he said. ‘Good story.’
I knew better than to expect a more lengthy assessment. He’d read my books with the same flat response – including the one I’d dedicated to him (which I had to point out, because he hadn’t noticed): ‘It was good,’ he said about each one. ‘Good story.’
Just a few months after my dad’s sixty-ninth birthday, on a routine checkup, his doctor said he wouldn’t mind taking a look at that hiatal hernia that had been waking him up at night. My dad didn’t see the point of inspecting something he knew could never be fixed, but he consented, and they set up an appointment to numb his throat and have him swallow a miniature camera.
The results showed a tumour as big as a thumb hugging the side of the hernia.
‘Is that why you’ve been having more and more trouble swallowing?’ I asked, trying to calm the panic I felt rising in my own throat.
‘It’s not easy to tell,’ he replied in his usual deadpan. ‘The tumor doesn’t hurt, but it causes the same discomfort as the hernia, which is why I didn’t even know it was there. But it’s cancerous, they know that much, and it can spread. So I have to deal with it.’
Right away, the doctor wanted to start him on a regimen of chemo and radiation. Following ninety days of that would be an ‘invasive surgery’ (is there any other kind?) wherein they would remove the hernia and what was left of the tumor – along with most of his oesophagus for good measure; they would then draw up his stomach lining and sew it to the bottom of his throat.
Chemo. Radiation. Invasive surgery. I was alone at work when he called me with this news. I was pacing the floor with the phone held away from my mouth, crying and not wanting it to funnel into the conversation. ‘So that’s it?’ I said stupidly. ‘We just do the treatment, and then have the surgery, and hope for the best?’
‘Who’s ‘we’?’ he asked. ‘You got a mouse in your pocket? I’m going to do the treatment, which they say is going to make me sick as hell, and then I’m going to have the surgery, and that should take care of things. Small meals from here on out, small bites. But no more cancer.’
It occurred to me that, for all the jobs he’d had, he’d never once called in sick (that I knew of), never once had the flu or even a cold. ‘You’re going to beat this,’ I said, trying to sound encouraging.
‘I’m telling you I’m going to beat it. If I don’t, I don’t, but I think I will. The truth is, I plan on being around for another ten years, so I can sit on my ass and not work,’ he said, and I could feel him grinning through the phone. ‘You’re stuck with me.’
I couldn’t bear the thought of his having to wait for what he wanted to read while he wasn’t feeling well, so as soon as he started the chemo and the radiation, I started sending him books. I stuck to political thrillers, because that’s what I knew he enjoyed. If I sent him a particularly long one, he’d thank me over the phone but say that, with his energy level so sapped, he just wasn’t up for tackling more than a few hundred pages of any one book.
A month into his treatment, he called me with an update from his doctor: things seemed to be going well. The tumour, on scans, was noticeably smaller. He hadn’t lost any of his hair. But he felt rotten and slept a lot and had no appetite; I should be prepared for the sight of him on my next visit, he warned, because he was a lot thinner than he’d been just a month ago.
‘What are you reading?’ I asked.
‘That Robert Bourne knock-off you sent. It’s not awful, but it’s not very good, either. You know what I really want to read? The new Stephen King. Dome-something.’
‘Under the Dome,’ I said.
Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Firestarter, Christine – they’d all passed across our coffee table when I was growing up. But as far as I knew, he hadn’t read a Stephen King novel in years. ‘It’s a big one, isn’t it? Like, a thousand pages? I thought you weren’t up for anything too long.’
‘I’m not, but I saw him talking about it on TV and I thought, that sounds like a good book. A good story. I’d like to read that.’
‘Well, then you should read it,’ I said, thinking, You should do whatever the hell you want. You should go to the Grand Canyon, see Venice, the Pyramids. For godsake, you’ve earned a spree.
But this was a man who’d never owned a passport. He didn’t want to travel; he wanted to sit on his ass and relax.
‘I’ve got my name on the waiting list at the library,’ he said. ‘It’s Stephen King, though, so it could be a year before I get it.’
Ahead of my next trip to South Carolina, I purchased Under the Dome on Amazon and had it delivered to his house.
He insisted on driving to the Myrtle Beach Airport to pick me up, but he told me in advance that they wouldn’t be meeting me inside the terminal. ‘Get your bag and come outside. We’ll be right there.’ He was standing next to the car, waving at me, during the moment it took for me to recognize him. He looked like an empty costume of himself hung on a coat hanger. His eyes appeared bulbous and his jawbone pronounced, but this was only because his face had sunken in around them.
‘Guess what?’ he said into the rearview mirror on the drive back to his house.
Questions like this were never rhetorical. ‘What?’ I asked.
‘I’m almost halfway through that Stephen King book. I feel like shit, most of the time, and I fall asleep a lot – ’
‘At dinner!’ his wife said from the passenger seat. ‘The other night, he fell asleep at dinner!’ She sounded annoyed, but I could hear in her tone that she was scared, and most likely exhausted.
‘True,’ my dad said. ‘But I woke up in time for dessert.’
‘Huh. One bite,’ his wife clarified. She’d lost her first husband to cancer. She was facing sideways now, staring out the window at the shoulder of the road.
‘Anyhow,’ my dad said, ‘I feel like shit and I fall asleep a lot, but I’ve still managed to get almost halfway through that book. It’s a good story.’
‘What do you like about it?’ I chanced, wondering if, at last, I could get him to articulate why he enjoyed what he was reading.
‘It’s about everyday people thrust into a shitstorm, and what they do to deal with it – or not deal with it,’ he said. ‘You want to know what happens, so you keep reading.’
‘When did you start using the word “shit” so much?’ his wife asked, still staring off to the side.
‘Always,’ my dad said, grinning at me in the rearview mirror. ‘Shit’s a good word.’
He kept reading. During my visit, I watched him sit like a shrunken gnome in the wingback chair of his living room, in his bathrobe, turning a page, falling asleep, starting awake and turning another page.
I was desperate – maybe selfishly desperate – to feel good about something. I’d given him this big fat book and he was sticking with it, despite his exhaustion, his frustration with feeling sick, his fear that maybe – just maybe – things wouldn’t look so good when they finally cut him open.
He finished Under the Dome within a few weeks. It was the last book he ever read.
Photograph by Kate Ter Haar