Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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As my mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground, my father whispered to me out of the side of his mouth, “Spike, who’s in there?”
I am not Spike. Spike was a pal of his in the 1920s. In those happier times, my father had worked as a file clerk by day and performed song-and-dance routines in vaudeville contests at night.
After he attacked the cleaning woman — he imagined she was a burglar and shook a long-handled brush in her face — I got him a bed in a place that cares for people in his condition. The night we drove there, I held him in my arms by the side of the freeway while he puked up the Valium I had fed him to ease his agitation. It was the closest we’d ever been.
At the nursing home, I signed the papers, and they strapped a watch with no hands on his wrist; if he got too close to the front door, it would trigger an alarm. “Spike,” he said, “see this? For my bar mitzvah!”
I visited him once a month the first year. Then I started having troubles of my own. After fifty-one years, my brain was showing signs of wear and tear, in the form of pronounced double vision.
The neurologist pointed to a tiny speck on my MRI film and said, “It’s a cryptic arteriovenous malformation. Think of it as a small tangle of blood vessels. There was a tiny leak.”
“You mean a hemorrhage?” my wife asked. She was taking notes.
“Well, technically, yes — but tiny.”
I was thinking, Tangle. Leak. Hemorrhage.
“The blood presses on a nerve. That’s why he has the double vision.”
There was a moment’s pause while my wife finished transcribing this last sentence. Then she asked if there was any treatment for this “malformation.”
“No. It’s in the brain stem. We don’t like to go in there: one slip and he’s paralyzed from the eyes down.” He turned to me. “Be patient. The double vision and the numbness should ease up in three months or so.” He busied himself with squaring up a stack of papers on his desk. “You can wear an eye patch if it really bothers you, but then you won’t have any depth perception, so be careful when you back the car up.” He shook my hand and winked at my wife.
I tried to chuckle. It came out as a snarl.
Today, the first word out of my father’s mouth is “Nu?” an untranslatable Yiddish syllable that can be a question, an answer, or a simple recognition of human helplessness.
It’s too hot to sit outside, and the lobby is crowded, a dozer in every chair. One of them suddenly snaps to attention. He has the face of a marionette, and his pants are unfastened. “Do you remember Elvis Presley?” he says. I’m not sure he’s talking to me. He stands and asks again, desperation creeping into his voice, “Do you remember Elvis Presley?”
I allow that, yes, I do remember Elvis. My father plucks impatiently at my sleeve.
The man grins, happy that he, too, remembers Elvis. “Elvis Presley — I just remembered!” He grabs at his falling pants. “I just remembered.” Word by precious word, he announces the good news: “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog!”
We walk down the hallway in search of a spot to park ourselves. My father sees Catherine, a frail bird of a woman to whom he’s attached himself. He once tried to sleep on the spare bed in her room and threw a punch at the aide who came to get him out of there. I don’t blame him: who likes to sleep alone? And then one day, my father slapped Catherine across the face. After that, she wouldn’t speak to him. I’ve never seen my father hit anyone; whatever his faults, he was never a violent man. But these days his brain’s electricity is moving down new pathways, skirting the neural devastation under his silver hair. Now he hits people.
“What is today, a bad day, really?” he asks Catherine.
“No, I don’t think so,” she says, and hurries on. Catherine is no shuffler. She is spry. I can see why he’d want to stay close to her.
“This is my friend Spike!” he calls out to her. “We go way back!”
“Dad, I’m not Spike.”
He peers up at me.
“I’m Jacob. Jake. Your son.”
He makes a sound that’s half laugh and half hiss, indicating amazement at the world’s folly. “I have a son? Nobody told me.”
He’s always been surprised by my existence. When he noticed me as a kid, it was either to yell — Knock it off with that noise you call music, already! Do you have any idea what time it is, for God’s sake? — or to use me as a straight man for the exhausted jokes he insisted on trotting out before company. After I won my first cello competition, he shook my hand and said, loud enough for all my friends and relatives to hear, “That was good — not great, but good.” Years later, when I could finally bear to remember the moment, I realized he hadn’t said it to keep me humble or to goad me on to greater achievements; he just thought it was a snappy line.
We sit in the hallway on a wooden bench. An oil painting of a harbor scene hangs on the wall in front of us: two oil paintings, to me, since I’m not wearing my eye patch.
“Kind of looks like Sausalito,” I say. “Remember Sausalito?”
“In a way, because that’s where it’s worn out.”
“Worn out?” I ask.
“Different items,” he replies: “face, hair.”
His face is rusted, covered with barnacles, worn out. Silver pinfeathers on his neck.
He motions with his head to a nearby plastic ficus. “That tree was with us a long time. We sent for it.”
I rummage around for a shred of conversation. “What did you have for lunch?”
“Yeah, I’m thinking, what did I have for lunch? Oh, I don’t have it in my mind, but I think I had something.” He looks at me sideways and asks, in the lowered voice he always uses when speaking of money or disease, “Where’s our mother?”
“You mean your mother or my mother?”
He tries to grasp the notion that he and I have different mothers. His brain smokes with the effort. Finally, he gives up and chooses randomly: “My mother.”
I speak in the same gentle voice I use to hide my raging impatience with my students — teenage girls who would rather be riding horses than learning the cello. “Your mother died a long time ago.”
“She did?” He tucks in his chin and frowns, as if to say, How did I miss that?
I tell him that, if she were still alive, she’d be 127 years old.
“A hundred and twenty-seven?”
“If she were still alive. She died about thirty years ago.”
“Did I know? I must have known.”
I ask if he knows how old he is.
“My age is . . . uh —” he makes a wild guess — “somewhere in the seventies?”
I motion for him to keep going higher.
“More? How much?”
I spill the beans: “Ninety-three.”
I ask if he knows how old I am.
He squints at me. I have just started growing a beard, which is almost entirely gray.
“Well, uh, I look at the whiskers —”
I recently read an article in my local newspaper about a centenarian father and his septuagenarian son who both live in the same nursing home. Apparently, the father is in better shape than the son, who has had a number of heart attacks and uses a wheelchair. The father is still lucid and gets around unaided. I wonder if I look older than fifty-one. Suddenly I have a great longing to be hitchhiking in a downpour in the south of France, or paddling a kayak in the San Juan Islands, or sorting potatoes on some family farm. Anything but sitting here looking into the grave-mouth of my father’s eyes.
Meanwhile, he hasn’t even stopped for breath.
“. . . We get along with the nice people. We both like it if we go downtown. But not too much. How old am I? A hundred —”
“No, no.” I try to laugh. “Back up. Now you’ve gone too far. Ninety-three.”
“Really? Well, that’s all right.”
And here comes The Question again, like a corroded brass ring he can never quite grab: “Where’s, uh, my mother now?”
I’m still playing the patient son. “Your mother died a long time ago.”
He considers this for a while. “I didn’t know that.”
“I think you did; I think you forgot.”
“Yeah.” He seems grateful for this explanation. “Because I see these people, the others, become lost, so to speak. And you see the aaaa . . .” The stripped gears of his mind spin without traction. “Aaaaa . . . aaaaaa . . .” Then something engages: “Animals in their cages and they’re treated very nicely. You feed them, and you have a lot of fun with them, but you don’t pull them out, you know? Where’s our mmmm . . . mother?”
I hate this place. The smells are making me gag, the disinfectant as much as the stink of death it tries to cover. The tiny pool of blood in my brain is going drip, drip, drip — a clock ticking out my numbered days. I know, I know: the neurologist said it’s a low-risk lesion, that I’ll probably die of something else before it ever has a chance to kill me. I love doctors. I love my old father, who can’t remember that he had a wife, and has a son; who tortures me by refusing to die. I’m so happy not to have a child of my own who will think poisonous thoughts about me someday.
“Where’s our mother?” he repeats.
“You mean your wife? Ethel?” I hold her name between us like a weapon. Then I strike: “She died about a year and a half ago.”
He is silent for a moment. Then: “She did? A year and a half ago? Of course it fades away, you know. Lost. So how can I figure out which is which?”
“It’s tough, sure.”
I don’t know whether he’s just following the form of the conversation, trying to respond with appropriate lines, or actually approaching some real feeling. I ask if he feels sad.
“Well, in a way. But we can be here and go down in the back yard, which is pretty nice. Did you see it? And there’s the pool. Don’t we go in the pool there? Sure.”
So much for feeling. I tell him, through clenched teeth, “There is no pool here.”
“No pool? Oh, well, yes and no. I have a car still, don’t I?”
He considers this new information. “I don’t need a car. That’s right.” Then, with wonder and concern, he discovers a new word on his tongue: “Where is my wife? Right now?”
I could ask the same question about my wife. This morning, against my better judgment, I asked her to come with me.
“Think about it, Jake,” she said. “I have the entire Microsun job to get done by Friday.” Deadlines make her tense. “Or maybe you have another idea about how to pay the rent next month?”
Beth hates writing computer manuals. In better times, my income from playing in a little-known string quartet and giving cello lessons covered at least half our expenses. Beth was able to do less technical writing then, and more of the painting she loves.
She eventually apologized for snapping at me, saying, “I know this is hard for you.” But she also made it clear that she would come only if I insisted.
I was too weary to insist. Instead, I, in turn, apologized to her. We have become quite skilled at asking each other’s forgiveness. Then I said something mildly optimistic about getting my energy back and taking on more students so she could paint again, but she fluttered her hands and told me not to worry.
I assured her I could handle the drive. Yes, I would stop whenever I got tired. I would listen to my tape of guitar music from Madagascar. I would be fine.
Once again, I tell my father that his wife is dead.
“She was a nice lady. What can I say?”
“That you miss her.”
His hearing is perfect, better than mine, but I say it again, right into his ear: “You can say that you miss her.”
“I can’t say too much. Because if I say too much it costs me money.”
“No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t cost you a thing.”
“Of course not.”
“What do you really mean when you say that?”
“Who knows?” His voice becomes hard. It turns from me and goes its own way. “I can say anything, any item. I see the animals. I know them and I feel sorry for them. People can lock them up.”
I hear my mother’s last words, spoken through an oxygen mask in a ghostly whisper: He’s what gave me the heart attack.
Then he says, “Where’s Ethel?” It’s the first time he’s said her name without my prompting.
I don’t answer. I can’t make myself tell him one more time that she’s dead. Instead, I tell him that Beth sends her love, that she’s sorry she couldn’t come today.
He pretends to recognize her name. “Well, all I can say is that’s very nice.”
“She’ll probably come with me next time.”
He plucks at the watchlike device strapped to his wrist. “What time is it, actually?”
“She’s working very hard.”
“Yes,” he says, “she’s up when it’s still dark all around. For the milk truck.” He’s back in his mother’s delicatessen.
“This isn’t a great time for us.”
I tell him that I had to drop some of my students because, without naps, I was tending to fall asleep during lessons. Even though I’m sure he doesn’t understand, I keep talking: “The neurologist says I’ll get better, but in the meantime Beth had to take on more work.”
“Our mother made us schlep the blocks of ice. But on Sunday it was Coney Island.”
“I’m worried it’ll be too much for her.”
“She gets hard when she’s not painting.”
He plucks at a loose button on his sweater. “She was a nice lady.”
“I’m afraid she’ll leave me if I don’t get better soon.”
“I said to her, ‘Let the other ones have a turn; for me it’s the beach.’ ”
A ghost of a woman approaches our bench and zeroes in on my father. “I didn’t know anything. Anything,” she says.
He’s fast as a bullet: “Well, then you turn around and you’ll see us a little bit later, because we’re friends.”
The woman crosses over into pure glossolalia, speaking syllables that might be ancient Sumerian.
He nods sagely. “Then you go home, and you write a little thing and put it on the piece of paper and give it to me later.”
“Yeah,” she says, “right.”
“So you won’t fall down,” he adds.
“Right.” She is pleased to have an assignment.
“Go ahead.” He motions her on her way.
“You’re welcome.” He chuckles, pleased with himself, as she disappears. He grasps his knees, leans forward to consider the large brown spots on the backs of his hands, then looks up. “Well, here we are in Newport again. Heh, heh, heh.”
“That was the big thing out in New York. You miss them, then you get used to it. Sometimes I try to go to the beach.”
I close my eyes. “What beach?”
“Either one. Good ones wherever they are. Why not?”
Why not the beach? Why not be young men with smooth, tan bodies?
“What year is it?” I ask.
“Year?” he says. “This or that.” A sudden shaft of sunlight bursts through his fog: “1923.”
Yes, 1923. The water is still clean — no needles washing up on shore. He’s twenty years old.
“Lots of them,” he says. “Short and taller. They paint their toenails — it’s a nice effect.”
“Yes,” I murmur, seeing, behind my closed eyelids, deckle-edged snapshots of girls with large red mouths and firm shoulders. “And do we talk to them? Do we ask them if they’d like a beer?”
“If we want to, we do. Or we turn. We play nicely.” I imagine him grinning like a gondolier, white teeth flashing against tan skin. “I knocked ’em cold last week,” he says. “Not too much but at the, uh, Meeker, in Brooklyn. I did . . .” A pause. His breath comes faster. Then something clicks in his throat and he continues: “ ‘Juanita’ and ‘Bananas’ and ‘Stutter.’ Walked away with first prize: four bucks.”
I recognize the song titles from the seventy-year-old notebooks I found when I cleaned out his apartment. I keep my eyes closed.
“See, if I keep getting first prizes, I can clear ten, twenty a week and quit working in Frohman’s office. Then I could put together a real routine and get on the circuit. Not just amateur night.”
“You going to put more songs in? Take some dance lessons?”
“Lessons? Nah. I can do the time step already. There’s this number I saw what’s-his-name do at the Prospect: ‘I Love Me.’ It’s a gag song. How does it go? ‘I love me, I love me, I’m crazy ’bout myself.’ I make lists: ‘Monkey’s Mommy,’ ‘Barney Google,’ ‘Oh Gee,’ ‘Stingo.’ The gags are the hard part. Songs you can steal, but gags — the good ones — you gotta pay for. They’ll break your legs.”
His are still slender and strong, a hoofer’s legs.
“What about you, Spike? They gonna let you in at . . . Where is it you want? The school?”
I can’t remember what Spike became. A lawyer? A high-school principal? Something that took him beyond my father’s reach.
“I got in with flying colors, Sam. I start in the fall.”
“Well, that’s terrific. Flying. With a noggin like yours, you deserve every . . . feather.” Then, after a pause filled with the cries of imaginary gulls: “Where exactly are we?”
“The beach, Sam. See the water?”
The water. I want us to rise and surge like water. Please, I say to some empty space between us, let him remember me. Let him finally be my father.
Behind my eyelids, the young man in the snapshot jumps to his feet and runs into the surf. He dives under a breaker, surfaces farther out, and swims toward the horizon. I wave and shout, Dad! Don’t swim out so far! But it’s no use. He’s gone.
My father becomes restless and asks how long I’ve been here and where I came from, shaking his head in wonder at my answers. I get up from the bench. He, too, rises slowly, refusing to take the arm I offer. As we walk down the hallway, I become more aware of my double vision and fumble for my eye patch. I realize I’ve left it in the car. Just as well: I’m in no mood for pirate jokes. Besides, my cheerful neurologist has warned me that if I overuse it I might never get my binocular vision back.
The walls are hung with large, framed squares of thick, flower-patterned carpeting. Touching them is supposed to calm the demented. I run my hand over one of the squares and think of the large canvases my wife uses. I smell linseed oil and turpentine, and long for the glorious mess of her workroom and her call to come look at a new painting.
In the lobby, Catherine stands by a picture window that looks out on sunbaked concrete and large, empty redwood planting boxes. My father lights up like a birthday cake. Nudging me, he says, “She’s the one. The knot. All done together.”
He sidles up and taps her on the shoulder, grinning like nobody’s business. She takes two steps away from him. “Do you know me?” he asks.
“Oh, yes,” she says, still looking out the window. “Talk, talk, talk.”
“Well, if that’s how you’re going to act . . .”
“As long as you keep your hands to yourself. That’s what I always told them.”
Other residents who have been shuffling through the hallways or dozing in chairs slowly begin to drift toward us, like fish in a tank swimming to the surface at feeding time. A woman with a broad, attractive, Slavic face comes toward us. My father raises his eyebrows to me, sending me a secret family code: Danger. Crazy person at ten o’clock. Take evasive action. Over.
I try to catch the eye of the aide behind the reception desk, a young man with a pierced eyebrow, but he’s busy with paperwork.
The woman takes my arm. She is weeping. She smells of shit. She looks deeply into my eyes and says nothing. She leans her head against my chest. I say, “Yes, I know.”
This is too much for my father. His voice rises an octave. “Hey, there now! No, no. There’s a reek on your face!” He takes the weeping woman by the shoulders and tries to pull her away from me.
The young aide puts down his papers and hurries over. “OK, Sam, it’s all right,” he says and smoothly separates my father from the woman, whom he walks toward a bathroom.
The other residents drift away, but Catherine remains at the window. My father goes back to her.
“You all right?” he asks.
“Cold,” she says.
He puts his arm around her shoulder and says, “Do we have animals?”
“Not since the war.” She moves away from him like a blown leaf.
I join my father at the window. “Listen,” I say, “it’s about time for me to hit the road.”
“You have some place . . . ? What about . . . to eat?”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s all taken care of.”
I tell myself I will never come back here. I’ll keep mailing in his rent, God willing, and turn his picture to the wall.
“You’ll come to see the new routine? Someone has to tell me how long I’ve got. Because this place . . . really, I don’t know. It’s not for staying.”
I want to grieve for him from a distance, so his liveliness won’t confuse me.
He sings under his breath, “I love me, I love me . . . ,” and follows me to the main entrance.
All right, all right, I tell myself; I’m exaggerating. I’ll come back. I’ll check on his socks and underwear. I’ll make sure the staff treats him well.
“Listen, Dad —”
“What did you call me?”
I’m seeing two of him. I can’t bring the double image into focus, no matter how hard I strain.
“What should I call you?”
“Just don’t call me late for dinner.”
Unbearably high-pitched sounds pierce the air as the alarm goes off; he’s come too close to the door. The aide scurries over to the switch box and punches some numbers on a key pad. In the sudden silence, my father and I stare at each other.
Then he says, “Nu?” and I say, “Nu?” and my arms open to him, as if acting from some understanding of their own.