I saw my father’s penis for the first time in my life today.
I don’t know exactly what I expected from that illustrious instrument of my origination; something special—gold plate, maybe. It’s a perfectly ordinary penis, not that I’ve seen that many besides my own. It looked useable, blue-veined and solid; younger and healthier than the rest of him, the parts I’m used to seeing. I never really thought about it before, but he’s kept it carefully hidden from my view for all of my forty-three years. That must have required some effort. I never even saw my father in a pair of shorts, never mind naked. He wore the same gray dress pants every day when I was growing up, and on the weekends he wore leisure pants, plaid polyester like airplane upholstery. My mother must have bought those. He even wore them for gardening. He always wore a barracuda jacket, too, on the weekends. It smelled of tobacco and mothballs.
I’ve been dreading such a moment for the past seven months, two weeks and three days, ever since my mother whispered the word “cancer” over the phone to me on a wet March morning. I had come in from work just as the phone was ringing, carrying four grocery bags, my laptop and a stack of junk mail from the day before, swearing because the rain was running down the back of my shirt collar and my key was sticking in the front door lock. No one else calls me at home except Mom, so I knew who it was. As I finally popped the door open and reached for the phone, my laptop slid off my shoulder and caught at the end of my arm where the grocery bags were already digging into my flesh. I answered with a groan more than a hello.
“Dave,” she sounded breathless, “I have to tell you something.” Aunt Jay’s electric bill nearly doubled since she put in the air conditioner? The new pastor wears brown socks? These are the sort of news items my mother usually deems vital enough to merit a phone call. “Your father has cancer.” Okay, that I wasn’t expecting.
“How do you know?” was my first response. Where did that come from? “I mean,” I started to correct myself, only I had no corrections.
When I got off the phone, I realized I was still holding the wet mail—a stack of credit card solicitations and bills, a Wal-mart flyer, and a prize tucked in the middle—the latest issue of Justice League of America. I dried off, put my groceries away and pulled the shade down on my kitchen window. When you work nights, morning is your evening and there’s something obnoxious about all that light. I heated a can of Chunky soup and sat at the kitchen table with my new comic, careful not to spill anything on the pages. I used to love the smell of a new comic, but the technology has changed over the years. Now the colors are clearer and the lines are sharper, but that fresh ink smell is gone. In the comics, it’s all about facing danger and conquering evil, but the biggest evil in my daily life is hotel guests with bogus credit cards. Cancer, now that’s dangerous; even superheroes don’t mess with that. I couldn’t imagine how Mom was going to manage it.
At first, it didn’t seem that bad, though. To my vast relief, Mom didn’t ask me to come out there. She said that Doctor J—that’s not his real name but he’s Indian and Mom won’t even try to pronounce it—Dr J was very “good” with Dad, which I took to mean that Dad didn’t bully him, and Dad was doing what he was supposed to with the treatment and all. Dad insisted on driving himself to and from his appointments in the Buick with the purple-heart license plate. He always thought that little “PH” on his plate is why he never got a speeding ticket. The fact that he never drove over 30 miles per hour or left his home state probably helped out there, too.
So he got through the first round of chemo and he didn’t even lose his hair, my mother said. I counted my blessings that the summons hadn’t come. I hadn’t been home to Wichita in almost ten years; not since my cousin Verne got married and Mom volunteered me to be an usher, and even that trip was less than a week. There was nothing about the place that called me. I liked my apartment in Oakland, I liked my job and my neighborhood and my very small circle of acquaintances, and my comics subscriptions. Even my schedule as night auditor suited me—I have no love of sunshine, in spite of living in California.
He got through the chemo alright, and he got through the radiation, too. Terrible heartburn with that, but he could down a milkshake, so she made them three times a day if that’s what he wanted. With his favorite French vanilla ice cream. I heard all the details from Mom. My dad is not a talker; when he speaks on the phone, you’d think he was paying by the word. He’ll get on the phone when it’s my birthday or Christmas, maybe, and he always calls me “son” as if he can’t remember my name: “Happy birthday, son,” and then a silence while he hands the phone back to Mom.
The only time I recall Dad having much to say to me was when we did yard work on the weekends when I was a kid. This is how I got excused from going to Gloria Dei Lutheran Church with Mom on Sunday mornings and it got Dad off the hook, too. After mom left for church with Mrs. Brundgardt, I would drag the push mower up the bulkhead stairs and Dad would watch to be sure I mowed in straight lines, up and back. Once I got going, he followed me and raked the loose grass into tidy heaps. Over the whir and sigh of the well-oiled blades, Dad would talk about the importance of maintenance and order—this, apparently, was his religion. In the late fall, we gathered the fallen fruit from the crab apple trees and raked the leaves into a massive pile for burning. Of course Dad had a permit and followed the rules, but there was an element of guilty pleasure in watching something burn. Once, standing straight with his hands clasped behind his back as usual, he said quietly, “I used to do this with my father.” That’s the only thing I can remember him saying about his life before I came into it.
After the radiation, there were tests and scans and more tests and more scans and a lot of garbled medical lingo from Mom that perhaps lulled me into thinking it was all going to be alright. But the night she called me at work, I knew things had taken a turn. My parents haven’t stayed up past nine o’clock since the moon landing, but there was Mom on the phone at ten past twelve. Ricardo answered it, “Front desk, may I help you? Motel Six, Oakland,” and I could hear the pitch of my mother’s voice from across the room. Ricardo held out the receiver in my direction.
“Dave, honey, I’m so sorry to bother you at work. Was that that nice fellow Richard who answered? What a voice he has, he ought to be doing commercials, for heaven sake, with a voice like that,” and eventually she got around to telling me that Dad was in the hospital and she was talking on a payphone in the lobby. They weren’t going to keep him long, she said, there wasn’t much they could do so she would be taking care of him at home, and there was a teeny possibility that she might need some help. “He’d like to see you, I’m sure,” she prodded at the end.
When I first turned down the shady, shabbier-than-remembered street of my childhood in my shiny rented Corolla fresh from the airport car wash, I expected to see Dicky Whiteless popping wheelies on his royal blue Stingray. Maybe Jennifer Hart, the girl with pigtails that stuck out from the sides of her head, pushing her pink doll carriage up the pitted sidewalk, or Mr. Bagley walking his fat, homely beagle. But Daisy the beagle was long gone, and Jennifer Hart was married, I heard, with real children, well past stroller age. Dicky Whiteless moved to Tennessee and went to tractor-trailer school. But I was long gone, too, wasn’t I?
As I got closer to the house, I saw that the driveway and the little front lawn were carpeted with small yellowish orbs. It reminded me of a commercial I had seen recently where hundreds of tennis balls follow this pretty girl down the street like adoring fans; but these weren’t tennis balls. They were apples. Crab apples from the tree out front, which now overhung both yard and garage. I pulled into the driveway because there was nowhere else to go with the car, but it was like driving over very large, slightly squishy gravel. I could hear a few pops and squelches. A smell like hard cider mixed with dirt was heavy in the air.
I stepped out of the car, trying to find a place to plant my feet in between the apples, and also trying not to get brown apple goo on my loafers. They must have been dropping and lying there for a long time because the flies weren’t even excited. They didn’t bother to fly around, just kind of strolled from one little fruit hill to the next. I yanked my suitcase out of the back of the car and picked my way across the lawn to the front door. I rang the bell and waited, holding my suitcase aloft to protect it from the apples. A curious fly, a less complacent one, buzzed around my pant leg. After what seemed like a long time, I heard my mother’s voice.
“Dave!” she called, and I tilted my head back, squinting up at the house, thinking perhaps she was in the window. I couldn’t see her though, just an expanse of pale green aluminum siding interrupted by storm windows that reflected the branches of the over-productive tree.
“Davie! Yoo hoo! Over here!” she called again. Then I saw the sleeve of her housecoat waving from the side of the house and recalled her telling me in some endless phone call, about how they’d stopped using the front door because the carpeting buckled in front of it and they couldn’t open and shut it properly. That’s the sort of thing my dad would normally have fixed. She was at the side door off the kitchen, leaning out from the concrete stoop and slashing the air with one arm, trying to get my attention. I hiked the suitcase up a little higher and wobbled my way through the apples around to where she stood.
“Hello, dear!” she said brightly, “Welcome home!” She rose up on her toes and kissed me on the cheek with a little smacking noise. “Come in and have a soda or something. How was the drive from the airport? That’s a nice little car they gave you, isn’t it? What is that? One of those little Japanese beetle things?”
Oh, yes, home.
“Mom, where’s your car?” I asked, since I hadn’t seen it on the street. Obviously she hadn’t been pulling in and out of the driveway or there would have been applesauce out there.
“Oh, Davie, I hate driving that old tank, you know. I got Mr. Sabetti to put it in the garage for me, one day when he was checking the septic system.”
“You got the plumber to move your car?”
“Well, why not, honey? Who else was I gonna ask?”
I shrugged. Anyone else might have been carrying some venom behind a question like that, especially considering how long I’d been postponing this trip. But not Mom. She was born without fangs. I had been trying not to feel guilty for months about not being there, and she had been making it easy for me.
“So, how have you been getting around?” I asked.
“Oh, well, there hasn’t been much of anywhere to go. The meals-on-wheels comes at noontime—the sweetest little girl, she must be the driver’s daughter, about ten years old and no bigger than a minute. She comes in carrying in the trays and says, ‘here you go, Mrs. H,’ just like a little grown-up, and then, you know, the Brundgardts take me grocery shopping when I need it.” She paused and her voice suddenly dropped an octave. “He never liked me to drive the Buick.”
That first night, unaccustomed to sleeping at those hours, I woke and saw light spilling into the hallway from my parents’ bedroom. This is what I’m here for, I thought to myself, so I got up and pulled a pair of sweats over my boxers and headed down the hall. My parents’ room was off limits when I was a kid, and even now I had a feeling of trespassing as I neared the doorway. Dad was slumped on the cedar chest in a gray velour robe, with his hands dangling between his spread knees. Mom was fitting the last corner of a clean sheet onto the bed. The odor of urine was so faint that I wasn’t sure whether I smelled it or imagined it. My shoulder knocked against the doorframe and Dad looked up. “Go back to bed,” he barked with more than a hint of his customary authority. Startled, I turned right around and did as I was told.
I had promised Mom that I would stay for more than a week this time, but I knew we weren’t sharing a vision of what that meant. I meant sort-of, you know, just over a week, and I’m pretty sure mom had something more extensive in mind, like a full-on death-watch. The days passed with a level of tedium previously unimaginable to me, and I’m not a guy who leads an exciting life. I didn’t remember Wichita being this quiet. There was no noise inside except for household machinery and I was warned not to use the sound on my computer for fear of disturbing Dad. With all the windows closed against any trace of chill, there was no noise from outside, either. I could hear squirrels skittering up the drainpipe and the tree branches scratching against the siding as if they wanted to come in.
Sometimes Mom would send me upstairs with Dad’s milkshake in the afternoon. She took his actual meals herself because he needed someone to cut his food—the neuropathy in his hands made it hard for him to hold utensils—and neither of them thought that was a job for me. When he wasn’t resting, he had one of those pillowy things that look like the top half of an armchair, in brown corduroy. He could get a good grip on the milkshake glass by himself, alright, and he drank like a runner at the finish line, taking deep swallows that sent his Adam’s apple high up under his chin. When he finished, he would hold out the empty glass for me to take and lean back against the pillow, his eyes blinkering shut, dismissing me.
I saw my father’s penis because today was the first day that he didn’t make it to the bathroom by himself. Until now, he had managed stubbornly, as far as I could tell, with the cane and then the walker. Nights were different, I had already observed, but in daylight, he got there on his own, slow as molasses, and took care of his own business. It was a matter of more than pride or modesty, I think; it was inextricably linked to his survival, or to his desire for survival. That means today was the day he started to die in earnest.
He had got about halfway down the hall when the decrepit old carpet got the better of him, it seems. I heard him go down from where I was sitting in the kitchen with a coffee and the Wichita Eagle, reading an article on the decorative merits of winter squash. He must not weigh much—it sounded like someone dropped a bag of groceries, not like a body tumbling, so at first it didn’t even register. Then I heard Mom running up the stairs from the laundry room and she called out almost gaily, “Dave, honey, could you give me a hand?”
Dad was crumpled on the floor and Mom was trying to disentangle him from the walker. I lifted him up by the armpits like a baby, while Mom moved the walker out of the way. She took his right arm and placed it around my shoulder. He didn’t protest; he didn’t speak. His left elbow was bleeding where he’d hit it on the doorjamb. His skin was thin and papery; the blood was just seeping into the cracks. Mom picked up his glasses and bent them back into shape before fitting them back on his face. She was somehow excitedly calm, maintaining a steady flow of soothing but meaningless words, “Okay, okay, there you go, okay, oh, my, here we are, now, now…”
I walked him slowly into the bathroom and he reached out with his bleeding arm to push the door closed behind us. Hasn’t Mom seen him pee in almost fifty years of marriage, I wondered? Certainly she’s had more experience with his private parts than I have, but somehow I’m the one who ended up in the bathroom with him. We shuffled to the toilet and he kept his one arm hooked around my shoulder for support—with about as much warmth as grasping a lamppost—while he dragged his pajama bottoms down with the other hand. And then, there it was, that part of my dad that made us kin. I lifted my gaze to stare politely out the window, at the branch of the apple tree that was wedged against the glass, until I heard the flow stop. He pulled the striped trousers back up but they were twisted and he picked at them irritably. I reached over and gave a few little tugs at the waist to straighten them out. The whole time he didn’t say a word.
Leaving the walker in the hall, I took him back to his room and lowered him slowly onto the bed. The bedposts had been fitted with brown rubber shoe-like cups to make the bed higher and easier to get in and out of. As he worked his way back under the covers, I heard the slight crackle of the plastic sheet underneath him. He scrabbled at his glasses to get them off again. I took them from him and put them on the nightstand, next to his wallet and keys, and the pin tray full of cufflinks and loose change that had been there all my life. I pulled the blanket up over his chest, the way my mother had done to me when I was a boy. He looked up at me and his eyes were milky gray hollows. I guess I wanted to see something else there, but he was utterly blank. He closed his eyes and made a noise between a sigh and a groan. For a second I thought maybe he had said “Son,” but I knew he didn’t really.
After I got Dad tucked in, I went down and offered to run errands, just to get the hell out of there. I took a bag of clothes for the Salvation Army, a prescription order, and Mom’s grocery list: saltines, prune juice, toilet paper, vanilla ice cream. It was written on actual “list” paper—the kind that has “My Shopping List” written at the top, as if you couldn’t figure out what this long skinny pad was for. It had drawings of gnomes cavorting around a toadstool at the bottom.
I rolled out over the massacred fruit in the driveway. By now my car had left two flattened ruts in the mash and I made a bet with myself that I could pull out without going over their borders. Supermarket, Sal’s Army, pharmacy; no, opposite order—pharmacy, Sal’s, supermarket—that was more efficient. If I had to wait for the prescription I could go on to the Salvation Army in between, and shop for food last so the ice cream wouldn’t melt in the car.
Oh my god, I thought, if I stay in Kansas another day, I will turn into my mother.
I pulled to a stop at the light by the bright red gas station and the Kum & Go. There was a school bus in front of me. Two little girls sat at the very back, looking out the square window. I tried not to look at them but they were waving and making peace signs at me, little V’s with their other fingers folded down. I haven’t seen anyone do that since I was a kid—I wonder where they picked that up. One of them had a big thick braid over her shoulder, and the other was wearing rain boots with frogs on them. I could see them because there was a window in the bottom of the door, too. Finally I lifted my hand from the wheel and waved, just barely, just to get them to stop. The one with the braid waved back with a big smile and bounced on the edge of the seat as if it was the most important moment of her life. I felt my eyes tear up. How ridiculous is that?
When I got to the pharmacy, I handed the prescription to the young woman behind the counter. Her name tag said “Merrie.” She had a nose-ring and jet black hair cut shorter on one side. She studied the slip for a moment, wrote something down on it, then looked up at me. “You must be David Junior,” she said.
I smiled and nodded. She was probably the daughter of someone I went to high school with, but I didn’t want to know.
“How’s your dad doing?” she asked gently, accent on the last word.
I swallowed, but couldn’t answer. Where was my standard “fine”? What was I supposed to say? He’s dying? I bet she already knew that. Instead of speaking, another tear popped over the edge of my eye and rolled down my cheek, probably glassy-looking in the fluorescent light. What the hell is wrong with me, I wondered. I wasn’t crying; I didn’t feel like crying. But that’s not how it looked.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Merrie, reaching a hand toward my arm, which I quickly pulled out of range. I could not be touched in this moment; I might fracture into a million glassy pieces.
“I’ll get this filled right away,” she said under her breath and turned from the counter.
When I got back from the errands, there was no one in the kitchen. Steam was curling out of the dishwasher door and from the next room, I could hear laundry thumping wetly in the dryer. I peeked in, but Mom wasn’t there. I put the groceries away and then tiptoed upstairs to get my laptop from the guest room, which used to be my room. As I passed my parents’ room, I peeked in there, too. Mom was sitting in a straight-back chair by the bed, poring over the advertising circular from the Eagle. Her glasses were low on her nose so she could see over the top of them without lifting her head, and her upper body rocked very slightly in the chair, in rhythm with Dad’s breathing, it seemed. He was lying still as stone in the bed. I snuck past so as not to disturb, grabbed my computer and slunk back down to the kitchen—the only room in the house from which I could manage to snag some neighbor’s wireless signal to get online.
After hearing the satisfying little ping that told me I was connected, I logged on to check my return flight, to make sure there were no changes or delays. I had done this every day of the past week, and now I was down to just three more days in Wichita. I’ve done my duty, I thought to myself. I said I’d come out and I did, but I have a life to get back to, a job waiting; if I’m lucky, a stack of comics on my kitchen table, with all my other mail. I’d been thinking of getting a cat. Ricardo had asked me to teach him how to play Everquest.
There was my flight, my lucky number, Delta 7801, with only one ridiculous out-of-the-way stop in between here and Oakland. I stared at it as if it would save me, the little numbers going blurry on the screen, and then I realized my goddamn eyes were spilling over again. I didn’t hear Mom come in; she wears those furry slippers that don’t make a sound. Suddenly she was standing behind me. She put one hand on my shoulder and patted me lightly there, barely touching and I could smell her Jergen’s hand cream; she has smelled like that for forty years. I guess she could see the screen in front of me well enough. Her hand kept going, pat-pat-pat. Finally, in a creaky little whisper, she said, “I need you to stay a while, Dave. I can’t do it without you.”
“I know,” I said.
“I love you, Junior.” She hadn’t called me that since I was a kid.
“I love you too, Mom,” I said. And I remembered for the first time in a long while that this was actually true. I reached over and slowly closed the cover of my laptop.
I opened the door off the kitchen, where my dad’s Baracuta jacket hung indifferently from a wire coat hook, and headed down the basement stairs, the familiar and dreaded smell of mold and mothballs rising in my nostrils. Stepping over several shoe boxes, a grocery bag full of empty jam jars, a broken dust-buster and a bag of salt crystals, I made my way to the corner where the gardening tools were stored. I found what I was looking for. The handle was gray and rough with age, the tines rusty and one was bent completely backwards. I lifted the rake down from its hook and felt its heft. It was still useable in spite of its appearance. In the semi-darkness, I felt for the latch on the inside of the bulkhead door, unlocked it, and shoved it wide. Outside, there was light but no sun. I clambered up the steep, home-made stairs, stairs my father had built, with the rake in one hand, steadying myself with the other and headed toward the front of the house. Ignoring the splinters biting into my palms, I began at the edge of the driveway, herding the fruit in tidy lines toward the center of the lawn.