(Photograph by Carla Ten Eyck)
Two months ago yesterday, my father died. Two months later — yesterday — I finished this short story. The parts I play in it are true. The rest of it is just true to my dad.
It was such a relief to sit down, start typing, and slip so simply into his voice. To know that I have him, and no one can take him from me.
I’m sharing this here because I want people to read it. Because I want everyone to know my dad. Because I want to let people in. And to keep talking about him. So, if you have words when you are done, please say them.
The first thing you do, when you get where you’re going, is check in with the people you left behind. Traveling for work, vacation– even getting arrested and taken down to the station – the first thing you look for is a phone. When you’re the kid, it’s to say that you’re safe and whole. When you’re the parent, it’s to make sure the house hasn’t burned down. When you’re somebody’s partner, it’s a little bit of both.
I have lived through a lifetime of arrivals. But the urge to call has never been stronger than it is right now. Because you think I’m not okay. Because you think I’m not thinking. Especially because you think I’m not thinking of you.
But I can’t call. Wherever I am now, on this side of death, there are no phones.
There’s everything else you’d expect in a train or bus station. It’s not pretty, and it’s not supposed to be: people are only passing through. There are wooden benches, but they’re empty – no backpacks, no suitcases. Of course. I’m traveling light, myself. It only feels like I’ve got a boulder on my back because I’m not where I should be.
The people are all in line for the tellers, who sit behind glass in a row at the back. Maybe there’s someplace else I can go. Maybe they sell return tickets: as a fly if you’re on a budget, or – if you’ve got connections – as a dog going to a good family.
I don’t know if I can reach you. I don’t have any money. But neither does anyone else here.
I get in line.
Whatever goes on when you get to the teller, it’s not quick. I’m still exactly where I was when I got in line, and there are fifteen new people behind me.
I laugh, and the clap of my voice echoes off the walls. The woman in front of me looks over her shoulder, so I know she’s scandalized.
“Sorry,” I say. “I just wondered the time.”
“And that’s funny?” she says, as if it isn’t.
“I have five or six watches in a drawer in my apartment,” I say. “But even if I had one, I don’t think it’d do me any good. It’d be like taking one deep underwater.”
She stares. Then she turns away from me. Some people just don’t get it.
I can feel I’m still smiling. I haven’t smiled in too long. I look around, and I take it back: phones aren’t the only thing this station is missing. Ms. Up-Ahead is uppity, so I turn a little toward the woman behind me. She’s young, but there’s something to read in her eyes. She reminds me of you. I say: “No newspapers, huh?”
She looks around. She wants to help me, distraught as she is. I say, “I didn’t figure you took ‘em. Relax.”
“Oh,” she says, and sighs. “Yeah. I guess not. No way to know what’s happening.”
“I just want the date.” I put a hand to my forehead, close my eyes. “I think it was the third. Last I knew.”
“It’s the fifth,” she says, and she’s perked up now that she’s got something I can use. “I know because it’s my mother’s birthday.”
Wow. That’s a shitty present. Not that this girl died then on purpose. Probably she didn’t, anyway. Man.
I wish the line would move.
But the fifth. The fifth, and this girl got here right after I did. I must’ve been out for a while, before I was really gone. And, just as I’m wondering if you were there, I remember: a weight on my hand, your voice humming a song. No picture, no sense of time. And pain, like a bass line – turned low, but still vibrating its way through every bone. I shake my head.
You must be worried sick.
I look back at the girl. She’s a thousand miles away, like she was before I opened my mouth. “You okay, sweetheart?” It just comes out, because it was waiting there on the tip of my tongue, for you.
“I feel awful,” she says, and she doesn’t mean awful like sick. I can see her guilt dragging her shoulders down, pressing on the back of her head. The wait is killing her, too – the only part left to be killed.
“We’ll get there,” I promise. “And I’ll make sure you get through to your mom.”
She looks at me, seeing how we just met and wondering why I’m saying this to her.
“I’m good like that,” I say, like I always do. It doesn’t mean much to her. I remind myself I’m not talking to you.
“I have a daughter,” I explain. Or, I start to. I could tell your whole life story. We might even have time for it. But it’s your schedule that matters, not mine, and that thought pulls me up short.
“I wish the line would move.”
It’s too quiet in here.
I yell, “Hey, everybody shut up.” No one laughs. I look back at the girl. “All right, now you yell something.”
She’s thinking about smiling. Then she points. Ms. Uppity has taken two whole steps forward. I close the gap.
The girl and I make up a game. Every time the line moves, one of us asks the other a question. The other answers, and keeps talking, until we move again. Then that person gets to ask.
She makes me go first, so I ask her name. It’s Sarah. She tries to shut up, and I remind her that she has to keep going. She tells me about how her dad loves Bob Dylan, but she thinks it’s creepy to name a child for a love song. We still haven’t moved, so after a beat she also admits that she thinks Bob Dylan sounds like a goat.
That cracks me up.
Ms. Uppity glares. The line moves without her. I wave her along.
Sarah asks me about my favorite music. That’s when I realize my game sucks.
But I tell her. I tell her about how your name came out of mishearing a Fleetwood Mac song. I tell her about the Queen records, how you used to put all your little plastic animals on the labels so they were “dancing,” spinning around on the turntable. It makes me smile. I’m out of practice. The smiling is starting to hurt.
We don’t ask about dying. I think, on that front, we have more questions than answers. And really, that part has nothing to do with us – same as being born. It’s just a thing that happens.
Sarah’s 28, if that still means anything. She’s a teacher, or she was. Seventh grade English. I ask her to teach me how to spell. She thinks I’m kidding. Every other step for a while is just me going: “Cereal,” or, “Okay, how about sandwich?”
“How do you get through a crossword?” she asks me, when it’s her turn.
“I do Sudoku,” I say. She’s a secret smart-ass. I like her.
They call my name, and I wave to Sarah as I head over to the free window.
“Hello, sir,” the teller says.
“Hey,” I say. “How’re you?”
Judging by her face, nobody’s asked that before. I smile at her, and wait, until she says she’s fine. She asks me how I am.
“I’m just ducky,” I say, leaning on the ledge, “but I’m worried about my kid. Is there any way that I could get her a message?”
She launches right into her script. It’s fast, and monotone: “Expense of a sign depends on three factors – rarity, size n’ duration, and deniability. Rarity, size, and duration of a sign drive cost up, but the more deniable signs are cheaper. What sign were you thinking of, sir?”
I tilt my head, squint one eye at her. “Signs like ‘caution?’”
“Signs like from the-deity-of-your-choice, sir.”
That makes more sense. I shift my weight to my other leg. “Well, what d’you got?”
She takes a breath, but it seems to hiss right back out of her. She needs some Fix-a-Flat. “Butterflies are very common, sir – the added benefit being that, while highly deniable as a sign, a lot of people promise to visit their loved ones as butterflies.”
“I don’t think we ever had that conversation,” I say. “And I’m no butterfly. What else?”
“You could do a rainbow,” she says, shrugging. “The weather’s very dry in your daughter’s state for the next week, so you’d have to wait to keep it cheap. Changing the weather deliberately is a ‘rarity’ charge.”
“Could we try something more ‘me?’ More ‘us?’ Something she’d connect with me.”
“Depending on how literal and obvious you want to get, sir, that will really affect your pricing. The more personal the sign, the less deniable it is.”
I clear my throat. I haven’t been able to do that, not really, for months. I should feel relief. Triumph. Like reaching a back itch. But I don’t care about me right now.
“Look,” I say. “I’m an idiot. I’m not proud, it’s just true. So walk me through it. What’s deniability?”
“A sign is deniable when it can be explained as coincidence – if it seems random. The common things – a butterfly in summer, a rainbow after rain, a hit song on the radio – are high-deniability and low-cost.”
“Because then it might not be me.”
“That’s correct, sir.”
“Size and duration is how big and how long?”
“And the other one?”
“Rarity,” she reminds me. “That’s on our end, how hard the sign will be to send. It affects both low- and high-deniability signs: for example, a rare sign could be your face in a piece of toast – and that’s low deniability – but a butterfly, usually highly deniable, is rare in the wrong season.”
“Okay,” I say, adjusting position again, feeling that there is no pain to feel. “Well, this is kind of important to me. In fact, it’s the most important thing. I will give you my right arm to send my daughter a message – a strong message. Cost is no object for me.”
“Sir,” she says, “you no longer really have a right arm to give.”
I watch her watching me digest that.
“I’m sorry,” she adds. The phrase is worn and shabby; she must say it thousands of times a day. If there even are days here. “It doesn’t work the way it did in your lifetime. You have nothing with which to pay.”
“Then how does it work? Who pays?”
“Your daughter, sir.” She sits forward, and for the first time I think about the fact that she was once alive like me – like I used to be. She has a human face behind her mask, with lines that tug on her features. She touches my hand. “Do you remember calling anyone Collect?”
“Sure,” I say. I nod. “You call, and the people on the other end accept the charges.”
“Or they hang up,” she says, nodding with me.
“Okay.” I want to get the ball rolling. “So how do you charge her?”
“All living people have banking accounts here,” she explains. “They make deposits and withdrawals and never realize. That’s the whole point. They don’t know.”
“Deposits of what?” She’s killing me – the only part left to be killed.
“Faith, sir,” she says. “We take from the faith account to pay for the signs.”
My heart sinks. Now it all makes sense.
“We can’t fund elaborate signs for people who don’t support our institution,” she says, and now I believe that she is sorry. Every syllable is sympathetic. She knew my name to call me up here. She knew what state you live in. She must know that you’re an atheist, too.
“Is there anything in her account at all?”
My elbows are on the counter, my fingers plowing through what’s left of my hair. It’s not a new pose for me, but it’s new where you’re concerned.
You never gave me any trouble. You never drank, never did drugs, never went to crazy parties, never came home with any bone-headed boyfriends. You never needed money. I gave it to you, and you always tried to give it back. You started working at seventeen and never stopped.
You got great grades. You asked questions, always raising your hand, befriending your teachers. They loved you. But you know, asking questions turns into reading philosophy, and reading philosophy turns into majoring in Philosophy, and majoring in Philosophy turns into writing a thesis about Sartre and something about the destiny of scissors and suddenly God isn’t real.
It made a lot of sense, actually. Your thesis. I’ve never been prouder of you, except for all those other times.
You made it your business to know so much. Still. I always wished you could just believe.
“She does have some,” the teller says. I lift my head, eyes wide. To convince me, she adds, “People usually do deposit a fair amount right after a loved one passes… It’s a time when it is hardest to face being alone, no matter their convictions generally.”
“She believes?” My eyes are burning. “She knows I’m—” But I don’t know how to finish. I don’t know where or what I am.
“She wants to believe,” the teller replies. “She was with you at the moment of your death—”
The teller looks like she’s expecting rain out a window. The moment passes. She says, “She asked you not to hold on for her sake, to let go while she was with you so she’d know you weren’t alone.”
I remember. Now I remember. I listened to you.
“She feels connected to you. Because she helped you to ‘cross over,’ as it were, she feels like you are following her.”
My throat is tight. “That’s the story of my life,” I manage.
The teller says: “I don’t advise waiting to spend her faith, sir. She’s much more likely to withdraw it over the next month or so than she is to make further deposits.”
I protest. Like I know better than this lady who’s seen it all before.
“Pain motivates people,” she says. “It doesn’t change them. And she won’t hurt this much for long.”
“I would hope not,” I murmur.
The teller waves a hand. “As her pain ebbs, so will her faith.”
“Yeah,” I say, thinking. “Yeah, okay.”
The teller takes a deep breath, sitting back in her chair again and straightening her shoulders. “Do you want to reconsider the butterfly? The rainbow?”
I look up. “You said I could do a hit song?”
Now they’ve got me standing in front of a giant Billboard jukebox. I don’t know if you’ve ever bothered to imagine Heaven, but my guesses were way off.
I’m leaning, left palm on the glass so I can see better. I’m pushing the arrows, watching the pages flip, remembering all those times we did exactly this on the ferry back from your mom’s. I hope she’s being a shoulder. She’s a good woman, she loves you. But no matter how she consoles you, she can’t say what I would say.
Somehow I have to say it in a song.
It’s not that music will be a tough sell. Your taste is more or less mine, and we’ve come to the same conclusions on lyrics: they’re the most important part, and you have to keep listening until you understand them – not just what the singer says, but what it means.
It helps that what you love is all the stuff I cranked on the radio. Every panel of every page of the jukebox has at least one song you’d listen to.
And maybe there’s one song here – I can’t think of it, but I’d know it when I see it – that covers all of it: how much you mean to me, how proud I am of you, how grateful I am to be your dad, how I won’t let go even from here because I just can’t, and that I’m okay. That I’m here.
But you also needs to believe that it’s really me saying it. You’ll want to tell yourself that you’re making it up, afterward. That it’s just a hit song playing on the radio like they always do, and you only caught it at the right time. I need something that says, “No, really. It’s me.”
And even that’s not all. The song has to make you listen for me in the first place. It has to sound like my face looks. It has to smack you – in a nice way – so that you notice it in the background while you’re doing whatever else you’re doing.
It’s funny. The people who need the biggest signs are the ones who can’t afford them.
I look, and turn. “Hey, Sarah. Did you get to send a message to your mom?”
“I did,” she says, but her words are bracing and a gust of a sigh follows them. “I don’t know if she’ll get it, but we’ll see.”
“She will.” She doesn’t lift her eyes from the floor. She doesn’t believe me. “You don’t know what it’s like for a parent. She’s always thinking of you. She’s looking for you everywhere.”
Sarah smiles up at me, but it’s not easy for her. She nudges her chin behind me, at the jukebox. “Did you pick a song?”
I explain my dilemma – that there are three messages I need to send, and that’s a lot of pressure to put on one tune.
“So send three,” Sarah says. She shrugs when I stare. So I turn around and leave.
The line is as long as when I left, just with different people in it. I stand to the side, and wait for the guy who’s with my teller to finish his business. As he’s walking away, I wave to the next guy in line. “S’cuse me,” I say, “just one second.”
The guy waves back. He knows what’s worth getting pissed about, that this ain’t it.
For a greeting, my teller tells me: “You just choose the song from the jukebox, sir, and the sign is scheduled.”
“I got it. But I want three songs. One after the other.”
She gets this look then, a look I’ve been getting more and more familiar with the older I’ve gotten. It says that it’s all very simple, and that I just don’t get it. “Your daughter can’t afford three songs right in a row, sir.”
“But they’d all be big hits,” I say.
“It’s not that – all in sequence like that, that’s a huge rarity expense for us, and it’s low-deniability.”
I lean in. “How does low deniability cost you guys, really?”
“It doesn’t, sir, but we have to stay in business. What you’re asking for is in high demand, because it’s less coincidental.”
“You’re squeezing us because you know you can squeeze,” I say. “Got it.”
“Sir, it’s nothing personal—”
“Yeah,” I say, “sure.” I look back, at the people waiting. The guy I cut doesn’t care that I’m still standing here. He’s distraught. I turn back to the teller:
“But how much low-deniability stuff do you sell? Everybody here seems broke.”
“It’s not often, but that’s how big-ticket items work.”
“You should have a credit system. Then your workers would have some more interesting work to do.”
She leans forward again, and not to show her human side this time. She’s trying to show me that she’s in charge, that I just got here and I don’t know anything about this place.
“We don’t give credit, sir,” she says, spacing the words out so they don’t start fighting. “That’s the policy.”
“I understand that,” I assure her. “I’m not talking to your policy. I’m talking to you. I’m asking for a favor – a loan. I’m good for it. I know my daughter. I can make her have faith. And then she’s paid you back.”
“Sir,” she says, putting her palms on the counter, “your daughter is only interested in what she knows.”
“And she knows me. She knows I’d stop at nothing, I’d do anything for her. That’s all I need.”
The teller clasps her hands, leans back in her chair.
“Which three songs?”
“So how long do these things usually take?”
The teller’s taken me into a back room. It’s like a recording studio, with the egg-carton padding on the walls and an intimidating soundboard beside a monster computer. I’m no good with any of that, so the first thing I do is park it in a curvy, velvet chair. The teller stays standing.
She’s staring at me where I sit. The silence goes so long I start to think she’s not going to answer me. Then she says: “I’m risking a lot by doing this for you. Spending my personal family’s faith.”
“I know,” I say, clasping my hands between my knees. “That’s why I’m anxious about the wait.”
She shakes her head, swallows something she was going to say. “Longer than you’d think,” she finally answers. “It’s hard now, to make people listen to songs they aren’t choosing for themselves. Same with movies. The only intruders left are commercials and—”
She frowns. “No. Not for your daughter, anyway.”
I’m stunned. I squint. “My kid – my kid doesn’t listen to the radio? After everything I’ve taught her.”
“Muzak,” the teller finishes, pointedly. “We’re waiting for your daughter to go to the mall.”
“Oh great,” I say. “We’ll be here forever, she hates shopping.”
“No we won’t,” the teller corrects me. “We caught her before the funeral.”
The funeral. My funeral. You need a black dress.
But all you ever wear is black. You must have twenty outfits you could wear. But you’re buying something.
I see you then, in my mind. Pushing screeching hangers along their metal poles. Alone.
“Would you like to watch something while we wait, sir?”
I’ve slid my hands up over my eyes. I’m pretending to rub them. “Yeah,” I say, past my palms, “you guys get cable?”
“No, sir, we don’t.” Why can’t anybody take a joke? “We have surveillance footage from the days immediately preceding your death.”
I drop my hands. “What do you mean?”
“It is usually a time when all parties involved – the family and the dying – desperately wish to communicate. We take that as consent to record, and save the footage as a courtesy to the deceased. Would you like to see it?”
I can imagine a lot of details I don’t need to see. And, if I think about it, I can hear you – and your mom, and my sister and my brother – all talking. Sad tones. They paint a picture, and I wouldn’t hang it anywhere.
I ask, “Did anything funny happen?”
She turns to the computer. She’s scrolling through what looks like a script. It goes on a long time. “As a matter of fact,” she says, “I think there is something.”
A projection blinks onto the wall. I can see the top of your head, and your mom. You look like sisters these days. She’s curled up under a blanket in a chair. I’m in the bed, of course. Looking like shit.
Your mom says: “Don’t call them yet, he’s okay.”
You say: “No, Mom. This is why we’re here.” And you lean forward, push a button. You touch my hand. That’s when I notice I’m fidgeting, trying to rub my nose with the hand you don’t hold. My eyes are shut, but I’m sighing. Panting, almost. You say: “They’re coming with more medicine, Dad. Just hang in there.”
This isn’t funny.
A nurse comes. You say, “He’s restless, and he just started making that sound.”
The nurse looks at the bag that’s hanging, and a monitor read-out. Your mom says something about not knowing if it’s serious – his daughter cares a lot. The nurse says, “No, it’s good you advocate for him; he can’t tell us what he needs. He’s probably in a bit of pain. Just a second.”
“It’s coming, Dad,” you say, and take my hand again.
Your mom’s tone is impressed when she says: “I want you at my bedside when I’m dying.”
And you say: “Where the fuck else you think I’m gonna be?”
My jaw drops. And then I laugh. I laugh so that the tears I was crying before roll into my mouth. And I hear your mom laugh, too. And when I stop, I catch the tail end of you saying something else: “…heard me.”
“Yeah?” your mom says, sitting forward.
“Yeah,” you say, and step aside so she can see. “He’s smiling.”
“It’s go time,” the teller says. “We know the mall, and I played with the line-up in their system. She’s leaving a store now. Cross your fingers.”
There’s a moment of silence, then Van Morrison. Guitar, tambourine, bass. I’m hearing what you’re hearing, sweetheart. I get a chill. I hope you’re listening.
Hey where did we go, days when the rains came?
Down in the hollow, playin’ a new game
Laughin’ and a-runnin’, hey-hey
Skippin’ and a-jumpin’
In the misty mornin’ fog, with our
Our hearts a-thumpin’ and you
My brown-eyed girl
You my brown-eyed girl
It’s your dad, you know. Saying, “Hey, you. Yes, YOU.” With the radio edit, so it’s not weird like Sarah said – not a love song about your kid.
Do you remember when we used to sing?
But it was dancing we did. You standing on my sneakers, me boogeying us both in little circles. And I spun you in, out. You did twirls under my arm. And I know it’s going to be hard to find your way, now that you’re on your own. But if you let the past bring you comfort, instead of pain, you’ll be okay.
The song ends. The teller hands me some tissues. “I knew you had a soul,” I tell her.
And she laughs. Good for her. “Only reason I’m here,” she says.
The next song starts. More guitar but distorted, and a reggae beat. The Police.
Just a castaway, an island lost at sea-oh…
“You’re just being funny here,” the teller says. “Aren’t you?”
I cross my arms. “Now you’re gettin’ it.”
I’ll send an SOS to the world
Can you hear me now? If I could, I’d be waving my arms, I close my eyes and concentrate. I hope you get my message in a bottle.
I stay still and quiet until the song fades. If I don’t have you by now, there’s little point to the last song. I don’t think it’ll jump out at you on its own. You were never much for country, and maybe you don’t remember.
But I remember. It was Valentine’s Day. I called to see how you were, or maybe you called me. Doesn’t matter. But you were alone in your apartment. You and your husband (just your boyfriend, at the time) weren’t doing anything special. Not even dinner. Not even pizza. He had to work late. It wasn’t a big deal, you said.
But I thought it was a big deal.
“When he gets home, I want you to put on a song and dance to it,” I said.
“Um, okay, Dad.” You were laughing at me.
“And I’m gonna tell you which song. I’m serious.”
“Okay,” you repeated. Placating. But I made you promise me.
In the studio with the teller, it’s starting.
I hope you never lose your sense of wonder
You get your fill to eat, but always keep that hunger
May you never take one single breath for granted
God forbid love ever leave you empty-handed
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens
“Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance,” I murmur, “And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance – I hope you dance.”
That’s the message in the bottle, baby. For my brown-eyed girl.
Believe in me. And dance.
Something pings on the computer.
The teller walks over. She’s looking. Then she sighs.
“What?” I don’t realize I’m shooting to my feet until I’m on them.
She looks over her shoulder. “You know, you really shouldn’t gamble when you aren’t prepared to lose.”
I’m trying to figure out what they’ll take from you, in absence of faith. Maybe there’s something I could give – but I think there’s nothing left of me now. Then my heart breaks as I realize: you don’t believe. I couldn’t reach you. I was wrong about everything. It’s like you’re a stranger. Or, maybe now, that’s all I am to you.
The teller sighs again. “You’re worse off for winning, you big gamblers. You don’t learn your lesson.”
I’m flinching. But then I hear what she’s saying.
I lift my head. “Did she know it was me?”
“Unlikely as it is,” the teller admits, “she just made a large faith deposit.”
“So we’re even!”
“And then some.” She shows me how much is in your faith account. It’s more than when I got here. By a lot.
After the teller moves what you owe her over into her family’s accounts, she hands me a big binder. It’s full of signs – all the ways I can show you my love. For a full list of songs, it refers to the room with the jukebox, but there’s so much more than that. Animals, weather on special days, faces on French toast and messages in cereal. For the most faith, I can actually change your fate. I can make the balls fall so you win the jackpot when you invoke my name to gamble.
The teller would be pissed over that.
But I could also alert you to a flat tire, for example, so you don’t get into an accident. I could push you out of the way of danger. Like your own personal super hero.
“What’s that, sir?”
I almost forgot the teller was still in the room, and I definitely didn’t realize I said anything out loud. But I explain about how that was the only superhero you ever liked – not bird, nor plane, nor even frog. And how it turned into you being Polly Purebred. I used to say that when you are in trouble I am not slow – it’s hip, hip, hip, and away I go.
I look down at the binder again. Now I know: if I just pick the right things to do, it won’t just make your life better – it’ll up your faith in me.
This should feel good.
“You must’ve been a great dad,” the teller is saying.
“Sometimes,” I say. Only sometimes.
You remember, better than I do. Maybe it stands out clearer than any message I could send beyond the grave. How much time I spent in prison over stupid DUIs. How many white-knuckle drives I put you through.
I made you blow into the breathalyzer once, when I was on probation. So I could drive you home. Drunk.
I bow my head, run my hands through my hair and leave them there, clutching the back of my head.
If only I had done the right things before. Upped your faith in me when there was still time to spend together.
I close the binder. And I realize that I haven’t wanted a drink since I got here. Of course I haven’t. I’ve just wanted to get to you.
That was the war. I wish it wasn’t true. But I’ve known it, always. And you probably have too. You’re smart. And it must’ve hurt, knowing that. Especially bearing it alone.
Because we never had that talk. We fought, sure. You yelled. But I never said I was sorry. I never let on how right you were. Just made excuses and told you that you were overreacting.
I shake my head.
“Everyone has regrets,” the teller offers.
That reminds me.
“There’s a song that’s perfect,” I say, “but she wouldn’t know what it meant. I only showed that side of me to her mom.”
“So?” The teller points to the computer. “Let’s send it to her mom.”
She figures out the timing – when your mom will be on the road for the funeral, which will mean she has her radio on and she’s thinking about me. There’s plenty of faith in her account, so there’s no worry there. It’s being at the mercy of your mother that scares me. She has to hear it, remember, and – the tricky part – tell you about it.
The teller queues it up. The Who. “Behind Blue Eyes.”
And then I have to step outside.
Sarah’s waiting in the hallway. She’s happy to hear my good news about you, and when I tell her I’ve got some time on my hands she invites me to her place. I don’t expect her to have a place. She explains some things to me while we walk, back through the station where we met and into a posh lobby.
Sarah didn’t die on the fifth. She’s been dead for twenty years. She got in line today to send her mom a sign as a birthday present. She does it every year, and all the holidays.
We get on an elevator. There are hundreds of buttons. We get out on her floor, and it’s like any other nice hotel – weird, wavy carpet, cream walls, “Do Not Disturb” hanging on most every door handle.
I expect her room to have some personality, given how long she’s been here, but it looks like she just checked in. “Maids don’t let you decorate?” I say. Staring at a watercolor of carnations in a vase for the rest of eternity seems like a drag.
“I just switched rooms,” she says. “My stuff isn’t here yet.”
“No, no,” she says, laughing, but it fades fast. “Just need the two beds.”
“So you knew I was comin’, huh? We could’a shared.”
She rolls her eyes. “Aren’t I your daughter’s age?”
I raise both hands. She laughs again. It’s a little looser this time, and her grin lingers.
“It’s for my mom,” she admits. “I’ve been putting it off.”
She looks at me. I’m stepping in something. For a moment I can’t tell what. Then I know. “She’s dying. Your mom.”
“Yeah.” She nods. Her shoulders are relaxed, her head high. She says, “I’m excited to see her,” and then she falls apart. I cross the room, sit us both down, and let her cry.
“I’m an awful person,” she gets out.
“No,” I say. “Your mom hasn’t lived a day that she hasn’t hoped to see you again. Like me with Janet.”
The thought is like jamming a fork in an electrical outlet.
“Who’s Janet?” Sarah wants to know.
“My wife,” I say, but not to Sarah. I can’t see her anymore, or feel the floor under my feet.
“Your daughter’s mom?”
“No,” I think, or say, or something. “After her. She died. Janet.”
Ten years ago, she died. Not even as long as Sarah’s been dead. And Sarah is here.
I don’t remember standing up, or opening the door. But I’m in the hallway. And I’m running.
The lobby has long lines, too, just like the station, and now I’m really not in a waiting mood. I can’t believe this didn’t occur to me before.
I give my wife’s name to the clerk at the front desk, ask for her room number. I almost can’t finish the sentence. Then the guy turns and looks in his computer. Like what I’m saying isn’t crazy.
I can’t breathe. She’s here.
He gives me the room number and I’m gone.
I don’t bother with the elevators. I’ve waited ten years; I don’t want to wait anymore. I throw my shoulder against the door to the stairwell, and take the steps two at once.
It’s like I’m traveling back in time. To before the cancer. Before I stopped welding, stopped working, I could’ve run like this. I did run like this. I lifted and laid metal pipe then. If I wanted, I could do that now.
But what I want, now, is to see her restored to what she was. Before her cancer. I want to see her hands, her cheeks, her smile – without her bones butting in, reminding me I’m losing her. I want to see her see me again. I’ve forgotten what I look like in her eyes.
It’s a good hurt, running. For the last year, I was getting nowhere, treading water, and then losing ground. Watching everything drift away from me. But now I’m moving. My thighs burn. My eyes, too.
I come up to the fourth floor landing, pause long enough to figure out which way I’m supposed to go, and get back up to speed. I’m pointing to door numbers as I go, counting down to the moment when I get to see my wife. I knock a “Do Not Disturb” sign off one of the handles. I don’t stop to put it back. I’m three doors away.
I stomp my feet so hard in the carpet that I nearly fall. I march up, fist raised, then jerk my hand away. I can’t just pound on the door. I’m not the police. I’m her husband.
I gasp, because it’s quieter than the sob that almost hiccups out. I run my fingers through my hair. It won’t matter what I do. I look different.
I reach out again. Then it hits me. This is a hotel. What if there’s somebody else in there?
It’s possible. It even makes sense. I had girlfriends, after her. My hand, in a looser fist, hangs in midair, knuckles out. Then what?
“Then dinner is on him,” I decide, and knock.
I listen, but there’s nothing to hear. Or maybe there was one soft thing – like a person turning back their covers. Now, a padding toward the door. I can’t get a good breath. The door handle is moving. I look down at it, up again, my chest tight.
Janet. Peeking out of the past. And then the door swings wide.
She says my name. She asks it like a question, and I can’t answer. It’s like when you dislocate something, and the doctor shoves it back in place, except every bone in my body was dislocated. And my name, in her voice, just fixed me. I didn’t know how much pain I was still in.
She repeats it, and she’s not asking now. She’s matching me tear for tear, both of us just looking and looking, afraid to blink and lose each other.
She pulls me to her and she smells like another lifetime, when I was happier and my apartment felt like a home. She squeezes. I squeeze back. I can’t believe she’s here to hold onto.
“What happened?” she whispers. There’s no urgency. Just softness.
“Cancer,” I gulp. “My bladder.”
She sighs my name again.
“I told you I couldn’t live without you.” We both try to laugh. “And I would’ve come up here sooner, I was just so worried about my kid—”
I feel her jerk, and she pulls back to look at my face. “Oh, I forgot – seeing you here, I just…” And she puts a hand over her mouth.
“She’s fine,” I say. “I mean, you know. She’s alive. She was pretty low, but I sent her some stuff and she’s doing better.”
I’ve put the smile back on my wife’s face, but it’s not sticking as well, like all the tears have washed away the glue. “She needs you,” she says.
“That’s why I got that going. And I’m gonna keep being there.” I wink — calm, measured, a strong wink that says not to worry. “But I have time now. Can I come in?”
Her lips go taut, and when she loosens them again they tremble. I lean in to hold her, but she steps back. Her eyes are brimming over with some message, but I can’t read it. “No,” she says, “you can’t.”
“What?” My chest. Like I just ran it into a concrete wall. “Why?”
“Your daughter needs you,” she says again, and she’s retreating into her room, shutting the door.
“Hey!” I jam my foot in the gap, and she freezes. What I can see of her is scared, smaller. I know this posture, this expression, from after a big night of drinking — after doing or saying something disappointing. “I want to be with you,” I say.
“You don’t understand,” she says. All I have now is a wisp of her blond hair to look at, one wide eye. With one hand still on the handle on her side, she bends and gently pries her fingers under my foot. Looking up at me, she says, “I can’t make you choose.”
“Please,” she says. There are tears in her eyes. “Please just go.”
I withdraw my foot. She shuts the door.
I finally walk away from the door, only to come back to it. I can’t bear to leave her. She’s just on the other side. I knock. I knock again. I yell.
But the whole point is to be happy together. It doesn’t make sense to make her feel bad.
So I wander my way down a couple floors. Maybe if I bounce what just happened off of Sarah, she’ll have some insights for me. On her landing, I move to the stairwell door. Then I hear my name.
It’s the teller, hustling up the stairs. “I’m starting to think you like—”
But she interrupts. “It happened.”
“Already? Time flies, huh?”
“Down there it does,” she agrees. She reaches the top stair, takes a deep breath. “She got the message. I looked into it: she and her mom had a big talk about it. Your addiction. Who you wished you were.”
Is she grinning?
“Her faith in you sky-rocketed.”
I don’t trust myself to speak.
“If you wanted, you could save her life three, four different times on the faith she has in you.”
I stare. She’s beaming.
“You have to understand,” she tells me, “it’s crazy how much you have to work with.”
It hasn’t hit me. It won’t hit me. Not with this Janet thing in the way.
“Will you hang with me for a second?” I say. I open the door off the stairwell. “I want to talk about this, and do something with it, but I need to see my friend. Let’s walk.”
She hesitates. She’s got to get back to work. But she does like me, or she’s floored by what’s happened, because she comes along.
We head down the hallway. We pass the elevators and then I start counting doors. I remember Sarah was the fifth – one door for every letter of her name. We come to a stop. I knock.
“Oh no,” the teller says.
“I’m so sorry, sir,” she whispers. “But that won’t do you any good.”
She points. Now I see that there’s a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging on the doorknob.
“So what?” I say. “Sarah won’t mind waking up.”
“Sarah,” the teller repeats. Then she looks at the door number. “…Her mother must have finally come.”
Of course the teller would know her. They likely saw a lot of each other, with all the signs Sarah sent over twenty years.
“You think they’re catching up in there?”
“They would have,” the teller says. “And now… Well, now she’s at peace.” She turns, touches my shoulder. “They’ll have gotten into their beds now. For good.”
For good. At peace.
If I had gone into Janet’s room, I would have been at peace. So would she. She’s been waiting for me. But if I were at peace, then I would never get back up again. I would never send another sign to my daughter.
“I’m sorry about your friend, sir.” The teller’s brow is furrowed, and her voice is soft. “She didn’t tell you what she was planning?”
“I didn’t really give her the chance,” I realize. “I ran out of here as soon as I knew I could see my wife. Not that that did me a lot of good.”
I say that, a reflex. Have to be the tough guy, or at least brush it off with a laugh. Like it was just a glancing blow, not a sucker punch.
But it did do me good.
“Did she not want to see you, sir?”
“She did,” I say, and hearing it out loud brings it all together. “She just didn’t want to be selfish. She didn’t want to take me away from my daughter.”
“But she didn’t explain,” the teller surmises, gesturing at Sarah’s door. If she had explained, this wouldn’t have come as a shock.
“No,” I say. “To explain would have been selfish, too.”
The teller looks confused. I smile. I’m not happy. But I’m proud. Because this lady may have seen a lot in her line of work. She understands humanity in a way I never could, understands death and life and whatever this is in between. But there’s never been a woman like Janet, just like there’s never been one like my kid. And I’m lucky enough to know them.
I put it to her like this: “If I made a promise to forsake all others for you – in the real world, you know, that doesn’t mean never see your kid again, never do a nice thing for her. It means don’t mess around, and stand by your wife if your mother-in-law gets pushy. I made that promise to her. But she knew I needed every minute I could get with my kid. We lived two hours apart, and she was never with me on Christmas. When it came down to my wife or my daughter, it had to be my daughter. She encouraged that. Because she loved her, too.” I stop, hold my head, take a breath.
I meet the teller’s eyes, and I look at her hard. People always think it’s weird when I get serious. But these things matter. They’re important.
“Imagine giving me that decision to make,” I say, “right in front of you. I can’t choose. I can’t walk away from Janet, because I need her. And I can’t stay. Because my kid needs me.”
“Janet,” the teller whispers. Then she closes her mouth, looks away. Her job and her humanity are at war again on her face but, before I can ask, one or the other wins out. “Come back downstairs with me. There’s something you should see.”
I follow. In the stairwell, I ask, “What is it?” My voice echoes, mingling with our footsteps.
“When I looked through the transcripts of your final days, for something funny as you requested, I saw Janet’s name a few times.”
I don’t understand, and I feel cranky. You talking about your stepmom doesn’t fix anything. There’s no right way for me to move forward, except to wait a long time – I hope – for you to come along and meet me here. And even then, you wouldn’t come with us. You’d go with your mom.
Back in the studio with the egg-carton walls, I throw myself down in the chair. I wait. The teller goes straight to the computer, and types fast. She knows I’m in a bad mood.
“Here we go,” she says. “This isn’t the part where her name is mentioned. She talks with her mom about Janet, afterward. But this is why they have that conversation.”
“Okay,” I say, and sit up a little despite myself. I don’t like all the drama of this; being kept in the dark isn’t cute. But I do love you. And any time I get to see you is good.
So I pay attention.
The projector pops on. The lights are off in the room; it’s pretty dark. There’s blue light. A TV must be on. It’s just you in the chair by my bed. I’m pretty much like I was last time I saw myself. There’s a read-out for my vitals. I’m not making any noise, though. You must be on top of my medication.
You’re looking at me, still holding my hand. You’re humming. I remember you humming, remembered it when I first got here. Now I know what song. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
When you come to the end, you go real still. I think you fell asleep. But then you grab your phone. You let go of my hand, and poke around for a while on the screen. When you put the phone down, there’s music. It’s faint.
I stand up, walk closer to the speakers in the wall so I can hear.
I’ve never seen you looking so lovely as you did tonight
I’ve never seen you shine so bright…
I touch my hand to my cheek. I feel my fingers, but my blood is pins and needles poking through them. In the projection, you’re holding my hand again, your head on my mattress. Your shoulders are shaking.
You’re playing this on purpose. But how did you know?
The lady in red is dancing with me, cheek to cheek
There’s nobody here
It’s just you and me
It’s where I want to be
But I hardly know this beauty by my side
I’ll never forget the way you look tonight