“Light?” I ask the next ten people walking through St. Vincent’s side entrance, but nobody smokes today. I lost my Zippo last week and haven’t replaced it; it’s effort enough to pay doctor’s bills, what with my father’s Bukowskian lifestyle. He enjoys saying that even if he had the money, he would rather use it for a jumped-up life than an easy death.
I came from Chicago four months ago expecting him to die within the week. His neck is burnt harsh red from radiation therapy, and in spite of his wavering lucidity and hopeless prognosis they continue to toss treatments at him. He pisses into a bag and vomits into a bedpan, but he is alive.
I’m waiting outside while he is irradiated like an off-color turnip. Finally someone offers me a book of matches. Cross-legged atop one of those removable pillars used to bar access roads, I watch a young girl’s mother yank her fiercely back onto the sidewalk. I can hear shrill snatches of voice as she makes the girl begin again, looking both ways and then stepping off the curb in a cautious ballet. She is maybe four, with squishy knees and lopsided hair. Children make me ashamed of my cigarette, and it occurs to me to put it out before she crosses. Instead, I hold it down by my thigh until her mother unlocks the blue car door and boosts her daughter inside. Her slack suburban ass waggles as she encourages the girl to fasten her own seatbelt. My mother, for the short time she was around, was always so impatient as to do the seatbelt, tie the shoe, or read the word aloud for me. I didn’t lose much anyway, since she was gone by the time I began school, where they re-teach everything your parents have been impressing upon you, or haven’t been.
Stepping down from the pillar, I kick over my coffee and mutter “fucker;” then I have to add a small ink line to the eleven already on my forearm from earlier the same day, to remind me how many quarters to add to the swear jar tonight. I’ve already dipped in three times in a month to buy $1.50 carne asada burritos across the street, but I find myself unwilling to abandon the notion of self-discipline.
When I re-enter room 484, my father has not returned. A candy striper is fishing the remote from behind the bed, and I examine the straining tendons of her heels above her white shoes. Her ankles are close to the metal frame of the bed table. Since childhood, I have always been fascinated and repulsed to consider such specific vulnerability. I am nauseous without boots. Her face expresses slack-jawed boredom in profile, but as she turns and registers my presence, a caricatured mask of the nurse’s detached compassion settles uncomfortably upon her features. She is young, and her face will change and more naturally fall into such expressions, should she stay in healthcare. When she opens her mouth nervously, I turn to the window to stem the tide of polite chat, allowing her to hustle out with relief.
Being alone in my father’s hospital room feels much like standing in an unoccupied classroom on Back to School Night; one feels compelled to be disobedient or at least nosy, but with nothing to discover or do. Waiting in the window seat, I look over my unfinished correspondence:
To Whom It May Concern:
Michael Deller will be unable to appear for jury duty per 10/06/96 notice enclosed, as he is currently engaged in inpatient radiation therapy at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Any concerns may be addressed to Bailey Deller, daughter.
Writers can never say anything easily, and it always sounds like they’re lying. So caught up in contemplating the little messes of life, jury duty and bills to pay and residual checks to collect, artists fail to keep up with practicality in its minutiae.
I am dropping the remote back behind the bed when I hear my father’s fractured roar in the hall. The nurses are barking and snapping around him as they all pile up in the doorway, like sheepdogs around a stubborn, injured ram. As he leans back against the pillows, two nurses lift his hospital gown while a third prepares his feeding tube, pouring in the off-white liquid. The second bellybutton dimpling his concave stomach perturbs me, and I look away as the tube begins to disappear. I regret that I am so squeamish, that I cannot do this for him myself and spare the exposure of my father’s tired, shrunken penis to these unfamiliar women. The nurse’s eyes meet mine, with her hand upon my father’s stomach, and I am frightened. When it is over and they are leaving, she announces, “Michael, your daughter is waiting.” She stands in such an imperious manner as to force me forward; when she is satisfied with my proximity to the partially-raised bed, she leaves us.
My father’s eyes are closed, and without their stark green presence his face is crumpled and wasted. Everything about him is not his own. His hair has changed texture and is cut far too close to the skull. His nose bleeds a little but I let it; I do not wish to touch him so intimately while he is indisposed. I settle for patting his left hand, lying palm down upon the sheet and looking foreign to him. The nails are strangely clear and cut short, and I’ve never seen him without nicotine stains. These are not the hands of my father from childhood, the man who wore paint-stained sweatpants and had Charles Manson’s hair and beard; these are the hands of an old and dying stranger.
When I touch his hand it scrabbles away across the sheet. “Where are my goddamn motherfucking cigarettes and who the fuck are you?”
“It’s me, Dad.” I am toneless and automatic, performing without applause. The role has become familiar these last weeks.
“I want some fucking cigarettes.”
“You can’t smoke during radiation, and there’s no smoking in the hospital anyway.”
“Listen Jeannie, get me a pack and I promise I’ll do my therapy this week.”
Someone else’s name still chills me. Sometimes it’s a nurse or a therapist or an ex-girlfriend or a name I don’t associate with anyone in his life. Once in a million times I’m my mother. I want to cry. In my sad sore mind I throw myself upon him as a child, his child, and beg him to remember me and how he built me a playhouse when I was nine, scrap wood in the backyard and he was drunk and didn’t feel the nail run through his hand until I screamed, pointing at it, and later he gave me the nail, all rusty with blood and insisted I keep it for enigmatic symbolic reasons. These and every memory are like paper in my hands beside the vast wildfire of his failing mind.
“Daddy, it’s Bailey. It’s me. Please know me.” When I was thirteen and staying at my aunt’s house, my dad came in after everyone slept, and stood weaving in my doorway. This was the first time he didn’t know me, although I’m still not sure who he thought I was. A thirteen year old thought it was her mother, but I know it was somebody else. He came to the bed and passed out, forcing me into the corner and up against the wall. “Go to your own bed, Daddy. Wake up. Go to your bed. Daddy, go to bed.” I tried to move him, but he had the anchored sense of a drunk who’s found a soft surface; I managed to free my leg that had been pinned under him, and abandoned my bed to lie in the glassed-in porch at the back of the house. Then I had anger going for me; there was no ambiguity. I am all the more uncomfortable now, confronted by a sick man in a bed too short for his long frame.
There’s no reason to say “Sleep, Daddy” because his eyes are closed but I can’t say anything else and I can’t say nothing before I retreat to my window seat to finish packaging the other aspects of his life, to mail them away from this stale bed and ruined body, the excuses and explanations and pleas for money and regretful declinations. But his eyes open again and his voice comes out strangely calm, in his old low pitch that made me love jazz early on. “They watch me piss. They supervise what I eat and how much, they make me practice growling and coughing. If you want to smoke or if you are hungry or if you are sick of this old man who won’t die, all you have to do is walk out the door and be wherever you want to be. You are in control. All I want is a cigarette, and to be in the sun for five minutes without it filtered by a picture window in a hospital lounge. I wish I could be alone with my daughter.” He gave me a very clear-eyed look. “You resemble her, though you’re taller and your hair is so different.”
My impulse to reveal myself wars with a desire to surreptitiously excavate my father’s feelings towards me. I wonder if he remembers when I was very young and he would hang my springy baby harness from the back bedroom window, letting me dangle above an urban cement backyard. My neighbors called the cops but he was sober before they got there, and he played dumb and offered them each a signed copy of his latest book. I decide to play it cagey.
“What is your daughter like?” My mouth fumbles shaping the words, but his answer spills easily from him, as though he has been waiting for someone to ask. “My girl always had the most beautiful hair, long and dark like her mother’s. She’s a journalist now, but her heart lies with poetry. I haven’t spoken to her in months, but I have a friend back east that writes me about her. She doesn’t know, but I keep all her cuttings. She’s gonna be big-time. Look in that notebook, look in it.”
He’s gesturing to a sad corner of the room where all of his own things are heaped, glaringly out of place with the impersonal room. A dirty coat, a worn bag and books. He wants me to look in the green notebook. My father has kept diaries since he was seventeen, and they have never been read by anyone but himself. It was understood that they would be my inheritance, along with manuscripts and his desk and his first typewriter, which still works. And his books. And his books. I have read his books and I still don’t really understand my father; he is a stranger in the same way as any other living author I’ve read. I used to hate the attempted autobiographical readings of his work. They would gracelessly stumble among his characters and boorishly intrude upon his private life, and he would respond by indicating the cover, where every subtitle ran “A Novel Among Novels.”
I was never sure if my father was truly articulating that his books were nothing more than fiction, or if he simply did not admire journalists’ tacky intrusiveness. My father had a face that likely got him through many bolted doors, and my mother’s hatred for him was virulent enough that she never reappeared after disappearing during the night when I was three. In one of his books the main character sets a dog on fire while drunk; for years I was haunted by dreams of my father and a gas can.
Now he is inviting me to open his private pages–squeamishly–as though he is already dead. I bring him the notebook and he opens it himself, pages and clippings spilling across the white sheet. I choose one at random and am faced with myself, sullenly staring myself down, punked out with mutilated face. My mouth is black on the grayscale newsprint; rings and studs twist my skin and trail along the outer edges of my ears. The article is from a tiny music magazine, not circulated in LA. There are also articles from larger newsmagazines, one byline from Adbusters, and a few published poems. Mixed in are my father’s own clippings and press reviews, mentions of his last book or readings. He appears explosive and dynamic, angrily bursting off the page. There is a photo pasted in his notebook, one from when I was fifteen and all my friends went to Pasadena Art School. I am on my belly in an empty pool, and the photo is of my profile as I blow smoke through my nose like a bull. I don’t know how he ever found this or why he keeps it, but when I point it out to him he snatches the book back and gestures at the empty doorway. “I should never have let her run wild, I should never have let her smoke, I ignored so many signs of suffering because I was anxious for Bailey to be her own person. It didn’t matter that her choices were awful, that I knew she designed her own tattoos with a razor. I gave her herself, and prayed that she would accept my gift as divine.”
I feel leaden with obligation. There is a man before me that I barely know, that I assumed I hated, and that I am only beginning to get a sense of as he is dying. I have nothing to offer but a gesture.
“Come with me, Michael. I want to show you someplace.” I haven’t thought this through and perhaps tomorrow this will feel devoid of meaning, but for once I want to act as my father, fierce and unafraid and take a big wrong step with surety. He fights his way from the bed, and his feet are see-through. The door to the stairwell hollowly bangs as my father follows me up.
Walking, my tongue is dry against the roof of my mouth. My father is pained but determined. He’s dragging on the railing. He has thrown in his lot with a stranger because she looks a little like the daughter who had estranged herself from him. There was an orderly who gave me the gift of a place, something huge and important without even realizing. We are here.
Even among the staff, the rooftop garden at St. Vincent’s hospital is a well-guarded refuge. There is a plot of grass surrounded by vines, flowers, bushes and young trees. The day is beautiful, even for LA, the air still and warm and full of the scent of renewal. Sounds of traffic below are no more than a vague murmur, and the famous LA view of buildings and streets is obscured by drooping branches and unruly bushes. I lower myself against a tree trunk and take off my shoes. With difficulty my father seats himself beside me, silently. I hand him a cigarette; the flame is sacred as I cup my hand around it and bring it close to his mouth.
maxine suddeth is a native Los Angeleno and graduate of the creative writing program at University of California, San Diego, as well as a grateful daughter. She manages Murder Ink Bookstore in New York City and lives in a 5th floor walkup with one delightful husband and one gimpy cat.