This story is a little off my beaten path. There are no monsters, or time travelers, or space aliens. But it is dark. And that, my friends, is most definitely up my alley. Hope you enjoy it.
Airplanes and elevators. I hate them both. And it seemed no sooner had our stressful four-hour flight on the one ended (our brief cab ride through the dark, silent city being my only respite) than we found ourselves being hoisted aloft on the other. I’d left my stomach somewhere over Kansas. Figured I’d pick it up on my way back to California.
Naturally I’m not too keen on hospitals, either. Yet here I was in one—indeed, the very one in which I’d been born. It occurred to me (not for the first time) that the past is always reaching out to drag us relentlessly back, like a black hole from which even light cannot escape. It was a depressing thought. I squeezed Ellie’s hand and she looked up at me with a little wrinkle in her brow.
“It’ll be okay,” she said, although we both knew it wouldn’t.
We were alone in the small space, and I began to feel claustrophobic. My heart started pounding to beat the band and I realized I wouldn’t need to retrieve my stomach on the return trip after all. It had tracked me down and was in there now, doing somersaults.
When the elevator doors slid open on the ninth floor and the overwhelming smell of disinfectant (not to mention the underlying stink of sickness and dying) wafted in, it certainly didn’t help matters much. We exited the car and followed the signs to the ICU, an enclosed area made up of large-windowed rooms with a nurses’ station at its hub.
Hospital workers, some dressed in brightly colored smocks, others clad in green scrubs, bustled about on their various errands. Still clasping hands, my wife and I approached a mid-thirties brunette seated behind a horseshoe-shaped counter, intently tapping away at her computer keyboard. In one of the rooms I could hear a woman weeping softly.
The brunette looked up at us expectantly, and I was about to ask her which room my father was in when another woman’s regrettably recognizable voice said behind us, “So…the prodigal son returns,” although she pronounced it prodijal.
I looked around and there she was. My stepmother. That feeling I mentioned before about the past being like a black hole engulfed me, and suddenly I was ten years old again and sitting in the backseat of my dad’s ‘65 Mustang. We were at the drive-in, the sun having just dipped below the horizon, and we were waiting for the first picture to start. Don’t remember what it was. I do recall Jim Croce’s “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” coming from the tinny speaker hooked on the driver’s side window. And I remember her turning around in her seat with that smug look on her hatchet face, telling me convincingly, hatefully, “You’ll never fill your father’s shoes.” My dad had been right there beside her, stuffing his mouth with great handfuls of homemade popcorn from a grease-stained brown paper bag. He never said a word.
Back then my stepmother wore a whorish amount of makeup and cheap perfume, the way some dull-witted women are wont to do. Standing before her now, I still found her scent overpowering, except it had become that sickeningly sweet old lady smell, which joined forces with the other offending odors in the air to really do a number on me. I breathed through my mouth in self-defense. It appeared she’d eased up on the face paint, but that judgmental look still sat perched on her pinched, just-sucked-on-a-lemon face. Her disapproving eye fell on Ellie for a second, then fixed back on me.
“I didn’t think you’d show up,” she said.
I shrugged. “Guess you were wrong.”
“I thought you’d be too busy living the good life out there in California to—”
“Where is he?”
She glared at me, and I wished I had a dollar for every time she’d ever looked at me that way.
“You know,” she said, her eyes drilling into me, “you never showed any respect, even as a kid. It’s so flustrating.”
I was struggling to keep my temper (and stomach) in check.
“Listen,” I said, “I don’t have time for this. Just tell me what room he’s in.”
My wife, God love her, stood there holding my hand, not saying a word.
Meanwhile, my stepmother impaled me with a look of pure hatred. That look (along with everything else she had said and done to me over the years) might have hurt, had I ever given half a damn what she thought of me. But you have to care about somebody before they can hurt you in that way, and I never cared for her one lick. My father, on the other hand…
“He’s in nine-o-seven,” she spat, and there was enough venom in it to bring down a horse. Then she gave a parting shot as we brushed past her: “If he could talk anymore, which he can’t, I’m sure he’d ask you why you never call.”
We left her standing there in a cloud of her own poison and crossed the ICU to the room where my father lay dying of cancer. Ellie remained at the threshold while I stepped into the dimly lit space beyond.
And there he was. The man who had ruled my world like a towering, mad king…brought low at last. Standing there at the foot of his deathbed, watching his narrow chest rise and fall in short, shallow breaths, I thought, This is what I was so afraid of? I felt sudden anger well up inside me, and my stomach churned again in disgust at the sight of this weak and withered thing before me. The image of a dried up, dead leaf skittered across my mind, and I shuddered.
Then a flood of unwelcome memories rushed over me: how, when I was twelve, my uncle Jim had been visiting, and at one point had begun casually to flip through a story of mine which I’d left on the coffee table; how he had declared indulgently to me that someday I would be a great writer. And how, to my immense heartbreak and disillusionment, my father had rolled his eyes and countered simply, “I doubt that.”
I remembered being shamed into calling his wife my mother. I recalled the routine beatings. The endless, exhausting fear. And the crushing hopelessness, which became my constant companion.
I thought of the year my grade school elected to hold a sort of practice prom, I guess you’d say. To my delight and horror, I was voted king, and Julie something-or-other was chosen as my queen. It became the talk of our little town. But my dad balked at the idea of buying me a suit for the occasion. Over the next week I cajoled and complained. He wouldn’t budge. Finally, hours before the event, I lashed out in desperation. This got me banished to my room without supper that night.
For the next month or so everyone at the school (teachers included) shunned me for spoiling the festivities. I could offer only flimsy excuses, being too ashamed of the truth. Of course, it means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but at the time it was a big deal, and I was mortified. I mean, hell, I was just a kid, and the whole damn town was mad at me. Because of him. It was too much to bear. I hated him for putting me through that. And, moreover, for never simply saying he was sorry.
I looked down at what was left of the man of whom I had once been so afraid, yet had still somehow loved. Now his life was receding like his hairline.
I stepped to the bedside and he opened his eyes. When they finally focused on me, they became shiny with tears and a tired smile touched his lips. I leaned closer to him.
“Can you hear me?” I whispered.
“Good,” I said, “because I’ve got something to tell you, and I want to make sure you understand it. It’s this: you were a shitty excuse for a father.”
The smile melted off his face like candle wax. He now stared up at me with a mixture of hurt and disbelief.
“That’s right,” I said. “All those years ago, it wasn’t me who wasn’t good enough. It was you.”
He blinked in amazement, and a tear spilled down his gaunt cheek.
“I just wanted you to know that before you died—that you weren’t good enough. Not even close. I’ll never visit your grave, wherever that might be. And I promise you this: after I leave you here to rot, I’m going to do my damnedest never to think of you again.”
Then I went to the door, took my wife’s hand, and we got out of there.
That was two years ago. Other than writing this down, I’ve kept the oath I made that awful night. Because you should always keep a promise you make to someone on their deathbed.
It’s only right.