Word Choice features original works of fiction and poetry. Read an excerpt from Amy Fusselman's The Pharmacist's Mate.
What is it about my dad being dead that I can’t say it enough? That I feel like My Dad Is Dead would be a good name for my son?
That I can picture myself saying, “I can’t talk right now, I have to pick My Dad Is Dead up from hockey?”
Singing, “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear My Dad Is Dead”?
I look My Dad Is Dead up on the internet and discover that there is a band with that name. And they’re from Ohio, like my dad, like me. And I can listen to their song right now, a noisy, static-y MP3 called “Don’t Look Now.”
My dad is invisible. Everything invisible is interesting to me now. Like when I sit in the apartment we just moved into, and play guitar. When I sit here and am aware, as I play and sing, that the music is invisible. And I imagine what I would look like to a deaf person. That I would look like someone opening and closing her mouth and sliding one hand along some wood and using the other to touch some strings. And how that doesn’t look like much. Just someone sitting, making little movements. Little patterns with the mouth, open close, open close, little patterns with the hand, up and down, up and down. And how the only way a deaf person would know what I was doing is because the movements are creating vibrations. And how even though the vibrations are invisible, I can feel them in the air. I can feel them, they are there, they are as there as I am.
I have always thought that seeing a band play in a bar is more interesting theater than most plays in theaters. The guitarist standing there, wiggling the fingers, and making the giant vibrations, is about a hundred times more poetic and mysterious than someone in a costume saying words they memorized, words that are supposed to be about something.
But I say that and then I also have to admit that when I am at home playing guitar and singing, I am playing and singing a song I wrote when I was in college, in a band that played in bars. And the song is called “I Love My Mom,” and we played it loud and fast:
I love my mom
I love my mom
She’s no sex bomb
But she’s my mom
She sends me food
When I am gone
She’s old, she’s cool, my mom rules
I love my dad
I love my dad
I am so glad
That he’s my dad
He sends me money
Even though I’m bad
He’s old, he’s cool, my dad rules
And on one level the song was supposed to be funny, because even though it had sweet lyrics, we played it like a rant. But on another level it wasn’t funny at all, because at the time I wrote it I was mad as hell at my mom and dad, and the song was like an imitation of how I was loving them then, through clenched teeth.
And now, when I sing the song, I remember specifically how I held my dad’s hand and sang it to him in the hospital, two days before he died.
2/18/46: Our destination was changed by radio today. We are going to Saint Lazaire in France to unload and possibly pick up French war brides. The crew nearly went crazy when they heard there might be women on board. Little do they realize that it will become a pain in the neck. Won’t be able to cuss, and will probably have to come to the table dressed up. I took an awful kidding at the table today, because they said I would have to act as “midwife” in case any of the passengers were pregnant.
Yesterday morning I went back to the fertility doctor for follicle monitoring. I have taken my five days’ worth of clomiphene again. This is the fifth time I have taken it. I did it three times with the low-end fertility doctor, and now I’ve done it twice with the high-end one.
You aren’t supposed to take clomiphene too many times, because it’s terrible for you. So this, the fifth time, is the last time I can take it. After this, I go on to the next, more aggressive treatment: shots.
I am scared of shots. So I was hoping, when I went in yesterday, that the ultrasound would find many large follicles. But there were only two of them, and they were small. One was ten millimeters, and one was twelve.
Air is very interesting now. I can spend a long time sitting in my apartment, looking at the air.
Yesterday I was at the gym, on the elliptical trainer. I was thinking about my uterus, which, I have read, is almost infinitely expandable. And I was picturing my uterus, with its lining of blood, empty except for once a month when the microscopic egg bobs around in it like a single life preserver in the ocean.
And then I was picturing the dots and dashes of sperm, like the sudden eruption of a ship’s SOS.
And I was thinking how strange it is that these tiny circles and lines ping-ponging around my uterus are powerful enough to burst into a life.
And as I was thinking this it was like a door opened, and I looked up and thought, my dad is here. And I looked up at the air in front of my elliptical trainer, the air that did not look like anything unusual, that just looked like regular air hanging out between people and things, and I said, hi dad, without using my voice, and I smiled.
And then I was excited and felt like I had to say a lot of things at once, like I love you and I miss you and I am writing about you, can you help me with it? And as I said that I was smiling, because I knew my dad would be sort of rolling his eyes and smiling at that, like he’s dead, and I’m asking him to help me with my homework.
And after a while I felt like my dad was gone and I didn’t talk to him anymore, just kept moving my legs in the uphill egg shape, like I already had been doing the whole time.
When my dad first went into the hospital, we didn’t think he was going to die. He just had a bad cold, which is hard for someone with emphysema. But he had been in the hospital once before with a bad cold, and they just pumped him full of antibiotics for a week, and then let him go.
But then the day after he was admitted, my mom called and said he had taken a turn for the worse. So I went to Ohio.
I don’t think my dad thought he was going to die, either. The first thing he said when I walked into his room was, “Why did you come?”
2/23/46: For the last two days, I have not only been busy with the purser end of this racket, but also the medical end. The Chief Mate has what I think is a mild pneumo- nia. Complains of pain in chest and has a temp around 101 and 102. Been pumping the sulfa into him for nearly thirty hours with no apparent results. Something had better break soon.
I went ashore in St. Nazaire last night and found it to be only a hollow shell of a once very fine city. Houses all along the waterfront have been destroyed. Only large piles of bricks remain.
I sprained my ankle badly while jumping from the ship to shore. I thought it was about six feet in the dark, but it must have been ten or twelve. This makes three times I’ve done this in the last year and a half. I don’t think the cartilage and ligaments can stand much more. It takes a lot to make me cry, but I cried myself to sleep last night because the pain was so terrific. Two nembutals had no effect.
When my dad was dying, he saw things. You could tell by the way he kept looking at the air to the right and left of the always-on TV. One day he pointed at the air beside me and said, “That’s the man who came to see me.” And when I asked, “Who?” he chuckled and waved his hand and said, “Not important.”
Another time, when the pulse/oxygen monitor by his bed started beeping the super-loud beep, the beep that summoned the nurse pronto, he opened his eyes wide and looked—not at the nurse and me—but at the air behind us.
And he smiled like he was a fifteen-year-old virgin seeing the most beautiful naked woman on earth, and in a voice that sounded like Louis Armstrong, he said, “Ohhhhh, man.”
I am in the doctor’s examination room. I am alone with the ultrasound machine. If you’ve never seen one, an ultrasound machine has the short, squat look of a first-grader’s desk, only wearing a computer screen and a white plastic sword. It is a first-grader’s desk, dressed up for Halloween as something from Star Wars.
And so I am alone with it, with my pen and paper, and I write the following stuff down. That it is GE model 10 G 10 400 MD. That its System ID number is 212746LOGIc4. That there is a 1-800-GE number on it. That next to the plastic wand is a plastic bottle like the kind you see filled with ketchup at a diner. That the bottle says “Graham-Field Ultrasound Transmission Gel.” That said gel, when squirted on one’s arm, is blue.
Then this morning’s lovely and talented resident physician enters the room, so I put down my pen and assume the position, and we look at the screen.
“I had two on the right side on Monday,” I say.
She knows. She waves the wand up, down, side to side. Ouch.
Onscreen, suddenly, a black hole, which is what follicles look like, in Star Wars–Halloween land.
I hear her fingers on the keyboard. Tap, tap. Two small x’s appear on either side of the hole.
“How big is it?” “Seventeen and a half,” she says.
“Where’s the other one?”
“It must not have matured,” she says.
Why does something not mature? The resident could not tell me that. She left the examination room to confer with another doctor, and together they decided to give me my shot, even though the follicle was only at seventeen and a half. And as I was leaning on the examination table, with my pants puddled around my ankles, I studied the ultrasound machine again, and saw that the sword had a condom on it, and inside the condom was the blue jelly, in little waves.
And then I got my shot and even though I asked for a Band-Aid the resident said I didn’t need one. So I went home. And when I got there I called the number on the ultrasound. And a woman with a southern accent answered and said, “GE We Care, can I have your System ID number?”
And so I told her the other number I wrote down. “Can I help you?”
So I told her I wanted to know more about how the sonar works on the ultrasound.
And she said I’d have to talk to the service engineer. And so she transferred me to his extension, and when he answered, I asked him why you have to have a condom full of jelly on the wand when you do the ultrasound. And he said, “Because the sound waves have to have a medium to go through,” and then he told me to go to the library.
bq. 3/3/46: Today is the beginning of the French Mardi Gras which precedes each Lent. The people dress up similar to our kids on Halloween and parade through the streets. I’m afraid this was a rather poor celebration for the French, because of lack of clothes. Most people wore their old civilian-issue gas masks for a false face.
I was just inseminated.
Since my insemination, I have done the following things with my body: Walked fourteen blocks. Taken the 6 train and then transferred to the E. Stood on the platform and finished reading the Post. Drank a small bottle of water. Chewed two pieces of peppermint gum. Offered my Post to the smiling man on the train. Walked three more blocks. Bought a latte. Walked home. Walked in the door. Changed my shirt. Washed my face. Peed. Drank more water. Ate a chocolate calcium chew. Ate a handful of animal crackers and some saltines with strawberry jelly. Another chocolate calcium chew. And then sat down here. Chugged the latte.
I am scared of being pregnant now. And I remember sitting in the packed waiting room this morning, the waiting room bursting with cell-phone ringings and high-heel stampings and diamond-ring flashings, and noticing one beleaguered-looking woman who brought her singing two-year-old with her. No, noticing how everyone in the room ignored her. And her child. This was a room, clearly, that did not love children.
Thinking, what is it, exactly, that we want here?
Frank came with me this morning to the insemination. He had to come, ha. He had to come in a sterile plastic container at 8:30 a.m., and then they took his sperm and “washed” it, as they say, to make it more motile, to make it supersperm. It takes them an hour to wash it. So my insemination was scheduled for 9:30 a.m.
Frank has done this insemination thing before, so he knows the routine. We go there, and they give him the sterile plastic cup, and he writes my name and his name all over it, and then he goes into the collection room, which is basically a closet, only furnished with a VCR, porn magazines, and a chair with a diaper spread across the seat.
And last time I asked him which one he looked at, the magazine or the video, and he said the video. And I asked him what it was called and he said he wasn’t sure, he just pressed play and went with it.
So this time I said, you have to get the title for me. And so I was sitting in the waiting room when he came back in and took my pen and paper from me and wrote this down:
VALENTINO’S ASIAN INVASION
And I laughed out loud.
And then he had to go to work, so I sat in the waiting room and drew ladies’ feet until it was time to go pick up his supersperm in the test tube. Now here is your quiz: do you know what color washed semen is?
It is pink. Bright pink. And it is thin. It shakes around in the test tube like a tiny sip of diet grapefruit drink.
And I take the test tube (asking the technician again, as I always do, are you sure this is mine, ha ha?), and I swaddle it in my STP motor oil windbreaker, and as I do so, I remember the time I wore this windbreaker on Astor Place and some guy looked at me and said, “STP! Stop Teen Pregnancy!”
And then I go back to the waiting room, and sit awhile longer, until my name is called, my name and another woman’s name. Two names at the same time. And we look at each other and smile and follow the resident to the exam rooms. And the woman turns to me right before she goes into her room and says, “We have the same clothes on, did you notice?”
And I look. And it’s true. We are both wearing white shirts and black pants.
“It’s our lucky outfit,” I say.
And then we go through our separate doors, and close them behind us, and as we do I am remembering the psychic I go to see once a year, in January, right after my birthday. I like her for many reasons, one of the foremost being that if you try to go more than once a year, she won’t let you. And I asked her then, last January, will I be pregnant? And she said she saw two little heads pop up. And at the time I thought, oh, that’s my two children, because Frank and I had decided that was how many we wanted. But then later I thought, maybe it’s twins.
And in the exam room I am alone again with my pants off and the ultrasound machine. And I stand there and study the probe. It is naked, without a condom, without jelly. It is very long. It is longer than any penis I have ever, personally, sat on.
And then the resident comes in, this one a blonde in burgundy leather high heels. And I hand her the tiny pink drink and she looks at it and then shows me the names on it and asks, “Is this yours?” And I say “I hope so” and climb on the table and assume the position and wince as she puts the speculum in.
Have you ever been inseminated? It is not like laying back on a red velvet divan. It is painful. They use a plunger attached to a long pipette, and they stick the pipette through your cer- vix, into your uterus, and then they plunge. And if you, like me, have never had any children, then most likely you have never had anything that was not microscopic going into or out of your cervix. Did I mention that the pipette inside your cervix feels like a tiny knife stabbing you farther inside than you ever knew anything could go?
And you feel the knife stabs for about fifteen seconds, which can seem like quite a long time. And then the resident takes the pipette out and the speculum out and goes away, click, click, there’s no place like home.
And I am not supposed to move for fifteen more minutes. “To rest,” she said.
bq. 3/12/46: I had quite a talk with the Chief Engineer last night, and find him to be a most amazing person. In his spare time, he is a writer of short stories or anecdotes. His mastery of the English language is good, but his style of writing is rather poor, for I have perused a few of his literary attempts. His sense of morals—if such a sense is even present—is sadly wanting. His wife must truly be a very understanding person, and her love for him very deep, because he has been involved in the most scandalous predicaments involving women. He has “wronged” more women—and been caught at it—than are “wronged” in an entire year’s publication of True Confessions magazine. He is wrapped up in the doings of his two sons, both of whom are in their early teens, although his wife is twenty-eight. I can’t help liking the fellow, for all his shortcomings.
Fairly heavy seas today. Will soon enter bonus area at the ninth meridian, because of floating mines. Make $2.50 extra a day, and get an added $10 a month for carrying dangerous cargo.
Frank calls me as he is in the process of trying to find some falafel for lunch. He calls because he wants to tell me what he had forgotten to tell me earlier, that is, the exact scene of the insemination video.
“There was a man,” he says, “presumably Valentino. And he was in the process of servicing five women.”
“Five women. Was he servicing them with his penis?” “Yes.” “What about the ones who didn’t have access to the penis?” “They were keeping busy.”
“With what?” “Licking and sucking and stroking, things like that.”
He asks me how the insemination was.
“It didn’t hurt as much as the last time.”
“Because you were used to it,” he says.
“Are you sure it hurt?”
“Are you sure?”
“You wouldn’t like to do it again, at home? Later?”
I felt more beautiful during the six weeks my dad was in the hospital than in any time in recent memory.
It is unsettling to admit this. It feels shameful. Like how dare it happen, how dare anything beautiful happen, anything related to beauty, when a person you love is dying.
And as it was happening I felt it, and asked myself why, and decided it was because I was so focused on my dad that I began to reflect him. And my dad, when he was dying, was a very beautiful man.
And it is so wonderful to be beautiful. It is so wonderful to be beautiful as you chase the respiratory specialist down the hall, the sixty-year-old respiratory specialist with the bedside manner of a parking meter, and yell his name, and make him turn around. And to stand in front of the respiratory specialist and say, “Please explain to me again my dad’s prognosis.” And to see the respiratory specialist, who is bald but for white tufts over each ear, stroke his chin with his hand and look at your breasts, which are encased in a bright red and pink bra, which is showing slightly through your white T-shirt, and you know this, but you can’t help it, because you thought you were only coming here for the weekend, and so you brought one bra and one pair of khakis and two of the same white T-shirts, and you have been wearing them now for three weeks straight.
And it is wonderful to feel your breasts, in the red and pink bra, hardening under the gaze of the respiratory specialist, and to feel like it would be entirely appropriate for you and the respiratory specialist, who is old enough to be your father, to lay down, right here, in the hall, and do it, as the plump nurses troll by with their plastic buckets of drugs like so many posies, because you are together, you and the respiratory specialist, in your nothing you can do.
And that is part of how I felt more beautiful than any time in recent memory, but that isn’t the whole of it. That’s more sex-beauty.
The beauty-beauty part came when I drove the car alone to the hospital, because my mom was taking a day off. When I drove sixty miles an hour down Chagrin Boulevard with all the windows open, and sang that old Replacements song, “Rattlesnake.”
No, that isn’t it either. That was more fake-beauty, like when you look like you always look, but you act like you’re in a music video.
This is embarrassing. Maybe I wasn’t beautiful at all. My dad was beautiful, though.
On the last day of his life, he had some moments where he was completely lucid and others where he was totally out of it. So when he looked up at me from the bed and said, “I soiled my pants,” I couldn’t tell if he was confused or not. My dad had never said those words to me before. My dad had never soiled his pants, to my knowledge. He had had catheters.
I was opening a package of chocolate pudding, to feed him.
I was looking for the plastic spoon. I did not understand. I was opening pudding. I was beautiful. I was an idiot.
“Do you want them changed?” I asked.
This was one of our last conversations on earth, you understand.
“Yes,” he said, looking at me like, of course, you imbecile.
The Pharmacist's Mate by Amy Fusselman will be published by McSweeney's in Feb. 2013. Copyright Amy Fusselman. First published in the US in 2001 by McSweeney's.