Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Manda and I were stretched out naked on our bed when my grandmother called. Manda, whom I hadn’t seen awake in three days, was snaking cool fingers up my spine, counting off vertebrae as she delivered a brief treatise on spinal flexibility and extension. Her own movements were smooth and sure, each press of her small fingertips conveying confidence. God how odd, I was thinking, that less than a year ago I was the teacher, only I had the hands-on knowledge of the wheres and whens and certainly the hows of both the male and female body. Six days a week I’d rush home from my job at the library, having read my way further still through “Sexuality,” “Erotica,” and just plain old “Charm” in the card catalog, to find Manda flush with anticipation of the lessons to be learned, half hiding behind her shoulder-length blonde hair and wavering about the apartment door like a candle placed in a strong breeze.
Her first day of class, she discovered that most of the lectures had been lifted more or less directly from the texts. So Manda spent the majority of her day at home in our East Village apartment, poring over large books bound in somber colors and filled with polysyllabic words and brilliant diagrams. In her second month some medical equipment company gave everyone in her class a reflex hammer, and for days we tapped around on ourselves and each other. Another manufacturer, not to be outdone, presented the class with stethoscopes, and like fickle children we tossed the orange rubber hammer aside and listened to the other’s inner goings-on for weeks. “Bowel sounds bore me,” Manda finally concluded. “Chockie, give me a systolic heart murmur any day.” But to me the rhythms and gurgles remained only distant noises, rumblings I’d never understood and couldn’t begin to comprehend now. It was at that moment I realized I was no longer the teacher. But even then, I thought as I picked up the phone, I hadn’t foreseen that I would become the student.
I placed my hand over the receiver and mouthed “Oklahoma” to Manda, who whispered back: “Your father?”
I shook my head.
“The Mario Andretti of the plains states?”
“Glad I didn’t pick up.” She rotated a few thoracic vertebrae, rolled onto her side of the bed and opened Gray’s Anatomy.
“Been dealt any good cards lately? How goes it?” I said into the phone.
“Don’t ask, Charles,” my grandmother answered dismally. “Charles” is the name of both her dead husband and only son; “Chock,” my mother’s name for me. It was “Chock,” of course, that stuck on Little League fields and in classrooms as well as at home. But my grandmother has never called me anything but “Charles” and I’ve never dared call her anything but “Grandmother.” If anyone in her presence, even my father, makes the mistake of referring to her simply as “she” or “her” Grandmother will simply get up and leave. “I had a cataract zapped off on Friday, Charles; I look like a pirate with my eye patch on. And those new speed bumps down by the post office have all but knocked out my wheel alignment. But compared to your daddy, Charles, I’m Miss America.”
I inquired as to the swimsuit competition.
“Ha-ha,” Grandmother said.
My father had recently been divorced by his second wife, who had less than three years on me. So the month previous he’d moved from Dallas back to Oklahoma City and the bank he’s owned since he was 29; at one time he was the youngest bank president in the country. There he repossessed a large house for himself and fired the bank’s president, who conveniently hadn’t been performing up to snuff, or so my father maintained. Dad then moved himself back into the departed president’s plush office, which he insisted had been more reasonably furnished when it was first his own, and threw himself into debits and credits. Last report I had was that he was busy, doing fine. The king had returned to his countinghouse and all was right with the world—or so I’d thought. “Okay, what’s wrong?”
“All he does, Charles, is work and go home to all those dark and empty rooms and work some more. All he owns is a desk, a bed, and maybe a credenza. Eats Swanson’s TV dinners, won’t even touch the good stuff. And I’m too old to be setting up a household—and a big one at that.”
“Did he ask you to?” Grandmother has never needed much, if any, provocation to do what she believes needs done; my father comes by his managerial skills honestly. “Maybe he’s having the time of his life, Grandmother. I mean whoever’s left when the dust settles will make money like a bee.” Banks were failing all over Oklahoma, but my father, who abhors risk—that is, oil securities—of any sort, appeared to be riding out the storm well. “Most of the folks who run this state made their really big bucks in the Depression after the deadwood was thinned out,” he’d told me during our last phone conversation, the day he learned of his imminent marital dumping. I had tried to focus the talk on topics pleasant to him; I’d settled on money. “Déjà vu,” he’d concluded.
“You begrudging the man a home, Charles?” Grandmother was not asking.
“Of course not.”
“He needs your help. For the first time in your life, Charles, your daddy needs you to help him.”
I said, “Grandmother, I’m not sure I’d know where to begin.”
To which my grandmother offered a little solid Oklahoma logic: “You begin at the beginning, Charles. He wants to hire a couple: a man to take care of the grounds and the wife to cook and clean. There’s an apartment over the garage. Nice place. You’ll run an ad. You can help him find someone.” She stressed the “you,” singular.
“Come to Oklahoma?”
“No,” Grandmother said peevishly, “interview help over the phone. Mail your daddy a sofa.” She sighed, exasperated. “Honestly, Charles, Manhattan island is not surrounded by Outer Mongolia.”
Now I sighed.
And Manda looked up from her book. “Board review’s in only two weeks, Chockie,” she offered softly, her words oozing over to me like oil to be applied to all this, grating, as it was, with disuse. “Next week when I’m not on the ward I’ll be absolutely living at the library.”
“Well bless your heart,” I whispered back.
Manda raised her eyebrows in warning. “Chop, chop,” she said, and maliciously eyed the thin tuft of hair she’d discovered only minutes before in the small of my back.
“Sorry,” I mouthed before she could reach over and give it a tug. Then into the receiver: “It seems you caught me at a good time, Grandmother.”
Grandmother met my flight at Will Rogers International Airport with a dark-skinned porter in tow. Initially I thought he was American Indian, then Spanish, finally wasn’t sure. “Arab,” Grandmother would tell me later, scowling like a tired hostess stuck with lingering guests. “They showed up back when things were good in the oil business.”
She was sporting a seersucker suit and new perm; the tight, steel gray ringlets about her head were slightly too few and far apart, her scalp still pink from the setting lotion. “Good to see you,” she said matter-of-factly as I leaned down and planted a perfunctory kiss upon her cheek, just below her eye patch.
“Hey, lady,” I said, “where’s your motorcycle?”
“Ha-ha.” She took a moment to glance disapprovingly at my two-toned shoes, my pegged and pleated pants, thin tie. Then on her cue the porter picked up my bag and walked two polite paces behind us through the hundred-degree heat to Grandmother’s black Lincoln Continental, which was double-parked in a shaded no-parking zone. The car—its color and size, the daring angle at which it sat—was nearly as imposing as the lady herself. Grandmother prides herself on her perfect driving record, although for years she’s sped and parked illegally on trips to bridge tournaments all over Oklahoma. She has received citations, but her childhood sweetheart has been state deputy highway commissioner for as long as I can remember. When written up, Grandmother will have her old beau to dinner, placing the ticket beneath his dessert plate. Nothing is ever said, and through these many years not one violation has ever come to fruition.
She pulled on kid-leather driving gloves before pushing a bill into the porter’s hand, slid horn-rimmed sunglasses onto her face and herself behind the wheel.
“Can you drive in that thing?” I asked, nodding at the eye patch.
“You know me, Charles,” she said. “I can drive blind.” She flicked on the air conditioner to high bi-level and in no time we were speeding down the interstate past truckstops and abandoned oil derricks and eight-dollar-a-night motels. A young hitchhiker, watching our approach in the fast lane, noted Grandmother’s intention not to stop for anything short of a brick wall and dropped his thumb to his side.
“I didn’t tell him you were coming. We’ll surprise him.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Well I guess your mama’s gettin’ a hoot out of all this, up in heaven.” It seems Grandmother had grown to dislike my mother early on, as Mama, who although not imposing, had quickly learned to speak her mind. “Sink or swim,” was how she’d once put it to me. When I was 14 and my father divorced her, Grandmother had been quite unabashedly near glee—if not, I’ve speculated since, somehow behind the whole thing. Still, from the time Mama was diagnosed until a good year after she died. Grandmother did politely defer from speaking of her, ill or otherwise, in my presence.
“I guess what goes around comes around, Grandmother.” Thinking better of this, I clandestinely reached down and gave my leg a pinch. Every other person in this state may speak in axioms, I told myself, but you’re not going to.
“Humph,” Grandmother said, and we whizzed past a billboard reading, “Rupert’s Sewers: Your Christian Plumbers.”
Although she’d be hard pressed to admit to it now, she had liked my father’s more docile second wife better. When not engrossed in some new fashion magazine or diligently taking orders from Dad, it had seemed my young stepmother spent most of her time either harmlessly shopping or at her health and beauty club. On the one occasion I heard her speak with Grandmother, it was about this club. With a voice tinged with respect bordering on fear, she explained what a boon it was to be able both to exercise and have her nails manicured under one roof. Grandmother, I believe, was especially unimpressed, but the delivery didn’t pass unappreciated by either of us. So I’d been wondering how my stepmother had ever summoned the nerve to inform Dad she was leaving him; I’d concluded that she’d probably written him a note. Later I would learn she told him outright, casually, unconcerned. I hadn’t known her well enough to form much of an opinion one way or the other, and on hearing this I both disliked and respected her, a little, for the first time.
“People just want different things at different times in their lives is all,” Grandmother was now saying. “That’s nothing new, Charles.”
“I guess not.”
“She demanded he give her a baby. Your father’s had his baby. It’s as simple as that.”
I turned to her: this was news to me.
And Grandmother knew it. Relishing this, she pressed down harder on the accelerator. “But what that fool girl doesn’t realize, Charles, is that kids are your kids for the rest of your life. I’m just grateful your daddy had the good sense to have her sign one of those prenuptial things.”
I thought: Even in defeat the son prevails. Blood’s thick, Grandmother had reduced the old saying to. She quotes it often.
“So the little operator’s getting next to nothing, at least when you consider that for the past few years she’s accustomed herself to spending four hundred of your daddy’s hard-earned dollars each month on just cosmetics in those ritzo Dallas department stores—which is probably why she talked him into moving off down there in the first place. How one person can spend that much on creams and face paints is honestly beyond me, Charles. And then there was that silly running and grooming place all rolled into one, where in a single year she’d drop twice what I do on gas.”
“Goodness,” I said, impressed.”
At least your mama was smart, Charles. At least your mama had some sense of responsibility.” Grandmother turned to me and smiled sweetly. “I believe that’s what I appreciated most about her. So you should think about one of those prenuptials before you marry that girl you’re with. Your mama would want it.”
I laughed. “You mean Manda should.”
With a jolt, Grandmother changed lanes. “You’ll never be poor, Charles,” she said crisply, “and you know it. Blood’s thick.”
No answer. To my astonishment, it seemed her words had frozen upon entering my head, fused and ossified when passing the right lobe of my heart and now lay in a cold mass upon the serous coat of my stomach. I no more understood all this than I did bowel sounds and heart murmurs, but suddenly I was as sure of it as I was of the arms trailing down my sides, my feet resting upon the Lincoln’s floorboards—as I was that only Manda, her medical skills aside, might save me.
“Well I just hope she’s not a bobtail nag to you.”
I peered over my shoulder into the Lincoln’s backseat, which looked large enough to house a family of four. “What’s in the sack?”
“For your daddy: paper products, canned goods, crap TV dinners. Sold anything recently, Charles?”
Through the rear window I studied the broken white line running to the expanse of pale blue sky on the horizon. Interstate 35 links north Oklahoma with the south, is itself the backbone of this state not known for its flexibility. Here there are things one simply doesn’t do, things one does without question: one works hard and is a “Christian.” To Grandmother’s mind, I am surely a failure on both counts. To begin with, I’m a non-churchgoer living in sin. Neither have I shown particular success in my chosen field, so obviously I don’t work hard enough. No, this is not a land steeped in sympathy or even patience for the out-of-the-ordinary, I thought. Rather it seems quick to reward only tangible manifestations, ready results.
I turned around and fastened my seatbelt. “I’m still working on my play.”
“The one you started last year?” Grandmother asked incredulously.
“Yes.” I braced my feet firmly upon the floor.
And she pursed her lips together like a fish. In one fell move, she overtook two pickups and a Cadillac and pulled off the interstate past a row of vacant office buildings and into a parking lot, empty except for the sunflowers and fat green weeds sprouting up through the asphalt. “Shortcut,” she muttered as we shot back out the far end of the lot by churches and small businesses that quickly gave way to trendier shops and small houses, then larger homes with expansive green lawns apparently covering complex networks of pipes and hidden sprinklers. In silence Grandmother was now maneuvering the car with quick jerks of the steering wheel. To turn, she’d aggressively pull down on one side of the wheel hand over fist as though trying to shinny up a rope, not only pressing me against my door or alternately easing me toward her but causing the very white, fleshy people who appeared to inhabit this part of town to take their children in hand and step back from the curb.
Finally we were pulling up a long and winding drive and parked before an imposing Mediterranean-style home that seemed out of place surrounded by pecan and blackjack trees. In every direction was house and more house. “Here you go, Charles,” Grandmother said. “He should be here shortly.”
“Aren’t you going to wait?”
A self-satisfied look appeared upon her face. “But that would spoil the surprise.”
Punishment, I thought. Or else she has a card game.
“What about lunch tomorrow, hon?”
“Sure,” I said, stepping from the car with my bag and the care package for my father.
Grandmother nodded and said: “The door by the pool’s unlocked, and there’s a desk where you can work.” And content with having the last word, not waiting for a good-bye or so much as a wave, she shot off down the drive, spraying up gravel in her wake.
I wandered around back to the pool and a six-car garage that I recognized as impressive even in a state covered with garages often larger than the houses attached to them. There I stripped down to my underwear and swam 20 laps. I dried off in the sun until I could taste salt upon my lips, dressed in some leafy shrubbery, then draped my wet briefs across the end of the diving board and carried everything on inside. In a large, cool room (the study? den? billiard room?) on the back of the house stood the desk and a fold-up chair. As I walked, I listened to my footsteps echo off the walls paneled the color of cinnamon. I sat at the desk and laid down my head.
Suddenly Manda was poking me, probing, obviously on the trail of the cold mass still lodged in my midsection. I opened my eyes and looked up from the desktop into a frenzy of pinstripes and further up into my father’s open, smiling face. “What do you mean doin’ your laundry in my swimmin’ pool, boy?” he said as he twirled my damp drawers in the air like a lasso. Then giving one of my beltloops a gentle tug: “Hey, you goin’ Mexican in there?” “Surprise,” I said.
* * *
The waitress with the spiked hairdo and a black leotard stretched about her at odd angles as though she’d inadvertently pushed appendages through the wrong holes and not bothered to correct this, now plopped down a second DayGlo basket of tortilla chips before me and the thin green tomato dip with a kick in front of my father. He had brought me halfway to Tulsa to an old dive of a Mexican restaurant I’d loved as a child. “And it’s even better now, Chock,” he’d said to me from across the desk back at the house, eye to eye. “Real cute. You’ll like it more.” The dive’s name had been changed to “Nuevo Mexicano” and my favorite taco special replaced by poached salmon enchiladas to be followed by an arugula and guacamole salad. Consequently the prices were now considerable, even by New York nouvelle standards, but the place nonetheless overflowed with customers. “Two things folks ‘round here’ll never give up are their cowboy boots and their Tex-Mex,” Dad had said as we’d searched for a parking spot, “even in a near depression.”
“I’m not what you’d call grievin’ outright, Chock,” he was now saying—rather loudly, I thought. I studied the watermelon margarita he was drinking—his third—which the bartender had somehow rendered half pink, half black. And suddenly it dawned on me: this was shrink talk. So Grandmother was right: he had taken the divorce directly on the chin. “But neither am I in denial, son, since I’m still experiencin’ bereavement on a few levels, in different forms. Course I’ve not mentioned that to your grandmother.”
For the first time since we’d sat down, I understood what he was saying to me and I nodded, tempted though I was to tell him that, as usual, Grandmother knew plenty.
“And what I’ve concluded, Chock,” he finally said, “is that I’ve got to cut my losses and get on with it.”
These, I thought, are the words of my father, and I smiled reassuringly at him, grateful that I was to be spared any conjugal intimacies he’d scrutinized upon the couch: getting on with it was fine by me.
“So let’s get on to you.”
Aw oh. Still, you should have expected it, I told myself: of course you’re one of his focuses now. And carefully I said, “No, Dad. I mean, you’re the subject of this visit. I’m here to help you.”
He looked down into his bright, frothy drink, picked up his knife and poked at the small slice of melon bobbing about. “Maybe the best way to help me is to let me help you, son.” He cleared his throat. “Recently someone suggested that to me.”
“Who?” Okay, I thought, I can listen to him discuss his second wife’s maternal complexes and even his own disappointments as a father; her demand to be where he wanted never to go; the unalterable force, an immovable object, the death of give and take. I watched him now sawing away at his stubborn yet minutely elegant portion of carne asado. I’ll listen until I’m blue in the face, I thought. Gladly.
But he would have none of it. “Your grandmother says you’re writin’ a play, Chock,” he was saying above The GoGo’s rendition of “Guantanamera,” “or at least are tryin’ to, and a play is talk. All talk.”
“Dialogue,” I said.
“So you and I’ll talk,” he continued. “Maybe it’ll be good practice for you.” He looked up at me with the same smiling face he’d greeted me with earlier, a face that I now recalled could also in disapproval be as obstinate as sculpture. “You’re in your middle twenties now.”
“Twenty-four last month.” Here we go, I thought. God help me. “By the way, Dad, thanks for the card. I’m aware you had plenty else on your mind.”
“Flounderin’ around poor in middle age is no pretty picture, Chock.”
“I am not middle-aged, Dad,” I said. “And you know, I was reading somewhere just the other day that writers in their twenties used to be considered young, but now writers in their thirties are. Since we as a species are living longer, youth is now longer.” I shrugged casually, grinned. “Looks like I’ve been given maybe ten extra years.”
Reaching for tortilla chips, he said: “There was also an article in The Wall Street Journal a day or so ago, Chock. This 19 year-old girl wrote a book on her summer vacation from Yale University that won all sorts of awards. And get this: They’re makin it into a movie.” He leaned toward me and gave the chips in his mouth a precise crunch. “I bet she’s gonna make a million bucks. Doesn’t that just rile ya?”
Shaking my head: “Not really, Dad, because I don’t see other writers as adversaries. To me, writing is a generous act.”
Between soft, bovine crunches, he mumbled something about a million dollars being pretty damn generous.
“Look,” I then said, “I know what I do, or want to do, and how I plan to do it may be difficult for you to understand.”
“Hard as hell,” Dad said, and he meant it. “Oh, of course there are some journalists hereabouts and a few bad artists, mostly older ladies wastin’ watercolors on moonlit waves crashing onto beaches they’ve never even seen, but I’ve not heard of a soul writin’ plays, Chock. I don’t have a firsthand point of reference whatsoever.”
I considered this. “If it would help, you might think of me as an artist, of sorts. A struggling artist, say, who works with words instead of paints and canvas.”
Now my father considered this, but I could tell it was twisting and wiggling, refusing to fit. “Actually,” he said as he eyed the flame flickering beneath a skillet of venison fajitas in kiwi sauce on the table next to ours, “it’d be easier for me to look upon what you do as a fire, Chock.”
I raised my eyebrows, opened my eyes wide. Ignore it and it dies, I wondered, feed and encourage it and it will grow?
“Cause it’ll just burn a hole right through your pocket.” I looked away.
“And if ya gotta struggle, son, why can’t you at least up and struggle someplace cheap?”
Like here, I thought. I took a deep breath. No, try again, and this time with logic. He’s a businessman. He’s a pragmatist. Be practical. “Then maybe look on it this way, Dad: it seems to me that there are people in this world who want to have things and people who want to do things, and I’m one of the latter.”
Perhaps he thought I was defining a boundary between us, calling myself right and him wrong. Maybe having spent the past few months dissecting words and emotions, he felt I was inferring he was greedy—or worse, lazy. Surely the liquor had something to do with it, and before I could say anything more the fine lines in his face had firmed and hardened. “What you need to have, Chock, is a career,” he quickly told a good portion of the restaurant. At the next table a man beneath a Stetson eating the venison fajitas in kiwi sauce eyed me with obvious embarrassment, causing me to feel even further from Manda and the city and people who by and large refuse to notice, much less become emotionally entangled in, the inordinate happenings around them. “What you need to do, son, is make some money. You are obligedto support yourself.”
His anger had fallen past me as inconsequentially as rain, but those final words stung their way inside. They fumed, smoked. And when they sparked, I exploded. “Have I ever asked that of you or Grandmother or anyone else?” I said, also too loudly. “I get by, and I do it damn well. And I refuse to be trapped in some business career, Dad.” I took another deep breath, regaining some control. Quieter: “I mean, say I’m working in an investment house, making a really good salary, advancing, and suddenly I’m 50 and comfortable and what the hell have I accomplished? Probably a lot of what I’ve done would have been done by someone else if I hadn’t been there. Then in a few years I’m dead and do you think my life will have been appreciated? Do you think anyone will say, ‘Boy, that was some leveraged buyout he helped pull off in the late ’80s?’ I doubt that, Dad. I doubt it very much.”
“At least you’d have been productive. What if no one ever puts on your plays? And even if they do, what if nobody comes?”
“At least I’ll have been happy.”
For a moment he didn’t say anything. Then smiling: “You may be your mama’s son, Chock, but I’ll be damned if you don’t have your old daddy’s temper. And of course I want you to be happy, son. But you’ve just gotta realize that lack of money is the root of most of the unhappiness in this world.”
“Don’t you mean love of money?”
He shook his head.
And I thought: Then why am I not the one here who is unhappy?
Somehow my father sleeps through one fifty-nine-point-five degree night after another in nothing but a t-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. I’m wearing an old jogging suit, but the cold has already awakened me when he crawls out of bed and turns off the central air; the master bedroom has it own fancy set of temperature controls that look as though they could propel the house into the sky and land us upon some distant planet.
We had both rolled and shifted through sleep like two ships on an uneasy sea, but I now lie motionless, eyes closed, beneath cold covers with knees to chest and head to knees, waiting Dad out so I might call Manda in peace. Forget your medical exams, I want to say to her, pack your bags, my girl, and get down here quick. Please. Together we can cart swatches of wallpaper and carpet samples around Oklahoma City. Somewhere between breakfasting at the country club and lunch at the Cowboy Hall of Fame, we’ll buy china, both good and everyday, and large overstuffed hassocks with matching ottomans in stores that haven’t seen a customer in days. We’ll fill one bedroom in ’50s modern, another with deco—neither an easy feat here. We’ll have set aside one day to interview, quickly agreeing upon an overweight, well-scoured Ukrainian couple who made their way south from Chicago during the oil boom in the late ’70s, he a firm believer in early pruning and the regenerative properties of bull manure and she a former manageress of a bakery who has brought us a slice of good pomegranate torte (Chinese apple pie, she calls it). Before we fly east, you, Manda, will buy her a book on nutrition and The Pritikin Diet for them both. Then we’ll cross our fingers and abandon them to their work and Grandmother’s abuse.
With a loud squeak my father slides down the side of the sunken tub that can accommodate a small horse and took a good 20 minutes to fill with cold water; the only warm liquid that touches him of a morning is his coffee. To a stacatto version of what may be “The Eyes of Texas,” he rhythmically applies a pumice to the soles of his feet, a brush of good English bristles to his tightly clipped nails. I listen as he then shampoos and shampoos, envisioning a giant pompadour of suds amassing upon his head, finally to cascade in a foamy avalanche down onto his neck and large shoulders as I hear him rinse and repeat.
During the night it appeared and lingered in my mind, Manda, as you know such thoughts of mine tend to do in my family’s presence: You may be leaving me behind. Before long I might well seem to you what I now seem to them. Your course is narrow and secure while mine extends in all directions as I stand motionless, uncertain, the odds against me. Watch how my father and grandmother play these odds: they count on change, an unavoidable tension between us, an eventual pulling apart. Think about it. Manda: both have known of you for years, but neither has ever tried to meet you, much less link you to them—and consequently to me—with words or gifts or visits, believing instead that to embrace you and your support of me is to accept me as I am, while to all but ignore you is to hope that I will be forced to keep pace. Envisioning a career in business for me, they offer support of no kind. And when, God forbid, I am someday distanced from you, they are confident that a nice girl of better influence will soon come along who may even want for me what they want. Playing out their hand with slow care and a honed skill, with every suspicion and each emotion they plot to channel me in this direction only they have chosen.
So come, Manda, with your blonde hair combed straight back exposing your entire face, still filled with confidence in me. Please, before it’s too late.
Now out of his bath, my father dry conditions and styles, brushes his teeth, gargles, shaves, slaps on aftershave, probably powders and surely deodorizes and God knows what else. He is like a woman in the bathroom, Mama used to say. From beneath the covers I have opened my eyes slightly so to see him there, and I recall what he looked like naked at 30, at 40. Seldom was I in a situation to view him in this state, and with such infrequence comes good recall. This body is strangely whiter, and looser, is what mine is already becoming from hour upon hour slumped over a desk. Still it is the same large body from ten, 20 years ago: on the abdomen gleams the shiny purple scar slightly raised in the shape of a crescent moon. And as I watch, the same conflicting feelings from those viewings long past again well up inside me. I know I love my father, but I’m not sure I’ve ever really liked him. Stripped, naked, he looks ridiculous to me, and a part of me relishes this. Yet I know there is also respect due—and even awe, as once, at some other time in some other world, with Grandmother at a distance, his loving arms found their way about my mama.
But with the clothes it is over: light blue boxers and a white crewneck undershirt. Dark socks. Oxfordcloth shirt. From one of the closets behind me he will select a gray or navy solid or pinstripe and a tie of pure silk, decorated in repeated rows of small stripes or with a smattering of even smaller diamonds. Braces from the credenza. Clothes void of imagination but, like fewer of those around him now, also without risk.
I follow his footsteps through the empty house to the kitchen and the coffee, then to the desk where I hear him pick up the phone and speak (probably to Grandmother) in concerned tones (surely about me). With renewed strength he talks on about what I am sure is nothing and everything as, I am thinking, he awaits the mail that might or might not come and I lie numbing here in his bed, somehow having given but unsure of just what I will receive in return.
Brad Conard’s stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Yale Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review, which presented him with the 1987 Balch Prize for Fiction. He lives in New York City.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.