We are ungrateful and unworthy, Dad is telling us, beaming as if he’s just discovered the true meaning of being a parent. He is so thrilled he falls asleep before she does up his shoes. My husband is pretending to be asleep in the other single bed. He likes to rage. He says, Call the cops, if that’s what you think. I paid your airfare, he says.
Two years later my sister-in-law takes Dad to the doctor. I’m your guardian. Maybe it has to do with her foot as well as her heart. I eat watermelon chunks beside the grazing table of the buffet, conspicuous, alone, waiting. They could be eating each other. He’ll just get more wired, sighs my sister. Call the locksmith. Of course they could pretend that nothing at all has happened between us, of course time could be bent so as to avoid what happens when a man refuses to consider he won’t be around forever. I tell Dad on another walk around the block that he’s caught between a gold digger and a madman. Nothing to it. Play the six-hour cowboy cable series. She’s protecting all of you, says my brother.
I don’t call my sister back that weekend, I don’t fly in to take over. I’m not, says Dad. Doesn’t she? When my brother bursts through the door behind him, his ten-year-old daughter trains a camera on me. At the last minute, my brother has arranged a meeting. to ask if I would sleep with him. The lawn can’t be cut any shorter. I convince them I am not a greedy bitch out to impoverish a lonely old man who is giving out ever bigger checks to his caregivers, the house to the witch, or the million-dollar farm in exchange for a power-of-attorney, never mind that these exchanges might be logical or beneficial or maybe even not coerced. What about all those checks he’s writing?
We play cards and Dad wins. You don’t care about me. You’ve got a second one. What is she is saying to him that he nods to? It’s French, sailboats at the quay, thick impasto, signed and valuable. I am standing with this revelation, no, I am squatting. He’s not sleeping at night anymore, he sleeps while I drive him around or cook dinner, he’s fresh while I’m worn out.
Dad has the witch dress him in a suit with a shirt that takes a tie. Every quarter hour the nervousness rachets up. The tax consequences alone, he exclaims. I struggle to be calm, I listen to the mediator putting over his Hallmark idea, that we will all join hands. She’s sobbing now. asks Dad. While I’m thinking it’s enough just to listen, he hangs up again. I say after her squeak of pain, but I’m already pointing my headlamp into the closet. We can’t be divided now or our father will crush us entirely, and there we will be, sobbing behind the barn. We went a hundred on a back road, he says, as if he pressed that pedal himself. Take that, is what this means. Well, unlock it. I’m going to play sick and have her stay over. My sister calls me two days later. It is hard to wedge him inside, his thick torso is hard to bend and position in a seat that low, it takes two men to lever him out, but he’s beaming. The white plastic you-know-the-chair I set over the rails of the sliding door so my feet get wet, but not my bottle. The grass is so hot, we crouch under the single strip of shade that light pole makes, we chew and we swallow. Is this another secret they’re keeping until we’re old enough? No one could have imagined this change in him, his utter rejection of us. You have six guns already, she says, why waste your money? The assets. Apparently she let him wander. He doesn’t know she’s moved all of them to a safe in a storage unit, he’s forgotten he’s just fired her.
I doctor Dad fast in the darkness of a winter morning. He inherited land from his father, a Depression-era real-estate dealer and manure-spreader salesman, and the GI Bill paid for his legal education. Just saying. Do women still like the big flashy ones? At our age he figures we don’t need to be coddled, protected from the truth the way we were in our upbringing, not acknowledging all his years of upbringing-neglect, the true truth. Various glass items, ceramic birds, my mother’s silver talcum shaker.
The lake house is destroyed by fire. When she returns, he taps my paper and raises his eyebrows. As the townspeople file in, I wonder: Have any of them endured rogue elders? She likes to fill up his water glass with vodka, select the whiny country songs she likes to listen to while she gets him dinner. The truth is Dad is grandstanding for the one-on-one humiliation. He was sitting, still hooked to EKGs and not looking at me when he said, I have lived too long. I give him a shoulder’s worth of boost up the curb, and we pass the next door neighbor’s open garage. Did you know what he was up to? Then he says nothing and removes his glasses, rubs his eyes. It’s my vigil, months earlier. In July, Dad notices on his clinic printout that he has stage four kidney failure. He’s raged enough to wrest away the power of attorney and the million dollar farm. That’s a plan, I say. I got the house girl to take me to the ring store after my acupuncture.
An hour before his birthday party, cousin Phil drives up in his red Corvette, a model with shiny hubcaps that glitter, a car that radiates wealth. A lot of lawyers have spoken for us, however, at a price that is not merely psychological. We walk farther down the block and stop under a blooming catalpa. The heart is the site of our suffering, our father’s withdrawal at this late date redraws a role that reaches all the way back to when we were children, when we thought we were lucky to have his love, despite his absences, given our awful mother. I don’t call her the witch to his face. What if it were an emergency? Or are you making up for when my sister and I were single women with children and you gave us nothing? The airlines can take us only as far as Minneapolis, and the look we have is a question posed: could any of us be as heartless as Dad? Delusions are night time events. The ring box sits on the table, closed but looking left behind. We know who it is – that brother in cahoots with the witch – and we don’t honk when we pass his place in exit.
Under my bed I find a brand-new rifle in a cardboard box. All families who have in their midst an artist harbor this flickering desire. Thanks for all those years of lower taxes, he says, but now I want total control. That night at our hotel he gets twisted in his T-shirt and wrenches his shoulder and curses our trip until I cut the shirt off him. All gratitude, I find half of the sleeping pill I’ve hoarded for her and she drives herself back to the lake house to take it. I’ll expect you early. You’re sure?
If I get down on one knee, the fire department will have to come and jerk me back onto my feet again, he says after a long talk about a bad thriller he’d seen. More paintings have disappeared. They like to have guns, he says, the ones who get served. Why is she doing this? The doctor says we can reconcile that way. He watched my cleavage like any other guy. I fly back to relieve my sister this time, and there it is: no painting here or here or here. Destroyed. Then he signs. Since we have stopped again, the whole long block and another corner of it looming, Dad pats his jacket and his pants pocket and his inside pocket until at last he produces a ring. But she never mentioned the joy. We are not great huggers. I’m always up by four. He loves pretty girls – my hold is slipping in this category – and horse races, Cadillacs, and a tall glass of vodka. The witch might come to the party, she says, the caregiver he’s already given the house to for some kind of sex. He finds his chequebook and decides to put nine thousand dollars into his caregiver’s checking account to sweeten a marriage proposal, then tells her he’ll fire her if she doesn’t take the money and sleep with him. You’re on speaker phone now, she says. Who we are seems to have a crack running through it, one side the lovable, on the other some non-Freudian integer or unentangled mitochondria, some heart, smoking and cracked. Tears there too, triggered not by our sadness but anger. He has favorites we can make.
Dad and I are rounding the first corner of the block, foot by foot. On the other hand, what will you do if she says yes? At least the witch is not here. They are always asking, she says. A few other items are missing: a clock, a pitcher, two glass birds. By hiding the paintings?
Patio-lightning, patio-rain, one heating the other to hot. Like being pissed on. His idea. Ah, I say, temporary custody trumps power of attorney. says Dad. She lives with a Patterson. A half a beat of lightning flashes between us, metaphorical but literal enough. I learn later that they came to town to change his will again, that they’d seen a newspaper notice about my reading after they checked in. The lawyer sends the other side our undying love, and our willingness to sign whatever, gambling that this will do.
He calls back to tell me Warren Buffet should have married his wife sooner. He’ll be ninety next week. All I’ve got is money. She must not have wanted to waste her death. I glance out the window en route to my room. His doctor hadn’t told him. I drive the two of us at top speed out of town, despite the ice, and the ice coming down. How many more ovens could she buy with the entire estate? The ground is right there, the dirt of it against the back of a barn. I’m giving it to her, no problem, said Dad. Think about it. All the women you have any contact with are single women with children, I say, is that a coincidence? The witch and my brother are in it together. We ring the doorbell, something I’ve never done before. I park in his driveway and file into his office behind him. But all that comes out of my mouth is a story about how, in a blizzard, in an airport without money, I wake him with a call for help and he says find Travelers Aid and I say you are Travelers Aid and he laughs. The witch has bathed him with a bottlebrush, or at least a wash rag on a stick for the crevices, and all the while he imagined her hand on him like this. By then we had children, so we had some insight: the raising is hard. Last year when a journalist came to interview me for a local magazine, Dad wouldn’t stop talking. No, I am sobbing. There’s a glow on my phone but I don’t check it. I propel him forward, past the sprays of an offending sprinkler. – that she never wanted us. It promises another lightning-hit of lawyering that will zap me into debt hell. So appropriate: the scene of our retreat. Since no one talks to anyone now without legal counsel, who knows what she did to forfeit her now completely redecorated house.
Not long after this, I tell an audience everything I know about a famous dead writer they love, and how I am like the dead writer and deserve the same love. His father distributed all of his estate to each of his children and then committed suicide. Divorcees don’t merit big rocks. Fuel for ourselves is also necessary – someone must call lawyers or decide not to, someone must make new plane reservations so we can leave sooner. Nice, I say. He wasn’t someone who came to the prom and took pictures, or even to graduation, but he’d slip you a fifty on your way back to campus, he had someone order cakes for everyone at Christmas. I can’t not live with Dad, I have custody. I make them laugh but I only sell three books. I was amusement for the evening, a chance encounter. Don’t take anything your dad says after seven seriously. When it was time for a picture, he stood in front of me.
A psychologist is to decide whether Dad is demented and needs custodianship or not. The witch’s arrival is imminent, she likes to control his every waking moment. He woke me at three a.m. But neither does Dad. When our mother died and left nothing but a single token coat to one sibling, so we would know that she hadn’t forgotten the possibility of bequeathing, we were not surprised. She refuses, but keeps the money. I try the knob on the closet door that is locked. It is three days before my sibs and I are going to sign an irrevocable trust that divides everything equitably. No lights, I say, no lights. You can keep on suing. It’s hard to shake hands with a guy in a straitjacket, let alone hug him hello, I say to my sister on the phone the week before we arrive for his big birthday party. Dad knows immediately what the papers are about. Too much drama already.
I smile at him at breakfast but he just eats his bacon. he says. She cut him off when he began a speech about how she’s taking all his money. What about coming to New York for New Year’s? I’ll bet some of them have parents who want to keep everything too, both money and love. A bellyache of his could get a guy more jail time, he told us after he retired. But Dad, we say, why not just hang them back up? I take a few steps past him. I email and text my brother, I telephone and no one picks up. I get offers all the time, at least once a week. It takes until the birds return to the tree to get him going again. I guess I’d feel sad if she didn’t say yes, he says after the robins fly off. The town has cut down all the trees to make the park easier to mow. Get out of the house, he shouts. They’re not handy. Unless you and her sisters send me a few more to review. Not that he’s checked them. He’s finished, but eyeing my fries as if they have just fallen off his plate. I never went for a ring. It’s something more complicated now. Other sibs’ excuses, she tells me, are not as lame as mine. Nowhere, he answers. Dad doesn’t laugh. That will give him time for a good nap. He fires her anyway when she won’t help him go to a pawn shop to buy another gun. Miles later, we breakfast in glamor, eggs benedict, while Dad’s cell phone rings through every chew. The siblings smile at me. She insisted, as soon as we were old enough – is there an age? That’s when we started to seriously visit. Okay, if we can’t have love, we want the money. After we return for our shift, we discover I am released. For we must eat. He looks in fine health. About my brother he says nothing, but about the witch he says, what about her references! She cleans the house, he says. If the witch shows up at the birthday party, she will be difficult. You’ll have to get that fixed, I say, about the crack. But he hooks a chairback under the door knob. When he wakes up, it’s the first thing he sees. You can’t just take him.
A week after the birthday, we lawyer up. Did Dad forget that he gave her the key?
We’re sitting on the grass under the shade of a light pole on day twelve. Or it will be in the morning. I say when we pass the kitchen. We are not sniveling adolescents, but the knowledge that someone you’ve loved for so long is not enamored with you makes a person rethink themselves. Not to mention quick on the fabrication. I whisper-shriek. Adult Protective Services hauled her off about a month ago as a result of alienation from my brother. She’ll put you in a home and leave you there. By moving things around, the witch puts him out of control, off guard because what he sees is no longer familiar. We haven’t spoken since the custodianship struggle, a long time for our previous close-knittedness, sharing every Christmas for half a century and more.
At five a.m.
Finally, the party. You get to fly away; you deserve airports like that. The sheriff brings him home, sputtering and furious. Heaves of sobs and tears but not too many, I am too angry. A day later, I receive an email from that friend’s sister-in-law saying the witch was fired for seducing the husband. You know, she says, turning to me, I’ll take just the house. The legal industry is all about trust, the point of having lawyers is to enforce it. The sheriff smiles, says he’s never seen anybody as gentle as I am, explaining why temporary custody is important and necessary and can’t be avoided. The sudden redecoration of his house at great expense also caught our attention. It is eleven p.m.
In the morning Dad announces to me and the rest of the assembled family that he’s suing us with all the money he makes from the family farm, every one of us will be sued for not letting him sell our shares, making us pay lawyers that only he can afford.
Outside my apartment I watch people cross the street. She lays rubber leaving. I stare at the reproduction of a Wyeth behind his head, the one where the crippled woman has a long way to crawl to get to the farmhouse. Then he’s onto his kidney again, complaining about our lack of compassion. Begging your pardon, he says, but not taking it back. The caregiver you took to Alaska? Surprise! Where are you off to, anyway? He says put them in the bank vault if they’re so valuable.
It is not the money we bemoan. Another good excuse to rest, he says, and he leans against its bark.
Soon enough my brother’s wife kneels in front of my father. I make an excuse. We ride five minutes in the ambulance. It’s not that the witch won’t give it; she says she doesn’t have it, says my sister. She’s good with a razor. The witch answers, sees the sheriff, skitters elsewhere. Dad says his heart hurts him. Because I love you, she answered. There’s a locked closet. My father has color brochures made to sell the farm, and then drops them in a wastebasket. We talk about robins. Check him into the hospital the whole weekend before the party, I tell her. I grow up in that lawyer meeting, the little shoot blossoms and seeds and droops, shucked the infantile and its gurgle of Daddy. It’s not like I do, I say back. Take me for a ride, he tells Phil. No one has it in them to cook or shop or worse, leftover-up a meal. What she puts in their places you can buy by the lot. Mom kept a lot of stuff on display so it’s hard to keep track. Of course we sensed the vague outlines of something like this before, we say in the car after lunch, going back to the house where we grew up, where we will pack for a hotel or a plane as soon as the party is over. Several of us will have to take out loans. Made you strong, he says from his seat on the dais and the audience – all of them thinking they know everything about everyone – they think the story is so funnyYou kids don’t live here anymore, their laughing suggests. She says, you two are so funny. But what if what’s missing is stolen? We gave her the name after we accused Dad of being bewitched. I have to go to the post office, I say, and do you need anything mailed? He doesn’t move fast enough for her. I’m not as shocked as I might be, seeing him looming out of the dark of the audience. It was one of the many times he called the ambulance to pick him up. He’s got the money to buy a new one, but not even quack doctors in Asia will take an order – he’s tried online. She knows Dad won’t say anything, that I’m the only one who cares. Later, I’m called a kidnapper by my brother, but during the flight and a week of theater and suppers and naps, our father behaves like a kid and enjoys it. His charm is bifold – that is, he expands it to cover the moment. I am angry he’s not defending me, but if I scream for him Dad might do something worse. I remember to breathe.
It’s a month later and the witch doesn’t turn Dad’s car into the driveway until four p.m. I’m surprised he agreed to the trip, but then there’s nothing like sneaking around, being the center of attention. The guys who cut the lawn. When he finds out nothing’s wrong with Dad except sadness, he tells the nurses we’re vultures, we’ve come to take his money when he’s down. I wasted my life, she told us before she died. Half a sandwich later I can almost talk. I’m sure, I say.
He fires the witch the day before his flight back. I could’ve just driven you. I haven’t shaved for two days. My god, he says after the paper is safe inside our lawyer’s briefcase, a couple of days ago, I almost died from those pills your sister-in-law said I had to take. Also she’s been arrested for shooting without a license. He says that will make it dull. What’s a sister for? I open the paper between us and read out the headlines.
When I get back, Dad is sleeping in his La-Z-Boy, his necktie curled in his fingers and his collar open. He doesn’t trust me to tie his shoes. Dad and my siblings are lined up inside this faux barn, waiting to order. Where does he think she is leading him when she takes him by the hand? That’s a hint, he says.
My sister, who shows up next, can’t find the painting. Neither does my brother show up. I needed it more myself: Dad flicks on my light at three a.m., holding a long kitchen knife. They have all had their audience and resemble me in my extreme state, variously affected, although not sobbing outside the barn, which I do not admit to. I’ll die happy I tried, says Dad. Why do I think the end is all hearts and flowers when I know the beginning – the birthing at least – is agony, and it’s only in the next few post-partum weeks that you are are blessed with hormonally-induced love and sleep-deprived obedience. I’ve always thought of ‘will’ as a promising verb, I sigh into the phone, not this noun that has to be forever babysat. I am surprised by that too, if his goal is really romancing the woman. A year earlier, we were so happy to have the witch as an aide, as thick-hipped, godawful ugly-mouthed, -faced, and -handed, as she was. Still, we know someone is skulking. Across from me is Dad. He’s writing a check to the doctor for a hospital that needs a new wing. Transplants, he repeats in case I think he’s talking about some other kind of plant. Dad stops. He says everything is fine. Emergency greets him like an old friend; they have his room ready. She begs me to fly in early and spell her, but I can’t. You don’t check out our library books, pump our gas, eat our apple pie. I take half a sleeping pill instead of worrying, I save the other half to give to my sister at the birthday party. Dad grunts as if he hears them. Caregivers like to tease, what else do they have to do? Even I know that dementia is peek-a-boo, that symptoms can be suppressed. What if she doesn’t take the ring?
At daylight we look at each other standing in the hallway with our bags and our half-made reservations. The lawyers have discovered my father has tax problems, and the signing will eliminate them, thus no love will have to be lost or extended. We count heads: it’s not the buxom food taster, though her job depends on her being sharp as her knives, not the squishy middle girl, not the clipped-clawed lady lawyer who always wants advice, not the dashing brother smooth as butter. They’ll be here in the morning? Let’s go back to your room, I say. It was on one to Alaska that no one had known about, after Dad came down with a 105 fever and had to be airlifted to a hospital, that worry began to surface. He hates trees, and he can still tell you where to turn in the middle of a snowstorm. She’s packed none of his medication. Even if the sandwich were other than tasteless, it’s not really eating. It was a sign he was sick, Dad insists. Such a thing could happen with leakage from a bad kidney, I say. All that time in the past we were puppets, charmed by this pretend Dad schtick into taking the roles of multiple pie-maker, clucking watchmen and harried caretakers, co-workers at his mercy, without the benefit of love or money. It’s a real park though – there is a big public waste container to one side of the pole. Dad’s frowning, silent, standing with the knife at his side as if that’s what you carry with your pajamas, as an accessory.
Photograph © Payton Chung He turns to my husband and tells him how he’s beating the sorghum market. Stinks up the place, says Dad, inhaling its perfume. I can never find them, he says. You’d better practice, I say, stupidly egging him on. I stow the ring back into its box. Our thin wallets will not expand like arteries, no. I mean, says the man who has interrupted his troweling, the implement wet and cement on his pant leg, you weren’t in church yesterday. As a toddler our mother spooned phenobarbital into him to calm him, a nice barbiturate. My brother moves away and leaves my father to manage the farm all by himself. My heart, my heart, he’d insisted. This is love kicked out. I remember patting the top of Dad’s head at the hospital in an attempt at consolation, flattening his few fine wisps of hair to his pink skull. I know one of the caregivers will return in twelve hours, so her vigil will be a kind of late summer thriller deadline where helicopters should be hovering. You watch your step, she snarls. I hear noise and find the sheriff in the kitchen. The witch goes off to make his bed. Instead, my sister and I decide to Nancy Drew the situation but we have to wait until the witch exits. My husband, who does not like the sound of the ‘birthday surprise’ Dad has hinted at, has accompanied me. The next day I don’t spend half the afternoon making Dad meatloaf, I buy frozen. Can’t you fit that in the dishwasher? Despite having had a bad heart for the past twenty years, Dad yells and hangs up when I hesitate to swap his kidney for mine. I buy a poster at the museum I visit to clear my head. His secret must pour energy into him like a regular pep pill. She’d look good in a bathing suit, says Dad, raising his glass to the pool.
Dad could have just been a guy who had a lot of sex with my mother and made money, the man who bragged to his friends that he did not pay for my education or my wedding. He’s sweeping his hand out over the lawn-green perspective, so staid and kept, and shouting: So what if I don’t go to church now and then? I’m just about dead. Where are they? We can go. I know plot, which is just a shortened form of ‘conspiracy theory’. I am calm, and then I am not. I think delivering that talk will be the hardest part of the gig but in the very back row of the audience sit my brother and Dad. I will sue you right into the grave and beyond. I ask, endeavoring to talk away the slowness of our progress, struggling to make the question sound interest-free. I whisper, out of eye range if not ear, since Dad’s volume is way up on his hearing aid. How are you feeling about this kidney problem? We were gone after he became a judge, when he boasted about reading the fine print, when to fight, how long people could take it. But he did feed us. The place looks like an institution, she says. I say from under the covers. I see, I say, watching him move. This is what I suggest to my sister when she calls with her discovery, and all the other new changes. He doesn’t say dementia.
It does seem as if my brother is in cahoots with the witch, because when I suggest, in deference to visiting small grandchildren, that misplaced and relocated furniture be moved, she calls him and he calls us and threatens to beat up anybody who moves anything. Sell it at a yard sale. He writes a prescription for a strong anti-psychotic that Dad must take, or must be persuaded to take, regardless of its effect on his heart. I ask. Quip is his best weapon, quick quips that show that even he, with so few hairs still screwed to his head, is still present and accounted for. I hide in the bedroom at the other end of the house while my sister talks him down, tucks him in, turns off his light. But what if she says no, I say again, hauling him and myself off the floor in a fit of laughter. When it comes time to sing the required praises after our paid-for dinner of fish or beef, and no other sibling will approach the podium, I stand, because who am I except the eldest and noisiest? Stop making excuses, my husband says from the kitchen. She comes at eight in the morning, he says with a grin. After he’s bedded and the TV is blaring, we set to work on the hinges with a screwdriver. I can see the flight in all of them: four around the booth and a fifth flown to the bathroom to tidy up. Tell him it’s his kidney, I suggest. He could beat me around the block now. I throw in my highest card: there’s a bar that specializes in bowl games from the Midwest. He tells her to hide not just the guns, but the knives too. he asks. We could be dogs, ripping up the grass to vomit. He just looks sly when I ask. We have searched for him at the bank, the drive-in, the library, the car wash, even the cemetery. He wishes Dad no other way. What’s going on? That they should have traveled three hundred miles to hear me extoll the details of my upbringing in parallel with that of the famous author: a Latin teacher who also had many siblings, and lived under the same land and sky as me, is surprising. Femaled, says Dad. Single women? The witch gives two-hour baths with salts and then powders his toes. A rifle with a scope, three shotguns, a handgun and a revolver. I move not too quickly toward the drapes under the bright light, I open them to the black outside and I point, They’re almost done. It’s bad enough she has a gun, I say to Dad, but he’s not interested. She has six ovens and has plans for more. Hours into the negotiations, I burst into sobs at the mediator’s strongly advised suggestion of our meeting with Dad, individually, to apologize for having tried to deprive him of power. The sheriff won’t let us serve the papers alone. Why didn’t you wake me? Dad dials the ambulance. He plants his feet firm and looks around. My sister flies home two days early. I make an eye-rolling sound, a smothered chuckle. She says it’s even harder to do it when you’re bleeding from an ice pick wound or while he’s stabbing you with scissors. the next morning, there’s an ambulance at the door. Love kicks in.
His doctor, the one my father is giving a wing to, my brother’s friend, says my brother has to leave his own home and come live with us. He’s smiling, giving us this news. Why the hell wouldn’t she? It’s a phase, says the doctor. I think I can speak for my siblings in this. Diseases of the heart run in the family (isn’t that Dad’s real problem?) but now is the self-erasing moment, the tack of pleasure, the tasteless potatoes-and-grease taken into our mouths like a sacrament. It’s territorial.
At the signing, each faction has its lawyer or lawyers, six altogether, and we all sit in separate rooms with our wants and our needs, with a mediator flitting between us, our pens ready for autographing our part of the paper that says it’s a trust that we’re sealing. The doctor coming in late admits at last, sotto voce, Dad’s only a little demented, no problem. She smoked too much to use her ivory cigarette holder often, she loved good clothes and food, but only for herself, taking after her mother, who ate a chop every night cooked just for her.
Home again, Dad wakes two hours earlier than the night before. The witch would flip out. So what if he’s a person and not the god I remembered? You sound like a damn shrink, says Dad. He says no to cream and no to blueberries. Who is, at heart, at fault? I didn’t okay this, says Dad and the witch frowns, calls up our brother, the one who hired her. Nevertheless, my sister-in-law is unhappy. What’ll it be next time, I don’t say, an arm, a ventricle, my synapses? She takes him anyway, and an extra shirt. I’m writing an editorial for the newspaper all about it. Not the one who took the money.
Then there’s his birthday party. I’m flattered, says Dad, to be thought alive. I explain until I turn blue, my father enjoying my struggle, while the sheriff and his sidekick stand in the hall, their hands on their holsters. It’s not like you don’t love him, says my husband. You were a grass widow that last time, Dad says, eyeing the break in the sidewalk’s cement he’ll have to negotiate. He pretends to perk up when really he’s been thinking about this since I arrived. Am I having these thoughts? My brother or the witch? She could be teasing you. They keep track? Fries arrive. Why? I jump at a grasshopper that pings the car between tombstones, I eat chips, chocolate, cherries with pits, then burritos at Dad’s favorite cafe, sitting in the back by the dishwasher, but he doesn’t show up to take a seat, and afterwards, driving and parking down the street, my husband doesn’t nap, a feat of unusual vigilance. He is not delighted that we have recovered the paintings. It features the Jetsons, the whole family picnicking at the beach with an atomic bomb exploding in a pink and orange background. Five paintings, stacked. To drive me away. He loves having her this close, he’s told me, tying the tie. I take a sip, you’re not supposed to do this with beer, but I can hardly open my mouth, trauma has frozen it shut. The sheriff shakes his head as if there’s something wrong with his hearing, not Dad’s, and leaves. There’re already seven of us to consider in this as a noun. We were fed; that was costly. Who? Although good isn’t the word I’d use in this instance. I smile back, but they are nonetheless grim in their rictus, in their I’ll have the fries. Demented? What about the guns and the knives? We make a plan. Her mistake is trying to reason with him. How else could you endure it? he says to me from his bed, where four pocket knives lie open beside him and the big one now peeks out of his covers. Who is that white-headed fool at the end of the bed looking down at me? is how the youngest, the cleverest, copes with his question.
My husband is sitting up, the light on, when I get back. Dad says the painting’s in the basement but it’s not, says my sister. It’s not just sibling rivalry but paternal – I could have been an artist if I hadn’t been a parent. A cowboy Patterson. A week later, after enduring more raging and my sister-in-law’s begging, she recants her diagnosis, she tells the judge there’s no problem. So why do I think he owes me now? I say. I’m driving him home from the ash of the bonfire when he says he has something very important to tell me. The lawyer says wait four hours for them to return him. Dad thinks that is so unlikely it’s hilarious. He can’t get his credit card number right. I’m mad. I say Dad is sick, he’s the one who should be taken care of. I’ve tried. They don’t even live here, he says, as if here’s the purgatory he has to put up with. Two scotches later, we inspect his indoor pool: a long crack in the dry cement at one end, leaves from the house next door at the bottom of the other. Just in case. The paper Dad holds at the door proclaims that my brother has what I had. I mean nothing to Dad; that is the revelation. That’s what Dad wants. No one is supposed to eat them. If he doesn’t have dementia, this photo would trigger it. I have always been free of those debts: I went to whatever school I could pay for and married more than once anyway – I was free, free to live my own life and not obey him, that first tenant of fealty between children and parent. Although Dad says no to the doctor, I am not, her begging works. It’s nothing special, a catch in the middle of the chest where, over and over, I forget to inhale. The witch is wiping the counter where she’s spilled medicine. He takes a seat behind the big cluttered mess of a table I always winnow when I show up, and I take the crying seat, where clients of his used to lay out their legal problems. putting a hat over his grizzled hair, finding his jacket. I gave them life, he says. He turns up the volume on Dad’s phone while Dad says, Don’t you think my kids ought to be happy with life? I drop it on my sister’s, who is directing my twisting. After my speech, I cheek-kiss both of them in the half dark of the auditorium, and hold my Dad’s hand while he tells anyone nearby I am his eldest, as a way to take credit for my talk. Where’s the ketchup? As a father, maybe he fell out of practice. Call the contractor, says Dad, throwing up his hands in excitement. He leaves messages with my sibs, with parallel results. Dad hates thieves. An old lady like me in a squat? He doesn’t give me time to take out a handkerchief. I finish the drink in my hand. Then I do a little more research: her sisters have sued her over the custody of her own father. Maybe the library would like the money. Rebuffed but still signed in, he shops for a bride instead. She knows nothing about a key. Who would be the recipient of this aforementioned flashy diamond? What do I know? I do and one is from a school friend of mine who is dead. I guess, says Dad. He doesn’t say if it’s murder or suicide he’s worried about. She is upset, her face red, her wiping wild. You’ll just stain it, she says, buttoning all those buttons, fetching the tie. Dad says, No visitors at all, not even him. He hires a substitute farmer. What the witch has hung in its place is a reproduction of a powerboat, v’s of gulls overhead, water plowed, framed by the lighter wallpaper that screams gone behind it. A lot of robins out tonight. I’ll bet you’re scared. Beside the powerboat is a photo of Dad, newly taken. My brain veered into paranoia: they were ambushing me, trying to rattle me into incoherence, which would not only ruin the evening but derail my career and force me to give up being an artist. To drive me crazy, says my sister. He blurts out that he wants me to return all the corporate shares of his family farm so that he can give the proceeds to ‘single women with children’, clearly a category all his various caregivers fit in to, or give it to his alma mater, or else to the witch even if she is fired. Dad’s chicanery turns him suddenly shy and he doesn’t say more. It is a restaurant but also the site of slaughter, I pass a corral of cows to the right of the door purported to be organic, mouthing what looks like rubber. I am not Dad’s favorite author. We get it now – we’re not getting anything from either of them. Her shirt is buttoned too, but not quite to the top, and when she leans down to clip his suspenders in place, he must have seen darkness. Okay? Says it helps him remember where he is when he can see the tree. She tells their friend, the doctor, that Dad is now truly demented and needs stronger medication immediately. I’m bad-backed but I swoop down and trap the little glitter in my fingers like an insect. My husband’s nursing his half of the beer in a glass in the dark inside. Those people like to crack heads. Incest is like asking for a kidney, I say. And my brother will still keep the farm, so he gets twice as much as everyone else. I find his medication, let the dog out, take his blood pressure and pack food, as if he’s going to camp. He takes his time and naps while we wait in our rooms for hours. Yet I shiver. I almost said I would, just to get some sleep. Dad rubs his grizzled face.
At seven, my brother’s at the hospital. How tall is the corn? I can see her through Dad’s French doors, which she has slammed shut and locked. Temporary temporary custody, my brother reminds me. Starvation is possible and Dad must be fed. We know how to cook, we tell her. Demented is not the diagnosis my brother wants, given the timing of the gift of his new farm. You can do that, he says. Look at how spry he is! At least the witch doesn’t show. The night before, loping down the grand staircase of the hotel to get toothpaste from the gift shop, I spotted his back and my brother’s, the two of them checking in at the front desk. We have to pay for the whole of our town to feast at this party, his new idea, although he’s the only one who can afford it. He refuses to hire a second person for her days off, nobody should interfere with her care of Dad. This lack of light makes it dicey when it comes to the actual removal of the door, at least in the avoiding-dropping-it-on-our-toes part.
Soon Christmas is upon us, the season of giving and giving up, of abandoning all hope, of realigning oneself with one’s relatives. It turns out that already one sibling out of the seven has been quizzed by Dad about why she’s shown up. You know what he said when I suggested someone polish the silver? I look back, and the neighbor is just now retreating with his trowel. Bare walls. The bane of capitalism, let alone the socialism he says we are always going on about. I’m sorry, I have custody, I tell her at the door. Hi, Dad, I say. They’ll be here again in the morning. Did you ask her for a key? Head bowed, still sobbing, I run from the room to the car on the tarmac. I pat her arm as if it’s an appendage I’ve never noticed before. Why haven’t I heard about this power problem before? We can’t disagree; we’ve already put it on our cards, assuming reimbursement. He put his money into transplants. Why are they so special and not me? So? I’ve found one beer in the fridge of the lake house we’re waiting in until it’s time for the dawn drive to the airport, the house the brother installed a new lock on that we had to jimmy open. We use a headlamp to do it because if he sees the light on, he’ll insist on us turning it off, to save electricity. They work in tandem, their numbers flashing on the marquee of the phone that Dad doesn’t answer. Rather than interviewing me like she has the other sibs, the psychologist tells me my brother has been raging at her, hearing her diagnosis of mere intermittent dementia, and what am I going to do about this rage? I tell my sister there’s no future in the verb at all anymore, and dead air hangs on the phone, deader than before. After four hours, the lawyer says Call the sheriff. She’s half your age. Then at three a.m., I’ll climb into bed with her. We’re in a movie stakeout but the plot has faltered, the suspense has sagged, but then –
I call the sheriff to tell him Dad’s getting out of his pickup. Well, I say, the way the incriminated do. After spotting my Dad and my brother checking out, I spend two hours with new lawyers. And she’s taken down the drapes. Now no one has custody. To be fair, she did take him to music nights at the cafe, put in a first-rate sit-down shower, baled his hay for fun, and did not balk at going on a cruise with him to anywhere. You didn’t give me everything. I’ll show them the flames of hell. The morning after my talk Dad doesn’t come down to breakfast. You’ve got plans, I say. He’d endure a week of formal dress to get her breasts to almost touch his chest like this. The sheriff understands. He seems to have forgotten about his kidneys. All this nice warm rain, like piss. We are not clear of the opening when the neighbor calls from out of its recesses: I thought you were dead. I must have gotten misty in the brain when I flew out to help him every few months, cooked his meals, drove him around and played hand after hand of gin rummy. She keeps Dad out of my brother’s hair; he is, after all, the one who lives here. It’ll only take a table knife or a credit card. He doesn’t like the food at the hospital.
By the time we wend our way there – rising at five a.m., driving to the airport, waiting on the tarmac for an hour, flying four hours, deplaning to wait four hours for a shuttle that drops us off at a truck stop four hours later, then driving to the pre-birthday party family picnic and bonfire at the lake house – I am not prepared for family revelation. Four thousand dollars, he says, cracking the jeweler’s nut of a box hard with his fingers until it opens and the ring flings itself into the adjacent grass. But Dad, we say, we’ve spent all of last year taking care of you in rotation, leaving our jobs and children and responsibilities, and staying with you like nursemaids, preventing the witch from robbing you blind. Knowing Dad’s penchant for weapons, I say, okay, I say fine. Trust? And Dad would back her up. I flat-hand myself to standing and wipe my face dry. My husband and I have waited hours parked down the street. Don’t bother getting too comfy. He says Warren Buffet didn’t buy corn this year. I let the beer in, that’s about it. She could have her own boyfriend, I say.
In the morning Dad is angry about the unhinged door. I ask Dad. The not-dead Dad, the zombie Dad, filled with demented fury – is it possible I would miss him sitting there with a newspaper unfolded in front of him, across the veldt of hotel dining? Nice of you to notice, says Dad, shoving his feet forward. I couldn’t get my cell phone to work, says Dad. No laugh. I am too damaged to kneel at the feet of the patriarch.
We are ungrateful and unworthy, Dad is telling us, beaming as if he’s just discovered the true meaning of being a parent. He is so thrilled he falls asleep before she does up his shoes. My husband is pretending to be asleep in the other single bed. He likes to rage. He says, Call the cops, if that’s what you think. I paid your airfare, he says.