m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Return to the Table of Contents.
(The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)


I HAVEN'T been to the hospital for three years. It's a sprawling Victorian setup, half closed now that a new hospital has opened in town. The main building, with its crenellated clock tower, is perched on a hill overlooking landscaped gardens and rolling fields. The lawns are neat, but the flower beds are empty mounds of earth. When I was still living at home, before college, this is where my father taught me to drive. The quiet roads were good for practicing maneuvers -- parallel parking, emergency stops -- but we still ended up in a shouting match every time I ground the gears or clipped the curb. He was always whining that I took the speed bumps -- "sleeping policemen," he called them -- too fast. I creep over them now.

The door to my grandmother's ward has two handles, one in the usual place and the other about a foot from the top. My father grasps both and turns them together.

Inside, we find her in a corner of the lounge, so shrunken and slumped that I hardly recognize her. Her head lolls back against her chair, too heavy for her creased, deflated neck, and she peers at us damply from hooded eyes. We pull up chairs, and my father takes her hand. He talks to her, just nonsense really, the noises you'd make to a baby, and while he talks, he rubs her hand. When she drools a little, he wipes her face with his handkerchief. He tweaks her nose when he's done, and the old lady smiles vaguely. I look at her other hand where it lies in her lap, but I don't take it.

I wish he wouldn't treat her like a child.

"Here," my father says to her. "How about a banana?" He pulls one, like magic, out of his pocket. It looks strange in the ward, bright and exotic, and I remember his telling me once that they had bananas only for Christmas when he was a boy. He peels it carefully and offers it to her, but her eyes are unfocused. My father touches it to her lips, and when her mouth stays closed, he rubs the tip of it back and forth -- I want to tell him to leave her be -- until she opens wide. Her lips close on it, sucking, and he twists it gently to break off a piece in her mouth. Slowly, absently, she begins chewing, and I look away.

By the door is a white board where the nurses write messages. "Today is Sunday, March 10," it reads. "It is a cold, wet day."

"Promise me," my father says, "if I ever get like this, you'll do me in. Knock me on the head or something."

He looks at me as if it's a dare, and I stare back at him.

"Oh, right," I tell him. "No bother." And then, "Do you ever wonder how it makes me feel, your asking that?"

"You'll thank me," he says with sudden heat. "You don't believe me? Listen." He lowers his voice. "I wish my mother would die. D'you hear me? I wish my own mother would die. How d'you think that makes me feel?"

He turns back to her, and I watch him stroke her cheek. He calls her "pet," and she bends her head to his touch.

"Oh, stop looking so worried," he tells me, glancing over. "I'll be gone long before that. My old fella had a heart attack before he was fifty-five."

I called my father on his birthday last year and asked him how old he was, and he told me: "Sixty." For a second I thought he was pulling my leg.

My grandmother has fallen asleep. Her head rolls, her mouth falls open, and a ball of chewed banana drops into her collar. My father picks it up daintily in his handkerchief, sees me watching, and pretends to toss it my way. I flinch but don't smile.

"Why do you carry on, then?" I ask him. "Keep coming all these years?"

"Because." He shrugs and then, to her, he starts to sing very quietly from The Wizard of Oz."Becoz, becoz, becoz, becoz, be-coz. What else can I do?"

When he decided she couldn't get on by herself anymore, she came and lived with us for a few months, but she would forget where she was, get angry, storm out, get lost. He thought she'd walk through plate glass, burn the house down, get hit by a car. ("All the things I used to worry about happening to you when you were a youngster," he told me once.) When he first moved her here, he wouldn't let my mother or me visit for a couple of weeks.

Now, getting up stiffly, he says, "I just want a word with the nurses before we're off. Keep an eye on her, eh?" I make as if to tip my chauffeur's cap, but I feel uneasy alone with her.

I remember a visit, eight years ago maybe, when I was still learning to drive. He told me to wait outside in the car, the old Cortina, while he said good-bye. I watched him in the rearview mirror as he came out to the car. I remember seeing him struggling with the handles on the door and hurrying across the parking lot. When he got in, he told me to get going. I still had to think about everything then: starting the engine, giving it gas, putting the car in first, balancing the clutch. When I was ready, I checked the mirror. There wasn't another car in sight, but I wanted to make all this second nature before the test. In the mirror I saw my grandmother at the window of the ward. I thought for a second she was waving, and then I saw her hand turn white as it struck the glass.

"Come on," my father said tersely. "Stop messing about."

I signaled, revved the engine, lifted the clutch, and stalled the car. The hand brake was still set.

"Christ!"

I went through it all again: put the car back in neutral, turned the ignition. This time I didn't look in the mirror and remembered to release the brake, but the car still jerked, roaring, out of the car park. "Of all the half-arsed -- " My father pulled on the hand brake with a tearing sound and shoved me out so that he could take over.

When I look up now, my grandmother is staring at me. She's breathing hoarsely, making sounds deep in her throat. I'm about to get a nurse when she says, "Don?" My father's name.

"He'll be right back, Gran," I tell her, raising my voice a little. I look away in the direction he's gone, but I don't see him, and when I look back, she's still staring at me.

"Don?" she says again. "Donald?" and at last I take her hand and tell her, "Yeah." She falls asleep like that, her hand in mine. The skin is loose on her bones, wrinkled and liver-spotted, but disconcertingly soft.

When my father comes back, he asks me if I'm ready, and then he sees me holding her hand and says we can stay for a while, so we do. We're silent, both a little embarrassed. She doesn't wake again, but we watch her chest rising and falling until we take our own breaths in time.

"Was she all right while I was gone?" he asks at last, and I nod. I don't know how to tell him what happened. Not without risking some clumsy hurt. The lie makes me feel as if I've cheated him, as if I owe him something, but at the same time I feel sharply protective. I'm going to have to keep this secret, carry it until he dies. The idea of outliving my father suddenly makes me feel old.

LATER, in the car, he says, "I didn't mean it before." I look over at him.

"About putting me out of my misery and that."

"I hope not."

He reaches into his pocket for cigarettes.

"Would you pack that in if I asked you?" I say.

"Nah." He rattles his box of matches.

"I couldn't have done it anyway."

He grins. "Think I'd have asked you otherwise?"

He lights up, and in the dusk his face flares briefly. I think of the long nights as a kid when I was afraid to go to sleep in the dark, when he'd sit with me after he turned the lamp out, smoking so I'd know he was still there, his cigarette glowing. We had a joke, something we'd seen on TV or read in a comic. When he turned the light off, he'd put on a stern voice, strike a match below his chin, and intone, "The face of tomorrow, today!"

I see a pub on the way back and pull in.

"Want a bevy?" I ask, and he says, "Yeah, all right."

Inside, I ask him what he wants, and he says, "Pint of bitter." And then, "And a scotch, eh? Since you're driving."

When I bring the drinks to the table, he's fishing his cigarettes out.

"You want?" he says, holding the pack out. One is extended.

"All right, then."

I watch him dip his head to light his, the gesture so familiar, and then he holds out his cupped hands, and I bend my face to take the flame.

"Your health," he says, lifting his glass.

Afterward he settles himself in the back seat and tells me, "Home, James."

The online version of this story appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.

Peter Ho Davies teaches in the creative-writing program at the University of Oregon. A collection of his short stories, The Ugliest House in the World, was published last year.

Illustration by Doug Smock

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1998; Today Is Sunday; Volume 282, No. 6; pages 94 - 97.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture