ON Sunday I visit my father, the first time since Christmas, and he tells me my timing's bad. He's off to visit his mother in the hospital.
My grandmother's senile, eighty-eight, hasn't recognized anyone for donkey's years, but he still drives the thirty miles to the hospital once or twice a week. He slipped a disc last winter climbing a ladder, and he has a pinched nerve in his back that can double him over. It's bothering him now as he looks for his shoes. He clutches his side with one hand and winces, but when I ask him if he's okay, he says it's nothing.
"It doesn't look like nothing."
"Old age," he says, like it's a war wound, and gives a little groan.
I try telling him it's pouring out and the forecast is for sleet. I ask him to give it a miss this week. I'll make lunch (he pulls a face). There's soccer on the telly. But this is a mistake. He won't put himself first. The old lady, I tell him at last, won't even notice, and he looks at me like I'm a stranger.
"I was just thinking of you," I say quickly. "Christ. Am I not allowed to care?"
He pinches the creases of his trouser legs and tugs them up an inch as he sits to put on his shoes.
"There's a difference between caring," he says, pulling his laces tight, "and carrying on."
I stand over him for a moment. His hair, what's left of it, is salt-and-peppery, but when he straightens up I see that his stubble is coming in pure white.
"At least let me drive you," I say, and he tells me, "Suit yourself."
I make him sit in the back so he can stretch out a bit, and he asks if I'm his bloody chauffeur now. The idea tickles him. He calls me "James." Puts on the posh voice. Gives me a wave like the Queen Mum when I ask him if he's comfy. The whole bit. In the mirror I watch him light a cigarette. He's supposed to have given up. Doctor's orders. Ages ago. I haven't seen him smoke in maybe ten years. He catches me watching him and makes a face.
"Don't mind, do you?" he says, and I tell him, "Oh, no. Course not. Be my guest."
"Champion. Only I remember when you was a lad," he says, taunting now. "You used to make a big song and dance about me smoking. You thought your old dad'd drop dead any second."
"I was a kid," I say. I watch him in the mirror as he takes another drag. He puts his fingers to his lips, palm in, and removes the cigarette. It's a gesture I haven't seen since childhood.
"Asked you once what you wanted for Christmas, and you said for me to give up. Proper whiner, you were."
"Crack the window, would you?" I say. "It was for your own good."
He taps his ash on the window frame and shakes his head. "Selfish," he says. "Spoiled."
"Did Mum know?" My mother died three years ago.
"So what'd you do? Drive out here each week and have a smoke?"
"I think I deserve it," he says.
The car thuds over the compression plates of a bridge.
At a traffic light I turn to him and say, "Give us one, then."
He doesn't know I smoke. Have since school. I think of us before I left home, both sneaking cigarettes under my mother's nose. No wonder we never tumbled to each other.
"So that's how it is," he says bleakly. "Monkey see, monkey bleeding do."
I hold out my hand, but he just looks at it until the lights change.
He blows smoke through his nostrils and smiles, and for a moment he looks young again, the spitting image of the fellow in our old photo albums.
I think of an afternoon in our back garden when I was little. A birthday party perhaps, summer, a bunch of kids, my mother, my gran. He had this trick of keeping a soccer ball in the air longer than anyone else. He'd just stand there on one foot, his thin hips swaying slightly, swinging his leg lazily, back and forth like a pendulum, the ball popping up off his toes. I was dead proud of him. He looked like he could go on forever. Still, the act got boring after a bit. I wanted a turn -- even more, I wanted him to teach me -- but he just kept going as if he were setting some record. In the end my grandmother called, "Give Paul a go, then," but he shook his head. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a packet of fags, drew one out, and lit it -- all without losing control. He puffed away contentedly, grinning around the cig, eyes half closed against the smoke, until all of us were staring at the curving, trembling tip of ash.
Illustration by Doug Smock
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1998; Today Is Sunday; Volume 282, No. 6; pages 94 - 97.
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