My father was well into his eighties and dying before he told me certain things.
My mother, he told me, had had a nervous breakdown, sometime in 1966, about the time I was due to start junior high. One day she was fine, and the next day she woke up crying and cutting the bed sheets to ribbons with a pair of kitchen shears. The crying he could ignore, my father said, but the shears . . . Well, you never knew what those shears might be aimed at next. Let the Freudians among you think what you will. Have a field day.
"You never knew, did you?" my father said.
"No," I said. I couldn't have been more glum. To be unaware when one's own mother heads off to the loony bin? "Where was I?"
"Camp," he said. My confusion made him happy, of that I could tell. "Three weeks in the beautiful Mojave Desert."
The brochure had promised archaeology, geology, and desert survival skills, but the reality was tube tents, a desert wind that froze us each night, and high school and college-age counselors who lectured us about Marx and Lenin and Mao, then gave us hits off their joints. They turned a blind eye when we got into their stash of Boone's Farm and Ripple. We learned slogans, "Hell, no. We won't go," being among our favorites. I came home with tonsillitis, a hangover, and a revolutionary attitude.
"I came home from Japan," my father said, "when the neighbors started to complain. She was wandering the block in her nightgown. There were the bed sheets. The shears. She had pulled the stuffing out of the mattress. Your mother dropped you off at the YMCA parking lot, and then she went crackers. She didn't like to be alone."
My mother's dislike of solitude was directly related to my father's absences. Absences that, to my mind, were not that frequent or that long in duration, but seemed to my mother to be interminable. "I didn't get married," I remember her saying, "so your father would have a ride to the airport." While my father was gone, my mother bitterly counted the hours. When I was younger, we often spent the nights at my grandparents' house; she didn't sleep well since, without him in our wood frame house, every creak and groan was evidence of burglars and rapists, murderers and thieves. "One of these days," my mother often said, "he's going to come home to the sight of our bloody, dismembered corpses, and won't he feel bad then?" Frankly, I didn't think my father, who was guilty of terminal cheerfulness, was capable of feeling bad about anything, including the deaths of his family, either real or imaginary, whereas my mother was able to feel terrible about everything, including those events confined entirely to her own imagination, a psychic space that was diminished—if only slightly—when she was no longer alone.
My father, on the other hand, never minded being by himself. On several occasions during the three years that my mother was dying, we offered him our spare bedroom, but he declined each time. "Don't think I don't appreciate it," he told Ellen, "but the last thing you kids need is an old fart hanging around, clogging up the sofa, and stinking up the bathrooms."
Ellen and I looked at each other across the kitchen table, connected by our guilt since that was more or less the assessment we had each come to, the offer being made out of assumed obligation more than any true desire. Ellen felt that obligation more keenly, but she was also the more greatly relieved by my father's refusal. She loved my father, she insisted, but he was stubborn and insensitive and a pain in the ass, and if he were to live with us, she'd probably want to kill him about fourteen times a day.
"Don't worry about me," my father said. "I've got ten good years yet, twenty if I follow that dumb doctor's orders, and I don't intend to become a burden."
"All right, then," Ellen said. "I'm going to hold you to it. The moment you need help in the bathroom is the moment I hand you the Jonestown Kool-Aid."
My father, whose cancer would kill him in six more months, said: "And don't think I won't be grateful."
My father was fond of Ellen, and he wasn't shy about telling me I was damn lucky such a fine woman thought me worthy, but he told me about my mother on a night when Ellen was gone, visiting her sister and her sister's demented family in Portland. I had invited my father to dinner, and it was just the two of us. We were sitting outside, drinking a beer, while I burned a tri-tip on the grill. I wondered whose evening would be stranger, Ellen's or mine.
"What I don't understand," I said, "is why your business trips made Mom so nervous."
He shrugged. "Why don't you have kids? What makes you so nervous about giving me grandchildren?"
"When did you ever want grandchildren?" The smoke from the barbecue changed directions, and my eyes began to smart. "I mean really want them."
"A man gets to be my age, he expects to be surrounded by ankle-biters. Maybe you should switch to boxers."
"Dad," I said, massaging my temples, for it had been a long day, and there were stacks of exams on my desk inside, waiting to be graded, "my choice of underwear has nothing to do with our not having children. I'm forty-nine years old, Ellen is forty-one, we have our jobs. We're too old to have children. We've told you for twenty years that kids were not in the picture."
"It's never too late to change your mind. Not these days. I was thirty-two when you were born. Your mother was thirty-six. For our time, we were freaks of nature. Ancient."
"I know how old you were, but that's not the point."
"And what is the point, Mr. Smarty-Pants? People in their sixties are having kids."
"The point is why Mom got so upset every time you had a business trip."
That shrug again. "She didn't like what I was up to."
"Are you telling me you had women in Dayton and Washington, D.C.?"
My father was an electrical engineer whose company held contracts with the Air Force and the Defense Department; his travels were most often circumscribed by the Pentagon and Wright-Patterson, places I didn't associate with extramarital dalliances. At least once a year, men wearing white shirts and skinny ties came to our cul-de-sac, knocked on our neighbors' doors, and asked what they knew of my father's personal habits. Vetting his security clearance. If he'd had affairs—or indulged in any other manner of vice, for that matter—it was unlikely that he'd kept them a secret.
My father sighed. "I never cheated on your mother," he said. "Not that it's any of your damn business. Not really." He sighed once again. "She didn't like the work I was doing."
"You built stuff for the military. I know that. Mom knew that. What was the problem?"
As a lifelong Republican from Ohio, with a mid-westerner's staunch regard for the government, my mother would not have minded the idea of my father sitting across the table from some blue-suited colonel, negotiating a contract for radio-intercept equipment. My father was one of the heroes of the Cold War, if only a soldier of its lower echelons.
"I didn't just build it," my father said, and now he was the one who turned glum. "I didn't just build it; I used it, I tried it out. A few times."
"What are you saying?" I said. "Are you saying what I think you're saying? Are you saying you were a spy? My father was a spy? I mean, Jesus. Building equipment is one thing."
"What?" my father said as evenly as he could. "You think we built it to sit in a box?"
My father rarely appeared to be anything but cheerful or optimistic, a speaker of platitudes and clichés, a pose that often was the source of tension between us when I was a teenager and in the throes of adolescent pessimism and cynicism. "What's the matter with you, Merry Sunshine?" he asked each morning of the year I turned sixteen. Hair askew, fogged with sleep, staring at the Formica of the breakfast table, I could have killed him. He, on the other hand, had been up for hours, using the early morning to be productive. He showered, he shaved, he doused himself liberally with the cologne that, according to my mother, smelled like the underside of a recently employed saddle. And then, he was at the desk in his study by five-thirty, putting in a couple of hours of uninterrupted work before the office and the telephone and the questions of the sixteen junior engineers who were assigned to his different projects and problems. At six-thirty, he took a break to wake me up by turning on the overhead light in my room and doing his best Ed McMahon: "He-e-e-ere's Johnny!" I left the house by seven-thirty, and I counted it a good morning if I could make my escape without encountering him after the breakfast table. That my father, who favored the plaid sports coats of used car salesmen and who laughed as loudly as any Rotarian, might be a spy made no sense. Spies wore black trench coats, they kept their own counsel. They didn't tell Polack jokes or stories about the farmer's daughter. They didn't recite bon mots about the duration of Rome's construction. They didn't have families and a three-bed, two-bath in the San Fernando Valley.
They had gone to Tokyo for a project funded by the CIA, he and another engineer, Ed Huckaby, one of his best friends at work. "It was just an idea I had," my father said, "and it should have worked. There's no reason why you should have to place a microphone inside a room in order to hear what's going on. You have a diaphragm in every window. You bounce infrared off the glass, you get a portrait of the audio inside the room. Ed and I rented an office across the street from the Soviet embassy, and we were just about set up when the call came about your mother."
"So let me get this straight," I said. "You were in Japan eavesdropping, I was in the Mojave getting stoned, and Mom was going nuts."
"Your mother got over it, but that pretty much sums it up."
"Jesus." I turned the meat on the grill.
"Wait a minute," my father said, "who said anything about you getting stoned?"
"I guess," I said, "we all have our little secrets."
My father harrumphed.
"We had a saying in the intelligence-gathering business: 'Secrets don't make friends.'"
"I heard that when I was five," I said, "from my kindergarten teacher."
"Same thing," my father sighed. "Same thing."
In her last years, while her mind lost entire decades of experience, my mother's one enduring memory consisted of abandonment. Her father had died when she was ten, her mother had been distant and bad-tempered ever after, and her older brother and sister had been only too happy to leave an unhappy house. She had come to expect that those she loved were in a constant state of withdrawal, and her marriage had confirmed what she had always suspected—that the more one loved, the more one risked being left behind. When he was fifty-five, after thirty years of business trips, my father's firm reorganized, departments and personnel were shuffled, and my father no longer was required to travel. My mother, however, seemed incapable of believing that the arrangement would last, and even when my father retired five years later, she worried that a call would come, and her husband would be gone. That fear became her overarching concern and then—when my father was no longer able to care for her—realized: he moved her into the Memory Care Unit of the Willow Springs Retirement Center, and following the dinner hour of that first day, he left her in the company of those similarly afflicted. A few weeks later, although she could no longer remember his name, calling him Mel or Tom, Richard or Henry, my mother still fretted over his absence: "Where has he gone to now?"
"Mom," I might say (though she did not know me at all by that time), "he'll be back tomorrow. He visits you every day."
"Oh. He does?"
"Yes. Yes, he does."
Those last years before he moved her into Willow Springs were tough on my father; my mother had become a habitual night walker, and she had been quick to open a door and beat a hasty exit in all kinds of weather. She was looking for my father who was asleep beside her in their queen-sized bed. But he never saw the irony: her great fear of abandonment had given wings to her feet, thus leading to the separation that she feared most of all.
But long before that time came, she grieved my father's absences. Not long before I left home for college, I woke in the middle of the night. A light was on in the kitchen, and despite the fact that the dishwasher had run earlier that evening, I heard my mother hand washing the dishes.
Steam rose from the twin sinks, and despite her sniffling, her movements were abrupt and economical.
"I didn't mean to wake you," she said when she had become aware of my presence behind her. "I couldn't sleep, and the dishes didn't come clean."
"That's okay," I said.
"You think it's silly, don't you?" she said. "Not being able to sleep?"
"Of course you do. No one your age has trouble sleeping. You might have a hard time waking up, but you never have trouble sleeping."
"There are nights," I said. "I don't always get to sleep right away."
"But you get to sleep."
"Then that's a different thing." She rinsed one of our drinking glasses and held it up to the overhead light. "You know, the glasses are clean, but they always look dirty. Soap residue. Minerals. We have hard water. Even when things are clean, they're dirty. Your father says we should get a water softener, but then the tap water will taste like salt. I don't know," she sighed. "It's always something."
"Mom," I said. "The dishes look fine to me."
"You're good company, but you're going to leave home soon. Your father loves me, but he's never here. This is what my life has become: taking your father to the airport and washing dishes that ought to be clean."
I went back to bed, only to be awakened a few hours later when I found myself on the floor as though my bed had spit me out. The house was rocking, and there was a roar like a freight train. My mother met me in the doorway to her bedroom.
"It's an earthquake," she said, and like the true pessimist she was, whose vision of life was confirmed by the absence of her husband and other natural disasters, she added, "only an earthquake." We hugged each other while the house pitched up and down. We could hear the sound of a bookshelf toppling in the living room. Dishes, glassware, and canned goods crashed to the floor in the kitchen. Seconds became a minute or more.
When the house stopped shaking, I thought I knew what Dorothy must have felt when her house finally settled to earth.
"That's it," I said. "Finally."
"You think so," my mother said, and sure enough, a few moments later we felt the first of the after-shocks that would startle us, waking or sleeping, for the next week. "Nothing ever ends quite when you think it should."
"Boy, oh boy," my mother said when we had made our way to the front of the house. "Would you look at this mess?" Nearly every cupboard in the kitchen was empty, spilled out onto the linoleum in a pile of shards and splinters. A pipe in the guest bathroom had broken, and water was running across the hallway. "Your father has a knack, doesn't he," my mother said, "for missing all the good stuff. It's a talent."
She kicked the handle of a coffee mug that was missing its mug. "You better get the shovel."
As a family, we eat our beef rare, medium rare at most, but that night I left the tri-tip on the grill. "Look," my father said, "your mother had a point. I was gone a lot, and she didn't like to be left alone. She didn't like to imagine what I was doing. I knew that, but what was I supposed to do? Quit my job? She complained about my being gone, but she was tougher than she let on. She could rise to the occasion. She could think positive. Before and after her little hospital stay. She was strong, your mother. Don't kid yourself. She was no shrinking violet. Remember the Christmas tree fire?"
One New Year's Eve—as he did every year—my father had cut up the Christmas tree and put it in the fireplace, lit a match and watched the dry pine needles go up like a blow torch. Only to discover this year that the flue was closed. Flames curled outside the brick work and began to eat at the wood of the mantel. While my father wrestled with the garden hose and I tore through the garage, looking for a bucket to dip water from the pool, my mother doused the fire with the drinking water we kept in the refrigerator. She stood in front of our mini-inferno with the old plastic orange juice container and threw water at the flames.
"Okay," I said. "How about the earthquake?"
"How about it?" my father said. "My point exactly. She was a trooper, that mother of yours until she didn't have to be." He cast a critical eye toward the barbecue, where smoke continued to billow. "Maybe I'll take another beer," he said, "since you seem determined to burn the meat."
My father was in the air when the earthquake hit. An early-morning flight from San Jose. From the air, my father said, there was nothing to see that was any different from any other morning. Maybe the freeways weren't as congested as he might have expected. Moments before they landed in Burbank, the pilot made a brief announcement. A six-point-five magnitude quake. The walls of the Van Norman Reservoir cracked. Evacuation planned for a wide swath of the San Fernando Valley. My father picked up his station wagon in the Park-and-Fly lot, then drove home along streets strangely absent of traffic. Signal lights were inoperative for most of the way, and the feeling was apocalyptic. In the meantime, my mother and I had shut off the water and shoveled out the kitchen. She consolidated the perishables in the darkened and warming refrigerator. We listened to a transistor radio and heard the reports that, depending on the damage to the reservoir two miles away, we might need to leave, an announcement which made my mother mutter that this too would be just like my father. While we worked, we saw the strange flashes of blue light as power transformers blew in the neighborhoods around us. We wandered outside to watch the manmade lightning arc across the sky. In the backyard, all of the cinder block walls were leaning or on the ground, and our neighbor's Labrador was cowering under an oleander. The pool deck was wet where water had sloshed out in waves.
"You will remember this for the rest of your life," my mother said. "I will, too. I just won't have to remember it as long."
We listened to the radio and kept to our work. An hour after the evacuation plans had been modified, and our house was no longer considered threatened, my father barged through the door and immediately took inventory.
"All right," he said, "so I see you have things under control."
"Nobody's hurt if that's what you mean," my mother said. "And, it's nice to see you too."
"I got home as soon as I could."
"Isn't that fine," she said and handed him a bucket. "Here. Make yourself useful. Fill the toilet tanks, would you? Thank god for the pool. We may not have running water, but I will not be reduced to going in the bushes."
My father did as he was told. He dipped buckets of water to leave in each bathroom. He set up the camp stove and made us fried egg sandwiches for lunch and root beer floats for dessert. Together we stacked cinder blocks in the back yard.
Around five o'clock that first day, my mother announced that she had a headache; she was going to lie down and take a nap.
"It's been a long day," she said, "and I've had it."
"That's fine," my father said. "That's a good idea. The kid and I will handle things."
"If I feel the ground shake one more time, I'm going to throw up."
"We'll keep things quiet," he said. He handed me a chisel. "Here," he said, "it's time we start learning the fine art of cinder block rehabilitation."
We chipped mortar for a week, and then we rebuilt the walls.
My mother stayed in bed.
"She was fine until I got home, and then she fell apart. Which was better than the time I went to Japan." My father shifted uncomfortably in his lawn chair. "Then, she fell apart the moment we were both gone."
And that was when the phone began to ring. Ellen, calling from Portland and the chaos of her sister's house.
"Have you killed him yet?" she said in lieu of a more conventional greeting.
"Not yet." Through the kitchen window I watched as my father lifted the barbecue cover, speared the tri-tip with a fork and dropped it on a plate. His face betrayed nothing, but I suspected judgment of my abilities behind the neutral mask.
"Did you know the old man was a spy? Sort of a spy. He worked for the CIA once upon a time. Can you believe that?"
"That explains a lot."
"So am I."
"All these years, I thought he was a boring engineer, and then it turns out he was wearing a trench coat all along."
"Jesus," she said. "Did he show you his decoder ring, too?" In the background, I could hear Ellen's sister yelling at her kids. She threatened murder and mayhem, blood and body parts. I could imagine a stampede of nieces and nephews and my enraged sister-in-law chasing them with a pool cue. Ellen breathed into the mouthpiece, and I had the sense that she had pressed herself against a wall until the violence passed. The noise on the other end ballooned and then subsided. "I am visiting the world's greatest incentive for sterilization," she said.
"And get this," I said, "my mother went nuts before she lost her mind."
"Wouldn't you, married to him?"
"Oh, come on," I said. "He's my dad."
"Just because all the skeletons are coming out, that doesn't mean you have to defend him."
"I'm not defending anyone. He deserves a little respect, that's all."
"Okay. Be the good son." Her voice softened. "Talk to you tomorrow?"
"Sure," I said. "I love you." And then—aware that we had nearly overstepped with one another—we both hung up.
Outside, my father was shooing the flies away from the meat, which he had covered with a piece of aluminum foil.
"Don't worry," he said, waving his hand at the plate. "I saved it. But it was a close call."
My father's funeral, like my mother's, was sparsely attended. But my father's memorial was the more curious affair. Whereas my mother's service attracted the women of her church who still remembered her from before Alzheimer's took her away, my father's memorial service was attended by old men in mismatched coats and ties and hair in their ears, the last of his work associates, Cold Warriors of the electronic frontier.
After the service, Ed Huckaby stood near the back, one hundred pounds overweight and sweating in the stuffy reception hall, his face the color of veal. One of the last to make his way through the line to pay his respects, he clapped one meaty hand on my shoulder and guided me toward the coffee urn and the pastries.
"Your father," he said when he had settled his bulk in the plastic folding chair, "was a pain in the ass. But I suppose you know that."
"Yes," I nodded. "I know that only too well."
"Still," he said, "he was your father, right? And there's nothing to be done about that."
"That's true," I said. "Nothing at all. And it's a little late now in any case."
"Your father," he said, "had a lot of ideas. That's what he was good at. Ideas about this and that. That and talking. My god, he could talk all day about nothing, so long as he was excited about it."
"And optimistic," I said.
"You bet. He never believed that things wouldn't get better. Even with your mother. When she got sick, he never believed otherwise. He took her to doctors, he took her to quacks. He kept waiting for her to get better."
"She was terminal," I said, "but he was terminal with optimism."
"And half-baked ideas," Ed Huckaby said. "Don't get me wrong. Your father was a good engineer, but he was a better visionary than he was a mechanic. He tended to break things when we worked on prototypes, his designs were not always in touch with reality. He said goofy things, but every fourth or fifth idea bordered on brilliance."
"Mr. Huckaby," I said, "since we're talking. Can you explain something to me? That summer that my mother went into the hospital, and my father had to come home from Japan.
"What?" he said, genuinely alarmed. "What was this about your mother?"
"My dad told me that he had to come home early from Japan because my mother had something of a nervous breakdown. I was away at camp, and Dad was in Japan with you, and she snapped."
"No! That's what he told you? That your mother was sick?"
"He didn't tell me anything until a few months ago."
Ed Huckaby shook his head. "Shit," he said. "That figures. Pardon my French."
He continued to shake his head, and I thought, Okay, here it comes, this is the part of the story where he tells me that my mother was a cocaine addict or having an affair, that everything I ever knew about my mother and her relationship with my father—but most especially my mother—is completely turned upside down. But nothing is ever completely itself or its opposite.
"Your mother wasn't sick-sick," he said. "She was sick of the situation, sick of being alone. Look at all of these old farts. See the camel hair blazer next to the pastor? That's Guy Beebe—two divorces. Or talking to your wife—Lars Cunningham, no divorces but his wife committed suicide in 1976, on the Fourth of July, no less. She called it her own patriotic sacrifice in honor of the Bicentennial. His daughter has been in and out of rehab so many times, they've reserved a room for her. My wife and I haven't lived together in fifteen years. We do better as guests in each other's houses. You might not think so, to look at us, but we were once a pretty dashing lot back in the day. Eavesdropping by day, drinking by night. That Tokyo trip, now that was a trip. We spent an entire week testing the equipment, then we'd go down to the Ginza, and drink vodka with the same Soviet fuckers we were trying to hear. What a racket. When I wasn't drunk, I was hung over, and when I wasn't hung over, I was drunk. I'd have stayed a month if anyone would have let me.
"Your father was the exception. Your mother called the embassy in Japan, she tracked him down, then started talking divorce since—in her words—they'd been separated for the past ten years. So he hopped the first flight home. He missed it. He missed that Tokyo trip because he was sitting on a plane. He barely left the airport."
But first he sent my mother a telegram. DON'T DO ANYTHING. The first available plane was a milk run, and I could imagine him fidgeting, pacing the aisle between the seat backs, cracking his knuckles and his neck, driving the stewardesses and the other passengers wild. He flew twenty hours from Tokyo to Guam to Honolulu to LAX, then drove straight from the airport to the florist and laid on his own peculiar version of charm and roses, chocolate and persuasion. Engineer amore.
"Your father was embarrassed by the idea that your mother wasn't happy. That she wasn't happy even though he was. He hated the idea that he couldn't fix whatever was wrong. That's what engineers do: they fix things. We might not have anything like an interior life, but we fix the things that we see. Or we try to. He wanted to fix whatever was wrong with her. Or you."
"Sure. He talked about you all the time. He was proud of you, but you were moody and unresponsive. Christ, what else would you be? A teenaged boy. Who ever heard of a teenaged boy who wasn't moody and unresponsive? You drove him nuts."
Ed Huckaby stirred his coffee. "He couldn't fix your mother, he couldn't fix you, and then it turned out he couldn't fix that damn window idea of his either."
"It didn't work?"
"It didn't work. Hell, we picked up more street noise than anything else. We should have seen it coming, don't you think? If a window can be a diaphragm for the interior to the exterior, why shouldn't it go the other way? For that matter, every time the air conditioning went on the walls vibrated so much that it overwhelmed whatever readings we picked up from the window. But that was your father. He sold his share of terrible ideas because he believed every one of them."
Carrying a plastic tub full of unwashed plates and cups and saucers, Gloria Valdivia, the daughter of one of my mother's oldest friends, passed by our table, and Ed Huckaby looked like a man whose sensibilities were being severely tested. One meaty hand rose from the table and fluttered as though to brush a waitress's backside, then came to rest next to his cup and saucer. "Look, I'm not trying to diminish your father in any way," he said. "We did a lot of good work together, and he loved you and your mother. That's all I'm saying."
"And that's good enough," I said.
"It'll have to be," he said. "Won't it?"
The night of our barbecue, my father and I ate in silence. We tried to talk, considering the conversation we'd had on the patio, but topic after topic died between us. We ate our tri-tip, chewing quietly as though we were both deep in thought instead of what we were: two men who had no ideas and no clue what to say to one another.
"You know," my father said at last, cutting the last of the meat on his plate, "medium may be better after all."
"Who knew?" I said.
"Not me," my father said. "After all these years."
"Well," I said, "better late than never."
"And knowledge," my father said, pointing his knife at me, "is power. No matter when it comes."
"But ignorance," I said, "is bliss."
"And that," my father said, "is par for the course."
Although my father hated baseball—too slow, too boring, too passive—I once managed to coerce him outside for a short game of catch after his return from work. Don't get me wrong; we had played catch before, but I remember this evening as being different in some way. Still wearing his dress shirt and slacks, he uneasily donned a glove and chased my errant offerings. I pretended to be my idol, Sandy Koufax, despite the fact that he was left-handed and Jewish and talented, and I was not and not and not. I threw wide, I threw high, I threw balls into the dirt at my father's feet. I was twelve years old and afraid of the ball, so I knew I'd never be much of a batter. But I believed myself promising nevertheless; no one expected pitchers to do anything but cower at the plate.
"You'd do better," my father said, "if you didn't turn your body so much. You stick your leg out to the side like that, and it gets your arm all confused."
"But that's the way the major leaguers do it," I said. "That's the way Sandy Koufax does it. Whitey Ford, Warren Spahn."
My father was unmoved. "You think they know everything? I want to see your left leg come straight toward home plate. It's straight-forward engineering. Forget about kicking it out to the side like that. You look like a son of a can-can dancer."
"But all the big-league pitchers do it," I whined. "Don Drysdale and Johnny Podres."
"I want to see the bottom of your left foot, coming straight for me," my father said.
"Fine." I sulked, then retreated to the line of my imagined pitching rubber and threw the ball in the dirt where it bounced and hit my father in the shin. My second pitch, I threw over his head and into our neighbor's yard. The one with the tangled ocean of ivy and the testy German Shepherd who patrolled the fence line day and night.
"You see?" my father said. "You see that? Now we're getting somewhere. Too high and too low, but at least you're good side-to-side. You only have to work on the up-and-down. Once you find your ball."
"Yes, sir," I said, even though I was already imagining the ball sacrificed for my greater good and my glove stored in the back of the hall closet.
"That's something to work on," my father said, "because Rome wasn't built in a day."
"And patience is a virtue."
"You said it, kid." He handed me his glove to be put away, as glad to be done with our catch as I was.
Don't get me wrong. My father didn't stifle an all-star talent with his uninformed expertise. And I haven't carried around forty years of lingering resentment as a result. What I have carried is a skepticism of unbridled optimism, people with big ideas, and introspection better left for greeting cards and bumper stickers. I have also learned to mistrust such easy skepticism. The night of our barbecue, my father finished his plate, then signaled his readiness to go home.
"I'm bushed," he said, "all done in. I ate and now I'm ready for bed. I won't even offer to help you wash up."
"No problem," I said. "The dishes can wait. I'll grab my keys."
I retrieved his jacket, and he shrugged it on, even though the temperature had not yet dipped below eighty. Outside, the stars were bright in a gassy, inflated sky.
My father settled himself into his seat and fiddled with the seat belt and adjusted the seat back while I drove him the three miles home. "Did I ever tell you what I did the night before I moved your mother?"
"Nope, you never did. More secrets from the former spy." We were stopped outside the door of his condominium. "What did you do the night before you moved her?"
"Wise guy. Maybe this should wait another day."
"No, Pop, I'm sorry. Tell me now."
"You know I never wanted to put her in that place. It was nice enough, but you know what it was like. No matter how clean a place like that is. Shells of human beings. Babblers and dribblers. We watched the news then went to bed about eleven-thirty, and all I can think about is how I'm taking her to hell in the morning. I lay in bed next to her for three hours. I can't sleep. I can't stop thinking. I can't even close my eyes. But I must have fallen asleep after all because the next thing I know is I'm hearing the door chime on the burglar alarm. I wake up and your mother's not in bed with me. I get up, put on my robe and slippers. The front door is wide open. For over a year, your mother hadn't been able to work the shower or the faucets in the sink, but somehow she's managed to undo the lock and the deadbolt and open the door. By the time I get outside, she's half a block away. In her nightgown, of course, with her arms across her chest, practically running down the sidewalk in her bare feet. I'm jogging just to stay behind her. What a pair, we are, in our bed clothes! It's like something out of a dream. Your mother manages the half-mile to the convenience store on the corner. She makes her way around the gas pumps and then goes in the door. I don't have the heart to go in, so I watch her through the windows. It's three in the morning, and the world is asleep or committing crimes, but your mother, whose brain is half gone, is making conversation with the Pakistani behind the counter. Even outside in the parking lot, I can tell she's asking him questions that make absolutely no sense. Where is the birthday cake? Whose car are we taking to the beach? I can read that off the glass. Once her brain started to go, she was always asking these kinds of things. No connection. No context. Completely out of the blue. The poor Paki is looking at your mother, puzzled, as though he's seriously considering an answer.
"When I open the door, he takes one look at my robe and slippers and steps back. I know what he's thinking: it's a slumber party for the nearly dead. Don't worry, I tell him. She's a champion sleepwalker. I'm sorry if we've bothered you. Honey, I say to your mother, it's late and time we were heading home. She starts turning in circles as though she's just now waking up. And then she looks at me. Who are you? she says. Who are you?"
"But you got her home," I said.
"Eventually," my father said. "And then four hours later, I was driving her to Willow Springs. She never forgave me. I know that."
"There at the end, she didn't know she had anything to forgive."
"It's easy enough to rationalize," my father said. He opened his door. "Who are you? your mother asked me, and the problem was I didn't know what to tell her."