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South


ISSUE:  Summer 2011
A cement pylon in the ocean.

He woke me late last night. He sat on the edge of my bed with a bag in his lap. When I rolled over to turn the lamp on, he put the bag to my chest.

We need to go now, he said.

This time I didn’t question.

The first three times they’d sent him home. The nurse had warned him no more false calls and patted his back to reassure him that death wasn’t as close as he thought. He said there was nothing false about them. The fourth time I was the one who didn’t believe my father. I left him on the couch watching television and went out on the patio for air. Before I knew it, an ambulance had arrived and paramedics were attaching wires to his arms and chest. One of them caught me looking in through the window. He glared at me as if he were accusing me of stealing something.

We’re in the café of the Medallion Motel off I-95. We’ve been driving all night. My father heard on television there’s a good hospital down south. Whenever I point to a sign he shakes his head and says keep going. The swamp cooler ticks in the corner and makes the air clammy. My shirt clings to me like wet paper. Outside is clear and still, but it’s not any better. The pine trees keep the cool ocean breeze from reaching too far inland. Across the table, my father is wrapped in a red and yellow plaid afghan. The treatments took the warmth out of him, and these days he’s cold most of the time. He contemplates his bowl of cereal. The spoon shakes as he lifts it up. Cheerios fall off and milk splatters onto the table. He leans down and scoops what’s left into his mouth. He drops the spoon; it clanks against the glass.

You need to eat more, I say. He looks up. His eyes partly closed, tired, but he still has his stare. It used to cause me to think twice about whatever I did as a kid, even if it was the right thing.

Tastes like metal, he says.

Everything has a hint of metal these days. Six years ago, during the first treatment, his taste buds didn’t change. He just lost weight and drowned in his clothes. He laughed. He made Tyler, my son, believe he was a turtle. He’d lean forward and let his shirt slip over his head and stand up. Tyler clapped and giggled.

The second treatment took everything.

We’re halfway there, he says.

Are you sure we haven’t passed it?

Those weren’t the right ones. I’ll know it when I see it.

After he woke me, I drove him to the hospital near my house. By the time we reached the highway he was asleep, his head against the passenger window. The speed bumps woke him as we pulled in front of the ER.

What are we doing here, he said.

We’re at the hospital. You said you needed to go.

This is the wrong one.

It’s the only one around.

There’s one farther south. It’s better.

He put his head back against the window.

Now I pay the check and call Molly from the pay phone outside. We’d left in such a hurry that I hadn’t left a note.

You should turn around, she says.

I can’t.

Your mother’s worried.

He waves at me from the car to come on.

Listen, I’ve got to go.

I can hear her cracking her knuckles.

Don’t worry, I say.

How is he?

He honks the horn.

Impatient, I say.

And you?

Tired. I’ll call you the next time we stop.

The car is warm and smells of old gum. We’ve gone pretty far considering we stop every half-hour or so, so he can use the restroom. We started out in Deltona and are now almost to West Palm Beach.

I want to get there by tonight, he says. If we get to Miami by dinner we’ll be in good shape.

He seemed well enough when he and my mother arrived a few weeks ago. They came to stay with us while their house was being painted. As soon as they unpacked, my father started fixing things. The kitchen drawer that stuck if you pulled it out too far. The handle on the garage door that didn’t lock. Tyler followed him around, carrying the tools—a screwdriver in each pocket, a tape measure in one hand, a hammer in the other. My father stuck a pencil behind one of Tyler’s ears. He’d grab it periodically and draw lines on the wall. My boy loved it.

You can’t have a house with broken things in it, my father said. How are you supposed to live when you can’t open your drawers all the way?

By the end of the afternoon, my father was exhausted. Molly prepared the couch for him.

The second day he resigned himself to the couch, only moving for meals or to use the bathroom. He refused to eat in the living room.

My mother pretended to read and watched him over the top of her book. She didn’t want to be here. At home they had a routine. Things were where they were supposed to be. She feared something would happen and she wouldn’t be able to find his medicine.

According to her, the house was fine and didn’t need to be painted, even though she had wanted it done for years. My father said they should do it. He asked her what color and called the painters. The next day they were there.

The house should look good, he said. You can’t have paint chipping off.

He said they should put carpet in too.

You need a nice house, he told her. You deserve one.

The highway stretches out in front of us like a long gray cloud. A hundred miles into the trip, and I’m not sure how much farther we have left to go. Pretty soon we’re going to run out of hospitals. The Keys are fast approaching, and there’s not much down there.

He fumbles with the radio, going from one end of the dial to the next. He finally settles for something neither of us can understand. It’s foreign and comes in surprisingly clear. He says it relaxes him because he doesn’t have to think about anything and can just listen. He slouches down in the seat.

If we go down far enough we could fish, he says.

What about the hospital?

I mean afterwards.

He sits back up, readjusts his blanket, and rolls down the window.

Do you remember when we went down to Lake Okeechobee? I say.

Came back with a nice one.

We shouldn’t have cleaned it on the counter.

That smell lasted for weeks. He laughs, and it slips into a cough. It’s deep and causes him to lean forward as if he’s preparing for a plane crash. He spits out the window and then rolls it back up.

You okay?

He nods. The man on the radio screams. It sounds Eastern European. He fixes his blanket and double checks the air vents just to make sure nothing’s coming out.

Is that why you’re redoing the house?

He looks at me, confused.

The smell, I say.

Part of it.

Mom doesn’t seem to like the idea.

Oh, she does. She won’t admit it. It’s about time that place had a facelift.

He reaches down and changes the station. Now it’s an upbeat dance song. When the bass hits, the speakers rattle.

Where are we? he says.

About an hour outside of Miami. Some good hospitals there.

Not my kind.

What’s your kind?

Like the one I saw on television.

You sure it’s down this far?

The picture showed it next to the ocean. One guy was fishing off his balcony. I’ll give you the fish heads to take home, so you can plant them in the garden. Freshen up those roses you got out front.

He changes the station again. I need to stop soon, he says.

The rest stop looks like a small island in between the north and south sides of the freeway. We park between two large trucks, each raised a foot above the tires. He fumbles with the door handle. Hold on, I say. By the time I reach his side, he’s out and threading his way through the parking lot, steadying himself occasionally against the cars. His blanket drops, but he keeps going.

I catch up just as he starts to shuffle through the sea of people inside.

This way, I say. He can’t hear me. To the right of the entrance is an arcade room. Games ping and buzz and kids pound buttons down. I grab him by the shoulders and turn him toward the restroom.

I can make it on my own, he says.

I follow him in anyway. A guy accidentally bumps into him and sends him into the door of a stall. I give the man a stare, but he doesn’t notice. My father bounces back and continues down to the open one at the end of the row.

I wait for him outside. On the outer edge of the arcade room, I watch two kids try and pick stuffed animals out of a claw machine. When the claw doesn’t come up with anything they slap the side of the plastic windows. One of the boys rubs a pair of wings pinned to his shirt for good luck and pushes the other one out of the way. I wonder if they will remember anything about their trip. They probably won’t. They won’t remember being hoisted up under the space shuttle by their father, swimming out past the pier at Daytona beach and being escorted back in by a lifeguard boat, or parking down by the beach and watching a hurricane come in. Their focus is elsewhere. They put another dollar in, guide the hand to a stuffed shark in the corner, lower, grab, nothing. They slap the window again.

My father walks past me. Let’s go, he says.

We should make a call first.

His head drops, and he follows me over to the bank of phones. I dial and hand him the phone. He hands me his afghan.

Where are you? my mother says. I can hear her through the phone. My father holds the receiver away from his ear.

A few hours away.

The painters keep calling.

The check’s already in the mail. Just tell them that.

You know I don’t like dealing with these things.

A kid runs by screaming, another chasing behind.

I need you here, she says. We have a hospital here.

It doesn’t have what I need.

How do you know what you need?

We’re going.

Don’t hang up.

Remember to pay the carpet people.

You forgot your medication.

I know.

He hangs up and heads for the door. It’s raining now. I tell him to wait inside while I get the car. When I pull around, he’s talking to a man in a green jumpsuit and pointing at the hinges of the front door.

Before I know it we’re in Miami. I can see the ocean in between pink and pastel buildings. A dock must be close because I can make out the tops of masts. I don’t remember any of this from when I was a kid; I must’ve slept through the city. The freeway arches up and turns to miss running into a neighborhood. My father’s asleep against the window. I pull the afghan up and hook it over his shoulder. The traffic is light for rush hour, every once in a while we have to stop. Pretty soon the buildings shrink and level off with the horizon.

We pull off for gas as the freeway ends and becomes a city street. I tell him he should use the bathroom again. He lumbers across the parking lot to the convenience store. I check the oil and wash the windows. At the far end of the parking lot a couple of kids stare at me, a metal can at their feet.

It’s closed, I hear the attendant yell. I turn around and see my father through the window banging on the counter. He points toward the bathroom door, which has a yellow pole blocking the doorway.

The attendant gives me a look like can you believe this guy as I walk in.

It’s closed, the attendant says.

He won’t let me in, my father says.

The bathroom is being cleaned, the attendant says.

Can’t you make an exception? I ask.

He shakes his head no.

He comes around the counter and follows us out. He stands in the doorway, arms crossed, the bell going off.

We’ll find another one, I say.

I freeze halfway to the car. The two kids are standing behind the trunk, filling up their can.

Hey, I yell. They look up and immediately take off, leaving the hose spilling gasoline on the ground. Gas sloshes out of their can as they run.

Come on, I say.

I hang the hose up and drive around back. I tell him to go on the back door.

I’ll keep watch.

He stands at the door a minute before anything comes out. His legs shake. When he turns around there’s a little wet spot on his right pant leg. He brushes it with his fingers and shakes his head. I look in his bag for another pair, but they’re not his clothes.

Why did you pack my clothes? I ask.

He won’t look me in the eye. I thought you might need them, he says.

He pulls the afghan over his arms and chest. His head bobs like an infant’s trying to steady itself.

Dad.

It’ll dry, he says.

The sun is going down and I’m starting to worry. We just passed a sign saying twenty miles to Key Largo. We came down here once when I was a kid. The road narrowed and was flanked by tall yellow grass on either side. I’d feared a tire would blow and then we’d be stuck. To keep my mind from wandering, my father had given me challenges. When we reached the seven-mile bridge he told me to hold my breath until we reached the other side. I didn’t last but a few hundred yards. He looked back at me in the rearview mirror. I gasped for air. He tried to pinch my leg, but I moved it away and shot him the meanest look I could.

Now he shifts around in his seat like an antsy kid. He’s taken the blanket and crumbled it up against the floorboard.

How much farther, I say.

I’m not sure. What time is it?

Around seven.

Let’s eat.

You’re hungry?

No, but you should eat. You need your strength.

He puts his hand on my arm.

How about over there? He points to a singlewide trailer painted with sea creatures and coral. On top is a sign that says Big Jim’s Burgers.

The guy behind the window wears an apron and chef’s hat, but he doesn’t look like he should be wearing them. He gives us a plastic number and says there are tables around the side.

I’ll be right back, I say.

He nods.

I splash cold water on my face in attempt to wake up, but it doesn’t work. It seems to make it worse. I close my eyes hoping that it will rejuvenate me. The air is heavy and pushes against me like it’s fighting for space. I wipe my neck with a damp paper towel and head back.

A breeze blows, and it feels good against my wet face.

The food’s on the table, but he’s not eating.

You need to eat.

I’m too hungry to eat. He pushes the tray away, and smiles. I’m going to buy you a new car. That one’s not going to last too much longer.

It’s fine, I say, and bite into my hamburger.

Tyler needs something safe to be driven around in.

It has airbags.

He plays with the straw of his drink.

We’ll stop on the way, my father says. Get you something nice.

On the way where?

Don’t worry, he says. It’s just a little farther.

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