Even IN the dark
My father has five months to live.
After dinner I change into sweatpants and a tee. Anna watches from the couch as I tie my running shoes. “Is it your dad?” she says. Isabelle and Clare look up from their Disney coloring books, crayons scattered about them on the living room carpet, the TV’s glow reflected in the waxy sheen spread across the pages.
“Grab some butter,” she says, and looks back to the TV.
Anna thinks I’m going to the gym. Each evening I back out of the driveway, turned around in my seat to look for kids riding past on bicycles, or the neighbor’s damn beagle that always slips beneath the gate to crap in my yard. Before driving away, I look up at my house. Sometimes I see the beagle’s brown fur shifting behind the hydrangeas, and I roll down my window to yell, “Trumpet! Go home!” Sometimes my daughters kneel on the driveway by the ceramic pot of violets, hunched over with a bucket of chalk. Sometimes they wave to me as I drive away. Sometimes the sun, setting over the garage, fills my eyes with golden light and forces me to turn away and drive without a glimpse of my girls.
I drive through town, past the wide windows of the Rec Center that display the treadmills and barbells within like a diorama, and wonder if sometime I might actually go in there. But like the scenery that swiftly changes from shopping plazas to suburban houses, I don’t dwell on it. I see my father lying in a hospital bed somewhere, a vitals monitor blinking green and red like a traffic light, an IV bladder pushing fluids into his weary veins.
After twenty-six years of his absence, of wondering whether he was alive or dead, I got the call. I would’ve hung up if it was him, but it was an elderly woman from somewhere up north of Detroit.
“He’s dying, Mr. Alcon,” the woman had said. “He wants to see you. He wants to say goodbye.”
I hung up on her.
I was stunned to hear that my father is still alive. Why, after all these years, does he decide to reach out now? I would’ve preferred his death to come and go without my knowledge—no goodbyes, no questions asked. I wouldn’t have had any choice in the matter.
Two weeks ago, Anna tried to convince me to see him. “He’s your father, Nathan,” she said. “Nobody said you have to forgive him—but can’t you be a man and face him?”
I watch children run down the sidewalk towards an ice cream truck, its familiar jingle ringing in the purple spring air. My cheeks burn fresh from that conversation weeks ago. What the hell does Anna know about it? Her parents finished their days in the historic district of Grosse Pointe, their afternoons spent on the second-floor balcony, sipping martinis as they gazed over Lake St. Clair. Anna misses them, I know, and only wants for me to be with my family while I still can. But my mother had been broken when my father left. I watched her bloat and swell over the years, seek her comfort in food and solitude. She spent her last years in a wheelchair, her arteries clogging until they reached capacity. She died alone in her apartment. She didn’t speak of my father in the last few years of her life. What would she say about all this now?
I know what Grace Leone would say. Grace, in her own way, has been the only one who relates to me on this. Since her parents divorced last year, she can’t stand to visit either of them in their separate apartments. “I can’t get used to their being alone,” she says.
I stop behind the ice cream truck and don’t get out of the car until the crowd of children clears. When the ice cream man turns to face me, I’m startled by how old he is—seventy, maybe seventy-five. His neck is wrinkled. There are splotches of vanilla ice cream on his scooping arm that he doesn’t bother to wipe up.
I order a vanilla cone. The old man hands it to me, ice cream dripping off the cone onto his fingers. “This for your kiddo?” he asks. He leans over the counter to peer down the sidewalk, but all the children have disappeared to their houses.
“Of course it is,” I say. Is that what a good father would do? I lick the ice cream anyway as I get back into the car.
I don’t have a destination in mind—I just drive. I drive to the next town over, pass through subdivisions where other people’s children play on trimmed lawns. I leave these homes behind, watching in the rearview mirror until I turn the corner and their images slide out of frame. I find new streets to explore, new subdivisions with new houses. Three boys play basketball on a driveway, their taunts and swears echoing in the night. Potted geraniums dangle from garage doors. The bluish-white glow of a TV flickers behind a window shade. What goes on in this world I drive through each night when I tell my wife I’m going to the gym? I drive past house after house, and always the thought amazes me—people live here. No matter where I go.
The life I find makes my spine want to tremble.
I drive with the windows up and the AC off, so by the time I pull back onto the driveway at dusk my pits are damp. The sweat stains pressing against my shirt have blossomed and spread as I walk into the living room, holding a shopping bag with butter and a carton of ice cream for the girls. Izzy and Clare come running into the room, bouncing up and down. “What flavor, what flavor?” Izzy squeals.
“Mint chocolate,” I say. “Go get your bowls and spoons.” Clare licks her lips and they run into the kitchen. Anna folds her arms.
“Don’t even think about sitting on my couch in those clothes,” she says.
In the morning I park in front of the Leone house and wait. I pull down the vanity mirror, and—I can’t help it—check my teeth for any evidence of my oatmeal. Just in time, too, because here comes Grace wearing a wool sweater despite May’s humidity—cold until July, she told me. She crosses the lawn that glistens with dew, as if walking over a field of sunlit diamonds, and when she slips into the passenger seat the car fills with her clean, stunning scent. “Ready?” she says.
Grace Leone had started working at the office in April. On the first day of the job, she mentioned to Max that she didn’t own a car, but she is staying at her brother’s house, which happens to be in the same town as mine. Max referred her to me, and one day in the break room while I stirred a packet of sugar into my coffee with a popsicle stick, Grace approached me. She looked ten years younger than me, maybe twenty-three, and she still had that college-girl heat radiating from her skin—a youthful glow that pushed out beneath her long red hair, the freckles on her cheeks and nose. Grace told me her situation. It surprised me how shy she seemed for such a beautiful woman; when I was in college, girls like her weren’t nervous with guys like me. She said she didn’t want to be any trouble, and before she could ask the question I offered to give her rides.
Now, as we pull away from the curb, Grace says, “Nathan?”
I laugh. “Coffee?”
“God. You’re the best.”
We stop at the coffee shop and drive away with a pair of cups and doughnuts. Grace peels back the lid, and I glance as she takes a sip. Her sweater, hanging loosely on her small frame, slips aside to reveal the slope of her neck as it curves into her shoulder—and, not for the first time, I find myself wondering if the same freckles that adorn her face also cover her shoulder. Though we often speak like we’re flirting, I’ve never touched Grace, except for the brush of our fingers as I hand her a cup of coffee. When I start to imagine the freckles on her shoulders, I force myself to remember Anna’s body—the familiar fullness of her breasts, the warmth of her arms wrapped around my back during sex. Still, when I look back at the road, I can almost feel the presence of that bit of Grace’s skin. Exposed.
“How was your weekend?” Grace says.
I hesitate. Last night, after we’d put the girls in bed, Anna and I had argued about the situation with my father. “It’s been a month,” she’d said coldly. “When are you going to see him?”
I tell Grace, “I spent last night on the couch.”
She smirks while sipping her coffee, spilling some down her chin. “Shit—shit—hot!” She dabs at her face with her sleeve. “That bad, huh?”
“It was about my father.”
We are quiet then, staring out the window. Grace knows how I feel about it all. The same day she told me about her parents, I opened up about my dilemma. “You don’t owe him anything,” she had said.
The morning sky is still dark when we merge onto the freeway. Hundreds of red brake lights reflect off the pavement. Where do all these people come from, and where are they going? I wonder how many of their homes I’ve passed on my evening drives, if I stared into their lives unknowingly.
The basement belonged to my father. It was his woodshop. In my earliest memories I feel the cold slap of concrete on bare feet as I step over nails and sawdust. I see the stacks of hardwood: cherry, birch, and ash. I press my nose to the pine and cedar, breathe deep the tinder of future nightstands, Adirondack chairs, birdfeeders. But I don’t have a clear image of my father in my memory—only the vague awareness of a man moving about by the tools, setting a beam, lifting a hammer. Faceless among the shelves of wood. The images are so shadowed they might be the salvaged fragments of ancient dreams.
Another vivid memory: I found my mother in the kitchen. She stood at the sink, the telephone pressed against her ear. The cord had tangled itself, spirals caught over one another, dangling against the cabinet door. I remember that, the tangled arm of the cord. How sunlight filled the room, reflected off all the walls, the cold linoleum floor. The glass vase a burst of light on the windowsill. Everything shined, too bright. Across the kitchen, from where I stood peering around the corner, I could hear my mother whispering. Where are you? she said. Where are you? She said it over and over to the phone, to herself, to no one at all. Where are you?
Anna often asks about Grace—how does she like the new job? Does she get along with Max and the others? She’s never met Grace. Anna’s jealous nature has caused problems before; her college boyfriend was a serial cheater, both conspicuous and unashamed. As a result, I don’t talk about Grace very often, but I certainly don’t want to appear suspicious. I tell Anna what I think she’d like to know and no more.
“That poor girl,” she says one day. “We should have her over for dinner. If I was living with my brother, I’d want to get out.”
“She gets along with her brother,” I say.
“Well, you’ve been driving this woman to work for a month. Don’t you think I should meet her?”
The way she asks this, I know there’s no disputing her. But I feel unsettled, like something vital has dislodged itself in my gut. Anna and Grace have always lived in separate worlds— Anna with the girls at home, Grace beside me in the car. It feels wrong to mingle the two.
And yet, after Grace settles into the passenger seat the next day on our way home from the office, I ask her how she likes living with her brother and his wife.
“Jim and Karen are great,” she says. “I think they like my company. But, well—things get tense between them sometimes.” She bites a glazed doughnut and stares out the window at the freeway’s shoulder. “They’re having trouble conceiving.”
“Do you like kids?” I ask.
“Oh, God, yes. I can’t wait for a niece or nephew.” She brushes a crumb from her lap. “Someone to spoil.”
“You know, you should meet my girls. They’d adore you, I know it. Anna and I would love to have you over for dinner.”
Grace’s hand darts out and grabs my shoulder. “Nathan, I’d love to!”
Something jumps in the nest of my stomach, warm and exhilarating, at her excitement.
“How does Friday sound?” I say.
We leave straight for my house after work. When we pull onto the driveway I see the Caldwell’s beagle squatting behind the blue hydrangea bushes, his long ears drooping as he stares back, shameless. My ears redden, but Grace barks a sharp laugh.
“That’s Trumpet,” I say. “We’re dog-sitting.”
“Dog? What dog?” she says as we watch Trumpet kick mulch over his dump and prance around the corner. “I’m just admiring those flowers.”
Anna meets us at the door; I kiss her on the cheek and introduce them to each other. Anna’s gaze flickers over Grace—her curled red hair, thin waist, the stark flare of her hips. I bite the inside of my cheek.
Anna takes Grace’s hands into her own. “It’s so nice to finally meet you.”
“Smells good, hon,” I say. Anna doesn’t look at me. She leads Grace into the dining room. Grace glances over her shoulder at me, smiling, a question unasked. Isabelle and Clare enter then, shoulders touching, always shy around guests. Grace leans toward them with her hands propped on her knees. “You look so pretty in those dresses,” she says, and Clare, emboldened, looks to Izzy.
“It’s Ariel!” she says.
Grace laughs, delighted.
Anna points to the chairs. “Sit down, girls,” she says. “Nathan, will you help me with the food?”
I follow Anna around the corner as Grace talks with the girls. Anna reaches into the cupboard without looking at me. “Well, isn’t she pretty?” she says. She stacks plates and silverware in her arms. I want to say something to placate her, but she points her chin at the dish on the counter. “Bring the lasagna. And water for everyone. And napkins.” She bustles into the dining room. “So. Grace. Tell me you’re a wine girl.”
During the meal, I do not speak. Anna speaks faster, more animated than usual. She asks how Grace likes her brother’s house. Grace speaks with food in her mouth, unashamed or unaware, and Anna’s eyes narrow. When Grace sets her wine glass down after taking a sip, Anna reaches across the table to refill the glass. Grace raises her hands to protest, but Anna shakes her head. “Please, you have to help me with this bottle. Otherwise it’ll sit in our fridge until Thanksgiving.”
Grace glances at me.
“I hope Nathan entertains you on the way to work. He’s not much of a morning person.”
“He’s told me so much about you,” Grace says. “We have a long commute. Lots of time to talk.” Anna lifts the glass to her lips. “I’ll bet.”
I turn to dab a napkin at the sauce on Clare’s chin. Anna asks Grace how she likes the new job, and they talk about that for a while. Anna refills Grace’s glass two or three more times. It isn’t long before Grace’s cheeks are flushed. “Nathan, you’re quiet,” Grace says. Her teeth are stained a pale red from the wine. “Are you thinking about your dad?”
My wife looks at me savagely.
“Mommy,” Isabelle says. “Can we watch TV now?”
I push my chair back. “Come on, girls.”
The living room feels ten degrees colder than the dining room. I sit on the couch with Isabelle and Clare on either side of me. “I want to see Indiana Jones,” Clare says, climbing onto my thigh.
“We have to see if it’s playing tonight, sweetie,” I say as I flip the channels. I’m listening for the voices in the other room, but I can’t make out the words. My armpits are damp. I flip the channels quickly, but an image appears on the screen at each station just long enough to register. A cartoon toaster singing with other appliances in the kitchen. A puppy slipping on hardwood floor towards a bowl of dog food. A man holding a little boy on his shoulders as they stare through the glass at a zoo exhibit—and then I’m trying to picture my father, so many years ago, with me on his shoulders as we stare at a giraffe or an elephant. Did he ever take me to the zoo? I don’t want to think of my father now, here, with my girls sitting beside me. My legs itch to move, but I don’t want to return to the dining room. I imagine the grip of the steering wheel in my hands. The avenues unfolding before me. Outside, Trumpet barks at the wind, to himself, to nothing at all.
I wait as long as I feel I can, then return to the dining room. Anna reclines in her seat, glowering at me over the rim of her wine glass. Grace raises her eyebrows.
On the ride back to her brother’s house, Grace stares out the window. I can tell she’s fighting to hide a grin. I nudge her with my elbow. “What?”
“Nothing.” She cups a hand over her mouth as she giggles. “Nathan, your wife’s not threatened by me, is she?”
“Are you drunk?”
“No. A little. Your wife was bent on it.”
“I don’t think she expected someone so—young.”
At her brother’s, Grace doesn’t get out of the car. “Anna has nothing to worry about with me. Right?” She places her palm on my thigh. I fight the shivering sensation racing through my leg.
Grace gets out of the car and walks around to my window. She leans her head in, so close I can smell the wine on her breath. “Thanks for dinner. Your girls are really, really lovely.”
I watch her cross the lawn in the fading light to the porch. She stands in the doorway for a moment to look back, and she waves before disappearing inside. I exhale a breath I didn’t know I was holding.
At home, I can hear the girls singing along to some Disney song in their bedroom. I find Anna in the kitchen, scrubbing plates at the sink. “Let me do that, babe,” I say. I move to her side.
She turns and buries her face into my chest before I can see her tears. Her shoulders quiver, her damp hands clutch the loose fabric of my shirt. “What am I doing?” she says. The faucet runs—a constant, rushing sound, like the soft rumble of an idling car.
May’s tulips, lining the subdivision streets, bloom and die into the steaming heat of June. The staccato hiss of sprinklers accompanies me as I drive with the windows down. My evening drives are limited to two or three days a week now that the girls are out of school. This only makes my longing that much stronger for the pavement rolling towards me, bringing me to new towns with new houses. I try not to think of my father, but there he is—lying in a bed somewhere, each day bringing him closer to the end. Not for the first time, I wonder what drew him away from us. He must have had a lover—are they married still? Is she the reason he’s decided to reach out to me now? Or perhaps they, too, have gone their separate ways, and I’m all he has left. His last chance to grab hold of someone in this world before he leaves it.
As I back out of the driveway these days, I have to look twice for Trumpet. The Caldwells are visiting relatives all summer, and Anna agreed to watch the dog until August. Under the Caldwell’s watch, Trumpet spends all his time on my lawn. Twice now, under my supervision, he’s exploited some secret flaw in my fence that’s given him hours of freedom to explore the neighborhood. The first time we realized he was missing, Anna drove around the subdivision with me, shouting his name out the window. The second time I reported to my wife, her look was ice. She’d handed me the car keys and said, “If you let this dog die, so help me God…”
It’s a relief each day when I leave for work.
One morning, Grace gets going before I’ve even pulled away from the curb. “I can’t stay in that house much longer,” she says. “Karen was crying in the kitchen again. She stares out the window, and her shoulders do this sort of shake. I pretend like I don’t see her, but I do. And what’s worse,” she says, turning in her seat to face me directly, “I hear them at night.”
I turn to her, eyes wide.
“No, no, not that. You’re such a guy.” She punches my shoulder. “I hear them argue. I can’t really make out the words, but I can hear their raised voices, and it’s horrifying—they blame each other.”
I don’t know how to comfort her, but I have the urge to reach out in some way. To put my palm on her shoulder. Would I discover, then, the freckles I hoped were hidden under layers of cotton and wool? Freckles can’t be felt like braille, of course, but I imagine that just by running my palm over her bare shoulder I’d know they are there, the same way you can tell whether a person is sleeping or awake by the way their body lays—the human ability to distinguish between poised and relaxed.
“Grace,” I say.
“It’s okay,” she says. “Anyway, I found an apartment listing online.” She rests her hand on my arm. “Plus, I can’t mooch rides off you forever.”
“You’re no trouble,” I say. I knew she’d eventually find a place of her own, but I’m not ready to have that empty seat beside me.
We pick up our daily coffees. I watch Grace stroke the rim of her cup. Her finger completes the journey around the rim’s circumference and stops. I don’t know how I know this, but I feel we both want to speak—it’s something in the air, something tugging in our stomachs towards one another, urging us. Instead, we sit in silence.
The first week of July brings another membership bill from the gym, and when Anna passes it to me across the table, I sign the check. There was a period of tenderness following the dinner with Grace, but I know Anna still thinks of my father. Ten weeks left.
That night, Trumpet follows me to the car. He tries to climb in, but I slide into the space between him and the open door. “Go home,” I say, pointing to the front door. He slinks away, throwing me a resentful look.
I drive longer and farther than usual, the windows down, peering so closely at the people and houses I pass that I know there is some unearthly connection between us. I see it in the man who stands spraying a hose over his garden bed. In the children who gather around the ant hills where the sidewalk meets grass. In the gnarled tree limbs they use to prod the dirt mounds. I see a little girl with brown hair and a white summer dress bend to pick up a tennis ball from her lawn, and for a moment it is Clare, my daughter, and my throat goes dry. Of course I’m mistaken. This is New Baltimore, not Rochester. Still, the resemblance leaves me shaky.
There are questions I had for my father when I was a boy: Why did you leave us? Who did you fall in love with? Who called you away from us, away from your son and wife and home? I imagine leaving Anna for Grace—it’s not unheard of, after all—see myself packing clothes into a duffel bag while Anna takes the kids to school. I’d drive away before she comes home, slipping off like my father did, no confrontations, just disappearing, vanishing, gone. The thoughts tempt me, excite me. I see the road ahead, feel the wheel in my hands, smell Grace beside me, where I’ve always known her. We could live our lives on the road. Diner stops, motel rooms. Her small, freckled shoulder bared to meet my lips. It’s not unheard of.
The next afternoon I’m quiet in the car. When I pull up to her brother’s house, Grace asks what’s wrong. “Two months left,” I say.
A dog barks behind the white fence in a neighboring lot. An old man emerges from his front door and walks down the length of the driveway to peer into his empty mailbox. Finally, she turns to face me. “What do you want to do?”
And I tell her what I hadn’t told anyone else, even Anna—that I’d always hoped he’d die before I had to see him again.
“He doesn’t deserve you,” she says. “Is that a reason to visit him, or a reason to stay away?”
I sit in the car curbside her brother’s house long after she disappears through the front door. The light over the doorway reminds me of that basement workshop, lit by a single fluorescent lightbulb. The smooth touch of the pine, the way it bent beneath my hands, bent further than I would’ve expected. The smell of the cedar. My father’s big, firm hands as they sanded the wood, back and forth, back and forth. Is that last image real? The workshop in my memory is so dark.
It’s late when I return. I park at the curb opposite my house, but now the house doesn’t even look like my own. It’s like saying the word house until it sounds foreign. The lights are on, the curtains pulled back. A child’s silhouette flits past the window. It could be anyone’s house, with anyone’s life pulsing within.
Anyone at all.
And then Trumpet emerges from the hydrangeas, kicking a spray of mulch back with his paws. There’s no question of where I am.
Inside, I find Anna sitting on the bed. I lower myself next to her, pull her into my arms, and she lets me, even though I’m still sweaty from the hot car ride. “That old woman called again,” Anna says. “I wrote down the address. Before you say anything,” she says, grabbing my elbow, “I just want you to know that I support you. Whatever you decide.”
I look into my wife’s eyes. The mother of my girls. They aren’t green like Grace’s, they are brown, but they are warm and familiar and open, searching my face.
And all at once, I realize what I’ll do, and I tell her—I’ll visit him that weekend.
On the Friday afternoon before I leave, I tell Grace my plans to visit my father. I stare at the steering wheel, see the individual vinyl threads. I want to ask her to come with me. I want her strength. I want her in the seat beside me through it all. I turn to say it, and suddenly her face is there, and she kisses me. Her smell, the press of her lips on mine—one, two, three seconds—digs up that familiar itch in my stomach, the sensation of falling, and I want to give in—to pull her out of her seat onto my lap, to bury my face in her neck, her beautiful red hair—to start the car and drive down the interstate, out of this town to some place where I can be alone with her.
But then I pull away.
I stare ahead. She places her palm on my cheek, but I don’t turn back to her. If I look into her eyes, it’s over. My teeth ache to kiss her. “Grace,” I say.
“Tell me you know there’s something here.”
I keep my eyes closed. Her hand leaves my cheek. She whispers when she says, “Goodnight, Nathan.” I do not open my eyes until I’m sure she is inside the house, and only then do I drive away.
My father lives in Gladwin, a town beside a small lake somewhere in the middle of the state. I leave early on Saturday afternoon, the roadmap riding beside me in the passenger seat. I can’t leave Trumpet with Anna while she watches the girls, so the beagle sits in the backseat, his breath fogging the window he peers desperately through. I pray he doesn’t get car sick.
The highway brings me north out of the metro-Detroit suburbs, which slowly vanish along the side of the road and become dense woodlands and expansive farms. I glide beyond the pastures with the bales of hay like slumbering bison and the splinter-paint facades of the ancient barns, beyond the stench of the horses and cows and goats in their paddocks.
How the hell had my father ended up here?
All these miles bring me to a lakeshore drive that follows the curves and bights at the water’s edge. Houses dot the shore: some with lights on, some without, and all of them look different—so different from the identical suburban houses, those lives within.
Eventually I find the right mailbox and I turn onto the long driveway lined on either side by trees. The drive leads me to his house, a small cabin nestled in a patch of woods that overlooks the lake. I park at the side of the cabin beside what I assume is my father’s pickup truck, a rust-swallowed thing. I step out of my car. The smell of the wind off the water rushes at me like Grace’s scent. I let Trumpet out to wander and find a bush. In the fading light of the early evening, I approach my father’s porch.
What do I expect to find? I picture him lying in bed, unconscious, with his mouth open in a perfect O. A monitor would display his vitals by the bedside, and a dangling IV bladder would be suspended nearby, dripping life-fluids into his veins. Whatever is killing him inside is doing a damn good job, and I arrive while he can still speak, though barely, in a rasping, breathless voice.
What I don’t expect, and what happens when I knock, is my father promptly answering the door—he’s wearing reading glasses and has a bottle of beer in hand.
I want to speak but can’t. I recognize his face from photographs, though of course he’s aged—and yet, here he is, tan and wrinkled and needing a shave. I would think he looks healthy if not for the thinness of his arms and chest. He stares at me for a moment before his face softens, as though it took time to make the connection to the face of the seven-year-old he’d left behind. His shoulder finds the doorjamb and leans, perhaps in disbelief. “You came,” he says.
I’d prepared myself to harden against him, to be cold, to let him know his absence the last twenty-six years couldn’t be so easily forgiven. But the anger numbs in my veins. Instead, I am too embarrassed to hold eye contact, and I can’t find my voice, so I look past him into the cabin. “Please. Come in,” he says, standing aside. I whistle for Trumpet, who comes bounding around the corner of the house.
He has no extravagant possessions. The cabin is so sparsely decorated and so lacking in personal belongings that you could’ve told me it’s a rental lodge and I wouldn’t have second-guessed it. There’s a single cot in the corner, the sheets neatly flattened and tucked. No IV bladder hanging over it, no vitals monitor beeping nearby. The kitchen counter, part of the same room, has a few dishes set out. There is a refrigerator, an oven, and a stove, which Trumpet presses his nose to, investigating. He has no pictures set out, no evidence of ever having a family of any sort, and this surprises me—surely there’d been another woman?
“Want a beer?”
I shrug. When he opens the fridge, I see a loaf of white bread, some slices of cheese, a few bottles of beer. He pops the caps from two bottles and hands me one. Without a word, he walks out the screen door that faces the lake. I follow him onto the back deck. Trumpet clambers down the deck and runs towards the tall grass that grows at the shore. The sun has burst and melted over the trees in the west, a blend of pinks and oranges, surrounded by the darkening blue of the sky. We sit side by side on two plastic chairs, gazing down the slope to the water’s edge. I’d expected to see a speed boat or a pontoon, but I only see a dinky rowboat tethered to a post jutting from the grass. I sip the beer, trying to find my voice. Trumpet bounds to the calm water and stares beneath the surface.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” he says. “I didn’t think you’d come.”
“Neither did I,” I say. In speaking, my voice gains strength—and with that, coldness. “What am I here for, anyway? Heart disease? Cancer?”
“Cancer. Stomach.” We don’t look at each other, for which I’m grateful. I swallow through the lump in my throat. “How long?”
“A month. Maybe two.”
So few days left I can count them. Somewhere across the water a firecracker goes off. Trumpet’s ears perk and he stares in the direction of the sound. A mosquito buzzes near my face, and I wave it away. All my life I’d imagined this conversation—what I’d say to him, how I could hurt him the way he’d hurt me, hurt my mother—and now that he’s here before me, I can’t think of a damn thing. I tell him so. “I don’t even know what to say.”
“This all feels a bit surreal, doesn’t it?”
I nod. What would my mother say about this, my sitting with this man on his deck, overlooking this lake in the dwindling evening light, sipping beer. Would her arteries harden all over again, dry out and snap like brittle tubes? Where are you? she’d whispered into the phone, over and over. I can see her now. She stands at the kitchen sink. There’s the tangled arm of the phone cord, the glass vase a burst of light on the windowsill.
Where are you? She had wanted answers.
“Where were you?” I say.
He sighs. He doesn’t need clarification. “I don’t know how to answer that.”
My hands clench the bottle. “You better fucking try.” I shift to the edge of my seat, ready to rise. “Twenty-six years, you son of a bitch, and you can’t tell me why? Where is she? Your lover?”
“What can I say?” He sounds weary. To his credit, he turns in his chair to meet my eyes. “There was no other woman.”
I see Grace, painfully vivid: She slides her body beside mine in the passenger seat, her hand resting on my thigh, her head against my shoulder. She looks up at me. Her face is so near I could count the freckles on her nose. I only have to lean my face down towards hers for our lips to meet. If there was any reason for my father to leave, I would have believed it was this—for a Grace.
“There was no other woman. I was scared. I was a fuck-up. I was selfish.”
My fingers flex over the bottle’s neck.
“I wanted to be there, Nathan. I wanted to be better for you. For your mother. But I couldn’t.”
I stare up at the sky, a blue so dark it could be called black. I’d visited my mother a week before she died. Her thick hips and thighs wedged between the arms of her wheelchair, oxygen tank hissing softly beside her. She asked about Anna and the girls. She always asked about Anna and the girls. She never mentioned my father, but she asked me about my girls as if to learn what kind of father I’d become. As if to know if I was him.
“I was a coward, son,” my father says. “I don’t expect you to understand. I just want you to know how sorry I am. If I could go back…”
I can see little, dark shapes flitting through the air, squeaking and flapping. Bats. Tiny, blind creatures fumbling in the dark to survive. I watch the bats until the sky becomes too dark to see anything at all. But I can still hear them. They can still find their way. There are no lights burning in the house at our backs, no cabins near enough to provide a light over the water. I can barely see my father when I turn to look at him, but I can just make out his silhouette hunched over in the chair, his head bowed low. His chest heaves. My face goes numb—is he vomiting? Having a seizure? Is this the end?—and I move to the edge of my seat, trying to summon my voice to call for help.
But then I hear a soft choke. A sputter. He is crying. He bends over his knees, body shaking, bones shuddering under his thin skin, a cry so deep it’s silent within this brittle man. There’s a hurt that I can’t put a name to, a hurt that aches in my own chest, in my stomach, in the deepest corners of my body.
I see Anna, Isabelle, and Clare on the front lawn of the house. Anna stands over Izzy as she scribbles on the concrete with chalk. Clare, on the grass, lets the arc of the sprinkler water pass over her head. I can see it all—the way the sunlight over the house touches the water, illuminates it, the water droplets a burst of light to fall over my daughter’s head. So bright I want to turn away.
I almost reach out for my father, place my hand on his back—he’s right here in front of me now, just near enough for my hand to reach out and touch. I can’t see him for the dark, but I raise my hand. My father is just a man, after all—I’d accused him of being less, but that is exactly all he’s ever been.
It’s then that he lifts his head. “Where’d that dog go?”
“Shit,” I say, jumping to my feet. “Trumpet!” I can’t imagine what kind of trouble I’ll be in if that damn dog is lost in these woods. Are there bears? Coyotes? I look around us in the blackness. “Trumpet!”
I hear my father stand and his footsteps travel across the deck onto the grass. “I’ll find him, son,” he says.
“Where are you going?” I can’t see my own hand in front of my face—I forgot what kind of total darkness the world takes on away from the city on a cloudy night. No stars glimmer overhead to light the grass, the trees.
“Trumpet!” I hear him calling ahead of me. The darkness, the bats are a wall between us.
“Where are you?” I call into the dark. “Dad, where are you? Trumpet!”
I step forward in the dark and stumble into space, tumbling over the edge of the deck. I’m in the grass on my hands and knees. And I hear it all—my father’s voice, the bats clicking above—I see Anna curled on the couch, her face reflecting the bluish glow of the TV—I see Grace Leone, too, beside me in the car—the curve of her neck where it slopes into her shoulder—a sprinkler’s arc, golden in the sunlight, passes over Isabelle and Clare—an old man scoops vanilla ice cream with a trembling hand—the phone rings, a woman’s voice in the receiver—children prod an anthill on the sidewalk—one looks up to watch me pass—I smell the pine and cedar of a basement woodshop—a man sets a nail, raises his hammer—my mother, bloated in her wheelchair, gazes out the window of her apartment—the hiss of her oxygen tank as she breathes—my mother stands at the kitchen sink, faces away from me—the tangled arm of the phone cord sways—the glass vase a burst of light on the windowsill—she whispers, Where are you, where are you?
And my voice now. “Where are you?” I cry, over and over again. To my father. To the dog. To the wind. To myself. To each of them—to no one at all.