Today, a fiction…
He shut the door and put the bottle on the table. His father barely looked up, dipping his chin in mute thanks.
“What do I owe you?”
“Nothing. Forget it.”
Lifting the bottle an inch, his father angled his eyes toward him.
Two days home and already they’d fallen into familiar patterns. He grabbed the bottle from his father’s hand and unscrewed the top as he walked to the cabinet. He pulled a glass from the shelf and left the bottle behind to retrieve some ice.
Even as his brother consulted and rehearsed him on what to say, he’d known the right moments would slip past. Once he went to a management seminar where he’d learned the value of positive messages. “When you give negative instructions like ‘Make sure the report isn’t late’ or ‘Please don’t let these important daily tasks get away from you,’” the teacher said, “imagine them without the ‘not’… because that’s what you’re going to get.” He’d returned to the office determined to enact this advice, but a couple of weeks later he was back to his original motivational modes—sullen disapproval, mumbled orders, and stupid hope.
In that, he was his father’s son.
When he was eight and a cub scout, he faked the activities he needed to earn a wolf badge. He wanted to leap a level, as his friend had, but he missed meetings when they did their forward rolls, their tool training, their character quiz. He needed his father’s signature to prove he’d done them on his own, and, one evening, as his father held the paper into the flashing light of the television, he dad’s eyes traded between the page and his son’s face.
“You do all this?” he finally said.
“Sure,” he answered.
“Good. Good for you.”
The scoutmaster wasn’t so willing. He asked for proof, and when he couldn’t provide it, the scoutmaster promised to call his dad. If that happened, he never knew because nothing more was said. Though he went to other meetings after that and wore his uniform to school on appointed days, after a month or two, he was no longer a cub scout.
He put the drink down in front of his father and turned away.
“Not having any?” his dad asked.
“No.” The next sentence formed in his imagination, the opening his brother had suggested about how his dad was getting on now, how the house was a mess, too big to care for, and in need of repair if he ever hoped to sell it to find a smaller place. Standard stuff in the category of “aging parent.” They had a smaller place in mind, a retirement community only a few blocks away. Their father would live independently to start and then be passed along to new arrangements as his health deteriorated.
But no next sentence arrived, and his father finished his glass and asked for more.
When he drove in from the airport, he’d been surprised to find his father’s house so neat. His brother had painted a picture of dissolution and neglect, but much of the house was untouched and pristine. His own room was more orderly than he remembered, the shelves uncluttered by the books and other detritus he’d left there, and, it appeared dusted. This immobile man couldn’t have done that. For a moment, he’d wondered if his father might have a girlfriend, but the thought was too absurd to consider.
His father told him he “had someone in to do some cleaning,” but that’s all he said.
Their eyes met when he walked to a cabinet and absent-mindedly looked inside. That was where the chips should be.
“Sit down,” his father said, “you’re like an animal in the zoo—can’t stand still.”
Outside the window over the sink, a new slat fence replaced the old cyclone fence and blocked his view through the adjacent yard to the park down the street. The park held the dusty diamond where he and his brother played baseball with the neighbor kids. They never had enough, but played anyway. His brother sometimes took the whole outfield or second and third base. He pitched, not because he was any good, but because he was amenable to doing it. Sometimes, after they’d played a couple of hours, the whole crowd would come to their house, and when his dad returned from work, he’d find them in this kitchen, drinking icy water from plastic tumblers.
His father talked to the boys, asking them about a parent’s new job or some home improvement he’d noticed driving home. He seemed a different man then, an actor he’d seen somewhere before.
He’d always been grateful for his older brother. His private negotiation with their dad smoothed over most conflicts and sometimes brought his younger brother unexpected rewards. “Dad says,” his brother began, and then he would have a bigger pair of shoes or a new blazer.
Once, in high school, he’d climbed out of his window on a summer night to meet his friend down the block. They had no real plans and spent an hour or two wandering the empty neighborhood before both were too tired to pretend it was fun. When he returned home, he saw lights blazing in the living room and found his father and his brother sitting there, waiting. One asked where he’d been. The other listed what might have happened during his silly adventure. He didn’t say anything, except to apologize and promise not to do it again.
They went to bed, and no one said anything about it.
His brother still felt protective. He heard it in their phone conversations when he offered news about work or his wife. He heard it in the orders he’d been issued, “Talk to Dad.” Something told him, “My brother doesn’t think much of me. He’s asking me to prove something.”
His father’s voice retrieved him, and he looked over to see another empty glass and his father staring.
“Sit down… please.”
He took the place across from his dad.
“I’m moving. I’ve sold this place to a guy I used to know at work. He keeps properties, and he thinks he can rent the house.”
“I got an apartment across town, at that swanky new old folks home. You and your brother have your own lives…”
They were so far off his brother’s script. He hardly heard the details, eerie echoes of conversation he now seemed to have dreamed—the lines of an exit his father knew all along.
“Anyway, I haven’t told your brother, but since you’re here, you should know.”
He heard himself say, “He’ll be surprised. We thought you liked it here.”
His father’s grin was unfamiliar and he didn’t know how to share it, but it felt strangely like success, or relief, or another chapter ended.