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Rides a Stranger
By David Bell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 David Bell
All rights reserved.
My father died slowly.
In his early sixties, after a lifetime of vigorous health and strength, he contracted a rare neurological disorder that killed him inch by inch. First, he couldn't walk. Soon after that, he couldn't dress himself or feed himself. Eventually he was confined to bed, wearing adult diapers. A nurse came and changed him several times a day, rolling him from one side to the other with the detached and practiced care of the medical professional.
My dad's eyes remained sharp and intelligent. He was in there. We all knew that. But his body deserted him, like an electrical device with a failing battery. He slowly wound down, losing motion and control. A slow unraveling.
The last thing to go was his ability to speak.
For several months, his voice became a raspy whisper. Every word cost him effort. To say something as simple as "yes" could take five minutes and reserves of precious energy he just didn't have.
I didn't visit as much as I should have. I lived four hours away in a small college town where I taught American Literature to the indifferent and unwashed masses of middleclass kids at a public university deep in the heart of Kentucky. It was a good job and mostly fulfilling, and I told myself it left little time for regular trips to my hometown to see my father wasting away in a hospital bed. The truth is—I didn't know what I could do for him. Even when my father was at his healthiest and in full voice, we didn't have much to say to each other. We didn't see eye-to-eye politically. His facts came from Fox News, mine from MSNBC. He spent his life working in business, selling auto parts to distributors around the Rust Belt. I spent my life in the ivory tower.
We couldn't even agree when it came to books. I wrote my dissertation on Fitzgerald, specifically The Great Gatsby. Dad's reading habits remained more pedestrian. He read anything that landed on the bestseller list. When I was a child, he read Alistair Maclean and Jack Higgins. Later he switched to Tom Clancy and James Patterson. Big dick books, my ex-wife—also an English professor—used to call them. Big dick books.
And Dad's favorite big dick genre of them all—the western. Oaters. Horse operas. Shoot 'em ups. He read them all. Max Brand. Will Henry. Luke Short. And his favorite of them all—Louis L'Amour. Dad read every Louis L'Amour book ever written. He read and re-read them. He bought multiple copies of them. He'd wear one out from re-reading, and then he'd go out and buy the same book and wear that one out as well. It seemed like strange behavior for a man who grew up in Vermont, lived most of his life in Ohio, and never once ventured west of the Mississippi River.
So, we didn't talk about books either.
But I did hear the last words he ever spoke.
This happened about three weeks before his death. I made one of my infrequent visits. The university I teach at had a fall break, and my mother had been calling me, obliquely warning me that the old man didn't have much time left. She'd say things like, "Well, your father isn't as strong as he used to be." Or she'd say, "Well, we all just have to do what we have to do." I understood. Mom was telling me to come and say good-bye.
So I made the trip. I went into their bedroom, the bedroom in which I was conceived, and which was now filled by a large hospital bed. My dad looked small beneath the tucked in sheets, almost like a sick child. He had lost close to sixty pounds, and when I saw him that day, he looked like a sketch or an outline of himself, something without substance or heft.
I took the seat next to the bed and held his hand. I didn't like holding his hand. My dad had acquired the habit of reaching down beneath the bedclothes, trying to fiddle with or even remove the diapers he wore. I never knew if this was out of discomfort or because he rebelled against the idea of wearing a diaper at all. But his hands were often busy beneath the sheets, and while I never saw anything gross on his hands, I always wondered. Was I touching feces? Or worse? And I never failed to wash my hands when I left his bedside.
The old man looked me in the eye. His eyes were blue like mine. A little watery but bright blue. And intelligent. There could be no doubt someone—Joseph Henry Kurtwood, my father—was staring back at me. He was in there. I knew that.
"How are you, Dad?" I asked.
He didn't say anything. I reminded him that he didn't have to say anything, that I understood he might be too tired to speak and to save his strength. I didn't know—and I'm sure he didn't either—what he would be saving it for, but it was something to say, something to fill the quiet space in the house. The kind of quiet that descends on a house with a dying person inside it.
My mom hovered nearby.
"Don, honey, why don't you tell Dad about your tenure vote?" Mom said, always cheery. "Joe, Don got tenure at the university."
"I thought you wanted me to tell him?" I said.
"Don't be sassy," Mom said. "Tell him about it."
"Sure," I said. "Why not?"
I turned back to Dad. Why not, indeed? The truth is—he didn't really care. And I didn't really care. It was no great accomplishment to earn tenure at a mid-sized public institution in the south. Publish a few articles, go to a few conferences, show up for meetings on time, attend the department holiday party and get a little tipsy but not too drunk, and I was a shoo-in. The department approved me unanimously. They didn't care that Rebecca and I had divorced. Hell, Rebecca voted for me.
But it was something to talk about, the adult equivalent of bringing home a high score on a Civics exam or a report card with more Bs than Cs.
"I got tenure, Dad," I said. "I'm an associate professor of English."
He squeezed my hand.
I took this to be his way of congratulating me, so I said, "Thanks."
He squeezed again. Harder. More insistent.
"Okay," I said. "The vote was unanimous—"
This time he didn't squeeze so much as he tugged my hand, jerking me a little forward in my chair. It surprised me. I didn't know the old man had that much strength left.
"What is it, Dad?" I asked.
He didn't squeeze or tug. His face looked strained, and some of the color had drained from it. His shoulders sank down even farther into the mattress, another little bit of him disappearing.
His lips moved. They moved but no sound came out.
"What is it, Dad?"
"Is he thirsty?" Mom asked. "He always thirsty. It's those pills."
"Are you thirsty, Dad?" I asked. But I knew that wasn't it. His head moved again, almost imperceptibly. Just about a quarter inch of movement. "Do you want ...?"
I stood up. His lips moved some more.
"Is he saying something?" Mom asked.
"I don't know. You keep talking."
I leaned forward, my ear almost pressing against the old man's lips. I felt his breath against my skin, hot and clammy. Dying. The last few weeks of precious breath he had left.
I stood that way for a long time, thinking the moment had passed and no words would come.
But then he said it. Two words.
He said, "Good will."
The end came three weeks later.
Because it took Dad so long to die, there was a lot of time to plan. When I spoke to Mom on the phone that day, she told me that she didn't need any help.
"It's all arranged," she said. "You can come for the funeral."
Something rustled in the background. Then a ripping noise.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"Me?" she said.
She sounded surprised that I would even ask the question. I figured a whole host of people had been asking her that question over the past few years. First, when Dad became sick, and then even more intensely in the wake of his death.
"Yes, Mom. Are you okay? How are you holding up?"
"I'm fine," she said. I heard the ripping noise again. "I'm going through your father's things. I started ... well, you know, before. I took away a number of boxes. But somehow it didn't seem right. You know ... when he was still ... here. But now, there's a lot to go through."
My mother might sound business-like. Even cold. I don't want to give the wrong impression of her. She could be business-like, even in the most stressful situations, but she was also very loving. She read to me constantly when I was a child. She encouraged my scholarly career. She was—is—an excellent mother. But her and my dad? How do I put this? They really weren't in love. They were companions. Roommates. Partners in the strictest sense. They raised a son together. They rowed in the same direction. But it wasn't a love affair. I'm sure Mom saw Dad's death as a passage from one phase of her life to another. When she called to tell me Dad had died, she simply said, "It's over."
"Are you okay being there alone now?" I asked. "In the house?"
"Am I okay being alone?" she said. "Don, I've been alone in this house ever since you moved out. Your father and I were both alone here. It's no big deal." The ripping noise again. "And your father has so many books. So many."
I suddenly figured out what the ripping noise was. Tape. She was taping up boxes of Dad's books. Probably sending them to the library book sale. Mom volunteered there twice a year. It was her pet cause.
I wanted to ask her so much more. I wanted to ask her why she married Dad. I wanted to ask why they stayed married. I wanted to ask about Dad's last words. "Good will."
And I wanted to ask the biggest question of all: Did you know Dad? Did you—or anybody else—really know him?
But Mom moved things along.
"So," she said, the ripping sound of packing tape coming again. "Tuesday then? Don't be late."
In the funeral home, during the viewing, I stayed at the back of the room. The casket remained open, and even though I'd seen my dad just three weeks before his death, wasting away to a stick man, I couldn't bear the thought of being close to his dead body. Even though the funeral home had done a good job on him—according to my mother—and I imagined that he probably looked peaceful or any of the other clichés people threw around on such occasions, I knew Dad wouldn't like it. The whole event felt ... embarrassing somehow. The old man up in a box, wearing a coat and tie he never wore when he was alive. He seemed exposed. Vulnerable.
And very, very dead.
The family members—cousins, aunts, uncles—as well as the women and men my mother knew, found me despite my lingering at the back. They shook my hand, pecked me on the cheek, hugged me, and fussed over me. I was an only child and I had lost my father. Mom remained stationed at the front, accepting condolences and occasionally smiling.
When the man first approached me, I assumed he was another friend of Mom's, someone she knew through church or volunteering at the local school. Except he didn't look like anyone my mother would hang out with. He was short, just over five feet tall. And round, almost as wide as he was tall. His brown suit coat was frayed around the edges of the collar and the sleeves, and his once-white dress shirt looked dingy gray.
"You must be the son," he said. He shook my hand. "I'm sorry about your father."
His voice carried the trace of an accent, something from the East Coast.
"I am," I said. I did the same thing with him that I did with everyone else that night—I pretended I knew who he was. "It's good to see you."
The man smiled. "You're trying to place me," he said.
"No, I ... well, to be honest, there are a lot of relatives here—"
"I'm no relation," he said. "And I'm really not a friend."
"Not a friend?"
He held his smile. "Not a friend of yours, yet," he said. "But hopefully soon." The man looked over both shoulders, as though he thought someone was eavesdropping. The viewing room was emptying out. Only a few stragglers remained talking to Mom up at the front. And, of course, Dad. He was still in his place.
The man reached inside his jacket and brought out a slightly wrinkled business card. He held it out to me, but I didn't take it.
"Are you a lawyer or something?" I asked. "Mom has everything taken care of—"
"Read the card." He moved his hand forward a few inches, almost forcing the card into my hands.
I took it and read. Lou Caledonia, Rare Book Dealer.
I recognized the address under the name. I knew the place. A small, cramped storefront downtown. I'd been there once, many years earlier, just looking around. But I remembered the place. It seemed to specialize in genre fiction—pulp novels, mysteries, men's adventure magazines. Not the sort of reading that appealed to me, so I never went back.
"Did you know my dad?" I asked.
"I wanted to," Lou Caledonia said. "But he didn't want to know me."
Then it slowly dawned on me. "Are you here trolling for business? Because if you are, that's pretty tasteless. This is my father's viewing. You could call next week about his books."
Lou Caledonia looked hurt. The corners of his mouth sagged and he blinked his eyes a few times.
"Please," he said. "No. I'm not that kind of man. And if I've given any offense to you or your family, I deeply apologize and will go."
He held out his hands in front of him and started backing away.
But there was something about him. Maybe it was how quickly he apologized. Maybe it was his droopy dog looks. Or maybe, just maybe, it was because I wanted to understand this man's interest in my father.
"Okay," I said. "No offense taken."
He stopped backpedaling. His smile returned.
"You're a gentleman," he said. "I can tell." He moved closer again. "You're right that I shouldn't conduct business at such a solemn occasion, but you have to understand how important this is to me. And I tried speaking to your father before ... well, before, and I was always rebuffed."
"Do me a favor," he said. He pointed to the card. "Tend to your family. Tend to your mother. But when all of this awful business is done, if you can just spare a little time, come to my shop. Come by and we'll talk. Please?"
I looked at the card again. The shop was on my way out of town.
"Okay," I said. "The burial is tomorrow, and I'm leaving the day after that. I'll swing by during the day."
Lou was already shaking his head. As he shook, the loose skin around his jawline shook as well. His eyes were closed. He looked solemn as a monk.
"Tonight," he said. "Come by tonight."
"Tonight? I can't. I have my mother. And family coming over. It's already eight o'clock."
"I'll be in the shop all night," he said. He started walking away. "Just come by. Please."
"But what's this about?"
He shuffled out of the room, the worn and faded back of his corduroy pants was the last thing I saw.
"Did you see the man I was talking to?" I asked. "At the funeral home."
Mom and I ate in the kitchen. It was just after nine o'clock, and we were both hungry when we got back to my parents' house. Someone had dropped off a pan of lasagna, and Mom heated it in the oven. We both ate a lot, and only after I had the first serving down and started on the second did I ask my question.
"What man?" she asked. "There were a ton of people there. More than I would have expected, even."
"He came at the end," I said. "His name is Lou Caledonia."
"Lou Caledonia?" Mom said. She almost made the name sound like part of a song. She shook her head. "Never heard of him. And, believe me, I'd remember a name like that. How did he know your father?"
"I don't know that he did."
"He owns a bookstore. Used books. It's downtown."
Mom stopped chewing and patted her lips with a cloth napkin. "That explains it. Books. Your father and his books. Do you know how many boxes I hauled out of here while your father was sick? I finally stopped because he saw me doing it and had a fit."
"How could he have a fit? He was bedridden."
"He knew what I was doing. He knocked his water glass off the table, then he said, 'Stop.' One word. I knew what he meant. The books. Leave them alone. And there are just as many still to go. That's one way the two of you were just alike. Obsessed with books."
"Don't compare us that way," I said.
"What way?" she asked. "Is it not true that you and your father both have an insane obsession with books? He filled this house with them, and I've seen your house down in Kentucky. You're on the way to equaling him."
"I'm an English professor," I said. "That's my life. Dad read a lot of schlocky fiction. I'm ..."
I wanted to say I was a scholar, but was I? Just because I had the Ph.D. and wrote about books didn't mean I was a scholar. In fact, was I really contributing anything to the intellectual or cultural life of the world?
Excerpted from Rides a Stranger by David Bell. Copyright © 2013 David Bell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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