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To The Gate Afternoons she leaves the house that is gray with the smell of her father's dying and heads for the race track, letting the colors, the sounds stab at her: the green of the track, the blue of the hot sky, the red of the flowers.
Shouts: "Come on! Come on..." -- "Get it up! Get it up..."
Jockeys -- sexless and raised above flashes of trembling horseflesh. Cheers. Disappointment. A flurry of tickets on the ground. The rush to the windows to cash in on winners.
She's dizzy from the sun, the noise; yet, she keeps walking. Smells of buttered popcorn. Spilled soda. Hot dogs and ice cream. Young men in red T-shirts: Saratoga. Their arms brown, smooth with sweat. She drifts through the grounds, wishing she could feel something. Arms and T-shirts. Red. She brushes her bare arm against that of a man passing her.
No sudden twinge. Like touching a wall. Others. Her flesh against theirs. Skin. Young skin like hers. Nothing.
Nights she lies on the cot outside her father's open door, her head beyond the frame so she won't see his face, only his hands on the blanket, veined and large, too large for his shrunken body. Spots of light brown on his crinkled skin. The gray smell of his cancer has permeated the walls. His breath is shallow. So faint it could stop any moment. And though she can't see his face, it is with her as she lies on the cot, stiffly. His shriveled lips partly open. A pattern of veins on his yellow skull. Like those pictures of emaciated beggars in religious books. This is my father, Elise tells herself, eyes burning, dry. This is my father who is dying. Yet, she feels nothing.
Mornings after the nurse arrives, she gets up from the cot. Moves into her room across the hall. Closes the door. Sleeps without dreams. Wakes in the early afternoon to his dying smell, surrounded by things he built for her: the bookshelves, her desk, the window seat. On the wall his charcoal sketch of the farm in Vermont where he grew up, a cape cod dwarfed by the weathered timbers of the barn.
When she tries to remember what it felt like to love him, she can't. It's as though she were tilted back to the first six years of her life when she felt like a fraud each time her parents told her they loved her. She wasn't sure what it meant -- this thing they called love. Whenever she replied, I love you too, she was afraid they'd find out and send her away. When, finally, she began to link her feelings to the word love, she felt relieved, grateful.
Lying in her room, weighted by the heat of the August afternoon, she finds it impossible to imagine herself returning to law school. Finds it impossible to imagine anything beyond this summer.
Men in red T-shirts. She walks into their way. Collides with them. Wants the shock of another body against hers. Wants to suck up the energy of the races, the colors, the sounds. Perhaps this is what it's like to be dead -- to feel nothing. Yet, she felt after her mother died five years ago: rage, grief, guilt.
The sun burns her bare legs and midriff. She wears her briefest shorts, a blue halter. Sandals. Her hair twisted up to keep her neck free. The grass shimmers under the heat. Shouts. Laughter. Children running. The smell of steamed hot dogs. She eats to service her body. Drinks lemonade that tastes flat. Welcomes the pain in her tooth as she chews the ice. Stares into the sun until everything swims yellow.
When he opens his eyes, they're milky. Clouded. He doesn't recognize her and whimpers when she sets the straw against his lips. Lifting his neck with one hand, she flinches at the touch of his papery skin against her palm. His head lolls back -- a limp puppet. His hands move across the blanket as if searching for something.
Only last fall, when he pruned the hedge in front of the house, his hands were steady, his hair full. He wore a chamois shirt that smelled of clean sweat and pipe tobacco. She can't connect that man to him whose face is a nest of bones against the pillow.
The bar is half dark, filled with people though it's only late afternoon. She finds a stool by the bar, orders beer, wanting the bitter taste in her mouth. A man asks her to dance, and she presses against him on the crowded floor, swaying with the music, trying to drown within the noise, the bodies. He brings her tighter against him, runs his hands down her back, her buttocks. Slides them up along the sides of her body to her breasts. She lets him. They dance, his breath heavy, and she wills herself to respond; yet, her feet move automatically, and she finally loosens herself from his arms, knowing it wouldn't change anything if she went to bed with him.
The nurse has prepared a light dinner for her: a salad with pale strips of turkey and cheese spread over the top like a wilting flower.
"You don't need to sleep in the hallway, Elise. Your room's close enough."
"I might not hear him."
The nurse is a kind woman, a tall woman with wide wrists who likes to earn overtime. "Stay as long as you want to," she encourages Elise every afternoon. And she advises her, "Hang around the fifty dollar window. That's where the pros bet. I always do before I take my money to the two dollar window."
But now she walks from the house, and Elise watches her through the kitchen window, the white of her uniform, of her shoes and stockings, until she gets into her car, a bright red Toyota. Upstairs, in the silence, he is waiting for her to watch him die. Her legs feel heavy as she walks up the steps and stands in the open door of his room. His nose juts from his sunken features; yet, his chest still rises with each breath. Nothing has changed. His hairless skull yellow in the dim light. His hands like broken birds on the blanket.
Lying on the cot, she tries to replay the colors of the track, the sounds, the body of the man in the bar. Yet, everything has faded as though it had happened inside this house. Her father's breath is faint, so faint that sometimes she thinks it has stopped. But, straining for it, she hears it again. It's almost dawn when a familiar voice startles her.
"Three feet to the west..." His voice. Strong. "From this point 230 feet straight to the gate post."
Somewhere, within his decades of memories, her father is walking the property line of the farm in Vermont. She remembers the gate post. Weathered. Smooth. There was no gate, but at the other end of the post stood a picket fence. As a child she spent summers on the farm. Until her grandparents died and it was sold.
"And from the gate post twenty-eight rods up the hill to the granite marker."
She pictures him in heavy boots, counting his steps as he walks uphill through a low stand of pines in the frosty morning air, measuring the land he knows so well. His voice is steady, that of a man who knows his territory, who takes pride in the land he returned to every summer with his children, the land he helped his father clear, muscles swelling on his arms as he lifted cut lengths of timer.
"From the granite marker south..." His voice rises. "...to the brook."
The brook where she piled rocks into a dam, sectioned off a small basin to sail the boats he made for her from twigs and leaves. She couldn't see the house from the brook. Only meadows. Clumps of grass to her ankles. Her heart beating, she waits for her father's voice to take her down the wide dirt road through the orchard, past the shed with the cider press.
She finds herself standing by his bed, leaning over him, wanting to keep him connected to his memories. Her memories. "The orchard. We're walking though the orchard..."
But his voice has stopped. His eyes are closed, and his breath catches each time he exhales. Yet, only moments ago he was free, striding the boundaries of his parents' land, deciding his own direction.
Lifting his head, she carefully supports it with one hand while raising his pillow. Now his breath comes easier. The blanket above his chest rises. Falls. Rises. A blue vein pulses in his temple.
Her throat aching, she whispers, "The cider press. Remember the smell of the apples?"
His lips move.
She draws closer.
"Three feet to the west..." He has returned to where he started out. "From this point 230 feet straight to -- " He moans. His fingers pluck the blanket.
She lays her right hand over his frail fingers. They tremble. Then yield to her touch and rest. His skin is warm. Dry. "To the gate post," she urges him on.
"To the gate post. And from the gate post 28 rods up the hill..." Her father's voice swells. Fills the room. "...to the granite marker. From the granite marker south...to the brook..."
Copyright © 1988 by Ursula Hegi