Roads of the Heart
By Christopher Tilghman
Random House Copyright (C) 2004 by Christopher Tilghman
All right reserved. ISBN: 0679457801
The sound his father had made was “mop-jeck,” or perhaps “mott-seck.”
“I’m sorry?” Eric leaned forward. He was sitting on the edge of a hospital bed, a wood-grained model that the man from the rental company had suggested for a “gentleman’s décor”; his left buttock was asleep. They were speaking over the insistent tinny hum of an electric space heater. They were sitting in his father’s bookish study. Outside the door, the grandfather clock ticked. His father was installed in his wingback chair, which was where he always spent most of these Sunday afternoons, resting after the exertions of church. He had a steel hospital bed table drawn tight in front of him, as if to keep him from pitching forward. He had been listening quietly as Eric did the usual: emptied his mind of news, whatever stray bits, factoids, and epiphanies he could conjure out of the gray background of his suburban life. It was like chanting, this largely one-way form of conversing, an exercise in the free-ranging self-examination one might engage in while praying, or on an analyst’s couch. Unless his father grabbed the bait on a certain subject, Eric would just keep tossing out the line.
It was a dreary March day, casting the kind of spiritual light that seems to illuminate one’s vague fears and concealed regrets. That was the sort of thing Eric had been speaking about, whether he and Gail had made the right choices; whether their son, Tom, blamed him for his uncertain start in life; whether happiness is something you earn and whether unhappiness is a punishment for your sins. It was an odd, rather Calvinistic line for Eric to take: he had erred enough in life not to seek that sort of scorekeeping.
“Mottsecks,” his father said again, working his mouth around its hurried emptiness.
Eric’s father, Frank Alwin, had been a handsome man with a thin and craggy face, a serious nose and strong chin. He was tall and, though quite slender, had always given the impression of power: a gangly welterweight who might still deliver a brutal punch. He had been a dairy farmer of sorts, enough to give him troublesome skin and a penetrating, sun-narrowed scowl, but his real career had been as a state senator in his native Maryland, a career that he conspired to the level of majority leader before his enemies’ plots and his own deep character flaws brought him to his knees. Since then, age and physical calamities had ravaged his body: it was hard to think of any major medical event he had not been through, even if the Big One still seemed well in the future. But because he had lost so much of the use of his body, his eyes could seem almost magical in their ability to communicate, as if his soul had moved from his damaged heart and scrambled brain and taken up residence on those surfaces; the eyes, moist and youthful, quick as cats. Still, when a word is needed, even magic cannot replace it. It mattered to Frank, this ragged verbal fragment, and he looked at Eric desperately but not hopelessly, as if by trying once more, he could make the air in his voicebox behave itself and produce the sounds he imagined so precisely. He pointed his thumb back at his chest and said it again. “Mottsecks. Me.”
Eric had long ago devised an expression for times like this, when the word mattered. It was what one does with a friend who stutters, a look of support and patience, a calming and confident arching of the eyebrows, a face frozen, ready to reanimate as soon as the battle in the mouth’s soft tissue was done.
“Shit,” Frank said. Some years ago he had “plateaued,” as the speech therapists put it, but short words beginning with sibilants had always been easy. “Help.”
“Was it something I said?”
Frank sighed, deep with the frustration that would never be lifted. His blue eyes became moister. This state was actually not so new for him: his emotions had always been too big for him to contain: passions had led him astray; his softheartedness had caused him to hurt people. Tough on the outside; putty in the middle. That’s what had taken Eric most of his fifty-plus years to figure out about this man, a man who never admitted his faults, never apologized, seemed never to feel an ounce of guilt. “Don’t explain; don’t apologize”: that had been his unofficial creed in his political life. A typical postwar man, not one of a “greatest generation” but a human being deformed by history: that’s what Eric had initially concluded back when he used it as a reason for damnation. He had since rediscovered this explanation as a reason to forgive. But it all, the deformation and the subsequent charade, had to have taken a toll; none of it was natural. Eric had been assuming that for years now, inside, his father was bleeding from the wounds.
For a moment it seemed Frank would try the word again, his face tensing for the effort, but then he gave up. “Shit,” he said again. “Skip it.”
“No. Let’s get it. I’ve got time.” Eric tried not to wince as a sudsy mid-Atlantic storm began to splatter against the windows. The drive back up the New Jersey Turnpike in this slush would be hell; he imagined a wreck somewhere near the Cherry Hill water tower that would back up traffic all the way to the Delaware Memorial Bridge. It was Sunday. He always made these trips on Sunday, the day one finally has to make good on everything procrastinated on through the week and weekend.
Frank shook his head but mouthed the damnable word again; his lips were loose and rubbery. Two syllables, soft at the beginning. Sometimes these clues meant something; sometimes they didn’t. “Grammy,” Eric said, an impulse. It didn’t sound anything like the word, but earlier they had been looking at a picture of his grandmother, who had been dead for forty years. Frank had been organizing old photographs, his latest project. “Garden,” said Eric, momentarily caught on words that began with “G.” It was probably time to order seeds, not that the vegetable and flower gardens on the place had ever been of interest to Frank. Gardens were something imposed on the place, and on Frank, by Alice, his elder daughter.
“No, no, no.” Frank pounded his hospital table in frustration, but the attempt came out this time as a plea. “Mottsecks. Help.”
Eric tried to recall exactly what he had been saying when his father interrupted, an impossible task since he was only rarely aware of what was coming out of his mouth in these conversations. From visit to visit he could rattle on at length about almost nothing: who would have thought to tell his elderly father about his neighbor’s new dog, how the housebreaking was going, the installation of an invisible fence? This could be an effective kind of torture, like riding coast to coast in an airplane with one of those people who like people. It reminded Eric of the patient-sitting jobs he used to get at the Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in Hanover, New Hampshire, back during Gail and his fling as rural hippies. Companionship during the long deep hours of the night was the point, but the patients were mostly cancer-ridden old farmers, and Eric was a hippie with long hair and a beard, and he believed that fertilizer was poison, that mechanized farming was evil, that the world was running out of oil anyway.
Off in the house, he could hear Adam Miller making tea. It was an odd arrangement, by Eastern Shore standards, a man as a nurse and a housekeeper for a gentleman; not quite right. What sort of man would do that work, Eric himself asked when Alice proposed Adam almost two years ago.
“What is that supposed to mean,” she snapped back. “Are you asking if he’s gay?” Alice liked to get to the heart of things, although the real person she was defending was their younger sister, Poppy, who was gay and lived in Houston.
Eric wasn’t asking that and he had never done anything in his life but support Poppy. She was the lost baby, the one they all loved best. “I’m just making sure you checked him out,” he said to Alice.
Alice didn’t answer. Of course she had done everything but hire a private detective.
“What does Dad think of him?” asked Eric.
“I don’t think Dad has that much of a choice.”
“I think he liked him.”
And so he did. It was Adam who helped Frank get started in the morning, tied his neckties, faced the daily task of giving him speech, filling in the blanks, writing the letters, making the telephone calls. Frank seemed to accept from the beginning that a man who had been married twice, divorced bitterly by the first—the mother of his children—and widowed by his second, and who had behaved wretchedly to both, probably should end up largely in the company of men. Ever since Marjorie, his second wife, had died of cancer, that’s the way his life had been anyway.
Eric gave his father what he hoped was a sympathetic smile and was met by a shrug. “What a bummer,” Eric said. The wind rattled the windows; the chill seeped into the room.
“Don’t know.” It came out “Du-now.” He meant, as he had previously been able to make clear, that after more than ten years of this he’d come to believe that an inability to speak was an affliction only his God could have served up as a test, a punishment, a preparation for the eternal fire. He did not like others, especially his son, dismissing his own private destiny—brutal as it was—as merely bad luck, simply a weak fitting in his brain plumbing.
“Sure,” Eric said. “Sorry.”
A shrug again, this one delivered with forgiveness, a gentle narrowing of the eyes.
“Want to try to write it?” Eric leaned forward to move the pad on the table under his father’s good hand. Sometimes this worked, but the letters and sounds were just as likely to become scrambled; his hand had deserted him as much as his tongue. Language was now a befuddlement to his whole body.
Frank picked up the pencil, fixed it against his thumb with three fingers as people writing with the wrong hand will do, but then put it down. He raised his bushy eyebrows as a joke. It meant he had given up.
This angered Eric, this luxury of powerlessness. Frank had made this precise gesture long before his strokes, back when he had made a good mess of something, let his children or his wives down, broken his public trust. Powerless in the face of what? His own character? Seeing it, Eric was suddenly back in the heat of older battles with his father, battles not so much won or lost as abandoned in a decisive draw and years of silence. And he was back in his private battles against his own repetition of these faults, his own weaknesses, his own willingness to leave important things undone in the name of what . . . peace? He could see his own eyebrows arching like that: an iterative curse. More and more, these days, as he looked into the mirror, unshaven in the morning, he saw his father’s face staring back.
This is the nature of family, after all, a certain compression of time, a simultaneity: all family joys in a single flutter of the heart; every woe dripping through a single unhealed wound, a fear that to fix any one piece of it, you have to fix it all.
“Is it Maryland? Are you talking about the state?”
“No. No. No.”
Eric drew the letters “M-O-T-T-S-E-C-K” on the pad and circled the “M.” “Is this right? Does it start with M?”
Normally, one might think they were getting somewhere. The problem was that yes could sometimes mean no. No was more reliable—that made its own sense: so much easier to express what he didn’t want than what he did; so much easier to send a dish back to the kitchen than to make it clear what he really wanted. But no was not unfailingly accurate.
“Mike? Mike Greer?” Mike was the plumber in town. It wasn’t right, but Eric was strangely unable to think of relevant or likely words that started with “M.” Mirage. Marriage. Million. Makeshift. Masterpiece. Montana. He didn’t even offer one of those, even though the thought of being on a two days’ hike into Glacier National Park was attractive. Frank was tired out by now, anyway. But the truth was, Frank never really gave up on a word even if others had. In a day or two, or in a few weeks, he might find a picture to point to, or Adam would draw one, or the word itself would emerge from those damaged lips, perfect as a newborn unscarred from its tortured birth. But lately Eric had begun to doubt that everything his father wanted to express was getting out. If the word were a thing, the thing would be found; if it were an errand or a deed, one of them would figure out what it was, all of it being fairly predictable. But what of his father’s thoughts, what of the existential? As Eric had tried to suggest to his sister Alice, even if she did not share Eric’s taste for literature, what of Wallace Stevens’s pressure on the heart of the inexpressible? “Sure. Sure,” said Alice, wary of poetry. But what late-life wisdom or reflection might his father have to share but be unable to express? He was eighty-two now, and despite his apparent indestructibility, he wasn’t going to live forever. It could be like this “mottseck” at the end, the small gathering at the bedside, the various families leaning forward to record the last utterance, only to dissolve into grotesque slapstick: “Did he say ‘glyfith’?” “No, I heard ‘glowforth,’ you know, ‘Go forth.’ ” “You’re all wrong. It was ‘Glaswirst.’ I heard it plain as day. He was asking for a glass of water.”
The door opened and Adam burst in with his tea tray. He was a big man, tall as Frank but much broader, with the sloping shoulders, heavy neck, and round close-cropped head of an athlete. His powerful physique made his talent and commitment to caregiving all the more appealing. On his time off he might well have been a weightlifter or a bruising attackman in the adult lacrosse leagues, but Eric knew nothing of Adam’s private life.
When Adam started working for Frank he had worn white nursing clothes, but within days had understood that this wasn’t necessary or even desired. Now he wore his own uniform, jeans and a sweatshirt, with a fanny pack full of Frank’s necessities: spare reading glasses, medications, pens, and a small steno pad for jotting down notes, or making pictures, or writing words.
Excerpted from Roads of the Heart by Christopher Tilghman Excerpted by permission.
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