Editor’s note: this piece is a continuation of Damon’s Books and Coffee piece, published in August.
That same day, Dad and I did go to the coffee shop and bookstore. The coffee shop, or what my father calls the coffee shop, is a bakery that specializes in bagels. The place was busy when we arrived. Dad asked me what I wanted before we reached the counter. I didn’t want anything, but I ordered a small coffee, lots of cream, no sugar. Dad ordered a large latte. The waitress brought him a small latte by mistake.
Dad walked his cup back to the counter and told the young woman who had made the coffee that he had ordered a large latte, not a small one. She didn’t seem to understand what Dad was saying, as if he had spoken to her in another language. Mercifully, and because my father is a regular at the bakery, another server recognized him. This server, a young, waifish, nervous looking man told my father he would take care of his order. Dad laughed off the miscommunication. The server laughed, too. They all knew him, except for the new girl who eventually held up her hands and also laughed, as though she had finally caught onto the joke, which, in her mind, could only have been that my father was senile, which he isn’t. She had a mouthful of gleaming white teeth, too. How is this possible?
Dad’s large latte arrived, newly foamed. He sat down at our table with the mechanical hesitancy of the old man he has become, and I sat across from him. He sipped his coffee and watched the line of customers getting longer and longer. He stared outside at people having breakfast or drinking coffee, and I knew what was coming.
“Why do grown men dress like boys?” he asked. “Grown-ass men. Cargo shorts. T-shirts. Baseball caps. My god, when I was a little boy you wore a baseball cap because you played baseball. Do you think any of these people play baseball?”
“Probably not,” I answered.
“They don’t play baseball.”
“No. Probably not.”
“Why do they all dress like little boys then?”
“I don’t know, Dad.”
We sipped our coffee.
“Check him out.”
I turned to look outside. There were families, couples, and a few individuals sitting at their tables alone.
“Who am I checking out?” I asked him.
“The old man over there, the old man sitting at the table in the shade. You see him?”
I saw the man he was talking about. He sat by himself, reading a newspaper. His coffee mug sat within easy reach.
“What about him?”
I looked at him again.
“How do you know he’s dying?”
“Well, look at him.”
I looked again.
“He looks like an old man drinking coffee, Dad.”
“So how do you know he’s dying?”
“I just know. That’s a dead man walking.”
He ignored the old man outside and turned to the inside customers. He stared at them over the rim of his coffee cup, as he sipped away. He shook his head. He nodded. He mumbled words to himself or perhaps to me. Either way, I could not understand him.
“It’s a helluva thing.”
“It’s just a helluva thing.”
I noticed myself staring at customers. Here we are, all of us, trapped in the confines of time. Our ends are certain. Our means are not. How well can we ever love anything or anyone? Our own conversations darkening into silence. How much would I give to let one good moment go on longer, approaching if not becoming a glint of eternity?
I keep picturing a man who builds a fire in the desert. The flames flickering up from mere twigs, turning his face the color of sand, and he leans over and blows gently beneath the twigs. He has made his small torch within a cosmos and beneath a heaven of stars. Would it not be enough for us to sit longer beside this fire? Surely any of us would become restless. Yet we go on lining up for coffee wondering how long it will take. Love, I sense, is both the end and the means. But must I leave the fire or must I share it? A click of stones, a spark of magnesium flakes, and Dad tells me he has to go to the restroom.
Neither of us have finished drinking our coffee when Dad returns and announces that he’s ready to go to the bookstore. This is part of what has changed in him. He can’t be in places very long. He goes back to the old coffee shops and diners and places where he’s had good experiences, but something isn’t there for him anymore. He then gets restless and wants to leave.
The bookstore, like Dad’s coffee shop, isn’t a bookstore. Rather, it’s a junkshop that carries a lot of books. Two years ago I went into the same junkshop and found a copy of Andrew Wyeth: The Helga Pictures. I wanted to purchase the book, but it cost thirty-five dollars—a deal, I realized, but I didn’t have thirty-five dollars.
The book was on top of a glass display case. I don’t remember what else was in the case. In 1971, Wyeth began painting Helga Testorf. He painted, sketched, and made watercolor images of the German émigré for 15 years. They remained friends, or, as Wyeth said, “family,” until his death in 2009. I tend to delineate my somewhat clinical knowledge of the book from my otherwise wistful speculations about the origins of the paintings. Perhaps Wyeth and Testorf had been lovers, which is part of what many of us wish to believe. We like to sense that other lives, in or out of love, are more enchanting than our own. Or we may simply enjoy scandal. The scandal, if we desire to call it that, of the Helga paintings was their supposed secrecy, both about how the paintings came to be and about the relationship between the artist and the model. Wyeth, however, said theirs had not been a physical relationship, though this doesn’t dismiss the possibility of intimacy.
Up until two years ago, I had not seen a copy of the book. I had seen pictures in other books and articles written about Wyeth. The painting of Helga called “Day Dream” is a portrait of desire. She is unreachable, which, naturally, heightens our desire. We can feel desire even for the bed curtain or for the wind lifting it. Without the bed curtain, the painting would be too raw, too sexual, and desire could not be fed. There is also desire for the two open windows, for the warm wall behind the bed, for the shadows that frame them. There is a cleanliness to the room and a hope that perhaps this woman, naked and lovely on her bed as she is, might desire us, might desire me.
And I combed through three-stories of bric-a-brac, through Hot Wheels, watches, pipes, magnifying glasses, dolls, glass jars, deer antlers, Sunday paintings, and stacks of books, but I could not find The Helga Pictures.
“Are you looking for something?” Dad asked.
“I’m looking for that book of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings of his lover. Well, maybe his lover.”
“You can’t find it?”
“No. It’s not here.”
“Maybe someone bought it.”
“Maybe. Did you find anything?”
“Did you look downstairs?” he asked me.
“I didn’t know there was a downstairs.”
He nodded and extended his neck slightly. I recognized the nod.
“Hang-on,” he said. “I need to spit.”
“Downstairs is over there.” He strained and pointed.
“I’ll go look… go spit, Dad.”
I poked around downstairs. There were certainly more books than I had expected, and it wasn’t long before Dad came downstairs. He started searching the shelves, too, but neither of us found a copy of the Wyeth book.
“Well,” he said, “no luck on Miss Helga, but it looks like you found a couple anyway.”
“What did you find?”
I handed him two books.
“Are they good ones?”
One of the books I found was Wildtrack: Reminiscences of a Nature Detective by Hugh Falkus. I was not aware that Falkus wrote outside the subjects of salmon or sea trout fishing, but Wildtrack is about being a naturalist. I had been fascinated with the idea of becoming a naturalist since one Christmas many, many years ago now when Dad had given me a copy of Gerald Durrell’s Amateur Naturalist: A Practical Guide to the Natural World. The other book I found was A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ‘20’s by Roger Kahn. I enjoy books that cover sports from the earlier half of the 20th century. I don’t follow sports anymore, though there was a time when I could have quoted more baseball stats than poetry. Interestingly, too, sporting books are common finds in junk stores—sporting books and political books. Unless they are exceptional, either for their writing or their historicity, sporting books, like political books die cold on the vine. Consider that fact. Consider that a fairly average romance novel is worth at least a couple of reads.
“They’re good ones,” I said.
Dad flipped through the pages of the Kahn book. I took back the Falkus volume.
“Listen to this,” I said.
I opened the book and started to read. Christmas 1980: I loved this book. Jenny, I hope that you love it as much as I did. With Love, Twiggy.
For a moment, Dad and I stared at each other.
“Now here it is,” Dad said, with his hands stuffed in his pockets, swiveling his head, “in a junkshop.”
“What do you think Jenny’s story is?” Dad asked.
“I don’t know. She probably didn’t like to read. What do you think happened to Twiggy?”
“Poor Twiggy. Gave away a book he loved and it was thrown away in a junkshop. That’s how the womens will do you, brother.”
“How do you know Twiggy was a ‘he’?”
“I’m just guessing.”
We headed up the stairs. I walked close to Dad going up the stairs, but I did not take his arm. I walked close, and I could feel he was glad for this.
I asked him, “What’d you find?”
He handed me a copy of Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome.
“Are you giving up on Doc?”
“No, but I thought I’d read a little more about Hadrian. He was a fascinating guy, you know. I love the Greeks, and I believe Hadrian wanted a return to that older world. And if he couldn’t find it, then by god, he was going to make it. Can you imagine an ancient Roman missing another ancient world? To us they’re all ancient. And if Hadrian couldn’t make it then he was going to practice it.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Practice it. If Hadrian couldn’t find the old world, then he was going to practice it.”
We reached the top of the stairs.
“Fake it till you make it, brother. Let me see your books.”
I handed my books to Dad, thinking he wanted to flip through them again. Instead, he took them to the cashier.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m getting your books for you.”
“No you’re not.”
“I want to.”
“I can get them, Dad. I’ve got the money. I’ve done okay the last couple of years.”
“I know it, but I’m gonna get your books for you anyway.”
He set the books on counter. After he did, the cashier looked up half surprised that anyone had come to the counter.
“Did you find anything, gentlemen?” she asked. She smiled as she picked-up our books.
I stepped forward a bit too quickly and wedged myself between the counter and Dad.
“Yes, mam,” I said, “We found a couple of good ones.”
“Fine.” Dad said.
“Oh, this one looks interesting!”
She held up Hadrian. Good grief.
“It should be!” I said, again a little too quickly, a little overly enthusiastic. Dad stood behind me and off to the side, waiting for his chance. I could feel it.
“Now he was Greek, wasn’t he?” She looked at me. “Or was he a Roman?”
“I’m pretty sure he was a Roman.”
Dear god. Where is Dad?
“I wasn’t sure either, but Roman sounds good!” She laughed.
Dad slipped cash up under my arm and onto the counter.
The cashier brought back change and handed it to me and then put the books into a paper sack and handed the sack to Dad.
“That’s my change,” Dad said.
The lady glanced at Dad then at me.
“I got your change, Dad.”
“I’m just making sure the lady here knows it’s my change.”
“She knows it’s your change.”
“What? I was—”
“Thank you, mam.”
“Enjoy the rest of your afternoon gentlemen,” grinning at us.
Dad took the sack.
“Thank you, mam,” he said.
We walked outside.
“You was worried I was going to say something?”
I shook my head.
“I wasn’t going to say anything.”
After being inside the junkshop, outside felt open and warm. Sunlight fell brightly on the buildings and sidewalks. I squinted my eyes and wondered again why I didn’t own a pair of sunglasses. It felt good to be outside. It felt good to have the sun on my skin. I live in a cold place where we don’t have sunlight for a couple of months out of the year. People were walking about, too, mostly couples and small families. They looked happy enough. Grown men in cargo shorts and baseball caps and women beside them, dazzling like polished glass. What does anyone dream anymore?
Dad sauntered along, the way some old men do when they try to avoid the shuffle. He swung his arms. He kept his head high. He adjusted his straw fedora to make sure it sat at that jaunty angle on his head. His goatee, white as deer hair, had been trimmed recently. Without his noticing, I checked the corners of his mouth to make sure there were no tobacco stains there. I didn’t want him to look unclean or like an old man who couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of himself any longer.
We hadn’t gone far when Dad stopped and got out his phone. He handed it to me.
“Here, take my picture.”
“Take your picture?”
“Yeah. Look at this.”
There was a car door welded to a pipe and the pipe set in a large concrete stand. The contraption was positioned a few feet out from the red brick wall of another antique store.
“Take my picture.”
Dad squatted down beside the car door. He positioned his arm along the outside of the door and pretended to hold a steering wheel. I took the photo.
“Did you get it?”
“I think so.”
He squats down again and this time stares out the car window at me. He smiles real big, and I take another photo. His fedora tilts further back on his head and his gold-rimmed glasses are too big for his face. He smiles his tobacco smile. He smiles for all the world. Like a big yellow dog leaning out of a car window over an open road.