Books and coffee. That’s what Dad said life was coming down to. He had made quips like this before, back 20 years ago when he would wander into a room and let everyone know what he was thinking. For instance, he would flop down in his blue recliner and hold out his hand with his palm facing downward and say, “Me and my yellow dog. That’s what it’s all come down to, me and my yellow dog.” I suppose he wanted me to comment on the fact that there was no yellow dog next to his chair. There was no yellow dog anywhere in his life. He petted only the air.
“You don’t have a yellow dog, Dad.”
“I know, but if I did, I’d give it a little scratch on the head.”
“Just a little scratch.”
This was Dad’s yellow dog period. And he had others. They’d almost scale. Anything to do with “Dogs Playing Poker.” Pier fishing. A motorcycle. A grandchild. There never was a woman though. He had dropped women out of his system by the time I got married. For the record, the day before I got married, Dad quoted Tolstoy to me. “Never, never marry, my friend. Marry when you’re old and good for nothing… Otherwise all that is good and lofty in you will be lost.”
A few years later he reminded me of Socrates, who, in some final claim about his relationships with women, said, as quoted by my father: “God delivered me from that a long time ago.” I don’t know what my mother thought of these expressions. She stayed with him. He loved her, and I don’t know if Mom ever entered the realm of “the womens.” The womens is how Dad referred to nearly all females, including my sister and her four daughters.
Whenever my sister and her daughters were expected for a holiday or an extended weekend at my parents’ home, there came a point before their arrival when Dad asked my mother, “What time are the womens coming over?”
My mother stared at him with her own private ferocity before saying, “Do you mean our daughter and our GRANDDAUGHTERS?”
“My daughter. My granddaughters. The womens. What time are they coming over?”
They would carry on from there, or they wouldn’t.
I enjoyed Dad’s country music period. He started listening to those tunes and singers he had followed when he had been a teenager. I don’t recall how this phase started. I know we would every so often catch those tunes on the radio. Afterwards, Dad liked to say, “You don’t hear songs like that no more.” He was right, of course. But I understood Dad had obsessed when he purchased a boxset of CD’s called The Classic Country Collection. That’s when every trip to the store, to the gas station, to the church, to some dive out in the country was scored by a young Willie Nelson, Faron Young, Lefty Frizzell and Ray Charles. Dad thought Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was one of the best country albums ever made. He was wild about that song “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” We’d hear that song and Dad would start talking about some dance he had attended as a boy and some girl who pressed closer to him every time Ray sung “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Dad ended these digressions with a sound like a “Mmmm.” Amazed, I suspect, that he had ever been capable of such exquisite lust.
The real story came when Dad started pretending he was a country music singer. He took to wearing a cowboy hat. He tilted this straw cowboy hat off the center of his head, at what people used to call a jaunty angle. After a month or so of wearing this cowboy hat, Dad came out of his study one evening with a guitar.
My mother said, “Where did you get that?”
“I’ve had this guitar.”
“I’ve never seen that guitar. I’ve never seen any guitar in this house. And I keep the house.”
“Sure. I’ve had this for a long time.”
Mom shook her head.
“I have. I just haven’t played it in a while.”
“I hope you don’t start playing it now.”
What surprised me is that Dad could play. He honestly could play. I have no idea when or how he learned to play guitar, but he played it, and I remember how joy leapt out of my skin whenever I heard him play. He played long enough that I started believing it might stay with him. Yet when Dad began wearing nothing but the cowboy hat and tighty-whities to play his guitar, I knew this time was over. Playing guitar had been reduced to the memory and imitation of a favorite uncle who had done much the same. Dad, all of him, took to stretching out in his blue recliner, with one leg crossed over another, his cowboy hat set at a jaunty angle, and the scrim of his tighty-whities peeking out beneath the folds of his stomach. The guitar rested across the arms of his recliner. He’d reach over occasionally and strum the strings, but he didn’t play anymore. The sight became too much for my mother. In response, she bought a television and took it to her bedroom.
And I could speak of years. I could speak of a life formed and cut by memories. I could speak of love and compassion. I could speak of autumn evenings spent watching baseball, of moments ever deepening in the ordinary enchantments of rain and summer afternoons that settle, finally, into a cool. I could speak of individuals whose stories have given life. But when I went back to town to visit my parents a couple of months ago, I recognized that the work of staying alive for Dad had become a struggle.
There is a look that comes to all of us if we live long enough. I don’t know how to describe the look except to say we appear to shrink into our own mortality. The once strong arms of our grandmothers become thin levers on hesitant frames. The once sure steps of our fathers and mothers become measured ones. And no one, least of all the old folks, is surprised by the fall that is sure to come. What surprises us, what shakes us is our first glimpse of real frailty, and it is not our own frailty that we first notice and wither from, but of those whom we have loved.
Dad piles books within easy reach of his blue recliner. To his left, he can lower his hand to pick up either a plastic cup filled with tobacco spit or Legends of the West: The Life and Legacy of Doc Holliday. He could also pick up a commentary on Shakespeare or Bleak House or a poetry anthology. For the past three or four years, he has been reading about Doc Holliday. I don’t know why. For my father, Doc Holliday, Tombstone, and the OK Corral have become reference points for the trials and triumphs of experience. If someone announces their tooth hurts, Dad reminds them that Doc Holliday was a dentist. If my mother announces, as she does every couple of years, that she is going to visit her cousins in Texas, Dad reminds her that Doc Holliday had been in love with his cousin.
“What does that have to do with me?” Mom asked.
“ I thought maybe you’d want to know about Doc.”
“You might someday.”
“Me and Doc aren’t that close. Never will be.”
To the right of his recliner is an end table. This is where Dad sets his coffee cup and a crystal bowl filled with peanut M & M’s, and usually, another book or two.
On the wall in front of Dad’s recliner is a flatscreen television, to the right of the television is a tall bookcase. I stood in front of the bookcase, wondering what new reads might be there. The shelves are mostly filled with works about Classical Greek and Roman cultures. But there are also hidden books, which is to say books that have been purchased and hidden from my mother.
“Are you finding anything good?”
I glance over my shoulder. Dad has his recliner leaned back as far as it can go and a book flat on his lap. His glasses are far too round, far too large for his face. I turn back to the books.
“Sure. I always find something good.”
“What are you finding?”
“Let’s see,” I check the shelves. “Here’s a copy of Morning, Paramin by Derek Walcott, with Peter Doig illustrations.”
“It’s right here.” I hold up the book to show him.
“Hmm. I don’t know where I got that one. Is it any good?”
“Should be. I’ve never read it. I like Derek Walcott.”
“Well…here is an illustrated edition of Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika.”
“What’s that about?”
“About a girl who grew up in Kenya before War World I.”
“That must be one of your books.”
“Take it if you like. Take any of them you like. They’re all yours anyway.”
Those words. He has said those words to me for years now. They affect me enough that I can no longer look through his books.
“What are you reading, Dad?” I walk over to him.
“A biography of Martha Gellhorn.”
“Not Doc Holliday?”
“Doc was an interesting man.”
“That’s what you’ve said.”
“You know, people who knew him said he never got nervous in a gun fight. That’s what made him dangerous. Apparently, he didn’t get rattled.”
“What about Martha?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m just starting this one.”
“No one shot at her?”
“Probably someone did, probably more than once.”
“She was a remarkable lady though. A good writer. She was a better war writer than Hemingway, at least as a journalist.”
I rub his shoulder. I notice the recent thinness of his body.
“How do you feel, Dad?”
“I’m better than I was a couple of weeks ago. Doctors will make you sick one way or another.”
“I know it.”
“But I’m alright,” he shrugs and lifts the Gellhorn book. He sets it down again and stares at the muted television.
I stand beside him long enough to realize I am standing beside him. I feel shy. I feel awkward about my own inability to love closely. My father never liked anyone to read over his shoulder. But I am not reading. I am with my dad. This is not a man in a hospital bed. This is not a man wired to monitors. This is not a man impaired or in need of nurses. This is a man who has aged, whose health has been compromised by his own lack of care for his own body, and I did not wish to search my memories for who else this man has been in his complicated life. Yes, we all have complicated lives. It is an over-used expression. Yet some lives are complicated, lived as they are through divisions, discomfort, particularities, pleasures, what has been given, what has been lost. There is no summary I could make. I silence the unsaid with another touch on my father’s shoulder. Soon I remove my hand and sit down in the chair opposite his, on the other side of the end table.
“What do you want to do today, Pop? Go to the bookstore?”
“Yeah, maybe the bookstore.”
“Go get a cup of coffee?”
“Maybe get a coffee.”
Dad opens the Gellhorn biography. The shuffling sound of a few pages, then a turning back.