A man in a drooping undershirt, too young to look so old and defeated, slouched in a folding chair in the front yard. His eyes followed her car as she passed.
CURE-ALL BY REBECCA BECK 34THPARALLEL MAGAZINE ISSUE 67
Karen drove eight hours straight from grad school to see for herself how her father was doing. Her 1964 Beetle rattled down the highway. She was sure it would fall apart if she sped up to 60.
Seven years ago, when her parents let her pick a second-hand car as a high school graduation gift, this car’s comforting putter won her over. Now a hole under the back seat threatened to drop out the battery. She didn’t even want to think about the air-cooled engine in another Madison winter. By January her bug would be useless for getting her to class.
When Karen entered her father’s room in the oncology wing she called a hello but he didn’t answer her. His perpetual stinging indifference didn’t lose its impact. She assessed the room, picked up the remote—casual and aloof, as if visiting him in a cancer ward was an everyday occurrence. She knew taking control of the TV would get his attention.
In order to sit up on the edge of his bed, her dad had wedged himself into a tight space. His knees nearly touched the concrete block wall and his bare feet dangled from the bed. Heavy window curtains closed off all but a crack of sunlight that scratched a shining arrow onto his thick mass of graying hair.
With his backside exposed to the door, she didn’t know where to look. Jesus! Why couldn’t he just wear his own pajamas instead of these humiliating gowns? She squeezed into his impossible location to plant a kiss on his rough cheek.
He responded in his grizzled voice, a vestige of radiation treatments, “You made it.” Reaching up to pat her back he asked, “Where’s your mom?”
“I think she’s at the house.”
He nodded, as if he knew something beyond her understanding. He didn’t mention the remote.
Karen stumbled back out of the tight space between the bed and the wall and sank into a green vinyl chair. Her bare legs stuck to it.
She wanted to do something, maybe crack a joke about his new digs, anything that might cause him to break into half a smile, but he was somewhere else. She clicked the remote to a rerun of Gunsmoke, just at a shoot-out.
As the TV broke to a commercial for a toothpaste, one that freshened breath, her dad began another wrestling match between his will and his fading body. He bent over as if to extract a deep-seated demon, wheezing then hacking from the deepest part of his lungs. Spent from the effort, he fell onto the pillows.
Her dad’s hard labor caused a tight knot of panic in Karen’s chest. She wanted to take his hand, but they had never held hands, so she reached over to help him cover his legs with the blanket.
A nurse, or maybe it was an aide, came in chipper and loud, wearing what looked like fluorescent pink pajamas.
“Hello Sam, I’m Angie! How are you today, sweetie? Let me take your temperature and blood pressure, okay?” The contrast of the childish uniform with her heavy purple eye shadow lent an element of the surreal to the situation.
Her dad grimaced, too weak to even try joking with her, which would be his usual mode in any other situation—restaurant, grocery store—he’d grab any invitation to flirt with any female.
“Can you get me something stronger than Tylenol?”
“I’ll sure make a note of it on your chart, honey, and when the doctor comes in tomorrow, he’ll figure out what you need.”
After Angie left, he turned to Karen, “I want to go home.”
“I’ll talk to Mom. We can get a nurse to come to the house so you can be in your own bed. I’m going to head home now. I’ll see you later tonight, OK?”
He didn’t respond and Karen stood to leave. She took a step toward the door but something stopped her. She might not have another shot at being with him. She turned back and through the fog of mixed feelings that marked their years together, she said, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she thought he may have whispered.
Karen drove the 30 minutes to her parents’ home, fuming the entire way. She sped past the May explosion of magnolias without a glance. They’re doing nothing for him. Why Tylenol for Christ’s sake? What are they worried about, that he’ll get addicted to morphine at this stage? And if he did, would it matter?
The family needed to do something radical. If he could get out of the hospital for the comfort of home and his own bed, and eat healthily, he could buy himself more time. They’d get a nutritionist to help them plan meals, consult with a naturopath and a psychic healer. Hell, maybe he could even beat this thing.
When she entered the back door, the depth of the kitchen’s silence stunned her. She was used to the bustle of activity—her mother tuned to the TV in the kitchen while baking her latest dessert, her dad in the garage, the noise of his power tools yammering in the background. The same sunlight that etched her father’s hospital bed now blazed through the window over the sink. Dropping her bags, she walked with the soft steps of an intruder. She looked around, wondered who kept it so clean now that she and her sister, who had been consigned to housework every Saturday, were both gone.
Karen glanced at the golden oak door to the pantry, which in her childhood, she had loved for the image of a bearded man in a wizard’s hat that she saw in its curving grain. There was no time to waste. One thing she could do in this moment was cook medicinal foods for him.
She opened the door and poked beneath the brown grocery bags stacked over the vegetable bins and found a few sparse carrots and some sweet potatoes. She rummaged further and uncovered a turnip, grabbed several red onions and some garlic bulbs; all would help clear his blood of its radioactive toxins. If only she’d brought some ginger root and her Goldenseal.
She dropped everything in the kitchen sink. In the refrigerator she found spinach, which she’d add later, and she thought she’d scrounge the garden her dad started last year, for volunteer green onions, which she knew he loved, and maybe even stray bursts of thyme. This is how he should eat every day from now on.
The soup simmered, releasing a medley of onion, sweet potato, and paprika aromas into the room.
Keys rattled in the door and Karen turned and forced a smile as her mother came in carrying a shopping bag.
Her mother was usually as stoic as her dad, but now she sank into Karen’s arms, the bulky sack between them pushed what felt like a shoebox into their thighs. And then, Karen could no longer hold her tears back.
“I know this is hard for you, honey,” her mother said.
“I think he’d be a lot better, if we could get him out of there and bring him home. They’re not doing anything for him anyway!”
“There’s no way he can come home.”
“I can’t take care of him here.”
Karen brushed straying hair behind her ear, “I can leave school for a while and help, we can get a nurse to come in.”
“No, I can’t do it.”
“But Liz will be home later tonight. She can help too!”
Her mother unpacked the shoebox from the bag. “This isn’t negotiable; we’re not getting your sister involved, so don’t ask her. He’s not coming home.”
Karen’s stomach tightened. In her eyes, her mother was leveraging her dad’s vulnerability to exact revenge. His years of brash moods, his harsh, booze-infected judgments, the punishing emotional distance—this was the moment her mother seized for leaving him.
“But what are we going to do? He’s desperate to come home.”
“I can’t do it. He needs more than I can handle. I won’t do it.”
Karen walked over to the soup, stirred the vegetables up from the bottom. It was ready for the spinach.
She felt, more than heard her mother leave the kitchen. The soup brought to mind family dinners, how after her dad downed a few drinks, he would spout a provocative remark, trying to goad her mother into an argument. She recalled her mother always taking the bait, how red-faced, she countered his outlandish assaults, and how within no time, the exchange overheated. Karen couldn’t bear to witness the vitriol at their sorry table. She could hardly wait until her dad scowled, pushed back his chair, and retired without another word.
“It’s the war,” her mother once said, “most of your friends’ fathers returned this way,” as if that were an assurance that they were not the only family in the neighborhood missing a happy-go-lucky dad.
Karen learned to live with the churn of her dad’s mood shifts—for better and worse. As she sampled a spoonful of the soup, she recalled how when she started fourth grade, her dad must have sensed her loneliness when so many of her friends’ families, spurred on by racial tensions and outright hatred, sold their homes and moved to new neighborhoods—those out of reach for most people of color. He didn’t discuss the massive exodus with her, nobody did.
Rather, between mid-April and June, he’d tell her to jump in his rusting army jeep, rain or shine, and they would drive the three miles to the south shore of Lake Michigan. They hiked away from the beach and into the woods. About a half-mile in, they passed the abandoned neighborhood where her dad grew up. When she first saw the overgrown tangle of caved-in roofs and the deep shadows stretching from behind their smashed windows, Karen rushed to catch up to her dad’s long stride.
They made their way to where beech and maple trees grew at the base of a long stretch of enormous sand dunes. Here, they spent entire afternoons searching the new spring undergrowth for sightings of the pink lady’s slipper, Cypripedium acaule.
Her dad described how, when he was as young as eight, his grandfather taught him how to find the orchids, and the two made a pact to guard the knowledge. In doing so, her great-grandfather helped secure the preservation of the delicate blooms for another generation.
He stooped to move aside a clump of ferns, and gazed beneath them, searching for bursts of pink. “And now it’s up to you to keep their location secret, so one day, your kids can enjoy them.”
“But won’t the mills take over this spot like they did your old neighborhood?”
He stood and turned to gaze at the peaks of the dunes, “Maybe, but for as long we can, we’ll keep coming back to check on the orchids.”
On that day, Karen searched with a new degree of purpose, and when she spotted a swath of the luminous blooms, she whispered a long, exhaled “wow!” On each stem, a brilliant pink slipper hung beneath its curled and dangling secondary petals, which formed the shoe’s unraveled laces. It looked like a troupe of miniature ballet dancers had just untied, and then stepped out of them. Karen got out her Brownie Starlet and squinted through the viewfinder.
As a biology major, those same moments of awe when uncovering an unexpected specimen in the field, and then gazing at its universe of cells through her microscope, remained sharp as ever. And now, if her mother and sister wouldn’t back her, she’d leave her studies behind for a while. At the very least, she could provide more nourishing food for her dad, and maybe even use a bit of her knowledge of plants to his advantage.
As she chopped more thyme, Karen couldn’t shut out the image of her father’s reddened, clammy face as he struggled through his coughing fits. She replayed the sight of his bent-over body, of the flaccid skin on his arms that until recently, were muscular. This was the first time she saw him succumb to anything, great or small, and his surrender terrified her.
Minutes later, ladling the soup into her dad’s thermos, she realized this was the time of year when the Cypripedium’s first stems uncurled from their loamy habitat. She didn’t know if they still existed. She hadn’t been back to the spot in years.
Her great-grandfather was right to guard the orchids’ whereabouts. And now, if they still existed, wouldn’t he want her to dig up some of their roots to alleviate her dad’s symptoms? Wasn’t there poetry in the fact that the very plant her great-grandfather once introduced to her dad when he was just a young child, might now be the miracle that turned things around for him?
“Mom,” she called down the hallway, I need to go to the hospital. Can I take your car?”
Karen found her mother in bed, sleep mask in place.
“Mom,” she whispered.
Karen returned to the kitchen, packed the thermos into a canvas-tote, added some fresh fruit, a cloth napkin, and one of the silver soup spoons from the drawer.
Karen turned onto the main road and headed toward the lake instead of the hospital. She didn’t know what she’d find when she reached the dunes. For all she knew, the area was now a dumping ground for industrial waste. The once clear lake water might be foaming and polluted, lapping at the feet of rusting cranes. She had also heard stories of how the decline of the region’s economy brought new dangers—crack houses instead of vacation rentals, prostitution rings filtering through what used to be neighborhood bars, bodies dumped in the dunes by warring gang members.
The light was waning when she reached the old State highway—a two-lane, potholed vestige of a road, long-neglected with the advent of the interstate 10 years ago. She sped past familiar landmarks until she came to the traffic light that marked her turnoff onto Clark Street. She almost didn’t recognize the intersection. The spare brick homes lining Clark looked like they should have been condemned. Plywood boarded the front windows in one house, yet a car sat in its driveway, and in its porch lights a chained Pit Bull strained against a rotting post. A man in a drooping undershirt, too young to look so old and defeated, slouched in a folding chair in the front yard. His eyes followed her car as she passed.
Further north abandoned lots replaced the crumbling brick homes. Half-fallen fences bordered nothing but tall weeds. A wind-bent swing set stood as a lone vigil in another lot, and Karen thought of the laughter that must have spilled into neighbors’ open windows this time of year. As the road dwindled to dirt-encrusted sugar sand, Karen could smell the lake in the distance.
When she parked the car and stepped out, she felt the sand mold to her feet. She noticed that Spring Peepers had begun their early evening rumble, competing with the distant sounds of traffic and the clatter of the steel mill.
She was so close to the mill’s buildings and smoke stacks she could smell sulphur and noxious fumes from the smelting plant.
She pictured the tiny wooden outpost that was once Clark Station, right where her car now sat, where her grandfather operated the ticketing and telegraph service. She recalled a grainy photo of him standing on the station’s covered train platform, smiling from beneath a derby hat, his hand on her dad’s tiny shoulder.
She walked to the front of the car, looking for the trail she and her dad used to take. She saw a couple of areas where the dune grass opened to what could be sandy pathways, and relying on nothing but intuition, took the one on her far right. She plunged forward, her flip-flops slapping.
She hadn’t thought to bring a flashlight, but she had a garden trowel and bucket. She knew that if, after about 10 minutes, she spotted the remains of her dad’s childhood home, then she was on the right track.
After walking for what seemed to be longer than she should have, Karen heard waves crashing. A few minutes more, and she saw them. They came high and white-capped and crashed down hard onto the shore.
She had missed the remains of her dad’s neighborhood. She hadn’t found the intersecting path that would have taken her to the neighborhood. It would have then curved to the foot of the dunes and to the flowers that she was convinced her dad needed.
Within mere minutes, the softening light on the water transformed itself from diffuse patches of pale coral to a single blazing orange disc. She stood and watched the water swallow the sun whole and found herself basking in the liminal space, forgetting her mission and her father’s need. There was nothing to do but make her way back to the car in the dark.
She arrived at the hospital within the hour. She blinked in the bright lights of its entrance like someone awakened from a deep sleep. Her sense of failure slowed her pace to an aimless gait. The weight of the canvas bag on her shoulder caused her to list to the right. The thermos inside rattled against the soup spoon.
When she reached her father’s room the door was closed. She peered through the narrow side window.
The curtain around her dad’s bed was open, and she froze at the sight of her dad strapped down.
A technician forced his breath into her dad’s nose and mouth and a young woman pressed padded handles onto his chest, causing his entire torso to jump in a dance he would never have chosen to perform. She heard, as if under water, bits of data the team snapped to one another.
The cycle of the man breathing into her father, then the woman shocking him, seemed endless. Their movements became more and more urgent. Then the nurse looked to the monitor and said something Karen couldn’t catch.
All Karen wanted was to go to her dad. Maybe there was some way she could, in the next moment, unearth death’s mystery, and it would free her to scale a barrier between her dad’s death and her life. Maybe a burst of his love would in this moment, grace the room.
She thought of all the time she wasted making the goddamn soup, of the futile trip to the dunes, of dreaming that she would be her dad’s savior. Instead, he died with only strangers at his side.
And now, alone and peering through the side window of the door, each passing moment took her further away from that final, miraculous connection with her dad that could have made all the difference.
I spend more time reading fiction than is good for my writing. I started when I was 10, riding my green Schwinn to the branch library in Gary, Indiana, US, and loading a basket with Nancy Drew, and the Donna Parker series. A couple of years later, Poe and Dickens’s Copperfield enthralled me. In my mid-teens with babysitting money I bought Asimov, Heinlein, and Vonnegut at the used-book store. Today I think of the additional hours I’d have for writing if I let up a bit on Oates, Erdrich, Murakami, and more recently, Taddeo. I think one reason I can’t let up is because for me the worlds of writers are pure. As a reader I can normalize their lush sensory content and outrageous realities. This stretches my acceptance of the absurd elements in my world and hopefully bolsters my capacity for compassion. I keep spinning yarns, unthreading words and images that often don’t seem to offer the impact I want, asking my writer friends for feedback, then rewriting. It’s a compulsion as driven as my reading. It’s also just plain fun. I have published in Earth’s Daughters, The Girlfriends Issue, Buffalo, NY, 1994; Poems That Thump in the Dark, New Spirit Press Chapbook Series, Kew Gardens, NY, 1994; and Wind Magazine, Lexington, KY, 2002, #86. I moved recently to Asheville, North Carolina, and discovered a profound writing community. The Great Smokies Writing Program offers support for both emerging and experienced writers. One of the instructors, Marjorie Klein, submitted a story I wrote in her class to The Great Smokies Review. That spurred me on.
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