He wanted to avoid the hospital. But it was only a matter of time. The next time he went in there would be no hope for him. It was summer and I passed by the house every couple of days on my way to the library after dinner. A faint yellow light peered through the dirty curtains of the front room. Christine’s rusted Honda Civic parked in the driveway. If he was dead, I thought, the car wouldn’t be there, the curtains would be shadows. He had often said to me, “Soon I’ll be pushing up daisies,” and I had thought that was his way of trying to avoid death. Now I knew he’d spoken the truth. As I passed by the small house on the corner of two side streets and across from the Senior’s Recreation Center, the word pervert paralyzed me. It had always hung, unspoken, about the house when Christine and I sat with him. The drab frailty in which it showed its presence poisoned the perverseness of its lustre. I shivered, and yet I could not shake a desire to think fondly of the old man.
Old Edgar sat at the kitchen table rolling a beer bottle around the flat surface, when I emerged from my room for dinner. My aunt microwaved some leftover lasagna and Old Edgar stared at me with his good eye, as though my presence has wiped the trace of his thought away. The other eye wandered and it was hard to tell whether he was looking at me. His head turned ninety degrees towards my uncle across the table with his back to the window, and he continued the conversation they’d been having before I came down, “Can’t say for sure . . . something just not right, you know . . . something up there,” pointing to his temple, “you know. You wanna know what I think. . . .”
He took a long sip of beer, as though seeking guidance on what it was he actually thought. Stupid hick! Some of the folks had warned me about his stories, but for me, having never lived on the farm where my father and aunt grew up, he was local color. When I first settled at my aunt and uncle’s farm, after my parents’ death, he brought me the thrill of a new world, or rather an old world my father lived in, one I would never experience. But the more he talked the less I cared for his endless dairy farm stories.
“Got my own ideas about it, you know,” he said sort of nodding his head in my direction. “Certainly a rapid demise . . . I’d say . . . makes you wonder . . .”
He leaned back on the stool, drank from the bottle again.
My uncle bristled, said to me in mock-seriousness “You might not have yet have heard. The Great Emancipator has left us.”
“Dead, you mean?”
“Mr. Danders was in the process of telling us. He’s come from the hospital.”
I felt my uncle and my aunt’s eyes upon me so I schluffed off the news with a brief sigh. My aunt placed the heated plate of lasagna before me and with fork and knife I dove in without further remark.
My uncle wouldn’t let it go. He said to Old Edgar “Him and the boy were once quite close. Teached him a great deal, I’d say. The way he was spouting off facts and names when he come back from his visits. Said good things about the boy’s future, too. Back then.”
“May he rest in peace,” my aunt warned diminutively.
Old Edgar rested his bristle-haired chin in his hand and stared at me. I felt the provocation of his stare, and feigned disinterest. He finished the bottle of beer and pulled a cigarette from the pack on the island counter. He stuck it behind his ear and went out the back door leaving it open for the cold night air to rush in. He spat somewhere in the dark over the railing and came back to the open door, breathing smoke into the kitchen.
“Ain’t right for kids to be hanging around men of that sort, I say,” he said, “even if they say now nothing actually happened.”
“What are you saying, Mr. Danders?” asked my aunt.
“What I meant was,” said old Edgar followed by a slight cough, “children shouldn’t be hanging out with the sick. It’s this way, I think: there’s time enough for sickness. Let the lads run free with other lads. Boys should not be confined to . . . to . . . would you agree, Arthur?”
“Wholeheartedly,” said my uncle. “School a hard knocks, they called it in my day. Proper health and outside air. That’s what I tell our budding scholar here. Mother wouldn’t let us in the house more than half a day. Scooted us out by the bottom, that one. To this day, a good walk keeps me heart pumping. Book things is one thing, but too many of these kids don’t know a damn thing about the ways of the world . . . Mr. Danders might like some of that lasagna,” he added to my aunt who was just opening the fridge to replace the leftovers.
“I’m belly full,” said old Edgar with a grin.
My aunt closed the fridge and returned to the table. “I’m not sure I understand. Why keep children away, Mr. Danders?” she reiterated.
“They’ve got no foundation yet,” said old Edgar, “because they have no experience. They are susceptible to strange ideas as though they were truth. This kind of exposure, you know, it has lasting impacts . . .”
Clearing the last mouthful, my utensils hit the plate too hard and I worried perhaps they would take it as anger. God damn drunk, with his innuendo! Can’t even finish a sentence! Who the hell was he to talk about truth!
Sleep didn’t come easy that night. My frustration with old Edgar for alluding to some immoral conduct that he couldn’t even bring himself to utter gave way to a sense of mystery. What lay in the silence of his ellipses? There had been whispers before, when I first started visiting GE. Gradually sleep overcame me and I dreamed (or at least I understood it was a dream when I woke in the night) GE’s leering face. I drew a shade between us, tried to imagine Christine sitting suggestively beside me. No luck. Maybe something more innocent. A candy cane from Santa. The leer grew in stature until I felt it would leap out at me. It hacked up half a lung of phlegm in an attempt to speak. I didn’t want to hear what it said. I didn’t want to know its secrets and mysteries. Christine came back again, her hands fondling her large breasts as though unaware that she sat next to me. My own adolescent loins began to smolder, and there again the leer of GE’s mouth returned between us. It spoke its secrets silently, spit clinging to the corners of his mouth. But the leer, I recalled, had died, and I awoke in a sweat, a feeble smile on my lips as if the leer had been freed of the sins of its flesh.
Earlier than usual the next morning I walked over down to what had once been the waterfront, but what had, in recent years, been reduced to abandoned warehouses, a marine parts store and a pub. The single floor shop bore the oblique name, Prints (the “t” and “s” graffitied over with a “c” and “e”), in the window. There were a few self-serve copiers and samples of works printed from wedding invitations to newsletters. On the sidewalk by the front door someone had left dried black flowers. In place of the “Open” sign which hung on the front door, there was a sheet of paper taped to the glass. It read:
August 11th, 2003
Dr. Peter Obenauch (former Pediatrician, General Practitioner and owner of Prints),
Aged fifty-three years.
The notice confirmed what I already knew, that he was dead. But it was reassuring nonetheless to move beyond the words of old Edgar. Sometimes, before GE got so he couldn’t travel, Christine brought him down to the shop. A day like this, if he hadn’t been so sick, of course, I would have gone right in, said hello to Christine and found him in the back office on a swivel chair, head down in front of a solitaire screen on the computer. I’d bring him a latte, take off the plastic lid so its aroma lifted him back to life. He would roll his own cigarettes and the sprigs of tobacco would stick on his lips. His hands shook and he spilled a good portion of the tobacco on the tile floor. As he deteriorated I felt even more incongruous the distinction between the man who needed help to the car and the photo of him in the blue and yellow of his doctoral regalia that sat atop the dresser in his bedroom.
If Christine had been in the shop I might have gone in regardless of the notice, or maybe because of the notice. But she wasn’t so I walked slowly back through town, glancing at posters for an upcoming bike race. The brilliant green and yellow of the advertisements couple with the shop keepers who swept the sidewalks in front of their entrances held no trace of GE’s death. It was as though he’s simply gone and the world went about its business, perhaps with some additional merriment. What’s more is that I found that I was not particularly struck by his death so much as by the immanence of no longer seeing Christine in the cover of their home. In this I felt a sense of disloyalty. After all, he had sparked an intellectual curiosity that had idled in my aunt and uncle’s home. GE had studied medicine at the university and done some practicum work in the northern part of the province before returning to take up his own practice in the community until his wife died in a car accident. I met him when he was already an invalid, when my aunt sent me to help Christine who had become his primary caregiver. But he hadn’t yet lost his intellectual capacity, or his enthusiasm for the inner workings of the body. In moments of lucidity, he explained to me the differences between the cardiovascular system and the lymphatic system and how the lymphatic system returns recycled blood to the cardiovascular system and carried antigens across the body to build up the immune system. Sometimes in the midst of a complaint about Christine’s cooking, he would throw difficult questions at me, with a Cheshire Cat grin. Questions like, what is the process called by which blood plasma is obtained from donors? He introduced me to the complexity and meaning in the body. In fact, it was a certain adherence to the system, to understanding the flow of the system and what that system required that served him as a template for a limited dietary consumption. Structure is everything, he said. And I marvelled that anyone would subject themselves to such restraint at the expense of pleasure. But when he asked me to pull down this book or that book from his shelves, to show me the analysis, or diagrams which he carefully annotated, I grew bored. Christine once showed me a scrapbook with all the letters she’d collected from newspapers where he tried to reproduce the finer points of medical thought in laymen’s terms. More often than not I could not answer his questions. If I really didn’t know what he was talking about I left the room to get a glass of water and would chat with Christine in the kitchen. The last time I was there, six months ago, I tried to kiss her and put my hand on her tight wool sweater, over her breast. She pushed me away and told me I was too young. Literature, too, was a great occupier of his mind, and sometimes he got me to write stuff down, like Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree.” He had me read it over and over until I no longer needed the paper I’d written it on and could recite it by rote. His eyes closed, a cigarette on his lips and tobacco and food crumbs in his lap, he nodded and smiled when I got it without stumbling over “wattles” or “linnet’s.” He repeated the end line “I hear it in the deep heart’s core” with me and unleashed his black teeth and gaps where others had been pulled so that a part of me didn’t want to please him at all. If I sat close enough he liked to rub his fingers down my lower arm, but as this made me uneasy I tried to stay far enough away unless he specifically called me close.
In the morning sun old Edgar’s intermittent words came back to me and I seemed to remember they had something to do with the dream I’d had. I remembered only Christine emerging scantily clad from behind a purple velvet curtain. And we were somewhere else, maybe Japan but I don’t know why. . . . But what happened to the secrets of the leering face at the end of the dream?
The funeral date was set for the weekend, but my aunt had already made plans with the ladies to go shopping in Seattle and so she took me to the wake which they decided to have out of the house because it had been one of GE’s most strident and unexplained requests. It was past sunset when we arrived and the only cars in the driveway were Christine’s and her older sister Anita’s. The gold-brown curtains were drawn but the light above the front door illuminated the porch which had been considerably tidied since my last visit. Before she could knock, though, Anita, in sweats and looking much older than her thirty years, opened the door. My aunt greeted her with a wide hug.
“Everybody has gone,” she said as though we’d missed a party, “but you’re more than welcome to see him, if you like.” My aunt looked at me, but as I made no indication of my preference (I don’t know what I would have answered if pressed, for there was a part of me that wanted nothing to do with either the dead man, or his body), she nodded and we followed Anita to the dead man’s room down the hall of the rancher. When she got to his room she stopped and indicated that she would follow us. The door to the room had been removed from the hinges and I could see where they’d been because the paint was whiter than the surrounding frame. From the hall I could see what I took to be his feet at the edge of the bed, tucked under a purple blanket. From where I stood I could not see his face. My aunt went in, and Anita, sensing hesitation on my part, took me gently by the wrist.
The ruffle of movement at our entrance was like a disruption to a closed spectacle of death. A pale desk lamp shone off a dresser and there were book cases and a drafting desk with a white chair. Anita lit the beeswax candles which had been extinguished prior to our arrival. She told us how earlier in the day GE’s sisters had come by with their aides (they both lived in a nursing home down the road and were confined to wheelchairs) and had prayed at his bedside for upwards of a half-hour. She shook her head as she recalled someone remark that he would need all the prayers he could get. I noticed how she’d let her hair down, but hadn’t yet removed her eye-shadow and blush. There was a hole in the toe of her stocking, and I stifled a laugh behind the backs of the women, thinking how this would probably please the dead man in his bed.
But a quick glimpse of the corpse displaced the thought from my head. He lay more alive looking than the last time I’d seen him, in a pressed suit, with hands clasped outside the purple covers. His lips were solemnly closed and cared nothing for the people around him. Though his eyes lost the sort of hunger they had retained even when he lay drooling asleep, his brows were trimmed and neat and I noticed that the wisps of black hair were gone from his waxen nose. The overpowering honey smell in the room made me cough.
Anita crossed herself and my aunt did the same as we left the death room. We walked down the hall back to the living room right off the front door and found Christine sprawled, in an exhaustion exacerbated by a small intake of alcohol, on a cushioned rocking chair. She too had changed into a sweatshirt and jeans and her streaked blonde hair was loose around her shoulders. I gravitated out of routine to the love seat that backed against the wall. Christine called for her sister bring out a bottle of wine and some glasses. But Anita was a step ahead and had already found an open one amidst the paper plates and leftover sandwiches and cake on the kitchen table and before my aunt could refuse there was a glass in her hand and she was looking for a place to sit. Anita suggested I have some cake because they wouldn’t be able to finish it (at which Christine scoffed) but I declined as cake was firmly entrenched with celebration in my mind and somehow it didn’t seem right celebrating the man’s life. She seemed to take my declination as a personal rebuke and murmuring to herself she sat on an armchair by the vacant fireplace. Not a word passed between us as we stared off into our own private spaces.
My aunt, coming over to sit next to me, said to Christine “I’m sorry, my dear. Rest assured his troubles are at an end.”
Christine dropped her head so that her hair covered her face.
My aunt swished the wine around the glass and then raised it to her mouth. “Was . . . was . . .peaceful?” she almost stammered.
“As far as they go, we couldn’t have asked for better,” said Anita. “We were both there at the end and we said our goodbyes and then he shut his eyes and after a few long breaths, it just stopped.”
Christine perked awake and tapped my hand. “Dad left something for you,” she said and stood up, bidding me follow her to another room and I did.
“God was with him at the end,” I heard Anita say as we disappeared.
In the other room Christine looked around in vain for the object with her back to me. She tucked her loose hair behind her ears as she turned and I saw that her hands trembled. She bit her bottom lip and there were tears welling in her eyes. I went to her because I thought she might fall and though she weighed at least as much as me I thought I’d be able to sustain her long enough to regain her balance should anything go awry. She grabbed my waist and pulled me into an embrace and I felt the heave of her body. Our cheeks brushed and I felt her lips against them so I moved my mouth and her warm kisses covered my mouth so that I was devoured in the taste of her and returned the gesture, her tongue ranging into my open mouth. My hand groped for her breast and upon hitting its mark she leaned into my open hand, her softness triggering an erection. She let go of my waist and stepped back, alarmed. She smoothed her sweatshirt along the sides and went back to the other room.
“Ah, poor father!” Anita said to my aunt as I made my way around the corner to the living room. “We did everything we could and there being no one else.”
Sitting sideways in the chair with her hands clasped under her chin and her feet tucked beneath her buttocks she looked the portrait of submission.
“Poor all of us,” said Christine, resuming her seat, “Look at you, half dead yourself just to get through this. Thank God that the Father down at the Catholic Church knew dad in the old days. He helped us fix everything, not that there’s much of anything to distribute, but all the details, things you don’t think of because you don’t want to, but you’re sure glad someone did when the time actually comes. Like getting the body prepared, arranging the funeral, getting these stupid sandwiches. The Father was a God send for that.”
At this the woman all laughed. I stood apart lingering over the egg sandwiches at the table.
“Thankless me can’t even remember his name,” Christine continued. “But he wrote an obituary for the paper, should come out next week I understand.”
“There are saints left in the world?” said my aunt.
Christine bowed her head in assent. “There is something about friends from the old days,” she said. “I have to say, I don’t know any of my old friends who’d do quite as much for me.”
“Darling, knock it off,” said my aunt. “Well, you’ll have him looking down on you now.”
“Fat lot of good it’ll do me” scoffed Christine, “even if he does get there.”
“Come now Chris,” said Anita, “the last six months he’s been quiet as a mouse, not much of a bother.”
“I know, I feel like he’s only sleeping in his room. And I’ll get up in the night get him some water.”
“You’ll miss him when everybody starts leaving you alone,” said my aunt.
“I know,” said Christine. “His life had become so much a part of mine these last years, like we were in sync somehow and that being in sync somehow warded off death. It didn’t make him better, it just kept it at bay, gave us some time. Or maybe I should say it gave me time with him.”
She stopped, as if struck by a recollection, and then remarked, “Not that I didn’t notice he was changing. The times when he was with it just got spaced further and further apart until we started wondering when it was that he never come back.”
She drank from her wineglass and wiped her lips with the back of her hand. She laughed and said, “You know he was still, up until last week, going on about taking me and Anita out to the house where we were born. But he insisted only he could drive and he wouldn’t allow us to take him. And so he would say things like, ‘In two days time I shall be able to drive again.’”
“Eccentric to the end!” said my aunt.
“The worst of it was,” Anita added, “the house was torn down years ago, in the early nineties, I think. And we’d offered to take him to the site, but he wouldn’t believe us and insisted only he could drive.”
Christine took some tissue from a box on the table and blew her nose. She gazed at the used tissue before replacing it on the table.
“Damn stubborn, that one,” she huffed. “When mom died the world lost its magic. He never really recovered. And children, you might say, didn’t help.”
“It certainly snowballed,” said my aunt. “He did look good when you were children. Saw him running all the time, and he did help the children. Regardless of what they say, he was magical with them.”
In the ensuing silence I sipped my wine and shivered.
Christine gazed upon the floor and seemed to have forgotten us. No one ventured to speak, and after a while she said hesitantly, “It was the lunch he forgot to pack us. . . . That’s when it started. It was no big deal, really, it was a hot lunch day. And so he didn’t need to pack one anyway. But still. . . . . He was so serious, so personal, God only knows how little things affected him.”
“But . . . surely . . . not with you?” my aunt asked tentatively. “Some people. . . .”
Christine shook her head and my aunt appeared relieved.
“He felt like a failure to the children that his wife left behind,” she said. “And so he did the only thing he could think of. He loved us. And then he thought we weren’t enough so he started helping other children out of love. Somewhere along the line he got confused. Mrs. Moss was bringing us home from skating, this was when we were fifteen or so and we all three of us went in the side door instead of the front door like we usually did. Anita flicked the light switch. . . . And what do you think but there was dad rubbing himself off to a man and a boy on the tv screen? He hadn’t even heard us come in.”
She stopped suddenly as if she feared he might come down the corridor. I listened through the whirr of the furnace for the sound of life, but I knew that the old man lay immobile in his bed, portentous and inhuman, idling his time.
Scott Drake lives in Ladner, B.C. His work has previously appeared in West Coast Line and The Prairie Journal.