It was on the table at his bedside wrapped up in red and blue paper. His favorite colors. The colors of America and of the Chicago Cubs. He could barely hold it when he reached over to hand it to me.
“You don’t have to open it now,” he said, “It’s nothing you’ll want to play with right now anyways.”
I didn’t feel like opening it. Not there, in a hospital ward that smelled like bleach and dead flowers. One look at the tiny, shapeless mass of bunched paper told me whatever it was inside wasn’t a Sega. Something in dad’s eye seemed almost embarrassed. Dad was never good at this stuff. It was mom who did the presents usually, always pretending it was from the both of them, signing his name in identical writing across any labels and cards.
“I will at home,” I said.
Dad patted my head. He tried to say something else but it came as a hack that exploded into a 21-gun salute of vicious coughing. Looking back it only lasted a few seconds, yet seemed to go on much longer. His whole body shook. Each cough was like old tiles being ripped up with a crowbar.
Just as I began to panic, it stopped. Dad wiped his mouth. A hot-looking slime ran across his wrist where a pink, plastic bracelet hung. He smiled haggardly, his chest rising in volatile quivers.
“So,” he rasped, with a medicated grin, as though he had been completely oblivious to the twenty seconds of carnage. “How do I look?”
“I look all right?” Dirty fingers pressed his forehead. “They wanted to give me stuff. Stuff that would take away my hair. They’ve been trying to pipe me full of that crap for months.”
“You mean…the medicine?”
“Hell if know. I told ’em to kiss my ass if it meant going bald. I’m only forty, damn it!” His eyes flickered pleadingly. “How do I look, son? Be honest.”
Be honest, I thought, knowing was the kind of question you’re supposed to answer with a lie. Even at ten I knew. The truthful answer was he looked terrible. His precious mop of graying yet usually healthy hair lay limp and greasy across his head like a poisoned weed. Most of his visible skin was flushed with strange, creamy patches like lemon-butter taffy or stale angel food cake left out too long. Then there was the smell. A reek of old sweat emanated from the parts of him that had been missed by his hospital sponge-baths. It hummed strong through the clinical air, manifesting like some neglected barn. Dad I knew usually smelled of Polo cologne.
But this wasn’t the dad I knew.
In the center of it all his eyes twitched. A bruised color, like the yolks of overdone eggs. I remember wondering how it was possible. How any of this was possible. How in so many ways it still seemed like some kind of a dream.
“Like Skeletor,” I said.
I wasn’t trying to be cute, but he laughed. It was a tragic sound. His chest seemed to vibrate beneath his thin blue robe. “Jeez Joe, couldn’t you have come up with a human?”
“Skeletor was human once,” I began, “He-”
The coughing came again. This time it didn’t stop. This time was different. It’s hard to explain how exactly. Like the old tiles were finally giving way, unleashing whatever was left to run. A brownish yellow color sprayed from behind his limp hand when he tried to shield the spray, splatters speckling that dumb present. From inches away, I watched helplessly.
The hospital doors clattered like the wings of a frightened pigeon. Mom was grabbing my shoulders, frantically jabbing her purple fingernail at some button on the side of dad’s bed. A nurse barged in. Several. They put a mask on dad’s face, a mask which covered all his face except for one eye. A mask which made him look more like the Shredder. Mom began mumbling something about ice cream as she bundled me from the hospital room. At the very last moment, I looked back.
Behind the mask, dad’s one eye winked sleepily, then closed.
I never saw it open again.
Weeks later I finally got around to unwrapping the thing. Tell the truth, I still didn’t want to then. Dad’s funeral was still fresh. The little package in red and blue now seemed less like a present and more like a kind of inconvenient reminder of what I had seen that day at the hospital. Like driftwood from across the sea of death. But a present is a present, and I was curious. Inside was an old cork-cored baseball. An old Rawlings signature. There was a name stitched in tiny, bent letters on the side. Letters that crookedly spelled out a name.
“Colin,” I read, slowly.
That was dad’s name. I’d seen it on mail and on the birthday cards mom wrote him, but never in anything to do with me. Why would he write his name on my ball? It took me a few moments of tense turning before the answer came. It was dad’s ball. His from long before he got eaten away by the disease, from long before his days of being ‘dad’ even. It was older than I was. Through the fresh leather and the hitchhiking hospital bleach, the jaded white held a faint whiff of Polo cologne with a lesser scent of the sawdust of his garage workshop.
There were other smells too.
Ones that made less sense as to why they were there now. Summers tossing a ball down at Castellano Park, talking shit about the Sox over a cone of soft ice cream. I smelled his clothes. Dad hadn’t worn his own clothes in months. The ball smelled of sweat, a different sweat to the unholy reek I still vividly remembered from that final farewell and which had been a sweat that belonged to a man not an animal. A sweat that belonged to a young kid with his whole life ahead. There had been a few, exciting days when he had taken me to school on the way to work and he had played me songs by the Rolling Stones and Billy Idol on the in-car stereo of his old Impala and if I tried, if I really tried, I could even smell that too, as well as every memory we ever had together. It takes a lot to smell a sound, but it isn’t impossible.
Trust me it isn’t.
For months I kept it on me. Every hour of every day. I slept with that baseball, ate with it on my lap under the table. Took it to school each day, stashed in my book bag through classes, pinched between my feet like it held a million in cash. God knows why it seemed to matter that much, but it did. More than a Sega.
For months I never let it out of my sight.
“Do you even know where you’re going, idiot?”
Morgan hadn’t let up for the whole of the drive, nine hours of it, and once again mom ignored her. Meanwhile outside the dark, snowy fields resembled the swirling bottom of the ocean below a storm.
“You didn’t even bring a map, did you?”
Dumb, I thought. The maps were dads. They had been in the late Impala. There had been no reason why mom would have saved them. This was the furthest she had even driven by herself. Besides, she didn’t seem lost. In any case I knew Morgan’s real worry wasn’t finding the place. She was, however, afraid of the snow.
When it had started to come down harder things just got worse. She would definitely miss getting back to Chicago. The New Year’s Eve party she had been promised she could go to, guaranteed she could make it back for by our mother as a compromise, would be missed. It was dumb, sure, but when Morgan talked about missing it, she almost couldn’t breathe with upset. The heartache was real. It mattered in ways this grandpa guy we were going to visit never could.
“It’ll be fine,” Mom would chime. Again and again with her hands clenched around the wheel as we drove down one sugar dusted highway after another. She sounded like one of those toys, the kind where you pull a string and a recorded voice repeats one of a couple canned phrases. Like one of those toys when the batteries almost out. “Trust me, it will be fine.”
Even back then, I knew better. Call it intuition.
“Here we are,” Mom announced. First new words she’d said in hours.
The driveway was a pallet of white. The craziest amount of snow I’d ever seen. I can still hear that cruh-crunch of it under the tires.
A small distance ahead a lone lamp blazed brighter than the moon.
I didn’t look. Not at first. The way the car fish-tailed was too frightening. By the time the engine shut off I was clenching my baseball hard. Beside me Morgan was sniffing – either with the cold or despair I wasn’t sure.
“Amazing,” Mom breathed, the keys clinking in a new silence. “Isn’t it? Look, Joey, Morg! Look!”
When I finally caved I could see only vague shapes against the heavy, dark clouds. A rooftop and some dimly lighted windows. Mostly it was just more snow. Snow everywhere. I could tell from that rooftop that the building was effortlessly large. Not Sears Tower or anything, but for a house.
“So, what do you think?” Mom pestered.
There was something about the way she asked that question that still bothers me, twenty-five years later. Something that still unsettles me now. Something that seemed to chord with my father’s deathbed questions about his appearance. Something desperate.
“Yuck,” my sister said.
“You don’t think it’s pretty, Morgan?”
“Oh I think its swell,” she said, without missing a beat. “Sure the rats are simply to die for. The bugs too.”
“Bugs.” I shivered. “No bugs.”
By now the last of the warmth from the car was well on its way out. The invading cold made me long to move, but for some reason nobody seemed in any big hurry.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Morgan,” my mother told her sternly, “Your grandpa has a housekeeper.”
“I’m sure she’s perfectly sane.”
“She’s lovely. I remember her from when your dad and I got married.” Mom paused, knowing the awkwardness of bringing up dad. “I remember it being very well kept.”
“Some of us have standards,” Morgan replied.
Mom pulled out a cigarette and lit it, sending a plume of bluish smoke charging out. A headache inducing smell instantly began to waft thought a car which up to that point had smelled mostly just of Little Tree air freshener and the remains of the sandwiches she bought us from that Someplace, Indiana rest stop. That seemed a lifetime ago. The smell immediately made me want to release the puke that had been building up for most of the trip, but I held it in and gripped my baseball tighter. Mom had started smoking after Dad died. I still wasn’t used to the smell, or of seeing the weird little white-red stick in between her thin fingers. I especially didn’t like the way it changed the smell of her clothes and her hair.
But it didn’t matter what I thought. It rarely did.
“I want you guys to make the most of this, okay?” Her voice chimed softly, her eyes still fixed tensely at the gloomy house. “He hasn’t seen you in a good many years. Chances are he never will again. Or you him.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Morgan clicked off her seatbelt, pressing her elbow into my ribs. “Get the door, ass.”
By now the cold had fully infested the inside of the Cavalier. Rogue snowflakes from where mom had cracked her window blew merrily across the frigid leather seats.
“Why wouldn’t we see him again, Mom?” I asked, my belly clenching in fear. Words like ‘never’ frightened me, regardless of context. In some fashion everything came back to the terrifying finality of death. It was a prospect that even living through it hadn’t settled. If anything, it had got worse. I still didn’t really understand how such a thing could exist, let alone how the risk of it somehow seemed tolerated by the same grownups that were afraid of leaving doors unlocked or letting you drink an extra milkshake.
Mom eyed me in the rear-view, blowing a drift of smoke. “He has cancer. I told you that.”