Joe had a moral point system and awarded himself points for each visit. To be redeemed later in profligacy or laziness or apathy. Balancing out to a conscience cleaner than most. He thought of family as a conscience-factory, and his had been carefully installed by his mom, working overtime at the plant. And so he had brought his dad's Norelco to shave him. To do something for his dad (more points), too weak and tremulous to shave himself--and so they wouldn't have to talk as long. Duty-bound--but he still earned points.
Guy in the wheelchair still going nowhere--just nodding and turning gray and sending blood to his ankles. But Barb had shuffled the cart further. So he got off the comfortable chair and went to earn his points.
Their greeting was a non-greeting, the civilities a relic. He wasn't feeling well today, he said, and was tired of being here. In a terminal care facility--sometimes the euphemism sounds worse. Facility denotes "ease"--Joe contemplated the irony.
"In the hospital they'd pay me more attention."
Do you deserve more attention? "Do you need more attention? You look fine." He complained of feeling "bound up." His was the generation that used such euphemisms--he needed a more polite word for constipated. Made Joe think of how decades of un-iced whiskey had corroded his organs. And then of how some diseases are not confined to one body. You're full of shit, old man.
"I can't eat anything and they won't give me an enema."
"You need to keep eating to keep the machinery working." Joe showed him the shaver, which pleased him.
"They don't shave me but once a week. Colored guy"--and then he quickly corrected himself--"black guy comes in." Weakness of age had stubbornly drawn forth a nub of tolerance.
"I'll shave you." I don't want to stand next to you, but I'd rather stand next to you than listen to you talk. "Can you raise the bed? Here, I'll do it."
The Norelco could better handle the small talk. With the heel of his hand he tried to pull the cheek tight to get at the hairs. The skin sagged in creases and hollows, a facial badlands. A nostriled hoodoo. He pushed until the shaver dug into the shadowed canyons and mentally deducted points. The Norelco would not cut flesh--as a razor blade would--but it could burn. He dug harder, until the shaver growled. Some old men's whiskers are like weathered brush, wiry and stiff. In the twilight the coyote howls. In the dull whine of the shaver emerged memories--all of them unkind.
As a child, crouching by the laundry chute to listen, to interpret the slurred tirade, trying to tell how long his father would harangue the government, the liberals, the IRS, before stumbling up from the basement. Before peace would join darkness in the house.
He heard the ornery hiss of the cat struggling to fly from his hands. Even the cat was leery when he drank.
The crash of lamps when he fell against the furniture. His mother wore old coats because money saved for a new one would inevitably go to replacing lamps.
"I think what disappointed him most," she confided once, "was when the farm sold. He would have been happier around corn and soybeans."
"Than around people?"
"Yes," she admitted.
When Joe was older, hearing this: "I don't want him using my tools until he shows he can use them the right way. And take proper care of them." Him. He. Joe was right there in the garage with him, standing not five feet away, but unworthy of being addressed directly. Him. He. Then why won't you teach me? he thought. And then this solemn pledge: I hereby vow to hate you for the rest of my life. But as a show of contempt, how inadequate are thoughts. How inferior. The inferior second son. Of a man who cared more for his tools than--
He ground the rotating heads harder into the flesh, scraping chin and cheek and chipping his lip-edge. His dad grunted but did not flinch. So Joe dug harder still, assailing next the scree of his neck, mashing the device back and forth under his jawline, pinching the skin until it slid firm over the bone. Pin pricks of blood in ruddy scarp. Deducting more points.
The insults that would eruct from him. The thoughts that recurred daily, a twining, unbroken memory of frustrated helplessness that made Joe's stomach hurt. Daydreaming constantly of telling him off. Of searing his eyeballs with the glare from a wounded son's mirror. Of frying his ears with the speech he had composed, rehearsed, enacted. He daydreamed of climactically confronting him, then leaving him to die alone with whatever conscience he could muster or borrow. He would hurt his father back--it would balance out.
With his thumb and finger on his neck to tauten the skin, Joe realized he was constricting his windpipe. His head sinking back into the pillow, he squirmed and tried to grunt, and suddenly their proximity distressed Joe. Hurting his father this way meant getting closer to him than Joe wanted to be. So he clicked off the Norelco and surveyed the badlands. "You look presentable."
His dad fingered his chin. "You're done already? Still feels rough, you didn't get all the stubble." The you-can't-ever-do-anything-right tone Joe well remembered. He wondered if, in the annals of murder, anyone had ever been bludgeoned with a plastic Norelco shaver. It was not, anyway, how he had imagined it. He wanted to hurt not the body, but the man.
"Look at me, Dad--look at me. What is the second son?"
He looked Joe full in the face--before now he hadn't. "Is that a riddle?"
"The one you give up on." He stared blankly, the dumb shock of a bully baffled at defiance's first whiff. "You crawled into a bottle a long time ago, old man. You'd crawl out just long enough to inflict hurt and then back in you'd go. You didn't have the decency to die there, and you didn't climb out on your own. You were pulled out--and not by shame or conscience--because you have no--"
The jabbing finger trembled. "I don't want you coming back."
"Rule of life, old man--we're all gonna die. But the moment you die, the world becomes a cleaner place. Because one more fucked-up asshole of a father is dead. Finally and forever dead. And God, make it soon."
"I don't want you coming back here to see me." But his menace had been sapped, his power to hurt had been shaved away. Neither would know until later, until the feelings had percolated, how dead they might feel inside. And that's not even the whole speech, old man--just the preamble.
"Don't worry." Walking out, Joe thought, this electric's not worth shit on hard whiskers. And that was how dead he felt.
Overweight Barb by the meds cart. Its squad of flat drawers offering chemical peace. If her back was turned, he could do some shopping. It all balanced out, and his conscience was cleaner than most. Serum in orange juice from a plastic flask for patients too weak to swallow pills. Guy in a wheelchair, blood pooling in thin-skinned ankles, darkening his white socks. Joe turned back to the alcove to wait.
The wallpaper there was misprinted, its colors off-kilter. A tear at the seam, starting to curl. He felt resentful being stuck here when he had his own things to do. How often, after all, had his father taken time for him? He reached out to the paper where it was curling and, with his thumb and finger, started tearing it more. Slowly and methodically tearing. Unobtrusively, quietly tearing--so as not to be noticed, but by whom? No one was near to witness his defacement. The alcove was for visiting families. Like most incremental crimes, it went unseen.
No matter the time of day or night, he rarely saw the other patients' families. Even love does not like nursing homes. Love has other things to do--in places where the lights are not headache bright and the smells are of food, not feces. The patients deserved better. Most of the world and the guy in the wheelchair deserved better.
Only one patient deserved to hear his catalog of sins and have the bedpan rammed in his face. One deserved the straight razor Joe had brought. One erose strip of wallpaper that offended him. It takes all kinds to make a world, the bromide goes, but aren't there kinds the world is better off without? Who contribute little beyond a sperm cell or two, a Y chromosome, and wrenching pain? He could use the corner of the blade like a box cutter, to cleanly slice into the defective wallpaper, which was already torn anyway. But that might dull the blade, and he wanted it to remain sharp and thin as a paper edge. He wanted it clean and lethal.
"I found a straight razor in your drawers at home," Joe announced, entering his room. "If you want--"
"That was your grandpa's--the handle is real ivory. Do you even know how to use it?"
"Babar will not have died in vain." Trust me, old fart. He soaked a washcloth and draped it over the lip of a pink plastic spit-basin. He was remembering leaning on the corner of the garage as it got dark, watching for his car. The cooking aromas no longer fresh. In the ritual, the slower the car came up the lane, the more intoxicated he would be. He could be clumsy though careful, or hostile and grunting. No pattern had emerged for predicting.
The advent wreath he had been so proud of making--crammed in the garbage bin the week before Christmas.
As he rubbed the shaving soap on the old man's cheek, he realized he had never done anything so tender, so intimate--to, with, or for him. His were now the fingers of a judging God he did not believe in, sweeping the badlands with warm snow. He gripped the razor and extended his thumb as he had seen barbers in the mirror do it. Men with firm, experienced hands that rarely drew blood. But the barber shop mirror was so big, and his hand so small. He waited for the foam to soften the landscape--for the snow to seep into the ground and enervate the man--then pressed his earlobe and made the first scrape. His dad opened his eye and stared coldly. The man who knew his son could never do anything right the first time, who had raised him that way.
Joe had decided there would not be a second time. How long do hairs grow after the body dies? After the oxygen-carrying blood abandons the corpse. Alive still, his dad rasped, "You know, I always wished you had kept up with going to church." The eye was as cold as the snowscape. Dragged to worship weekly, in dutiful tie and sport coat, by his mother--how many points had Joe amassed? And it never did take.
His dad had been a churchgoer too, until the Sunday Reverend Sylven got up and told the congregation that we would have to accept gay couples, that it was the godly thing to do. That was their last Sunday in that congregation. Joe and his mother switched denominations--the demand was not negotiable--and his dad stopped going altogether.
From then on, his Sundays were spent praying to Jim Beam, a minor saint.
"Just close your eyes--and your mouth." His dad was religious in the wrathful, repressive way of his people. His faith wasn't benevolent or forgiving--just harsh, his Christianity unchristian and unreasoned. And inherited, Joe figured, as immutably as his six-foot frame and brown eyes. We are shipped from factory as is. The cold brown unsuspecting eye closed.
He had had precisely two friends in middle school. He never had them to his house--they were just friends at school. One Friday night his dad tried to drive them to a basketball game. The car wound up in a ditch. When Joe whined, he got slapped. When the tow truck came, his dad was yelling at a mailbox, calling it a tax-and-spend Democrat. He had had precisely one friend in high school.
The first bead of red alarmed and fascinated him. If the razor is sharp enough, you don't feel the twinge. Just a feeling like ice. Then warm and wet, but the wetness, your mind accepts, might simply be foam. If you can't see the red, you can't know right away you are bleeding. Joe pretended to dab at the soap but was siphoning blood onto the terry. "Tilt your head back and relax," he soothed. He moved down the chin, the neck, where his dad couldn't see, even out of the corner of his cold unsuspecting eye. Scraping the snow, now pink.
His brother had left for State on a windy day. Excited at visiting the campus, like glimpsing the future, he felt afraid on the drive home. Now his brother would be spared the worst of it. The resentment spread to him as well. Joe had plenty to go around--he would not run out.
When he had sheared the soap away, he let the blade glide lightly across the gullet, the gently sloping middle promontory. He watched it slice shallowly, minutely, with no pressure but the weight of the ivory handle. How straight the row of red dots, thought Joe, as precise as though machine-tooled. For once he admired his own skill.
He thought of the time his father was too hammered to fix their only toilet, and the plumber couldn't come for three days. His mom drove them to the nearest clean motel and sat on the bed and prayed while he stared at the TV. Three days later his dad was still asleep on the couch, his eyelids swollen.
Keeping track of how many days passed before he sobered up. His head in his hands, crying. Wondering if other kids in his class felt this much anguish.
The old man gulped, jouncing his Adam's apple and making the blade jump. "Try to hold still." I can do this. Joe pressed at the base of his throat, which made the skin part. Then the dots swelled and joined and formed bleeding tracks. Not wanting his dad's robe to be soaked, he held the washcloth up, draped it under his chin and watched it turn crimson. The color, he thought, was brighter than garnets, richer than rubies. Nothing in nature, it came as epiphany, is as valuable as the fluid inside us. So painlessly it can be mined. The pain often less than keeping it in.
Now the blood streamed in rivulets, now gushing creeks on one side of his neck, now flooded crevasses on the other. In the leathery stria of his aged neck, the liquid pooled before cascading over each fold like stair steps. The continental divide in the middle paled but the color could not be kept from his undershirt and robe, which were soaking up the rivers. Soon the water table would dry up altogether and underground spring beds be parched and hollow, the terrain grow white and cold. To be replenished when winter melted. Call yourself a Christian? If Jesus came back right now, he'd slap you upside your unforgiving head.
The eyes were shut, his mouth slack, still, dying. This would not serve, Joe decided, sopping up the crimson gush. Only arid bones and snowy grave would hear his speech. He wanted ears--not wind and rock--to hear, to burn and suffer. Flexing his hatred had made him tired, so he claimed points--just for having such a brutally impressive imagination.
Efficient Barb by the meds cart. Guy next to her in a wheelchair, blocking Joe's way. Waiting for a pill and hoping for some attention. Wanting diversion from his view of the wide white empty hallway that was the remainder of life for him. Barb offered to move the cart, but Joe said he forgot something and turned back. He walked to the alcove with comfortable chairs and sat and thought of what he was about to do. He thought of sins and rebellions, large and small, and of the absurdity of the expression "I couldn't live with myself."
Thought of the deeply flawed individual--selfish and unloving--that he had to call "Dad" and wanting the courage to call him a bum to his face just once. He wanted more--rage coupled with eloquence. Unregenerate, unrepentant, unredeemed. Thought of how his mother, long gone now, was too devout to divorce him, even as he ignored and mistreated her. Of how he called it retirement when he drank himself out of two good-paying mechanic's jobs and from then on just lived off an early pension and his mom's paycheck.
The grapevine wallpaper in the alcove was torn. It shouldn't have mattered to him--his dad would not be here much longer--but life growing up had been a search for order. He couldn't not be his father's son, he couldn't stop the drinking, he couldn't abandon his mother, he couldn't mend his world. How often had he tried to exert control--in small ways. Speeding a dying man to his death was pointless, except for the satisfaction and sense of power it would bring him. The damage would not be erased. And the satisfaction? Meager. Was it equally pointless to deliver the righteous speech he had rehearsed five thousand times? Was ever the pronouncing of sentence worse than the punishment?
Wetting two fingers, he tried to repaste the grapes. He wet them again, but the paste was dry, the paper stiff, and once wallpaper peels, it stubbornly retains the curl. So he trekked down the hall.
The doctor, who was rarely there, was there. "I'm afraid he's not good."
"I've known that since I was probably nine."
"I mean, the tissue sample came back. It's spread to the pancreas." A medevac truck had already been dispatched. A bed was available in the hospital, where he would need--if not deserve--more attention.
"No, he's awake--or was a minute ago. He complained of discomfort, which is understandable--I gave him a shot of Demerol." Understandable discomfort. Chemical peace.
"Until the medevac comes, maybe I can give him a shave."
The message in the doctor's silence was this: "Why? What, at this juncture, does it matter?" Or maybe the lowered lids said, "The mortician will take care of that."
Joe's reply to the silence was this: "All he ever wants is an enema and a shave. And I'm not giving him an enema."
Joe lowered the bed rail, as delicately as that could be accomplished so as not to wake him. Then gingerly, awkwardly sat himself next to the perhaps sleeping figure. He touched the cheek, felt that it was warm, and memory came.
Sitting beside him in a movie theater, just the two of them on a Sunday afternoon, because no one else in the family wanted to sit through The Muppet Movie again.
His dad taking Joe and his brother sledding in Pyle's Woods. It had gotten dark early, and they sledded in the winter moonlight. He probed the memory for pain and came up empty.
Hearing the opera broadcast in the living room and walking in to see that his dad was the only one in the room, the TV remote at his elbow instead of a glass.
Such times in Joe's memory chip when he wasn't drunk--or mean. They weren't consonant with the background, they weren't the soothing grapevines. Like torn wallpaper, they stuck out all the more for ripping the pattern.
Driving across the plains of South Dakota, the four of them, eager to see the Presidents' giant faces. Laughing at the whimsical signs for Wall Drug. Groaning at the songs twanging from the country-and-western station. His nine-year-old's amazement at the Corn Palace, a vast edifice covered entirely in corn. His dad's jokes, covered entirely in corn. His dad's arm pointing to a longhorn steer. Was he nine--or ten?
His dad loading the film in his camera for him, because he couldn't do anything right the first time, "--spend my hard-earned money to develop his damn pictures? When this trip is already costing--"
From factory--as is.
Walking behind them, his dad's hand on his brother's shoulder, through yucca and rock crests that, with imagination, looked something like old men's faces. Realizing, and much later accepting, how prized the first son is and how extraneous the second.
The cheek was rubbery smooth, the landscape too peaceful for such an uncaring man. Joe had brought the straight razor he had found in his dad's drawer at home. He had practiced on his own face, had suffered the cuts, had gotten good at pulling the skin smooth for a blade sharper than he was used to, had bled. Went to all that trouble because he found that, with enough practice, he could accomplish things that he failed at, at first.
"Mom, why do they call it badlands? Land is just land. Only people can be bad--or good, right? Is there such a thing as goodlands?"
He had brought his dad's ivory-handled straight razor. He had earned his points. What would he do now with the speech he was prepared to give, the anger he ached to unleash? There was time--the old man wasn't dead yet. Joe had learned unrealistic determination from his mother, and from his father he had learned to put things off. As determined as he felt, the confrontation could come later. The hell-raising-heaven-falling-end-of-the-civilized-world denunciation could always come. By a bed in the ICU. Or for that matter, by a granite marker--that would serve too.
He had brought his dad's ivory-handled straight razor. But he hadn't needed to after all.