The first time I saw Dad cry was when his dog died and the second was at my big brother’s funeral, both of which happened before I turned 15. If he cried when Mom died, it wasn’t in front of me. I think he must have cried when his first wife died, but of course I wasn’t around to see that. Though he’d always threatened it, Dad never would kill himself, but I think he probably should have. That’s what I was thinking anyway as I looked at him over the small, two-seater table at The Diner. Pat’s Griddle, actually, but Dad always called it The Diner. It wasn’t a big place and you couldn’t really describe it as clean or dirty or the food as good or bad, so “The Diner” suited it just fine. Dad didn’t speak, just worked his jaw a little. He hadn’t combed his hair and it stood out at the sides thinly like pulled wool. He needed a shave.
It’ll be fine, you know, I said. I mean, you will. You’ll like it.
Dad didn’t respond, but set both hands on the table in front of him, flexing his fingers against the wood. The skin on his hands was thin and stained with liver spots and the veins rolled blue beneath the papery leather. The hands still looked strong, though. They might not have been, but they looked it. He put them back in his lap, beneath the table.
Hot in here, he said.
You need to take off that coat.
He wrapped his arms around his ribs as though he were cold, shifted in his seat a little, and looked out the window at the street. He wore an old bomber jacket. The wool on the collar was matted and yellowed, and the leather had weathered to a spiderweb of dry cracks and creases over the deep wooden brown. He was a vet but hadn’t picked up the jacket until he came home from the second World War. He always wore that damn thing. I’ve got pictures–holding me, my brother–and in each he’s wearing that jacket.
Dad. Take the jacket off. You’ll feel better.
His jaw flexed. It was overcast outside and the light through the window was pale and gray, whitewashing the bristle of his chin. He kept the jacket on, and we sat that way–him looking out the window at nothing at all while I checked my phone for text messages I knew wouldn’t be there–until the waitress came to the table with Dad’s food and a refill for my coffee.
Here y’all go, she said. You want anything for that trout, Jim? Tartar sauce or somethin’?
Dad didn’t answer and so she looked to me. Thanks, Beth–this’ll be fine, I said.
Beth topped off my coffee. Well, let me know if you two need anything. Good to see ya, Jim, she said with a raised voice, petting his shoulder as she turned to go.
Beth wasn’t young, but she was still beautiful in the way women who have spent a life on their feet can be. Dad’s head turned from the window to watch her go, and I wondered what he was thinking. I thought I knew and it made me smile. Beth disappeared into the kitchen and Dad turned to look out the window again.
You going to eat that trout? I asked. Looks good.
Dad looked down at the plate, and his brow lowered as though he were concerned to find it there.
Here, Dad, I said and reached across the table to the napkin-wrapped silverware. I took the fork out and set it on his plate. There, I said. Go ahead–I know you like it.
Dad picked up the fork and held it weakly. He eyed the pan-fried trout and nudged it with the backside of his fork, pushing it against the rice and hushpuppies, and then pulled the fish back to its edge of the plate.
They’ve got a pond there, I said. They keep it stocked, too. You can fish there–on Saturdays I think. If the weather’s nice.
I waited for a response, but Dad looked at his plate and said nothing.
That’s partly why I picked Mountain’s Rest, I said. I know how much you like it. To fish, I mean.
Dad set his fork down and it made a soft tink against the plate. With both hands he picked up the fish, holding it with the tips of his fingers, and turned it unfamiliarly.
Dad, what–, and before I could finish he brought the head to his mouth and bit, crunching through the browned cheeks which flaked against his teeth and lips.
Dad. What the hell, I said.
He startled and dropped the fish back onto his plate, sending a hushpuppy rolling over the edge and onto the table. He reached for it and his hand clipped the full glass in front of his plate, sending it over to crash and send ice-graveled water over the tabletop.
I stood and backed from the table. Goddamn, I said as I leaned forward with my napkin to contain the spread.
Dad hit me. His ancient hand, wet and cool with the spill, snapped forward and slapped my left cheek and mouth.
I stopped and looked–his eyes gray-blue and sharp. I didn’t speak.
God ain’t got nothing to do with any a this, he said.
I didn’t respond, and though his strike had cowed me into childhood and solidified him for a moment into the father I remembered, I blamed the outburst on the dementia.
Beth, hearing the disturbance, rushed from the kitchen to our table. Don’t worry about it, boys. It’ll clear right up.
Sorry about this, I said.
Don’t worry yourself.
We got to get going, I said. We’ll be out of your way.
Well, you ain’t got to go.
Yeah. Well, got to get Dad somewhere. Thanks though. Here. Keep it, I said and dropped a twenty on a dry corner of the table.
Alrighty, she said and then with raised voice, See you, Jim. Come back again—we miss you ‘round here.
Dad didn’t respond.
Come on, Dad, I said, and we stepped out the door.
It looked as though it could rain as we took Highway 19 out of Bryson City, but I didn’t think it would. Dad sat in the front passenger seat, looking out the window. I thought he might be looking at the river, but I wasn’t sure.
Fishing season starts soon, I said. I’ll be getting out there. Catch a big one for ya. Hell, I bet those trout at Mountain’s Rest–in the pond?–big as hell. Fat, you know? I really think you’re going to like it.
Dad didn’t respond.
Hell, I don’t think I’d mind it myself too much. Maybe they’ll give me a room. Some kind of double booking deal? What you think? I said and forced a laugh.
Still no response. He reached up to scratch at his cheek, and I recalled the sting on mine, which was only a remembered tingle by then.
Well, I’m sure you’ll like it, I said. They’ll take care of you–made sure of that.
It was spring and though it was still cool at nights and sometimes during the day, tender and new green had started to appear on the trees, and the Bradfords, which appeared in groups along the road’s edge, were heavy with cottony puffs of bloom. Dad continued in his silence as we drove, and I wondered if he noticed the scenery. I was glad for the quiet and didn’t ask.
Shit! I said after coming out of a deep curve. A child stood in the road, waving his hands. Nine? Ten, maybe? I slammed on the brakes, and the tires chirped. The car stopped, and I saw that I wasn’t as close to the boy as I’d thought we would be. I rolled down the window, and he approached. I could see that he was crying but trying not to.
You alright? What’s wrong? I said. Dad seemed more alert but still wasn’t speaking.
Mom, he said. She’s–something’s wrong, he said and pointed over to the edge of the road. I could see an old Grandam parked crookedly against the guardrail. It didn’t look like a serious accident, and the car had to only be mildly damaged, but the kid was scared. My mom, he said again.
Hold on, I said. I backed the car up and turned on the hazard lights so anyone moving into the curve would do so cautiously. I looked at Dad and wondered whether I should leave him and then thought it best. Stay in the car, I said and got out. I ran to the boy who was back at the wreck. He was crying harder.
I was right. The car wasn’t damaged too badly, probably would run fine. But that wasn’t the problem. The boy’s mother lay on her side, awkwardly over the console. It’ll be okay, buddy, I said to the boy, but of course I hadn’t a damn clue if I was right. Stand back there, behind the car, I said. Out of the way, Okay? Off the road. It’ll be okay, I said again.
The boy didn’t say anything, but he listened and stood to the side where I had motioned.
I opened the door of the car. The woman’s eyes were open and her arms were pulled close to her chest–tense. Ma’am, I said. You okay? But she didn’t respond and she was obviously not okay–jaw tight, spittle white at her lips. Oh God, I said.
The car was still idling, so I reached under the steering wheel and turned the ignition then pulled out my phone and dialed 911: Hello, yes. There’s been a wreck. No not mine. A woman. She’s having a seizure. I mean, I think so–that’s what it looks like. 19, just before Galbraith’s Creek. Yes, yes Okay. Thank you.
I could see my Dad there, where that poor woman lay. He was back at my car, of course, but I could see him there regardless–helpless, incapacitated, unable to speak. I had taken his license over a year ago and moved him in with me, but it could have been anywhere: bathroom floor, in his small garden out back while weeding, or down the street after wandering off–which he did sometimes. And I would be just as helpless to help him. I could only dial a number, make weak promises, and wait for others more capable.
The woman on the end of the line would stay connected with me until the ambulance arrived. I continued to watch that poor lady in the car. The woman on the line had told me to make sure she was on her side, but she was already in that position, though awkwardly leaning over the console into the passenger seat.
It was just a moment more until she eased, became less tense–her arms releasing from her chest and her jaw unclenching. I started to place my hand lightly on her hip but didn’t. You’re going to be okay, I said. The ambulance will be here in a few minutes.
I was right. The ambulance pulled up with a howl, lights flashing, shortly followed by police cars and first responders. The medics and officers came rushing over, and I quickly repeated what I had told the lady on the line. Stepping away, I was done and glad for it.
Moving to head back to my car, I saw the boy, sitting contentedly, though still worried, on the guardrail just behind the car. Dad sat next to him. I moved toward them, ready to tell Dad to get back to the car where I had told him to stay, but I stopped when I saw a smile on Dad’s face.
Things’ll be alright, Dad said to the boy. For you. I’m not sure about me. I got a terrible pain.
Where at? the boy said.
Right up here, Dad said and pressed his finger against the side of his nose. Take a look for me, he continued, tilting his head back.
The boy crinkled his nose and shook his head.
Oh, go on now, Dad said. You don’t look, I’ll never figure it out.
So the boy leaned forward to look up Dad’s nose.
What you see? Anything? Dad said.
Naw, the boy said. Just hair and boogies.
Well, golly, Dad said, pinching and rubbing his nose. Then he took deep, halting breaths as though he would sneeze. Then he did, blowing hard with wide eyes and great drama into his hands. Well, he said. Look at that. He held out his hand to the boy and in it he held a white golf ball.
At wasn’t in there, the boy said.
Sure was, Dad said. Nose feels a lot better, too. Here, I’ll clean it off. You can have it. Dad wiped it down and handed the golf ball to the boy and he took it, smiling. Don’t get it stuck in your nose, now. Dad said.
The boy held the golf ball, turning it in his hands, and he seemed pleased.
Dad tousled the boy’s hair. You’ll be just fine, Jimmy, Dad said.
My name ain’t Jimmy, the boy said.
Dad’s smile straightened. Yes, well, you’ll still be fine, Dad said.
Come on, Dad. Time to go. Neither of them had noticed me until then. The E.M.S. was ready to go as well, and the boy would ride with them. Dad sat himself up from the guardrail and walked ahead of me to the car, not speaking.
Dad had reclaimed his silence and stare out the window, and we made the drive like that until I’d finished the required turns and distance to reach Mountain’s Rest Nursing Home. I pulled to a stop at the front, and as I turned to look at Dad I could see the front doors–dark and solid with a palm-sized button at the side to signal opening. Dad had stopped looking out his window and stared forward.
We’re here, I said.
Dad’s jaw flexed a little and he exhaled through his nose.
You’re going to like it here.
You don’t know nothing, Dad said.
You done a lot a talking, but you don’t know nothing.
You’re sick, Dad.
I been sick before, he said. This ain’t sick. You don’t know nothing.
I know that wasn’t Jimmy back there, I said. Jimmy died–a long time ago. I’m so sorry, Dad, but you’re sick.
Dad was quiet for a moment and looked back out his window.
You’ve been having strokes. Remember? The Doctor? Just small ones. God knows how long. I can’t do it. You need somebody that can take care of you. It’s not me.
I wish it was, Dad, but it’s not, I said.
Strokes, tiny bursts like microscopic fireworks in the pipework of his brain, had stained his memories and blurred his awareness. They hadn’t taken his speech or mobility, but they would–the big burst was on its way and it would remove all of him.
He took a deep breath and exhaled long and slow through flared nostrils–a loud whisper like wind through brush.
You think I don’t know, he said and turned to look at me. His eyes were glassy, but the tears only hung to his lower lids. I would wonder later if I could count this as a third time. You think I don’t know, he continued. I know ever’day that Jimmy’s gone. Ever’day. But you don’t know nothing–don’t know enough to let me say his name.
I held my jaw shut until I said what I knew I should not: I know you wish it was me–instead of Jimmy.
Dad looked at me, eyes hard but still shuddery with wet, and said, you don’t know a Goddamn thing.
I did not respond.
Now if you’re going in get out the car, he said and opened his door.
Without speaking I opened mine and went to the back and lifted the trunk to get Dad’s bags. As I did I noticed the pond I’d spoken of in the distance–half covered in the shadow of a dogwood not yet in bloom. No one fished there, and where the cloud-filtered sun hit the mossy-green surface I saw a ripple begin and spread. I wanted it to be a trout, but it might have been the rain.