People keep dying. You'd think I'd be a pessimist, or depressed, or something, but I'm not. I love life. I love being alive. It keeps getting better all the time.
Even though people keep dying.
My father died on April 15, 1995. He was ninety years old. It was his second bout with pneumonia in six months, and this one did him in.
Up until October of '94 he'd done okay. Almost ninety and never had surgery. Two strokes though. The first was back in 1969, just before his sixty-fifth birthday--just shy of retirement. My mother had said that he worried and fretted about money and retirement so much that he'd given himself a stroke, but he recovered pretty nicely. The second was in 1992, age eighty-seven, which took a lot of the remaining wind out of his sails.
Someone dies at age ninety, after a pretty good life, you don't know whether to cry or say Thank God. I did both.
He was in Toronto General. The hospital phoned me about eleven o'clock at night, then I phoned my brother and sisters, but because I live closest, I was the first one there.
"Don't take anything out of the room," the nurse said. "Everything has to be accounted for."
I looked at her. "He hasn't got anything."
She put her hands in her pockets, glanced down, left.
But I did slip the red garnet off his finger and put it on my own right hand. It's ten-karat gold, soft and beaten, not worth anything. The stone is squashed down in the setting, lopsided at one end. Later, when he got there, I told my brother, Dennis, what I'd done, wanting his permission, and he understood.
When the nurse came back into the room, she opened the drawer in the bedside table. Inside were his glasses, dentures, and electric razor. That goddamned razor. He loved it. Those last years when he lived with us, he seemed to spend half the time with it spread out in pieces on his night table, screwdriver in hand, glasses pushed up on his forehead, servicing its idiosyncrasies. Then he'd run it around his face and neck long after there was any chance of a whisker hanging on, caressing himself.
His mouth was open, eyes shut. "I'd like the dentures put back in," I said.
And there he was. There it was. The end. Just like that. I couldn't believe it. The rocks and sands of my life had shifted beneath my feet.
I looked down at him. Where are you? I thought. I don't understand. What happened?
I put his glasses and razor in my pocket. I never knew what to do with them, so I still have them.
We put nearly all his clothes in green garbage bags and gave them to Goodwill. Kept his neckties, though. They were kind of interesting. He had a penchant for wine-colored and navy-blue, with white polka dots. One said "Pure Silk, Foulard, Imported by Forsyth" on the label. They were a little wider than the ones that I wore. But you never know. I might wear them. I might.
I still have his tackle box too. I don't know what to do with it either. It's steel gray, covered with rust spots. There's a yellow sticker on the front, just above the latch, that says "Truline--Seamless--Eaton's of Canada." When you lift the lid it unfolds into three trays, and an odor steals out that takes me back to childhood in a wooden rowboat, then disappears.
Inside is my father.
The hula popper, with the rubber grass skirt rotted away. Then the rest of the names crystallize: flatfish, crazy crawler, jitterbug, Mepps spinners. There's a trailer chain for keeping fish in the water after a catch, boxes of hooks, razor blades, a hundred yards of eight-pound test line, leaders, sinkers, a pair of pliers, a Langley Fisherman's De-Liar scale. And then there's the wooden, handmade hand-painted lure, about four inches long, that we never saw him use. We'd ask him about it, my brother and I. He'd only smile and tell us that it was for muskie. He never fished for muskie.
This is my legacy.
Life keeps surprising me.
I didn't see it coming. I hardly see anything coming. That night of my father's funeral, when Adam asked about his own father, I was floored. A bolt out of the blue. He'd never asked before. Never mentioned him. Nothing.
In hindsight, I don't know why I was so surprised. Now that I think of it, if he was ever going to ask about his father, that would have been the logical time. But I didn't think of it then.
Hindsight. Like they say. Twenty-twenty.
He asked it simply. "Is my father alive?"
Jeanne and I both stopped chewing.
Adam waited. He's twenty-one now, majoring in English at the University of Toronto, going into third year. He is my stepson. He was ten years old when I met him that summer in Ashland, Kentucky, twelve when we settled here in Toronto, fourteen when Jeanne and I finally married, and I'd always thought that I was the only father in his head.
Like I said, it blindsided me.
And Jeanne. His mother was so taken aback she was speechless for a good thirty seconds.
I watched her, then Adam, waited.
Finally, she nodded. "I think he is. I don't know for sure, but I think he is." Her eyes darted to me, then settled on Adam. They stared at each other in silence.
Then Adam began eating again, patient, calm. We followed his lead. After a minute or so, though, he asked his next question: "Where is he?"
I looked again at Jeanne, then Adam. When she caught my eye I said, "Why don't I get us all some coffee?"
Adam is a big, good-looking kid. I still thought of him as a kid, even though I was staring at his dark five o'clock shadow and his hands on the table in front of him were bigger than mine. But twenty-one. When you're fifty-one like I am, twenty-one is hardly on the map.
Looking at him, though, digesting his question, unsettled by my own new loss, a collage of myself at his age drifted back: the 1960 Chev Impala with 111,000 miles on it, my job as a truck driver's helper, delivering office furniture around the city, the summer of '64, the Beatles. Girls. Drinking. Living in my parents' basement. Girls.
Adam was a quiet kid. You start being quiet around your parents at puberty. Too much stuff going on inside. But sliding free from my flash of nostalgia, watching his patience after dropping his bombshell, I realized that he was definitely on the map, and had been for a long time.
Adam never called me Dad. It was always Leo. When he was twelve, shortly after we'd moved here, he asked me why there were cracks in the wall and ceiling of his room.
"I haven't painted them yet," I said.
"I don't mean that. I mean how do the cracks get there in the first place. If a house is built properly, shouldn't there be no cracks at all?"
I shrugged. "The house is old."
He was quiet, considering it.
"Must be sixty years old," I continued. "Houses settle. Cold and heat, expansion, contraction. It just happens."
He was sitting in his bed. I remember that it was winter, that it was cool, that his room needed better storm windows.
He waited for more. But I didn't tell him anything more. I didn't tell him that everything settled, everything cracked, that the rocks and sands shifted beneath your feet. I knew that he would find out for himself soon enough.
My father always made instant coffee, but we've got a new Philips Cafe Classic. I paid about sixty bucks for it at Zeller's, and within a month, somewhere in its innards a hose clamp came loose, flooding the kitchen counter with hot water. I ignored the warning on the bottom cover ("Do not remove--repair should be done by authorized service personnel only"), unscrewed it, and fixed it with needle- nosed pliers. Its parts spread open, exposed, it was, I realized at the time, a lot like an electric razor.
That night, I poured three cups from it, black, set them on the kitchen table.
"How come you never asked before?" Jeanne sipped the coffee, watching her son.
Adam hesitated, seemed to think about it. But I guessed that he'd already thought about it a lot. "Didn't seem to be important."
"Why is it important now?"
"Is it because of Gramp?"
Gramp was my father. Tommy Nolan.
"It's only natural."
"Were you ever going to tell me?" he asked suddenly.
I sat still, watching them, seeing new things, things I hadn't seen before.
"I told myself I'd tell you whatever you wanted to know if you ever asked. Well"--she tucked the loose strand of hair behind her ear, like she always did--"you've asked."
I cradled my cup in both hands, feeling its warmth. Waited.
"He was in Dayton, last I heard. Dayton, Ohio. But that was a long time ago. Maybe he's not there anymore. I don't know." Jeanne paused, did some more thinking. "You're twenty-one, Adam. He left before you were born. That's a long time. I haven't seen him since." She fixed her eyes on him. "I've always believed that it wouldn't serve you well to speak ill of him, so I never spoke of him at all." She sighed. "The long and the short of it is that he knew I was pregnant and he left. He didn't want to get married. Your Aunt Amanda met him on the street in Cincinnati, must've been fifteen years ago. It was him spoke to her. She told me how she couldn't believe his nerve, coming up to her like that."
I listened to the Kentucky drawl that she had never lost, that I would never want her to lose.
"He told her he was working in a factory in Dayton. That's how I know what I know."
"Did Aunt Amanda tell him about me?"
"She told me she said to him that he had a son, and that he should go see him, do something about it, do what was right. But I never heard from him. He never called, nothing. This was about five years before Leo and I met. Leo's your daddy, honey. He's the one helped me raise you. He's the one helped put food on the table, pays for your schooling. You know that."
"I know it." He looked at me. "You've been great, Leo. You know I know that." He shook his head. "But this isn't anything against Leo. And it's not meant to upset you, Mom." He folded his left hand into a fist and held it against his chin, under his lower lip. "I don't know," he said. "I don't know."
None of us knew. This was a new place. We hadn't been here before.
That night was the night of the first dream.
I dreamed I heard footsteps coming up the stairs, thought it must be Adam. When I saw him, though, it was my father, wrapped in old, frayed towels mottled with bloodstains. I remember remarking that it was a disgrace the way those with whom he was staying were taking care of him.
When I woke up, it took me a long time to get back to sleep.
In the morning, dressing, I reached for my watch and rings--part of the daily ritual. I keep them on the bookshelf by my bed in a four-by-six ashtray that Jeanne bought me for $1.29 in Las Vegas. And I don't even smoke. Nobody in our house smokes.
It's adorned with a back-shot of three girls in thong bikinis, legs dangling in a pool. Adam tells me those bikinis are called butt-floss. You can always learn stuff from kids.
My watch, my wedding ring, and my father's ring.
Only the red garnet--my father's ring--wasn't there.
Puzzled, I looked on the floor, on the shelf behind the tray, even on my finger. I saw it in the center of the dresser.
I had no memory of leaving it there. In fact, I had a distinct memory of studying it, then placing it in the ashtray, a new nightly addition.
I rubbed my forehead.
When I opened the drawer with my socks and underwear, his glasses and razor were sitting there staring at me. I was sure that I had left them on the night table in his old room down the hall.
Sliding the garnet on the ring finger of my right hand and the wedding band on the same finger of my left, I strapped on the watch, took out clean socks and underwear, and closed the drawer.
I turned and watched Jeanne sleeping, auburn hair tousled, to me, beautiful. I thought of Adam, equally beautiful, sleeping in his own room--its walls lined with new cracks, fissures that would keep opening no matter how many coats of paint were rolled over them--thought how lucky I was to have my whole family with me even while I slept.
And I looked at my hand. Looked at the ring.
Saw him on the stairs, in the night, coming up to get me.
Later that day, I put his tackle box in the basement, behind the furnace.