DAD’S SITTING NAKED at the kitchen table, covered only by a white lacy shawl. His forehead glistens with sweat and he stares out the window, pouting. He has the old floor vents on full blast, and I’m surprised he’s not dead from the heat. It’s a typical Santa Fé summer evening, still well into the eighties. I shut off the furnace and throw open a couple of windows.
“Heater’s on again, Dad. It’s August. Remember?”
“Get out of here, you bastard,” he says.
“Dad, it’s me. Reynold. Your son.”
He grabs the ends of the shawl and wraps it tighter around himself. He turns away from me and sticks up his nose. Today he’s Mercedes Madrid. She’s the mean one.
“Come on, Dad, take that damn thing off.”
“I’m waiting for José,” he says.
“I’m not sure he’s coming. Now get up. Let’s get some pants on.”
His gut has grown in the last year, rounder and lower, but his legs and arms are still skinny as ever. His years spent in tanning beds and under the high desert sun have kept him brown, though it’s turning grayish now. Ashy.
“José said he’d be here at twelve noon. Damn him all to hell.”
“There’s no José, Dad. Come on.” I reach for him. “What’s burning? And why does it smell like piss?”
He has the Magic Chef cranked to 450. Inside, a pair of his white undershorts—one of the men’s garments he still wears—lies flat on the top rack, placed with care, the ends stretched out. They’re yellowed and just starting to smoke.
“Why’d you put your damn shorts in the oven, Dad? Has Marjorie been here?”
I twist the dial back, grab some tongs, and pull out the shorts. They smolder under cold water, and I fling open the window above the sink to let the stink out. Weeds poke up from the flower box that hangs on the windowsill where Steve’s petunias used to grow and where a spider has taken over. Dad hasn’t been outside in a while. It’s better if he stays indoors.
His smug face makes me want to hurt him. It’s the same face he wore in court for his and Mom’s divorce. Steve, who back then we thought was only his best friend, waited outside the courtroom and turned away when Rob and I walked out, holding Mom. The way Steve went for Dad, helped him out of the building, everything made sense.
“I’m drying my lingerie,” he says. “For my date.”
“God damn it, Dad, this isn’t lingerie. You’re roasting your fucking underwear.”
“Who are you?”
I grab his shoulders and turn him toward me. His nakedness always shocks me. Marjorie calls more these days, needing my help. She can’t seem to do it alone, especially since he’s abandoned clothes. He’s slipped further since I was here last week. He’s more eight-year-old boy than eighty-two-year-old man.
“Okay, Mercedes. Listen: there is no José, you are not going on a date, and you do not put your shorts in the oven to dry them.”
He hums a tune I remember him singing when I was little. The words are something like, Johnny he’s a joker, he’s a bird.
He doesn’t budge. I leave him there to find a robe and decide it’s time to fire Marjorie. I dial Rob. He’s never in the mood to talk about Dad, but maybe today he’ll have some sympathy.
“It’s getting worse. Maybe we should put him in a facility.” I grab Dad’s robe from the hallway bathroom.
“Whatever you say,” Rob says.
“You do have a say in the matter.”
“No, not really. You’re the executor,” Rob says.
Rob holds onto the idea Dad loved me more. He teases me to this day about it, says I’m in charge because I was our fairy father’s favorite. Really, it was the state. Three years ago, APS called me after Mrs. Rogers next door called them. Steve had passed away the year before from a battle with lymphoma, and it wasn’t too long before Dad started to slip. The day I got the call, Dad had wrecked his shopping cart into Mrs. Rogers at Albertsons. He was in heels and screamed at her. The state later named me executor.
That’s what I get for being four minutes older.
“Why do you go through all the trouble, anyway? You’re not getting a dime of his money,” Rob says.
“His money’s going to his care. He needs someone, Rob.”
“Like I said: whatever you want to do is fine.”
In the late part of the summer after Rob and I finished college, we sat for the last time as a family at the dinner table, but we didn’t eat. Mom and Dad told us they were getting a divorce. Mom’s face was a permanent purple from all the crying, and Rob was the only one who addressed the issue head on. He said he never wanted to speak to Dad again and had no love for a cheater, even though they hadn’t told us why, or if there was any cheating going on at all. Rob wished Dad a long lonely life, then he got up and left. That very second, everything fell on me.
“Thanks for your input,” I say. “I’ll remember not to ask you again.”
“You’re welcome,” Rob says. “How’s Barbara? The kids?”
After Dad and Steve moved in together later that same year, I put up a wall. I hated the situation for at least ten years and talked to Dad maybe three times. Mom’s heart disease accelerated and my attention went to her. When she died and we had to let everyone know, I finally figured it took too much energy to hold in all that anger. Dad showed up at the services. He hugged me. We cried.
I began to visit him and Steve off and on after that. They got to know my wife, Barbara, and Dad was there when Trace was born. We felt something like a family again. In those rebuilding years, though, I still clutched to a tiny bit of rage—one last brick in my wall—for the new life Dad so easily took on. As I watch him slip away now, I can’t help but feel that brick still there—the interminable heaviness of it—and wonder if Rob hasn’t had the right idea all along.
Dad’s still at the table looking out the window with the stupid shawl on and now he’s crying. I drape the robe around him. I debate roughing him up, or maybe just toying with him. When exactly does it cross over into abuse?
“So, José stood you up again?”
“Yes. Second time this week,” he says.
His eyes have caved in and his cheeks sag more these days. From the side, he reminds me of Grandma Vásquez, his mother, when she was on her way out. She always had this combination of worry and apprehension in her eyes, as though someone was going to burst in and scare her. I never noticed how wide her forehead was until I saw it in her open casket. Dad’s forehead looks almost identical, but instead of the frizz job Hansen’s Mortuary did with Grandma’s hair, Dad’s bald.
“Well, we’ll have to just call him and see what the holdup is.”
“Don’t bother,” Dad says. “He’s a dog, anyway.”
“What do you mean? A dog?”
Dad looks at me with the Grandma face, and for a second I think he knows me again.
“Who did you say you are?”
“I’m Earl. Dr. Earl. Are you feeling okay, Mr. Madrid? Or is it Mrs. Madrid?”
“I don’t need a doctor.”
“Dad, it’s me. Your son.”
“I don’t have a son.”
“You have two. Twins. Let’s get up and get you to bed.”
He shifts around in the chair and he leans forward, giving in. I lift him up, close his robe, and lead him down the hall. The place sparkles thanks to Marjorie, but every time I visit, something changes. Perfect rectangles of un-sun-bleached paint on blank walls mean he’s taken another picture down. Books end up in the bathtub; plates go tucked under the couch cushions. I found a set of forks in his old cowboy boots. In his room, a suit’s laid out on the bed.
“Is this what you meant to wear today?”
“That’s for José.”
“Here, sit down. Where were you two headed?”
Mr. Steak’s been closed for decades. It’s now a yoga studio.
I remember the suit from a picture where he and Steve were dressed up for some formal event. They matched.
“Let’s put it away until tomorrow, okay?”
I hang the suit in his closet next to a row of dresses, closest to a maroon one. I slide the door shut, and his reflection in the mirrored panel stares back with the same pout. I want to push him, maybe slap him. I face him, feel that weight again, and tap the top of his shoulder instead.
There’s an old yearbook open on his nightstand. Boys in white dinner jackets and black bow ties and girls with low black drapes from shoulder to shoulder, all of them with big hair, smile up at the ceiling. In the left margin, an autograph from a young man with a deep brow and slick hair says, “To Bird Dog: Don’t ever change. Keep in touch. —José.”
I slam the book shut.
Dad cries. “Why didn’t he come?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t love you anymore.”
“What? Why?” Dad whimpers.
“We’re going to have to take you somewhere soon, Dad. To a home.”
“This is my home.”
He looks around the room with the Grandma Vásquez face again, this time more lost. He pats around on the bed for something; looks back at me, eyes still damp. “Why did you stop loving me?”
I know the man we used to call Dad is in there. The man that ran behind us, training wheels off. Same guy that talked to us about sex and girls and using our heads. My shoulders tense and his eyes dart away from mine. I look where he looks and see his reflection in the mirror again, and for just a second, I catch him. He hums the tune again.
“Stop, Mercedes. Please.”
“Get out of here.” He swats at me and I grab his wrist. I could break it with one twist. I lie his hand on his lap and turn toward his closet. I slide open the door and pull out the maroon dress and put it next to him.
“Here. We need to get you ready. For José.”
“Is he coming?”
“Yes. He’s going to meet us at Mr. Steak.”
BLACK ANGUS IS the closest thing to what Mr. Steak was. Probably a little brighter and cleaner. The hostess takes us to a quiet corner—my request—and I shake my head each time a staffer passes by and gives me the look.
Our server, Manny, stutters on drink orders he’s so distracted.
“He’ll have a Coke,” I say. “Water’s fine for me.”
I cut Dad’s steak and feed him a few bites. He loves the mashed potatoes. Always has. For our sixteenth birthday, Mom and Dad dragged Rob and me to Mr. Steak. We really just wanted to be dropped off somewhere, like Pizza Hut or the mall, but they refused. When Rob’s steak ca
me out, he cut into it like he was killing it. He tipped his plate on accident and the filet fell in his lap. We laughed so hard that Mom threw up a little bit in her mouth.
After our dinner, Manny sets the Sky-High Mud Pie on the table and Dad looks right past it. He has forgotten he ordered it, the same way he forgot about José. Hasn’t mentioned him once since we sat down. Maybe I’ll take the dessert to go and put it in Dad’s Frigidaire, where he’ll find it the next day. Or not at all. I think today will be the last day he’ll use his kitchen appliances.
He takes a sip of his soda on his own and leans back, resting his head on the high-backed, cushioned booth. He clasps his white-gloved hands over his protruding belly covered in satiny red fabric. He rests his eyes. I consider yanking off the matching pillbox hat tilting jauntily on his bald head. But I leave it. I’m the one who dressed him. It’s best to keep him—and me—calm as long as possible. I’ll never see him like this again. At a restaurant, on a date, dressed to kill.
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