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No Returns

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When my father’s favorite sister leaves, I get Dad all to myself again. Since early in the summer, my aunt and I have knocked heads on the proper way to care for a dying man, so as soon as she is out of the house, I feel an enormous weight lifting. I feel more relaxed. I plan to make up for all the arguments from earlier in the summer. Then, I wanted to confront my father with his various failings as a Dad—from his various absences to his overbearing presence—but I’ve come to realize that it’s too late for this. He hasn’t eaten in weeks and can hardly take any fluid at all; he doesn’t have energy for intense conversations. If anything, a dying man feels he’s owed an apology from the rotten world, not like he is the one to apologize to selfish offspring or anyone else. So now, I am committed to rising above the fray and playing the role of the dutiful son until the end.   

Over the next five days, I make a conscientious effort to meet all of my father’s needs. He wants constant drinks, water or sweet tea, and ice cubes and plant waterings and laundry and dishwashing, so I’m a whirl of activity, trying to stay on top of all of these tasks while being pleasant, good company in my moments of rest. At first, I’m exhausted, and I imagine what hell it must be to be a mother with young children, or a maid or servant. Compared to domestic servitude, teaching doesn’t seem too bad.

To get out of the house, I take afternoon excursions to a local grocery store on Main Street, bland, beige shelves full of processed and packaged food, and then drive a bit further down to the bright lights of Kmart where I pick up a few other items. At times, Dad gets an idea for a specific thing he wants—maybe some seeds for the garden, or a particular popsicle flavor. One day, strolling through the aisles, I discover that the movies in the video section are affordable, many for four to six dollars, not much more than the price of new-release rentals. I pick out three films that I think my father might enjoy; these are movies I don’t think he’s seen. Among them is What Dreams May Come because I know my father is a big fan of Robin Williams.

When I get back to the house and show Dad the loot, he seems excited to see this movie; in fact, we both are. The problem is we don’t know what the movie will be about. As it turns out, the opening seems to depict a spacious final resting place, heaven perhaps, or some other next stage or afterlife. As the scene opens, I get this awkward feeling that it is much too close to home for present circumstances. I move from watching heavily animated backgrounds to taking furtive glances at my Dad to see his reactions. Finally, I’ve had enough.

“This seems kind of depressing.”

“It’s kinda morbid, huh?” Dad looks over at me, not demanding that we turn off the movie, but with a look of real questioning. The doubt on his face suggests that I’m to decide if this is permissible viewing. It’s as if I’m the parent who has to decide.

“I was going to get As Good As It Gets for the same price, but I remember you said you’d seen it already.”

“Ooo. That’s a good one, Al. I’d watch that again.”

“I’ll go get it.” I’m eager. This is my chance to do something that will please my father, what a good son would do. Maybe I can’t properly clean his bathroom or choose the right career, but I can run to a Kmart and get the movie he’d rather see.

“Can I come?” This surprises me. On the one hand Dad hasn’t been out much at all during my visits, so I’m surprised he’d want to go. But the way he asks me catches me off guard.  He sounds like a small boy asking his folks if he can tag along to run errands, so I tell him he can certainly come along. He uses his hands to heave himself off the couch, and then walks into the bedroom. When he returns, he’s replaced his sick man’s bath robe with grey sweatpants and a peach tee-shirt. The sweatpants have pleats and pockets, so he can bring his wallet and comb too. He could almost pass for any other semiretired Waynesboro citizen, so dead man walking and I proceed out the door.

We can’t take my Tercel because it’s hard for him to squeeze into the firm bucket seat on the passenger side, but lucky for me, he is still willing to drive in his old Buick, and the aged vinyl seat is soft and comfortable. Like always, I’m incredibly nervous driving with my father in the passenger seat. So even though he hasn’t eaten in weeks, I ask him to drive. He finds this cumbersome. It makes no sense as to why I can’t drive him two miles to Kmart, but nonetheless he obliges and takes the wheel.

On the ride over, Dad says, “This is all the fun I got left, Al, messing around with those retail managers.”

Rather than grant my father his small fun in what remains of a short life, I chastise him. “Dad, those guys are really underpaid, and have to deal with all sorts of annoying customers who complain about everything. Plus, they work fifty or sixty hours a week and don’t get paid overtime. They’re sitting ducks for people to take their anger out on.”  From experience, I know retail counters can be a hassle and a half.

“OK. Dad’s wrong again.” I see a pout form on his face.

We walk into the Kmart and are immediately attacked by the bright lines beaming down from high ceilings. The fluorescence illuminates the plastic and polyester merchandise, and I imagine my father must find this dazzling—bright lights and colors all over, big black numbers on white backgrounds announcing discounts and bargains on every rack. This is the world my father will soon depart.

Returns are just to the left of the main entrance, and there is a line of several customers exercising their American right to take it back. Dad sits in one of the electronic wheelchairs Kmart has on hand. It’s hard to say if these are available for old people, for children, or our standard-issue American fatties. But he sits there with a look of the obedient child on his face. He is going to let me handle the transaction.

When our turn comes, the woman tells me that I have to give a reason for the return.

“A reason?”

“That’s right. We can’t just take anything back.”

“We didn’t like the way it started.”

“That’s not an acceptable reason.”

She looks so proud to clarify the rules that all I can think to do is move quickly to the trump card.

“He’s,” and I thumb in Dad’s direction to show her the old dead guy playing silent cherub, “sick and dying, and we just can’t watch a movie about heaven.”

It sounds like she mumbles that our reason isn’t acceptable, but she completes the return anyway.

“Did you tell her I was dyin’? Is that what you said?” Dad looks curious. He thinks this is the funniest thing.

I’m in my all-business mode and can’t even pretend to make some decent conversation with my dying father. Instead I go straight back and get As Good As It Gets. I remember several months back, he told me he identified most with the gay character in the movie because he wasn’t accepted by his neighbors for who he was. This reminded me of the Havertown neighbors calling the cops on Dad for not mowing his lawn, but I’m not positive if this is what Dad was thinking of.

We take the five-minute drive back to the house, and settle in to watch Jack Nicholson dominate the screen. I can see my father is enchanted by the movie. It’s amazing how we can still get subsumed in someone else’s life even at the end of our own. The constant search for diversion that is this American life. It reminds me of an article I once read on the death penalty in Texas, and the last words of many of the convicts. A good many did indeed address their crime—some apologized to family of the victim, some professed their innocence for the final time, and some prayed to God. But many others avoided the topic entirely, and for last words said, “How ’bout them Cowboys!” It was as if the Dallas football team was the final thought, the Cowboys’ triumph a blessing before one’s own end. Later in the summer, I’ll watch my father let various parts of the outside world fall off and drop away from his life. And then I’ll see him focus on the people in front of him, myself and a few others. But for now, enjoying ornery Jack is a welcome diversion, a chance for Dad not to think about his own impending death.

The whole visit is like that, the two of us finding a way to work together, each understanding his place in the equation. At nights, I make Dad a cooler full of cold drinks and ice cubes he can swirl around in his mouth and spit out into a large mauve pitcher. I imagine that some of the fluid diffuses into his body through his mouth, and this is his only source of hydration. He still pisses, frequently in fact, but his urine is the Indian red color of the dehydrated man. But the system is working—no nutrition but he can swirl and spit his fluids and enjoy the flavor of frozen juice and sweet tea. I know his cancer is a terminal condition, but I hope I can help him stay alive.

“No Returns” is an excerpt from rough draft of The Book of Jay, a memoir by Alex Kudera with journal selections from his father, the poet Jay Roberts. It’s a work in progress that will consist of intertwining memories of each writer’s father.

Alex Kudera's Fight For Your Long Day (Atticus Books) was drafted in a walk-in closet during a summer in Seoul, South Korea and consequently won the 2011 IPPY Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region. It is an academic tragicomedy told from the perspective of an adjunct instructor, and reviews and interviews can be found online and in print in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Inside Higher Ed, Academe, and elsewhere. His second novel, Auggie's Revenge (Beating Windward Press), and a Classroom Edition of Fight for Your Long Day (Hard Ball Press) were published in 2016. Kudera's other publications include the e-singles Frade Killed Ellen (Dutch Kills Press), The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity (Gone Dog Press), and Turquoise Truck (Mendicant Bookworks). When he's not reading or writing, he frets, fails, walks, works, and helps raise a child.

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