This was my final project from a memoir-writing workshop I took in school last year. On rereading, there I a lot of things I’m tempted to touch up, but I finally restrained myself from that dishonesty. The names are unchanged, except for that of the family automobile, which is omitted for sake of the vehicle’s dignity.
My father, left-handed, reached out to push the red button with his right. He continued walking, more and more slowly, until the belt beneath him came to rest. Taking careful hold of the hand rails, he took three short backwards steps, and then lowered the heel of his black Nike sneaker to the floor. It was a graceless movement, executed with precision but without finesse.
“Isn’t it odd,” he thought, “the size of those shadows.” Dark outlines etched out a distorted grid on the gym’s eggshell walls. “Perfectly linear. Pale orange.”
He walked through two rows of treadmills, half of them occupied. A small stain of sweat leaked down the front of his shirt in a V, and he looked straight ahead at a doorframe on the other side of the large, hot room. A perfect rectangle of soft blue light hovered there, filling it from top to bottom, although the line between floor and wall was indistinct.
Men and women lifted weights and pulled on cables, grunting in the periphery, but my father did not pay them attention. He continued his dignified procession out to the lobby, where he lay down on the tile floor and requested the front desk call him an ambulance.
I hate the cold, except when I run. The silver webs of breath, dissolving in the streetlights. The road under my feet, under my shoes, hard. The smooth motion of my arms swinging through by my side. My bare chest a ball of heat. The ice crackling beneath me.
Exercise doesn’t make you healthy. Exercise wears you down. You have to be healthy to begin with, or else you can’t do it. Who else can run with me like this, naked in the cold? Who else can be so honest?
This stride right now doesn’t exist. To my legs, it’s always the next one ahead that counts. My life is so deep and so rich I can just toss it out, a thousand of little puffs into the night and it won’t matter. By tomorrow, my body will rebuild. I can do it day after day after day.
In the morning, I walk the same route with Dad that I ran the night before. We’ve done this each morning since I returned home. I take the dog’s leash because Dad’s not cleared to exert himself after the heart surgery, and sometimes the dog pulls hard.
He never walked the dog before the heart attack. She’s lean because they hardly feed her but she’s getting old and lame. She can barely make it sometimes. When she gets tired, she just sits down and waits, but it’s too cold so we pull her along.
When we get to the patch of brown grass stems on the undeveloped corner, Dad says to wait a minute so the dog can crap. That way he doesn’t have to clean it out of her kennel.
“The drinking bird can’t just go on forever,” I tell him. “It doesn’t make sense. Where is the energy coming from?”
“I don’t know, but it’ll just keep going as long as it has a little supply of water there.”
We don’t actually have the little toy we’ve been discussing the past day. We just looked it up online.
“It has to be from the thermodynamics of it. Somehow facilitating the evaporation. I don’t know how that would work,” I say.
He shrugs his shoulders from beneath the zipped-up coat and gray sweatshirt. “Well,” he drags it out extra long like he does sometimes, “it’ll keep working even when there’s 100 percent humidity.”
I’m having a hard time accepting this. “It has to work somehow, dad. It’s not magic. If I put that thing in an airtight box and give it a big reservoir of water, I’m sure it would stop before the water all disappeared.”
“What would the box have to do with it?”
“I don’t know how the thing works, but the box isolates the system. The bird can drink essentially forever because the atmosphere is an infinite thermodynamic sink. If you seal it off in a box it doesn’t have that. Eventually it’s got to come to equilibrium.”
The dog is finished and we keep walking forwards. I’m not sure whether it’s too cloudy for enough light to get through, or whether there is just really no color during winter back east. Dad says, “maybe, but I think it will just keep going.”
There is grass here and swings and a sandbox. You can do anything. This is the back yard. What else do you want?
When it’s summer there are rabbits and cool breezes and puffy white clouds and honey bees. You can chase them and run with them and get dizzy if you stare up at the sky. When there are bees you can just stomp them with your shoe. That is what you do.
It is always summer, of course. How could it not be? If you think it will be something else then you are crazy. I remember the snow, the hard crusts of ice that coat the twigs like witch’s fingers and everything shines so bright you have to close your eyes. And in autumn when the leaves turn red and brown and the wind blows away your newspaper hats and you can’t go outside without a coat from the hallway closet. (I like the red one with the tiger on it but the zipper broke.)
But it is not real. It is summer and there is no such other thing. Except spring, which is actually the same except made in pastel. I think summer is made in fruit.
When you play in the sandbox you have to make a castle or a hotel or a mermaid or a city. When you play hide and go seek you can climb a tree and they will never see you. Even though you are right there. You are in the tree and they never look up it is so funny. If you are in the pool then you have to play marco polo or wave machine or volleyball with mom.
When you play on the jungle gym it is not a game though it is just climbing and yelling and having fun. It is pretty high up on top so you have to be careful because it’s so high.
You can move the platforms. Dad has to move them, not us, but I can do it. It’s easy. You just pick them up and put them somewhere else. That’s how the jungle gym works. Dad built it. He bought it from the store and then he put it all together. Somebody made it to work this way. I can see everything they did, like how you have to put holes in the wood so the bars can go in from the side. I know what they did but they cannot climb the pole like me and they did not know I can hang upside down by my legs and crawl from under the low platform to the big one without even using my feet.
Every day we play on it the sun sets a little earlier. I know because they told me in school, and it’s because the earth is pointed and we’re on top and we go around the sun in a circle. It’s easy if you just think about it.
The sun goes down earlier and we have to go inside. The next day the jungle gym is still there, but it is different. It looks the same but now it’s like a calendar for last year. I already know how to slalom between the bars all the way to the top and how to jump off the top without getting hurt. It’s like it’s getting smaller every day because I’m getting bigger.
I wish my dad’s heart attack hadn’t been at the gym. I wonder what he thought about while he lay on the hard floor. I’ve learned that if you translate an isolated system one day forward in time, nothing changes. It’s a profound symmetry.
Three weeks after that morning when my father walked on the treadmill, my parents and I sat at dinner, and they asked, of course, how my day had been. I told them I slept all afternoon. That morning my run around the back yard had felt awful. My legs were weak. I came inside and slept on the couch for six hours.
You know you can have a heart attack even when you’re young, he said.
My dad walks on the treadmill four days a week, before work. He wears white socks there and nowhere else. Once he bought himself a special plastic box to hold his soap. It had a hole in the bottom so water would drain out, but he didn’t like it much. He gave it to me. I put dirt in it, poured colored water in top, and watched to see what drained out the hole. Nothing did. The water just filled it up and sloshed back out the top.
Long ago when I asked him why he doesn’t skip the gym membership and just go for a walk outside, he said last time he did that he rolled his ankle. Walking is dangerous. You can roll an ankle.
Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you don’t have to take care of yourself, he said at dinner. I think my dad works out because his own never did.
My dad goes to the doctor once per year. My mother tells him when it’s time. He was walking on the treadmill that morning when his heart attack began. His father died of a heart attack at fifty-two. My dad at that time was a few years older than I am now. Married. Proud new father of my older sister, age one half.
My dad flosses. I have some, but I’ve never done more than three days in a row.
Every day that my dad walks at the gym, he walks for thirty-five minutes.
I don’t know that. It’s just what I think. In fact I don’t think it. I know he’s not that precise, obsessive. But I imagine it. I imagine he comes in and parks in the same spot. A pull-through. He carries in his blue duffel and changes into the Nikes, and the white socks. He walks on the treadmill for thirty-five minutes, then he showers and heads out the other side of the pull-through.
Is he friends with the front desk guy? Does he say hi to the regulars? When he lay on the floor knowing something in his heart was broken, did he think of mom? Of my sisters and I? Or just of the sweat pasting down his shirt? Does my dad bristle when a new guy is on his machine one morning?
The Flash is the best. He is so fast he is the fastest ever. He can run as fast as you can blink and there is a lightning bolt on his chest. It is yellow like butter. The Flash comes on late at night so Dad tapes it on the VCR and we watch it the next day. It’s the same tape every time and it can only do one show. You only get to watch it once and that is it.
The Flash is so fast he always wins. Even when the man with the ice shot him he still won. He ran so fast he melted everything.
One time there was a woman on the show, and she almost beat the Flash. I don’t know how but she said she made him. She created him. I don’t know how. How could you make the Flash? He is just the Flash.
She looked at him, and she said, “I made you. I can speed you up. I can slow you down.”
Julia and I watched the tape with Dad but Kathryn was too small still she is just a baby basically she can barely even talk. We stopped the tape and rewound it. We pressed the special button on the remote control. It is the small red button like a triangle, and it is the slow-mo button. When you press it everyone goes slow.
We pressed the button and watched the woman and the Flash. There is no sound when you press the button so Julia and I did it ourselves.
“I can speed…you…up…” we said and laughed and laughed.
I can speed…you…up… We said it a hundred times. We weren’t even watching the TV anymore. Then Julia said, “Icanslowyoudown. Icanslowyoudown. Icanslowyoudown.”
In the TV they only say it once but you have to say it three times or it will not be funny. Icanslowyoudown. Icanslowyoudown. Icanslowyoudown. I can speed…you…up.
We said it a hundred times. Dad said, “Okay, that’s enough, guys,” but we didn’t listen. We just said it a hundred times.
We watched the tape over and over. We watched it every day until one day it was gone and there was an episode of Star Trek on it instead. Dad said he taped it over by accident and it was gone forever now but we still remember so it won’t go away.
Rain pelts the windshield, but the tractor trailers do the real damage. It’s just a flowing wall of spray in my face. I hunch forward over the wheel as if it will suddenly make everything clear. No luck, and I arch myself cautiously backward and roll my shoulders through a full circle. When I took over from Dad I pushed the seat back an inch or two but it’s still not right. I’ve been tightening up the last half an hour, but if I can just get us through this next hundred miles we’ll basically be there.
“She’s putting her hand on my side!” Dad says from the back seat.
“He did it first! Mom, tell Dad he has to behave.” Kathryn’s voice is full of mock indignation, loud and excitable. I don’t bother to glance in the mirror. I know the exact way she’s gesticulating her complaint.
“She’s looking out my window. That’s my window. You have your own over there. Right there, see?” I see his thick index finger pointing, deliberately crossing the halfway point between himself and her.
“It’s not your window. At Oberlin we share all our windows with each other and anyone can look out anyone else’s window whenever they want.”
“Well we’re not at Oberlin. We’re in my car and I make the rules.”
Mom sighs but finally plays her role. “Okay, children. I want both of you to sit in your seats with your hands in your laps. Do you hear me?”
I’m in the left lane, coming up on another truck. It’s best just to push quickly on past and get through the spray as fast as possible, but these lanes are narrow and everything tightens up a little when I approach half-blind from the rear.
“But it’s his fault. He started it.”
“She started it. She’s looking at me funny.”
I’m on past the truck and the way is clear for as far as I can see ahead. I form my right hand into a fist and press it up hard against the leather wheel, relishing the satisfying cracks of my knuckles. The vents are blowing hot dry air across my face, and I think about how it rushes in and out through my nostrils until the cold of the gray December rain I see around me is unreal.
The road is smooth and trees line its edges. They cut us off, turning existence long and narrow. Trapping us in this little manufactured box. Inside it we sit on our seats, watching as nothingness flows past outside. Am I really doing anything? Do people really think that pushing your foot down with a couple pounds of force and spinning a little wheel back and forth means you’re in control?
I squint at the back of another tractor trailer while the hot air blasts on my face upsetting my stomach and my family sits around me living for hours in a tiny little box.
“Oh, yeah, see if you can reach in back and get out the cashews.” Dad’s woken up from his last reverie.
“Why don’t you do it? You’re the one who wants to snack on them,” is Kathryn’s reply.
“Because you’re young and nimble and besides I can’t exert myself. Doctor’s orders.”
“Well I think that if the doctor wanted you to eat cashews he’d have given you a special dispensation in the first place. Besides, they’re MY cashews.”
“So, Kathryn,” I break in for the first time in a while, “is that what they teach you in hippy school?”
“Yeah.” My Dad says, “and didn’t you listen to what they said in church yesterday? Honor your father and mother.”
“I think it was ‘mother and father’” I tell him.
“Oh yeah, what makes you so sure?”
“Oh, never mind. Don’t worry about it, Dad. They also said I have to honor you even in your senility.”
He cackles and I can hear his finger briefly rubbing the side of his nose. “Okay, I’ll get you for that one later.”
I pause a second. “Dad, I’m sorry to tell you, but by the time we get there you won’t remember any more.”
My mind drifts back to the road. Somewhere up ahead is my sister. The other one. The older one. The married one. With the house and the new tiny baby, which after all is what we’re going to see.
Somehow we’ll have to emerge from behind this wall of water and into – something. The distant land where my sister decided to make her home. The place where, apparently, you substitute teach in schools until you decide to quit that job and go back to answering the phone for a home security company, then make a baby. The place where you settle down and become your parents. And why is it so far? What’s the point of all these miles, each new one marked by nothing more than a digit flipping over on the odometer and a new list of gas stations at the next exit? Like, who put them there, and what did they think it was going to do? What the hell is so much better about way over here than back there, and why is there so much damn space in between the two? And so much time?
Why won’t this rain break, and why are all these trucks white but look gray? Why am I sitting in a steel-frame bullet with a belt gripping at my chest in case I lose control and smash us into a tree on a curve? Why have I taken the spot Dad always sat on every car trip we’ve ever taken, and again, what is the deal with all these miles in between us? Why is it so hot and why can’t we just go, like, breathe for a little bit?
“How are we doing? What button am I supposed to press on this thing?” Mom is staring down at the GPS built into the dashboard between us.
I glance down at the odometer again. “Pretty good,” I tell her. “Another seventy miles and we’ll be there.”
My sister’s house, it turns out, is on the side of a hill. We turn a corner and, well, there it is. This is what she chose. Two stories, small and neat. Symmetric windows like eyes. The special touch is the porch, high above the ground with clean wooden steps leading up to it and a two-person swing looking out over the handrail.
“Here, Kathryn, take this bag in with you. It has presents for Bryon,” says Mom as we huddle around the trunk. I grab my own backpack and another duffle they’ve packed and follow Kathryn up towards the front door.
We knock and…oh my god, is that what happens to you when you go through childbirth? I knew Jul had put on some weight but, oh man, don’t let on. Just hug her and say hi.
I’m the only one who hasn’t been here yet, and few minutes later I’m getting the tour. “This looks like a door to a room, but it’s just where we keep the trash. Mom keeps opening it thinking it’ll let her into the living room, but that’s actually the next door” Jul says. I take an obligatory look at the trash can and vacuum cleaner.
“How far back does your property go,” I ask, crossing the room to look out the back window.
“Oh, see that drop off in the woods there,” she’s pointing to a spot twenty meters away. I say yes. “It goes just past there and down to the crick.”
“Well I do declare,” I put on a horribly-overblown southern accent. “This is a most fine, cozy little place you got here.”
Kathryn comes in from the living room where she’s left Bryon with Mom. “Hey Jul, what are we having for dinner?”
“I don’t know,” she says. “I didn’t plan it yet.”
“Well back on the road there we saw us some ‘coon,” I drawl. “If nobody done take it yet we could fricassee that up fer supper, I reckon.”
Jul stomps her foot against the floor as she turns to face me directly. “Hey, now I do not talk like that! Quit making fun of me.”
“Well I be, sistah. Every time I see you you sound more an’ more like a little Yankee girl.”
“Yeah, Jul,” says Kathryn. “You really do sound like a southern girl now you’re living in North Carolinny.” Her attempt at a drawl is pure travesty. “But mom says she’s going to the grocery store and what do you want for dinner?”
“Oh, I’ll go,” I say. “Else she’ll get more microwaved vegetables.”
“What’s wrong with microwaved vegetables?” asks Jul.
“Oh, I don’t know. What’s wrong with eating limp blanched corpses of plants? You see, you can actually get them fresh and put them in a salad. It’s great. This little thing I picked up in California.”
“Oh, whatever. Just don’t take all day. It’s already 5:30,” Jul says.
I turn back from the doorway to the hall and drift back into the drawl. “I can speed…you…up.”
“Now you’re supposed to ask yes-or-no questions, but the first one can be, ‘animal, vegetable, or mineral,’” explains Dad, even though I already told Kathryn how to play the game.
“Is it a mineral?” she asks.
“No, not like that! You just say, ‘animal, vegetable, or mineral,’ like that, and then he tells you.” I don’t get it. Sometimes she is so stupid. This game is really easy.
“Mark, be nice. Vegetable,” says Dad without looking back from the front seat.
“Is it green?” asks Julia. I guess it’s her turn but I could think of a better first question than that.
I can’t decide because there’s lots of green plants. ‘Vegetable’ doesn’t mean an actual vegetable. It can be anything that’s made from a plant. Like a chair. Unless it’s a metal chair but it’s not. It could be a banana because sometimes they are green before they’re good. “Umm, do you eat it?”
“Yes,” dad says. But the way he says it it’s like it was obvious, so I wasted a whole question. “That’s two. Kathryn, your turn.”
“Is it broccoli?”
“That’s a dumb question. Why do you think it’s broccoli? That’s dumb.” I try to turn towards her but the seat belt is too tight and I can’t move much. Why would she guess broccoli on question number 3?
“I thought it was broccoli,” she says. Her hair is really short and I don’t like it.
“Remember when there was a piece of cake we had to share, and dad made you cut it and me pick?” I ask. “Well remember you cut off a tiny slice and pushed it towards me, but I got to pick so I took the big slice? It’s like that. You can’t just guess broccoli right away because it’s like the tiny slice.” I’m trying to be nice to her because mom and dad say so.
“But if you can’t guess what it is, then how can you ever win?” I can’t believe it.
“Don’t be stupid. If you just think about it you can always win.”
Normally I think Dad would yell at me for that, but instead he just says, “No, not broccoli. That’s three.”
I’m left alone for a moment in the living room while everyone else is sitting down to dinner on the other side of the door. I made the salad and suggested the chicken as well. I look down into the crib where it’s lying on its back. My nephew. My sister is a mom.
It’s so tiny. Why is it so small? Wasn’t I like nine pounds when I was born? Why is it only six and a half?
A human being is fantastically complicated. There are so many steps to make one. What if something in him, just, stops working? It could happen. How could this tiny thing ever become a man?
Pat is such a proud father. He holds the baby out in front of him like a trophy, so you can see they already have the same red hair. They made me hold it too for a minute, maybe just half a minute, so they could take some photos. When I gave it back to Jul I was just relieved I made it through without dropping it.
My dad is a grandfather now. He sits in the rocking chair later that night, looking down through his reading glasses at the baby curled up on his shoulder. When his camera broke earlier today, he just went out and bought a new one, right away, and kept taking photos of everything Bryon and the rest of us did.
My dad’s hair is still brown like mine a few places, but mostly gray. His cheeks sag a little and his shoulders hump forward. Dad used to be so big. But he looks truly happy, cooing at the tiny baby asleep in his arms.
It had to start with the pain, right? What else could it be?
You didn’t know. No one knows their heart is about to give out. No one knows they’ll soon be staring up at a high tiled ceiling wondering whether the paramedics will arrive in time and how hard it would be to work the child lock on that bottle of aspirin.
What kind of pain was it, dad? It didn’t have to be sudden. It could have grown from a tiny sensation you couldn’t identify. Maybe you didn’t even notice. It could have started back deep in your chest, a tiny ball feeding off your energy and effort and expanding, ballooning its way out to seize your heart.
Is it even in your heart, the pain? Or all across your chest? In your arm? In your head alone, its presence obvious but indistinct, so you can say only that something is wrong, but you don’t know what? I can feel my heart. Could you feel yours then?
I lie alone at night. My body is spread straight and flat under the spackled ceiling that waits until this hour to glow dark blue. X-files blue. The mattress pushes up against my back, itself lying neatly on the carpet, and the carpet supported by some wooden boards from old chopped down trees. When I lie here alone I feel my heart beating inside me. Its rhythm engulfs me. It exists throughout me, from the artery curving round the ball of my ankle to the gentle throb in my temple. It is the cadence of my march through time. I want to let it out, let it go. Free myself from its insistent pulse! I want to let it fill this tiny room where I sleep, thousands of miles from you. Why can’t I let it throb out into the night?
Could you feel it, too, dad? When the treadmill stopped you looked away from its red lights and black panels. When a glint of orange sunrise struck your eye, you paused there on the edge. Could you feel your heart beating through the clutch of pain?
I had it wrong. The pain didn’t grow. It started from all around. It constricted. You walked back out towards the lobby to lie and wait there as your life squeezed smaller and smaller. You were trying to breathe. You saw nothing but a tightening grip until at last you started to understand.
I don’t want to ask. I just want to know.