He tries to explain why Luise, the nurse, puts sticky labels on every object in the house. Her name is not Luise. Rather, Luise is the name of the cat that died when I was seven. Dad and I buried her in the backyard under the deck. Mom made lemonade. I sang “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” because it was the only song I could sing without thinking. Dad was trying not to laugh while I cried. His hand was on my shoulder, and he smelled like aftershave. The nurse’s name is Sharon.
He tries to explain why the sticky notes are in his handwriting, why he’s been alone all morning. He’s hungry he says, and he complains that he never ate lunch. He tries to explain the half-eaten sandwich sitting on a plate at the corner of the bed.
He says, “My wife made sandwiches in her sleep, you know.”
I tell him I know. “Best sandwiches in town.”
He starts to turn in my direction when his eye catches a note stuck to a light on top of the dresser. He reads the word “lamp” written in bold letters.
“I know it’s a goddamn lamp,” he says.
I walk his half-eaten sandwich to the kitchen and try to imagine him eating jelly and peanut butter. Turkey on rye was his favorite before.
The first time I met my father, the man he is now, it was raining.He was sitting on the front porch of our old house, throwing quarters at a bucket on the sidewalk. The neighbor’s dog barked and pawed at the window. My father hated that dog. He developed a habit of yelling at it, but didn’t seem to be bothered, or even notice it right then. His face was tired looking, the way it looked when I was out too late, and he stayed up all night waiting in the recliner chair. Only, now he was an old man, I was grown up, and it was four o’clock in the afternoon. I asked him what he was doing. He glanced up for a moment, one eye squinted as if he had something to say, but tossed another coin instead and looked back down again.
As I walked toward him, I noticed the way the dirt smelled. The air was damp, and so was everything around it. It smelled different than I remembered. Dad thought the garden smelled like my mother’s hands, and once she was gone he refused to lay new soil. I started to walk past him into the house, offering him a hand, but he continued throwing quarters without acknowledging me. That was only five months ago. We’re getting to know each other every day now, or rather, I’m still getting to know him.
“Those are my diamonds out front,” he tells me, “on the sidewalk.”
He is staring out the front window, and the sun is reflecting light off the coins he left.
“You’re a rich man,” I say and smile at him. “Maybe now you can buy me that car I always wanted.”
He asks me where that Luise is. That’s what he calls her now: that Luise. He says she tried to steal the diamonds this morning, but he caught her putting them into a bucket and told her off.
I laugh. I ask him why on earth she would want to steal from him.
He asks me, “Why is it any of your business?”
He tells me he doesn’t know who I think I am. He accuses me of trying to steal the diamonds.
“I gave my wife a diamond,” he tells me.
On the way to school I try to explain to the kids that going home for Christmas used to mean going to Grandpa’s house, but Grandpa won’t be living there anymore. The youngest says she thinks Grandpa should keep his house because he’s sick.
“He says that’s where Grandma lives,” she says, looking out the backseat window of our van.
I try to come up with a way to tell her that Grandpa sometimes wanders off, that there are nights when we cannot find him. I try to think of a reason for Grandpa having to give up his house that doesn’t involve him wandering in the cold. But the kids are quiet now so I adjust the heating vents instead, turn up the radio.
About a month after that day I found my father sitting on the porch, I walked into the kitchen to pour a glass of water and found a pile of dishes stacked in the sink. I stood there staring at them for what seemed like forever. Our kitchen was always spotless when I was a kid, but it looked like these had been there for weeks. My father walked in and found me staring. He shuffled closer and stood next to me, staring in the direction of the dirty plates.
“My wife is behind on the housework,” he muttered.
“Mom died,” I replied.
He paused for a moment to place a hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, and turned and walked away.
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Portland Fiction Project
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