He was a loner all his life ...
As a boy he fled the swarming tenement for “nature walks,” as he called them, at Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island. He had one friend – a cousin actually – but they parted ways at fifteen. None followed. He was a loner in the war, happy alone working night shifts in tropical outposts with the Signal Corps, the South Pacific sky like sequined velvet hung over a satin sea.
He was a loner learning electronics, suffering in office towers after the war and in company cafeterias; happy left at his desk with the door closed. Happy at home in the backyard, tending the bougainvillea with its papery pink bracts, the spider mums, the succulents that thrived in salty soil and asked for nothing. He was happy in his garage, spending Saturdays polishing stones, sawing wood, making jewelry, making furniture, the radio on. Leave me alone. He gave the bookcases and pendants away, then rushed back to the garage, shutting the door.
He was happy on the road, driving down some desert highway or over a mountain pass. If he tried hard enough, he could forget that he was not the only person in the car.
His only child, I, too, preferred closed doors, preferred the road, bristled at interruptions, shut out all distractions, abhorred kits when things could be made to one’s own design. His only child, I, too, preferred eating alone, wearing clothes it did not matter if no one saw, being on the beach when no one else was there.
Not that I knew it then. Not that we ever said anything of the kind. He was in his garage working the saw, listening to Mantovani. I was in my room gluing doll eyes and pipe cleaners to seashells.
When he had a stroke, I was grown up. I flew back to Los Angeles.
“He can understand everything we say,” the doctor intoned at his bedside. My father twitched, rigged to tubes, babbling gibberish. “He just can’t speak properly. Because of what has happened to the brain, he can’t formulate responses and just talks nonsense, but he understands.”
My mother nodded slowly, horrified. Her eyes darted like fish.
“Will he— ?”
No one could say. And as the day went slack, the January sky gone royal blue and nurses rolling carts with dinner trays, but not for him, who ate through tubes, I saw that “alone” could mean many things. My mother was alone now in an awful way, was already alone, rendered alone the instant his blood vessel misfired. And her aloneness would go on, would resound like the bells in that poem by Poe. There is a kind of alone when you miss someone, I realized, someone in particular. Most alones are grand; he would have said so himself if he could say something besides theswitchisontheladderisbaba. But there is a kind of alone that can be hell. Don’t you think I know that?
And what about him? He knew. He knew exactly what had happened.
The nurse had taken his bifocals and shut them in a drawer. His right arm was clenched in a rictus like when children mimic horses. The other lay limp against his hip, an aspic stillness.
“You’ll be fine,” my mother said.
He gabbled a phrase that sounded like “chuckburger.”
His sister Roz was there. She kept calling him baby brotha.
The nurse said, “Gosh, he looks healthy.”
“He spends lots of time outdoors. He spent ...” my mother said.
We sat in chairs around the bed, sharing Chex from a box. My aunt straightened his blankets, turning to me.
“Have a baby.”
“I said, will you please have a baby?”
To fill in the missing space, she meant. Because if my father died there would be too few people in the world, one less, make more, fill it up.
I massaged his feet. The nurses had said it was worthwhile to keep his muscles toned, in case. His soles were soft as chamois. He jerked, fussed, looking the same yet different, as if being portrayed by a clever actor. My aunt unwrapped an Almond Joy bar. “There’s a candy machine down the hall. If anyone wants candy, there’s a—”
I scooted my chair up to the head of the bed from the foot.
“Dad,” I whispered. “Can you hear me?”
“Dad?” I touched his forehead. He jerked and said the clearest thing he had said since the stroke, the clearest thing it turned out he would ever say:
Leave me alone.