By Myron Hardy
There were three visiting hours left. My sister dropped me off at the house and turned right back in the direction of the hospital, and I wondered if Dad had wanted me to stay the whole time. It was hard for him to stay awake for us. He needed rest, to heal, but those were my justifications none-the-less. The next morning, I’d resume the playwright’s life in New York City: none of my plays had been produced yet. Every day I actively fought depression.
The house was dark, excluding the light that came from the kitchen window in narrow, luminous bars. I opened the curtains in the dining and living rooms to let in more, but all I got were murky olive shards, nothing yellow, gold, not even pale blue. I cut sprigs of tarragon growing from the window planter and placed them on the kitchen counter. The specks on the stone top were like those on my father’s hospital-robe, except his were small flowers growing out of him, as if the body were already a heap of cold earth.
“Dad has cancer,” my sister had said when I answered the phone at work.
I ran my hand through my hair; I needed a haircut. Silence. I didn’t believe her. And if I had, I didn’t know what to do, if I could do anything. My grandfather was my only experience with familial death. I was eighteen when he had a heart attack. Everyone else was still alive – we visited my grandparents every Christmas and every summer until I started college. No illnesses, only one immediate death, but at age twenty-seven, there I was, there we were. I was afraid.
“How far along is it?” I asked.
“They think they got it early but they won’t know until they operate. It’s in his intestines.”
I looked at my watch. Then, I looked at the annoying person in front of me, listening. I’d hardly said anything for the month I’d worked there. With each job, I became a machine made of a tie, an oxford shirt, slacks, and black shoes. The thirty minute train ride provided time to push myself in, to prepare for the menial labor: stapling documents, checking copies with originals, alphabetizing.
I told her I’d call back. I kept working.
Later, she told me Dad had laughed when the doctor informed him. My Mom cried when he told her, as did my sister in her apartment an hour and a half away. She drove in and sat beside them both, their hands balled together.
I called Dad. “Valerie told me. If there is anything you need, please let me know.” My voice trembled through the cliché.
“What would really make me better is for you to get stable. I don’t want to have to worry about you.” I swallowed air. “You’re a playwright, so be one. You’ve got to be able to support yourself, have insurance. You’re out there totally naked.”
I imagined myself prostrate on a sidewalk, holding my bleeding stomach, a gash on my forehead. It was too quiet, too dark, too expensive for anyone to see.
“If something were to happen, you’d be in a ward somewhere. You know how much a couple of nights in the hospital cost and a disease? If your Mom needs you, you’ll have to buy a ticket out here. Make some money, Hollis. I’ve been worried about you too long.”
“Okay. Good night.”
He hadn’t noticed any of my hard work. How could he? To tell him my life, my attempted work was difficult, would’ve been analogous to saying water was hard to find on Mars – it didn’t matter to a man who grew up poor, picked cotton, and created an “American” life for us.
I got an evening job teaching introductory drama two nights a week at a community college. I had to wear a tie – the same tie I wore the whole day. It felt good being there, anyway, even though the students hated Sophocles, hated Tennessee Williams, hated Arthur Miller, and hated Adrienne Kennedy. At least I was doing something noble, something that meant more than money (the pay was horrible), something that took more than an elementary school education to understand, something I could tell my Dad and he could tell the rest of the family.
My sister bought my airplane ticket. She was younger and had a real job. I arrived the evening before the surgery.
The first thing I said to her was: “This is crazy.”
She laughed, “Yes. That’s what I keep saying.”
“She doesn’t show anything. Like you.”
I looked out the window. “Did you ever notice how much space there is in Michigan? Everything is so open.”
“Only the clouds, they’re big.”
My aunt and uncle, my father’s sister and brother, had come the day before. I wore my camel hair jacket, the one I put on the nights I taught.
“Here’s the professor,” my uncle said. I hugged him and my aunt. I hadn’t seen them in three years. My sister said my father had driven them all over the city, showing them his investment property. He was very proud. It erased those years working for a company he’d hated. He’d built his own hard empire.
I hugged Mom. She was shredding cabbage and carrots. I saw Dad. I looked for the disease in the air around him, a clue in his skin, a chill in his hands, in his shoulders – nothing. He seemed unchanged, the same blue shirt, jeans, boat shoes with white soles.
“How’s teaching?” My aunt asked.
“I’m working on two new plays.”
“At the same time?”
“I’m trying to enter them into a festival. They choose two for full productions, another two for staged readings, and four playwrights get to participate in a workshop lead by somebody important.” I said this as if she knew what all this meant to me.
“Good luck with that.”
“I’ve been asking for luck many years. I need something else.”
“I want to come to New York and see your name on a Broadway marquee,” my uncle said.
“Or off Broadway, or off-off Broadway,” I said.
I brought only a knapsack with a few pairs of underwear, Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, papers to grade, and a toothbrush. We watched a terrible movie on television, a human-like machine saving the planet from an alien invasion. My sister put in a DVD on how meat is processed in this country. There were chickens eating their own shit in tiny cages, and sick, deformed pigs tortured before being slaughtered.
“Debra, after this surgery let’s think about becoming vegetarian.”
“We should start right now,” Mom said. We’d already eaten, except for Dad, who couldn’t. The duck felt like marble in my stomach, full of veins.
I slept in the same bed I did as a boy. It was too small. Diplomas, soccer trophies, they were all there on the dresser. I kept the blinds open so I could see the shadows of the blue pines in the yard. I didn’t really sleep. My eyes were closed. I was worried and wanted to call grandmother but I thought it might be too early. That was how I was raised; good, bad I hadn’t decided.
Before driving to the hospital, Dad asked us to stand in a circle in the foyer, with our hands connected. It was the first time I’ve heard him pray. Throughout my life, I thought he was an agnostic, that we were the same at least in this way. Yes, we went to Mass, maybe once a month, but who really believed in a Michelangelo-rendered God, passing judgment on the world in such a ruthless way? Apparently, I was wrong about him.
I kept my hand on his shoulder in the car, through the automatic hospital doors, into the lobby, until he had to go to the prep room alone. The waiting area was basic, with its horrible prints of random mountains. There were three families there with us, all dealing with someone with cancer. Some of the children waited in the well-cushioned seats upholstered with red cloth, crayons and bald dolls in hand. I felt worse for them. My sister and I were adults.
“He’s got to see me get married,” Valerie whispered.
“He will,” I said.
“It has to happen. I can’t imagine…” She rested her head in my lap.
Father Logan sat next to Mom.
“Thank you for coming,” I said.
“It’s good to see you. How’s New York treating you?”
“It will get better, as will your father.”
“He’s a bulldog.”
The nurse came out of the prep room. “Two of you can go in.” Valerie and Mom immediately got up.
“I’m the priest…”
“You can go in as well,” she said. There I was, left alone, the only one with a birthday in July, (theirs were all in February), the only one in our family who left Michigan. I looked out the window. It was clear and getting cold.
The nurse came out again. “The rest of you can go in now.”
She didn’t wear a white hat, white shoes, or a white uniform. I was disappointed.
Dad had been drugged. But his heartbeat was strong on the monitor: sharp green bars. We waited. A male nurse came in.
“Hi, my name is Carmen. I’ll be assisting the doctors during the surgery.”
“Did he say his name was Carmen?” Mom asked as he left.
“Yes,” my aunt said.
Dad woke up. “Carmen. A man named Carmen? They’re trying to kill me.”
My uncle laughed. “No one’s killing anyone.”
“Well, he didn’t seem….”
“He can hear us.” Valerie interrupted. “The man’s parents gave him that name. He had nothing to do with it.”
“Is it time already?” I asked as the doctors came in.
“Good morning,” they said. “How is everyone today?”
My mom hugged them both.
“As you know, the surgery should take about four hours.”
“Could you keep me informed? Half way through, could you have someone call me?” Mom asked.
“Of course. Anything else?” He stood there. He had a red handkerchief tied around his head, patterned with Siamese fighting fish – a peaceful warrior.
We waited. My aunt and uncle went out with Valerie to get lunch. I sat with Mom. “We’re on another planet.”
“I’m somewhere floating,” she said.
“So am I.”
A friend of hers came by with tuna sandwiches. She’d lost her husband a year ago to a sudden heart attack, and had gotten remarried to a man she grew up with in Alabama. It was strange to me, the swiftness of the event – almost forty years with someone and less than a year after their passing, somebody else. Is being alone so terrible? Is the fear of it worst of all? So used to a body, a smell, used to the talking. For me, alone was bliss, the place where plays enter, take hold, a world I had to inhabit.
“Have you gotten another degree?” Mrs. Moore asked.
“No. Just more plays.”
“I want to see one.”
I was irritated. “I do, too.”
“I don’t know how you can live in New York. I couldn’t do it.”
“I don’t know either,” Mom added. “Too much noise, too fast, too dirty. Nobody cares if you’re dead or living or crazy.”
“It’s my city.”
“You’re having such a hard time there. You should come home.”
“I’ll stay where I am.” I held Mom’s hand.
Mrs. Moore left, giant sunglasses over her eyes.
I pushed a metal cart from the parking lot into the market. Everything was clean and shiny – there were aisles of seemingly uniform foodstuffs and carnations in green buckets bundled in plastic. The strong scent of freezer burn and roasted meat wrapped itself around me. It wasn’t crowded, maybe ten shoppers and two children tearing open a twenty pound bag of jelly-beans so candy flew everywhere. I reached into my pocket to pull out my wallet; the brown paper list grandmother gave me fell to the floor.
That Christmas of 1999, an ice storm had hit Mississippi, white, opaque, and slick. Grandmother waited until everyone in the house went to visit my grandfather’s brother down the road. She had me stay behind. She pulled the list from her breast pocket, unfolded it, and handed me the small square. I read each word written carefully penciled cursive: pimentão, tomate, tomilho, alho. It was her lone relic of her native country. In 1926, Brazil was giving away her dark girls. The country’s government and elites begged Europeans to emigrate; offered land, housing subsidies, anything to stay, settle, and fuck away the African and indigenous peoples, blend them until they became white and solidify their hate for those who weren’t or appeared not to be. Most of Brazil conceded, including the blacks; we had been defeated. My grandmother’s mother sent her to the market with that list. She didn’t come home. After purchasing vegetables, two American nuns escorted her to a ship in route to New Orleans. They told that five-year-old girl that her mother had sent them. She remembered seeing pigeons fly from the gravel ground toward the sea. She cried there, afraid of everything.
Her mother believed it was best; a new country, education, abundant food, and, Christ, everything she was struggling to attain in Brazil, esperança for her only daughter. My grandmother lived and studied in the convent until 1939, when she fell in love with my grandfather. No longer a nun herself, she married him the same year. They settled in Mississippi, a pair of sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South. What trade was this, that strange country for another?
Grandmother wanted to go back to Recife. Wanted to see her brother, her father, ask her mother why she alone was sent away. It took years to get a visa, several applications, interviews, and several rejections. The money for travel began with saved quarters in a jar, then income from the fig preserves she sold from the tool shed. In 1947, she returned alone. My grandfather asked for letters – he wanted to see what she saw. She’d taught him to read in the eight years they’d been married. He wanted to discover her beginning, her line with its heavy boughs, her refocused sight. There, in a square of chaotic exuberance, she ran to embrace her brother. His hair had begun its slow swirling turn to mirror his gray eyes. She told me Pierre Verger had taken their photograph, the instant set in a surge of chemicals and light. He invited them for coffee. João’s arms around his sister’s shoulders, his linen jacket and slacks, dusty but it made sense, my grandmother’s hair full of salt, as was the news of their mother’s death. They both exchanged addresses with Verger but knew there was barely a possibility he’d send prints. She and her brother went home to greet their father. He was finally happy.
I gathered all the items on the list, as well as the ones I knew were missing, and drove home. In 2002, I had traveled to Brazil on a small grant. I met my great uncle in Bahia, his daughters, his sons, and his two grandchildren who were slightly older than me. I looked like them and they told me so. I helped shell crabs and scale fish for the stew. I wrote down every ingredient in the small leather-bound journal I keep with me almost always: the sun in the house, the brackish air, the tables made of loose wood slats, the bamboo and plastic chairs, the guitar, tambourines, drums, singing all night, the amber dawn. Discovery. This family, all of us from the same place, blessed and cursed by boats. I went to Salvador to see the Verger exhibit. It was housed in a building where slaves were once held until sold. In the cobblestone plaza outside the gallery, shoeless, unwanted dark boys begged the white tourists for money. The children were shunned away, even spat at, before the ticket holders entered the building of red walls and mirrors. I shook my head – we had arrived in the same place.
I searched for the photograph of my grandmother and great uncle. They were right decades earlier, a year before my father was born: no prints came in the mail. But I found it. Yes – big-eyed, startled. I could hear how loud that day in 1947 must have been.
My last week in Recife I spent writing in various parças. My favorite faced a school where there were young and old students, in a uniform of white shirts and black pants either long or short. One of my last mornings, I left my uncle’s house early and placed my only one act play at the foot of the main school door. I made sure no one saw me and hoped the red folder wouldn’t go unnoticed. I waited, attempting anonymity in the plaza. First it was opened by a small girl who showed it to an older girl, then to a boy about seventeen, then a young man about twenty three. They laughed, pointed at the words, read the speeches out loud. A throng of young people gathered, including a teacher who questioned the commotion. Had I become Abdias do Nascimento? Started Teatro Experimental do Negro? I should have donated copies of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, published a newspaper, formed a political committee that fought for the rights of unjustly accused prisoners, and become a senator. My hope was simple: that the school would perform or at least read the play to an audience, if only of themselves, and laugh and think and wonder who Hollis Coleman was, how and why that funny, strange play showed up at their door – fellfrom the sky.
In the kitchen, Moacir Santos played on the stereo. I sorted the beans and washed them in the colander. Did grandmother know of Santos, the wanderer, the orphan, the genius boy from Flores do Pajeú? In Brazil, I hadn’t heard any of his music on the radio. The first time I heard one of his songs was in Chicago. My friend’s father owned several of his albums; we listened to them without speaking.
Only my grandmother told me of Brazil. My father never brought it up and I didn’t either, at least not to him. Brazil was a secret between my grandmother and me. Perhaps that’s why she gave me the list. I was the only one who learned her first language.
After the four-hour surgery, Dad’s voice was scratchy and hoarse – the breathing tube had irritated his throat. Mom held his glasses. We were blurry to him, impressionistic collectives of color, but our voices were clear. It was difficult for him to move, to be comfortable; his body had been distorted and reorganized. We were thrilled he’d gotten through it and wouldn’t have a permanent plastic bag coming off his side, which he’d have to empty himself.
“I can’t talk too much,” Dad whispered.“They gave me some throat spray, but it burns.”
“Then just leave it alone,” Uncle Fredrick said. He chuckled. “We don’t want anything burning you today.” The patient next to him watched television with his son, who couldn’t have been older than twenty. I found out later that it was his third surgery; the cancer wouldn’t stop growing. The window next to his bed was wide. Outside, the parking lot was ominous, as was the sky. Deep breaths – one more hour before we’d leave, before I could sleep.
He couldn’t walk, but he had to try. The first time, he fell over and two nurses helped him back into bed, tubes everywhere.
“I feel like my stomach is going to break open,” he said. “What’s going to happen if my stomach tears open?”
“Just rest,” Mom said fluffing his pillow. “Look alive, Eli.”
Dad smirked. “Everybody wants something I can’t give.”
“Get yourself together. Positive thinking helps the healing process,” Uncle Fredrick said, folding his arms. “We all love you.”
“Is this love?” Dad asked.
“You are getting better,” Aunt Sloan said.
“Miraculous recovery,” Mom said. We laughed nervously.
We went and sat in the lobby when the nurse told us Dad needed rest. Friends I never knew he had floated into the room, filling the space with heat and chatter. The group he ate fish with every other Sunday afternoon and his racket-ball and church buddies came and hugged Mom. They introduced themselves to my father’s siblings and to me.
“You look like your father,” Mr. Davis said.
“Sounds like a song,” I said.
Dad had changed since I’d left home. He used to tell me constantly that one could only depend on family. Perhaps it was his reason for rigorously scrutinizing every kid I played ball with. It made it difficult for me to trust anyone else. But I did, eventually, and my sister never had any trouble with that. She was very social from the beginning and laughed when Dad made his inevitable remarks.
All of those people in the waiting room were concerned and loved him. He had worked through something his father probably branded on his brain, given to him for protection in that strange time, part of the country where overt pathology was sanctioned.
The next morning, the nurse told us Dad had been walking with her. It was a good sign. “You’ve been walking?” Mom asked.
“A little bit. I’ve got to try some more today.” He looked thinner. It wasn’t good, even though he was overweight and had been all of my life. What was going on in that body? I wished him transparent skin, so someone could see what was taking place and fix it quickly. The five of us stared at him, sometimes smiling at the same time
“You had a lot of people come by yesterday,” Valerie said.
He smiled. “And what did they want?”
“This is a good morning for you,” Mom said.
“Yes, I got some more pain killers, a constant drip,” he whispered.
“Wouldn’t mind some of that myself right now,” Fredrick said. “Take away all the pain.”
Dad began to snore. We sat in the empty waiting room. I corrected papers, most of which I couldn’t read. Everything was wrong with them. I used a blue pen so theywouldn’t seem so tortured.
First he strolled with Mom, slowly struggling with the wheeled walker. Each step in the waxed hallway was painful, the lines on his forehead like rivers. Fredrick, Sloan, and Valerie followed behind. I stood at the end of the vestibule, facing them. The tubes and I.V. swayed with each awkward step. I couldn’t believe I was leaving the next morning. I wished I could have stayed to provide whatever help I could (this was questionable because there was nothing I could do, a man with limited language).
Mom asked me to walk with him alone. I rested my hand on his back. I had him stop before I retightened his hospital robe. The floor’s glare made me think of the sun in my eyes when Dad showed the pigeon in his hands. I think I was nine, maybe ten.
Thompson Lane was the name of our street. My father caught a pigeon that had gotten into the house through the chimney. He walked to Jared’s, where I was playing in the yard two houses from ours. He called me over to see the bird. He held it with both hands, its body surrounded by a red wash cloth. It seemed afraid. Cloudy lids that looked like cataracts covered its glossy-black eyes.
He passed it to me.
“Careful. Hold on tight,” he said.
I was afraid I’d crush it, that I’d kill the bird that looked so terrified and fragile. Jared ran away as the pigeon broke free, flying away from us.
“I didn’t want to let it go,” I said.
“We were going to have to at some point, Hollis.” I watched my father pick up the red towel that had fallen to the grass. “I just wanted you to see it, feel its heartbeat.”
“Why are you sorry? There’s nothing to be sorry about.” I hugged him for being kind, gentle when I thought he wouldn’t be, when I thought I didn’t deserve him to be, when I thought I’d made a mistake. There we were near the cul-de-sac, in Jared’s yard, covered in copper light.
Dad got to the end of the hall and we walked back into his room. The nurse helped him into bed and properly reconnected each tube.
“We’re going to get lunch,” Mom said.
“Hollis, can you stay?” Dad asked.
I sat in the chair. “I’m right here.”
They all left.
“Last night I couldn’t fall asleep. I kept looking out the window. I felt like jumping out. If I’d had the energy, I would have tried.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They lessened the pain killers. The epidural was changing my heartbeat. You don’t want this to happen to you.”
“Don’t talk about me. This is about you.”
“It’s about all of us. They cut me wide open. I feel like a fish with its intestines pulled out.”
“How do you know what that feels like?”
“I’m living it.”
“Correction, a fish is usually fried after having its guts yanked out.”
Dad tried not to laugh. “Can’t you let me have a minute to say something crazy without smart comments? I was making a metaphor.”
“You were attempting a simile.”
Dad laughed harder and held his stomach. “Don’t make me laugh, it hurts too much. I might pop one of these stitches.”
“I’m going to try.”
“I can’t take it.”
“What time do you get back to New York?”
“Don’t forget about me. You have the number right?”
“Yes.” I frowned. How could anything else be more important?
“I can’t stand being in here. I feel like a rat undergoing experimentation.”
“You need to relax. Think of Mom and Valerie.”
“And what about you?”
“And me. Think of me.”
I crushed cilantro and hot peppers, then spooned the thick paste into the stew. I took the beans off the stove, added olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper, and poured them into a large white bowl. I put the rice on a serving platter and tossed it with chopped cilantro and lemon slices. I prepared a salad of arugula, toasted walnuts, and dried cherries dressed in oil and vinegar. I washed my face and waited. Just as I started to stretch plastic wrap over the food, they arrived.
“This looks good, Hollis,” Fredrick said. “Let me go wash my hands.”
They dished everything out and ate.
“Who do you have on the stereo?” Mom asked.
“Moacir Santos. Born the same year as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Enrique Jorrín.”
“I like this.”
“He’s Brazilian. It goes with the meal.”
I waited for a story, some acknowledgement of the country so hidden, so secret.
“Did you learn how to make this there?” Sloan asked, a shrimp close to her mouth.
“I did. I learn how to prepare something from wherever I go. Well, I try. ” I touched the table then continued to eat.
“I need a little bit more,” Valerie said, getting up from the table.
I spotted an opossum’s red eyes in the backyard. I wondered where she was headed in the dark. Had she been there before? Once again, I remembered the flowers blooming on Dad’s robe. I imagined myself crushing them in my hands. Nothing but the body would live there, nothing would take away its nourishment.
Back at my apartment, the answering machine had two messages from friends excusing themselves (with too much explanation) for having to miss the concert. I was disappointed. I’d made the reservation as a pretext, to have a place to tell them what had happened, how I didn’t know what to do, how I didn’t know how to handle this.
The telephone rang. I picked it up and said, “Grandmother” before she could even say anything on the other end. Her tone shook as she told me she’d dreamed of swimming in the sea and finding her son floating, holding a place on his body that bled.
“It was like red ribbons unraveling from him. The water was warm. I saw the shore of my country in the distance but my son could hardly speak. What’s wrong with your father?”
I didn’t want to tell her. I was quiet.
“I saw those pigeons in the dream. They were those same pigeons I saw when I left Brazil.” I bit my bottom lip. “Why aren’t you talking to me, Hollis?” I grunted.
“Ribbons in the water,” she said. “I couldn’t stay asleep to pull him to shore.”
“Call home, call my father,” I said.
She hung up. I dropped to the floor and stretched myself as wide as I could. I wanted to hear my joints snap, tendons tear, to feel something even more painful. But nothing was, nothing on this body, no harm to this body could feel sobad
I was alone at the Vanguard. It was the first time I regretted that fact. An open beer on the table, I looked around the dark room: skeletons. I was shaking as the concert began. The trumpeter removed his porkpie hat, revealing a Mohawk haircut. He was high, and he almost fell over as he played and laughed just before finishing a wavering note. Hadn’t he learned from his predecessors, so many irrevocably destroyed? Perhaps they were merely finishing the mission with a series of muted booms.
From under the table, I dialed Dad’s number, then pressed my phone against my ear, but there were only rings, each muted, drowned in the music, the song I usually loved
I remembered being small, when Dad used to walk me to school each morning. Before he’d leave me at the door, he’d say: “When I pick you up, we’ll discuss what you’ve learned today. So learn something.”
Where was my father? Where was I? With an elbow on the table, my hand over my face, it came: the Atlantic, the Mississippi, Lake Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie; everything blurred.
Author bio: Myronn Hardy has published short stories in Gulf Coast, Gargoyle, Callaloo and elsewhere. His short fiction has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. He lives in Morocco where he is completing his first novel.