My father would not get out of bed. Well, he did sometimes, usually to go to the bathroom, but other than that, he pretty much lived in bed. Although he didn’t get up, he moved around a lot. Sometimes he’d lie on his stomach; other times he was flat on his back. Every time I came in, I’d find him in a new position.
“Why do you keep moving around?” I asked, dropping the dinner he’d wanted (two chili burgers, small fries, Coke with no ice) on the nightstand. He was lying upside down with his feet resting on the headboard.
“Circulation, son. I don’t want to get bedsores.”
“Oh. Well, why don’t you get out of bed, then?”
“Why not?” I really wanted to know. But he only shook his head dramatically, eyes closed.
After school and homework and dinner, if my friends didn’t have anything special going on, I’d wander into Dad’s room. Sometimes I read to him. Not that there was anything wrong with his eyes. I think he felt it was part of the role: When you’re sick, people read to you. And he was sick, or said he was, so I read to him.
“Son,” he interrupted me one night. I tilted my chair back and put my feet up against the foot of the bed. “Do you remember when I took you digging for clams? The salty froth, the squeaky wet sand, the greedy gulls dipping down to try and snatch a clam, the roar of the surf?”
I hesitated, thinking how nobody else ever talked the way my father did. “No, Dad.”
“Oh.” He laughed to himself. “We never did that. I did that when I was little. But you grew up here.”
That was true. My father did grow up on the coast; he did go digging for clams. I had never seen the ocean. I was skilled at unraveling his statements, separating the true threads from the false ones. I had to be, since talking to my father was like talking to someone out of a Lewis Carroll book.
“I should’ve taken you digging for clams,” he said dreamily. “And had a clambake on the beach. You’ve never tasted anything like good gritty clams dripping butter, never smelled anything like a driftwood fire.”
“Well, we’ll do that when you’re better,” I said.
He only gave me the closed eyes, the dramatic shake of the head, again. On the bedside table were books with titles like The Do-It-Yourself Will and Everyperson’s Essential Estate Guide.
I cornered my mother right after that. We couldn’t talk about my father in the house at all. He would hear the softest whisper and call out from his bed: “What’s that? What are you talking about?” I had to get her in the yard.
“What’s wrong with Dad? Is he dying or something?” I demanded.
She grunted and yanked a weed out of her garden. She was used to me bearing down on her, trying to nail down the truth in his stories. She was the one who taught me how to tell the real from the imaginary, after all.
“Dying?” She pulled another weed. It slipped smoothly out of the soil: green top, white stem, and finally the roots like little hairs. “Did he tell you that?”
“Not in those words. But that’s the way he acts.” I paused, watching her hands in the dirt. “He doesn’t have cancer or anything like that, does he?”
“No. He had a physical two months ago, and he was perfectly fine.”
“Then why does he have books about writing wills?”
“Well, every adult should have a will. It’s nothing to worry about. You know how he throws himself into things. He’s just going through a phase.”
“I’m fifteen,” I said. “I’m supposed to be the one going through phases.”
“Just humor him, won’t you? You know the way he is. This is his latest role. He’ll get tired of it.”
“Maybe I’m tired of it.”
“It’ll pass. Anyway, you wouldn’t want a father like everyone else’s, would you?”
No, I did not want a father like everyone else’s. My friends’ fathers yelled at them for leaving their shoes in the hall or forgetting to take out the garbage. Imagine my father caring about something like that. Or even noticing. In our house, we were always tripping over shoes, books, dirty dishes, and pieces of Dad’s projects.
Dad was the favorite car-pool driver when I was in elementary school. When he picked us up after school, he’d pretend he was flying a spaceship. Gripping the wheel with stiff fingers, as if his hands were encased in thick astronaut’s gloves, he shouted out “readings” from the “instrument panel” and yelled at us to “look out the left side of the craft as we cruise by Neptune!” The other kids loved it. The thing is, I think he did it to amuse himself just as much as to amuse us.
Dad would not get out of bed. I read to him. He stopped me, tapping my foot. “Son?”
“Do you think I’ve been a good father?”
“I always went to your Parents’ Days at school. I always tried to be involved.”
He didn’t miss a single Parents’ Day, that was true. He was the star. Kids tried to guess what he would wear, placed bets about what he would do. One year, he walked around wearing an enormous top hat, totally nonchalant. Every teacher eyed that hat–you could see their eyeballs roll upward–but none of them mentioned it. There was always scuffling and giggling and whispering while my father was in the room. Kids who’d never met him before turned and gave me long, strange stares.
Word spread among the teachers. It got to the point where they would see me come into the room (my father was always late, always made an entrance) and ask me, grimacing, “Forrester, is your father with you today?”
When my father was still ambulatory (a word he taught me), I never knew exactly what the house would be like when I got home. Once, I found giant potted plants in every room (“It’s good to have some greenery around,” Dad said). Sometimes he’d dress up in costumes, lip-synching to opera on the radio. He was constantly moving the furniture around. One time, I couldn’t find my bed at all.
“Oh, it’s in the attic,” he told me.
“I’m supposed to sleep in the attic now?”
“No. It’s healthier to sleep on the floor. It’s good for your back.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my back.”
“There will be if you don’t sleep on the floor.”
“I’m willing to take that chance,” I said, and stormed upstairs to haul my bed back down piece by piece.
“I don’t think it’s good to keep disrupting him this way,” I overheard my mother tell him the next morning while I was still in bed. They were eating breakfast. “How is he ever going to develop a sense of security?”
“Why should he have a sense of security? Life’s uncertain.”
“Still, I wish you’d at least leave his room alone. Let him have one place all to himself.” She didn’t usually get on his case. My father was not like anyone else, she often said, and the way she said it made it a virtue.
“Son,” he called out to me, “do you want me to stop moving your things around?”
I lay in bed, not knowing what to answer. He frustrated me, but there was also a certain spark to coming home. I never had to worry about getting stuck in dull routine.
“Son?” he called again.
“I don’t know,” I yelled back.
He laughed heartily, approvingly. “The kid’s my son all right, all right,” he said.
As he lay in bed, my father reviewed the things he had done for me or with me. In my fifteen years, I had eaten frogs’ legs, learned some basic Japanese phrases, visited the local electric and water plants (“Very important; everyone should know where their essentials come from,” he said), learned to play the harmonica, memorized “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (“Memorization is excellent for the mind, but don’t ever confuse memorization with learning”), suffered severe altitude sickness (a mountain vacation gone wrong), learned to change a tire and check the oil in the car, marched on Washington (for gay rights, I think; I was eight and only vaguely understood the whole thing), and learned the seven basic warning signs of cancer. Dad alternated between teaching me practical things, like how to recognize poison ivy, and things of questionable usefulness, like making me sit though four hours of Henry VIII, King of England on PBS. I had taken lessons in emergency first aid, karate, and French cooking.
“Hey,” Dad said, elevating his arms as he lay in bed, “have you ever used any of those lessons?”
“I’ve never had to save anybody’s life, no.”
“But you made that soufflé on Mother’s Day.”
He wiggled his fingers (to keep up the circulation, he said). “What about the karate?”
Karate had taught me how to breathe, how to concentrate. I hadn’t had to use it in a fight, but the breathing and concentrating did come in handy when I was taking an exam or crossing the single-log bridge in the South Woods. “I guess that’s been useful.”
He cleared his throat and lowered his arms. “I want to tell you something.”
I waited. He didn’t speak. “Go ahead, Dad.”
He cleared his throat again. “I may not have told you this before, but you’ve always been the best thing in my life. If you get the chance, someday, to have a son of your own….” He closed his eyes. “I highly recommend it.”
That made me feel grubby, small. I couldn’t see that I’d ever done anything so great for him. And now I was sitting here, not believing him, not getting wrapped up in this scene because I didn’t think it was real.
“I have to tell you something, Dad.”
He opened his eyes. “What is it?”
“I don’t believe you’re dying. I can’t go along with this whole thing.”
His eyelids snapped shut. “I would rather not discuss it.”
I took a deep breath. I stood up; he didn’t move.
I walked over to the window, where I could see my mother watering the lawn. The setting sun made rainbows in the wet spray. Humor him, she had said. Go along with it, as always.
But I didn’t want to have emotions like that pulled out of me, heartstrings plucked, tears jerked, if it weren’t true. This time I wanted to sneak into the wings and ask the stage manager, “Is this part real?”
He wouldn’t tell me, though.
Those weren’t the rules we had always played by.