October 23, 2017

 

The Alignment of the Planets

 
 
 

Jack Youngman was in alien territory -- a VA hospital in East Orange, New Jersey -- waiting for a brother he hadn't seen in fifteen years. Each time a taxi pulled up in front of the hospital, the knot in his stomach tightened and his eyes widened with apprehension. But after twenty minutes had passed (five cabs later), he was still waiting, and, try as he could -- pulling the collar of his black leather jacket up tight around his neck -- he couldn't turn back the chill that ran through him each time the glass doors opened with the latest wave of November air.

According to the doctors, his father had just two days to live. The cancer that had started in Derron Youngman's prostate and had moved unchecked to his pancreas, was now spread throughout his body, and had lodged in his bones; his kidneys were totally dysfunctional and he had refused any further food. For the pain, he was being given massive doses of morphine, six times a days.

Burt was flying in from New Zealand, where he now lived and worked. He'd taught at Harvard up until about a year ago. According to their mother, he'd left after a few physical confrontations with his students. On more than one occasion the police had been involved.

So now Jack was waiting for his brother, wondering how he would act, what he would be like. This meeting would be a strange one. To Jack they were less like brothers, less like father and sons, than like distant planets that had coincidentally come into alignment a few times over their life spans. Even so, he knew this would be the last time that all three of them would be so aligned.

He was ten years old, watching out the front window for his dad, just like every other Sunday. He had to stand on tiptoes to see out the window. The sun was shining bright. Staring at the off-white pavement made him squint. When they had moved here after his mother's divorce from Dad and her remarriage to his stepdad, Calvin, this had been a new street, bare, treeless, a field of cement, with a patch of green lawn in front of each house. Now, six years later, there were still no trees.

Jack stared out the window, looking for his father. He normally came at three and it was already twenty minutes after. But the telephone hadn't rung yet and Jack knew he would show up. He probably just got held up in traffic.

"What're you standing there for?" The instant he heard the voice, his back had stiffened, his shoulders twitched. He turned around with his hand on his chest.

"You shouldn't do that. You could give a guy a heart attack."

Burt's hands were in his pockets. "He's not going to show y'know. He would've been here by now."

"He'll be here," Jack said.

A smile unfolded on his brother's face. "Sure, he'll be here. When the Cubs win the pennant."

An hour later, Jack was still standing by the window. His neck ached from looking out. He'd told his mother "No" when she'd suggested that he go out back and play with the other kids, that she'd call him when and if his dad came. But now his legs ached too and he had to sit down. He figured it wouldn't be a problem if he were to do his waiting on the couch in the living room. He would just stretch out and relax. And, with his head on the arm rest, he could still see out the front window.

He could smell the pizza cooking. His stomach was growling. But, when his mother came to get him, he said he wasn't hungry, and pressed his cheek against the smooth back of the couch. He thought about the rib place his father took him and Burt to and the vanilla phosphates, the Italian restaurant where he always ordered the same thing -- chicken cacciatore -- or the place where they made the pizza burgers, with the gooey white cheesy centers. Food eaten with his father was always better than anything his mother could offer. It just wasn't the same.

"Suit yourself," she said, and left the room. He got off the couch and bounded up to his room. He closed the door behind him, dove onto his bed, and buried his head in his pillow. The bass beat from Burt's stereo was pulsating through the wall.

In a moment his mother was calling for his brother, saying "Burt! If you don't come down right this minute, you can forget about eating tonight!" After that the bass from his brother's stereo boomed even louder through the wall.

A black man in a green canvas jacket was sitting a couple of seats away from Jack, staring at him. There was a moment of eye contact, but after that Jack didn't look back at him, afraid that the man wanted to start a conversation. It was the last thing Jack wanted to do right now. There were too many things to think about.

In front of the hospital, a bearded man was getting out of a yellow cab. Jack stood up. His stomach was gurgling. The newcomer was wearing a blue canvas backpack and was carrying a large box.

Jack walked up to the glass doors. Could this be Burt? He wasn't really sure. Fifteen years was a long time. He pushed his hands deep into his coat pockets and stood next to the entrance, rocking on his heels, waiting. The electric doors opened and the man walked in.

He wore glasses and had a beard like Burt's, but it was shorter than he remembered. His hair was shorter too. And Burt had always been skinny as a rail; this man had the beginnings of a pot belly.

He approached the man. "Burt?" he asked.

"Hello," the man said. "How long have you been here?"

"I got here yesterday."

"So what's the story?"

"Well, he's not very responsive. He just lies there sleeping most of the time. Occasionally he opens his eyes. Sometimes he seems to recognize you, sometimes he doesn't. Once in a while he'll talk."

"Hmmm," Burt said, stroking his beard. "Sounds bad."

"It is. Real bad. What else can I tell you? He just lies there. He's on heavy doses of morphine." Jack was staring at his brother, trying to make it sink in that this was really him, the brother whose approval he had always sought but never quite attained when they were kids.

But Burt was the one he'd always written to, the only one whose approval had mattered back then, so many years ago.

Burt was looking around the hospital, looking everywhere but at Jack.

"Here, let me take something," Jack said. Burt gave him the box.

"What's this? An empty box?"

"It's for frozen frog specimens. I'm supposed to pick them up in Boston. I didn't think they'd have the right kind of box."

"We can put this in the car for now."

They stepped back out into the cold, walking side by side.

"So, how was your trip?"

"I spent the last thirty-six hours in airplanes."

"Not a lot of fun."

"I had to lay over six hours in the LA airport, that was the worst."

"Six hours. That's awful."

"It wasn't so bad really. I had to be sure not to fall asleep, but that was all."

"You look tired."

"I haven't slept in three days. Of course I'm tired," he said.

When they reached the car, Jack opened the back door and shoved Burt's box and backpack in and slammed the door shut. Then, without talking, they walked back to the hospital, past the guard at the desk and down the hall to the elevators. Jack pushed the UP button. In silence they waited. Finally, the elevator bell rang, the door opened, and, together, they stepped inside.

They walked down the grim halls with their dull colors of yellow and gray, the gray squares of linoleum beneath them -- cold to walk on in bare feet, Jack imagined. Each door they passed looked like the one before it, except for a different number on the door and a different body sitting or lying in the metallic bed. The rest was all the same -- the yellow walls, the white sheets, the large windows with blinds, and, on this side of the building, a view of the other wing, which was the mirror image of this one.

The room was dimly lit -- only the light over the sink had been left on. It was a room of shadows. Jack walked in first. A moment's panic set in, seeing his father lying there like that. Remembering. He had always been a big man, but now there was nothing much left -- his legs, atop the sheets, like twigs that could have been easily snapped. He'd always been a strong man, but now, in a diaper, had been returned to his first helpless days.

Miranda was sitting in a chair in the corner of the room, facing the bed where her husband lay, looking very much like a corpse already, his skin yellow, face waxy, eyes closed, the only hint of life the thin, steady breath. She looked up and smiled. She was hard to see in the dim light.

"Miranda, this is Burt."

She got up from her chair, smiling still, and walked over to Burt. Bearded, shaggy dark-haired Burt. He was standing, hands dug into the pockets of his blue jacket. She held her hand out to him. Burt jerked his hand free of the blue cloth of his pocket and wrapped his fingers tentatively around hers. She hugged him and said some words in Spanish. Burt stared at her blankly.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I've been sitting here so long. I forget I'm talking to gringos." There were pouches under her eyes, like she hadn't slept in a while. "Anyway, I'm so glad you made it, Burt. He's been asking for you."

She pulled Burt to the side of the bed. She bent down and lightly stroked Derron's arm.

"Derron, Honey, can you hear me? Can you talk to me? Look who's here. It's Burt. He's here to see you." Derron didn't open his eyes, but rolled his head slightly to one side and moaned. Miranda bent down closer to him, stroked his forehead, spoke into his ear. "Derron, please. You know how you've been asking for Burt? Well, here he is." Suddenly his eyes opened wide and, through the fog of morphine, he located the speaker's voice.

"Derron, look. It's him."

His eyes locked on Burt. He reached out toward his son and opened his mouth, trying to shape words. Miranda told Burt to step closer. He did. Then father took son's hand and said, "Is it you, is it really you, Burt?"

"Yes."

"You came a long way to see me."

"Halfway around the world," Burt said. "It took me thirty-six hours to get here."

"You came halfway around the world to see me," Derron said. Then his grip loosened, and his arm fell, collapsed back on top of his chest. He closed his eyes again.

Burt, the renowned biologist, glanced at the hand his father had held, then shoved both his hands back into his jacket pockets and slid back into the dark part of the room.

Later, when they were leaving, Jack and Burt stood together, waiting for Miranda to finish her discussion with the nurses on duty.

"It's sure hard to see him in such pain," Jack said, watching his brother, who was watching Miranda.

"It's hard to see anyone like that," Burt said.

That night Jack, Burt, and Miranda's older sister, Mataya, who'd come to stay with Miranda, watched television in silence on the couch in the den. Burt was sprawled on the floor, his backpack behind him as a pillow. In a few minutes he was snoring. It was only then that Jack felt comfortable enough to talk to Mataya. She said she understood how Jack was feeling about his dad. Ten years before she'd lost her husband in a plane crash. It was the most horrible time of her life. But she'd made it through somehow. She'd prayed a lot.

Jack stared at the screen. The newsman was talking about all these tragedies that had happened to people neither he nor Mataya knew, that didn't touch them. And here her husband had died and his father was dying, but not a word about that.

When all the other people's tragedies had passed with the rolling of the credits, Jack yawned. He stood up and said goodnight to Mataya. Then he started to walk out of the room.

"You're going to just leave your brother sleeping on the floor like that?"

Jack stopped and looked at his brother, lying with his head back against the backpack, his mouth wide open. It was a face that he knew so well from memory, yet, at that particular moment could not seem to place at all. Maybe it was just the circumstances, maybe he was just tired, or maybe it was a trick of the light. But, whatever it was, it made him hesitate as he put his hand on his brother's shoulder. "Burt," he said, shaking his brother lightly. He thought of all the stories he'd heard about Burt's days at Harvard -- the violent confrontations with female students, run-ins with the police, a threatened sexual harassment suits, all of which, finally, resulted in his failure to make tenure despite a seemingly bright future. And then there was his self-imposed exile to New Zealand.

Jack pulled his hand away from Burt, straightened up, and looked back toward Mataya.

"I can't do it," he said, trying to smile, but feeling shaky. "I'm just going to let him sleep. Goodnight." And he proceeded, mechanically, one foot after the other, out of the room.

The next morning, he woke up at six a.m. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he put on his running gear -- the light gray sweatshirt, the charcoal gray sweat pants, his white socks, and his green and white Nikes. He stretched his arms out in front of him, placed his hands on the nearest door post, and slid his left leg back, keeping his foot down on the floor, doing a modified pushup against the door frame, stretching out his hamstring muscles. The muscles were tight, the stretching painful, but necessary. He stretched the other leg in the same manner, then spread his legs and bent his torso first to the left, then to the right, working the muscles of his inner thighs.

After finishing the exercises, he bounded down the three flights of stairs, and out the front door.

For the first few minutes his breathing was strained. But after about five minutes of padding along a path that followed the Hudson River, the New York skyline to his right like a sprawling, slumbering giant, his breathing fell into a groove, synchronizing with the easy movement of his arms and legs. He couldn't help thinking how good he felt, and how alive, the hill behind him now, the wind at his back and the whole world just out there, almost within arm's reach, while his father, a fallen giant of Jack's youth, lay in a dark, colorless room, never to stand, let alone run, again.

At breakfast, Miranda suggested to Jack that he and Burt and might go to the hospital alone since she had so much work to do, a deadline approaching.

"Okay," Jack said, "if it's all right with Burt."

When Burt came to the kitchen he was rubbing his neck, saying it was sore. Mataya, who sat at the kitchen table, looked up from her coffee, brushed her thick black hair away from her face, and laughed.

"Blame that on your brother," she said. "I told him to wake you up, but he left you lying there on the floor."

Jack looked away from his brother and down at the oil swirls in his coffee. "I haven't seen him in fifteen years. I wasn't going to risk getting him angry by waking him after he hadn't slept in three days." He looked up at Mataya and attempted a smile. "Besides, that way I got the extra bed."

"Nice brother I've got," Burt said, and Mataya laughed even harder.

After breakfast, Jack got the car keys from Miranda, then went to find Burt. He was lying on the couch in the family room, reading a battered copy of the Wall Street Journal.

"Want to go?" Jack said.

"Do we have a choice?" Burt asked.

"It's why we're here, isn't it?"

"I don't know about you. I'm not really sure why I'm here. I've got frog specimens I could be picking up in Texas."

Jack stared at Burt. "Frog specimens."

"Okay, if we're gonna go, let's go. Let's go do our duty."

"That's almost what it seems like, doesn't it?" Jack said, feeling a seed of betrayal in his words, thinking, it wasn't what he really meant -- he just wasn't sure he wanted to face that scene at the hospital again.

He had a hard time adjusting to Miranda's car.

"Jesus!" Burt said, as Jack, backing the car out of the drive, slammed too hard on the brakes to avoid being hit by a mail truck.

"Sorry. I'll get used to it. It's different than my car. I don't have power brakes. Or automatic."

"But will we get there alive?"

"Well, if we don't, at least we're already headed in the right direction."

Burt didn't laugh. "I'll drive if you want me to."

"That's all right. You'd be driving on the wrong side of the road."

"At least we'd get there."

"I'm okay. I'll drive. I'll be careful, all right? Just lay off, will ya'?"

When he drove up the ramp onto the highway, a red Corvette cut them off and Jack had to slam the brakes again. Burt held onto his seat and yelled "Goddamn!" Jack honked at the Corvette.

"Are you crazy!" Burt said. "Don't ever honk at a car here! This is New York. Somebody's liable to come out of that car and shoot us!"

Jack glanced at his brother, and said, "I know how to drive," and, still looking directly at him, honked the horn again. Burt's face tightened and filled with blood.

"That's it! Let me out of this goddamned car. I'm not going anywhere with you!"

"Go ahead! Get out! Get the fuck out of the car! You think I need you to tell me how to drive? Asshole!"

Burt was already halfway out of the car, his backpack slung onto his shoulder. The cars behind were honking. Then Burt seemed to have a change of mind and leaned back into the car. Jack was expecting an apology but, instead, with crazed eyes, Burt reached across the seat and clamped his hand around Jack's neck and pressed down hard, while Jack sat, frozen, his hands still firmly locked on the steering wheel. Then Burt was slamming the door, and Jack was rubbing his neck and yelling at the closed window and his brother's back: "Asshole! Fucking asshole!"

More cars were honking now. One guy was leaning out of his window and shouting: "Get out of the fucking road!"

Jack took his foot off the brake and stepped all the way down on the gas, muttering to himself "Jesus, Jesus, look at me. He's got me so upset my goddamn hands are shaking."

He drove on for a while, but the shaking didn't stop. Now his whole body was trembling with anger and rage. There was no way he could go like this to see his father. His 'father.' It had a strange sound to it. And his brother, who was he? The man who had escaped the States and abandoned his family, only to make a name for himself in biological circles by discovering that certain animal species recognized and stayed for long periods of time after birth in familial or sibling groups. He'd studied tadpoles, toads, and Japanese quail chicks, to prove these facts. Why had he concentrated on family group studies of animals? Was it that he needed to explain to himself the pull he sometimes felt, despite his ironclad resistance, to be a part of, return to, or even just communicate with his own family? Or was explaining it away as instinctual behavior one of the ways he had of overcoming these feelings, telling himself that, great reasoning bug that he was, he needn't cave in to such primal impulses?

Jack got off at the first exit, turned around, and started driving down a street he thought would lead him back to his father's house. On the way he cooled down some, enough so that when he saw his brother walking on the opposite side of the street, his blue jacket, backpack and bushy beard making him look like some sort of wilderness man thrown into one of the most urban areas in the world, he slowed down, rolled down his window and called to him: "Come on Burt, get back in the car. I'm sorry."

Burt stopped, turned, and yelled back across the street: "Nobody treats me like that. I don't take shit from nobody!"

"No, I guess not!" Jack yelled back. "You don't have any violent tendencies, do you?" then rolled up his window, his hands shaking once again, and drove back to the house.

He walked through the door.

Miranda saw him and smiled. "What'd you forget?"

"My brother's a maniac," he said and, though knowing he shouldn't, told her about it. Brothers: after fifteen years of not seeing each other, this is what it came down to.

Miranda told him to avoid Burt if he wanted to when his brother came back.

Then, later, while he was reading a book in the family room, Burt having not yet returned, she said "Maybe you should tell him that he doesn't have to stay."

"Listen," Jack said. "I'm sorry I told you...."

"No, no, what do you have to be sorry about? I'm not just saying this because of you. The first thing he does when he comes in the house is open the refrigerator and drinks a beer. He walks around here like he's a king or something."

"I've been drinking beer, too," he said, finding himself now in the odd position of defending the brother who, half an hour before, had tried to kill him.

"But you, you're family. Him I don't even know. He's a stranger."

"It'll be all right," Jack said.

"Jack," she said, putting a firm hand on his shoulder, "I'm serious about this. I don't need this now, do you understand? My husband's dying. Talk to him. Please. For me."

"Okay," he said. "I'll try." But he couldn't help feeling that he had betrayed Burt by talking about something his brother, maybe uncontrollably, had done to him.

"Burt, listen, I'm sorry," he said, later, following his brother upstairs after he'd walked into the house some two hours later.

"So you're sorry," Burt said, his voice too soft once again, too tightly controlled, like there was a big rubber band wrapped around the stack of cards that were his emotions and which were ready to fly loose again at any time.

"I really mean it," Jack said, starting to get mad again, thinking, Why am I apologizing?

"Let's not talk about it. We don't want to get Miranda upset."

"No," Jack said. "We don't." But me, he thought, me it's okay.

And later, before dinner Jack sought out Burt again. He was reading an old New York Times in the family room. "You know, Burt -- you don't have to stay. He could go on for weeks like this."

"I know. But what are you going to do?"

"I'm staying."

"Well, I guess I will, too."

"But you don't have to."

"No, I know that."

"Okay." Even though Burt didn't seem to really care about their father, and his motives for being there were unclear (at dinner that evening he would invite Miranda -- who was closer to his age than his father's -- to come and visit him some time in New Zealand), he was the man's son. Jack figured he had a right to be there.

After dinner Jack, Burt, and Miranda went to visit Derron in the hospital. He was alert, lying there in his diaper, looking like a bony concentration camp prisoner. Miranda was holding a plastic cup for him. He closed his eyes, the straw still in his mouth. Miranda waved for Jack to come over.

"Please," she said, handing him the cup. "I want to talk to one of the nurses." She left him there holding the cup to give to his father.

As soon as she was out of the room, Derron opened his eyes. They were wide, bulging, the whites yellow around the dull brown centers.

"More water, please," he said, staring up at the ceiling.

"More?"

"You won't refuse me that, will you?"

"Here." He positioned the straw against his the lip of this man he barely knew, his father.

"I'll hold it."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure. I can hold my own goddamned cup." Jack let go of the cup as his father took hold of it at such an angle that the water on one side was inching toward the lip and began spilling over. "Here, let me help," Jack said, steadying the cup his father was still holding, and guiding it to his dry gray lips.

He's supposed to be dead by now, Jack couldn't help thinking, as he watched his father fumbling with the cup, looking older than any man he had ever seen. Why was his father hanging on? He couldn't avoid asking himself the question.

It was a question that Miranda had actually put to Derron. She had thought that since he'd been asking for Burt, that after seeing him he might let go. But he was still thrashing the bed sheets in his pain, still hanging on. "Why are you fighting it, sweetheart?" Miranda had asked him, stroking his hair, "when you're in such pain. Why don't you go?"

But he'd gotten angry and said "How? Tell me how?"

And she'd answered, with tears in her eyes, "Just let go," and in short order had run from the room, whispering as she'd passed Jack, "I can't stand it in here another minute."

On one visit, Jack and Burt were left alone with their father. Burt took his usual place against the wall, never, after his first visit, saying another word to their father, not even hello, just standing there, observing the man's deterioration from a distance. Later, on the way home, Burt would say about the whole thing, "It's a learning experience, something we all have to go through."

Jack was at his father's bedside when he opened his eyes from his drugged sleep and started to plead. "Jack, help me, buddy. Get me out of here."

"How do I do that?"

His father looked at him then like he was a half-wit. "How do you do that? It's easy. You go behind the bed and start to push."

"Push."

"Yes."

"Push where?"

"See that door over there? You just get behind the bed and push it through the door."

Jack tried to keep himself from laughing at the absurdity, the horror.

"But where do you think you'd go?"

"Home, goddammit! I want to get back to my life!"

"You can't," Jack told him. "You're not going to go back."

And Burt observed, standing there with furrowed eyebrows, shaking his head.

And there was the time, left alone with his father (and Burt), that his father asked Jack to "get me something."

"What? Do you want some more water?"

"No, goddammit. I need something to do it with. Surely I must have something. I was in the Army for about what? About forty years? I must have some guns, some rifles, don't I?"

"I don't know."

"A knife then, anything. Please Jack, please, you've got to help me! I've got to get out of here!"

"I can't," Jack said.

"You can't," his father said, looking at him with disbelief. "You can't."

"No. I can't. It's not the time. It's not for us to decide when you go."

"It's not."

"No, it's for God to decide."

"Oh," he said. "I see. God. So you won't help me."

"No. I can't. Don't you understand?"

"Oh sure. I understand. You're not going to help me."

It was the time Jack had had to leave the room to hold onto the wall in the corridor to steady himself. In the corridor he'd taken deep breaths, placed his hands against the wall, and closed his eyes. Then he'd proceeded, with all his might, to try to push it all away like some sort of bad dream. But when he opened his eyes he was still there, still trapped between the pale yellow walls of the hospital hallway, still waiting for his father to die.

Once, when Burt and he came into the room they saw their father sleeping naked, the diaper missing, and the sheet having fallen off of him. Before covering him back up, Jack was shocked to see that his father's penis looked just like his own. Why had he assumed it would be bigger? Was it because of all the sex books lying around his father's house, the fact that he was on his third marriage, or the affairs he'd found out the man had had during his marriage to Jack's mother? (He remembered, as a small child, hearing his mother, with an edge of anger in her voice, referring to his father as a "philanderer"; and he remembered thinking at the time that it meant he'd given a lot of money to charity, instead of to them, that was why Mom was so angry at him.)

The penis, yes, maybe, but the feet poking out from under the thin white sheet were not at all like his. He consoled himself with this thought. Yes, the skin was thicker, much thicker. Made out of coarser material.

There were always smells in the room of antiseptic and defecation; the whole hospital seemed to reek of it. And there were the men who greeted them everyday -- the men who no one ever came to see, sitting in their beds or wheel chairs, or walking up and down the halls with their IVs on poles. The men greeted the younger Youngmans with smiles, even though each of these men had been stitched and restitched back together, and most of them would never leave this ward alive.

Late one morning Burt wanted to go for a walk. He had to rearrange his flight plans due to the extended period he was staying in New Jersey. He asked Jack if he wanted to come along.

They walked along the narrow urban streets.

"It's so tense in that house. I just had to get out of there or I thought I'd go crazy," Burt said.

"I know what you mean," Jack said, watching the sidewalk fall under each of his footsteps.

"She's taking it pretty well, though."

"Yeah," Jack said. "The thing that really bugs me about coming here is everyone telling me how much I look like him, sound like him, even act like him, in my mannerisms and everything. And one thing I don't want to be is like him."

Burt stopped and looked straight at Jack. "You're not like him. You're nothing like him." This was Burt's peace offering. But to Jack, who was so much like his father physically, it felt more like a reprieve from a lifestyle he'd somehow felt that he was genetically predisposed to follow.

He looked at his brother, the question he knew he wouldn't ask stuck in his mind like some dense gray pebble. It was the same question he would never ask his father: "Why, why did you leave and never look back?" Instead, he put his hand awkwardly on his brother's shoulder, and said, "Thanks. That means a lot. Especially coming from you."

"Why coming from me?"

"Because you're my big brother."

Burt scoffed and shook free Jack's hand. "You're gonna have to get over that big brother crap," he said, looking at Jack with sharpshooter's eyes. Then he shoved his hands into his pockets and walked down the sidewalk, leaving Jack standing alone, wondering what he'd said.

That evening a rabbi met them in the hall as they were walking to Derron's room. He was in his early thirties, a large man with a dark beard and glasses. He put his hand on Miranda's shoulder, and, with furrowed eyebrows asked, "How are you getting along, Miranda?"

She smiled. "Oh, fine. I'm okay, Rabbi. I'm so glad you could make it. These are Derron's sons."

The man smiled, and came up to Jack's brother. "You must be Burt," he said.

"I must be," Burt said.

"I understand you had a very long flight. From New Zealand, aren't you?"

Burt nodded.

"And you're Jack. Where are you from?"

"Rochester."

"That's a good distance, too."

"Not as far as New Zealand."

"This must be very hard for both of you, I understand. I know you haven't been very close to your father, but really, this is the time. You won't get another chance."

"Have you talked with him?" Burt asked.

"Yes, Burt, I have. The other day. And earlier this evening."

"Well, I'm just surprised that he would even talk to you. He's never been a follower of the Jewish religion or any other that I know of."

"I understand that," the rabbi said. "But there comes a time in every man's -- excuse me -- every person's life when that life is no longer in his or her hands. That's where God comes in."

"That's why I wanted to tell you. I think with Derron you may be wasting your time. He doesn't buy into that whole scheme of things."

"I never feel that way, that I'm wasting my time. But thank you for the warning. Now shall we go in?"

The rabbi led the way. Miranda, Jack, and Burt followed.

"Mr. Youngman," the rabbi said softly. "Derron. Do you mind if we wake you for just a moment to have a little talk?" The rabbi looked at Miranda, who immediately went to Derron's side and started stroking his hair, talking to him, trying to awaken him. After a few moments of this, he opened his eyes with a start.

"Huh, mmmm. Where am I?"

"It's all right, baby. It's just me. The rabbi, Rabbi Jacobs came to talk to you. Is that all right?"

Derron's eyes moved to the rabbi and quickly back to Miranda. "Whatever you want," he said.

"Mr. Youngman. I want to give you your last rites. Is that acceptable to you?"

Derron closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. "Okay," he said.

Rabbi Jacobs pulled a small leather bound book from his jacket pocket and started reading in Hebrew. He ended by reciting the Sh'ma, the prayer praising "the Lord our God, the Lord is One."

When he ended, Derron looked at him and said, "Okay, now what?"

The rabbi smiled at him. "Now. What do you want now, Mr. Youngman?"

"I -- I don't know."

"Mr. Youngman. I know it's very hard for you right now. You're in a great deal of pain, I know. But you have your family here...."

"Family," Derron Youngman scoffed. "What I want to know is how you can help me."

"Help you?"

"Help me get out of here. Isn't there anything you or anyone can do? Give me a shot or something and just -- just let me go in peace? That's all I ask. Is that asking too much? If you can't help, why the hell are you here?"

Miranda put her hand on Jack and motioned toward the door. Jack and Burt followed her.

"I just thought we should let him talk to your father alone."

Neither Jack nor Burt said a thing.

In a few moments the rabbi came out, smiling, cheerful as he'd been when he'd gone in. He shook both Burt's and Jack's hands. Miranda invited him for dinner. but he politely declined.

The next morning, Jack woke to see Burt, already dressed, slipping his backpack on.

"Where you going?" Jack asked.

"I'm going to spend the day with a friend of mine in Manhattan. We were at Cornell together for a while. Want to come?"

"Well -- no. I'd better not."

"What are you going to do around here? Sit around all day?"

"I just don't think I should."

"Suit yourself," Burt said, and headed for the bedroom door.

"Have fun," Jack said, after him.

That night Miranda and Jack went to see Derron. His breathing was very harsh. He was straining with each breath. A small, round-faced nurse was in the room.

"That's because we just changed him," she said. "He's always like that afterwards. It's very strenuous for him. You watch. In a few moments, he'll be back to normal." She smiled softly and left the room with an armful of linens.

As Miranda tried to give him water, he pushed it away, whispering to her "I can't breathe." She stroked his head, tried to calm him, but he was frantic and couldn't be consoled. He lay there breathing hard and looked out at Jack, one eyebrow raised higher than the other, the yellow eyes staring at him, for what? Was it a plea for help? Was he begging for forgiveness?

In a few moments he was back asleep, still struggling for each breath, but not so conscious of it.

"I can't stand to watch him like this," Miranda said.

"I know," Jack said. He remembered the day, two months before, when he'd come here to visit his father -- who, then, was in far better condition -- and had asked, "Are you afraid?"

"Sure I'm afraid," he'd answered. "I'm afraid of that moment, when it comes, when I won't be able to catch my breath."

And now that moment was here.

It was still dark and someone was shaking him. Mataya. "Jack. It's happened. Your father's gone."

"Oh God," he said, and the tears starting flowing from his soul, from the emptiness that his father had fallen into. Mataya put her arms around him for a moment and said, "Come on. You've got to be strong. Someone's got to drive Miranda to the hospital."

"I'm okay, he said. "Just give me a moment."

They drove through the traffic, the early motorists on their way to or from work, paying tolls, just like any other day of the year. Miranda was putting on a good show. "It's such a relief Jack," she said. "It still hasn't hit me yet."

At the hospital, one of the nurses, a large black woman who had been in the ward for the last couple of months, hugged Miranda, told her everything was okay now, God was going to take care of Derron now.

In the room the sheet was over Derron's head. Miranda asked the nurse who was standing at the door if they could have a few moments alone with him. She nodded and closed the door behind them.

"God! Why do they do that!" she said, and pulled the white sheet off of her husband's face.

She leaned down beside him, stroked his hair and forehead the way he'd seen her do in those last few days. Then she started crying on his chest. Jack got up and walked slowly out of the room.

In a few moments she came out. "Do you want some time with him?" she asked. He hesitated for a moment, then nodded.

He walked into the room and closed the door behind him. He didn't know what to feel or what to say to a dead man who just happened to be his father.

He'd felt he'd made peace with his father two months before. Then, he'd told Derron how angry he'd been when he'd left Chicago and Jack had never seen him again. He'd felt deserted. His father had nodded (he'd had the strength then) and said, "I know, I know." Then Jack had told Derron that it didn't matter, that all that had happened before didn't matter now.

"I love you, Dad," he'd said.

"So do I," Derron had answered. "More than you can possibly imagine."

They'd hugged, Jack bending down over his hospital bed. Then Derron had held his son's hand and said, "We'll get closer and closer to each other now, Jack."

But they hadn't gotten closer in those last few months. And, after a while, the anger had seeped back in.

Jack stepped up beside the corpse. The face was gray. The mouth was open wide. He touched his father's cheek, then pulled his hand away. He held his breath for a moment and then said, "I know you're with God now," imagining his father was up at the ceiling above him, watching, listening to his every word.

As he walked out of the room, the nurse on duty smiled at him and said, "You look just like him." Jack stared hard at the woman, willing her to take it back.

Jack was keeping watch for Burt out the front window. When he saw him at last, trudging back from his night in Manhattan, his blue pack on his back, he went out to intercept him and tell him the news.

"Good," Burt said. "It's good that it's over."

"I'm not staying for the funeral," Jack said. "I've already been here too long. How about you?"

"You were the one who convinced me that I should stick around for it. But I guess I'll stay."

"Will you have any time to come see me in Rochester? My daughter would love to meet her ... to meet you."

Burt scratched his beard. "I really don't see how. This was really supposed to be a research trip for me. I've got three universities to go to in about four days now that I've stayed here so long. I was going to spend some time with a friend who lives in Texas. He invited me. So, you see, it doesn't really leave me a lot of extra time."

"I see," Jack said, although he didn't. He had never really understood it, why Burt didn't want to be part of a family anymore, why he had ever left in the first place. "Maybe we'll make it out to New Zealand some day," Jack said.

Burt smiled and said, "You never know."

Jack was not there when the flag was draped over the casket and his father was planted in the ground. He was exhausted, had been there for his father while he was alive, and now, what was the use?

He rode back to Rochester, where he lived, where his little two-year old daughter, Joyce, lived. When he picked little Joyce up the next day from his ex's, after sleeping the sleep of the dead, his heart filled up like a balloon at seeing her, and he rushed to pick her up and hug her as she ran to the car, but apparently his emotions had carried him away. "Daddy," she said, tears running down her cheeks. "Daddy, you hurt me!"

The tears were flowing down his cheeks now, too. "I'm sorry baby, I'm sorry," he said, setting her down. He was on his knees, loosening his grip on her, but not letting go, carefully pulling her back to him. Vowing to never hurt her again, but knowing it was a promise he would probably never be able to keep.

Article © Mitchell Waldman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-08-29


1 Reader Comments

D,May
08/29/2011
05:44:39 PM

Intense story. I felt this one, deeply. Loved the characters. Nice job.

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