Father, letting his shirt slip to the floor. The nurse hurries to his side. I could cradle him in my arms, my own father. The nurse guides his arm into the sleeve, his hand pale and scabbed. Stan tugs on my fingers and looks at me the way he does when he’s unsure.
They used to call him Patron. Boss in French. “My dad is Patron,” I used to say in grade school, puffing out my chest. And it was true. The days when it was all four of us—Mum, Dad, Sybil, and me—he was Patron, back when he would let us turn his medals from abroad over in our hands beneath the light, back when weekends were strips of the countryside skimming past the car windows and his hand against the wind outside, reflected in the side mirror, reaching for me. Back when I didn’t know.
“Do you want me to introduce you?” the nurse whispers. He finally has his shirt on and is sitting in his wheelchair, rubbing his eyes. “I know it’s hard, but sometimes it helps if it comes from someone they see daily.”
“No,” I say. “I can do it. Later.”
She pats me on the back before wheeling him out of his room and into the hall. We follow her to the cafeteria. Other residents are wheeling themselves out, an exodus of age; they emerge from rooms of white noise in a sort of trance, and each lurches forward in their chairs, then pauses for a breath. Stan keeps his eyes to the floor. Once he asked me if the reason you never see old people on magazines is because they remind you of what you’ll become. Growing old isn’t so bad, was my answer. It just means you’re wiser than everyone else.
We stand in line. A woman with a nametag that says Edith pushes her way in front of Dad with her walker. His hand on his tray tightens, veins bulged. He purses his lips as if he is going to spit up into the roost of her white hair before the line moves forward and his hand relaxes.
How I missed nodding off in my bed, his snoring below me. Before he left, it would escort me off to sleep, a slight vibration through the floorboards. It would lead me to the end of the street and into the woods, where we would take our walks. We followed a path lined with trees, coated in pine needles. Each walk, though, always ended at the same place: the spot where the trees opened onto an exposed circle of grass made yellow and brittle by the sun. Here we crafted our raft. Nick, branches, he would say, and I would run off into the trees, scout fallen branches straight and sturdy enough, gather them, and return to the opening where we would continue our work. Put your finger here, he would say, and he would etch at the base of my finger a cross in the branch, then measure a distance and compare it to his sketch. Or, Double Knot. Then I knew to hold the ends of two branches together while he wound string around them. When our skin no longer burned, the trees having cast their shadows over us, we knew it was time to head home.
For three months, we toyed with that raft. Once every branch was in place, all measurements taken, string looped over the ends of each and the knots tightened, it was time.
I stepped onto the raft, the size of a bed, sat down Indian-style in the middle, and watched as he pushed the ends of the branches from the bank. But he was not looking at me; he was looking at the water, placid. The way he ironed the wrinkles from the uniform he would soon occupy every week, every day. As I drifted, he followed the bank. The further downstream I went, the faster he followed the bank. A synchronized dance.
Soon, though, I drifted too far. I had a paddle but waited for his call. Light lined the undersides of clouds, now pinkened, and his figure was less and less my father and more and more a small tree of odd colors. I was alone. Should I use the paddle? I remained still. If he cared, he would call. But why so long? The sketches we’d scribbled, the branches we’d gathered, the string we’d strung, the knots we’d tied, was it only a vehicle to send me off? His figure had moved back into the trees. All I could see was the white of his shirt against the shadows. I waited for his voice. Only crickets, mosquitoes, night getting ready to feast. So I confessed.
God, the brooch I stole from the drawer of Aunt Joanne’s vanity—an oval of amber, an ant inside, forever curled with antennae searching—I am sorry. And the beetle I dropped into the stew that Mum blamed on Dad—“I’ve given myself to grooming this house, and yet here I am, hunchbacked, Joseph, scrubbing mud from the floor, picking legs from the stew”—I am sorry for that too.
The sun had dropped below the pines, and I pictured the yellow dimes of eyes emerging from the brush along the bank, dropping down into the water, and appearing through the slots between the branches of the raft, circling. I would have to paddle. The river swelled farther downstream, then turned to rapids. This was where Dad’s friend drowned in elementary school, where they spotted his oxford shoe through the surface of the water, the heel wedged between two stones. I would have to paddle to the bank, sleep in the woods, wake at the sound of birdsong, return to the house. But not to stay, only to crouch in the bushes and watch Mum and Dad smiling, laughing, seated on the front porch with glasses of wine.
Just then, rustling. Something making its way through the bushes to the bank. His voice, at last.
“Paddle, Nick! Paddle!”
At the bank, he guided me from the raft and then pulled me up onto his side. He dragged the raft with the other hand. I thought he would have carried it father back into the woods, but he left it just before the water. I wondered, bobbing up and down, what would come of it—deer nosing it closer to the water, a gust launching it off toward the center of the river, where the current would later drive it onto a sandy bank, the branches by then soft, string unraveled, branches butchered, trout gulping at small pieces gathered at the river bottom upstream.
A month later, in a parking lot, Mum’s head to the steering wheel, I watched his plane rise from the back window and felt beneath me not the polyester of the gray seat but the calloused branches of our raft. That night, clinging to his shoulder, he said there was a reason, that I’d understand some day. His words vibrated up through my torso.
But what did he, skyward, know about confession?
He watches the birds settle in the courtyard beyond the cafeteria window. It is hot, and they have gathered into a black mass beneath a tree. Farther out, in the parking lot, more crowd together in the empty spaces.
His casserole and mash grow cold. Stan stares at him, then looks to me and asks, “Why doesn’t he talk?” It is time, I know, for the introduction.
“Dad?” He spins his fork through the mash. “Father?” He rubs his chin. “Joseph?”
Still, nothing. The woman named Edith has sat down at the table next to us, her hair a tall temple, miraculously suspended. His finger follows the brim of his glass.
There is the photo I found in his closet after he returned. In it, a woman crosses a street; a man on a scooter waits for the stoplight to turn green; the limbs of a tree hover over the top of the frame. It is sunset there, in Dakar, but the scene is different from the other photos, the letters describing a place that throbs with heat, movement—dark women in spangled garb gathering in squares, then dispersing, beacons in the dusty streets, tangle of honks and bickering from a nearby market not organizing itself into a murmur until sundown. The scene here—perhaps it is the long swatch of smooth asphalt between the man on the scooter and the passing stranger, or the tree bowed into view—is quiet. Or maybe it is quiet because of where my father sits, arms propped, taking in the scene (despite the camera’s having already snapped) on the other side of the tiny square of glass of the viewfinder. He stares out at this scene from an open window, no doubt. And not that of the barracks, which sat—I know from his letters—within a metal fence topped with wire, within a hexagon of regiment offices, with slits as windows that look out onto a courtyard of shrubs with a sole bench at the center. He viewed this scene, surely, from the woman’s apartment. Away from the barracks clustered with bunks, side by side, against walls of cinder block, lifted from the hazy scramble of Dakar’s streets.
I kept the photo for its quiet, for the way every figure, object remains still except for a loose piece of the crossing woman’s tunic, the way it seems to quiver, sunlit, a few inches from her body. But, now, I can see only behind that tiny square of glass. A room as red as a threaded, tubed heart and a bed of satin upon which a dark woman lies outstretched, one hand behind her head, the other on my father’s shoulder, pulling him back down onto the bed from the window.
It was a wasp’s nest Stan brought home the week after Mum’s funeral, the conical bulge he fiddled with in his pocket as he stood in the foyer, an hour late coming back from the neighborhood park. Wrapped in a dishrag and nestled between his mattress and bedframe, the honeycomb was long since empty, spores ashy. What drove him to scout the nest, swaddle it, and tuck it away was my father. The man who did not wait for the firefighters to arrive but who instead climbed the tree and rescued the cat himself. The man who paid for a college friend’s heart transplant. The man who heard screams next door and sliced through the screened porch to the single mom and her crying, swelling baby, whom he then smothered to the floor, shielding them from the hundreds of bees.
I told him this in the car after the funeral. He had asked, “Why was that man, your dad, like that? What happened to him?” That man. I did not know what else to say. That man could not be my father, not the uniformed man Stan kept in his dresser, smiling next to a bunk bed, so many medals pinned to his lapel, not even the man whom Stan could not take his eyes off, on the other side of the casket, squirming in his wheelchair, my sister wrestling him back. Stan had huddled closer to my side. He was asking about a key, demanding, as the casket lowered into the ground, where the hell the key went. Cousins, aunts, and uncles shook their heads and wiped tears, unable to look at my father, nor at the casket where my cousins did not dare to pause and consider the tragic loon at their side. Katherine wheeled him back from the casket and some, sighing, looked up from their shoes to the casket sinking farther and farther down. Silence broke. “Where’s the key, damn it?!” Katherine was already spinning him around and back down the lawn toward the road lined with parked cars. Stan tugged at my side.
“I want to go.” Water pooled at the corners of his eyes. “That man, is he granddad, grandpa?” His voice quivered, almost frantic. Aunt Debbie glared over and Uncle Dennis shook his head. “That was your dad, wasn’t it? Who was that man? Why did you never tell me he was like that?”
“Stan, stop it.” The casket clonked to its final place underground, and Stan was now wriggling at my arm. “Go. Next to that tree. By the road. Now.”
Around me, people were hugging. I’m going to have nightmares, I’m going to have nightmares, he had whispered. One of Mum’s friends from church patted me on the back. But I was turned the other way, facing Stan who now stood down the knoll, perched on the curb. He stared across at the adjacent tree, at the man spitting words up into the sky and his Aunt kneeled before the wheelchair, grasping his hands. Stan backed away, behind a tree.
“Dad,” I say, “we have to go now.”
He has parked himself next to the bed and is staring, his back to us, at the clock on the nightstand. Stan leaves my side. He walks up behind him and hesitates before tapping him on the shoulder.
“We have to go,” he says. And then: “We can’t wait for you to remember, Grandpa.”
My father reaches into his pocket and pulls out a package of crackers he has saved from the cafeteria. He considers Stan up close. His face is hollowed, stubbly. Yet his eyes, for a few seconds, are wide, lucid—somewhere in them Stan’s reddening face, unmistakably his own. He places the crackers in Stan’s hand and closes it in his. Stan places his free hand on his shoulder.