"With Dad When He Was Old"
by Paul Saevig
The son sat with his old father and watched the waves break on the rocks below, which the old man could do for hours on end now. Nothing about it bored the son, though, because he loved his father, and every now and then the old man would say something like, “We came down to San Onofre before the war and Bobby Slattery almost drowned. He was riding a wave and it collapsed under him. It was too cold that day anyway. He flew over seventy five missions over the Hump. A pretty good guy.”
A remark like that left the father out of breath, and his son held a glass of diluted juice to his lips, and wiped them afterwards. Then his father would doze a few minutes, and the son didn’t care. These bits of information his father offered, with those his mother made before she died, fit together here and there in a huge pattern the son had of Southern California since the early 1920s, of surfers and the beaches, dances and football games, law schools and hospitals, roadways and Fullerton people back three generations. That would be an extra way to remember Dad when his time came.
Dad opened his eyes and asked, “Harry?”
“No, I’m your son Mike, Dad. Your Uncle Harry died around 1960.”
“What did Harry die of?”
“Emphysema and what not, Dad. Old age. He was eighty nine.”
“How old am I?” Mike’s father asked him.
“Well, you’re ninety four, Dad. I guess I stuck my foot in my mouth.”
“Jesus Christ!” Mike’s father said, and he hadn’t understood the foot in mouth part. He closed his eyes again to doze with a frown on his face, and soon it faded. He was still a handsome man, and Mom always believed that had won cases for him. “With the jury,” she said.
“Dad’s just about shot,” Mike’s brother Tom the gastroenterologist had said, from smoking so long, drinking a lot, just being old. Mike loved his brother but he was a smart ass without enough sensitivity. Mike didn’t know what he’d do when Dad died, and his wife probably kind of resented him feeling that way. They had their own family, now with grandchildren even, but Mike couldn’t explain.
“He shot a Mexican guy once,” Dad said, awake again, and nothing more.
“Yeah, but don’t ever mention it to anyone,” his father cautioned him.
“Killed a Mexican?”
“Yeah. His father took some of us Ford School boys duck hunting down in Fountain Valley. We were there before dawn, and when Bobby thought he saw a duck he fired. But it was a Mexican man.”
“What happened?” Mike asked, and he realized now his father was tired from this anecdote.
“Well, he was smuggling rum. So nothing came of it, but Bobby got one holy whipping when we got home. My dad never ever let me forget that, though.”
Mike felt a physical pain from knowing all these stories and all this history would be gone when his father and the other parents died. More than that would die: the time itself when they were all together, the long span they never dreamed would end. He adjusted the blanket in his father’s lap, in the wheelchair, and smoothed the old man’s hair. There were a few tiny scars on his forehead, nicks really, that the son would never know about. Too much passes, unnoticed, unremembered. Bobby Slattery had owned a Buick dealership in Pasadena, maybe Arcadia, or then again, maybe South Pasadena. Maybe Oldsmobile. Mike could try to look it up.
The gradations of fatigue on his father’s face had changed, and now he was probably too tired. Did he want to lie down? He didn’t always ask. Mike would play it by ear.
“Slattery claimed he slept with Lana Turner at the USO in Hollywood. After the dance,” his father remarked, and made his son chuckle. The things we remember ..
“Rita Hayworth, maybe. Veronica Lake, I think.”
The old man struggled.
“I’ve lost my memory, Mike,” he said. “I just can’t remember a damned thing any more.”
“Well, let’s go outside and look for it, Dad,” Mike suggested, and nodded to tell his father he meant it. “The sun’s warm.”
The caretakers Mike hired said his father only walked when he visited. He helped his father stand and let the old man lean against him. He’d lost enough weight now that if he stumbled, Mike could hold him and carry him. Like two old comrades, they walked out to the patio, down the ramp to the yard and stood on the lawn above the ocean.
“Maybe your memory’s over by the flowers, Dad,” Mike suggested, and they checked. He noticed a caretaker waiting by the ramp with both a walker and Dad’s wheelchair. The sun felt good on his own shoulders, and he know Dad liked it, too. He’d want to take off his shirt if Mike let him.
After they inspected the beds of impatiens, asters, forget-me-nots and poppies, Mike said, “No, not here, I guess.”
His father lifted one of his hands to point to the pepper tree, where he’d once built a swing for Mike’s children when they were little. So they checked.
“Guess not, Dad. Do you remember where you left it?”
“No I do not remember where I left it!” the old man said with familiar irritation. “But it must be here somewhere.”
They stood and looked everywhere, under the eaves, by the gate to the beach trail, long since padlocked and closed, to the sumac tree and where Mom liked to play badminton.
Dad ran out of gas, as he’d put it himself.
Mike led him to the old wooden gazebo with the tile floor, right above the cliff. He plopped up a cushion for his father to sit on, and helped him lean against another. Now the breezes brought salt and seaweed smell, and sage from the hills, and driftwood, and Mike could easily remember his earliest days when Grandpa and Grandma spent their summers here.
His father took on his new expression, that particular mixture of calm familiarity and confusion. Misty from the breeze, his pale blue eyes became alert with something like defiance and bravery. Mike fixed his father’s coat collar with a muffler, firmly at this throat and helped him into his woolen gloves. He watched his father scan the entire scene from the north to the south, and back, and the old man smiled at something.
“We used to jump down on the inner tube of a big truck tire,” he remembered.
“From here, Dad?”
“Down the trail just a little, not much,” the old man explained, with the serious treatment of the trivial he sometimes took on now.
“Oh, sure. She was the most athletic of all of us!” the old man exclaimed.
Mike sensed his father was on the verge of telling a story, and felt guilty for setting him up to do it this way, if that’s what he the son had down. But he waited gladly.
“Where’re my cigarettes?” the father asked the son.
“You quit thirty years ago, Dad.”
“Oh. I must have. I smoked Camels. Your mother smoked Chesterfield, and then around the time your sister Amanda was born, she switched to Kent. With the Micronite Filter. I never could understand that,” the old man reflected.
“Did you know she was offered a contract by 20th Century Fox Studios, Michael?” he continued.
“Sure, Dad. Her father called Darryl Zanuck and threatened to knock his block off for that,” Mike answered.
His father chuckled, a silent cackle that quivered his jaws and head for a few seconds and was gone.
“See that tree?” he asked, and nodded at a cedar. “That’s where you were born, Michael. Well, conceived. There used to be a little lot below it, and a guest house. It fell off later in a storm. Ha!”
Mike smiled and didn’t know how to react.
“I’d just started my practice and I was on the top of the world,” Mike’s father said. “Then when you were little, we used to drive out to the desert in the big convertible I had then.”
“You’d fall asleep in the back seat with Amanda. We’d see a billion stars then. Boy, that road was dark. One time your brother Tom got carsick but we were low on gas and couldn’t stop but for a minute. We made it into the Springs by the racquet club and stopped at the first filling station there was. Your mother carried Tommy into the rest room to clean up and while the attendant pumped the gas, I noticed Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner waiting beside his red Cadillac convertible. Ava noticed you and your sister and came over to admire you both. ‘They’re so sweet, Frank,’ she said, and she had bourbon on her breath. He agreed they were and said, ‘Nice kids, buddy,’ to me. Then another attendant brought their receipt and they drove off. When your mother came back out with Tommy, they were almost gone, turning at the far bend back. ‘Who was that?’ she asked me, and you said, ‘Frank Sinatra, Mom!’ You were only three years old. When she found out Ava was with him, I don't thing I’ve ever seen your mother so mad! Ha ha! She was a big fan!”
The old man acted as if the incident had happened last summer, and Mike could only remember those trips in general.
“Mom was a great dancer, wasn’t she, Dad?”
“Oh, the best. No one could dance the Balboa like your mother. I wasn’t bad myself. When I was in law school, once in a wile we’d go up to the Palomar Ballroom or the Palladium. People would stand back and make a circle to watch us dance. To watch your mother dance.”
The old man looked straight out to sea and smiled. Mike thought maybe it was time to go back inside.
“Bobby Slattery and June Latimer were good dancers, but we were a lot better,” the old man said.
“You see, Dad? Your memory. It’s right here,” Mike assured him. “C’mon, we better get back inside.”
His father looked partially convinced, maybe a little less. Now Mike was tired himself. He didn’t want to leave, but his wife expected him for dinner.
When the two of them reached the ramp, Mike’s father asked, “When is she coming back from the market? I’m hungry.”
Mike could not answer that. He just couldn’t. He helped his father up the ramp, more or less carrying him, and on the patio, the old man sat in the wheelchair for the caretaker to push him. Sometimes Mike gambled that his father would forget a question he’s asked himself.
The first shadows had formed at the edge of the sky and the air had turned crisp. Mike wished his mother were here, and believed he’d give anything if she could be. His wife said he was too sensitive but right now he didn’t care, and he never came down here any more except to see his father.
After the caretaker helped Mike’s father into bed and changed him into pajamas, she’d bring a light dinner later. Then the old man would go to sleep for the night.
When Mike went into say goodbye, his father was dozing. He kneeled on the floor and put his arms around the old man’s shoulders, and rested his own face against his. He hugged his father and felt his bones and how light he’d become. He didn’t wear Bay Rum now and hadn’t in many years. He wheezed a little when he breathed, and Mike tried to smooth his father’s hair as best he could. There was nothing more but to kiss the old man’s cheeks, his forehead, and gaze at him in the dim light.
“Your mother's dead, isn’t she?” the old man whispered.
“Yes, Dad. That’s right.”
“I thought so,” the told man whispered, and closed his eyes to sleep.
Mike kissed him again, made himself turn around and put on his jacket to go out to his car. He thanked the caretakers and when he sat behind the steering wheel, it was a long time before he could start the ignition and drive.
December 27, 2017.