I didn’t think I would ever tell this story. My wife told me not to; she said no one would believe it and I’d only embarrass myself. What she meant, of course, was that it would embarrass her. “What about Ralph and Trudy?” I asked her. “They were there. They saw it, too.”
“Trudy will tell him to keep his mouth shut,” Ruth said, “and your brother won’t need much persuading.”
This was probably true. Ralph was at that time Superintendent of Schools in New Hampshire Administrative District 43, and the last thing a Department of Education bureaucrat from a small state wants is to wind up on one of the cable news outlets, in the end-of-hour slot reserved for UFOs over Phoenix and coyotes that can count to ten. Besides, a miracle story isn’t much good without a miracle worker, and Ayana was gone.
But now my wife is dead—she had a heart attack while flying to Colorado to help out with our first grandchild, and died almost instantly. (Or so the airline people said, but you can’t even trust them with your luggage these days.) My brother Ralph is also dead—a stroke while playing in a Golden Ager golf tournament—and Trudy is ga-ga. My father is long gone, of course; if he were still alive, he’d be a centenarian. I’m the last one standing, so I’ll tell the story. It is unbelievable, Ruth was right about that, and it means nothing in any case—miracles never do, except to those lucky lunatics who see them everywhere. But it’s interesting. And it is true. We all saw it.
My father was dying of pancreatic cancer. I think you can tell a lot about people by listening to how they speak about that sort of situation (and the fact that I describe “cancer” as “that sort of situation” probably tells you something about your narrator, who spent his life teaching English to boys and girls whose most serious health problems were acne and sports injuries).
Ralph said, “He’s nearly finished his journey.”
My sister-in-law Trudy said, “He’s rife with it.” (At first I thought she said “He’s ripe with it,” which struck me as jarringly poetic. I knew it couldn’t be right, not from her, but I wanted it to be right.)
Ruth said, “He’s down for the count.”
I didn’t say “And may he stay down,” but I thought it. Because he suffered. This was twenty-five years ago—1982—and suffering was still an accepted part of end-stage cancer. I remember reading ten or twelve years later that most cancer patients go out silently only because they’re too weak to scream. That brought back memories of my father’s sickroom so strong that I went into the bathroom and knelt in front of the toilet bowl, sure I was going to vomit.
But my father actually died four years later, in 1986. He was in assisted living then, and it wasn’t pancreatic cancer that got him, after all. He choked to death on a piece of steak.
Don “doc” gentry and his wife, Bernadette—my mother and father—retired to a suburban home in Ford City, not too far from Pittsburgh. After his wife died, Doc considered moving to Florida, decided he couldn’t afford it, and stayed in Pennsylvania. When his cancer was diagnosed, he spent a brief time in the hospital, where he explained again and again that his nickname came from his years as a veterinarian. After he’d explained this to anyone who cared, they sent him home to die, and such family as he had left—Ralph, Trudy, Ruth, and me—came to Ford City to see him out.
I remember his back bedroom very well. On the wall was a picture of Christ suffering the little children to come unto Him. On the floor was a rag rug my mother had made: shades of nauseous green, not one of her better ones. Beside the bed was an IV pole with a Pittsburgh Pirates decal on it. Each day I approached that room with increasing dread, and each day the hours I spent there stretched longer. I remembered Doc sitting on the porch glider when we were growing up in Darby, Connecticut—a can of beer in one hand, a cig in the other, the sleeves of a blinding white tee-shirt always turned up twice, to reveal the smooth curve of his biceps and the rose tattoo just above his left elbow. He was of a generation that did not feel strange going about in dark blue unfaded jeans—and who called jeans “dungarees.” He combed his hair like Elvis and had a slightly dangerous look, like a sailor two drinks into a shore-leave that will end badly. He was a tall man who walked like a cat. And I remember a summer street-dance in Darby where he and my mother stopped the show, jitterbugging to “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” by Curtis Lee and the Halos. Ralph was sixteen then, I think, and I was eleven. We watched our parents with our mouths open, and for the first time I understood that they did it at night, did it with all their clothes off and never thought of us.
At eighty, turned loose from the hospital, my somehow dangerously graceful father had become just another skeleton in pajamas (his had the Pirates logo on them). His eyes lurked beneath wild and bushy brows. He sweated steadily in spite of two fans, and the smell that rose from his damp skin reminded me of old wallpaper in a deserted house. His breath was black with the perfume of decomposition.
Ralph and I were a long way from rich, but when we put a little of our money together with the remains of Doc’s own savings, we had enough to hire a part-time private nurse and a housekeeper who came in five days a week. They did well at keeping the old man clean and changed, but by the day my sister-in-law said that Doc was ripe with it (I still prefer to think that was what she said), the Battle of the Smells was almost over. That scarred old pro shit was rounds ahead of the newcomer Johnson’s Baby Powder; soon, I thought, the ref would stop the fight. Doc was no longer able to get to the toilet (which he invariably called “the can”), so he wore diapers and continence pants. He was still aware enough to know, and be ashamed. Sometimes tears rolled from the corners of his eyes, and half-formed cries of desperate, disgusted amusement came from the throat that had once sent “Hey, Good-Lookin’” out into the world.
The pain settled in, first in the midsection and then radiating outward until he would complain that even his eyelids and fingertips hurt. The painkillers stopped working. The nurse could have given him more, but that might have killed him and she refused. I wanted to give him more even if it did kill him. And I might have, with support from Ruth, but my wife wasn’t the sort to provide that kind of prop.
“She’ll know,” Ruth said, meaning the nurse, “and then you’ll be in trouble.”
“He’s my Dad!”
“That won’t stop her.” Ruth had always been a glass-half-empty person. It wasn’t the way she was raised; it was the way she was born. “She’ll report it. You might go to jail.”
So I didn’t kill him. None of us killed him. What we did was mark time. We read to him, not knowing how much he understood. We changed him and kept the medication chart on the wall updated. The days were viciously hot and we periodically changed the location of the two fans, hoping to create a cross draft. We watched the Pirates games on a little color TV that made the grass look purple, and we told him that the Pirates looked great this year. We talked to each other above his ever-sharpening profile. We watched him suffer and waited for him to die. And one day while he was sleeping and rattling snores, I looked up from Best American Poets of the 20th Century and saw a tall, heavyset black woman and a black girl in dark glasses standing in the bedroom door.
That girl—I remember her as if it were this morning. I think she might have been seven, although extremely small for her age. Tiny, really. She was wearing a pink dress that stopped above her knobby knees. There was a Band-Aid printed with Warner Bros. cartoon characters on one equally knobby shin; I remember Yosemite Sam, with his long red moustache and a pistol in each hand. The dark glasses looked like a yardsale consolation prize. They were far too big and had slid down to the end of the kid’s snub nose, revealing eyes which were fixed, heavy-lidded, sheathed in blue-white film. Her hair was in cornrows. Over one arm was a pink plastic child’s purse split down the side. On her feet were dirty sneakers. Her skin wasn’t really black at all but a soapy gray. She was on her feet, but otherwise looked almost as sick as my father.
The woman I remember less clearly, because the child so drew my attention. The woman could have been forty or sixty. She had a close-cropped afro and a serene aspect. Beyond that, I recall nothing—not even the color of her dress…if she was wearing a dress. I think she was, but it might have been slacks.
“Who are you?” I asked. I sounded stupid, as if awakened from a doze rather than reading—although there is a similarity.
Trudy said the same thing, from behind the woman and the girl. She sounded wide awake. And from behind her, Ruth said, in an oh-for-Pete-sake voice: “The door must have come open, it won’t ever stay on the latch. They must have walked right in.”
Ralph, standing beside Trudy, looked back over his shoulder. “It’s shut now. They must have closed it behind them.” As if that were a mark in their favor.
“You can’t come in here,” Trudy told the woman. “We’re busy. There’s sickness here. I don’t know what you want, but you have to go.”
“You can’t just walk in a place, you know,” Ralph added. The three of them were crowded together in the sickroom doorway.
Ruth tapped the woman on the shoulder, and not gently. “Unless you want us to call the police, you have to go. Do you want us to do that?”
The woman took no notice. She pushed the little girl forward and said, “Straight on. Four steps. There’s a poley thing, mind you don’t trip. Let me hear you count.”
The little girl counted like this: “One . . . two . . . free . . . four.” She stepped over the metal feet of the IV pole on free without ever looking down—surely not looking at anything through the smeary lenses of her too-big yard-sale glasses. Not with those milky eyes. She passed close enough to me for the skirt of her dress to draw across my forearm like a thought. She smelled dirty and sweaty and—like Doc—sick. There were dark marks on both of her arms, not scabs but sores.
“Stop her!” my brother-in-law said to me, but I didn’t. All this happened very quickly. The little girl bent over the stubbly hollow of my father’s cheek and kissed it. A big kiss, not a little one. A smacky kiss.
Her little plastic purse swung lightly against the side of his head as she did it and my father opened his eyes. Later, both Trudy and Ruth said it was getting whacked with the purse that woke him. Ralph was less sure, and I didn’t believe it at all. It didn’t make a sound when it struck, not even a little one. There was nothing in that purse except maybe a Kleenex.
“Who are you, kiddo?” my father asked in his raspy fixing-to-die voice.
“Ayana,” the child said.
“I’m Doc.” He looked up at her from those dark caves where he now lived, but with more comprehension than I’d seen in the two weeks we’d been in Ford City. He’d reached a point where not even a ninth-inning walk-off home run could do much to crack his deepening glaze.
Trudy pushed past the woman and started to push past me, meaning to grab the child who had suddenly thrust herself into her father-in-law’s dying regard. I grabbed her wrist and stopped her. “Wait.”
“What do you mean, wait? They’re trespassers!”
“I’m sick, I have to go,” the little girl said. Then she kissed him again and stepped back. This time she tripped over the feet of the IV pole, almost upending it and herself. Trudy grabbed the pole and I grabbed the child. There was nothing to her, only skin wrapped on a complex armature of bone. Her glasses fell off into my lap, and for a moment those milky eyes looked into mine.
“You be all right,” Ayana said, and touched my mouth with her tiny palm. It burned me like an ember, but I didn’t pull away. “You be all right.”
“Ayana, come,” the woman said. “We ought to leave these folks. Two steps. Let me hear you count.”
“One . . . two,” Ayana said, putting her glasses on and then poking them up her nose, where they would not stay for long. The woman took her hand.
“You folks have a blessed day, now,” she said, and looked at me. “I’m sorry for you,” she said, “but this child’s dreams are over.”
They walked back across the living room, the woman holding the girl’s hand. Ralph trailed after them like a sheepdog, I think to make sure neither of them stole anything. Ruth and Trudy were bent over Doc. whose eyes were still open.
“Who was that child?” he asked.
“I don’t know, Dad,” Trudy said. “Don’t let it concern you.”
“I want her to come back,” he said. “I want another kiss.”
Ruth turned to me, her lips sucked into her mouth. This was an unlovely expression she had perfected over the years. “She pulled his IV line halfway out . . . he’s bleeding . . . and you just sat there.”
“I’ll put it back,” I said, and someone else seemed to be speaking. Inside myself was a man standing off to one side, silent and stunned. I could still feel the warm pressure of her palm on my mouth.
“Oh, don’t bother! I already did.”
Ralph came back. “They’re gone,” he said. “Walking down the street toward the bus stop.” He turned to my wife. “Do you really want me to call the police, Ruth?”
“No. We’d just be all day filling out forms and answering questions.” She paused. “We might even have to testify in court.”
“Testify to what?” Ralph asked.
“I don’t know what, how should I know what? Will one of you get the adhesive tape so we can keep this christing needle still? It’s on the kitchen counter, I think.”
“I want another kiss,” my father said.
“I’ll go,” I said, but first I went to the front door—which Ralph had locked as well as closed—and looked out. The little green plastic bus shelter was only a block down, but no one was standing by the pole or under the shelter’s plastic roof. And the sidewalk was empty. Ayana and the woman—whether mother or minder—were gone. All I had was the kid’s touch on my mouth, still warm but starting to fade.