Wipe off my chin. Please. There is a handkerchief in my pocket. That’s the way I was raised. Get it out and wipe the drool off. Now. And look at me when you talk to me, the way you used to, when we were first married. I’m still here, you know, I’m still here. The older the violin, the sweeter the music. My mother fiddled. I remember the feel of her gloved hand in mine one afternoon, walking me down Market Street, when she stopped and gasped, There’s your daddy. I looked across the street at the man watching us, and he didn’t seem at all a father to me. Only another guy on the street. I squeezed my mother’s hand and we walked quickly in the other direction. I did not look back. I was eight then. I cannot remember the sound of my mother’s voice, or when she passed, but I know that she is gone.
You ask me all the time, do you remember that? In a loud voice, as if I am deaf as well as forgetful. I hear everything. The squeak of the day nurse’s shoes on the floor. The heavy breath of the night nurse as he leans over to check on me, and his raspy cussing as he turns me over to wipe me off my backside. He is a very fat man.
The physical therapist is my favorite. She appears every morning happy and humming, smelling of spray starch, crisp but kind. “How are you today, Mr. Simmons?” she chirps. She lays her hand on my arm. I feel the cool of her wedding ring. I don’t answer. My tongue has become thick with stillness. She makes happy conversation about nice things—the meal she cooked last night, her son who plays ball. Her hands are firm against my legs as she stretches them. When she talks, she looks straight into my eyes. She answers for me sometimes, and I blink my thanks. She understands. Blink, blink.
I hear my daughters when they come in. Every few days they visit. They sink into the chairs, stay only long enough to be polite. I hear their fingernails clack on their telephones. Sometimes I look at them and try, try to recall their names. Laura? Melissa? Which is which? Who came first? I hear them talk, and their voices move around and over and beyond. They have kids who never visit. Best that they don’t see you like this, Dad. Best that they remember the old you. I doze off to the sound of their voices. I awaken, they are gone, and I am alone. Again. This room feels like a hole where someone left me. It is dark. Something beeps, steady as a clock.
In the gray light of the morning, you come and sit beside me. The TV stays on all day. Clapping. Music. News, and then a soap opera. You spoon feed me my breakfast, then my lunch. Tasteless stuff that smells bad. I long for a cold beer, a hot dog, a wedge of cornbread. The nurses come in and out. You scold them loudly for not tending me properly. The newspaper you read rustles. I look over, and sometimes you read me an article or two. And a few comics. Nothing sad, you tell me. You don’t think I know sad? We lost a baby boy once, lived only a few minutes. They handed him to me, after I begged. His face was already gray, gone. I thought that I might cry, but I could not. I remember that. I know sad.
When the sun slants through the blinds, you leave. You must get home before dark, you remind me. You kiss my lips. A dry peck, an obligation. I want to speak, but I can’t. I moan. Night will be here soon, when people from the past crowd in and move around the room’s shadows. Night, when I hear the shuffle of legal papers and hear the judge’s gavel crack. Night, when I once again wear a JFK campaign button and drive my ’54 Plymouth and watch a daughter pedal a wobbly bike down the driveway. Night, when I cry out, and the man nurse waddles in and asks, What’s the trouble here?
You are leaving for home. I raise my left hand. You stop and look my way. What is it? you ask, a bit impatiently, because now it is not only getting late, but it is raining. I want to go home with you, to die there, not here, I say, but all that comes out is a whimper. Wipe my chin again. You missed a spot. I am vanquished. I know who I am. Look at me. I’m still here.
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