Friday, April 12, 2019

Duck and Rabbit *

I worked at a place called the Bridge. It was one of those storefront drop-in centers for teens.   I sat around with a few counselors talking with whoever walked in. The sound was an aimless sort of chatter. It was a room with broken down furniture and a rattling fan in the corner.  Kids smoked and shot pool. I played pool but not with much skill. The kids thought I was impaired and probably said mean things behind my back.
Someone dragged a phone over to me.  I rarely got a call.  It was my wife, Sarah.
“Mike, I didn’t know if I should call you. You are far away and I’m afraid about you driving home”…there was a long pause. 
“Your dad died.”
I didn’t answer.  The few people in the room had stopped talking and were clearly watching and listening to me. I was their break from a boring afternoon.

Finally I asked “How? Where?”
“He was at work at Sears. They say he just collapsed and died.  We don’t know… Maybe a heart attack.  Please, come home now. You have to be very careful driving.”

The kids in the room,  heard these  few words:


 But they watched me say the words. They saw my body go rigid and then sag. I stared at the floor.  So, when I said,
“I am going home now.” They all seemed to get it.
I walked out the front door and into the  Summer afternoon heat.

My car was a VW bug . It was a weak little car. As I climbed out of the San Fernando Valley smog up to Mulholland drive, I had to drive and cling to the right of the freeway as the big rigs roared by me.  They didn’t honk. They knew I couldn’t go faster.

Slowly I shifted gears and climbed home.  I had time to think about my father.

For some reason, I re-lived listening to him tell me about his years in the Army.  He loved those stories and so they rolled around in my head offering me some solace. 
I remembered dad lecturing me on how to fold a towel and to be neat about it. He told me how to mop a floor and to do it in an orderly back and forth motion.  
“When you are in the Army, Mike,  you better know how to clean up.”
Why did he tell me that?
As I drove home, I thought, “why am I thinking about the Army?”

I said aloud in my empty car:
“You better pay attention dummy. You can’t get killed in this traffic.  Sarah told you to be careful. Be careful.

I arrived at our West Los Angeles apartment, which was built adjacent to the Freeway.  Sarah was holding a stuffed toy duck when I came in the door.  Our baby Laura was in her crib and asleep.

“Your dad was just here today. He came about lunch time.  . I didn’t know he was coming.  He just knocked on our door. He drove here before going to work to give this duck to Laura.  Laura loves it.  She calls it “duck duck”.

Like the Velveteen Rabbit, Laura would hold and pet this duck until his poor little duck-head was bald.  If you pulled a string he would quack with a strong loud quack.

We listened to that quacking sound as we drove from our place down to my folks apartment. Now, I guess, it was Mom’s apartment.  The house was already full of  friends and family. The story was being told and retold by my tearful mother.

My sister, Elaine and I went off to hide in the kitchen.  Mom’s apartment was not that big. Hiding in the kitchen meant standing near the refrigerator and out of sight from the crowd in the living room.  
Elaine and I began to giggle together.
“God, stop that.”
“Stop, we shouldn’t be laughing.”
I gasped to catch a breath. “I can’t. I don’t know why we are laughing.”
Elaine asked: “What will the relatives think.  Bite your tongue. We have to stop laughing.

I walked away from Elaine and in to my parent’s bedroom.  I saw my dad’s bottle of green aftershave.  In a flash, I was a small boy at the white porcelain bathroom sink. I watched dad make shaving lather with a brush in a mug.
He would smush it onto me and then wipe it off with the sweet aftershave.  It stung my skin.
I took the bottle pulled the tiny plug and took a deep breath of my father.