It was cold the morning of my father’s surgery. Wind from Canada swirled across the lake and loosened the last grip of fall. Every brittle leaf that scraped across the pavement reminded me that snow would soon blanket the roofs, the gutters, and the limbs of skeletal trees. I dreaded winter and already felt weighted down by it all.
I should have welcomed the year coming to a close. It had been a year of loss — first my mother, quickly, quietly in her sleep right after the holidays; then my job at Ford in the spring; and finally Debbie in the summer. It would have been easier if she left me for someone younger, or more handsome, or wealthier, but she left me for no one, saying that we’d just grown apart, that she was already alone and the divorce would just make it legal. Now, in early November, it’s just me and Pop, staring down the double barrels of his surgery and the fast-approaching winter.
The doctors have been monitoring the polyp in his colon for a while. The growth was too large to remove by an endoscopic procedure when it was first discovered, and they were hesitant to remove it surgically because of his age, his diabetes, and heart condition. At the last visit, they told us that the polyp had now grown too large to ignore, that it was probably cancerous, that it should be removed with part of his colon, that they had to take the risk despite his age. Everyone agreed that if the surgery was successful the recovery period would be long and hard. If he did nothing, it was only a matter of time.
I stood in the driveway waiting for him, ashing my cigarette while my Ford idled in the driveway, the heater running, warming the car for him. The Ford’s backseat and trunk were loaded with my belongings. I was to move back into the old house, my old room, while he recovered from the surgery, but we both knew I’d move back anyway. My house was on the market. Where else could I go but home with him?
Pop came out of the house carrying the duffle bag I packed for him. It contained his shaving kit, a change of clothes, his pajamas, the book he was reading, and the black and white picture of my parents honeymooning at Virginia Beach from his nightstand. He locked the backdoor and walked toward me. His posture had become more stooped in the past year, his body more brittle looking, his gait now a shuffle as he relied more and more on his cane. The winter coat he wore hung off his shoulders, showing the weight he’d lost since last season. The air fogged when he spoke.
“Let’s take the Caddy,” he said.
“My car’s warmed up, Pop.”
“That thing’s too hard for me to get in and out of. The Cadillac’s easier for me.”
I pulled my car up so I could back the Cadillac around it and opened the door for him. He handed me the duffle bag then sat in the Caddy before swinging in his legs and pulling the door closed; he kept the cane between his legs. I put his bag in the trunk then slid behind the wheel. The car was almost fifteen years old but my father treated it like he just drove it off the dealer’s lot. My mother wasn’t pleased when he’d bought the car. She thought it was too big, too expensive, and used too much gas. Why do they need so much car now, at this stage of their lives, she had wanted to know.
“This is the last car I’m ever going to own. I’ve always wanted a Cadillac,” Pop had answered, and my mother never complained about the car again.
I checked the odometer before pulling out of the driveway. He had put on twenty-five miles since last week, and I wondered where he went. The doctors had told him not to drive anymore, but I hadn’t the heart to take the keys from him.
“How you feeling?” I asked, as I headed toward the corner, the big engine running smooth and quiet even though it was still cold; driving the Cadillac was like steering a couch.
“I’m okay. A little tired. I didn’t sleep well.”
“You’re just nervous about the operation.”
He shrugged, his once broad shoulders now lost in the extra material of his winter coat. “Debbie called.”
I turned and looked at him. He had shaved that morning and had missed a small patch of white whiskers on his cheek. “She did?”
“She wanted to wish me luck with the operation. Said she’d come and visit me.”
“That was nice of her.”
“She’s a nice girl. You need to fix things with her. Talk to her.”
“I tried, Pop.”
“Try again. Turn left up here.”
“Saint Anthony’s the other way.”
“I want to go by the restaurant first.”
“We got time.”
I sighed, glanced at the dashboard clock, shook my head, but turned left at the light and headed deeper into the city, away from Saint Anthony’s hospital.
I parked the Cadillac in front of where The New Genesee Restaurant had stood. The front window was boarded up and covered with graffiti; wind-blown garbage – paper cups, hamburger wrappers, dead leaves — accumulated in the doorway. My father had closed the restaurant and sold the building almost twenty years ago. Since then the building has been used as a rib joint, a topless bar, and a dirty book store. It’s been vacant for years now. A few summers ago, people complained of the stench coming from the place and the police found two bodies inside, both long dead from bad heroin. Pop read about that in the paper and didn’t talk for two days, keeping whatever pain or anger he felt hidden from me and Mom. Debbie had said I’d inherited that same trait from him; she didn’t say it like a compliment.
“That was my bedroom there,” he said, leaning across me and pointing with a finger bent by arthritis to a freshly-boarded second story window, the dormer around the window charred from a recent fire.
“When your grandfatherneeded help, he’d grab a broom and tap the ceiling for me to come down. Tap tap tap. He’d have a metal bucket turned over in front of the sink or counter and I’d stand on it and wash dishes or chop onions or whatever was needed. I couldn’t have been more than five or six. Sometimes I still wake up thinking I hear that tapping.”
I nodded and looked at the clock again; I’d heard all the New Genesee stories a thousand times.
“You see that light pole? The one right there in front of the restaurant?”
“I see it, Pop.”
“That’s where I fought Jimmy Slattery.”
I turned to him. “You fought Jimmy Slattery? The lightweight champ?”
He grinned at me. “He wasn’t champ when I fought him. He was washed up by then.”
“Why’d you fight him?”
“He was drunk and loud and bothering the waitresses, so I took him outside.”
“You’re kidding me. You took Jimmy Slattery outside? Who won?”
My old man shrugged his thin shoulders and looked embarrassed. “He hit hard for an old drunk.” He pointed to a thin scar that bisected his right eyebrow.
“You told me you got that from a door.”
“He hit like a door,” he said, and we both laughed. “Johnny Manos was a pretty good featherweight, but he was a drunk, too. He fought under the name ‘Johnny Mosquito, The Buffalo Torpedo’. Stupidest damn fight name I ever heard. He wore diamond pinky rings and he’d ask me to hold them when he went on a bender so he wouldn’t lose them. He said I was the only one in the neighborhood he could trust. I was always nervous when I had them, afraid I’d lose them somehow.”
“How long would you hang on to them?”
“Sometimes a week, sometimes two. Once I had them for a month and I was sure he was dead, and I wondered what I should do with them. I didn’t know if I should pawn them or what. Then one morning he came in the restaurant looking like hell but alive and sober and asked for them back. He’d always give me a few bucks for keeping them safe. I wonder what happened to those rings. Probably buried with old Johnny years ago.”
My father stared at the boarded-up building, lost in his memories until I said, “We should get going, Pop. They want you there early to prep you.”
“In a minute. We got time.”
“This isn’t the best place to be any more.”
A bum stumbled around the corner. He shuffled towards us, his hair thick and white, his face pink. A grimy raincoat hung open on his shoulders. He leaned against the boarded up movie house two doors down from the restaurant and pulled a bottle sleeved in a brown bag from his coat. I hoped Pop wasn’t putting those miles on the Cadillac by coming down here alone.
“That was The Palace Theater,” Pop said, and I wondered if he saw the drunk at all or if he just remembered the marquee lit by hundreds of colored bulbs. “I met your mother there. She was the ticket girl. Prettiest girl I’d ever seen. There used to be a glass booth out front where she sat. That was a beautiful old place, The Palace. Gold leaf paint, ruby velvet seats, the ceilings were painted with stars. Your mother and I saw all the pictures there. Great actors back then, too. Real actors, not the pretty boys you got today. Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Bogart. Robert Mitchum was my favorite.”
“I know, Pop, but we got to watch the time.”
The drunk stood under the dark and broken marquee and took a long pull on the bottle before putting it back in his coat. He staggered up the sidewalk, his lips moving as if he was talking or singing to himself. His arm shot up and he gestured with his hand and pointed at things that were not there. He stopped in front of the restaurant and stared hard at the boarded up front window.
I knew what the drunk was going to do before Pop did. I saw him fumble with the rope that held up his greasy pants and then turn toward the restaurant. Then Pop saw him.
“Hey.” He leaned forward toward the dash, making sure he saw correctly. “Hey!”
“Pop,” I said, but he had already flung open the Caddy’s door and was struggling to get out.
He was barely standing before he slammed his cane down on the cement with a cracking noise. “Get the hell away from there!”
The cane swung again, this time smashing against the light pole where Jimmy Slattery had scarred him a lifetime ago. The bum jerked toward the noise, spraying urine, and saw Pop coming after him, already choking up on the cane like DiMaggio getting ready to swing for the fences.
I don’t remember getting out of the car, just moving fast around the fender to intercept him.
I saw the bum’s eyes grow wide. I wasn’t sure if it was Pop’s yelling or seeing me coming around the front of the Caddy that scared him, but he stuffed himself back in, staining the front of his pants even more, and stumbled up the block trying to retie the rope he used for a belt. I grabbed Pop by the arms; they felt like bones through his sleeves. It was as if my touch drained the life from him; he sagged into his coat and then into me.
“It’s okay, Pop. He’s gone. You chased him away.”
“That son-of-a-bitch,” he said, but all the fight was out of his voice. The cold wind watered his eyes but didn’t color his face.
“Let’s go, Pop. It’s all right. We’re late already. They’re waiting for us.”
He let me lead him back to the Cadillac, and he collapsed in the front seat. I closed the heavy door, and worried how all the excitement was affecting him physically, if the doctors would have to postpone the surgery because his blood pressure was too high or because his heart rate was too elevated.
I climbed in the driver’s side and glanced quickly at him before putting the car in gear. He was sitting far back in the seat, his coat bunching around him, as if it was swallowing him a body part at a time. His breathing was still coming in fast, shallow clips.
“Do you want to listen to some music, Pop?” I asked, and turned on the radio even though he didn’t answer. He had the station tuned to WECK AM 1230, the nostalgia station that played big band and torch music. We listened to ‘Breakfast With Sinatra’. ‘One For My Baby’ was playing as I steered to the hospital. Pop didn’t talk much, only answering my questions with one-word replies or a shake of his head.
I parked in front of St. Anthony’s and killed the engine. Pop made no move to get out of the car.
“Don’t be upset about that bum. He was just a drunk.”
“Robert Mitchum knew what he was doing,” he mumbled, looking out the window at the hospital. “He figured it out.”
“What are you talking about?”
“They didn’t open him up. No prodding and poking by strangers. No in and out of hospitals for the rest of his miserable life like some damn science experiment. He just woke up in the middle of the night and sat in his favorite chair by the window. He lit a cigarette and drank tequila. That’s where they found him. The cigarette was still burning in the ashtray. They thought he was sleeping because he looked so peaceful there in his robe.”
He turned to me then, his face still drained of color, his eyes still watery. “Dying like you lived is a hell of a thing.”
He kept his wet eyes on me. I didn’t see fear or anger in them, just a kind of pleading.
“A hell of a thing,” he said again, and turned back to Saint Anthony’s.
The hospital loomed above us, its cut limestone looking as cold and gray as the leaden sky that now threatened snow or, worse, freezing rain. A statue of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, stood by the main entrance, his arms open, his palms turned upward in what was meant as a welcoming gesture but what struck me then as a resigned shrug, a public admission that he couldn’t find shit, that once something’s lost it’s gone for good.
I glanced down at the gas gauge; the tank was full, and I figured that Cadillac could go about two hundred miles before we’d have to stop and fill it. If I could find the courage, I could see me and Pop heading south, someplace warm, away from winter and heavy coats, maybe someplace on the water like Cape Fear, the title and setting of his favorite Robert Mitchum movie. Just for a second I pictured Debbie riding with us, the windows open, the warm ocean breeze blowing back her auburn hair, but I knew that was asking too much.
We’d rent a cottage or a beach house, maybe do a little fishing off the dock on days when Pop was up for it. At night I’d push his chair by the window in case he woke and wanted to watch the moon reflect off the shimmering water, have a smoke, and wait.