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Deaf in the Brain
Gary Fincke

The Last Time My Father Drove

Coming home from church, my father ran over a rock, one large enough to gash his gas tank. He drove two miles, parked in the driveway, and hobbled to the mailbox to retrieve the Sunday newspaper. His neighbor, standing in his own driveway to wash his car, waved, then shouted, “Bill, you spill some gasoline over there?”

My father shook his head, but his neighbor hurried over and showed him the thin trail of gasoline that stretched into the street and down toward the highway. When my father looked confused, his neighbor told him to put the car in neutral and steer while he pushed it into the street. My father didn’t move, but he let his neighbor open the car door and do as he pleased. In a minute the car was parked along the curb. “Bill,” his neighbor said, “look at all that gas on the ground. You’re lucky you didn’t blow yourself up. What did you run over?”

My father said he thought he’d run over an animal, a raccoon maybe, something more substantial than a rabbit.

“Most likely a rock or a piece of metal,” his neighbor said.

My father, when he told me this story, claimed he hadn’t seen anything, but his neighbor acted as if he’d run over a boulder. “He made me feel like a little boy,” my father complained. “He said he had your number, and he would give you a call. Like I’d peed my pants or something.”

“He was just worried, Dad.”

“He was more than worried. He said, ‘You can’t be driving this car anywhere.’”

I didn’t argue. But we both knew that neighbor was aware my father, three weeks earlier, had driven into the curb when he’d tried to enter a gas station. My father, who had refused glasses for a decade, had explained that the light was bad. A bent axle. A tow and repair, the tank half full like it always was when my father bought to make sure he never ran low. He’d driven that car just once since getting it back from the body shop, to church the week before, taking roads he knew so well, he said, he could get there and back with his eyes closed.

The Last Time My Father Sat Behind the Wheel

After I sold the car for my father, and after I hired someone to mow his lawn and trim his shrubbery, my father took to sitting on his porch like a sentry. “The empty driveway makes it look like nobody lives here anymore,” he said. “Before you know it, there will be kids breaking in.”

“The grass is kept, Dad,” I said. “The newspapers aren’t piling up. You’re not the only one without a car.”

“Those others never learned to drive. Those others never had their car taken away like they were idiots who forgot how.”

I nodded at my Prius and said, “You want to drive mine for a bit? Up and down the street, maybe to the convenience store. I’ll keep watch so you have an extra set of eyes.”

“Don’t you say one word, and it’s a deal.”

So I didn’t, letting him sit behind the wheel and stew for a few seconds before asking for the key. “Just press the brake and push that button,” I said.

“Like it’s a toy?”

“In a way,” I said. “It’s that simple.”

“No clutch either?”

“Just nudge that lever into drive and we’re off.”

My father muttered and fumed and pressed the start button. “Not that simple,” he said. “It didn’t turn over.”

“Yes, it did, Dad. Trust me. Take your foot off the brake and we’ll go.”

And we did, very slowly because my father was suddenly afraid. “This thing goes by itself,” he said.

“Almost.”

“That’s not driving. This is like sitting in a wheelchair.” He pressed the brake and kept his foot there. “Now shut this fool thing off and let’s go sit on the porch and keep the thieves away.”

The Last Time My Father Recited

My father asked me if I could recite the Gettysburg Address. “Four score and seven years ago,” I said. “That’s about it.”

“That’s what I thought,” he said. “You have a watch on. Time me.”

“You know it all?”

“You can follow along from this copy if you want, but keep your eye on your watch.”

When he finished, he said, “How long?”

“Just over three minutes.”

“They say Lincoln did it in two minutes and forty seconds,” he said. “I want to do it exactly the same.”

A half hour later, he said, “Time me.”

“Only eight seconds off, Dad,” I said when he finished.

“I did it right to the second once when I was by myself. It was like getting a hole in one when nobody’s around.”

A half hour later, he said, “Time me.”

The Last Time My Father Talked about the War

My father, sixty-six years from the draft for World War II, touched his ear and said, “This thing is why we’re here,” beginning a story about his failed physical, the moment when a doctor said a ruined ear meant he could ride back to my mother and ordinary work.

“I took the physical with my friend Al Perkowski. He passed and I didn’t. He was killed in Italy. Two good ears, and then he was dead.”

I didn’t say a word as I looked at the photograph of Al Perkowski in his uniform. “1942,” was handwritten beneath it in the old album. “McConnell’s Mills.”

My father was in the adjoining photo, standing beside my mother wearing a t-shirt and baggy pants. My father took the album back and closed it. “Al and me would have stuck together over there. When I heard the news, I knew right away that I would have been killed with Al,” he said. “This ear saved my life and yours.”

The Last Time I Heard My Father Sing

On the way to his ninetieth birthday dinner, my father sang three hymns aloud from the passenger seat. All four verses of each. If the restaurant had been any farther from his house, my wife and I would have heard a fourth, a fifth, or even a sixth. I had already expected “In the Garden,” “Love Lifted Me,” and “Peace, Be Still.”

Once inside the crowded restaurant, I posed with him while my wife took pictures. So did my two sons and seven year-old grandson. After the photo session, I smothered his singing with appetizers and buttered rolls. I ordered him salmon so chewing with his false teeth wouldn’t be an issue, and he would concentrate on cleaning his plate. I followed him to the bathroom as he struggled with his walker. Because he remembered what we said for no more than ten minutes, I showed him the photographs of his other great-grandchildren twice as if I’d just remembered to pull them from an envelope. But when the cake arrived, the candles extinguished with six blows, he began to hum as we ate our slices, and I braced myself for a rendition of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

However, on this day in mid-May, as if he had become a version of himself from before I was born, he began a ballad full of the sort of old-fashioned double-entendres and innuendos that would make my grandchildren snicker in a few years.

I am a young Scotsman from America
The kilt is my pleasure it’s true
You can call it a skirt, but your lady will flirt
If she has a chance she’ll leave you.

He grew confident, none of us at the table interrupting. His voice took on a resonance I hadn’t heard in several years.

I have no red hair, but my skin is quite fair
But it does nothing to show off my pride
But my Scottish family tree, I wear on me
And it makes the ladies giggle and sigh

By now diners at nearby tables were looking our way. All of them sat with forks poised.

I feel like a man both noble and strong
When I dance my kilt swishes in time.
But I must confess, it’s for the ladies I dress
And undress too. Is that a crime? *

He carried on for two more risqué verses, but when he stopped, the people at adjacent tables applauded, and so did all of us at our table. I was certain he hadn’t missed a word.

The Last Time I Visited My Father in His House

In late September, in the basement of his church, I played dart ball with him for the first time in forty-four years. The other players were nearly all strangers because it had been that long since I was in high school and went with my father on Monday nights to throw darts underhand from twenty feet away at a board marked with diamond-shaped targets for all the ordinary possibilities of a baseball game.

There were six teams playing on three boards, and though the basement was noisy with good natured dart ball jock talk, it felt empty because none of the teams had more than four players, a few with only three, about half the numbers I remembered from the 1960s. The men who were playing against my father’s team asked if I wanted to be in the lineup.

Though it made the whole league seem suspect, I jumped at the chance. I underhanded a dozen darts at the board and declared myself ready. A few minutes later I was relieved when I got my first hit and then another. I managed a home run early in the second game, earning some high fives from the truck driver, the machinist, and the construction worker who had shown up that night.

When I played dart ball during high school, my father was among the league’s best players. He held records for home runs in a season and consecutive home runs, once throwing six in a row into the tiny home run diamond that most men were pleased to hit one time in ten. Now, in order to take his turn, my father, at ninety, balanced himself by holding onto his walker with one hand while someone from his team handed him darts that he lobbed toward the board. As often as not, his darts fell short of the board, and everyone cheered when, during the third game, he managed to lay one into the home run.

My father, when I asked how his team was doing on the drive back to his house, said it “had won both halves.” There were a few early Halloween decorations in front of houses, but the leaves were still mostly green on nearly every tree. The league begins in September and runs into March. The first half ends just before Christmas. Six months earlier, when I had asked him how his team had done, he had answered exactly the same way, even though I held a program that declared his team near the bottom for both halves.

When we were back in his living room, he showed me a newly framed photograph of his family when he looked to be about fourteen. “When was this taken?” I asked, and he shook his head. I tried to work out the date by using the ages of his sister and three brothers. I knew when each had been born except the youngest, who I remembered as about ten years younger than my father. “How much younger than you was Ed?” I said, and my father shook his head again. His guesses for the ages of his siblings in the photo were off by two or three years. “Who gave you this?” I asked at last.

“Somebody brought it.”

“A relative?”

“Somebody.”

He held the picture up to the light as if an answer was there. My father, without prompting, said, “It’s like going deaf in your brain. You know there are voices, but they’re all mumbling.” He pulled the walker close and heaved himself up. “I have something I want you to see,” he said. It took him a minute to navigate the hall.

In my sister’s old room there were slides set in rows on a stand with a light behind it. “Look,” my father said. “Who’s this?”

I squinted, unable to tell. He handed it to me. “It’s you.” The slides were unlabeled. He passed me three more, and each time I had to ask what I was seeing. I remembered that once there had been a magnifying glass nearby and a mini-projector that was hand held.

My sister’s old closet was open, and I noticed two large cans I recognized had been salvaged from my father’s long-closed bakery. I asked my father if one of them held the coin collection I’d begun in fifth grade and forgotten about by seventh. “I didn’t take them with me when I graduated from high school. Mom said I’d just spend them so she kept them some place.” The coins were half a century older now, likely more valuable, though I couldn’t be sure. There were dozens from the 1800s, still circulated in the late 1950s by people making exact change when they bought cakes and pies and bread. I could see the images on them, the standing Liberty, the buffalo. Now they seemed ancient, like something you’d find inside a pyramid.

My father said, “You’ll have them when I’m gone,” handing me another slide to puzzle over. “You make sure to keep all of these when the time comes,” he added, and then it was time to drive the 200 miles home.

The Last Time I Visited My Father

The last time I visited my father I had my wife pull off the road at Climax, the drive-thru strip club sixty miles from the senior center where he lived. “We have other things to do today,” she reminded me. “This will always be here,” but I’d thought about taking a closer look since I’d learned about the drive-thru nature of it, and now it was winter, a few days before Christmas, and so early I told her this was our best chance to visit because it couldn’t possibly be open despite one set of tire tracks in the overnight snow. A customer at eight a.m.? More likely, an employee.

“Be quick then,” she said, and we glided through the entrance. I was fascinated, concentrating. Surely, this was an improbable business, the only one I’d ever heard of where men, from the convenience of their cars, could pay to watch a woman undress behind a window. Something like banking, like choosing breakfast on an English muffin or croissant, or briefly viewing the recently dead from the driver’s seat.

The door, I fancied, would lift like lingerie in the hands of a lover. I tried to estimate how much viewing time something like five dollars might buy before the window was covered. Whether men spent ten dollars or even more to keep the woman in view. Whether they reached for themselves as they watched or whether they waited for that pleasure or resisted completely, filing the image away like old photographs and newspaper clippings.

My wife parked and I opened my door. A camera memorized our car, but it wasn’t trained on where I tried the door like a woman late for work. The heavy growl of speeding trucks sounded so close I began to imagine a flurry of customers or a patrol car carrying two curious policemen. My wife opened her door. “Finished?” she said.

An hour later, my father and I played Crokinole, a board game resembling shuffleboard with a circle of pegs to complicate finger-snapped shots with wooden rings. The game was full of pauses as my father occasionally nodded off, sometimes with his finger poised behind his next ring. As if there were commercials interspersed. As if he’d left the room while they played and then returned exactly at the moment when the game resumed, his eyes opening, his head coming up, his finger releasing in a remarkably consistent way.

Muscle memory, I thought, but while I found myself wishing him a run of successful shots, some temporary joy, I was convinced there wasn’t enough oxygen reaching his brain.

We managed to finish two games, the shortest session we’d ever played. I guided his wheelchair into the bathroom for the second time in an hour. Exhausted seemed a euphemism for how he looked. When he lapsed into silence, I lifted an old photo album from a shelf and asked him about the girl posed beside him in half a dozen photos labeled 1938 and 1939.

“Ginnie,” he said at once. “Virginia. She liked to have a good time.”

“What happened to her?” I asked.

“She was special, but she was Catholic so she was just a pal.” He seemed animated now, beginning to name everybody in the photographs. “There’s Ray and Bud, Fritz and Ted.” His head drooped for half a minute before his eyes opened again. “Jack and Ad,” he finished. “I remember all the nicknames.”

“It’s kind of like Lucky Cows Drink Milk.”

My father brightened, closing the album. “You know that saying. Good. It helps you remember your Roman numerals.”

“They’ve started to come in handy for the Super Bowl,” I said.

 “LaVerne, Maxine, and Patricia,” he said. “You know who they are?”

“No.”

“The Andrews Sisters. Isn’t that something? I know their names like they went to school with me, and I can’t remember to tie my own shoes.”

“It’s like that for everybody eventually.”

“It’s like wearing a name tag so you can remember who you are.” He nodded off, and this time, when he snapped back, he needed to use the bathroom again.

“I know you’re busy,” he said when he was finished. “You don’t have to humor me.” When I returned the album to the shelf, I paged ahead and took one more look at Al Perkowski.

Returning home, we passed Climax during the early evening. One car was re-entering the highway, but despite the expanse of space surrounding the viewing area, I didn’t see any others in line or parked. Was it, in fact, closed all together, that driver disappointed? 

My wife said nothing. We could have driven up and seen for ourselves, but it was unthinkable, and anyway, she was driving and had an excuse for keeping her eyes forward. I conjured a rationalization that began, “We only spent ten minutes there,” but she never brought it up again.

The Last Time I Talked to My Father

I made my Christmas phone call in the afternoon when I knew my sister would be in his room and answer the phone. “Merry Christmas,” I shouted.

“Good,” he answered, plainly unable to make out my words.

“The boys are here,” I tried.

“Good,” he repeated.

And so it went, my father answering “Good” as if it was a period at the end of my paragraphs about my children and grandchildren, whatever the news.

“Good,” he said for the beginnings and ends of relationships.

“Good,” he said for their pleasures and dissatisfactions with jobs.

Though sometimes I knew he’d nodded off, that his silence wasn’t indifference or impatience, that if I counted to twenty or thirty he would say “Good” and I could tell him one more story before I encouraged him to enjoy his turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie.

The Last Time I Saw My Father

A week later, returning for the viewing that preceded my father’s funeral, I made myself look at the driveway to the Climax booth. If I had averted my eyes, I would have been sick of myself. Instead, I was merely ashamed. My wife, if she looked, said nothing to confirm it.

My father, who had been a scoutmaster for nearly sixty years, was laid out among the flowers in his Boy Scout uniform. “What Daddy asked for,” my sister said while I examined the sewn-on badges and the three medals displayed just above my father’s folded hands, all of them featuring likenesses of animals.

A small line of old men in what looked to be half century-old suits shook my hand and pretended to hear me, some of them with wives who corrected their answers and assured me my father was in heaven. An hour into the viewing I noticed my sister’s husband walk in wearing a gray parka that he slipped off to reveal he was wearing a red sweater circled by two rings of green and white prancing reindeer.

“He was watching his football game,” my sister said, and I felt my fists clench. After he shook my hand, he announced that one team already had a two touchdown lead. “It’s just the end of the first quarter,” he said, “so it still might get interesting.”

“For whom?” I said.

My sister’s husband looked perplexed. “You don’t follow college football?”

I thought of a string of curses, but opted for “Not tonight.”

Fifteen minutes later my sister stepped close to tell me, “Danny thought you’d want to know nothing’s changed. He said you’d understand.” She pivoted to greet three strangers who turned out to be my father’s neighbors. I shook their hands and allowed my sister to speak, which gave me time to spot the red sweater leaving the viewing room.

“Excuse me,” I said, and I followed him until I could see him disappear down a flight of stairs. Half way down myself, I could see into an office where there was a small television showing the game. I retreated, and when Daniel reappeared, announcing the half time score as if he’d placed a bet, I began to count the green and white reindeer that circled the sweater, losing my place when my brother-in-law turned. I started over, then lost count again while their knitted hooves lifted as if prancing in snow.

A man leaning on two canes told me that he was older than my father and yet he’d outlived him, giving his age in years and months and days, getting the score so exact I could count the hours since the old man had won that wager with himself.

In the car my wife said, “Daniel works at a college...” and I knew she was about to launch an attack on the hideous sweater. “So you get my point,” she went on, and she began to concentrate on retracing the route to our motel.

During the funeral service, at the end of my eulogy that I’d typed out in order to make certain I said exactly what I wanted the attendees to hear about my father’s virtues, his life of self-discipline and his work ethic and faith, I ended by reading my thirty-one-line poem about my mother’s death that my father had memorized and often recited for more than twenty years. An hour after my father’s burial—you can’t make this up—the first dart I threw landed dead center, home run, in the board my father’s minister set up in the basement of the church as a way of celebrating his love for the game. My sons had never thrown the large, wooden darts with feathers, let alone thrown any dart underhanded. They managed to hit a scattering of singles and triples because they didn’t throw straight enough to find the home run and double that were aligned in the middle of the board.

It took me fourteen more darts to lay another one into the home run.

The Last Mail I Received from My Father

In mid-January, two weeks after the funeral, a letter I’d sent my father months earlier showed up in my mailbox. The original postmark was dated November 13. The address was correct and legible. There was sufficient postage.  “Not at this address,” the envelope was stamped without irony.

There were photographs inside, and most of my letter was an effort to explain to my father just who was featured in those photos because they were all photos of grandchildren, one of which he’d never seen in person. After all, I’d told myself in November, hadn’t I recently carried home from my father’s house a large box of unlabeled photographs when he’d gone into the nursing home? I’d spent a few hours picking through photos of dozens upon dozens of people whose names I would likely never know.

“Grandson Gavin on our living room floor with his robots,” one caption read because my father hadn’t traveled to our house for ten years and might wonder just where that jumble of small toys happened to be.

“Granddaughters Raea and Sabina ready for the school Halloween parade,” another photo was labeled in order to explain why my daughter’s children, ages five and two, were dressed like Dorothy and her dog, Toto. Or even just who Sabina was, since, at two years old, she’d changed so rapidly from the photos I’d shown him in late summer.

“Sabina as a bee for Halloween,” another one read, this time to make sure he knew it was the same girl in a different costume, someone enjoying two celebrations because costumes were all the rage with her and her older sister.

My wife posted each of those photographs on our refrigerator just below the ones from the ninetieth birthday celebration. I looked at them each time I opened the door. And each time I reread that letter, I felt embarrassed at how hasty it seemed, how brief and routine, as if there were years more in which to visit.

We’ll see you again “before too long,” that letter ended, the easy phrase sounding like the phony promises people make about visiting those they have little intention of seeing again. Even the stationery, an obsolete sheet with an outdated logo from where I work, seemed like reproach.

The last time my wife and I had visited I’d looked for those photos, figuring they’d been left in the envelope and were in danger of being lost in the stack of Christmas cards piling up on a table. Frustrated at not finding them, I’d noticed that a framed photo of my grandson was prominently displayed. I’d vowed to follow my son’s lead and frame the next set of photos before I presented them in person.

When my mother had died twenty-one years earlier, her last letter to me was waiting in the mail when we returned from her funeral. She’d written it less than twelve hours before her death, several pages in her perfect, Peterson-Method script. The letter described how sick she felt—“I’ve never felt so nauseous”—but it was also full of trivia, including how she intended to have my father walk it to the mail box when the New Year’s Eve football game he was watching entered half time.

I still have it.

And now I have a letter that feels as if it’s come from my father weeks after his death. I’ll keep it as well, forming a small collection of unanswerable mail. 

 

Gary Fincke's new collection of essays, The Darkness Call, has won the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose and will be published in 2018 by Pleiades Press. He recently retired as the Charles B. Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University.

Work Cited

Kilted for her Pleasure (traditional)

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