Quentin relieved his mother at two-thirty. Abigail, wearing an ash colored dress, touched three fingers to her cheek as if it were tender, though the truth was the bruise had been fully healed for weeks. Quentin had told her to stop coming to the nursing home, or at least to visit less; she obviously hadn’t forgiven her husband, and besides, it wasn’t as if Alexander knew who she was. But Abigail said that what Alexander knew, or didn’t know, had nothing to do with anything; there was no way she’d allow folks to think her husband had the kind of a wife who wouldn’t come see him on his death bed.
When his mother left, Quentin passed the afternoon with reading and dozing and pacing the halls. At five-fifteen, Barbara, the Haitian aide, came to feed the patient, and Quentin went for a hamburger at the diner up the street. When he returned, he sat noting again how his father’s body had gone from a squat, sufficient one to this prisoner-of-war model he’d take to his grave. The new body had straight hair instead of nappy, conversion that had showed up unannounced this past Thanksgiving. Right after that his father’s color began to change; by Easter, skin that had been box brown was the dark of baker’s chocolate.
All this was the work of the disease, the one that, years ago, had begun to violate Alexander’s borders, striking, then falling back, an unidentified, invisible foe in a war neither sanctioned nor declared. No expert stepped forward to defend the conflict’s necessity; no one explained why a theater as non-strategic as Alexander’s body had been chosen. Maybe, guessed some who knew him, he’d been where he shouldn’t have been, loitering with forgetfulness on corners in old people’s neighborhoods. Or maybe the whole damn thing was random; the disease chanting, “Eenie meenie miney moe,” or flipping a quarter; maybe that’s all it took to start those raids on Alexander’s recall, and motor skills, and selfness: just fate and opportunity.
What was certain was that one day Alexander no longer knew his wife or son. Right after that he began to disappear from his house so effectively the police had to be called. The first time he was found six blocks away in a busy intersection, directing traffic; three weeks later he was collared sampling unwashed fruit in the local market. In April, on a Tuesday shivering with wind, he stuck his tongue out and called Abigail a nigger bitch. Stunned, cut to the quick by the worst thing a man could say to a woman, Abigail insisted he apologize; if he didn’t she’d never fix food for him again, never share his bed, or touch him the way he used to beg for. When she paused, on fire with rage and the need to slit his throat, Alexander punched her. The force of the blow knocked her to the carpet and tore up something inside him; the next day her face was swollen and Alexander was incontinent. For a while wife and son continued to look after the patient at home, but it was hard to wash shit from a man’s ass when he never thanked you for it. After Quentin got a job with the construction company one town over, he couldn’t be around as much, and Alexander quickly became a burden his furious wife couldn’t bear. So mother and son did what black people swore they’d never do: put their kin in a nursing home.
That Alexander was only sixty-one when the disease struck didn’t make him unusual; the literature was rife with examples of those attacked before their time. These early-onset cases were more difficult to diagnose, and at first none of Alexander’s doctors could determine if there really was a conflict. But eventually they reached a diagnosis; eventually, being able to put a name, if not a why, to the condition provided some relief for his loved ones. Though Abigail never gave up her suspicion that Alexander was in his right mind when he hit her, Quentin understood it was the illness that caused his father to forget who he was. Understanding dulled the pain, but didn’t erase it; regardless of reason, his father was no longer there. No longer confidant and coach, no more the self-sufficient man who’d relished him, just an invalid who couldn’t even change his own diaper or shave or cut his fingernails.
The Trinidadian nurse’s aide stuck her head through the door. Eunice was in her early forties with skin blunt as bituminous coal.
“Hey, Junior,” she called seductively. A month and a half ago, Eunice had caught Quentin admiring her breasts, and ever since, despite the relative closeness of their ages, she’d persisted in calling him “Junior,” her way of saying that though he might have good taste, he’d never sit at her table.
“I got your ‘Junior’,” he responded, only half in jest, and Eunice laughed and moved away. The PA called for an orderly in 214, and then a bell clanged and a crew in light blue scrubs pushed a silver machine before them as they ran. Quentin went to the doorway. At the end of the hall, six rooms away, a blue light alerted all who could see it that someone was trying to die.
He turned back to his father’s bedside, avoiding the second bed that had been empty since his father’s Pakistani roommate died a week ago. Mr. Buledi’s stroke had left useless the right side of his body and triggered a depression that kept his eyes open when he slept. He had six sons (each broader than the next) and a wife whom any one of those sons could have lifted with one arm. None of the boys would sit or talk while visiting; they stood, watched the sick man for an hour and kissed him when they left.
Quentin felt the fist in his gut. It hadn’t shown up for a while; he’d thought it was maybe done with him, but here it was, back to accomplish its singular task of making him feel helpless. He took the fist with him to the bathroom reserved for patients, relieved himself, washed his hands and studied his face in the mirror. People had always said he looked like his father, not in stature—he was tall, his father wasn’t—but in features: the shared brown eyes, the unmistakably African noses. Maybe his lips were a bit fuller than his father’s, but the chins were the same, strong without jutting.
“Strong without jutting,” he said, and crossed to the window on the other side of his father’s bed, looked into the concrete quad two floors below where ambulatory patients and their visitors sat in the evening sun. A woman in a straw hat slumped toward a young man with a yellow tie; a nun read to a bald man, and when the fist opened in his stomach, Quentin went to lock the room door and came back to his father’s side.
He leaned toward his father’s face; he could smell him: talcum powder, milk about to spoil.
“It’s me, Dad. Quentin. Can you hear me?”
His father’s eyes were open, nut brown irises against unblemished custard. It was amazing how long they went without blinking.
“If you can hear me, close your eyes.”
His voice was shaky; he began to saw the edge of his palm through the beam of his father’s gaze. The fist was opening and closing; the grip of knowing he was doing it again was at his throat, making breathing hard, making him taut as a gambler who’d sworn off drawing to inside straights, sworn off the game for good.
From the street, the nursing home looked like a military barracks for the enlisted: a three-story, concrete block affair with black gates at the first floor windows and a front door half as thick as a prison wall. The first time Quentin entered, shifts were changing, and he’d stood to one side, a restrained passenger smugly waiting for the next train, deigning to wade into the streams of chattering doctors, nurses and their aides, orderlies, custodial staff in purple uniforms, all going in different directions. To his left, beat sounds of a church service dependent on a tambourine and a woman speaking in tongues. Two bells rang as if colliding, the PA called for a nurse in Room 115, and at the end of the hall the one armed Guatemalan elevator operator began to sing Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in falsetto so high it was a wonder his nose didn’t bleed. Above the din floated the smell of the place: bleach and rotted fruit that he wouldn’t notice two weeks hence, much less frown at its stink.
When the stream was thinner, he made his move. A doctor bumped against him, and when he turned to acknowledge her cheerful apology, he saw how thoroughly the walls were decked with art purchased by the pound. Copies of Degas and Delacroix hung next to original oils of puppies, landscapes overgrown with wildflowers, still lives of plastic fruit.
She’d come to bathe his father, a young woman Quentin hadn’t seen before. She was fat and had a pleasant face with elevated cheekbones and she was maybe twenty-five. When he asked, she said she’d worked at the home for a year but had been on the early shift. She flat out loved Mr. Alexander, there was something so peaceful about him, and although he didn’t do much more than blink, she felt he appreciated whatever she did for him. When she said “loved,” she lengthened the word to reflect the depth of her feeling. Her name, she offered, was Re, short for Relámpago, the Spanish word for “lightening.” She was pleased to meet him.
Quentin thought Re was Mexican, an Indian, maybe, though she spoke without accent. Because she was overweight, her purple uniform was tight and too short, revealing the extra flesh rolled at the back of her knees. She’d wrapped her hair around her head in a crown; silver hoops dangled from her ears, and her fingernails were the same pepper black as her eyes.
Quentin sat on his urge to tell Re that for health reasons she ought to watch her weight. It wasn’t, he knew, any of his business; he also knew that while his concern for the woman’s health was genuine, he might benefit from talking to someone about his bias against fat people. He didn’t want to have the bias—but he could never stem the disapproval he felt in fat people’s presence.
Somebody turned the volume up on a Spanish language station playing marching songs, and Re glanced toward the hall. Alexander was on his back, looking as vulnerable as a new lover whose partner, fifteen minutes ago, had said she’d be back in five. Quentin pointed to her braid. Her hair was beautiful, he said, a black crown; it must be long as Rapunzel’s.
“A fairy tale. Don’t you know it?”
She was washing Alexander’s neck, and when she said she didn’t, there was an edge in her voice, as though she felt he’d implied that not-knowing meant she’d failed to meet some standard. He snuck a glance, but all he could identify was the intensity of her focus on his father’s throat. When he’d recited the tale’s short version of the woman who lived in a tower and lowered her hair so her man could climb to her, Re blinked and said that Rapunzel must have had a very strong neck.
“Yes, I guess she did,” Quentin answered. He was looking past the aide, scanning terrain to note where steel traps might be set, the land mines buried. Was she messing with him, laughing on the inside, thinking, Hey, skinny Negrito, fat Mexican or not, I’m not as dumb as you think? He couldn’t tell; she’d taken on a third world implacability that could have been anything: fake stupidity, derision, indifference both exquisite and deep. God knows he’d used the strategy. Still, not knowing was distressing.
Re dipped a face cloth into the basin that sat on an extra chair, and Quentin watched her hand slide back and forth across his father’s chest, her attentiveness so single-minded it could have served passion or grief. Something moved at the periphery of his vision, and he turned to see that the last of the day’s sun had set fire to the window. Re turned on the fixture above the bed and in that mixture of man-made and natural light took up her task again. Quentin watched her hand. She was looking into Alexander’s eyes, and Quentin could have sworn his father knowingly looked back, that his father’s eyes, and the attendant’s eyes, were locked on one another’s. When Re arranged the towel in a way that would let her clean Alexander without exposing his genitals or her hand, Quentin felt disappointment. He wanted to keep watching her hand. He wanted to know what she thought while touching his father, and to see if his father responded. It was perverse, he knew (all of a sudden he was angry), but so was sickness, so was poverty. He couldn’t say why he was angry, or why, even, he wanted to watch a fat Mexican woman wash his father’s cock.
The gypsy porter backed into the room pulling a yellow pail and a mop, a troll- shaped man with swarthy skin and red suspenders.
“Hey, Mr. Quentin. How you doing, Re?”
Quentin waved, and Re said, “Hello, Harry.”
“You losing weight?”
“Don’t lose too much,” Harry said. “Nobody like no skinny woman.”
He chuckled and dragged his pail into the bathroom. Re pulled the sheet to the end of the bed, exposing the wrinkled skin of Alexander’s legs and feet, and then, lightly scrubbing his thighs, began to talk to her charge. Quentin couldn’t make out the words, only their tone and rhythm, and he recalled all the times he’d talked to his father even when it was clear his father not only didn’t hear him but didn’t know who he was. Though maybe the woman didn’t know what the disease had rendered. Her talking might be nothing more than an uninformed, well-meaning effort to distract Alexander from noting that someone he hadn’t asked was touching his body, distraction that could have been achieved as easily by singing Three Blind Mice. Maybe that’s why Re was so intense; she was gauging the sick man’s reaction; she was prepared to stop or to change her motion should he manifest distress. The poor thing didn’t know that Alexander didn’t manifest anything anymore, not annoyance or thirst, or desire, just the occasional spasm that came from reflex, or a change in temperature…
Or did he? Quentin leaned forward, watched the movement of his father’s eyebrows, up and down, up and down, motion that first carved, then filled in wrinkles in his brow, and it took a moment to recognize that his father seemed to be miming a pitch-perfect caricature of a man overtaken by pleasure. Re, startled, paused; in the bathroom, the gypsy began to sing at the top of his lungs, and Alexander, who hadn’t uttered a sound in three months, or had a lucid moment in six, growled at Re: an old-school player’s deep-throated onomatopoeia, the obvious translation of which was: Watch out, girl. I’ll eat you up.
Quentin was staring; Re was shaking her head, “Oh, Mr. Alexander, I wouldn’t trade you for all the rice in China,” and Alexander looked at Quentin, as if his son, not Re, had spoken, all the time those eyebrows going to beat the band, rearranging his nose so he looked as if he’d stepped into something he’d have to scrape from his shoes. In the bathroom the toilet flushed, the door swung wide; Harry, staggering in imitation of Violetta’s lurch toward her death bed, emerged singing Alfredo’s part of La Traviata’s last duet, and Alexander, voice clear as the intent of a man with his hand on your wallet, said, “There’s a lot of rice in China.”
Harry sang himself into the hall: “Keep it down,” someone called. Re was looking from father to son, intoning “Dios mio, Dios mio,” hands squeezing the face cloth so that a spatter of water fell against the towel on Alexander’s belly. In one moment Quentin was an almost believer; in the next he was his old self and so not fooled at all. Nothing had changed; his father didn’t know him. He knew a Mexican woman, but he didn’t know him. He wanted to get up and leave the room, but he was too well-raised for that, and he’d begun the chore of reinterring the decomposed body of his hope, gathering bits and putrid pieces, when his father winked at him, and he felt the expectation swell in him again, except of course it wasn’t a wink, merely one on its way to becoming: the lashes of his father’s left eye had come together and introduced themselves, and now there they were, stuck like Chuck out in the wilderness waiting to be told what the second half of a wink was. Alexander’s right eye was anything but still; to the contrary, it might have been following the crazed dance of a dog trying to bite out the fire in its tail.
Quentin had read the literature; he’d talked to others whose loved ones suffered from the illness, he’d been schooled by doctors, and still a part of him had never stopped expecting that one day his father would claim his victory and announce that he’d wrestled the disease to its knees. This was the hope he’d held to. It was all right to hope, even when you felt ashamed and stupid for doing it. Even when your heart got ripped out by not getting what you wanted, still it was all right.
When doctors said the end was nigh, Quentin and Abigail made certain that one or the other was at Alexander’s side for most of the day. Quentin’s new boss proved to be a gem and told him to take as much time as he needed, and so he was able to be present during the last days of his father’s life. Where before he’d dozed, or read, or walked the halls to pass the time, now he spent long stretches sitting at his father’s bedside, watching the shriveled man from whose loins, the quaint expression went, he’d sprung. Sometimes he shaved his father, sometimes cut his toe and fingernails, and while there was connection to be found in touching, what he wished for most was that he and his father could talk. About anything, but mostly about the fear and the love and the anger that his son felt and to ask what was it like to know you were going to die. Was Alexander afraid, and did he know how much Quentin loved him?
They’d be walking while they talked. He’d have helped his father from bed, strolled with him past the nurses’ station, he, Quentin, the good son, pausing to re-tie his father’s robe, steering him to avoid the just-graduated blonde nurse who last week pretended both to read a chart and to act as if the light-skinned, freckled faced man was anywhere else but behind her. The man wore a technician’s uniform and was deep into his rap, asking for what earthly reason the woman persisted in denying the experience they’d shared behind the art museum that evening in July. The nurse, by now flushed from throat to forehead, giggled, “Mister, I don’t even know your name,” in a tone that said no, it hadn’t been her, but good Lord, it should have been, and ask me another question…
He and his father would move past the soon-to-be-lovers, go by the place where, two days ago, Quentin had watched while the Haitian aide, Barbara, her contempt masked as attention, faced an administrator’s reprimand. The administrator, a red-headed white woman wearing gorgeous open-toed shoes, was nobody’s fool. Quentin could tell by the way she kept looking past the aide’s shoulder that not only was she aware of the mask and what it hid, she, like Barbara, was on a first-name basis with the unacknowledged history they shared. But neither cared to explore that history, not then, not ever, and by now he and his father would have reached the elevator where the one-armed operator zipped them to the lobby singing Beat It. They’d make their way out into a tree-abundant neighborhood zoned for mixed use: a brace of brick apartment buildings, each five stories tall, a Frame it Yourself shop with a print of Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon in the window. They’d be taking their time, cruising past the pocket park, the cleaners, the ice cream store that dispensed free sprinkles if you bought a double scoop, and his father would be leaning against him the way he had that time they were almost run down by a bicycle rider in red tights who called them a couple of faggots. That was two Junes ago, a top ten afternoon on the list of all-world weather days: a best-friend warm, not a cloud, and the air aching with the kind of clarity that lives on the other side of a Windexed window. They’d laughed at the bike rider’s assumption, their bodies still so close that the sun had to suck in its gut to get some light between them.
That was before they’d begun to comprehend the gravity of Alexander’s illness, back when they had what felt like time, and so neither Quentin nor his father had spent any of the weekends they shared in talk of sickness or death. Sometimes they drove randomly until they came upon something of interest, but it was best when they had a plan: a visit to the art museum, a movie where Alexander seemed held less by plot than by shadow. One of their favorite spots was the outdoor café above the eighteenth hole where, over lemonade and chocolate cupcakes, they’d watch weary golfers climb the hill to the clubhouse that burned white hot in the sun. On a cafe wall, above the bar, hung a blue sign tall as a grown man’s head; “laugh, run, sing, bark,” said the sign in foot high wine-red letters. The bartender had come across it in a thrift store in Las Vegas and thought it was just the thing to inspire conversation. But it was rare that anyone so much as noticed the sign, and when they did, it was usually to dismiss it. Alexander thought the sign was amusing the way that certain bumper stickers are amusing, but Quentin thought the message was right up there with “love they neighbor” as a blueprint for living your life.
The day they almost got run over by the bicyclist came a year before Alexander stopped caring about what he wore, a year before his speech couldn’t follow a thought to the end of its sentence, and he could neither say what a hat was nor spell it. But on that day he’d said he wanted a new hat, and they’d made the excursion to the best men’s store in town. Alexander had chosen a brown number with a black band, and when he’d put it on, he’d looked into the store’s floor-length mirror for an interval bewildered by his inability to recall what dapper looked like. Then it came to him; and he laughed and did a little jump step, like a fullback who’d spent his career blocking but had just scored the tying goal. Quentin gave him five and his father paid him back, and it was almost, in that moment, as all right as right can be.