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      With two stiff knees and an appetite the size of a horse, I searched for my father’s friends who were meeting me at the gate. He came down shorter than I remembered and she was all dolled up like the stunning Las Vegas showgirl she once was. There they are, I waved, Vince and Ann. The only ones left from the tribe.

    “Are you hungry?” they asked. I had to admit that it felt good to be scooped up and settled into the glamorous white of their large luxurious car. I was a little kid again, going out to eat with my parents. At the restaurant, up close beside her on our side of the booth, the burden of her efforts to remain ravishing was revealed, while he talked out of his swanky blazer about how he was able to get into the house to find my Dad lying helpless on the floor at the foot of his bed.

     “It’s his heart, sweetheart, but I think you know that. The doctors told you, right?”

     “Yes,” I said. “I know.”

     Earlier, as I pressed my face against the airplane window as we were coming in low over the hills, I fantasized my father as a hero of an old age. He would have worn a custom fur felt hat and carried his piece in a hand-tooled leather holster riding low past his Gucci crocodile belt. Meanwhile, among the ludicrous props to brand authentic this high-priced chuck wagon plopped in the middle of the parking lot of a mall, Vince and Ann argued over everything and contradicted each other after every sentence, while I felt like the miles I had just traveled had suddenly made them old.

     The hospital was a small one with an entrance passage surrounded by incongruous vegetation that looked like it needed as much care and attention as the people inside. I listened for the echoes of prayer as I passed a bench next to a fountain with a coin-infested pool.

     Before I could enter my father’s room, which was almost at the end of a wide strip of corridor with a glossily finished floor, I had to stop a nurse trudging towards me with the icy determination of a guard.

     “Excuse me, could you see to my father? He’s sleeping but his covers are off and he must have kicked open his gown. I don’t want to see him that way.”

     With an unhappy sigh, nurse grim begrudgingly obliged. Then she resumed her patrol without giving me as much as a glance. I wondered if it was acceptable in her family to see her father naked.

     One hardly knows what to expect when life unfolds onto this kind of circumstance, so upon entering the room, I sought out the protection of something familiar, something that I could hold on to. The ID braceleted wrist caused me to wonder, where was his gold watch? – but his hand, my father’s good old hand, lay mute but consolingly recognizable outside the neatly tucked waffle-weave blanket. I could see the remnants of clear nail polish from his last professional manicure.

    His imposing frame, his prejudices were larger than he was, seemed shockingly diminished, and he needed a shave. I sat in the only chair in the room and listened to him bleep, while I kept watch on the door for certain feelings to arrive, to cross the threshold and pad the walls for what was to come.

     Two hours passed and he was still sleeping. A tall lanky bird in a starched white uniform with pink-tinted stockings stalked in to introduce herself as the head hospital nutritionist. Besides advising me that a low fat diet was highly recommended, she also thought that it might be a good idea if I took a break and got out for awhile.

     “You know what,” I stated in a gentler version of the dictatorial style reminiscent of my long past maternal grandmother. I also waved my pointer finger in the air to clue her in. “He’s dying. I want him to have anything he wants, with no restrictions.” Then with a certain imprudent abandon, my father’s tawny Cadillac Seville and I go-Nellyed it out into the desert. 

     Nothing had prepared me for the heat. “Like an oven,” everyone said, although I didn’t believe them.

     Several roadside trucks and station wagons peddling fruit and vegetables lined the way out of town. I pulled up to the back of a sun-bleached matte yellow pickup filled with watermelons that looked like a collection of bowling balls and bought one. The Mexican showed a gentle kindness in the way that he handed it to me after I paid, as if he knew why I was there.

     Some CDs lay fanned out on the floor of the passenger side of the car, but if anything could have jolted me into receiving the true essence of my father, it was the ridiculous cluster of pens in a black plastic cup holder underneath the dash. Always with the pens. Back in the days of my childhood, when he would often forget to say goodbye to me, I kicked and spit and screamed while my mother and grandmother sweated it out, frantically talking Italian. I would eventually escape the tentacles of the mean monster to run into his room, because for some reason the lineup of pens left on his nightstand, next to the shiny gold-jacketed TV Guide with the black velveteen T and V glued asymmetrically to the front that I liked to rub my finger against, reassured me that he was coming home. I must have picked up on things, as we give too little credit for what children are most able to perceive.

     Vast space as flat as Florida, with renegade strips of corrugated aluminum, rusty pieces of cars, and cactus taller than I, unlike those midget specimens at the Home Depot, all bannered my view. Daddy’s Caddy liked being let out of the garage to fly along the timeless course of the straightaway with me in the cockpit until I suddenly realized that the only vehicle on the road was mine. I u-turned in one smooth lonely maneuver and started my way back.

     Rough hewn telephone pole crosses were planted on either side of the road, their cables draped like garland as they stood sentry to my return. Suddenly one stood out as if hung from above, but it was not the miracle in the desert that I naively imagined it to be. It was only the absence of its wires that had distinguished it from the rest.

     I took a chance with the radio and lingered on the soothing bookish voices of a couple discussing how up high in the hills, in the dry sedimentary rock, they found the bones of a sauropod – a left fibula and a chest plate, which is very similar to the human sternum.

    “This is a very important discovery,” said the man, “for us as humans to figure out where we came from.”

   

    This time my father was awake, sitting up and talking to my sister and her husband who were also on the bed. The three of them giggled to jokes like they were at a party.

     He saw my eyes move to his arm, which was blown up like a balloon.

     “Don’t worry about that,” he said self-consciously in radiant self-denial “The doctor said that it will go down eventually.”

     On his meal tray was some kind of half-eaten take-out submarine sandwich rewrapped haphazardly in its wrinkled aluminum foil. I took possession of the only chair in the room again and watched the three of them pretend I wasn't there.

     “Dad, I spoke to Lilly this morning and she says she misses talking to her Grandpa.”

     “Ahhh, how’s my girl? Did you let her listen to Nessun Dorma yet? I know it’s your favorite.”

     “No,” I said, annoyed to have to start this nonsense all over again for the hundredth millionth time. “Dad, it’s your favorite. Not mine. You’re just projecting.”

     “Oh, Come on! Don’t give me that crap! You used to love it!”

     “I never loved it.”

     My sister, caught in a stream of hysteria lest the festivities might come to an end, cut in to wail impatiently about how she was dying to hear about Vince and Ann. “Uncle Vince and Aunt Ann! Come on! How long has it been since I’ve seen them? How do they look, Pop? Tell me!” Later that day, she and her husband drove their rental car over to the house and looted my father’s things. While I was in his bathroom taking a shower and shaving my legs, they opened the garage door and stuffed it all into the backseat and trunk of his car.

     Vince had thankfully removed the jewelry and all the papers, although I was sure they would end up with that too. They took the extra sheet set, some of his clothes that in his retirement grew out-dated and in need of a woman’s touch to sort out and replace, his vacuum cleaner, two Italianate lamps, one gavone painting, all of the Murano, my grandmother’s old garlic press, and a brand new set of golf clubs.

     I remember getting hit in the driveway of our beach house because I wouldn’t stop playing with the hose. I vowed that I would never forgive him for humiliating me in front of my cousins like that. Later that day, I’d be back on his lap with him letting me take sips of his deliciously bitter ice cold beer because he was warm and funny and larger than life, and I preferred to be terrified of him rather than lose him. That’s how it was with me and him.

     Those days are lost for good now to a complicated cool rationale. I wipe a tear off my face with the hem of my shirt. Stop crying. Stop it this instant, I tell my father’s daughter.

     There were rumors that he was the one who gave the orders, although no one was ever able to prove anything. Yet, when anyone heard what my last name was, they treated me otherwise. I got used to averting my eyes to the bug-eyed flashes and turned a deaf ear to the mean-spirited whispers that pierced like arrows behind my back. Like an animal given no choice for being of its kind, I avoided sensing how they ducked contact with me out of fear.

     Men kept their distance too, until I met my husband. He is very rich and believes that his money will always protect him.

  

     I was glad to be leaving Tucson, to go home to my baby girl and her father’s late night burnt grilled cheese and pimento sandwiches. Before setting off for the airport, I took the taxi to the hospital. My father was alone, sitting up wearing a pair of handsome stylish specs and reading the newspaper.

     What do you say to a dying lion?

     “Dad, I’m leaving. I have to get back to Lilly.” He looked at me over his glasses and I secretly mourned for his eyes that were such a beautiful shade of blue. It felt as if I hadn’t noticed them before.

     “Dad,” I said, “it’s your heart. It’s not good.”

     “I know,” he nodded somberly.

     “Dad,” I said.

     “How’s your mother?”

     “She’s fine.”

     “Dad, I’m sorry.”

     His last words to me, I swear to God, were, “Don’t forget the family.”

   

     We flew his body back to New York for a funeral in church where nobody came. “Everybody’s dead or in jail,” remarked my brother bitterly. Before leaving the cemetery, I stopped and turned to look at his coffin, sitting there under the brilliant leaf-speckled canopy of a warm October day. It was the strangest thing. I felt him salute me as he finally said goodbye.


Denise Falcone is a writer who lives in New York City. Her most recent work has been published by Blood Orange
Review, Fresh! An Online Literary Journal, and Why Vandalism?




Tucson is a work of fiction inspired by the discoveries of dinosaur bones in the desert. The father in the story goes out there to die, more or less, while at the same time the world that he knows, or knew, becomes extinct.

 


  


Copyright 2009