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Leslie Jamison, 2008 BLR Fiction Prize Winner

God knows my father did his share of speed, but it was the smoking that finally got him. Cancer filled his lungs with little tumors like blueberries, clotted between his ribs. A social worker called me up to tell me he wasn’t going to live much longer. Her name was Vedra. 

I hadn’t seen my father since another social worker—a woman whose name I couldn’t remember—moved me into foster care when I was eleven years old. Now I was living in sin and scandal with my foster sister Tammy, a woman I no longer loved. I’d worshiped her as a sister, felt the burden of our foster blood between us like a taunting: If only. And now: this. We lived as lovers and I just wanted a sister again. She worked afternoon shifts at a frozen yogurt parlor—and this, “parlor,” always said with something like pride—and nights at a hospital. She wanted to help, she said, but after a month she was just disgusted by their bodily functions and their monologues, the secretions of their dying.

Vedra barely introduced herself. She said, “Your father’s health has taken a turn for the worse. He wants to see you.” She sounded breathless and excited, like a little girl making a prank call.

“I haven’t spoken to my father in twelve years.” 

My father. The words tasted strange then, foreign. 

“Your father is dying,” she said. “You should know that.”

There was a pause. I could hear the sticky rhythm of her gum, a muted squeaking.

“He asked to see me?”

“He said he wanted to see his son. He didn’t use your name.”

I surprised myself by buying a plane ticket, though Tammy didn’t seem surprised at all. It seemed she knew me better than I knew myself, or else she didn’t know me at all.

“He’s your dad,” she said. “It makes sense.”

“We’re not talking about a guy I remember fondly.”

“Sure you do,” she said. “Sometimes.”

When we were teenagers, she’d always complained about her own parents, couldn’t understand how they might serve as a refuge to anyone. She begged for tidbits about my dad, best foods or jokes he’d made, anything—even his filthy habits, what I’d been saved from.

“I got nothing all this time,” I said. “No birthday cards. Nada.”

“You know what does surprise me?” she said. “That he lasted this long. After all the shit he did to himself. I mean, the meth and the painkillers and—”

“I knew what you meant,” I said. Which was true: my father had been given more time than he deserved.

Vedra met me at the Cape Girardeau regional airport. A plastic sign the color of sunburn read: Welcome to the Show-Me State. This was Missouri’s motto, as if it had a trick up its sleeve.

Vedra was fatter than I expected, and prettier—dressed in black leggings and a pink sweatshirt full of mountains, with “Ozarks” in golden puff-paint letters beneath. “I’m glad you came,” she said. “And I think your dad is, too.”

“He better be. He asked for it.”

She drove a white minivan with one of those wheelchair lifts on the side. When she turned the key in the ignition, the Nutcracker Suite came on at earsplitting volume. It was the Rat King’s theme, rattling the power windows. “Sorry about that,” she said. “This tune always helps me settle down.”

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked. “Is he in a hospital?”

“He prefers to be at home,” she said. “And we’ve done our best to honor his wishes.”

Our best? He was either at home or he wasn’t.

“I’m sorry,” she paused. “What was your first question again?”

“What’s wrong?” I said. “What’s he got?”

She turned the volume up and then down again, jerking her hand back as if she’d touched something hot. Her nails were short and deeply embedded in her fingers, like a tomboy’s. I wanted to touch her naked body, but only wanted this a little. I was curious if she felt the same way about me.

“You’re probably aware that your father has been battling some unfortunate habits for years.”

“Habits?” I said. “You mean addictions?”

“I’m glad you feel comfortable with that phrasing.”

“Only phrasing for it,” I said. “Which one struck first?”

That’s when she told me about the lung cancer. The little tumors everywhere. She’d seen the X-rays. She said she held his hand at the radiologist’s but I wasn’t sure I believed her. Then again, I hadn’t seen him in years. He was probably a different man now—tired of his own body, what it had become. Comforted by the fact that someone else was willing to touch his skin.

“In a way,” Vedra said. “Everything is striking at once. The methamphetamine really ruined his immune system. His organs…it’s like they’ve lived three lifetimes in a row.”

During the years I’d spent with him, it seemed the opposite was true—each day a fraction of the last, like half-lives. His habits had pared steadily into basics: driving trucks, choosing television programs, thawing frozen foods until they were only frozen in their secret cores. “He liked white food,” I’d told Tammy, when she begged for details. “Cream of this and that. Soft nothing against his tongue.”

What had he done with all those extra amped hours? Just the same things over and over again. 

Things had changed. He made sure to let me know once I arrived, and I could see evidence all over the trailer—a blender in the kitchen, next to a bowl of oranges, a stack of mystery novels and a collection of souvenir plates from all over the country, or at least the Midwest. 

“It’s been years since I’ve used,” he said. “I really cleaned up once you left home,” as if I’d been keeping him supplied.

“That’s good,” I said. “That’s really good.”

“Nothing made me happier than speed. But in the end it wasn’t worth the game.”

“Did you learn that phrase in a program?”

He nodded. “The program was all I had. Lived there for a month. It was a bitch, eating oatmeal for weeks because of those goddamn sores all over my mouth. Felt like I couldn’t even lift my head.”

I recognized these sores from my own research, conducted late at night by the blue glow of my foster family’s computer—looking up meth addict sites for their tales of detox, its horrible parade of symptoms. “Sounds rough,” I said. I waited for him to mention me, or the years we’d lost. But he didn’t. If he’d apologized right then, it would have sounded cheap, forced. But I wanted to hear it anyway.

“I’ve got them again,” he said. “The sores, I mean. Not even from the cancer. Just the drugs that made the tumors smaller.”

We were sitting at his dining room table. It was barely past dusk, but the night felt like it had been around for hours. “What do you do at night?” I asked him.

He pointed to a stack of stationery cards next to his chipped white plate. That’s when he mentioned his girlfriend. “She’s long-distance,” he explained. “A pen-pal.”

The next morning we ate breakfast at a diner. I spotted oatmeal on the menu, served with a medley of canned fruits. “What about this?” I suggested. “Something easy on the mouth?” 

He’d stopped getting treatments just before I arrived—“Time’s up,” he’d told me. “What’s the point of all that junk?”—but the poison would leave his mouth cankered for a while, possibly till the end. He wasn’t in the mood for oatmeal. “That mush is dead to me,” he said. “Reminds me of the come-down. That fucking—what do they call it? The crank-bug.” He started scratching his arm to show me, but I knew what he meant. I’d always wondered about the feel of that, flocks of ghost-lice on the skin.

He ordered French toast and soaked his fried cinnamon bread with so much maple syrup the slices fell apart like soggy sponges. He thought they’d feel soft enough to eat, but the sugar made his mouth ache. “Feels like this syrup is singing in my sores,” he said. His tone made it clear he wasn’t describing something pleasant. He left most of his dish untouched and excused himself for the bathroom. “Finish what you can,” he said. He always hated waste.

He didn’t come back for a long time. I watched fifteen minutes tick past on the clock and then I went to find him. He was sitting on the floor next to a urinal. His mouth was bleeding and he was missing two of his crooked brown teeth. “Took a spill,” he said. “I’m not sure about getting up again.”

We left for the hospital without paying for our French toast. I saw him gazing longingly through the window as we left. But he was in a hurry for his own reasons. “Something near my heart hurts like hell,” he said. And he was right. He’d cracked two ribs against the urinal and the doctors took photographs of the fracture lines that showed spiderwebs of black.

“You need someone taking care of you,” I said.

“I needed someone taking care of me last month. Last few years.

He didn’t say anything more. I didn’t say anything at all.

Then he lifted his head off the pillow. “You could stay.”

“You don’t even feel like my father. You know that.”

“I know. I don’t feel like your father. But you feel like my son.”

I didn’t know what this meant, or even if it made sense, but it felt true somehow—we’d ended up with something that was only visible from one direction, but we both had to stay put inside of it.

The doctor on call was more than happy to raise his Vicodin dosage for the pain, but that just meant bad news later on. 

He came knocking at my door in the middle of the night. I woke up bleary at the sound of his rapping. I’d been dreaming about testicles made of gum, kneaded by teeth in some giant mouth. Inside the dream, I hadn’t tasted any gum or felt any pain. Was it about Tammy or Vedra? I couldn’t tell. I felt, in a despairing, infinitely lonely way, that it was only about me.

“Son,” he said. “I’m all blocked up.”

“How do you mean?”

“What do you think? I can’t shit.”

“It’s probably the extra pain medication,” I said. “That’s probably it.”

“No shit,” he said. “But still…no shit.” He sat at the foot of my tiny bed, catching the toes of my left foot with the bird-bone weight of his body. I thought about his body touching mine through the blankets, with all that shit trapped inside of it. I felt sick.

He looked at me. “What should I do?” His voice was a sigh whistling through the passages of his wasted body. He was like a little boy, wounded by every insoluble moment.

“Just wait a day. Drink some milk. It’ll get better.”

“It won’t,” he said quietly. “This is a one-way street.”

In the dim light, he looked like a stranger—just an old man whose body wouldn’t do any of the things he wanted. I caught sight of a sadness that refused me entry, made me aware of how little pain I’d felt, until now, at the sight of my own father dying.

He stood and shuffled to the door, turning once, and said, “I will remember this discomfort for the rest of my life.” He probably did. There was only a week left.

I woke up to a humid fart through my bedroom. It had been a while since I’d smelled diarrhea, but it’s not a scent you easily forget. I found my father in the living room, stooped over his recliner and shaking a tube of Ajax over the fabric. There was a brown stain shaped like Africa and a pile of soiled rags next to the chair. 

“I took some laxatives,” he mumbled. “But then I couldn’t make it to the bathroom in time.” He looked up. I could see he’d been sweating and crying at the same time. His face was streaked, his liver-spotted scalp was beaded with moisture where his hairline would have been. “I’m sorry for all this,” he said, the only time I ever heard him apologize for anything.

He showed me his letters from Michiko, his pen-pal. She was actually quite gifted with words, in the way that only comes when you’re not quite sure how other people use them. Her English felt fragile and rebellious at once. “I feel for you a blooming of flowers in the heart,” she wrote. “And other days, a wilting.” Or: “My fingers are curled for you, touching all weeds of your hair.”

My father was quick to explain. “I haven’t told her I’m balding. Let her fall for me first, is what I’m thinking.” He told me she lived in Nagasaki, where they were still building back everything we’d bombed to pieces. She’d written his name in the characters of her country so he could see what it looked like.

“I take a lot of time with my letters,” he explained. “I write them about ten times before they’re good enough. Like this: I start the different versions on the same piece of paper so I don’t waste sheets.”

He showed me one of the discards, covered in phrases in all directions horizontal and diagonal: The fire that took my mother started in a bread oven. The mountain nearly froze my toes clean off my body. Tin Jesus was in a foul mood today and nearly pitched me in the river.

“Who is Tin Jesus? Or is it…,” I paused, “a what?”

“Tin Jesus is my horse.”

“You have a horse?”

He pointed at the paper. “In here I do.”

“Does she know you’re dying?”

“No. But she believes everything happens for a reason,” he paused. “She’s written that on several occasions.”

“Don’t you think she’ll wonder? When you just don’t respond someday?”

He nodded slowly. It looked as if he had never considered this before. “She might. Perhaps you could write to her when we get there? To explain?”

“When we get there?”

“When you get there. When I stop getting anywhere.”

“Why letters now, all of a sudden?”

“Is that a yes or a no?”

“Why her? Why not anyone else?”

I could hear the question underneath, was convinced we both could—Why not me?—like a sudden, inevitable byproduct of my own bodily goings-on, like the quiet sucking noises of someone chewing bread and cheese at the dinner table.

“I wrote you,” he said. “I wrote you every week for years.”

“First I ever heard about it.”

“Never said I sent them. I wrote for two years and then I sat down and read them all, one by one, and then I burned ‘em all together.”

“Well,” I said. “Fat lot of good that does us now. Me.”

“Fat lot,” he smiled. “I used to love that phrase a lot. For a particular kind of hard time.”

“So you just got rid of them?”

“They were a big pile of burned-up guilt,” he said softly. He clutched my arm, and then clutched the clutching hand with his other one—as if sealing a pact between both arms, holding it steady. “I made something inside of you, like an empty space, the mirror of me feeling bad was you feeling bad about me, all those letters you were missing without even knowing they existed, and I knew the shape and size of how you felt because I’d made it, I knew the things that should have filled it but hadn’t. I kept the letters and let you keep the empty space. That way we could fit like puzzle pieces.”

Who was this man? Not my father in any way I’d ever known him. But this strange man—the one standing hunched and speaking quickly in front of me—he’d written me letters, whole bundles. The fact that they were gone for good, it made another space, an aching.

“How are pieces supposed to work? You didn’t keep them for fitting.”

“Kept them in here,” he pounded his fist against his chest, against his old man’s heart in his old man’s body—tired from years of beating too much, too fast, too many times in a minute, too many minutes in his underslept life, now just limping its pitter-patter bursts of blood towards the withered destinations of his limbs. 

So his heart was full of words and he wasn’t letting any of them loose, only the foul fumes and functions of his body. I stood up and grabbed the can of Ajax, shook its blue-white powder all over the damp plaid upholstery of the recliner. I’d been doing this every few hours because it gave me something to do, even though the stain wasn’t getting any smaller.

He eyed me: “You never answered my question.”

“Which one?”

“About Michiko.”

“Why don’t you tell her the truth yourself?”

“I tell her the truth.”

“You tell her lies.”

“I tell her what I want to be true. Which is a kind of truth—what I’d prefer. A sort of shield.”

“I’m not sure whether I can do that,” I said. In fact, I knew I would. But I felt strongly he didn’t deserve my being sure. I wanted him to feel me making up my mind long after I’d made it. 

The room still smelled like shit, but we were watching game shows on the television and eating tapioca pudding and trying hard to pretend. Eventually he drifted off to sleep while a woman named Susan won a motorcycle she would never use. I took the cordless phone to the kitchen and dialed Tammy, hung up and dialed Vedra instead.

“Is it your father?” she said. “Is he…?” There was a pause, the wet pulse of chewing. “Is he gone?”

“Not yet,” I said. “But I need to get out of this goddamn house.”

I took her to a Riverboat Casino where silver-haired men drank themselves silly at the Blackjack tables, slapping their denim thighs whenever they broke twenty-one. A skinny old woman in the corner popped one salted peanut into her mouth each time she pulled the handle of her slot-machine. So far, the straight line of bright same fruits—the top pay-off—was keeping to itself.

I bought Vedra a drink called The Captain’s Special. It was full of rum and froth, foamy underneath its pink paper umbrella. She got honest before she got drunk, before I got drunk. Hearing her talk was like staring at a wound with the bandage dangling off.

“These people are my parents,” she said. “All of them.”

“All of them?”

“They’re so sad. It’s like a big ghost body hanging over everything. I feel loved by it.”

“Interesting,” I said.

“It’s not,” she said. “It’s just terrible.”

Back at her apartment, I waited on her sofa while she lit candles in the bedroom. I picked up a book from her coffee table and paged through its glossy photos. It was about crop circles, how they only made sense from far away. I felt a sense of wonder and then a sense of fatigue.

She came back with her curly hair loose around her shoulders. She looked nice and I told her so. She looked even nicer in the bedroom—partly because it was dimmer and partly just because—but I didn’t tell her that. I wanted to suggest that the ugliness of our lives could find a perfect, pleasurable symmetry. But there were a million ways to say that wrong, and maybe no way to say it right. 

It was over quickly and then she asked me to spend the night. I did. I couldn’t imagine going back to my father’s trailer, waking up in the morning to a room that smelled like the inside of his body. 

But the next night I slept in his bedroom. He didn’t want to sleep alone. He was scared of dying in an empty room. He kept the radio chattering low. I wasn’t scared by the thought of his dying in a room with me in it, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the notion either. I’d heard of the death rattle—something to do with the muscles of the throat—and it made me anxious. I thought I remembered a superstition about this: You hear a man die and go sterile for good, or feel your own body ravaged by spirits in the night. These worries were hard to admit and impossible to shake.

As it turned out, my father didn’t make a sound when he died. Or else I slept through it. I woke up in the morning and he wasn’t breathing. I would have closed his eyes but they were already closed. I would have said something more but he was already dead. 

So there it was, almost an awkward silence. I’d slept in the same room with a dead man. This happens all the time, of course, but it had never happened to me. 

Dear Michiko,
My name is Baxter Reed. Ronald Reed is my father.

Dear Michiko,
My name is Baxter Reed. Ronald Reed was my father. It is with great sadness that I write…

Dear Michiko,
My name is Baxter Reed. Ronald Reed was my father. It is with great regret that I write to say he has passed on. I fear he may not have been entirely honest with you. The fact is: He was not well. He had been unwell for quite some time. I am not sure how much you know about methamphetamine, but this drug is not good news—for his body or anyone’s. 

He was also a smoker for most of his adult life. His lung cancer was probably fairly advanced by the time he began writing to you. I say this so you’ll understand the consolation your words offered in his otherwise difficult life. He was poor and confused for most of his days, a failure at many things. Maybe writing to you was not one of them?

With best wishes and sincere condolences,
Baxter Reed

Dear Baxter,
I cannot say what is made to feel, knowing your father is no longer here. My heart gets dizzy—blood running up—just to remember his true words. My lungs are tied into knots like his, but I want to say this: What he wrote was the whole story, nothing blank. Big and small. If he ate a tuna sandwich for lunch he told me so. As well, he said he did not sleep for years. He said: I only remember highways. He had many things he never told you. I know that feeling of a bird in the throat, wings beating with sayings. All those things about your father—poor and failing and the cancers—I want you to forget them sometimes. Can you remember him some moments with a dizzy feeling in your heart?

It took me a year to reply. In that year, I went back to Tammy and we got pregnant and then we got an abortion. She got pregnant. She got an abortion. I tried to love her better and I did, for a little while, and then I started loving her badly again, and then I stopped loving her entirely. I had nightmares about that little kid who never was, a little girl I thought probably, and how she deserved better than a locked door from two fuckers like us. I imagined Vedra caring for her tenderly, the way Vedra had never been cared for. Vedra was a woman who could take an absence and turn it into its opposite.

I left Tammy on a Tuesday full of icicles. I wrote Michiko three days later. The letter was a lie just like my father’s had been. This made him feel closer than he’d ever felt alive, his stale feathery breath over my shoulder.

Dear Michiko,
I thought you might want to see one of the letters my father wrote me when we lived apart.

I am liking this new way, sleeping a little more and finally starting to have dreams again. Your father (so to speak, that’s me!) went for a long time without any dreams, not sure if you knew that part of things. I am starting to get the hang of talking about how things feel, because they say that’s the best way to get over this kind of “thing,” so to speak, (again), so here are a couple feelings for you: I wish you were around but it’s probably better like this anyway. I dream about you and when that happens I’m a better father than I ever was in real life. Funny thing, right? Or maybe not funny but still. It’s like you come visit and you don’t even know.

Funny thing. It’s like a ghost talking when I read it.
Take care in Nagasaki,
Baxter Reed