From the Mark Twain Dinette

Dad jumping

(Photo by Rodger C. Birt)

Walking past a blue car on my way back from the toilet at a rest stop in upstate New York, a voice butted into my thoughts: “Say, I notice your license plate says Colorado! How do you get to Boulder from Denver?” An old man was seated in a blue sedan parked in one of the slots beside the walkway. He had a cartoon map in his hand with the big words BOULDER AND DENVER surrounded by cartoon parks and skylines and ski-lifts. It looked like it came from the back of a cereal box.

“Well, Boulder’s west of Denver. I never go there much.”

“But which highway do you take to get to it? And how long does it take to get there?”

“I don’t drive actually, whichever one goes west. About half an hour?”

“Would that be I-25 or I-70?”

“I don’t know, I don’t drive.”

As I got back into the car, a younger man wearing a T-shirt and shorts with a badge on a string around his neck walked up to the driver’s side window. Dad rolled it down. “Can I help you?”

“I see your license plate’s from Colorado,” the ICE agent began, having incorrectly surmised we were part of an operation to import illegal immigrants from Mexico. Ten or fifteen people were standing around a maroon van, also with a Colorado license, at the other end of the rest stop parking lot, attended by another plainclothes cop. It was hard to imagine them all fitting inside that van.

Dad explained he was taking me to school in Vermont, and ICE let us go. As we drove away, I told him about the strange old man with the cartoon map who’d asked me which highway led to Boulder. “You think that was some kind of diversion?”

That was one of our adventures in America, when he was an old man and I was thirty on my way to thirty-one, just after my second skull fracture.

sister                                               (with my sister, Roxanna, photographer unknown)

At eleven years old, after cracking my head open for the first time in a car accident, knowing how into the Beatles I was, Dad took me to Liverpool and we had a few there too, like meeting former Cavern Club DJ Bob Wooler in this joint called the John Lennon Memorial Club on or near its original location. Wooler told us his favorite 60s band was the Archies, kept making Dad buy him more pints. Young John Lennon had cracked his ribs once, this I knew as a dedicated fan, but didn’t bring up. Dad would have been around fifty years old at the time.

Dad Arkansas

(Dad and me and someone else in Arkansas, photographer unknown)

We were never really buddies, he always seemed far more established as a personage, like a well-respected Governor whose example I meant to live up to. Always had trouble talking to him, came away feeling I hadn’t properly expressed whatever I was trying to say. He never demanded it of me, though, never complained. I never doubted his love. I never counted on it either, all the way, until the very last years.

Around age seventy, he started limping unexpectedly. Doctors said he just needed a hip replacement operation, nothing to worry about, sir. That sounded unpleasant, so my dad kept forestalling, even drove me to Vermont, where I was finishing college, and back to Denver twice before he got one.


(Vermont College of Fine Arts, photographer unknown)

“I’d rather take a train, let me just take a train,” I protested. I felt fine, but I’d just gotten out of the hospital myself after a near fatal head injury, and the pattern was already set. “We don’t want you having a seizure again. Besides, sitting in one position all day driving doesn’t hurt, it’s the walking I don’t like.”

Dad got a new hip, but it didn’t help much. Then something went wrong with his calves. Nerve sickness. He started walking with a cane, four rubber-tipped prongs at the bottom. Told me once he wanted to walk with the help of a staff instead of a cane, since that was an upward pulling motion instead of a downward prodding one, but I didn’t know where to get one. Dad considered flying to Rio de Janeiro to be healed by John of God. He was open to anything. No matter what he tried, his condition grew inexorably worse.

“This probably never would’ve happened if you hadn’t gone in there for a hip operation in the first place,” I said to him over the phone during one of his hospital stays. What a dirty sick game it all seemed like. Presumed authorities on life and death revealed to have been clueless all along after a lifetime of trust.

“Well, I don’t know how it happened,” my Dad said graciously.

“Yeah, I don’t know who to blame it on,” I said back. Something was wrong with the dice in this game. Weighted wrong, and the numbers didn’t add right.

My unexpected super-seizure at age 29 had been on the order of the first life-changing car crash skull fracture age 11 in terms of effect, worse, even—this time I had to learn to walk and talk all over again. That was the whole reason my parents wouldn’t let me take a train or bus to Power Mountain in the first place. “Just . . . grin and bear it,” I managed to say, far out of my depth.

Dad laughed politely, said, “Yeah.” They were about to put in the IV so we said goodbye and hung up.

It made me wonder what kind of lesson or quantum equation he was working through here, where it came from, what it meant. I didn’t know how it felt to be him. Made me wonder what lesson I was learning or working out with my head injuries, and whether or not our two lessons connected, being father and son of each other, or moved on separate tracks.

In my mind I pictured him running around a track, jumping over hurdles, climbing up a mountain with his bare hands. Let him heal, I thought. Let him turn it around and regenerate and strengthen and heal and thrive. Whatever old age feels like, let him savor the sweetness of life for as long as he can. For what it’s worth, I wish him that. I will him that. With all my heart.

Dad and I made a habit of stopping in Hannibal, Missouri, boyhood home of Mark Twain, on our trips back and forth from Vermont. That town had been recast as a shrine to its most famous son, every strip mall stocked with T-shirts and flags and coffee mugs embossed with Twain’s droopy mustache or paddleboats going down the Big Muddy. There was even a vacant square of gravel with a sign reading “Huck Finn’s Home” behind the Mark Twain Dinette where we always ate breakfast before leaving town, where the staff wore dark red work shirts with the restaurant’s name across the left pocket in white cursive script. “Do you sell those?” I asked.

Twain(The Mark Twain Dinette, Hannibal, MO.,photographer unknown)

The waitress blinked. “Let me ask the manager.” She came back in a minute and let me have one for ten bucks. Later the same day, Dad fell down walking into a gas-station somewhere in Indiana as I stood smoking a cigarette around the corner and watching a nice-looking woman approach the station. She was the one who helped him stand up after falling. Another cross.

The next morning, he told me about a dream he’d had the night before about a field of white flowers and a poet’s voice narrating: “all these useless white flags.”

Something went wrong with Dad’s calves when we got back from that trip. Acupuncture helped a little. I gave him a posthumously-published Bukowski book for Christmas and he made a point of telling me, not once but twice, that the poem “Chinaski” was his favorite one. The poem in question was an auto-epitaph. Dad was letting me know he was on his way out.


(photographer unknown)

He went back into the hospital soon after with sudden, unexpected boils and bruises all over his body, and the quacks said something was wrong with his platelets. He kept moving his lips and trying again and again to say something to me when I visited him at the hospice, far too weak to make a sound.

I told him, “I’m listening to you, and I’ll hear you later.” Whatever that meant, as hard as I could. He nodded, but was he really agreeing, or just giving up on the effort it took to try speaking. I still don’t know what he was trying to tell me.

I walked into his room at the hospice the following evening and he died right away. I got there right on time. My mother was there, and my sister. Some people from the church. Lightning struck outside and shook the shadows round the window. “He’s passed,” said a woman keeping watch. It was dark. Dad’s mouth hung open. It rained a few minutes. The body just lay there with its mouth open, dead, huge impossible presence in the room. That shock rang in me, but I didn’t say much.

I said, “Thank you,” into his ear and kissed him on the forehead when I left.

When I got home, my cat was asleep on the bed with slits for eyes, jerking its paws in a dream of things darting away.



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