Issue > Fiction
Michael Bourne

Michael Bourne

Michael Bourne's work has appeared in The Orange Coast Review, River City, Oakland Review, and The Potomac Review, as well as Tin House’s online Flash Fridays feature. He is a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine and a staff writer for the literary site The Millions. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.

San Francisco, Summer 1990

He was sitting in an aluminum-frame wheelchair, facing away from me, staring up at the un-obstructed view of the eastern slope of Twin Peaks. At first, when I stepped onto the porch, I saw only the back of his bald head, partially covered by a blue knit-cap, and the dark green blanket which was, on this eighty-degree day, draped over him from his neck to his feet. I thought: I can deal with this. He's gone bald; I expected that. He's lost the use of his legs and he's cold in the middle of a warm day. That's bad, further along than I'd hoped, but people have lived with worse.

Then I called his name and he turned around.

He was no one I knew. The man I'd known seven years before was a tallish, middle-aged art curator, starting to go gray, starting to grow a serious gut, but still healthy, still fleshy and virile, almost to the point of smugness. He had bragged to anyone who would listen that he'd never jogged a mile in his life, hadn't seen a doctor in years. This man on the porch, craning around to see me, his milky eyes nearly popping out of their sockets, bore no resemblance to that man. His lips were gone. The left side of his nose was eaten up by some sort of blistering pustule that seemed to be making an incursion into his eye. I could make out the shapes of his bones under his waxy skin, and where the sharp edges protruded—on his cheeks, on his chin, on his collarbone—the flesh was a livid purplish color, like bruised fruit.

In all my life, I have never wanted to cut and run so badly when I knew I couldn't. But I couldn't and so I smiled at him and said: "Hey, Dad. Bet you're surprised to see me."

When he smiled, I saw that I had been wrong about his lips: they were there, just dry and pencil-thin, as if they'd been sheared away by some very special kind of scissors.

"Sooner or later," he whispered, pausing for air. "I knew you'd come."

I had no etiquette for this situation, no script for how to respond. In the past six months, since I first heard that my father was dying, I had read everything I could get my hands on, obsessively, in secret, sometimes checking my own throat for enlarged lymph nodes. But I'd never met anyone who had the disease. And this wasn't just anyone. This was my own father. But after seven years and all the anger and silence, I wasn't prepared to think of this frail, sickened man before me as having any relation to me. I couldn't even bring myself to touch him. So I stood halfway in and out of the door, my fingers hooked awkwardly in the front pockets of my jeans.

"Please. Sit." He pointed toward a wicker rocking chair. "Let me get a look at you."

I didn't move at first and when I did, I did so warily, never taking my eyes off him. I had an idea that if let him out of my sight—well, I'm not exactly sure what I thought. I only knew I couldn't trust him that close to me, that real. So, still watching him, I settled in the rocking chair and gave it a test run, easing it back and forth.

"Long time," I said, finally.

"Yes. Too long." He smiled that eerie, lipless smile. "You look good, Peter."

"So do you, Dad. Real good."

His eyes closed slowly: veiny shades going over a light. "That's all right," he said. "Don't listen to Ted. I know perfectly well how I look."

I felt a growing sense of panic, a pressing on my heart that made me want to take back everything, start the conversation over again when I wasn't so shocked by how he looked, by how little he looked like my father.

"This is an amazing house," I said, just to say something. "You guys have a hell of a view here."

He looked up at the grassy hillside as if he had never seen it before, as if it had magically appeared in the last two minutes. He made a soft, phlegmy chuckle.

"You think so?"

It was as if we had agreed: here's something safe and pointless and banal, let's talk about that.

"Well, it's a long way from Pasadena," I said. "That living room, it's like something out of a magazine. That's not a real Hockney in there, is it?"

He nodded. It was. "Thank Ted," he said. "He's always been the earner in this household. I just tell him what to put on the walls."

His speech was slow and painful, nearly every word requiring its own brief pause for breath. He was coughing a lot, too, quiet, scratchy coughs that he tried to pass off as throat clearing.

"What does he do?" I asked, surprised that after all these years I had no idea.

"Real estate. Luxury properties, mostly." He pointed toward the top of Twin Peaks. "See that house? Way at the top of the hill?"

I saw the one he meant. This was 1990, long before the dot-com boom transformed the city, and the half-built mansion stood out among the rows of old Victorians and Spanish-style ranchers. It was almost comically huge, four stories cantilevered out over the steep hillside on spindly wooden beams, like a house on steroids. Half the exterior was painted an odd, not terribly attractive shade of sharkskin gray and the other half was raw new wood and Tyvek house-wrap, with gaping holes where the bay windows were to go.

"Ted sold it this spring," he said, a topnote of pride in his voice. "$1.6 million."

"$1.6 million? My God, who bought it?"

But he hadn't heard me. He was looking up at the hillside again, squinting in the day-bright sun. "Must be fifty guys on that job," he said, breathily, almost to himself. "And they're not even half done yet."

I looked up at the jobsite at the top of the hill. There weren't fifty of them, but I could see a dozen men crawling over the roof and framed-out porch, seeming at this distance like so many black ants. It saddened me to imagine my father who had spent his professional life hanging Pollocks and de Koonings, sitting out on this tiny redwood porch day after day with nothing better to do than watch a bunch of construction workers build an addition onto a rich guy's ugly house.

He smiled, exposing a mouthful of bent, gray teeth. "Sometimes I want to yell, 'Hurry up, assholes —I'll be dead before you're finished!'"

He laughed, which made him cough, and then he couldn't stop. These weren't the quiet, scratchy ones from before; this was the real thing, deep and painful. He bent over, his face flushed, coughing into a wrinkled handkerchief. I stood up, not sure what to do.

"Dad, are you okay?"

He waved me off, shaking his head and pointing for me to sit back down. But he couldn't stop coughing. It was a terrible sound, a dry, rhythmic grinding, like a car with a faulty starter. I looked back into the living room, but Ted was nowhere to be seen. I was alone with him. Not knowing what else to do, I reached out and touched his shoulder, to steady him. There was so little flesh on him I could feel the sharp bones of his shoulder blade and of the joint itself. He recoiled under my touch, making an involuntary shiver as if he wasn't sure what to do with my hand on his shoulder. But it worked. The coughing fit began to subside and he sat heaving, catching his breath.

"First rule," he whispered when he could speak again. "No laughing. Humor equals death."

It was a joke, admittedly not a very funny one, but I had to struggle not to laugh.

"Maybe I should come back in a little while," I said. "Give you a minute to rest up."

"No, please," he said, shaking his head. "Don't go."

So I didn't. I went back to the rocking chair and sat down. I felt calmer now, more at ease. For the first time, I felt like I was sitting and talking to my father, not the stranger I had worked so hard at hating for seven years.

"Your mother tells me," he said at last, "you're in Seattle now. In grad school."

"That's right, at University of Washington. In Literature."

"Ph.D., huh?"

When he grinned at me, proud, exposing that mouth full of bent, gray teeth, I saw for the first time how badly I needed my father to see that I had succeeded. Not just survived, not just moved on. Succeeded.

"I'm done with my coursework and my dissertation's mostly written," I said. "There's a pretty good chance now it'll get published."

He smiled again, less proudly this time, and I saw my mistake. No matter how soon I finished my dissertation, no matter how quickly it was picked up by an academic publisher, he would be dead before it saw print. I had never imagined my father dead before. I had wished him dead a million times, but that was different. That was easy, a metaphor, a trick of language. If I wanted him back alive, all I had to do was forgive him. Now, in a few weeks, a month or two at most, he would actually be dead. I would go on, watch the weather turn, celebrate Christmas and the New Year, and no matter how many times I forgave him he would still be dead.

"So you and Mom are talking now, huh?" I said, to change the subject.

"A little, not much. She hangs up if I call, but sometimes she calls here." He looked at me. "I don't suppose she passed along any of the letters I wrote to you?"

"No. What letters?"

He nodded slowly. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Your mother was pretty bitter after the divorce."

This, we both knew, was putting it mildly. After the divorce, my mother sank into a depression that lasted four years. She stopped seeing all her old friends and left the house only to shop and go to work. Finally, she sold the house I had grown up in and bought a condo in East Pasadena so she could be closer to her new church, which met in an enormous cinderblock "tabernacle" a few blocks off Colorado Boulevard. For seven years, she had barely spoken my father's name.

"I had no idea," I said. "I thought when you left you just ... left."

"I know," he said. "It's my fault. At first, I figured you needed some space. Some time to cool off. I felt so guilty, you know, and you were so angry."

"But after that you never called. I never heard from you."

"Peter, your mother wouldn't talk to me," he said. "I had no idea where you were. I just kept sending those letters, hoping she'd forward them to you."

I was still reeling, still trying to wrap my mind around a world in which an entire stack of letters from my father was sitting unopened somewhere, waiting to be read.

"What did you say?" I asked. "In the letters, I mean. Do you still have any of them?"

"I wish I did. Your mother might."

That silenced us. We both knew how likely that was.

"I take what I can get from your mother these days, I'll say that," he said.

"I can't believe you get anything out of her."

I was siding with him now, against my mother, the way it had been when I was a kid. He seemed to recognize this, and I saw that it warmed him a little. Even so, I felt him cautioning himself not to press too hard, not to sound bitter or self-righteous.

"It's funny, but I think she sort of likes Ted," he said. "She talks to him. A lot more than she talks to me. One time, he even got her to send pictures of you."


"Yeah, they're on my desk upstairs. Ted calls it my Amen Corner." He smiled and then, slowly, I watched his face harden. "She told Ted there's a girl in your life now."

This shouldn't have surprised me as much as it did. After all, my mother had been thrilled to hear about Mariana and was dying to meet her. Why wouldn't she spread the good news? Still, the warm feeling I had felt toward my father seconds before melted, leaving only the bristling core of distrust I had come in with.

"Did Mom send you pictures of her, too?"

"No. Of course not." He waited, eyeing me from his chair. "Aren't you going to tell me about her?"

"What do you want to know?"

"Well, we could start with her name."

"It's Mariana. Mariana Kurzkowski. She's in nursing school, at U-Dub. That's how I got to know her. We take the same bus in the morning."

"A nurse, huh?" He smiled liplessly. "As you might imagine, I've gotten to know a few nurs-es in the last couple years. Does she know what kind of nurse she wants to be yet?"

I turned to look through the French doors into the living room, but I saw no sign of Ted, no sign of anyone. "Dad, I'm not sure what you're after here."

"I'm not after anything, Peter."

"No?" I said. "You don't see me for seven years and all of a sudden you're hot to know about my love life?"

He was quiet a moment. "Okay. Your mother says the two of you are living together."

"That's right. For the summer. We're trying it out."

"And it's going well?"

"Is what going well?"

"I don't know. Living together."

"Sure, yeah. It's going very well. It's a jim-dandy good time all around. Are you saying you thought it wouldn't be?"

It is hard to imagine that a face that badly ravaged could show such complex emotion, that a mouth without lips, cheeks without muscles in them, could form themselves into a shape of such sadness, but they did. For a fleeting second, he was no longer a shriveled, dying stranger I could simply feel sorry for. He was my father again, the man I had grown up with, the man I had prom-ised myself I would never see again as long as I lived.

"There's no need for us to talk like this," he said.

"You don't believe me, is that it?" I said. "You think I'm making it all up? Invented a girl-friend out of the whole cloth so Mom can save face with those foot-washing crazies down at the tabernacle?"

"No, son. Please."

"I've got a picture of her if you want to see it. Photographic proof."

I reached into my back pocket and pulled the photograph out of my wallet. I was so angry I didn't even look at it, but I had seen it a thousand times. It was a quickie shot, taken on the beach on Orcas Island that spring, but it was my favorite of her. In the picture, Mariana stood barefoot in the sand in jeans and a dark blue University of Washington sweatshirt, grinning at the camera, looking short and Polish and very beautiful.

My father took the picture from my hand and studied it. I tried to read his expression, but for once there was nothing on his face, no expression at all except sheer exhaustion. Finally, he handed the photo back to me.

"Pretty girl," he said.

I fumbled with the picture, sliding it back into my wallet and stowing the wallet safely in my back pocket. He was tired now. I watched him shift in his wheelchair, gathering himself for one final surge of energy.

"It sounds like you're getting serious," he said.

"Did Mom tell you that, too?"

"No. But you do. Sound serious."

"Then I guess I am. As a matter of fact I'm thinking of asking her to marry me."

This was a lie, a bluff. I hadn't been thinking of asking Mariana to marry me, not then, not except in the vaguest, most distant of ways, but as soon as the words left my mouth I realized that now it was true: I was going to ask her to marry me.

"You're supposed to congratulate me, Dad," I said. "Tell me how happy you are for me. That's what dads do when their sons say they're getting married."

He studied me, a pained look on his pale, ravaged face. "For God's sake, Peter."

"What?" But he was grimly silent, watching me. "Go ahead, say it," I said.

"Think about this. That's all. I lost twenty years of my life."

I was up out of my chair, and by the time I heard myself I was shouting: "How dare you? You don't know me. You don't know a goddamn thing about me."

"Peter, I'm your father," he said. "And I'm not blind."

A voice whispered in my ear: What you say now, you can never take back. He'll be dead before you ever see him again. But I didn't listen, I was too angry.

"I felt sorry for you, you know that?" I shouted. "That's why I came down here, because I felt sorry for you. I wanted to tell you I'd forgiven you for walking out on us. But that crazy preacher Mom listens to is right: you deserve this. Everything that's happened to you, you deserve it."

The French doors opened behind me and Ted rushed out onto the porch, looking frantic.

"What's wrong? What happened here?"

"Nothing's happened," I said. "I'm leaving."

I bulled my way through doorway and ran all the way across the living room with Ted a few steps behind me, shouting at me to stop. I would have made it, too, except that I had to stop in the kitchen to pick up my coat and my overnight bag, which allowed him to beat me to the front door.

"I told you, this has nothing to do with you," I said. "Now, please, get out of my way."

"He's your father, Peter," he said. "He loves you. He's only telling you this now because he's trying to help you. Help you avoid his mistakes."

"Oh God," I said. "Now you're an expert on me, too?"

"No. No, I'm not," he said. "But whatever happened, can it be so bad that you'd turn your back on your own father?"

"Get out of my way."

This time, he didn't try to block my way and I flew out the door. I didn't stop running until I found a cab to the airport. That night when I got home I told Mariana what she wanted to hear. I never lied, exactly, but I didn't tell the truth, either. I told her that my father and I had talked most of the afternoon and that we were both crying when I left. And I told her I was afraid he might die before I would have a chance to see him again.

The next morning, as soon as she left for school, I drove to downtown Seattle and started shopping for engagement rings.


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