Out There

HE’S BEEN SEEN standing in a vineyard in Westfield, beside the Thruway, waving to truckers, and then the same day in Conneaut, wandering the docks. A surveillance camera places him in Geneva; a carny operator sold him a doughnut in Geneva On The Lake. The police have received calls from Canton, Akron, as far west as you taped your homemade flyers on the sides of tollbooths, pinned them to rest stop corkboards. At this point you don’t know what to believe, how much hope you need to keep nested away like the cache of half dollars and keno tokens in his dresser.

That was where you went together, your days with him. He loved the casino, the old motionless riverboat full of slots and draw poker machines ringing like a video arcade. He’d taught you Texas Hold ‘Em and Michigan Rummy those rainy days up at his musty fishing camp, had an amateur gambler’s love of roulette, but the last few months all he could do was stand there and pull the handle, watch the fruit slip by the payline, the electronic credits dwindle. “That’s it, Dad,” you said when he kept hitting the button, then steered him toward the quarter slots with his empty cup.

What does it say on the flyer–suffers from Alzheimer’s? There’s no medical evidence of it. It’s easier than saying Senile Dementia, which has a threatening ring. But hasn’t he pushed you over a chair for ignoring his constant demands for more tea? And doesn’t he call you “the crazy one” in front of the orderlies? (And for what, a single voluntary commitment twenty years ago, which you now see as not only drug-related but a desperate attempt to escape a destructive love. A necessity, you think, a life saver, but no, you’re “the crazy one.”)

But it’s all gone crazy, hasn’t it? The phone rings in the night and you know they’ve found his remains, when it makes no sense. In daylight, scouts might stumble on him rotting in the brambles, or two boys out fishing on a marsh. At night he’s more likely to find the bright lights and be recognized, the few stores still open the natural haunts of cops, moths orbiting the fluorescents. But at night the phone hauls you out of a dreamless sleep and you’re ready to go, you know what you’ll wear to identify him, wonder if he’ll be wearing his ring, still have his dentures, the flesh-colored hearing aids plugging his ears.

Lately you haven’t been sleeping. It’s the heat, you think. You think a lot, lying here, the fan buzzing in the window, flies crusing the rooms. Childless, you finally know the terror of a parent, see beyond the cliché of the crash on prom night.

Ashtabula, Erie, Lakewood. At night the moon glitters on the water, teenagers’ bonfires dot the shore. The waves slap cold over the jetties. Maybe he’s out there, rolling in the wake of a freighter off to Duluth. And then there are the vineyards, the lush potato fields, the orchards sweet with dropped peaches and buzzing with bees.

You always think scenically, when it’s more likely to be a construction site, a side street in Cleveland where they keep dogs in garages, plywood nailed over broken windows, crack vials drifted like seed in the gutters. A semi-wooded lot, like they say in the papers.

Does it matter where?

Yes, it means everything.

The only clue you could give the detective was the fishing camp, how your father went on about it, grilling trout over glowing stones, the bobhouse he and your brother fashioned from the original privy. “We should go there,” he said. “We should get Tom and just pack up the car and go.”

But it’s been gone for twenty years–or no, it’s still there, just under thirty feet of water since the Army Corps dammed the river. And Tom, Tom’s been gone, what, eight years now. It’s just you and him, twice a month, but the past has its own vast landscape, its uncharted territory.

The detective spent a day at the lake, searching for landmarks you dredged up for him. The Wagon Wheel Cabins, the We-Wan-Chu Motor Court. Docks, bait shops.

“They’re all gone,” he said from the motel pay phone. “It’s been redesignated wilderness. If he’s here, we won’t find him. There’s just a lot of country.”

You thanked him, tried to be a good witness, to come up with another lead. You went through the questions he asked during your interview: What does he normally eat? Is he generally an outgoing person? Does he sometimes have difficulty seeing?

You wanted to tell him about your mother, how she knew it would come to this. Dying, she asked you to take care of him, please, you were all he had now. She could depend on you, couldn’t she? (Though you both knew she’d have been more comforted making this plea to Tom, that she wouldn’t worry so knowing he’d be taking care of him. But the two of you played it straight, never mentioned her favorite.) He visited her nearly to the end, then a week after the funeral asked when you were going to see her next.

“Oh,” he said when you explained, “I was afraid of that.”

Instead you let the detective know about the casino, the portable radio, his love of doughnuts–all the childish tendencies that used to dismay you but that now you’ve come to rely on. At times you accuse yourself of giving in to him on every little thing, just pacifying him, biding your time until the inevitable. He would have been tougher if things were reversed.

The decision to move him to the residence wasn’t easy. With Tom gone, you couldn’t afford the private nurse anymore, and the old house turned dangerous. One lunchtime Mrs. Willis came over with a casserole and found him at the bottom of the stairs, one hearing aid knocked out, blood on his collar. You were working, you couldn’t take him in, though, arguably, you had room. You looked at every place in the phone book, asked friends for references, and still, even the best seemed staffed with slackers and thieves, bureaucrats and mercy killers-in-training. Money wasn’t a problem, you said, but secretly it was, and you began to wonder how long you could afford him to live.

You’re no longer paying for his room. It’s been two months, and they have a waiting list. Your basement is filled with boxes of musty clothes, the dresser he kept from the old house, his precious radio. At night you visit these relics more often than you did him. Lift a shirt to your cheek and smell the cologne of work. Press the button and see if the batteries are still alive–yes, a good sign. Turn out the light now, head upstairs in your slippers. Tomorrow will be another long day.

In bed, you picture him that last night, moving through the darkened halls. Did he know where he was going, have a final destination in mind? Or was it just out, away from this, as if some instinct kicked in? He hated being taken care of, never went to the doctor, wouldn’t take off work for a cold. You cling to this explanation, the only one that doesn’t insist on him being deluded, his death a cruel mistake. You’ve convinced yourself you’d prefer suicide to this dulled existence, yet he never mentioned it. He had his keno tokens neatly stacked in his top drawer, one of your mother’s handkerchiefs folded over them.

Tom, your mother, now him. Tonight, if it’s true then, if he’s facedown behind some Dairy Queen in Painesville–if he’s not stumbling along a railroad line through the dark woods above Kingsville–you’re the only one left. You try to deny it, rolling over, the pillow cool in the humidity, but why? It will come to that eventually. No, this isn’t a blessing, but the result should be no surprise to you. You’ve pictured the worst–the lake cliffs and busy highways. Is that what hurts, this too certain knowledge? Or is it simply not knowing? Closure, everyone says, as if there’s an end to this. Obviously they don’t know your father–or you.

Munson, Aurora, Cuyahoga Falls. I-90, Lake Road, the Turnpike. He’s out there somewhere, and like they say in the papers, he may not even know his own name. Now, this still hour, do you believe people are kind, that things happen for a reason, that this is not some judgment on you?

Yes, you’re sure there is goodness in this world, that there is at least mercy.

Then why, when the phone rings, do you turn on the light? Why do you look at it so intently before picking it up? And why then, do you, so obviously not a child, hold your breath and close your eyes?

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