Cathryn Sherman

 

THE black circle was printed on heavy, off-white cardstock. In West Virginia, the paper had been thin and waxy. The clinic in Charleston had straight-back chairs and windows so high you couldn’t see the sign from the Chinese restaurant next door. But the Thomson Clinic in Chicago had wide leather chairs aged intentionally to look antique. It had a wall of windows and a coffee bar. It smelled like handpicked lemons, not synthetic like lemon air freshener. Annie breathed easier as her father, William, took the test, confident they had made the right choice in seeking a second opinion.

“The circle is a clock,” the clinician said, intruding on Annie’s thoughts. “Please write in the numbers.” Annie watched the woman start a stopwatch and take a seat beside her, facing William’s back. William dried his hands on his pleated khakis before beginning the test. Annie remembered thirty-five years ago when he was on the team to build the New River Gorge Bridge. Six months into the bridge’s construction, he was hauled up the rust-colored sides in an oversized bucket. During the ascent, she’d watch him dry his hands on his thick, worn jeans, removing the only physical sign of his nerves.

This was the third time he’d taken the clock test to evaluate the level of his mind’s deterioration and each result veered further from normal. It always started the same way. Fill in the numbers. William could get that part easily. He was a mechanical engineer. Making things work was part habit, part calling. William tapped his pen on the table. Annie remembered science projects he’d built for her, including a hydrographic activator. She recalled a music box reworked to play “Heart and Soul” after she learned to play it on the piano. Drawing a clock shouldn’t stymie her dad. He could fix engines, design a drainage system, build a bridge 876 feet tall.

William pressed his fingers to his temples in an attempt to Jedi mind trick the simple information. He scratched his palms and looked around, but the room was shucked free of distractions. William started to write, the pen moving so aggressively the table wobbled. The writing was a slow and agitated scratch. The clinician peered over William’s shoulder. William swatted absentmindedly as if she was a gnat. The woman reset the clock and Annie exhaled, feeling certain William had passed the first portion.

“Now, draw the minute and hour hands at ten after eleven,” the woman said, her voice echoing against the walls. William sighed loudly, exhaling exasperation.

This was where trouble typically arose. Her father’s brain, once able to calculate the area of concrete in his head, now confused ten after and ten ‘til. Annie couldn’t stop her mind from whirling through all the things he’d taught her. She helped him install a shower once. His rough, calloused hands capably connecting and conjoining smooth silver pipes. His mouth puckered in a whistle. Because of him, she knew how to change a tire, install a garbage disposal, apply wallpaper. She knew how to bait a hook, pushing on the worm’s midsection so the head swelled before piercing the slimy creature behind the swollen band. She could determine the best docks for bluegills at Plum Orchard Lake. Annie once thought this was what a man should be. She adored him through lost years. Years when he embarrassed her. Years when they had little if anything in common. Years when he thought his prayers could absolve her sexuality. She defended him despite his disapproval of her life. She loved him but feared she didn’t know him.

Annie remembered the expression, A son’s a son until he finds a wife, a daughter’s a daughter all of her life. It was an odd thing to remember because it wasn’t William’s expression but her mother’s nasal voice, weighed down with her accent and the Marlboro Light propped at the edge of her mouth. Her mother, Samantha, who could make gourmet food, occasionally rolling out puff pastry dough that would envelop steak, allowing the rich aroma of Beef Wellington to float seamlessly through the one-story house. Her mother, who never worked outside their home, preferring the sanctuary of her prize-winning hydrangeas. Her mother, who thought traditional values meant submissively backing from an argument to flip her father off in the adjoining room. Her mother, whose car jumped a guardrail in the middle of a sunny June day, killing her on impact when Annie was twenty.

Samantha was full of these colloquialisms, and they played on a tape in Annie’s mind. The day before, Annie had told her son, Georgie, she was going to slap both eyes into one because he was too big for his britches. She had stopped to look around, expecting her mother to appear with a shit-eating grin and a cigarette needing to be ashed.

The clinician, her hair twirled into a tight bun, snapped Annie back to reality as she clicked off the stopwatch. She retrieved the page from William and scribbled notes directly on it. Annie stole a peek, could see her father had gotten the minute hand correct but there was no hour hand. A few of the numbers on the edge were missing. Knowledge her father had for sixty years had evaporated.

***

Annie and William hadn’t seen Dr. Travers after the testing but as she drove them home, she imagined what the doctor would say, stroking his slim moustache. The dementia is progressing quickly. He needs routine. Annie shook her head, trying to free the doubt that clouded it. She navigated into her parking spot, sandwiched between a smart car and a red VW Beetle. Annie carried in an oversized briefcase brimming with manuscripts and balanced a sack of groceries on her hip. William cracked his knuckles, fixated on his own thoughts. He didn’t offer to help. As they scurried into the townhouse, Annie tossed her keys on a lacquered console and started unloading the groceries. She wanted to focus on dinner and playtime and work but she couldn’t shake the test from her memory. Annie hoped the decisions she made for her dad were best.

Her father was Appalachian, as much a part of the mountains as the soil, the maples Annie used to scale, the bluegills she and her father threw back in the lake. He never wanted to leave, even as the disease chewed through his central nervous system, but Annie and Georgie wanted him here. Annie wanted to take her dad to Millennium Park and stand beneath the Bean’s mirrored surface, smell the metal, and admire the Chicago skyline, the architecture. She wanted him to taste the kick from the peppers on a Chicago dog at Weiner Circle. She wanted him to help Georgie catch a foul ball at Wrigley Field. She needed him to understand why she left. She needed him to see that somewhere else could be home. Somewhere else could produce the siren call West Virginia had, could seduce you, nurture you, love you. She needed him to see this even if her dreams were filled with the oranges and golds of the trees in autumn, her ears consumed with the high-pitched train whistle that hugged the mountain curves, her mouth filled with the taste of deer jerky from Whipple General Store.

Again, her mother’s voice rattled against her, taking her to the day her mother and father hugged Annie when they were leaving her in Morgantown. Her mother with deep mascara lines gliding towards her chin, kissing both Annie’s cheeks, sliding Annie’s auburn hair behind her ears. You have to wave goodbye. Children always wave goodbye. That felt like both a lie and the truth. Annie had left West Virginia but she couldn’t rinse it from her. Her mother had left this earth but she could be conjured. Her father was still here sometimes, still himself in the quiet but displaced moments. Annie didn’t want to wave goodbye.

She tried to focus on the papers splayed across her L-shaped couch as Georgie and William built a tall Lego tower. They alternated wide green and blue bricks at the base; the upper layers were all red. Annie watched the two of them as their construction progressed. She loved Georgie’s curved spine, the way his brows formed a straight line when he concentrated. With his blond hair and cowlicks and one dimple—just one—on the right side, as if someone declared, cute enough—one more dimple might throw things off balance, Georgie looked like William. Georgie kicked over the Lego tower with a grunt that was burrowed in his belly. William avoided the plastic shrapnel and started collecting the blocks in one wide hand. “Samantha,” he said, looking earnestly at Annie but mistaking her for her mother. “Annie has the worst temper.”

They sat in the silence that followed. William looked down at his exposed toes and blinked twice. He’d always recognized his family. The slip, mistaking Annie for her mom and Georgie for Annie, was momentary. It could have been shrugged away as old age, but Annie committed it to memory, recognizing how lost her father truly was.

Georgie snuggled into William’s arms. “Georgie,” her son said, pointing to his skinny six-year-old body and making Annie laugh. Georgie allowed the prickles on William’s chin to tickle his neck as they sat transfixed, looking at nothing. They lingered that way, folded in a slumped L, until it was time for dinner. Annie thrust chicken nuggets and French fries and too much ketchup on a plate. Georgie taught William to use the nuggets as a ketchup shovel. Both had stains on the cuffs of their shirts but Annie reveled in the dinner and in the ease Georgie’s constant prattle produced.

“You never shut up either,” William said at one point and Annie only nodded, unwilling to wade through her childhood as the dementia amputated her father’s future.

From there, Annie felt William deteriorating further each day. He didn’t get lost, didn’t meander into traffic, or think his underwear was a hat. He didn’t do the silly things you think happen in the early days of dementia. It was more about his inability to place himself. As Annie drove along Lake Shore Drive, William read the billboards aloud.

“Don’t text and drive,” William said in a booming voice, startling Annie whose mind was wandering to the cookies she needed to buy for Georgie’s class. “Nightlife included, Pure Michigan.”

William’s eyes were staring out the side window, his fingers tracing the outline of a billboard they were about to pass. “You are beautiful,” he said. It was written on a plain white sign in oversized black letters. The font was simple. It advertised nothing. William’s voice sounded low, meticulous, and romantic. A soothing strum mingling with his traditional baritone. The change in his tone frightened Annie. He picked up her hand from the gearshift. “You really are, Samantha,” he said and kissed her palm, allowing his pursed lips to linger above Annie’s pale freckled wrist. She wriggled her hand free from his firm grasp, awkwardly fingered the split ends of her hair.

“It didn’t mean anything,” he said urgently. “She wasn’t you.”

The gridlocked traffic buzzed around them. Horns blared as they progressed slowly. Annie focused on sliding her foot from the brake to the gas and back again.

“Daddy,” she said trying to focus on the ebb and flow of traffic but yearning to reach out and touch his shoulder, rub his back, a gesture that felt familiar to their relationship. She wanted to hug him like he had hugged her when she fell from her two-wheel bike. To support him as he had when her mother died—Annie’s back clad in a wool dress that itched, a dress she chose because she never wanted to wear it again, a dress she picked so she could bury it in the bottom of a Goodwill donation bin.

“Daddy,” Annie repeated. “You know I’m Annie. I’m your ….”

She was going to say daughter.

“Squirrel,” he said, filling in her blank with a nickname he hadn’t called her in years. Not since she came out to him.

Annie was nineteen when she told her parents. Her first girlfriend had been a petite blond named Kim who wore button-downs secured at the collar and bracelets that moved rhythmically against one another in a cacophonous symphony. It was Christmas break, and she was home from school. The air was tight with the prospect of snow and the smell of pine needles. Samantha had baked an apple pie, and the smell and the nerves together turned Annie’s stomach. Her father built a fire, stoking the embers with a long iron poker.

“I met someone at school,” Annie said, her voice shaking against the words. William didn’t stop. The wood made a loud grinding clatter.

“That’s nice, Squirrel,” he said, distractedly. “You going to bring him by? Maybe for New Year’s?”

“It’s a she,” Annie said, softly.

“What’s that?” her mother asked, shuffling into the room in flimsy slippers and sitting the pie on the coffee table.

“I’m dating a woman,” Annie repeated stiffly, nervous her parents would call her a homosexual, which felt clinical and forced and overwhelmingly p.c.

“Maybe don’t bring her for dinner then,” William replied with a quick chuckle that felt dismissive and comforting simultaneously. Annie didn’t know if she should overreact, maybe shove the pie off the table or stomp upstairs. Everything felt trite, so instead, she flipped through Southern Living. William watched the fire overtake the wood. He dried his hands on his pants, ignoring the chill emanating from the stone floors. He sat on the bench in front of the fireplace and ran a hand through his hair, exhaling as if trying to catch his breath. He stared in the glow of the fire for so long that, for a moment, Annie was sure he would throw himself into the flames.

“She’s a nice person,” Annie said, her voice a wobbly incline. The truth was Kim felt wild and adventurous and a little dangerous, like standing in the middle of the New River Gorge Bridge while coal trucks zoomed overhead. Like sipping Jack and Gingers instead of studying.  

“We’re just … surprised,” William said. He wouldn’t look at her. Her mother cut the pie in fat slabs and went to stand behind William. Annie felt like they were a group of statues strategically placed so the aromatic cinnamon could swirl between them.

“I don’t want you to be lonely,” William said, his eyes soft.

Annie felt taken aback and confused and expectant. How could she be lonely? She had just told them she was dating. Her mother crossed the room and stood near her. She didn’t hug her but the shadowed presence felt like support. Annie inspected her nail bed, paying close attention to hangnails in an attempt to suppress tears.

“Let’s talk about this later,” William said, poking the fire and avoiding eye contact. Annie didn’t argue.

That evening, when they assumed she was asleep, Annie listened to them talk in the hushed whispers of intimacy. She stood outside their door like a child. There were muffled sobs Annie would connect to William. Her mother’s voice claiming it might be an experiment, a phase, an act of rebellion. There was hope behind the phrases. She heard her mother tell him it was okay. Annie was still Annie.

“Normal,” her father said, hiccupping slightly. “All you want for your kids is a nice normal life. She won’t get that now. Not here at least.” Annie swished this back and forth in her mind. To her father, she was abnormal.

On Christmas, a thin snow fell, and Annie rode with William to the New River Gorge Bridge. It was their tradition, the only time Annie really saw her father admire his work. They sat under the broad beams and watched two hawks circle the area, disappearing behind the gray sky only to reappear lower on the horizon. When she was young, Annie thought the bridge was a consistent rainbow, its underside a perfect arch and its sides gnawed on both sides by the mountains. The top, where cars passed, was the line in the horizon she looked for. The bridge’s rusted beams pronounced against clear skies. Even in her dreams, Annie could hear the rapids below. The water clawing across the rocks and battering the yellow rafting boats.

“I feel like I don’t know you anymore,” William said. “What with your secret.” Icy breaths released in a thin stream in front of him.

“I’m still me,” Annie said, crushing a frozen piece of bark back and forth with the toe of her shoe. “Still Squirrel,” she said, hopefully. Her father looked her over.

“No,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like that now.” Something in his voice cracked.

The moment drained away, neither of them knowing what should be said next. Both of them silent and resilient and stubborn and alone.

Annie had other girlfriends, but she found her way back to Kim. They had a civil ceremony in Chicago. William walked her down the aisle. She wore a lace gown and Kim wore a tight mermaid dress that accentuated her thin frame. Annie kissed her dad at the end of the red carpeted aisle at the cheap Holiday Inn, but William wouldn’t look at Kim when he released Annie to her. He didn’t ask Kim to dance. He left before they cut the cake. When Annie and Kim decided Annie would carry Georgie, William expressed his relief that she was “the woman in the relationship.” Following the insemination, when she was wide and ripe and glowing, her father was most at ease. He built her a rocking chair from an old oak tree in their back yard. Deer and rabbits, a bear and a cardinal were carved in the head, and the chair cradled Annie and Georgie during three o’clock feedings.

Four years later, when Annie got divorced, William’s ease was palpable, a loosening in his shoulders. A spinster daughter was acceptable. A lesbian was harder to explain.

Annie thought of all the times he’d called her Squirrel. When he bought her books and wrote it in the upper left hand corner, a reminder of who the book belonged to. When she was scared of swimming and he coaxed her into the deep end with the promise of ice cream sandwiches. The list of times he’d spoken the word was both too long and too short. She’d ached for the name without realizing it.

Now, as the car idled on Lake Shore Drive, the word was heavy. It felt like a beating heart vibrating on her dashboard.

“Daddy,” Annie said. “I’m not Mom.” William nodded but didn’t respond for a few moments. Horns blasted in the background.

“You remind me of her, Squirrel.”

Annie bathed in the praise, in the name.

“What would you say if she were here?” William asked.

Annie rolled her earlobe back and forth between her thumb and forefinger as the cars picked up speed. “I don’t know. What about you?”

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice softer and steadier still. “I cheated on her.”

Annie momentarily wanted to cry for her mother who’d been undoubtedly hurt but her father garnered her sympathy too. That was a long time to carry so much guilt.

“Just once,” William said, staring into his lap. “Not much consolation.”

“No,” Annie said. Her eyes bore into the license plate in front of her. It was from Iowa. William was looking out at the lake as rain beat the sand into mud. The boats clashed with the wooden docks like cubes in a cocktail. The view was lovely and tumultuous. They passed another billboard but William didn’t read it aloud.

“I cheated on Kim once, too,” Annie said, remembering a redhead and an office party and too many salty margaritas. She remembered the guilt that came afterwards like a bucket filled with icy water. She remembered imagining what she would tell Georgie. “Did Mom know?”

“Yes,” William said softly. “She resented me for a long time. I never thought we would get through that. Then she died, and I just had myself to blame for all of it.”

Annie looked out the window. Life was messy, she thought. Her mother was here and gone. Her father was here and gone. Her son was beautiful and smart and loved and he came from a syringe. Her best friend was her ex-wife. She wanted to be here. She missed West Virginia.

“Daddy,” Annie said, the name almost a question in itself. “Should we go home?”

William’s glance turned into a stare. Annie felt his eyes singe her cheeks and wiggled in the seat uncomfortably. He placed his hand on hers, rubbing his thumb back and forth the way he had a thousand times before. The gesture was an answer itself, a kindness that couldn’t mend but eased her apprehensions.

Annie tried to make the move but obstacles—her job, her townhouse, visitation schedules with Kim—stood in the way. William asked about leaving. He watched Mountaineer basketball, March Madness, on the big screen in her living room, reciting names he remembered to Georgie. When he forgot players’ names, he reincarnated players from the past. Willie Akers. Hot Rod Hudley. Jerry West. People Annie recognized from the days when she watched with him, sandwiched on the couch between he and her mother, as William did loud play-by-plays. At night, when Georgie went to bed, William filled the kitchen with the aromatic smells of chocolate-hinted coffee.

“Daddy, you should rest,” Annie said, sitting in one of the mismatched kitchen chairs. She folded her legs underneath her.

“I don’t want to talk in my sleep,” William said, running a finger around the edge of his oversized, chipped mug.

“Why not?” Annie said. Georgie wandered into the room, groggily rubbing his eyes. He curled into William’s lap.

“I don’t want to lose anything else. When I sleep, more of the junk I used to know leaves.”

Annie thought of their moment in the car and the return of her nickname. The way the words had calmed her, even following her father’s confession about his infidelity. She understood why he would force himself to stay awake. To focus. To be here.

“When you told me you liked girls,” William began, breathing harshly. Georgie flattened his hand on William’s cheek. The action appeased him. “I felt betrayed because I thought I knew you. You told me and I was shocked. I mean, if I missed something that big, I had to have overlooked you. I didn’t mean to.”

Annie settled her hand over Georgie’s. It was too late for all of them to be up and the darkness shrouded every part of the townhouse except their small corner.

“We love you,” Georgie said in his too-loud, childish tone. Annie nodded, unable to move closer or further from them. They sat that way for a long time listening to the sound of taxi wheels against asphalt. Finally, as Georgie began to doze, Annie carried him to his room and slid him between his Justice League sheets. He snored lightly, spittle forming a small bubble at the corner of his mouth.

The next morning, Annie woke and couldn’t find William until she looked outside. He was splayed on the grass in the courtyard in just tighty whiteys, his legs caked with the straw-like texture. Skivvies: the word popped against Annie’s brain. It’s what her mom called underwear when Annie was a girl with pink chubby rolls that cascaded down her thighs and puckered at her ankles. Her father still called them that when referencing Georgie’s Underoos, the ones with Superman insignias and a red cotton waistband. The mowed lawn clung to her father’s calves, green freckles dotting tan limbs. Blue veins merged with the blades of grass and snaked along his kneecaps.

“What’s going on?” Georgie asked, his sleep interrupted by William’s odd personality shift. William spread his limbs wide, up and down and up again.

“Snow angels,” he hollered with a mania Annie didn’t recognize. A wide grin was plastered across his face. It looked prosthetic.

Georgie scurried towards the fun, shedding the white t-shirt, the too long blue flannel pants. His body was thin, having just lost the last layer of baby fat but not yet achieving the muscles that t-ball and riding a 2-wheeler at the park would surely produce. The things he loved still had a babyish quality, though he wouldn’t admit it. He clung to his tattered blankie and lullabies and the story Goodnight Moon. He liked to throw big fistfuls of change into the fountain at the mall. Quarters and pennies and dimes chinking together.

The two romped as the morning sun wicked away the last of the dew, naked except for their skivvies. One man old, wrinkled, memories seeping from him like oil expelling itself from a used car. There but not there, not all there. The other gaining something, picking this moment up like a toy, shiny and new in the cellophane wrapper. Committing to memory the time he and William made snow angels in the lawn as the sun lightly tickled their waxy skin.

Annie gazed out at the day. Men wheeled rickety recycling cans to the curb. They glimpsed towards her family then averted their eyes swiftly. But Annie refused to look away, preserving the playfulness that radiated from her father, the tangible happiness from her son.

“Squirrel,” William called, waving rapidly.

Annie smiled and returned the wave.