Rumpus Original Fiction: What Wasn’t
The ride home from the funeral was dark and silent. From the passenger’s seat Joy watched the trees zip by, flickering in the headlights like a home movie. She was restless, unused to emptiness, accustomed to filling silence with words and space with stuff. The compact apartment she shared with Arlo in Brooklyn was filled to the gills with runoff from her parents’ house: second-rate antiques collected in the ’80s and ’90s; objects d’art and de function that seemed stylish when they were bought at auctions or on sale at the MoMA gift store but looked dated now, or were just slightly broken. Arlo was the one from this part of the world, the one used to blank space and quiet. Arlo was the one whose father had died.
She had an urge to speak, strong as if she’d been keeping a secret, but she’d better not, she thought, she’d better let Arlo have his pensive driving time. When Joy met Arlo nine years ago, long before their life together settled into happy, childless predictability, his father’s disease had already progressed far enough that he’d become a different man, a different animal entirely, from the dad Arlo knew. Over the years he’d lost all his motor skills, one after another, with cruel and linear degradation. He could no longer speak, or walk, or read. He could not use simple tools: no fork, no comb, no phone. His facial expressions were involuntary and inscrutable, sometimes funny, sometimes rude, Dadaist experiments in synaptic randomness and variation. The doctors said he was still cogent, but how could one know? He could not look you in the eye, nod yes, or shake his head no. He could not take his son’s new girlfriend’s hand and, conspiratorially, smile.
Arlo had brought Joy a few times to the facility where his dad lived, mostly on holidays. It was cheerful enough. At Christmas they decked out the hallways with plastic garlands and paper Santas. Arlo’s dad spent most days in his wheelchair in front of a TV mounted in the corner, permatuned to ESPN. Brusque but kind nurses fed him three meals a day and bathed and changed him, making one-sided conversation as they handled him without ceremony. He had friends there, eerie, affable characters staggering through varying degrees of neurological decay, who would greet Joy and Arlo with jerks of the head and laborious noises of recognition. There was only one chair in the room Arlo’s dad shared with another man, a man who in Joy’s experience did nothing but sleep and howl, so Joy would stand, her winter coat folded over her arms in front of her, and smile her friendliest smile, while Arlo sat by his father’s hospital bed and told him about their life together. Sometimes his dad would groan suddenly, as if in reply, or perhaps because he was in pain; possibly, somewhere in his diseased gray matter, the synapse for groaning was misfiring. A whole hour might go by during which he did not even look at them, but every once in a while his gaze would lock onto Joy and refuse to unlatch. Once Arlo told her, He likes you! Another time he said it meant nothing. She tried to be good-natured, but it spooked her.
That these sessions were painful for her was a shame Joy would not own up to. She was a naturally selfish girl, a youngest child, babied too long and praised often. Aware as she was of these faults, she was determined to add not an ounce of her own feeling to the heavy tangle of loss that Arlo dragged behind him, always. The Christmas afternoon Arlo told his dad that he and Joy were engaged, his father seemed to give them something like a smile. This pleased Arlo—it was the only time he ever walked out into the flurries in the parking lot smiling—but privately Joy had her doubts. She could not help but think of her sister’s newborn, who had so delighted her with his own toothless smirk. He smiled at me! she’d cried happily, but her sister, sleep-deprived and bitter, had taken all the wind out of her sails by replying, He’s just passing gas. Babies, Joy had thought. What a waste of one’s thirties. To think she used to want one of her own.
Arlo and his siblings joked—poignantly, Joy thought—that Dad would outlive them all. He had been a proud man, had succumbed to his illness ungracefully, with desperate embarrassment and raging bouts of denial. Despite having been told frankly by the doctors when and how he was likely to die, he’d refused to sign a DNR. Over the years of slow descent he’d been systematically brought back to life from frequent, increasingly deadly bouts of aspirational pneumonia. Two weeks ago he’d contracted the virus—yes, that virus—as everyone feared he would, and was admitted to a new ward. The doctors had used the language of war—he’s a fighter, they said; he’s winning the battle—and Arlo and his siblings believed them because that’s how their dad had always been: beleaguered but unbreakable. On a Friday they called to say he’d recovered and would be discharged. Saturday was Joy’s thirty-first birthday, and friends came over to sit on their stoop in the cold. After they left, when Joy had gone to bed, as Arlo was mummying up the last of the carrot cake in Saran Wrap, a doctor he’d never spoken to before called to tell him his father was dead. We spent twenty-two minutes trying to resuscitate him, the doctor informed him—which, Arlo said later, seemed like both too long and not nearly long enough.
Arlo woke Joy up, then, his voice hushed with shock. She knew what had happened before she even opened her eyes in the dark. She had known Arlo her whole adult life. Long enough to feel, now, his dread and grief in her belly, long enough to recall his memories of his own life, as if on his behalf. Long enough, she fancied, that she could unravel in detail fantasies he’d left mostly unspoken. She had loved him ever since she met him, when she was just twenty-two, and he’d seen right through her cultivated, breezy arrogance to the debilitating insecurity within. She’d wanted immediately to give him the gift of seeing through his bullshit, too—but she couldn’t. He was not like her. He was honest, quiet, generous, self-contained. So, she settled for loving him in other ways: creatively, playfully. She loved him as well as she could.
She stayed up with him, the night his father died. The trappings of their life felt incongruous and intrusive: her goofy-chic satin PJs, printed with a pattern of champagne bottles and cupcakes. She wished now she were dressed in some other clothing, something humorless and somber. It was somebody else’s birthday, too, somebody next door, and the bass beat rose in through their back windows from the yard, loud as traffic. Arlo, stunned, had to hold a finger in his ear to listen to his phone as he called polite bureaucrat after polite bureaucrat, first at the hospital, then at the brain bank, where everything that had made his father who he was, then failed to, would be donated for science. She laid her head in his lap and stroked his knee while he talked on the phone. Around 3 a.m. she drifted off to the insistent backbeat, and when she woke on the couch in silence the next morning, Arlo was gone, having spent the night walking the streets of the city alone.
I wish you could have known him, he said now, in the car. It was the first either of them had spoken since they’d left his hometown. A faint drizzle had started, too light for wipers, and the windshield looked peppered with minuscule lights.
So do I, Joy replied. She was finding it difficult to square the long, fractionally inhabited body she’d visited in its hospital bed with the man she heard spoken of so admiringly, in Arlo’s eulogy and among his family and old friends. A gifted banjo player, an inveterate tinkerer, a licensed ham radio operator. A lover of baseball, Maxwell House, and Bud Lite.
The way you all were describing him, she added after a minute, he sounded like a dad from a movie. A dad who’d call you bud and, if you got hurt, clap you on the back and say, Hang in there, tough guy.
That’s just how I remember him, Arlo said, then added, maybe darkly: Of course my memory’s probably been diluted by television. Some of it is fantasy. Some of it never happened at all.
Joy put a hand on his knee. Does that matter?
Yes, Arlo said.
She withdrew her hand. Watched the tiny drops fall on the glass. Not for the first time she considered that maybe her love for him had persisted all these years not because she knew him so well but because of the small hidden corners within him that she never would.
She said, Tell me more.
Tell you more. Is there more? I don’t know. What is there to say. How much can words really do. A person is not just your stories about him. A person is the expectations you build. I can tell you he was charismatic. The kind of guy who’d buy the whole bar a round of drinks, just because. Can tell you he was talented, smart. Vain and stubborn. The kind of guy who seemed like he’d live forever.
Gently, she said, Sounds like my type.
He looked at her and smiled at last, the side of his face illuminated by the dashboard. He said, You’d have had such a crush on him.
She gave him a small, relieved laugh. In another world, she replied.
Another world. A sparkling day in June. Top 40 crackling on the radio, sunshine and wind on the highway. She is twenty-four, Arlo twenty-nine. On impulse they have bought a snub-nosed school bus for a thousand dollars on eBay and spent weekends converting it into an RV. Arlo has replaced the back seats with a double bed, the middle seats with two swivel chairs and a table bolted to the floor. He’s installed a mini fridge and a simple stovetop and a row of cabinets with doors that lock shut. Joy works remotely, both in the sense that she can work from anywhere and in the sense that she does so vacantly, with poor attention to detail. Arlo, a public school teacher, is paid abysmally in money but generously in time off. Therefore they can afford, if barely, to spend the summer driving their new baby around the country, popping in on far-flung family and friends.
Arlo’s dad lives during the warm months in a one-bedroom cabin on a lake, an hour easy from the nearest town. By the time the bus trundles up his dirt road they have lost cell service and the radio has faded to static. They crank their windows down and Joy breathes deep the summery air, pine trees and decaying leaves, sunbaked soil, sweet rot and wind off the lake. They can hear him before they can see him. The sound of insistent banjo noodling mingles with the lighter sounds of the woods, buggy and avian: the quick chirps of finches and long buzz of cicadas, the tat-tat of woodpeckers and humming of gnats. When they pull into view there he is on the porch, legs outstretched and slim ankles crossed, tall and slender and bent as a moon over his instrument, worrying a complex lick. He looks up and nods but does not stop playing until they have parked, killed the engine, and hopped out.
Then he rests his banjo in the seat of the chair like a child and gets up to give his son a hug. When he’s released Arlo he turns: And you must be Joy. He surprises her with a hug, too, and she is impressed by the size of his body, the firmness of his chest, his cigarette woodsmoke smell. When he releases her she wishes he’d hold on, but he’s gesturing at the bus: Nice hunka junk you got here.
She trails the two of them as Arlo shows his dad the work he’s done on the vehicle. Watching son beside father is like reading a book she loves with the aid of an etymology dictionary. Arlo has inherited his dad’s graceful gait, his large hands and feet, his quick glance and precise, almost effeminate gestures. But where, on slight-bodied Arlo, the long stride and fluttering gesticulations seem so outsized as to be almost eccentric, on his tall deep-voiced father they fit snugly.
They’ve visited him here before—Heaven on Earth, he calls it, Slice of Paradise—but the cabin only sleeps one, so they’ve never spent the night. With the bus, they have the luxury of time. Beneath the pines they make a fire as the sun goes down. Arlo’s dad heats up tins of soup and chars buttered toast. They eat, drink Bud Lite, talk about nothing in particular, and stub out their postprandial cigarettes in the sand. Joy, whose own parents still treat her like a child, has never known a dad like this, a dad like a friend.
She has always thought of Arlo as more or less a grown-up man. When she met him at twenty-two she was impressed that he lived alone, without roommates, that he’d had the same job more than four consecutive years. He did his taxes on time. He could roast a mean chicken. Five years is a world of difference in age, after all, five years is more than twenty percent of her life so far. But, hanging out with him and his father tonight, she feels she can detect the teenager in him. When his dad solicits her opinion to support a benign argument, Arlo undermines her, just subtly, just enough to lay bare her ignorance on the subject (which is undeniable, but still). When his dad lands on a subject that bores Arlo, what she might have thought of as pensiveness strikes her as sullen. And a quality she might once have thought of as worldliness now seems like not much more than cynicism, which she feels does not suit him. The Arlo she knows, his heart beats with credulity. He is easily awestruck. He trusts authority, or wants to. It is a quality that simultaneously annoys her and breaks her heart. She is almost twenty-five, the age her sister got married, she knows that life is not a competition, but she’d like a baby before she turns thirty. This wish, which she’s so far kept secret from Arlo, has lately made her more critical of him. She wonders if she should try to find another man, someone less naïve, more urbane, who comes by his pessimism organically, through a sophisticated understanding of the world’s corruption and dysfunction, rather than shrugging on his world-weariness and wearing it like ill-fitting armor. Someone like Arlo’s father.
Eventually Joy nods off in the camping chair, and Arlo suggests they turn in. The florescent light of the RV bathroom seems very harsh after the dwindling firelight, and Arlo elbows her in the boob while they are brushing their teeth, and she can’t find the ear plugs she relies on to sleep, or her silk eye mask with its pattern of penguins in scarves hailing taxis, so she goes to bed irritated, her back to him, and sleeps lightly. When she wakes, woefully early, it is to the yakking of birds and a shaft of sun through the window.
Arlo’s dad is up, making coffee in an electric kettle, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. In an expansive mood, over instant oatmeal he tells her of the improvements he’s hoping to make to the cabin. Joy, whose first and favorite intoxicant is daydreaming, offers to help scrape, sand, and repaint. By the time Arlo wakes up the kitchen’s impassable, a cluttered topography of pots, pans, and flatware, and Joy is hard at work with a paint stripper. What’s all this? he says. The sun is bright and increasingly hot and Joy is still braless, perspiring on a stepladder in her sleep clothes and smoking a borrowed cigarette, while his dad yammers on about something or other, she isn’t quite following, but she’s laughing.
What are you roping Joy into? Arlo shoots Joy a look she knows is about the smoking.
Your girlfriend’s a doer, his father replies. That’s a good quality.
I didn’t bring Joy all the way up here so you could Tom Sawyer her into your home repairs.
I don’t mind, Joy says.
Look at her, says his dad. She’s having a ball.
She’s being polite, Arlo says, picking his way over the cluttered floor to get to the coffee. Joy stays quiet.
You got a better plan for the day? asks his dad.
Arlo sips his coffee and looks up at Joy: I thought maybe we could go tubing.
In the RV she and Arlo change into their swimsuits. She wears a sundress over her two-piece, and though Arlo’s generally not much for compliments, he sticks a hand under the fabric to touch her waist. They leave the kitchen a wreck, which she finds thrilling, and drive in his dad’s car to the river. He smokes out the window and she sits in the back seat, half-overhearing Arlo, who sits shotgun, recounting a version of their life together recast in bolder, prettier colors, over the thrum of the wind. Every now and then she catches her own reflection in the rearview mirror, sunglasses and windblown hair, and thinks, I am a girl in a car with two men. Every now and then Arlo’s dad catches her eye in the mirror and who knows what he’s thinking, he’s wearing sunglasses, too, but he smiles.
At the river they rent three tubes from a shirtless teen and lug them down the steep wooded bank. The water is high and the current is quick. Joy loses her grip on the slick rubber and both men dive in to swim after it. In part because Arlo’s dad won’t put his head in, for fear of losing his aviators, Arlo’s the first to reach it, but once he’s got it all he can do is maneuver it back to the bank, so he waits downstream while his dad walks back and helps Joy into the tube Arlo was going to use. The water is freezing. She yells Ouch! like a dork, and her skin pimples with goose bumps. He holds the handle while the two of them float, their glasses covered in water drops. For a brief stretch, watching Arlo on the riverbank as they approach, thinking how skinny he looks, how pale, how like a boy awaiting his father, Joy feels like his stepmother or something, a strange woman allied with his dad, called upon to take care of him.
Then Joy and Arlo float, idle and slow through the deep spots, bouncing manically through the rapids. The sun glares and dances. They segue easily between chit-chat and reverie. Joy lets her head sink back so the chill rises up to her hairline while the sun warms her face. At a bend she reaches out for a tree root and flips, ass over teakettle. The cold on the top of her head is a shock and the current is strong and for a moment she’s pulled underwater. Thrashing with fear she more scrambles than swims, and something touches her leg. It’s only a fish but she swallows a mouthful of river, saltless and grainy with silt. She is able to surface only briefly enough to realize she can’t breathe. For too long she struggles. The panic is blinding. Then she clambers ungracefully onto the unforgiving surface of a nearby rock. She is coughing, bedraggled; her swimsuit bottoms have ridden up; her tube has floated away.
Her eyes tear up with the effort of trying to breathe. Between wet coughs she tries and fails to call for Arlo. She is bent over, shivering, spinning out, hands on knees, attempting to breathe through her nose, when she feels a hand on her back. Arlo is next to her, unmoved, waiting patiently. It’s okay, he says, it’s okay. Your body will breathe. Look at me. She looks up at him, he nods, she nods, and she’s able to inhale. He is pale with cold and bright with dripping water, and she has to squint to see him. With amusement amplified by relief she realizes her glasses are gone, sacrificed to the river.
You okay? he asks kindly.
You ready to get back in?
She smiles and kisses him and hopes his cold lips can feel in the kiss an apology. She’s a flirt, she’s critical, and she’s restless, but she’ll always come back to him, and in his expression now she sees he will learn to treat her with bemusement and grace. It’s exactly this quality that will make him a good father, himself, years from now. When he steps back in to retrieve their tubes, which have gotten wedged in a cluster of nearby rocks, the water only comes up to his waist. She laughs at herself. He tosses her one and she settles into it. She hangs onto the handle of his while he hangs onto the handle of hers. Their arms resting comfortably together, they float on. Trees pass and rocks pass and the river makes its way through the earth and she even gets a little bored, maybe, but it’s pleasant.
Where did your dad go? she asks sleepily.
Who knows, Arlo says, but they’re not worried. Both of them trust he’s nearby, hollering happily in the rapids or floating quietly, face raised to the sky. Around the next bend or the bend after that, just out of sight, he’ll be waiting.
Rumpus original art by Ciera Dudley.