My father slept naked. I knew this because I’d witnessed it numerous times growing up whether I was prepared or not. He liked to lie on his back, unfettered garbage pile on view to anyone who walked past the open door. The couch in the living room was the true danger zone, where the old man was notorious for taking impromptu naps. Snoozing in the buff was one of his many quirks that my mother had grown to love, and I had learned to appreciate.
Over the past year, he started to drum into my head that when he died, he wanted me to eat his body. I’d always looked up to my father as a Christ-like figure, and I never questioned his oddities, but I worried that the eminence he’d carried for so long was being sullied by senility.
The tires of my plane had chirped down in Boston. My father, a gray wolf with the arched eyebrows of Nicholson, had picked me up at the airport. After a couple of pints at Sharky’s, compliments of Dad, and a few friendly razzes about my newly acquired single status, we drove home in the rain.
Dad said all the things you’re supposed to say—-it’s for the best, you can do better, there’s plenty of fish in the sea–and as I nodded to this bombardment of clichés, it occurred to me he was right: moving forward was my best, and only, option. If anyone could empathize with my situation, it was Dad.
Ever the dutiful son, I always did as he told me, believing his experience far outweighed my doubts. When he grew quiet, and the sound of the squeaky windshield wipers filled the car, I made sure to tell him thank you. And that I loved him.
I tripped through the kitchen like a marathoner crossing the finish line. I waved goodnight to my father, kissed my mother’s urn above the brick fireplace, and went upstairs to my old room-the new guestroom. I slept hard and fast, and at five a.m., I swung my legs out of bed.
Outside, the rain had stopped. Inside my head, the anxiety had dissipated, and my mind was clear. Maybe it was being so far from Atlanta–away from my wrenching divorce–that calmed my blender brain, or that I’d woken up in a strange yet familiar place. One thing was crystal: it was good to be home.
I yawned down the carpeted stairs, lit softly in nightlight green. My sleepy eyes squinted at the pictures on the wall. There were pictures of me and Mom, me and Dad, the three of us, and the two of them. There were even two pictures of Muffy, our old salt and pepper husky who had died a few years back. Muffy now shared some shelf with my mother in a nickel-plated urn. Whenever Dad caught me having a quiet moment with them, he used it as an opportunity to push his ghoulish agenda.
“Sprinkle me on a burger!” he’d say. Then he’d swat my shoulder and laugh like a madman. I never outright acknowledged his request, but I always laughed, more out of sadness than anything.
I noticed a light coming from the living room, and I heard the old man muttering joyful to himself. He’d retired last year from the post office after a long career, so it was no surprise he still got up with the chickens, as Mom used to say. As I stepped through the doorway, my eyes crusty, and now fighting brightness, I saw him sitting up in the recliner.
“Hey, Da–,” I began, then noticed he was naked. The blur of fleshy wrinkles and silver chest hair that could’ve passed as a sweater sent up the red flag. I averted my eyes, but not before catching something else: the old man was busy, and by busy, I mean he had his hands full…with himself.
“Hey there, Tommy!” he said loudly, as if big sounds acted as a blanket he could spread over his lap.
“Hey there, Dad!” I said, face twisting like a bunched shirt. I buzzed through the room and into the kitchen, the image of my father masturbating already seared into my psyche. I leaned on the sink and shook my head.
“Tommy!” my father called from the living room, voice strained. Then came a meaty thud, and the dishes in the sink rattled. The silence that followed was claustrophobic. I found my father facedown on the carpet, knees bent, ass high in the air. I frowned.
At first I was angry, thinking he had tricked me into looking at his saggy bottom. But as I stood there with narrowed eyes, my perception wormed through my assumption. Something was terribly wrong.
Easter decorations covered the nurse’s station at the I.C.U. Peter Cottontail, glued beside a cardboard cutout of a ginormous purple egg.
My Styrofoam cup, filled and drained several times over with weak coffee, was empty again. Peter smirked at me, and this sudden smarminess caught me off guard. When I told Peter to fuck off, I drew a nervous glance from the woman at the medicine cart as she plunked pills into tiny plastic cups. I waved a lazy apology. She nodded, understanding.
All I knew about my father was what the nurses had told me: The doctors were trying to keep him comfortable. The stroke had been massive. They said I should try to contact family members. I should try to get some sleep.
The problem was I didn’t want to sleep. And I had no family members to call. It was just me and the old man. That was it. So I waited. I forced more coffee down my throat and trash-talked Peter Cottontail because I didn’t know what else to do.
For two days I lived at the hospital. For two days the old man was out cold, but still fighting. For two days I survived on dry chicken salad sandwiches and coffee. I waged war on Peter Cottontail until the nurses finally dragged him away.
Between the bustling care sessions in my father’s room, I sat on a chair beside his bed. The skin on his face hung slack, his eyes closed. An intricate spray of tubes connected him to all manner of beeping, cushing machines. Oddly enough, the tubes and the machines didn’t bother me, but the thin blue Johnny he wore drove me crazy. Never having seen this man sleep in anything other than his birthday suit, the specter of him slumbering in a paper gown was obscene. As traumatizing as it had been over the years, and as strange as it might sound, I missed seeing the old man naked.
The second night, the nurses showed pity and allowed me to stay in his room instead of the lounge. They could tell from the look in my eyes I wasn’t going anywhere soon. They brought me a blanket and pillow. I pushed together two chairs facing each other so I could put my feet up. I listened to the electric hum of the machines and the organic clicking of my father’s breath.
“You’re a good son,” said a woman’s voice. “And I’m sure you’re a good husband too.”
I cranked myself sideways in the chair. A petite nurse stood in the doorway. She was young, with brown hair that curled up at her shoulders. Her face was round, honest, pretty. She didn’t carry the heavy bags beneath her eyes like the more seasoned nurses. Her name was Veronica. I knew this because I’d been stalking her with my stare ever since they took down Peter Cottontail. I’d memorized every inch of her body, and her nametag. Perhaps it’s fair to say that she, above all else, above all the small kindnesses people had shown me, had kept my stresses at bay. Perhaps it’s also fair to say that sleep deprivation was making me punchy.
“Why do you think I’m married?” I asked.
She blushed, and for moment her hips shifted hypnotic. Then she held out her hand and wiggled her ring finger.
“Your wedding band.”
I flipped my hand over a few times and shrugged.
“I’m not married anymore,” I said. “I just haven’t taken it off yet.”
Someone called out her name and she leaned into the hallway.
“I’ll be right down,” she said. Then, to me, “I’m sorry. I have to go. I’ll check in on you later.”
“My name is Tommy,” I blurted foolish.
“I know,” she smiled.
I watched her legs, firm and pale, disappear around the bend of the doorway. My eyelids flickered slow, and I wondered if Veronica wasn’t a figment of my imagination.
I settled back into the chair and watched my father. I remembered every single time I’d seen him naked growing up. The recollections grew more vivid as they skated toward the present, when Mom was gone, when he slept alone, and finally to Easter morning, when I’d gotten an eyeful and more.
Mindful not to disturb the tubes, I carefully ripped the sleeves of his Johnny. I smiled as I worked, thinking how goddamned appreciative he’d be if he knew what I was doing. I balled up the Johnny and tossed it into the corner. The old man was naked again, just as he’d want to be.
The tears rolled freely as I stood back to admire him. Sixty-six well-worn years of pure man shone in the dull light from the machines that wrestled to keep him going. I laughed wet.
“Tommy! What did you do?”
It wasn’t Veronica, but one of the older nurses. I didn’t bother to look up. She huffed, and then called over to the nurse’s station for help. I just sobbed and laughed and sobbed and laughed into my palms. Then a familiar voice burst at my side like a shoot through the soil.
“Tommy. I’ve been eating your mother and the dog for months.”
I spilled from the chair, and my head cracked on the floor. Those would be the last words my father ever said to me.
A few days later, I sat at the table alone. The noon sun through the window warmed the side of my face. It had taken twelve stitches to close the gash in my forehead. Twelve beautiful stitches that would leave a scar I would forever cherish. Veronica had been kind. She’d taken good care of me.
I looked down at the plate. The beef patty, sprinkled gray, fit the bun perfectly. A moist tomato slice went on first, followed by a leaf of crispy lettuce. I topped the stack with a sesame seed lid, then pressed it firmly with my palm as Dad had shown me.
Mom, Dad, and Muffy rested easy in their urns above the fireplace. I could feel them over my shoulder, watching, waiting. I took a big bite. I slowly ate my father for the rest of my life.
Read more about Mel Bosworth here.