A thing my father was good at

The last thing my father and I talked about was sleep. He was in town once a month to see his doctoral students and he came to dinner if he wasn’t too tired or nauseated by the side-effects of chemo. He sat in his rental car outside my gate, ready to leave for his hotel, when he remembered something.

“I forgot to tell you about Ryan,” he said.

“Who’s Ryan?” I asked and leaned with folded arms inside his open window.

“Ryan is a quiet guy—” my father said and shut off the engine, “—and weird.”

“Weird how?”

“Well, to begin with, he’s runty, with an extremely large head.”

“What?”

“It’s true. He’s mostly head, like the Lewis Carroll Hatter of old. And he’s always holding his head like he’s afraid it might come off and roll away.”

My father laughed to himself and coughed.

“Does he wear a hat?” I asked.

“No,” my father said and coughed some more, “but he wears a bow-tie. He’s the most uptight little man I’ve ever met.”

“A bow-tie—?”

“Do you have any idea what that looks like—this thumb of a man with his outsized head, and a bow-tie like a tourniquet?”

“Maybe his head just looks big because of the bow-tie.”

“His head is big, bow-tie or no bow-tie. Also, he speaks in haikus whenever he gets a chance.”

“You’re kidding—”

“When we met, he introduced himself with a haiku.”

“What did he say?”

“He said something along the lines of—Acquainted at last! Soon is the sunshine of minds—and then something else that made even less sense, so I cannot remember the last line.

“Just like that?”

“When I looked puzzled he explained that it was a haiku he’d made up.”

“Did you ask him why he bothered?”

“The man wears a bow-tie,” my father said by ways of an explanation. “Anyway, I’ve gotten better at remembering his utterances. Do you know what he said when I asked him this afternoon how work on his thesis was coming along?”

“What?”

Words flow and time flies. Ideas occur more slowly. A thesis eludes.

“That’s kind of funny,” I remarked.

“Sure,” my father said, “until you have to wait while he formulates it. Sometimes I feel like ripping out my veins and strangling him with them.”

“I take it he’s dull—”

“Guess what he said when I asked whether he’d enjoyed a trip they’d taken to Thailand.”

“He’s married?”

“Yes, but don’t ask me how he managed that. He has a kid too, so it all works.”

“What did he say?”

No.

“No haiku?”

“When he’s stumped, he reverts to short form,” my father said and laughed at his own pun.

“What’s not to like about Thailand?”

“Beats me.”

My father coughed again and blew his nose into a crumpled handkerchief he always seemed to have in his pocket.

“Anyway,” he resumed, “we reviewed the latest chapters of his thesis this afternoon, sitting together at a little table in my office. I was reading and he was watching me closely.”

“Oh Jesus,” I said.


With my father, what happened next was inevitable. Chief among his talents was a superhuman capacity for sleep. He could fall asleep anywhere, at any time, doing anything. What he hadn’t figured out, he always said, was a way to make money from this. He once fell asleep in a lounger at a furniture store in the mall. The owner suggested that my mother leave him there and go shopping, and she did. When she returned, my father was still asleep, holding a sign the owner had written—On Special Today! (man not included)—while people stood around and watched him. Another time he fell asleep on stage during a graduation ceremony. He was supposed to make a speech and waited in a chair next to the lectern while the Chancellor introduced him with a few stories from their past. One of these was about a time my father had fallen asleep during a prayer at a faculty dinner.

“I couldn’t believe it,” my mother said the next day. “You’d expect that he could stay awake this once. But no. As the Chancellor got to the prayer story, your father’s head drooped onto his chest and his arms dangled over the side of the chair. When people in the audience laughed, he jerked like a puppet.”

“I was thinking,” my father said.

“Is that so? What were you thinking when the Chancellor called your name a second time?”

“I made a good speech,” my father muttered.

“You did, but I’m surprised you stayed awake for that.”

“I don’t fall asleep when I’m talking.”

But this wasn’t technically true. Over the years my mother had perfected the art of getting my father to continue a conversation as he drifted off into sleep. She’d ask well-timed questions—calibrated to baffle him—and so kept him from sinking too far from her voice. Once, when I was still a kid, my father decided to buy a CD player. CD players were a new thing at the time and he had wanted one ever since he’d first read about the idea many years before. The decision to buy one was a watershed moment of his life, an outright betrayal of the investment he’d made in a collection of vinyl records, and the occasion of considerable guilt. In order to convince himself that he needed a CD player, he started to buy CDs.

“What’s this?” my mother asked when she saw another new CD one Saturday afternoon.

“It’s a CD,” my father said in the same tone he’d use to name a dahlia.

“I know,” my mother snapped. “Why did you buy it when you cannot play it?”

“I don’t need to play it,” my father declared loftily. “I just need to have it.”

A few Saturdays later he caved in and bought a CD player, despite his lofty ideals and my mother’s decree that a CD player was not to enter our house. They argued throughout lunch and then my father slumped into a chair.

“Dewald,” my mother said as he drifted off.

“What?” he mumbled.

“There’s a man at the door.”

My father frowned and sank deeper into the chair.

“Dewald,” my mother said again after half a minute.

“What?” my father blubbered with flabby lips.

After a pause my mother said, “He’s come for the CD player.”

“Hmm?” my father purred.

My mother let him slide into the abyss again.

“The laser is yellow,” she said when he was almost gone.

My father moved his legs and then slipped deeper into sleep again.

“Dewald!” my mother insisted.

“What?”

“There’s no need to argue about the lyrics,” she said.

My father stirred and frowned in his sleep.

“Pfuck’im,” he mumbled and melded a little further into the fabric of the chair.

“Dewald,” my mother said after she’d given him a few seconds to sink away. “What shall I tell aunt Henry?”

“Custard on Wednesdays,” my father slurred.


Now he said, “As I read, Ryan sat next to me, holding his head. He rocked slowly back and forth as though he’d just lost everything in some disaster.”

“Is his thesis any good?” I asked.

“Well,” my father hesitated, “it’s not a thrilling read, if that’s what you’re asking. The text, like Ryan, has a bow-tie.”

“Oh.”

“There’s even a haiku, as an epigraph.”

“What’s it say?”

“It’s sort of touching—My sweet little Sam, who wants to know what I do, will never read this.”

“Who’s Sam?”

“His daughter. Which brings me to what I wanted to tell you. As I was reading Ryan's latest chapter, his rocking must have entranced me. One minute I was reading, and the next I heard myself ask, far away, So, Ryan, did your daughter help you with this?

“What happened?”

My father coughed before he continued.

“I kept looking at the page and told myself that I must have imagined it, but then I heard Ryan say, with carefully measured syllables, She’s six years old.”

My father coughed some more and looked for a moment to be in pain.

“Then, helpless to stop it, I heard myself say, even farther away, Nevertheless, is it possible that she helped you?

“What did he do?” I laughed.

“He said nothing for what felt like a long, long time, and then he said No.”

“And then?”

“Then we just sat there like that, while I continued to read.”

“I wonder what Ryan’s thinking,” I said.

My father turned in his seat and looked at me.

“What if dying’s like that?” he said. “What if we sink from the voices and the light and time drags out like in a dream?”

“Maybe it’s just like falling asleep,” I said.

As he had done so many times that night, my father coughed.

“I ought to be good at that,” he said.


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