Caught a two p.m. flight out of LAX. I always make a point of dressing well for travel; that, plus the fact that I don’t wear a wedding ring, makes it much easier for me than for the average schlub for getting the primo seats and free drinks and such. There’s a wine bar in terminal E in Charlotte. I dragged my bag in, bought a glass of Sangiovese something or other, and enjoyed getting chatted up by random barflies with grins a touch too wide for their painted faces. Wear plain-front slacks, men of America. They will get you laid, if you’re of a mind.
Thence to Charleston, West Virginia, where I was born. My father picked me up at the terminal. He’s old. He’s always, as long as I’ve known him, been old. He has a muddle of silver hair and a stooped little walk and teeth browned around the edges from years of coffee. My father has watery blue eyes, like my own, and an Appalachian accent more pronounced than mine. Even though he gave up the doctorin’ practice when Rachel got ill, he still wears the dark-blue jacket that suggests that he may have a stethoscope stashed somewhere within, which he can perhaps pull out like a rabbit or a bird as the punchline to a medical magic trick. My father cracks a few ironic jokes, and laughs. This is odd; when I was a boy, he never had the capacity for humor.
Charleston was cold, maybe on the near edge of freezing. He drove me down to the Blossom Dairy, a relatively upscale restaurant downtown. The pasta amatriciana was a vast plate of soggy noodles and bland red sauce, ringed with hard little strawberries. Truth is, until I crossed the state lines I myself didn’t know there was such a thing as arrabiata.
We left, and walked the streets of Charleston back to the car. I was looking at shop windows, Dad was lost in his own thoughts, much as I frequently am, and we both ended up walking into a red intersection, dodging a car that had the right of way.
Back up the winding road to Dad’s place. All the houses are nice; in this section of town, some people even pay to have their lawns mowed for them. Rachel was at home, sacked out on the sofa. She looked gray and tired, her face drawn. She’s been in the hospital for a week and a half, most recently for pancreatitis, but she’s going back in, maybe ten days from now, for treatment of the cancer. Dad informed me, a few days ago, that the cancer had got from her lungs into her liver, and the doctor who opened her up to get her gall bladder out reported that her liver was “highly involved.” There is an element of my brain, the cynical comedy-writing part, that never shuts the fuck up when I’d really really like it to. The liver instantly appeared in my head, out on the town, toasting the small intestine over a candlelit dinner, while the lungs looked on jealously from another table. Rachel ignored the plate of pasta we brought home for her. She’s not eating, much. And my tongue says things not important enough.
Next day, I slogged out of jetlag and Dad and Rachel were already up. Rachel said she was ready to eat, and was hankering for a donut. Dad and I soldiered down to the Donut Connection, a little shop that’s been there, with various names and paint jobs, ever since before I was born. There is a particular type of filled donut item there which, I am quite sure, is the finest donut product on the planet. Yes, Krispy Kreme is a West Virginia synthesis also, and quite fine in its own way, but Donut Connection, at 3509 Maccorkle Ave SE, Charleston, WV, sells the finest donuts on the planet. Donut Connection is a chain, but previously this Donut Connection was a Mister Donut, and before that it was something else; every decade or so it undergoes a change of ownership, but still they are careful to put a sign on the door: “SAME GREAT PRODUCT!” And it is. You are sixteen or seventeen years old, buzzed on rum and coke and easy sex for the past three hours, and you need to perk a little for the drive home; now what do you do? Why you go to Donut Connection, of course. The ingredients in the “fancies” (thus they are marked within the display counter) are designed to absorb excess alcohol and testosterone, leaving you refreshed and fulfilled, ready to face a thirty-minute drive, avoiding local law enforcement and your sullen stepfather.
I went to the counter and asked what was in the “fancies.” The woman behind the counter was maybe forty pounds overweight. Nearly every woman behind a counter or carrying a tray or making a bed in West Virginia is overweight. West Virginia is the fattest state in the nation. “Vanilla,” she said, simply.
“But, is it buttercream?” I asked. “What’s the ingredients?”
“Um, vanilla filling,” she said. Truer words were ne’er spoken. It was a rectangular wodge of bready donut iced with chocolate and puffed full of synthetic vanilla filling. The Donut Connection fancy is still fine like your birthday, a cozy slut of a breakfast treat. Nothing in the world bites your nuts so elegantly.
We brought Rachel back five donuts. She sort of ate one. She lay on the sofa most of the day, drinking Crystal Light. We talked small talk: the weather, the remodeling of the house, retirement planning. Stuff like that. Didn’t talk about the dog. The dog’s name was Charlie. Last week, as Rachel was in the hospital, the family dog had to be put down; the dog came down with pancreatitis, the same disease that put Rachel in the hospital. Dad was overcome with God’s predilection for irony, and he called me as I was speaking in Alameda: “I’m not looking forward to being in an empty house, all alone,” he cried at me. So I hopped a plane, and here I am.
Dad spends a lot of time around dying people, and when I come to visit, he often feels the need to take me to see an acquaintance who’s about to die. Dad felt it was necessary to take me to see Esther. I’ve never been entirely sure why he’s done this. Superficially, I suppose it’s because he’s lived life as a doctor, and he’s felt that by taking me to visit frail folk, he could instill in me a respect for the aged and ill, and for providing service to these people. But I’ve always harbored a vague suspicion, possibly unfounded, that he also has a literally morbid fascination with the terminally ill… that visiting people in such dramatic states of disrepair makes his own life seem much more palatable. In various stages of my life, I’ve dealt with this in a variety of ways. When I was a sullen teenager, I was a sullen teenager: monosyllabic, but not superficially rude. When I was in college, I got into philosophical arguments with whomever my father took me to see. Now, I engaged Esther in conversation. The fellow is an ex-minister, bed-ridden, still clear of mind and emotionally stable. Many people were coming to visit him, presumably to ask him to help in their own lives. We spoke pleasantly about Islam and whether it could be accepted in West Virginia. We seemed to get on fine.
Dad took me to the shopping mall, out on Corridor G. Now in my memory Corridor G is a rolling road from here to there, across hills and through a few cornfields and cow pastures. Not so; not so, anymore. Bang, men threw down an O.C.-style supermall, far as the eye can see in all directions, an avalanche of Home Depot and Hills and Kroger and oh dear Lord fast food fast food fast food. I haven’t cooked in quite a while, so when Dad said, “Buy whatever you need,” I said a little prayer to God and my non-present wife: “Help me to shop and cook well.”
Dinner turned out to be fine (garlic chicken, lemon pasta, and a blue-cheese salad with a vinaigrette). Rachel ate half a chicken breast.
I took a walk down the road and the leaves were in their November grace. The West Virginia mountains, at this time of year, are not gaudy or fantastic in any way; muted burned reds and oranges, somber, introspective and yet still very much alive. The sexuality is muted, a neck-high corset of leaves and twigs on an old woman with clear eyes. I have always had the sense of walking between breasts in this particular place. West Virginia dirt gets under your fingernails, into the positive in your O blood cells. It changes you. If you ever read something signed by John Byrd declaring that he hates these United States or West Virginia in particular, that he’s not a patriot or a lover of the earth or the black water hills, you can be sure the pod people have got me. I do love this place, and I am, as highfaluting as I might talk or dress at times, just a redneck. Look at the color of my Jeep.
Next day, Dad took Rachel in for some blood tests. More small talk. I did the dishes, and Dad and I talked politics. I had a conversation with my father about politics! It is unexpected. You must remember that for the majority of my childhood memory, the fellow was barely able to string together syntactically correct sentences. He was gone on booze or pills most days. And here he is, and we’re talking politics! How novel! And — get this — our politics are actually reasonably similar! What are the chances?
I hugged Rachel, packed my bags, made my bed, and hit the airport. I felt awkward, stunted as I left. No idea when I could return, or under what conditions. I thanked him. Dad said he had a cold. My dad gave me a bottle of hand sanitizer, and he made me promise to use it on the flight.
Fundamentally, I have no fucking idea how to be a son to this man. Dad asked me to show up, and he has no intention of leaving this place. Rachel’s getting worse. I don’t know how to be comforting. Too often I feel like an alien, even inside my own emotions. I showed up, sure enough. Dutiful son. Whatever. I fundamentally have no fucking idea how to take care of anyone else, let alone my father or stepmother. I am frightened, and wish I was wiser.