His Last Nine Words by W.A. Smith

We’re in the black Dodge with red leather-looking seats and push-button drive.  No stick or three-on-the-tree.  We’ve always had a pretty cool, modern car, that’s one thing I can say.  But I think I’d rather have a stick or three-on-the-tree.  Since he ain’t allowed to operate a got-damn automobile anymore, because of his seizures, I’m behind the wheel, having recently acquired my Learner’s Permit—though I’ve been driving all over the place for a long time.  I started steering when I was five, on his lap, Sundays, with him covering the distance to the gas and brakes, offering an occasional instruction: Careful now…keep your hands apart, eye on the road…there you go.

A few days ago he told me, Everybody’s sure I’m going to kill someone, as if it’s a crazy-ass concept.  But I’ve witnessed his seizures, and I recognize that thirty-four-hundred pounds of mechanized steel and glass under the direction of an epileptic is bound to spell trouble eventually, power steering and a wide highway notwithstanding.

He’s asked me to drive him to his office in town.  There’s an EEG to read.  No doubt he has already taken his patient’s history in religious detail, sitting doctorly in his swiveling red leather chair with all his questions, nodding—God, I’m acquainted with that nod—outlining the patient’s neurological nuances in the handwriting which no one but my mother and Cleo, his secretary, can decipher: little squiggly bent-over e‘s that look like only half of something, or periods maybe—periods that couldn’t stop anything; and w’s and h‘s that resemble ancient Chinese characters, peewee bridges collapsing in a strong wind.

And now, for his next trick, he’ll attempt to translate the static electric jitter in his patient’s head.

I know my father has suffered all the tests on his own renegade brain.  He’s been thoroughly scanned.  I wonder if he’s read his own EEG, diagnosed his own crooked circuits.  What must it have been like to discover the terrible imperfections?  The jar’s unbroken but the jelly’s going bad.

This will not be the first time I’ve watched him sitting in his chair reading EEG’s.  He’s always got a cigarette going, and his fingers holding it twitch almost imperceptibly in what I believe must be some obscure yet logical connection to the jagged traces rising and falling on the paper before him.  Clues of some sort.  Clues to him; to me they are pages of saw-toothed codes in a hurry.

Right now he’s relating a war experience, prompted to set the scene by the sight of a man on the sidewalk a moment ago.  It’s in the mid-80’s outside, but this guy was wearing a pea-coat, bundled up for a yankee winter instead of the Charleston spring he was trudging through, hunched over, hugging himself.

My father’s hand rolls against the window, thrumming, keeping time with some confidential melody in the glass.  “This was Morocco,” he says, “couple months ‘fore we moved out of Africa, before I was wounded.  The war flattened things, Son—made so much look the same—but Morocco was a strange, beautiful place.  Hell, most everywhere we went was strange and beautiful.  Imagine: Morocco was a kingdom ’til fifty-six.”

Maybe he’ll happen onto whatever he has in mind with this story.  He rambles shamelessly, and he hobbles any hope of momentum by going about it all so deliberately and slowly—no rush—like he’s half-asleep or drunk.  Head-first one flowering thought to the next, with these irregular bare spaces in between.  Everything is connected but only God and my father know how.  Sometimes I think I’m going to suffocate in the stillness in the middle of one of his sentences.  Got-damn medication, he always explains.  But even without the Dilantin and phenobarbitol, he would still be dramatic.  His stories might make more sense too.  He’s told me something’s still screwy with the dosages.

“Forsythe and I took off in the jeep to look for dead and wounded.  There was a lull in the fightin’.”

He likes to be looking at you when he’s talking, except those times he hasn’t decided on the right words; then his eyes find a place to rest and reflect, working it out in the emptiness between things.  I can see sideways so I know his eyes are on me right now.

“Everything reminded us where the hell we were.  Even when we weren’t shooting, it all had the look.  Made you sleepwalk now and then.”  He taps at the window, discovering another tune in the glass, leans over to pull up his socks.  His legs are hairless and smooth as a creek stone where the wool has worn him clean at the ankles.  He’s quiet for a moment, in-between.  He seems to have stopped breathing.  ”Som-nam-bu-late,” he says, extending each syllable.

Great—my daddy’s somnambulating.  I synchronize my put-upon sigh with my foot on the brake at the red light.

He returns to the here-and-now and looks around to see where we are—the corner of Broad and Meeting.  Across the street some tourists are checking out St. Michael’s church, leaning back for the steeple.  “The Four Corners of Law,” he says, inhaling, enlarging himself, satisfied at the center of the Holy City, taking it all in counter-clockwise: the church, City Hall, the courthouse, “and I’ll be damned,” he says, “there’s a lawman off the starboard bow.”  He rolls the window down to call a policeman who’s lounging outside the post office.  “Stoney, you’re a picturesque son-bitch, I swear you are.”

Of course he knows this guy—he knows everybody.  They joke about just how long it’s been and how they’re aging—”Awful fast,” says Luther Stoney, whose wife was a patient once.  I don’t remember ever meeting him before, but I seem to recall his face about the same as now floating above the dining room poker table, shrouded in silver smoke with the other floating faces of my father’s friends, and the clicking laughter of the plastic poker chips—red, white and blue—when I was five or six.  Now Officer Stoney reaches through the open window of the Dodge to shake hands with me and with the other hand pushes his cap back on his head, says his wife’s doing fine now, “…oh yeah, got her spirit back.”

I’m reminded of the time my mother was driving my father somewhere.  I was in the backseat; we stopped at a red light very much like this one and he launched into a discussion with an enormous woman standing on the curb.  She was as wide as a side-porch, sporting a bright green tent-shaped dress with red birds on it, cinched at the waist, so the birds appeared to be launching themselves from her ample chest.  She carried a stuffed Piggly Wiggly shopping bag which she shifted from arm to arm, and she had a load of burden on her mind too.  She was full in every direction.  It seemed to me she was the only person in town he wasn’t on first names with.  But not for long—soon she’s going to invite him to supper.  Finally my mother had to pull over because the light turned and horns were blasting and he and the giant woman were still figuring everything out.  Actually he was hanging out the window with all the time in the world, listening mostly, and the crazed cardinals on the woman’s dress were scared up, and she was doing the figuring.  Her root system was growing down into the curb.

Now the light goes green and I slam the accelerator without a second’s hesitation.  My daddy waves hurriedly to Luther Stoney and shouts good-bye, and the Four Corners Of Law recede in the rearview.

“What’s your hurry?”

“Green means go,” I tell him.

“Doesn’t mean go like greased lightnin’.”

“Doesn’t mean go tomorrow either.”

“Ol’ Luther Stoney.”  He turns to me and opens his mouth a little, but nothing more comes out.  He’s lost his place.

“Morocco, lookin’ for the dead,” I say, giving him some geography.

“Oh, yes….  Forsythe was driving the jeep…and before long we came up on a guy walking down the road ahead of us…had on an American Army jacket, walkin’ slow.”  He conjures it all out of the words, his hands help get it right.  “We came up alongside him, could see he was a Moroccan soldier.  Tough as nails, those fellows.”  His voice quiets and darkens with respect.  “Forsythe stopped so I could ask this guy where he’s headed.  He didn’t speak English well, but we gathered he’s on his way back to his unit, got separated durin’ the fighting.  He had his arms folded in front of him, looked beat.  Sleepwalking.  I told him to get in, we’d help him find his outfit.”  My father shakes his head.  “Tough son of a bitch.”

I’m hoping he’ll stay on track with this one because I haven’t heard it before.  Usually when he shakes his head this way the story is about to take a downward turn.  I’ve grown fond of downward turns in his stories.  He’s told me about a lot of tough guys, but this is the first one from Morocco.  He would rather talk about the war than anything.  His voice pulls me in, and I get a good look at the Moroccan: the army coat, his steady hands gripping his arms, his leather face, sand deep in the cracks.  I can see his weary automatic Moroccan boots stirring up the warriors’ dust in Africa.  Blazing sun in the day and then fire in the cold dark-blue nights.  The strange music of artillery.  I’m fourteen years old and almost a man, but my daddy can do this to me whenever he wants to.

“So this guy stumbles into the backseat and we go.  He’s still got his arms around his stomach, and he’s got a face on—the look—so I ask him if he’s okay.”  My father pauses for the Moroccan’s reply.  “It was my duty to take care of the men, Son.  A sacred duty.”

I nod, automatic as the soldier’s boots.  I’m no stranger to my father’s sacred duties.  “I know,” I say.

“He looked at me and loosened his grip around his stomach.  Felt like he could see clear through to the back of my skull.  Only then I realize he’s in bad shape—his jacket’s soaked.”  My father stares out at the red light and the undramatic Sunday traffic ahead of us.

“How come I’ve never heard this one?” I ask him.  He shrugs, and I don’t know if he’s going to tell the rest.  “What was wrong with him?”

“Shot, Charley.  In the abdomen.  I had no idea how long he’d been trudgin’ down that God-forsaken road holding his insides in his arms.”  He glances at me to gauge the effect and taps a few beats, against the dashboard this time, since the window’s still rolled down from when we saw Luther Stoney.

“What I’m saying is…there we were looking for dead and wounded, and I didn’t happen to notice this guy was hit.  I was the one sleepwalking—in the middle of the got-damn war.”

“He okay?”

“Oh yeah, made it fine.  Left by the same road he came in on.  We had to remove fifteen feet of his intestines but he was up in a few weeks.  Several pounds lighter.”

I don’t say anything because now I’m onto the courage of the sleepwalking Moroccan.  What the hell could it possibly be like to lose fifteen feet of anything?

.          .          ..

When we arrive at his office he takes the EEG from the shelf behind his desk, sits down and begins to flip through the pages, now and then marking sections with a pencil.  He sits back in his chair and lights a cigarette.  I stole three from him this morning, but it was a just-opened pack and he hasn’t noticed.  If I had a nickel for every cigarette I’ve stolen, I wouldn’t need to steal.  I know he’d see the humor in that if I told him.  Eventually.  I watch his eyes scanning behind the smoke.

Then I wander around the office looking at all the pictures I’ve seen a million times.  My life has stopped dead in its tracks.  I don’t even have a believable driver’s license.  With a Learner’s Permit you can’t go anywhere by yourself.  They won’t let you teach yourself.

On one side of his desk is a photograph of my mother, my sister and me, when I was seven.  We’ve all got these serious, excavated smiles on our faces; the photographer knows his job, plus we’re well aware this will be a gift for my father’s birthday.  Ellen and I have matching gaps between our front teeth, our hair is the same shade of sandy blond.  My mother is young-looking, splendid says the photographer, but she doesn’t thank him.  She looks like a movie star who had a decent childhood.  Her head is turned toward us to make sure we aren’t crossing our eyes or doing something disgusting or provocative with our tongues—though she would be the first to laugh.  She was always the first.  Her hair floats above her shoulders, a wisp shadows the corner of one eye.  I don’t know how to describe the color of her hair.  It seems to me only my mother has hair like this.  She is silence dressed in light.  Untroubled.  Examining her, the way she is here—shining, perfected—I wonder how does she feel?  The knot in my new tie isn’t straight, and my head is tilted slightly in the same direction.  The photographer probably just whispered some last-second enticement I’m trying to hear.

On the other side of his desk is the picture of him and Cambridge Walker standing in front of a frozen tree in Belgium, during the war.  This is one of his favorite photographs.  He says the ice clings like light to the branches.  I study it again.  There’s not enough light to see the ice; it must be late in the day.  Two men in dirty army clothes, needing a shave, standing in front of a tree with their arms draped across each other’s shoulders.  You can’t tell it’s Belgium.  You can’t exactly tell who the men are, you can’t even tell it’s a tree.  There is an overwhelming darkness and the top’s partly cut off.  The only way I know it’s a tree in Belgium is because he says so.  It could just as easily be Mr. Walker’s back yard on an overcast day at Rockville, and a cooler full of beer stands near an inebriated and horizontal Luther Stoney, waiting somewhere just beyond the frame.  I think the picture of me and my mother and sister when I was seven is as good as this one.

On another wall are two paintings of horses—red, white and black—galloping and jumping fences, several with riders and one without.  The one without is red.  I’ve always imagined he’s made of flame, too hot to ride.  Anything they put on his back will melt.

On the wall behind him there’s a picture of his daddy, Big Charley, standing in the ocean off Murrel’s Inlet, holding up a string of fish.  There are six bass gleaming at the end of my grandfather’s blurred hand.  Big Charley’s still a young man here, strong, his skin is dark.  It seems entirely possible he has never done anything in his life except stand there with those fish reflecting the sun.

I pick up a stethoscope and listen to my heart.  It’s only seconds before I’m bored.  I move over near the desk and watch him comb the sharp black mountain ranges on the paper before him.  I do not understand what he’s looking for, I admit it.

“Look here,” he says, “this’s where he blinked, his left eye.”  My father’s finger moves certainly across a serrated chain of small angry-looking edges.  His pencil twitches.  He reaches for a cigarette as he points out another tight cluster of waves.  “Here he’s dropped off to sleep.”

His magnetic voice is just far enough away for the attraction to sneak up on you.  It pulls the inevitable question out of me: “What’s wrong with him?”

“Don’t know yet.  It’ll take some time.”

Time.  Big surprise.  Everything takes some, but nothing gives it back.  Apparently time is something you know more about when you get to be his age.  He already knows more about this patient of his than I know about anything.  And my father doesn’t tell me all he knows.

Now he’s studying me like I’m the patient.  I’m the somnambulating Moroccan and he wants my history.  If I knew a language from Africa I’d say something to him in it.

“I ever tell you how Forsythe died?” he asks me.

“Not recently,” I say.

“Yeah…’course I did.  Damn, I always meant to save that one for a time like this.”

One second Forsythe was here and the next he was gone.  That’s how my father always wraps up this story.  They didn’t just look for dead and wounded together—he and Forsythe did everything.  They kept each other in this world.  Until one bright day my father was distracted for a second.  The sun got in his eyes.  He said he went blind for a moment.  There was something he should have seen, some clue—a movement or a flash.  But he didn’t see it, because of the light.

“But,” he says now, “somethin’ I didn’t tell you.  His last nine words.”

“Tell me.”

“Well…he said I love you.”

“Which is three words,” I inform him.

Something moves across my father’s face, here and gone.  “Yes…but he said it three times.”

I’m not sure what we’re talking about anymore.  We are just staring at each other now.  He sort of smiles, but what his lips are doing is as mysterious as his handwriting.  For all I know, he could be talking to Forsythe.  Finally he says, “I’ve been meaning to tell you how well you drive.  You’re a damn fine driver, Charley.”

Personally, I wouldn’t object to a few more adjectives about my exquisite control of the push-button Dodge.  He just looks at me in silence.  Then he lowers his eyes and returns to the EEG of the sleeping man, and of course I have to wait here for what seems like forever, until he’s finished.

W. A. Smith was born in Charleston, South Carolina, attended Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, and was graduated from the University of Virginia.  He received his MA from San Francisco State University in 1985.  He is now working in New York City and living in Shrewsbury, New Jersey with his beautiful wife, four perfect children, a fat cat and a leery dog.  His work has been published online and in Cimarron Review, FM Five, New Stories From the South, The Short Story Review, Five Fingers Review, The New England Review, Real Fiction, Outerbridge, Crucible, Aura, and The Berkeley Fiction Review.  His novel in progress is called Einstein’s Fiddle, and he’s working on a memoir entitled Just Temporary.  Portions of each have been previously published by SFWP.

1 Comment

  1. Janet Ranshous

    You had me at “got-damn automobile”; I knew where they were and who he was. Being a doc was a surprise. Loved seeing their relationship. Especially enjoyed the detour to Morocco. “Everything takes some, but nothing gives it back.” Makes us careful who we give it to.

    Reply

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