Avacadoes, Artichokes, Something Like That
It's mostly fiction.
The hospice nurse, Jenny, is more like a housekeeper than a nurse, always cleaning the dishes I leave in the sink, letting me do the nurse-things like taking Papa’s temperature and straightening up the sheets after one of his coughing fits. She does take care of his diapers, for which I am eternally grateful. We don’t speak much, but smile at each other a lot, as if my grandfather were a newborn baby we must nurture, rather than a dying old man we are trying to keep away from pain.
She leaves the room when he’s in a talkative mood, so that we can have our privacy. She hums away in front of the sink, wiping the crumbs off the yellowed and cracked Formica countertop, brown-spotted from burning cigarettes left unattended. Her humming is only a little louder than the refrigerator, and I wonder if hospice nurses are trained to be so unobtrusive, or if Jenny naturally has the knack of becoming an inconspicuous kitchen appliance.
“Paula, you there?” my grandfather asks the room.
“I’m here, Papa.”
“Is that wallpaper moving?” He points to the crown molding dividing the wall from the ceiling. It is water-stained, and I guess it could be mistaken for moving wallpaper by a man with bad eyes, I tell myself. I don’t want to think that the cancer has spread so quickly to his brain.
“I’m not seeing what you’re seeing.” I try to keep my response neutral. I don’t want to tell him that moving wallpaper is crazy talk.
He watches what I can’t see for a minute. “You know, your mind tells you whatever it wants to. It makes you see what it wants you to see.”
I probably should have brought him back to reality, but why? I mean, to me this was like the cigarettes I brought him. Good or bad, they distracted him from the pain, and what did it matter now?
“Tell me what you see.”
“There’s a man up there on a green bicycle, pedaling away for all he’s worth. Look at him go. He’s trying to get somewhere, sure enough.”
We both study the brown patches on the ceiling. My grandfather is pumping his legs under the covers, as though he is the unseen rider. He lifts his arm, fingers curling into a trembling fist, index finger extended.
“Tell that boy he’d better watch out for that train, Paula. He won’t listen to me.”
“Watch out, boy.” My words must have had some effect, because Papa almost immediately lowers his arm. I tuck it back under the sheets. He mumbles something else about a train and is asleep.
“Don’t even think about calling me again if you’re going to talk about him.”
“I mean it. He’s dead to me. He’s a drunk. He’s a bum.”
“He’s your father.”
“He was never there! I had no father. He was never happy with me. I was never good enough. Son of a bitch. Let me know when he’s dead so I can get up and dance.”
“I can’t believe you’re saying this.”
“When have I ever led you to believe otherwise? Huh? When was the last time I said something good about him? Never!”
“You took us down to see him one year.”
“That was to see my mom one last time. I tried to talk her into moving in with us but she wouldn’t leave him. He’s a tyrant. She was scared.”
“He’s not like that anymore. He thinks she’s still alive sometimes and he talks so sweet to her.”
“That’d be a first. She was never good enough either.”
“So, how’s he treating you?”
“Nice, mom. He’s quiet most of the time, but when he needs something, he asks politely, and says thank you. He says I’m the only person he’s got.”
“He doesn’t even know you.”
“He wishes he did. He wishes he’d pushed you to take us down here more.”
“Wishes he’d push. Now that sounds like the Andre I remember. So are you giving him booze? That’s why he wants you there. Booze and cigarettes.”
“He’s not drinking. Hasn’t had a drink in years, mom.”
“He’s lying. He’d come in so drunk from the restaurant he’d be falling down, and he’d deny it.”
“Well, I haven’t seen him take a single drink the whole time I’ve been here, so.”
“He’s hiding it.”
“Where? He’s skin and bones. He can’t be hiding it under the sheets, I’d see it. There’s nothing in the dresser but odds and ends. He doesn’t get out of bed anymore.”
“He’s hiding it.”
“He still smoking?”
“And you’re getting him cigarettes, aren’t you?”
“Yup, that’s what I thought. Wants you there to fetch him smokes. Shit. He shouldn’t be smoking anyway, damn fool. That’s what killed him.”
“He’s dying anyway. What’s the difference if he smokes now? It’s his last pleasure.”
“So will you please come down to say goodbye, mom?”
“What are you, stupid? I’m not saying it again. He’s been dead to me for years.”
“But you care that he’s smoking.”
“I’m hanging up now. Goodbye.”
“Fine. I’ll call you when he’s dead.”
“Good. I’ll buy my dancing shoes today.”
”Mom, that’s so--”
So much for reconciling my mother with my grandfather. Not that I had much hope. I’m glad that he couldn’t hear the conversation. I think it would have hurt him. I’m having a hard time seeing an old man – no, the skeleton of an old man who weighs less than the pillows propping him up – and thinking of him as a tyrant and a drunk. Ok, maybe a drunk, because everybody in this city is a drunk as far as I can tell, but a tyrant? He gets this look in his eye, just before he asks for something, a drink of water. It’s like he’s afraid to ask me, doesn’t want to trouble me, even though my sole purpose of coming down here was to make sure his last days are comfortable. This is a tyrant? I guess people change, and I wasn’t there in his heyday, but still. People change.
He always talked quietly to me on the phone. ‘So, you learned to cook yet?’ he’d say, and I knew he was teasing, and I knew he was also serious. He didn’t order me to learn. He just asked.
We’ve only been calling each other for the past year, a little less than that, actually. I don’t really know what made me pick up the phone. I’d been feeling rootless, I guess. Mom’s not much of a nurturer, as you can probably tell. She smokes too much, too.
My own father has a different family with different, younger children who are much more talented than I, with better prospects of becoming someone, so dad and I don’t talk much beyond Merry Christmas. He’s never remembered my birthday. I don’t send him a Father’s Day card. That makes us even.
If you’re a shrink, go ahead and tell me I’m looking for a father figure. Or do me a real favor and make sure Papa is ok while I run down to the corner and pick up a couple packs of Winstons for him.
When he wakes up a little later, he’s back with it. The first thing he does is ask me for a smoke. I hate that I hesitate, influenced by that stupid phone call. I take out a fresh pack, and Papa watches me tear off the cellophane like a hungry diner watching a maître d' lift the lid from a silver platter. Before I tear off the top, he tells me to tamp the pack down. He tells me this every time. I lift out the first cigarette and hand it to him along with his silver Zippo.
“Have one yourself, Sugar,” something else he tells me each time.
“No thanks,” I say.
“Prob’ly best. That’s how come I’m so sick. Ruins your sense of taste too, did you know that?”
“Sure does. Got so I couldn’t taste what I was cooking at the restaurant. Had to go off memory. Nobody complained, ‘cept this one old feller from Michigan said I was trying to kill him. I don’t think he’d ever tasted cayenne. No one else said anything about it.”
“You’re probably right about the cayenne, then.”
“You like Cajun, Sugar?”
“From what I’ve had here, yeah.”
“Lemme give you something then.” He looks around the room. “Katie? Fetch me that book yonder.”
“Mamiere’s gone, Papa.”
He takes a drag from his cigarette as if he hasn’t heard me.
“See that old book up there on that shelf? The first one on the left? You go get that and bring it over here. Please.”
I cross the room to the bookshelf, maneuvering my way around islands of clutter. There are piles of newspapers, cardboard boxes closed and taped shut, faded advertisements for rum imprinted on the sides. Seventeen years of widowerhood has taken its toll.
The binding is yellowed from cigarette tar, the red letters faded from age. It is a cookbook, one of dozens in this bookcase.
“That’s the one, Shug. Bring it on over here.”
I carefully make my way back to his bedside. He puts out his cigarette and takes the book from me.
“Now. I wasn’t able to cook for you but once. You remember that, Shug?”
“You were just a little girl when your mama brought you and your brother on down here. You remember?”
“Well good then.” He taps the cover of the cookbook. “This here book has my favorite recipe in it. When I’m gone, I want you to make it, ok?”
“I can’t answer him for a few seconds. We both just look at the worn cover.
“I want you to make it and remember me, y’all promise to do that?”
I nod. “Which one is it?”
“Well now, let me see.” The book opens with an audible creak. Some of the pages are food-stained, some are loose. He turns them slowly, with increasing difficulty as he tires. “I think it’s under appetizers.” He continues turning pages, pausing now and then to read the name of a recipe. He reaches the end of the section and tries salads next.
“Do you remember what it’s called. Papa? Maybe we can find it in the index.”
“It’s got avocadoes in it, and artichokes. Hey, Kate? What’s that dish I like so much?”
She’s not here, Papa, remember?”
“Kate? Show Paula here the recipe. You know the one.”
I don’t know what to say while he keeps turning pages. Finally I ask him, “Avocadoes, artichokes. What else is in it?”
“You put the artichokes into the avocado halves. There’s a sauce. Katie?”
He begins coughing and Jenny looks in at us from the kitchen. I don’t know what to say to her, either. I take the book from him and he gives it up without protest. His coughing is bad, worse every day. When he finally stops, he’s looking at the crown molding again.
“That old train,” he whispers. “Better catch that old train.”