What Makes and Breaks a Man

[this is nonfiction]
I brought him a half dozen donuts and two packs of Winston 100s because that’s what he had asked for the previous day, when I had gone to see him briefly with my sister. I had the Winstons deep in my pocket because I wasn’t sure if he was allowed to have them. I couldn’t remember where his room was, and so I asked the young lady at the front desk, who was in the middle of typing a text message.

“Richard xxxxxxx. Room 65, in the dementia ward.”

“Okay, but can you direct me to where that is?”

She told me to make a certain number of lefts and rights, and I found myself at his “apartment” door. I asked a passing nurse if I can just knock on it. She knocks and slowly opened it.

“Richard” she said loudly, “You have a visitor.” He threw the covers back. She walked away, and I stood in the doorway.

“I told you I’d be back.” I said.

“yeah, I just forgot.”

“I brought you donuts and cigarettes just like you asked.” I held up the donuts and fish the Winstons from my pocket. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

“I know, it’s no problem.”

“I wish I had some money to pay you back with.” It’s something he would repeat over and over during that hour and a half. I would tell him it’s not important, and he would say it was, that he had always paid his own way through life. Several times he decided to find out from Johnny where his wallet was. I opened the donut box for him, as the pinky and ring fingers on both of his hands are permanently curled. He had pointed them out to me the previous day. “Look at this.” He held a hand up close to my face. “Doctor says he would have to go in and cut the tendons to relieve the pressure. I told him ‘not in my lifetime you’re not.’” I cringed. “Yikes” I said, hating myself for never knowing what to say to those kinds of things.

He wolfed down two donuts while I stood there in silence. His roommate was in a nearby bed, staring out of a small window and lying completely still. I had no idea if he was lucid or had already lost his mind. The mystery made me extremely uncomfortable. I suggested to Richard that we go get him some coffee and then find a place to smoke. He nodded, his mouth still full of donut.

“You take your coffee black, right?” He was the first person I remember drinking coffee with as a child.

“That’s right.” We passed through the maze of hallways, Richard slowly shuffling behind me. The halls are too narrow to walk two abreast, so I am relegated to walking a little ahead of him, periodically looking back. His bright blue eyes meet mine every time. We settled on a bench on the front porch of the facility. I lit a Winston for him, and then I lit my own Marlboro. I took a long pull from it and hold it, trying to quell my nerves. The last time I saw him was the better part of a decade ago, and he was going through alcohol withdrawal at the time. He had been unintelligible and it had terrified me. I have been to my share of funerals, but watching death slowly do its work is something that always makes me lose it.

An older pickup truck pulled into the parking lot. “That’s a nice truck” Richard told me. “I been thinking about trading in my S10 on something like that, if they give me enough for it. That is, if Johnny hasn’t already gone and hocked it.”

Richard is the only one who calls him, my father, Johnny. In my adulthood I had decided to start calling him by his first name, rather than “dad.” Years later my wife would ask me why I do that. I told her anyone can be a father, but it takes real effort to be a dad. Which might just be semantics, but the distinction felt, and still feels, right to me.

“Yeah, I don’t know why he’s like that. He’s always liked new cars for whatever reason.”

“Yeah, but he never pays for them, so they’re always getting repossessed.” That was news to me, but not at all surprising. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him.” He took another pull. “Actually I do. It’s all that xxxxxx blood in him.”

“xxxxxxx?”

He nodded slowly. “That was my wife’s maiden name.” His wife died in my infancy. I had never once in my life heard her mentioned, and I still don’t know her name. This had always been a trend on both sides of my family. No one ever brings up the past, regardless of whether it was good or bad.

“Do you think you could loan me a thousand dollars?” His question caught me entirely off-guard.

“What for?”

“To get me the hell out of this place. I figure it would take at least that much. The people suck, the food sucks. No one ever comes to see me.” The last part I knew to be false. His brother comes to see him several times a week. “I gotta talk to my lawyer. I know one of my three kids can sign to get me out of here. But I think it was Johnny who put me in here in the first place.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I have that kind of money.” I did have that kind of money, but I don’t want to give the man false hope, even if he will forget about it by tomorrow.

An old Jeep SUV pulls in. “that’s a nice car.” He said. “I wouldn’t mind trading in my S10 for something like that.”

“They’re good cars.” I said. “They put V8s in some of them.” A woman walked up to get in the passenger side, but had a little trouble. Richard got up as quickly as his body would let him and assisted the woman. He closed the door for her and they pulled away. He waved goodbye with his three good fingers, and then sat back down.

“Has xxxxxx or John told you anything about what I’ve been doing?” I asked like a selfish ass. He was silent for a moment, and then said, “Remind me.”

“Well, I got out of the military about a year ago. I did that for four years. Now I’m married and both me and my wife are at xxxxxx University.”

Richard nodded. “Where is xxxxxxx at? Is that near xxxxxxx?

“It’s about an hour north of it. xxxxxx University is in the city of xxxxxx.”

“Ah.”

We both fell to silence for a little while. I lit my second Marlboro while he was still smoking the same Winston almost to the filter. I smoked it halfway, and then rubbed it out.

“I hate to cut this short, but I have a seven hour drive ahead of me.” He nodded slowly.

“I wanna thank you for coming to see me and bringing me the donuts and cigarettes. I just wish I had money to pay you back.”

“It’s no problem. Both me and my wife make money. It’s fine. I’ll talk to John about it.” He nodded again. I led him back inside, back down the maze of halls. I punched in the password for the dementia ward, and we both walked in. The air inside of it felt different, smelled stale, stagnant.

“Do you want me to walk you to your room?”

“No, I’ll figure it out. And if I can’t, I’ll just ask her.” He pointed to a nearby nurse.

“Alright. Well, I don’t know when I’ll be able to make it down here again, but I’ll try my best.” He went in for a handshake, but I hugged him instead.

“Drive save.” He said.

“I will.” I walked back through the door. “Don’t let this place get to you.”

“I’ll try.”

I lit another cigarette the moment I was back in my car. I called my wife to tell her I was about to be on my way.

The previous day I had gone to a produce market which was created by a strawberry farmer three or four decades ago. In one corner of the market was a bronze plaque with the creator’s personal principles, which he apparently took a lot of pride in. This man, Roy Parke, held in high regard dreaming, taking risks, seeking personal fulfillment, and pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps.

I spent the entire drive back to xxxxx thinking about Richard, John, and this stranger’s personal values. I felt like they were all connected, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. John had been estranged from me, in one form or another, my entire life. I have no idea why he and my mother got a divorce. I’ve always felt like I deserve to know why my childhood was so emotionally messy. I felt like it’s answer had something to do with why both sides of my family were distant from my sister and me. It has been supremely difficult to try and resign myself to never knowing. To curb this, I often ask myself if it would really matter, if it would really change anything. Perhaps it wouldn’t, but I think Truth shouldn’t require a reason for being sought. Since our wedding day, I’ve told my wife that everything I hated about my adolescence would fuel my fire to be a good man and father. My strong desire for self-determination wasn’t much consolation while my little car raced up Interstate 75. When one Marlboro left my lips, a new one took its place.

Eight hours later, I finally pulled into my apartment complex. I could see from the street that our lights were on and the cat was in the window, as usual. There were a few cigarettes left. I tossed them into a dumpster before I walked inside to embrace my wife.