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Oct/Nov 2007 Fiction

Loss of Balance

by Anne Leigh Parrish


The woman in green talks again about her boy, Joey. Her face bears all the pain he's put her through, the broken promises, the stolen money, the calls from the police. Joey can't stop shooting drugs into his arm, so he's in rehab again. Only on Thursday he gets out, and this woman, whose name you can't remember, is sure the cycle will start all over.

She doesn't know what to do with Joey, and you don't know what to do with your father. Your father is not a drug addict, only an old man who likes to give his money away. Joey has a problem with self-control, your father has a problem with self-control, so you, the woman in green, and five others who bear responsibility for a wayward soul, meet today with Dr. Schiff in a church basement—the best he could arrange after hearing that his office had flooded overnight.

You don't want to be here, but your husband insisted. He says it's time to get at the root. When your father's retirement home called last month to say he'd written them a bad check, you paid the bill, then went into a bit of a tailspin, it's true. What's pissing you off goes a lot deeper than money, your husband said. Maybe yes, maybe no. The point is, you recovered. You always do.

Dr. Schiff—Leonard—moves on to Edmund. Edmund's wife is an alcoholic. She hides vodka everywhere, including the toilet tank where Edmund discovered two bottles when the plumber came to fix a leak. Edmund told the plumber the bottles were his.

"Did anything bother you about that?" asks Leonard.

Edmund seems to consider the empty space above Leonard's head. Finally he says, "Yeah. The look on his face."

"And what look was that?"

"Like he was sorry for me, like he knew I was lying."

Edmund's eyes are troublesome. One is blue, the other brown. Leonard's eyes are like dark honey. Their deep grief says how much the world has had its way with him, how much he's given up against his will.

Edmund says nothing. Leonard lets the silence continue. People stare at their own hands. Someone coughs. Your mind wanders. What are you going to make for dinner, you wonder. Is your husband going to be home before you? And what about the yard work you've been putting off—all those shrubs to be dug up and replaced with something more attractive?

Can't go wrong with a big, healthy rhododendron, your father said, looking with pity at the scrap of ground you call a yard. Or a hedge. A nice azalea hedge. Something to balance out your fruit tree in back. The tree being an apricot, of all things, and very old. It occupies most of the room behind the house. Your father doesn't understand why you bought a house with such a small yard. It is evidence of your poor character, somehow, your inability to do anything right.

"Ralph," says Leonard. "How's it going with Shauna?"

Ralph's daughter shoplifts. She's thirteen, and has been in and out of juvenile detention.

"Fine," says Ralph.

"Just fine?"

"Well, I had to tell the police she's getting counseling."

"I see."

"But she's not, is she?" says Miranda, whose sister steals, too, but only from family.

"No," says Ralph.

"Because she doesn't think she has a problem." Miranda's eyes burn with bitterness. Miranda's sister ran up her credit card in Vegas for over ten thousand dollars, then begged for a plane ticket home.

"Right," says Ralph.

"She probably thinks you're the one with the problem."

Ralph nods, his big eyes sad, like a spaniel's. He has big ears, from which tufts of hair reach out. His shoulders are huge, but his feet are small. You've never seen a man with such small feet, smaller even than Leonard's, which sit primly in their shiny brown wingtips.

The church basement is cold and hard morning light breaks through high windows. The gray carpet is stained with coffee, and you imagine Styrofoam cups in the hands of pious people, deciding how best to raise money for that new steeple. You are not a churchgoer. You're not an atheist, exactly, but the idea of organized religion sits poorly with you. Your father was once a Quaker, a leaning he inherited from his mother, a woman you didn't know and of whom he said little, except that she never raised her voice. You cannot imagine this petite, quiet woman. You're neither petite, nor quiet, facts your father seems to regret when he looks at you.

"Darlene," Leonard says. "Why don't you tell us how it's going?"

You shift on your metal chair. Your pantyhose make a rasping sound as you cross your legs. You can't think of anything to say.

"Have there been any more incidents?" Leonard asks, urging you with those anguished eyes.

"Well, yes. He wrote another check."

"A big one?"

"Two thousand dollars."

Ralph whistles. "That's not chump change," he says.

"Who'd he give it to?" asks the woman in green.

"An old student of his. Guy got a PhD, then some teaching job that fell through."

How can you ask me why, Dar? Because I know those clowns who denied him tenure. No job, and stuck at home now with a sick baby. Didn't know that, did you, about the sick baby?

A sick baby would be easier to handle than your father.

After the bounced check to the retirement home, he took cash advances on credit cards whose monthly payments he can't meet. It's less important to stay current with them, since there's nothing they can attach if he doesn't, but staying current with the retirement home is key. If he falls too far behind he'll be asked to leave, and his only option then will be a Medicare facility, which wouldn't have the wide green lawns, nice artwork, and afternoon teas he has now. I don't care about any of that, Dar. I'd be happy in just a little room. As long as it's clean. And has the Golf Channel. I've come to enjoy the Golf Channel quite a bit.

"What kind of loser asks an old man for money?" asks Miranda.

"He didn't ask. My father offered."

"I should get his number." This is from Janice, the group's most hardcore sufferer. Her husband sleeps with any woman who will have him, and apparently many will. He always returns, and she always takes him back.

"What does he say when you ask him to stop?" the woman in green wants to know.

"Nothing."

Because you never asked him to stop. You can't even bring yourself to remind him that he owes you money for the retirement home bill.

"Sounds like my daughter," says Ralph. "Just looks away and pretends not to hear."

Nods of sympathy all around.

Janice's cell phone rings. She grabs it from her battered vinyl handbag, stares at the caller's number, then silences it. No one asks if it's her husband. Everyone knows it is. He calls with an excuse, a lie, a story, to say he's working late. All eyes are on her now. Everyone feels her pain. As she returns the phone to her bag, you see that laces of her athletic shoes are mismatched. One is silver, the other white.

Leonard concludes by asking everyone to reflect on the limited ability to control another person. Living with destructive behavior can turn us into control freaks, he says. To regain your balance, you'll have to find a way to accept what you can and cannot change.

This is where you're way ahead. You've known forever that there's no changing your father. Who he is was determined years before you were even born.

 

Your mother always blamed him on the war. Your father was an ordinary person with an extraordinary ability to recognize complex patterns. This was not a skill he knew he possessed before a military analyst discovered it. How the discovery was made, you're not exactly sure. Some aptitude test, probably, which quickly eliminated the possibility of active combat and moved him right into code breaking. After the war, rather than make a full-time career in military intelligence, he became a professor of history. His time was divided between known events and secret ones. How he reconciled these two worlds, you don't know, except by what he said and what he didn't. He was open about his life in the university, winning grants, beating out colleagues for promotion, but on the military life he continued to lead when called upon, he was, by necessity, absolutely silent.

The balance he struck didn't work for your mother. She needed all of him, not part, and left after twenty years of marriage.

She was soon replaced with a second wife who had no interest at all in your father's secret world. You were replaced with a stepdaughter—Leslie. You grew up, got married, lived your life. You had regular contact with your father, cordial and impersonal correspondence, brief well-managed visits. You always wanted more. There was never enough real interest in who you were, as if your father could have been sitting across from anyone, instead of his only child. How that hurt! How hard to keep that hurt secret—your own secret—your own dual life.

Not long ago the second wife died. Your father paid you another visit. Although it had only been about a year since you'd seen him, you thought how much older he'd become, how frail. For a moment your heart went out to him, the lonely widower. You prepared a nice dinner and got a bottle of Johnny Walker Red, his favorite. He was grateful. He enjoyed himself. He mentioned the sale of the house he and his second wife had long occupied. You said you were glad, because he'd have plenty now to meet the retirement home's steep entry fee.

Oh, I'll have to scramble a bit for that, he said. I let Leslie have it all.

You fell silent. It's possible you even made a face, because when you father looked at you, he said, She needs it, Dar. She's had such a hard time.

The hard time, you soon learned, consisted of not being able to find a job, not being able to make the rent on her small apartment every month, not being able to find a good man to spend time with, and so on. Then your father added that he wouldn't need his car at the retirement home and would give that to Leslie, too, since her car was so old and undependable.

He went to bed early, not long after you cleared the table. You sat in the living room alone, drinking your own gift of Scotch, and drafted the letter you'd write the next day to Leslie about responsibility, trying harder to get a job, not taking money from your father who had reached the time in his life when he must survive on a fixed income.

Her return letter arrived quickly enough to make you certain that she felt terribly guilty. She didn't feel guilty. She wrote:

It was weird to hear from you after all these years. You don't exactly stay in touch. Your father used to say he wished you'd pick up the phone or drop him a line once in a while. I hope you're not mad I said so. I'm very concerned for your father's welfare, as you know. I've made every effort to keep him company these last few months, and I don't mind telling you that your poor father is very grateful to me. The time I spend with him has made it hard to develop my pet sitting business. Your father is very supportive of my career. It gives him pleasure to extend his support and thanks to me. I know you understand that it would be unkind of me not to accept it.

You remember Leslie as a child when you were still one, too, and the visits to your father's new home on Sundays, the one day the divorce agreement allowed. Leslie's mother insisted on eating in the formal dining room, an ugly box with deep red wallpaper and dark, heavy furniture. Conversation centered on your father, his students, the papers he was grading. And then it always came, that moment when Leslie wouldn't eat her vegetables. Your father made her sit on at table staring at her cold plate, while you stayed tensely in the living room. You wonder how she has forgiven him, and think maybe she hasn't, that wanting money lies behind her kindness. You're proven right, because with the house gone, and the car in her hands, she's nowhere to be found.

 

You skip the next meeting of the group. Things have gotten crazy at work. You're facilitating the acquisition of a large electronics company by an even larger discount chain. The dreary time you spend negotiating the buyout ratio makes you regret majoring in economics. You would have preferred to study English literature, but your father discouraged you on the grounds that he wanted you to make a good living, not struggle for money the way he always had to.

Several days later a social worker from the retirement home tells you long distance that your father fell in his room and needed to be hospitalized. His condition isn't grave, but she thinks now would be a wise time for a visit.

During the three hour drive northward from Virginia, you consider the information you received about the incident in question. Your father was standing on a chair which he'd brought into his closet. There was something he wanted on the top shelf, what, you don't know. You don't know what things he brought with him from the old house. You don't even know what his room looks like. As to the fall itself, it was assumed that fluid in the inner ear was to blame for the loss of balance, also the medications he took to control blood pressure, and quantity of Scotch consumed against the advice of his doctors.

The hospital hall is quiet and the rubber soles of your shoes squeak on the flecked vinyl floor. The noise slows as you near his room. You're afraid to enter, afraid of your own thudding heart.

His eyes open at the light touch of your hand.

Dar, is that really you? Did you really come all this way?

With a little tease in your voice you say, Come on now, don't sound so surprised, then you look for evidence of Leslie, some gift she might have left, a bouquet of flowers or a box of his beloved chocolate cream. There's nothing.

You take a chair and draw it to the bed. You mention the weather there in Pennsylvania and remark that your spring at home is several weeks ahead. How silly you sound, because any fool knows that spring travels from south to north.

The radiator bangs, then hisses. The ugly beige curtains don't quite close, allowing a column of glare to fall across the floor.

The nurse comes to take your father's temperature. She takes his blood pressure, too. She refills the pitcher of water, slides the thermometer from his lips, reads it, and drops it in the pocket of her bright, floral print smock. Then she's gone. You wish she were still there, occupying space between you and your father.

Guess they told you what your dopey 'ole father did. Sailed right off that damn chair. The bruise on his cheek is florid and difficult to look at. There were no major injuries, otherwise. He's being kept for observation only, for an assessment of his mental state, and to determine if he's fit to return to independent living.

Suddenly his face tenses, and his eyes focus on you hard. You're reminded of a picture taken years before, a candid shot by a student wanting to capture your father in mid-lecture. The expression is the same, fierce, intent, totally absorbed.

Did I ever tell you about Stu Drake? he asks you from his narrow, steel bed.

You hear that Stu was another Illinois grad whose straight teeth and high grades put him in the cockpit by the summer of '42. Stu wrote often about training paratroopers, the wide billow of the silk growing smaller as they dropped away.

So, that's what your father thought of as he fell. About dead soldiers, their chutes become shrouds.

Your words, not his. The drive has made you punchy. And the call from your husband on your cell phone as you reached town, his voice full of remorse about last night's disagreement, which you can't at the moment remember.

Did I ever tell you how I wanted to be a pilot? Failed the physical. Know why? Your father taps his crooked front teeth. Wouldn't fit inside an oxygen mask. Probably saved my damn life. His voice becomes as thin as the late afternoon light. I was lucky. Luck is a kind of responsibility, and I didn't know what to do with it.

He wants something to drink, something alcoholic, which he's not allowed. You consider buying him a bottle, hiding it in your large, messy handbag, and sharing it as the night comes on. You won't, though, because he's still talking, and he needs your audience even more than he needs the alcohol.

She hated me for what I did. I suppose she told you all about that, though, didn't she? Sometimes I feel like picking up the phone and trying to set the record straight, but what's the use? Your father has forgotten that your mother's been dead for ten years. She thought I was arrogant, do you know that? She accused me of thinking that ordinary people were too stupid to be trusted with the knowledge I had, but that wasn't it at all. I couldn't talk about my work because I took an oath of secrecy. An oath is supposed to mean something.

Information has become declassified and television shows about the war years, specifically the code breaking efforts on the part of the United States and Great Britain, have aired, yet your father keeps quiet.

He's grown tired and closes his eyes. In a few minutes he's sound asleep. It's unnerving to sit there, with him so still and peaceful. You feel as if death could enter at any moment without your knowing. But he's not close to dying. He won't die for another four years, by which time you will have given him a very late arriving grandson whose creation took faith and artificial means.

Later you stretch across the orange bedspread in your motel room and think of your father trying to make up for being lucky, for not talking, for wanting Leslie to eat her vegetables, but not for you, never for you. Maybe in his eyes you just weren't weak enough.

How well you've turned out, Dar. You've got such character. Don't need a thing from anyone. You're one independent gal.

His words, not yours, whenever the conversation failed, as it always did, because you didn't want him to call. Didn't want to tumble into something you couldn't control, where the weight was all on his side.

In the morning you find you've slept in your clothes, and the bed is as rumpled as you, but only on your half. You call your husband. He's glad you did. He wants to know how your father is. Out of it, really out of it, you say. You say you'll be home tomorrow, and remember to say that you love him.

I love you, too, Dar.

Your father is awake, and has had his breakfast. Egg has spilled on his front. He's fretful, and his bent hands pluck at the bed sheets.

I don't know if I can go on helping my friends, Dar. I think I've run through all my money.

You nod.

I hate letting them down, but I don't know what else to do.

You're at a loss now, in the face of this candor, this worry. Your father never showed worry before. Only steely calm, even when his second wife berated him, or Leslie said she hated him, or when you accused him of arrogance that day on campus.

You make people into puppets! Sitting there in the dark, pulling strings! You'd learned that he had put in a good word at a college you'd applied to, just as a way of helping things along. You didn't want help. You had faith in your own merits, or at least you argued that you did. In truth you had no faith at all.

For a moment your waving arms and loud voice seemed to throw him off balance. His face opened, then closed right away because someone walked by and called his name, a colleague with a briefcase and expensive shoes. As your father called back, you walked off, perhaps not having the will to try to get his attention a second time.

You didn't go to the college he talked to. You went somewhere else, far away out west. The desert air was good for you. You put down roots in the dry ground, yet you returned, not to your home town, but further south. Why did you come back east at all?

"Can you help me, Dar?" Your father's voice is quiet. He doesn't look at you. "I think I may need help."

"You mean pay another bill?" This would be as easy as the last, because you and your husband are frugal, even cheap, and you've got a lot put by. The balance in your money market account alone is over sixty thousand dollars.

"No, no, I couldn't take a penny from you. Just help me manage what I've got. I can't seem to keep track of it these days," he says.

You agree to take a look at his checkbook and see if you can make sense of it.

He directs you to his rooms, his "cottage," he calls it, at the retirement home. The receptionist in the main hall opens the door for you but doesn't leave you the key. The front room is larger than you expected, with a sliding glass door. Outside the door is a small, concrete slab meant to serve as a patio. There's a single folding chair there and an empty glass someone overlooked. You lift the glass and smell it. You bring it inside and rinse it in the small, stainless steel kitchen sink.

The bedroom is much smaller. Cardboard boxes line one wall, stacked three high. The dresser is low, one you remember from childhood. A bright red drop of nail polish like plastic blood remains in the corner where you spilled it over thirty years before. The checkbook is there in the top right hand drawer, just as your father specified. You toss it on the carefully made single bed. The closet is almost too small to get the chair into, but you manage. On the shelf are boxes with letters inside. None is from you, because you never wrote. There are sweaters, shoes, a curled up belt, a hat your father must have held onto from the Fifties, the last time anyone wore such a thing. There is also a framed photograph of you. You're not smiling. The background color is too brightly blue, and you remember it as your class picture from the fifth or sixth grade. Unlike everything else on that shelf, it's been dusted, kept clean.

Was he getting it down, or putting it back? Or just taking a moment to look at it, wipe it off, then return it to the dark? There are no other photographs visible in the tiny apartment, or in any of the drawers you go through, even those in the kitchen—only yours.

You take the glass you just rinsed and fill it with a little Scotch from the bottle by the toaster. On the small sofa you drink some, then drink some more. The lake can't be seen from where you sit, but it's there for sure, long and deep, only a few miles away. On its shore there's a park where you went in summers before your parents split up. You'd fill a blue plastic bucket with pebbly sand and take it to where they lay on wide, striped towels. What a pretty bucket, your father would say, rising up to see better. Then, I have a secret to tell you! The secret is I love you! Now off you go, find me some more sand for your bucket.

Years after the bucket was lost, you were eating a T.V. dinner in your father's dark apartment. There was a game on the black and white set, the antenna off kilter, the picture in and out.

Who scored? he called.

Pittsburg, you were happy to say, knowing the teams at last.

He stands in the low kitchen doorway, a can of beer in his hand. He says he's getting married again soon. You nod. Mom told me, you say.

The final quarter is underway, Pittsburg reaches Miami's ten yard line, and still in the doorway your father says, I want you to know that I won't have any more children. You're the only child I have, the only one I want to have.

Years later you called up to say you just got married. A silence fell on the line. In the background there was a game playing, and you had to wonder if it was football. I wish you'd told me, Dar. I would have liked to give you away.

You finish your drink. Something within you shifts, then drops like a single flake of snow. You put the glass down and sit a little longer in the quiet of your father's empty house.

You find the checkbook in the bedroom. Inside bears your father's neat, square hand.

You'll take it away and go through it later. It will show only an old man who can no longer add or subtract. It won't be hard to put his affairs to right. The offer you make his creditors to settle for less will be accepted in time. The letters you send his acquaintances—including Leslie—will thank them for their friendship and give your father's new address in the nursing home where it's decided he should go. His boxes and books, the sofa and bed, the sweaters and shoes will all be sent along, sorted, or stored. The picture of you will take up residence on the television he watches day in and out. While the child you were frowns into space, the woman you've become will visit more often, refill a cup, open the blind, and gently restore the balance between his heart and yours.

 

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