Available

Before my father died, he had a nurse call the house in Boston where I was staying. I caught the phone so that my brother and mother would not be disturbed. It was two thirty in the morning, April 30th, my mother’s birthday, a warm spring night with light rain. The nurse said my father wanted me to come back to the hospital, he had something he wanted to tell me. I asked which name he had used, mine or my brother’s. She said my name. I said, okay I’d come.

I drove to the hospital. It was three when I arrived. I was already exhausted from a long day of visiting, waiting—watching my father fight for his life. His heart was giving up.

The nurse on duty was Nora. The one I had a crush on. A dark-haired Irish beauty, tall, charming, a warm smile, dark eyes—prettier than you could imagine.

She asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee. I said that would be fine, I was exhausted and needed a boost.

“Cream?” she asked, and I said yes.

“It’s just a plastic holder and a paper cup,” she said.

“That’s fine,” I said.

She handed it to me with her elegant, brown, I imagined Galway–Lisbon fingers. I saw the gold ring. She was not available. And because I was so weary and she was being so kind, I said: “Ah, you’re not available—I see the ring.”

And she, who may have been just as batty from being on the night shift so long, said, “Available for what?”

I was too tired from everything that had happened to fall victim to my usual shyness, and I just grinned at her–lovingly, I’d have to say.

After a moment I said, “My father wants to talk to me.”

“I know, “she said. “You’re not available.”

At which we both laughed, and I turned away and went down the corridor over the shiny linoleum into my father’s room.

He lay on his back with oxygen at his nose and tubes in his arms. He was small, shriveled, white-haired, unshaven—and bright-eyed in the way I imagined people were when they were possessed.

He croaked something–dark, indistinct words. I asked him to repeat it. He cleared his throat, reached out a bony hand and tugged on my sleeve. I brought my head closer to his, leaning forward in the bedside chair.

“A long time ago,” he said, “when I was your age, I took a walk near our house. It was a country lane, a dirt road.”

I knew the one he meant. It was a paved road now.

“There were almost no houses then,” he continued. “It had been raining. I turned into the dirt road. A woman was just starting down the road ahead of me. I believe I knew she was Mexican. She had the broader shoulders, the narrower hips, the slender legs, slipper-thin plastic shoes with almost no heel. She was poor. I knew she was headed to the Owen’s house far down the lane. They were wealthy but also a little stingy and preferred to pay the very lowest wages. As I came up behind her, she turned to assess my approach. As I passed her, she turned her head away from me . She was trying to make herself inconspicuous. I said Buenos días! and lifted my hat the way my father used to, although mine was just a baseball cap and his, a full–brimmed felt one. She replied with a Buenos días! from her side. I walked on ahead, satisfied she was no longer afraid.”

I helped my father drink from a glass of water.

“Several days later I took the walk again,” he continued, “down the same dirt road. It had been raining. I saw her tracks in the sand and knew they were from her modest slipper shoes. Her step turned slightly inward. I knew this was her, with her long-suffering poverty and dignity and vulnerability. Someone who could be frightened by a strange gringo coming up behind her.”

“The road turned, and I could see her up ahead. I followed along behind her but this time took pains not to overtake her. This is the part I want to tell you. When I looked down again a little later, her foot prints were gone and in their place were the prints of a deer, a young one. I tried to understand this, but couldn’t. My mind wandered away on its own walk. When I focused on the surface of the road again, the deer’s tracks were gone, and those of a fox–I know the print–had replaced them and continued on down the road, weaving slightly, the way foxes do when they’re not well. I found this disturbing. Soon the tracks changed again–I could see the print of the heel of her shoe. And then there was nothing. But she was still up there ahead of me.”

He was silent for a while. He closed his eyes and his breathing was labored. I waited, watching him, thinking about the time of night and the situation itself, how tired I was, about how long this might go on.

My head jerk up when he began again. His eyes were duller, his voice softer, more serious, an earnest whispering.

“I called you here because I have been thinking about that woman.” He paused, watching me. I nodded, to show I was listening, although all I really wanted to do was just sleep.

“I think she was so poor and so sad maybe that she left this life as we know it and entered some other place.”

He looked at me. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I nodded, but my expression must have given me away. He was not convinced and felt he had to explain it to me again.

“She left because she was so sad, so poor, her prospects seemed so hopeless.”

“Maybe she went and came back,” I said. “Maybe her being Mexican and poor and at that place on the dirt road in a foreign country were all just very tentative.” I didn’t hear the conviction in my own voice.

“No,” he said, and his voice was heavy with fatigue. “No, she left because she was so poor, and the ones she went to do not judge people the way we do here.”

He paused and took a deep, halting breath that was too slow, like someone who isn’t sure he’s still interested in breathing.

“That’s what I want you to remember about me,” he said.

I nodded.

“Do you understand?”

I nodded, even though I didn’t understand. I could see his eyes watering, and the man who never seemed to have touched me or held me my whole life whispered, “Kiss me, my son,” and I stood and leaned forward, hardly able to see him because of my own watering and, avoiding the tube to his nose, kissed him on his barely responding lips and then lay my head against his and wept.

After a while I collected myself sufficiently to realize he had stopped breathing. His eyes looked somewhere else. There was a smile on his lips, and he seemed serene. I was very sad and, I think, also more hopeful than I had ever been for some time. I can not say why.

I sat in the chair again. I watched him for I don’t know how long. I heard soft steps behind me now and then. Once when I focused, I noticed someone had closed his eyes. Dawn seeped through the window. At some point I felt a hand on my shoulder, light like a bird, and then once touching my hair. And finally I heard Nora, the lovely dark Irish beauty say, “There’s a telephone call for you—and I was wondering if you were available.”

“Available?” I repeated.

“After the call,” she said. “Maybe some breakfast.”

And then, as I stood up and let out a long sigh, she put her arms around me and held me and felt warm and substantial and very familiar.

“What about the telephone?” she said.

Leave a Reply