By Yuvi Zalkow
This Story Won Second Prize in Our Contest
I was only twenty-five and didn’t understand grief. How it twisted its way into life.
My dad was visiting me in Portland for a week. Mom had called the week before and said, “Your father is being a nudnick. I’m sending him to you.” They lived in Atlanta. I could hear in the background my father yelling, “I’m not a fucking package.”
I had no idea what to do with him. His sister, Adela, had died three months earlier, and he was getting more depressed as time wore on. We went to the Japanese Garden. He looked out at the goldfish and said, “They look so damn content.” We went to Powell’s Books. I knew he was trying to write a story about his parents, immigrants from Poland, and thought he might want to pick up some novels to help inspire him. He only bought one novel, Herzog, about a crazy nudnick of a man going through a breakdown.
I tried to find something to talk about: fishing, pickles, insects, parents. Anything. The conversations shut down before they could get going.
All the while, he scribbled in his notebook. This black notebook smaller than the palm of his hand. When I asked what was in the notebook, he said, “Just some bullshit.”
One habit we picked up is that we’d order martinis every day for lunch at the pub near my apartment. He didn’t open up as he got drunk, but he got more relaxed, maybe like those contented goldfish. If I asked him what he was thinking, he’d say something melodramatic like, “The pointlessness of life.”
On his last night, I convinced him to go with me to a nearby teahouse.
“I don’t want to pay eight dollars for a fucking tea,” he said.
“It’s our last night,” I said.
“Last night,” he repeated like it meant something else.
The tables were too small, and the music wasn’t really music but more like the sound of water and wind. There were watercolor paintings of waterfalls. The place made me want to pee.
The waiter was this tall skinny blond guy who didn’t quite fit with the Japanese motif. But he still seemed to know his Japanese teas well enough to give me a look of disdain when I ordered chamomile. My dad ordered something called gunpowder.
Our teas came out quickly. The waiter told my dad to take the tea infuser out of the mug after two minutes and didn’t give me any instructions. And then he disappeared into the back.
My dad kept staring into his tea.
“It’s been nice spending time with you,” I tried.
“Nice,” he said into his tea.
“Didn’t the guy say that you should take out the tea after two minutes?”
“What does that kid know?”
I reminded myself that he was only here for a short time, that he was family.
When he opened his notebook and scribbled something, I tried to peek. His handwriting was for shit, but I could see a list of questions on the page. One thing said, “Why did Papa cry when he talked about the Yankees?” Another said, “Who was the girl in his wallet?” He’d been working on a story of his father for a year, and maybe this was a list of questions he needed to answer to finish his story.
“How’s the story of Papa going?”
“It’s not going,” he said.
“Are you still taking notes? Is it interesting?”
He was about to say something nasty, and so I said, “I also like to make lists. I guess I got that from you.”
He looked up at me. “I’m stuck,” he said.
It was the first real thing he’d said all week. Everything else seemed like a line from a soap opera character. But this was something authentic. I didn’t want to lose it.
Even though I knew my dad didn’t like advice, I was young enough and arrogant enough to think that I could teach him something. I’d taken a few creative writing classes and published a few stories. So I spouted off things like, “What does your character want? What is it that you need to say?”
“No,” he yelled before I could finish my lecture. “You don’t understand. I can’t answer these questions.” He banged the wet spoon on the page, and it made me nervous that tea was getting on his notebook. I reached out and touched his wrist to stop him from his gesture. The skin on his wrist was thick, and almost feverishly hot.
“Dad,” I said. “If you look inside yourself, I bet you’ll find answers.”
I let go of him. His breathing got slower. I felt pretty proud of myself.
“God damnit,” he said. It was a whisper this time. It felt even worse than him yelling. He spun the notebook my way so that I could read it. “Read the goddamn title.”
I didn’t follow his instructions. I read four pages of questions. A great list of questions about my grandfather. He died when I was ten, and I only remember bits and pieces of his silliness and his obsession with the Yankees and how his ties were crooked. I missed him.
Then I looked at the title: “Questions to ask Adela.” The date on the page was a month before she died.
“This isn’t a story,” he said, his voice so weak that I could barely hear him. “These things aren’t inside of me. They’re gone forever.”
“Oh,” I whispered.
My father started tearing up. I’d never seen him cry. It was messy, and when he wiped the tears, it just made them multiply.
My father’s hand was on the notebook, covering up the page, with his fingers trembling. And even though I now knew what was written there, I kept trying to look between his fingers. Like I could somehow see something that I had missed.