Right now: 11:58 Tuesday July 9.I am sitting at Dad’s kitchen table. I have draped his old Conoco jacket around the chair where he sat when we talked. In between me and the chair is the enormous family bible from a hundred years ago; I found it in the garage.
To my right, his Navy discharge papers. The TV in the other radio is playing country music, because that’s the room where he spent his nights, listening to the classic country channel. From here I can imagine he’s in his chair, perhaps dozing.
I could, but I know better.
Last time I was home - Easter - my dad left his garage door remote control in my car when we went to church. He had another, so no big deal; mail it, if you want, or wait until the next time you come home to Fargo.
I’d intended to mail it, and so I carried it every day in my backpack. My hand rustled it every day when I scrabbled for something in the front pouch.
I got used to it being there, and would press the button from time to time, imagining I could open the door from 214 miles away.
the phone rang at 10:20, and it was my brother-in-law in Fargo. I knew. Not completely, but I knew.
Why did I put up a picture of a gas station for the main site banner? I have a folder of gas station banners, and in the back of my mind I figured I’d save them for some sort of memorial, but for some reason the other day I thought no, it’s summer - road trips, that sort of thing. Better a testament to the present than a memorial some day down the road, and who knows how long that would be. It might seem strange to attach such emotions to something as banal as advertising imagery, but the gas station and the men who ran them has oversized importance to me.
It’s not like there were hints, warnings, signs - oh, he’s slowing down. Oh, maybe it’s time to talk about driving. (He was already talking with the dealership about his 2020 car.) He’d driven a load of fuel a few days before. For heaven’s sake he flew a plane last month. Last winter during the cold snap he joked about slowing down because he hadn’t walked around West Acres Mall - I mean, around, as in outside - when it was 25 below.
I could tell something was wrong the instant I picked up. Dave’s voice was a bit shaky, and he broke the news like a cop.
Your dad’s had an accident.
Instant thought: he’s going to the hospital, it’s bad, but he’s strong, hope it’s not a hip, they get clots; not a heart attack though - accident? Driving? All in a second or two. And then the hammer.
He fell on the back porch, and he’s dead. At this point Dave dissolved. I was on the stairs - I had stood and started walking the minute I picked up, and that’s where I happened to be - and I leaned on the window sill and closed my eyes and thought this, this is that day. This one. Right here. This is the day everyone knows is en route and denies, because he has a Harley in the garage, freshly shined, gassed up, ready to roll tomorrow, a stack of bills and letters on the kitchen table ready to go out tomorrow, fresh milk in the fridge, shined shoes by the back door, all the signs of a life that has every intention of another ration on the other side of the night, if you don’t mind.
This was unexpected. Except it wasn’t. Except it was. It’s been factored in, somehow, despite his vitality, because the floor in his house, while neat as a pin, is knee-deep in the pages of the calendar. He spoke of the inevitable in a casual way from time to time; he lamented the loss of his friends and family, and I gathered that he felt like one of those geological formations that survives the floods and wind and stands apart, tall and alone, after the weathering elements have been stilled. He neither leaned towards the end nor leaned away, as far as I could tell. He soldiered on.
Until now, and now it is that day.
And I am far away. But Dave is there, and that matters. He loved my Dad as much as any son, and perhaps because he wasn’t a son, even more so - you know how the predictable friction of adolescence can complicate things, no matter how small the gripes look from the distance of a decade or two. Dad took him into the family and entrusted him with the business, which has thrived under his tireless work. Dad still kept a hand in; every morning Dad came to the station to do figures and count money and bring the mail and help out with a delivery, and maybe mow the lawn if it got shaggy. But this morning he hadn’t.
Dave had got a call from my dad’s brother, who said he hadn’t shown up for the morning coffee at West Acres Mall. When Dad hadn’t shown up at the station, Dave went to the house, hoping the garage would be empty, meaning Dad was getting the oil changed on his new white Sherman tank of a vehicle. But it was there.
He’d walked in, went to the room where Dad slept in the chair while Willie and Waylon sang on the TV, but it was empty. Called. No reply. He went to the back of the house, and this is what surprised me: the back area by the fireplace? The small TV he never watched, with the remote on the end table covered with a fine patina of dust, the mantle with the array of airplane and car models - the perfect set piece for a couple to sit on a winter night and enjoy a fire while listening to music on the Sony CD Boombox that was the latest things in 2005, and probably has a CD still in it from Pavarotti or Boxcar Willie? When did he spend any time back there?
The sliding back door was slightly open. There was an empty glass on the railing. Two steps led down to the patio. He had fallen and struck his head the previous evening and laid there in the dark, laid there while the light grew and the birds began to sing and the sprinkler heads popped from the lawn.
As Dave spoke I realized that the paramedics were there now, and the body was still there. The horrible tableau was suddenly floodlit. I don’t know what we said except then I wasn’t on the phone anymore, but in the kitchen, and Birch was looking at me as if something was imminent. I went outside? I don’t know. I wandered around the house for a while.
Daughter had slept late, and I woke her. Told her the news. She hugged me. She was gutted. She loved him. He got her; he was amazing; she could always be just herself with him and he thought she was a delight. At this table where I am right now writing this, with the same placemats and the same shoes by the door, they sat last summer and had a long conversation into the night about life, and the war.
I started to pack, and it took forever. No idea what to pack - suit, yes. Good shoes. Shirts for however many days. When I was done I didn’t know if the suitcase had a trombone and a fish and a bookend; moving in a blur.
Out. The rain started as soon as I left, and traffic on the freeway went to a dead stop. Took side roads out of town, and it took an hour; I was exhausted and tired of the trip before I even hit Highway Ten.
Of course, Ten. Not 94. Ten.
All the way up I kept in touch with sister and bro-in-law and Daughter via text, dutifully read by Siri through the car’s speakers. Rain most of the way. As I got closer I started to get messages about bad weather en route, and I mean bad: tornados. Pushed on, sped up, thinking I’d make Detroit Lakes before the storms came, and would take shelter. As I entered DL the phone screeched the emergency broadcast signal: funnels en route.
I drove around looking for a cove to hide from hail, and ended up driving around the south edge of the lake where we had gone with the boat in the summer. The old pavilion was still there. DL was still the resort down - except dang, dang: the local independent department store had closed, and they’d peeled off the metal post-war rehab facade.
Somehow this seemed appropriate.
My phone screamed more warnings. The emergency broadcast system alert went off.
Judging from the maps I could conjure up, the storm had missed us and the red globs of tornados had moved; I could push through between two cells if I moved now. Got in the car and punched it.
The storm shifted and sped up, and bore down hard. Texts from sister: tornados touching down on 94. Well, glad I’m on Ten, but I cannot see. The rain was so hard there was no visibility at all, except for . . . the high bright sign of a gas station ahead to the right.
A gas station, for shelter.
Pulled off and parked under the canopy, breathed a sigh, went in to use the facilities.
And then I bought something, because my dad taught me to buy something at a gas station even if I just use the bathroom.
From there, clear roads to Fargo. Drove to Dad’s house.
Used the remote.
The door clattered open. His new white Sherman tank SUV. His black-blue-flake TruGlide Harley, shiny as brand new.
His cap on the seat.
TOMORROW: Lutheran Shiva. Updates because they were done and because life goes on.