Daddy weaved over me, his eyes bleary yet indignant.
"Phoebe. Where’s the damn cheddar?” He grunted, then turned, the belt of his plaid robe trailing on the floor. I stumbled up, tripping over the afghan, and followed.
The kitchen reeked of vinegar and over-ripe fruit. He stood before the refrigerator, rooting in the vegetable drawer. Apples and pears and Kosher dills rolled at his feet. God. Oh God. The grandfather clock boomed. I counted each chime …ten… eleven… twelve… then exhaled.
“Daddy.” I picked up a bottle of soda fizzing under the table. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for cheese,” he said. “Your mother didn’t fix dinner.”
Mrs. Snyder didn’t look much like Mom although I did, with my long blond hair, hazel-green eyes and wisp of a body. I took in the neat stack of washed plates by the sink, the ketchup blotching his tee shirt, then lured him to the table with a glass of orange juice. He drank while I knelt in pickle juice, swabbing the floor with dish towels.
“Honey, where’s your fiancé?” he said. “He doesn’t visit anymore.” He smiled at me, eyes solemn and clear. He’d never met Kevin. “Did he get lost?” He giggled. “In his lab with his crazy mice?”
My stomach clenched. “Ben and I broke up--”
“Ah, Ben… yes, that’s his name.” He nodded. “He loves you – I see it in the way he looks at you. You know, I’m not sure I approve of him, too young, too immature. Maybe it’s his manic-depression that makes him jump around like a ping-pong ball. Who knows, who knows… but I have to admit, he is good to you.”
I blinked fast. With mechanical care I returned the pickles to their jar, each one making a wet, plopping sound. I slowly stood, pitching the bruised pear toward the sink. The fruit hit the cabinet instead and splattered on the floor. Oh God, give me patience. Please don’t let me lose it now. Facing the counter so he couldn’t see me, I dabbed my eyes with the corner of the towel, but the garlicky brine only made me cry harder.
He asked again for his sandwich. I turned to the fridge, found the cheese, plastic-wrapped American, hidden behind a six-pack of grape Fanta. I grabbed mustard, deli-sliced ham, and too-fluffy white bread. Daddy hated American cheese, hated Wonderbread and ‘spam ham’ full of sulfites and God knows what else. After all, until this year he grew organic vegetables. Damn Mrs. Snyder for buying all this junk. I’d have to go to the grocery store tomorrow, always an ordeal with Daddy in tow.
I breathed in and out, concentrating on the sound of sleet skittering against the window before forcing a smile. I brought the plates to the table. Daddy stared at his sandwich, then unfolded a napkin in his lap.
“This is good.” Crumbs fell from his mouth.
I settled across from him. The cheese larded my mouth. A quarter into the sandwich I remembered his meds, kept in the pillbox on the counter. I tapped out the memantine and galantamine onto a napkin. Expensive drugs for dementia, probably useless at this stage, but maybe he’d be worse without them. At least that’s how I justified their expense. But where was the third pill? His antipsychotic? I rummaged in the cupboard until I found the almost empty bottle wedged between Maalox and aspirin, and made a mental note to order a refill in the morning.
Daddy swallowed his pills without fuss. He reached across the stained Formica table and patted the top of my hand. Still steady, still the touch of a confident physician. I wrapped my fingers around his.
“So how’s life down south?”
My shoulder muscles softened; Daddy was back. “Good. A few more months of my fellowship, then I’m on my own. A real doctor.”
“A pain specialist.” His eyes crinkled at the corners. “I’m proud of your hard work, honey. Medicine is one of the most challenging but rewarding careers. Did I ever tell you about when I was interning at Mass general and the Hong Kong flu swept through Boston? Bedlam, absolute bedlam. Up for six nights straight. Not enough beds so we had patients camped along the Charles. Warm winter that year, so the flu spread…”
I pushed aside the uneaten sandwich and closed my eyes. His voice rambled, thick with memory. I’d heard this story many times in recent weeks; he seemed stuck in a time warp from forty years ago. I wondered if this particular memory would fade like the others.
I blinked at my mother’s name.
“I’m worried, about Phoebe. She hides in her room all day long. I know you don’t feel well, but you need to speak with her - she won’t talk to me. She’s alone too much, and it doesn’t do--”
“Daddy, Mom’s dead.”
He stared at me. His next syllable hung in the air for a fraction, then he continued with his worries about me from another lifetime.
I didn’t know how much longer I could do this.
Excerpted from PURE, a novel currently in a state of distress. Go here to read more about Phoebe...
And hey -- this is my 200th post. Cool.