I sit on the edge of my seat. The weight of my body is perfectly balanced on my left butt bone like a circus elephant on one foot. ‘Don’t touch anything, don’t touch anything’ is the mantra looping through my mind. It's the scene from Trainspotting. I am swimming in some crap-filled toilet water of disease. Everything is the color of dill pickles. The air, the walls, the skin tones, my chair. We're in the emergency room of the VA hospital. Not a normal place. I practice taking very shallow breaths so as not to suck in too much death. I stare at a bright orange sign, scotch-taped to a door directly across from me, silently screaming its warning. Keep Out (unless you want to catch what this guy has and die a horrible horrible death). I swear. There is a sign prohibiting anyone, unless authorized and fully haz-mat suited, to cross that threshold. And yet, there is a 3 inch gap between the bottom of that door and the floor. So I'm pretty sure the invisible monster within can ooze and slither under and out in search of unwitting victims. I stare. And wait. And watch.
Dad’s cute little doctor, who at best just turned 13, wears her battle fatigue like a shrunken sweater. And I wonder if this is what she had in mind when she declared pre-med as her major. I listen to the moaning, the snoring, the beeping of machines. Time disappears in all this green. The line gets blurred between afternoon and midnight. How long does it take to give Dad his cat scan or MRI or whatever the hell test he is having?
I squirt more Purell into my hands. The fourteenth squirt in five minutes. I hold my hands over my nose and inhale the alcohol hoping it will cleanse my lungs. God I wish I still smoked. Or was the kind of person who carried a flask in her purse. And I wish I were home. Nagging my kid to pick up his shoes. Or finish his damn homework. Something normal. This is not normal. But mostly I wish my dad would just come back. Back from the test. Back from the dementia. Back to that place, to those moments that only exist between us. The ones where we catch each other’s eyes and smile or laugh and no one else, nothing else, exists. I wish.
The double doors bang open and his bed is being pushed through the green. As he’s wheeled past, looking lost and hollow, I stand. I follow him past the hazard door, the drug overdose and the heart attack veteran, to the third curtain on the right. Then he recognizes me. “Kerschloonker!” he says like he hasn’t seen me in weeks. “When did you get here?”
“I’ve been here Pop. Remember?” A senseless word I still use with him as though hearing it might magically trigger his old self.
“Well I’m sure glad you came. I been way down under ground. In the basement of this here building.”
“Yeah. I know. Why’s your hair so crazy?” I ask him.
“Is it? Is it crazy?”
“Yeah,” I say. I try to smooth it down for him. It doesn’t feel like Daddy’s hair. Not my daddy’s hair. This guy's hair is coarse and dry and all akimbo.
“Musta been that fortune teller,” he says. She musta messed up my hair.”
“The fortune teller?” I say. I give him that look I give when I'm trying to remind him to behave.
“I’m not lying. This crazy red headed woman. Had all these cards. Wantin' to...” He makes circling motions with his right hand. Then stops and looks at me. Then he circles his hand in the air again.
“Wantin' to what?” I say. “Tell your fortune?”
He grins a child's grin. I stand at the bedrail. His glasses are missing. Nothing between me and his faded blue eyes. "You don’t believe me?” he says. "I figured she was trying to pull some kinda scam on me. but turns out. she wadn’t."
“She wasn’t?” I say. I pet his hand. Pet it like he's a puppy or a baby or an angora scarf.
"No," he says. "Cuz this fella, this taxi driver, pulled up to us in the hallway. And he told me I could trust her. Said she was legit."
“Dad?" I raise my eyebrows. "A taxi driver? A taxi driving inside the hospital? Does that make sense to you?" He pauses. Looks inside himself for an answer, any answer that the dementia hasn’t erased. Then wrinkles his nose and grins again. The color in his eyes seems to get denser. "I think it was a taxi. He told me she wadn’t trying to scam me a’tall. Said the fortunes were free.”
I nod. I study him. “I’m tellin ya.” He waved his hand. “True story.”
There is nothing normal about a VA hospital. And there’s nothing normal about a mind that’s been hijacked by dementia. So I waver between what is possible and what is unlikely. Maybe there was a fortune teller in the basement hallway. Or more likely he was scared. Confused about where he was and what was happening, he gathered little bits of sense from the nooks and shallows of the unadulterated portions of his brain and strung them together into a story. A story he could hold onto. Because, it’s the story, always a story, that Daddy can understand. I grin back without showing my teeth. Then I break out laughing, and he joins me and at once, we are howling and doubled over and wiping tears and gasping for breath and crying and laughing a little more. Because we both get this joke, called life. And for that one minute, I saw him. My dad was back. We were back. Back in that place where we had always recognized one another. We were home.