"Your Father, The Writer: An Exercise in Deus Ex Machina"
Your head’s not right. Hasn’t been for days. Muddled, clouded, fuzzy brained. This machine doesn’t help. You're too accustomed to a computer and don’t have the patience to operate this antiquated hunk of junk. How your father managed all those years, cranking out thousands of pages, you cannot imagine. The response is sluggish, too resistant. At least five keys stick, two of them vowels, creating jams in the well that require careful study and undue diligence to untangle. What good is any writing machine that contests every stroke?
The air doesn’t help. You can taste the salt, smell the ocean. Maybe typewriter keys, like the oar locks on your father’s skiff, require regular oiling.
Already your fingers ache. The page is a mess, pockmarked with errors. There’s no eraser tape in your father's desk. Your mother said there was eraser tape and White-Out. Just as well. If you found the tape you’d hang yourself. If you found the White-Out, you’d probably drink it.
Okay, okay, okay. You need to focus. You need to calm the fuck down.Too much coffee, not enough sleep. This is a horrible example of your abilities. Typos aside, it's an ugly first draft, a chaotic mess tossed together from a dozen index cards of notes scribbled over the last few days.To quote your father, whom you make a point to avoid quoting: “Life always gets in the way of good writing.”
It’s not your fault. You've been preoccupied with reality, unable to commit the necessary time to this assignment. Handing in this sorry excuse for a story, seeing your pretty professor's sly grin as she stacks the manuscript atop the others, you trust -- when she finally gets around to grading it, turning pages with her moderately long, clear-polished nails -- she won’t misconstrue your intentions.
This piece, though patched and darned, is rubbish. You expect that she, your instructor, (whom you have on occasion pictured naked, or with a towel wrapped around her midriff, or in nylons, garters and heels, ankles on your shoulders,) will not overlook this fact. You’d hate for her to be amused at this slick attempt at existential buffoonery. Not for a moment should this slapdash entertain beyond its limited capacity to shock with sudden confidential autobiographical truth.
Your father is dying. Your father the writer – author of six books, and a retired university professor -- is dying of cigarettes, and booze, and fifty adult years of eating the wrong food. He is sixty-eight and fading so quickly, without comment or complaint, that you find the entire process as terrifyingly real as it is unsettling to fictionalize. You are not a reckless student but pressed as you are you've decided to write what you know -- about death, your father, the melodrama affecting those who love his life.
You believed your reasoning was sound, doing what you've done so often, repeating your best imitation of your father, sitting at his desk, his typewriter, acting the virtuoso, treating your father's cancer as just an element in a story, one that he himself might record-- you believed doing this would help ease some of the pressure you've been feeling. Of course, once you set your hands on the old man’s machine, you realized that it's a thoughtless, careless act. And what was it Schopenhauer said? "A man who writes carelessly at once proves that he himself puts no great value on his own thoughts."
Nevertheless, writing about a fictional father dying is an easy chore in comparison to your very real moment-to-moment heartache.
Sunday, you flew in to this small patch of land off the coast of Rhode Island. You flew US Air from Chicago and landed in Green airport on the mainland. From there you rode a small six-passenger commuter over to Block Island, just you and the pilot. You hate Rhode Island in winter. You hate the ocean that tears at the land like an icy claw, and the silence of angry surf churning beneath a small two-engine plane.
Your mother, who will be sixty this Christmas, but whom could pass for a woman of forty-five, was waiting in the window of the airport's crummy diner. She looked tall and thin and lovely in her long gray coat. You waved wildly with both hands as you walked toward the diner and when she finally saw you she came out into the icy wind. While you hugged you watched your plane taxi and take off. Part of you stayed on the ground with your mother while the rest of you sat behind the pilot and waited for him to nose dive into the Atlantic. When the plane banked behind a cloud you cleared your throat and asked your mother how she was coping. She held you tight, her fists pressing into your back. You felt her trembling so you waited a long moment before releasing her.
Then you listened to her sobs and didn't say a word until she said: "I'm glad you're here. I'm so glad. It's been scary. He's degenerating so quickly. Your sister is terribly angry. And I'm... I'm just a little tired and very afraid."
The house your grandfather built is five miles inland, almost dead center of the island. Your mother drives. She talks without pausing, a chatterbox the whole way. Her mouth doesn't stop. Her angular face, you notice, is raw, paler than usual, her eyes sunk deep and listless. She'll go next, less dramatically than your father. You don't take your eyes off of her face as she drives, talking on and on, yet you hardly register a word of what she says.
Your sister Dee waits in the bluestone driveway. There is a mild chill in the air, but Dee is wearing an Arctic parka with a big furry hood bunched behind her neck. A cigarette dangles from her lips; huge pink curlers grow from her head. She waves at you, clutching a pair of long scissors. "Careful with those shears," your mother says. "They're sharper than they look."
Dee and you exchange a gentle embrace, then she guides you in, firmly holding your hand. She leads you through two cluttered rooms, directly to his bedside. He is asleep, rasping beneath an oxygen mask. His hair is neatly combed, his face clean-shaven.
"Still haggardly handsome, ain't he?" Dee says.
You think of correcting her English, as she uses her fingernails to pinch something from one of his eyebrows. You stand stiffly, watching.
"Aren't you warm in that coat," you ask, and she says "Hush. He'll hear you."
"And then what?"
"Then he'll die for sure, in a finger snap, just out of spite," Dee says, and squeezes your hand, pulling you closer as she leans into you.
She rests the side of her face on your shoulder. Her hair smells odd, a chemical scent you can’t put your finger on. Every few seconds she squeezes your hand, rhythmically imitating a slow pulse, and you stand that way, side by side, silent for several minutes in your feeble attempt to stave off death. Neither of you speak, but it's apparent you're playing at something -- acting out in reverse a game you performed as children whenever you judged your father too strict or too inattentive.
"I've got a hunger for Johnny Cakes and Clam chowder," your mother says. "Anyone else? Not counting the Johnny Cake king himself."
At dinner you eat too much too fast, and the heavy, salty food makes you sleepy. You lie on the couch, unable to close your eyes, marveling at the strategic positioning of your father's big chair. You get up and move to the chair so that you can see the yard, the road, the TV, and the front entrance all at once. You imagine this is what it's like to sit on a king's throne, how it feels to be a king.
Hours later, you wake, drenched with sweat, heart racing out of control. You're in Chicago, in your own bed. Your roommate, who's also a grad student in the MFA writing program, is crouched over his ultra-thin laptop. It's four hours before your scheduled flight to Rhode Island. You've done it again, dreamed your father's demise. Is it an involuntary delusion, or an exercise in Deus ex machina?
Either way, you're not looking forward to the flight, or the visit -- though you can discern the possibilities of a first-rate fiction developing from the events. You remind yourself to bring a stack of index cards and take careful notes every step of the way. You'll live this dream again, years from now, alone in a small cemetery dotted with flat-stone markers on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. With the sun high and harsh, the glare off the water dazzling, you'll taste salt in the wind and notice that someone -- your sister, no doubt -- cut and laminated the clipping from the Sunday obituaries, weighted it with a rock to your father's gravestone.
Crouched forward, your face inches from the ground, you'll try to find your name listed among the survivors. Did they mention that you too are a writer, an associate professor at your dead father's Alma Mater? But the print is too small and you aren't wearing your reading glasses. Nevertheless, it is here, on your knees, between a breath and a sigh, while squinting to discern the blur of newspaper text, that you understand there are no more words to align, no sentences left to arrange, now that the world has lost your father's eyes. And you don’t know a soul, in fiction or in the flesh, to whom you wish to speak about it.
Bob Thurber is the author of Paperboy: A Dysfunctional Novel and other titles. Over the years his stories have received a long list of awards and honors, garnered critical acclaim and appeared in Esquire and other notable publications. Selections have been included in over 60 anthologies and utilized as teaching tools in schools and universities throughout the world. Visit: