Susan Eve Haar
“Die! Die! Die!” Her father is leaning his head out the car window, the tepid Miami air blowing in his face. He’s shouting at a child, a girl of perhaps eleven, who looks mildly surprised. Clutching the edge of the glass, he cranes his head back, watching the girl disappear, then falls back to the seat, his face flushed with pleasure.
The old Toyota stinks of urine; the dark blue upholstery is stained. She cranks the window open. It looks all right, like a normal car, except for the handicapped sign that dangles off the mirror. What a privilege that is, like a Get Out of Jail Free card, useful for so many things. It makes a trip to Costco sparkle, that and the motorized carts of course. Her father had ogled them longingly, those hot rods for the handicapped, but she’s never let him drive.
She glances at him and he smiles like a guilty child, her father and not. Through the window he’s regarding a strip of palm trees, dumbstruck with wonder. She has the distinct impression that he thinks he’s on the moon. Or a merry-go-round. Or at the movies, as he’d told her once while they were eating falafel on Fourteenth Street. He was already gone then, but she hadn’t gotten the drift. He seemed pretty much the same, just nicer, relatively speaking. The man had always had a kaleidoscopic mind that got overheated from time to time; that’s what she’d told herself.
At Costco she’d pushed him up and down the aisles, greedy for samples—Shady Brook turkey meatballs, he’d deftly used a toothpick for that, holding the quartered meatball reverentially. That was followed by some Middle Eastern cheese dip featuring feta and then two aisles down candied popcorn that he’d chewed with thoughtful gravity. She’d expected him to burst out laughing.
Her father had always favored girls; you would have thought that helped. Though girls are, after all, children. Still, he’d shared her appetite for Soviet science fiction and once bought her the replica of an Egyptian cat she’d yearned for. Perhaps he’d known even then that it’s daughters who show up when the chips are down. He’d known that one day he would need her, and today is that day.
She can’t get over her impression that this is an alternative reality, some fissure into which the two of them have tumbled. Perhaps a sadistic installation project. She expects her father to wink and call off all these old-man shenanigans and be her father again, volatile and obstreperous, her beloved monster daddy. Can’t they quit this charade and go to the Harvard Club for dinner? Part of her knows that he will never again give her ten dollars to take a cab home, that the feints and parries of their love will soon be stripped away. She shies from the thought.
She’d tried to get him help. The nice Argentinian gerontologist had administered a battery of tests that left her father wild with anxiety, like a newly branded bull. She couldn’t bear it. This was her father, a man of gravitas. A man to be reckoned with, advisor to presidents from Kennedy to Clinton, and now this? Judged and measured in an office mall someplace in Florida? Neither she nor her father liked it. On the way out, her father had told the doctor he was an idiot who didn’t speak English. It’s true that English wasn’t the doctor’s native tongue, but then it wasn’t her father’s either. She’d helped him out the door.
All in all her father looks pretty good if you put him in clean clothes. His hair still covers his scalp; she notices that, remembering how she watched his morning routine, fascinated, as a child. First came the Royal Canadian Mounted Police exercises, toe touching, knee raising, and lateral bending, all executed in his pajamas. Next he’d stimulate his scalp with some kind of vibrating contraption. Rows of small silver coils, electrically charged, were mounted on a glove—she’d found that particularly intriguing—and he’d rub it around his head while singing Puccini. The machine had worked pretty well, she reflects.
In so many ways her father has held on. It makes her sad that he’s so brave and so desperate. Sometimes he still manages to act like himself. He proclaims in a variety of languages she doesn’t understand: Yiddish, Polish, and the occasional smattering of Japanese left over from the war. He still makes the occasional dirty joke, or bursts into bellowed arias. He tries to write; he tries to remember. She knows he’s battling to hold onto his mind, but it’s not really working out. Her daddy, as she has known him, is disappearing. As the sun sets, so does he.
She sees his terror now in the fading light, then watches as it morphs into a kind of wonder. “Like a movie,” he told her, everything new and anything possible. He has no idea what to expect, or what the world expects of him. Sometimes he thinks he’s a little boy, tying his finger to the bedpost so it won’t go up to heaven and tattle to God; sometimes he’s in the New Guinea jungle, fighting the war, and she waits patiently for him to come back. And sometimes he’s all there with her. She sees him alive in his hazel eyes. She’s so glad to have him back, but it’s hard too. She knows he knows. He’s a prisoner of time, an intimate observer of his own demise. What he sees frightens him, and he takes a lot of naps.
He tries to cover; he quotes Disraeli and suggests arcane stock manipulation. He is clever and surreptitious, coy; hiding his handicaps, as he does his penis, waiting on the toilet seat, calling to her for fresh underwear. Yes, he has held onto remnants. And he is sweet now, probably the product of stroke.
But perhaps the sweetness was always there, she wonders, startled by the thought. Perhaps it simply didn’t have room to manifest. He was always a creature of a voracious ambition that superseded all. Hungry for recognition, for power, and yes, the life of the mind. The mind, that’s how he had always known himself. Prizes, scholarships, the summa key that opened doors. His intellect had lifted him from the streets of New York to the pinnacles of power. Though the pleasures of the flesh inveigled him, it was his mind he’d truly treasured.
Perhaps it had to be that way, or the man would have been selling herring out of a barrel. But now what? What is there left to be ambitious for? What is her father but a mosaic of his own history, glued together by the sheer force of his will. Like a charioteer holding onto the straps, the chariot long gone.
“Seat belt,” she says. But she knows she’ll have to stop and put it on him.
Her father seems puzzled by it all, trying to keep himself in good spirits in this limbo between knowing himself and not. But he’s often so afraid at night, she wants to wrap him up like a child and carry him away. He cries sometimes, and clings to her, inconsolable. He calls to her as wife, as sister, as mother. She tries to comfort him, then chides him gently when he tells her he’s going to marry her.
“I can’t marry you, Dad,” she’d said. “It’s just not done.”
“I know.” He had given her a crooked smile. “I’ve got the best lawyers working on it.”
When his wife dropped dead, she’d found him living in a state of ruin, soiled clothes composting in the bedroom to which he had been relegated, the surfaces strewn with bank statements, well-aged journals, and jars of the face cream he credited for his ageless looks. He never married women for their housekeeping.
Her mother, too, had abhorred the imposition of order. Indeed her parents had reveled in their dishevelment, as if it were a distinguishing mark. Family life was not for them. Though they’d settled down in a brick house owned by the university, her father had never really accepted the impediment of children. He often said he wished she’d never been born. And she had to accept that it was true. Her mother, though she acceded to motherhood, would not bow to circumstances either. Though she drove the carpool, she never changed the sheets. It was all about upending bourgeois values. Or else they had no idea how to keep house. Even then her father was pretending; she sees that now. Family life was a part of the picture that was sketched in, though the marriage was painted in saturated color. Their intensity was only for each other.
So strange that in the end she has him all to herself, so unexpected. The acolytes, the sycophants, the lovers, the companions of the mind and coconspirators, all gone.
“We’re going to Collins for rugelach and coffee,” she tells him now, but he’s already lost in the scenery. She wants it to be good for him, this second childhood, sweet. She wants him to feel like the birthday boy every day. She wants there to be lollipops at the doctor’s, opera at the phlebologist’s.
She wants him to finally love her.
Susan Eve Haar is a writer and playwright living in New York City. A member of The Actor’s Studio and The Writers Guild East, her work has been published in Best Short Plays of 2018, Best Women’s Monologues of 2018, 2019 and 2020 . It has been produced at a variety of venues including Primary Stages, The Women’s Project, and the Edinburgh Festival. Visit her website at https://www.susanevehaar.com.