Scorpio vs. Leo
A Mohave wind slaps my face as I speed toward a horizon of fig orchards and vineyards where the sun will eventually set. A large black Sumatra extra ice no room for milk in one cup holder, a Jamba Juice Aloha Pineapple in the other. On the radio Ariana Grande reminds me, “Ain’t got no tears left to cry.”
I’ve come from the Bronx on my teacher’s vacation to take care of my father in Fresno. He’s a bottle of tabasco. All summer I fight him to follow doctor’s orders. To heal the ulcer on his right shin, keep his feet above his heart when he naps, or shrink what looks like half-grapefruits on each foot. I remind him blood-flow complications can cause amputations of toes and feet. He stops to stare at the idea. Will the old cross-country coach let it land? No. I breathe. I’m Scorpio. He’s Leo. His pride belongs in the Museum of Natural History.
At appointments I watch him charm nurses and win over doctors. When they talk, he raises his eyebrows. He winks, “Yes, Nurse.” He agrees, “I’ll do that, Doctor.” Back at home when I remind him to keep his feet above his heart, he grins. “Fuck it. I’ll do what I want.”
My father dares karma. Irreverence is his way of telling me he’s not afraid of dying. His goal is to push it, to push it good. To be my role model.
“I taught you everything you know. But I didn’t teach you everything I know.”
My father works my last nerve every day. He also made it possible for me to play college ball. During high school summers, he picked me up every morning at 6:30 so we could be on the field by 7:00 for batting practice, groundballs, flyballs and sprints. He taught me visualization. “On game days, eat lunch fast. Then walk out to the field and sit in the stands. See yourself out there making plays that win ballgames. Smell the grass and dirt. Feel the thrill when you gun a runner down at home. Hear the crack of the bat when you smack a line drive. And then? Imagine all of it has already happened and that you’re playing college ball now.”
What I refuse to visualize is not having next summer together, eating big, poking fun and laughing till we cry. Recalling the old Giants’ roster of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal and the rivalry with the Dodgers Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax and Johnny Roseboro.
Our emotional bond was always unspoken. After I left home for good at 19, I wrote him a thank you letter. A week later it was back in my mailbox with red pencil corrections of grammar and spelling. The only message, “Keep up the good work.” I knew he loved me, but he didn’t say it out loud until years later.
I arrive at El Pollo Loco for dinner to take to his three-bedroom with the burnt dirt lawn. I’ve ordered ahead: chicken avocado salad, ten-piece chicken dinner, large sides of steaming pinto beans, red rice and macaroni and cheese. It’s not authentic Mexican, but we don’t care about fancy foodie stuff. We attack like wolves, the faster the better. Where’s that dessert?
Minutes later I open the door to Dad’s living room, dark and cool as a cave. Standing at the walker in front of his recliner in a white V-neck, he’s watching the Giants and Padres, barefoot in Jockey briefs over a diaper. He’s eating a cheese dog, extra pickles.
His wife Corazon, more like my sister than stepmom, is due home from her job as hospital nurse. She comes from a family of caregivers. Sometimes her brother is there to help Dad, who still refuses to pay for Visiting Angels.
Odor thickens the air. I grab a match from the mahogany table and light the vanilla candle Cora blows out when she leaves for work, so he doesn’t burn the place down. Table has become desk—stacks of newspaper clippings, coupons and mail would make perfect kindling. Moving slow as a sloth, he wouldn’t make it out. He boasts he can still cook, go to the bathroom by himself and drive his silver Saturn SUV. My father is about to shoot himself in the half-grapefruits.
He finishes the cheese dog. “You hungry?”
“The question is, are you hungry?”
I announce the menu, ending with macaroni and cheese. His eucalyptus eyes brighten. The garage door groans, Cora parking her blue Malibu. She enters sleepy-eyed. I make up a song.
Cora walks in from the blazing Sun.
Almost fell asleep on her hot drive home.
Too much work, she needs a long run
In a forest on a mountain where there’s room to roam.
Cora exhales. “Thank you. I needed that.”
Dad laughs and then is surprised. “Oops.”
Cora says, “Let’s walk to the bathroom, honey.” Ten minutes later she has him cleaned up in a new diaper and underwear. She has endurance I don’t. Back in his beloved recliner, Dad is mesmerized by the ballgame.
In the kitchen I tell Cora, “I don’t know how you do it.” She smiles. “God is my strength. Len was the first man who treated me like a princess. And when my brothers arrived from the Philippines, he helped them get jobs and drove them to work every day. He deserves it.”
Finally, it’s dinner time. I eat fast and then drive over to help my mom and stepdad on Sequoia Avenue. Lois is a sculptor and former black-haired beauty queen with chameleon gray eyes that turn blue or green depending on her colors that day. She’s recovering from spine surgery and wants me to do some work in the backyard before the sun goes down. Cliff, the old blue-eyed farm boy, wants to help but those days are gone. I carry Mom’s terra-cotta busts from garden to patio so she can clean them. Following doctor’s orders not to lift anything, she’s the obedient patient Dad is not. Her karma is a thing of beauty. No boomerang in the sky.
The next day is my chance to confront the danger of Dad home alone. Cora’s tried to schedule homecare, but she retreats when he growls. I promised her I’d talk to him. He’ll say he can take care of himself. He can’t, though. Earlier this summer he slammed onto the living room floor and couldn’t get up. I left Mom and Cliff watching Spider-Man: Homecoming at River Park Cinemas to go get Dad back into the recliner. I struggled to pull his dead weight upright. He taunted, “You used to be strong.” I countered, “You used to be athletic. Now you fall.” He nodded, “Good one. It hurt, but I can take it.”
I arrive early evening back at Dad’s. When I mention homecare, he’s ready to fight.
“No. I told you. I like being left alone. You can’t make me do what I don’t want to.”
“But Cora’s gone fourteen hours when she works. And you’re going to fall again.”
“I’m not going to pay for Visiting Angels. I can take care of myself.”
“Okay. But your situation’s different now. I’m trying to find a solution you can agree to. I can’t make you do what you don’t want to, right?”
“Not cute. Why all the nonsense?”
I feel my venom rising.
He piles on, “Why can’t you just get to the damn point?”
“That’s it. Fuck it!”
I storm across the room and yank my book bag from a chair, glaring at him. His face as confused as an eight-year-old boy watching his father lose his temper, back the boy against a wall and thump his sternum repeatedly with two fingers. “I’ve told you a hundred times. Turn off the faucet in the bathroom!” But the father got it wrong—it was the boy’s cousin. Afterward, the boy goes to his room, puts his pillow in a headlock and pummels it. He fights big kids at playgrounds, gets kicked out of classrooms, gets ejected from a ballgame for yelling the F-word at the ump. His temper, a time-bomb. Feelings for his father, complicated.
Love and hate. Scorpio and Leo. Water and fire.
He tries to say something, but I douse him.
“I’m so tired of your impatience. How did you get so selfish?”
“Now, wait a minute.”
“No. You wait a minute.”
I’ve become Juan Marichal at bat in the summer of 1965, provoked by Dodger catcher Johnny Roseboro’s throw to Koufax that clips Marichal’s ear. I’m number 27 perched on my toes in a wide stance, bat raised. Now I’m swinging down on his head.
“You piss me off!”
There’s no ump to stop me.
“I can’t stand this anymore.”
“Now, hold on a minute.”
“No way. I’m out. Fuck it.”
I open the front door and slam it behind me. I want to leave and never come back. I drive east on San Jose Avenue, straight toward New York City, past the yellow Not A Through Street sign and into Home Depot parking. Target’s giant red bullseye blocks my view west, but the fuchsia streaks in the sky tell me the sun has nearly set.
I’m one-hundred feet from the tracks of the San Joaquin Valley Railroad, where trains roll by and disappear all day and night. I park facing the tracks in case a black behemoth glides by and I can walk up close and smell the oil-stained ties, the grease in the wheels, and the diesel driving the engine.
Just then, invisible fingers close on my throat. The car convulses and I’m a child again, wanting no one to notice while hoping someone will.
I call Cora to see if it might help to go back and apologize. She says, “Len’s asleep now. He was upset when you left, but I understand why you yelled.”
My father is going the wrong way on a one-way. I might not see him again once I leave for the Bronx. I’m furious that he doesn’t care more. That he isn’t sharp like he used to be. That his getting old reminds me I am too. Every day he disappears, like a Union Pacific caboose. Its image diminishing down the tracks, north to Sacramento or south to Los Angeles.
Last night was my wake-up call. I’m out of breath. I haven’t made it to the gym once. I’m out of touch. No shower or shave for days, it’s time for a comeback. I wash my hair with coconut water shampoo and apply coconut milk conditioner until my head feels loved. I rehydrate with Curél Ultra Healing Lotion. I gently rotate Q-tips. I clip fingernails and toenails. I shave close. I trim my Van Dyke beard. I primp.
It’s a little before 9:00 at Mom and Cliff’s, the whole day ahead. A catharsis like last night can make a person feel certain that eruptions offer wisdom and growth. Len is doing the best he can. Me too. In the contemplative backyard with the hummingbird sugar-water on a chain, daffodil birdhouses and red clay portrait sculptures, I play Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack Once Upon a Time in the West. I read Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. I meditate.
An hour later I’m ready to patch things up with Dad. I check my phone in the bedroom. Oh, my. How good vibes can change. He’s tried calling four times since 8:15, but I had it on mute. Has he fallen? Is he having a heart attack? I dial his home phone. The mailbox is full. Did he need a ride and decide to drive?
Before I can call Cora, my phone rings.
She’s crying. “Len fell asleep and crashed the car he’s bleeding I can’t talk sorry.”
That’s it? Is this the day it all ends? Is he in an ambulance rushing to Emergency? If he isn’t, they’ll be at the house soon. I yell, “Mom, Cliff! Dad’s been in an accident. I’m leaving.”
I tear down the road. I lose track of time. My mind races to another world. I daydream myself into his SUV. I’m here behind him on the edge of the backseat in the car he hasn’t driven since last summer. I see us both in the rearview mirror. I hear him breathe, smell his Old Spice aftershave. I watch him fading, blinks labored, eyes watery.
Weeks ago, Cora was there when Dad admitted to falling asleep in his car at the nearest stop sign. A woman in a minivan full of children got out to wake him up. I warned him he’d better not drive again. He asked why. “Because you don’t want to be George Russell Weller, the 86-year-old guy who drove into a crowd, injured sixty people and killed ten, including a 3-year-old girl at Farmers Market in Santa Monica on July 16, 2003. 86 is your age. If you’re not careful, that could be you.” He said, “How’d you remember all those details?” “I didn’t. I looked it up because you make me nervous.” He stopped to stare and think it all over. “Okay. But I can drive if I need to.” I stopped to stare and think it all over. “Not on prescription drugs, you can’t. You’ll fall asleep.” Cora backed me up by informing him that the top three side effects of Lyrica are drowsiness, dizziness and loss of coordination.
Back in my dreamworld his eyes begin to surrender. Dad! You have to stay awake—you could kill someone! He doesn’t hear me. He’s nodding off. I desperately want to help, but it’s impossible to save someone from the backseat. In his rearview, I no longer recognize myself.
What did Cora mean when she said he was bleeding? From where – the head, throat, mouth, nose, eyes, body?
Waiting in the driveway, I can’t breathe. Little things like a phone on mute can alter lives. When would he ever be more vulnerable than after verbal assault by his son? He tried to do the right thing by calling me this morning, doing the best he could. And then he thought, But I can drive if I need to. I was busy primping.
I warned him, but I should’ve taken his keys. I knew about this possibility, yet I lost track of the big cat big picture when I attacked him. I was hoping he’d stop to stare and think it all over. That he’d decide to do whatever it takes to live on. I never imagined I wouldn’t save him from himself. Never knew that Scorpio vs. Leo could end in a tie ballgame and sudden death.
When I see Cora’s Malibu, I know he’s alive. She parks and I help Dad out of the car.
“Hey Dad, how’re you feeling?”
“Boy, oh boy.” Periscope eyes search for what just happened.
Inside, we help him to the recliner so Cora, unusually quiet, can dress his wounds.
“I feel blessed and ashamed. I didn’t know I fell asleep until I woke up. I told myself that was going to be the last time I drove. Where I crashed, there’s an island of oleanders and a chain-link fence next to a schoolyard. First thing I saw was boys in front of the car.”
“So, you almost hit them?” I want it to sink in. I want him to feel the sting of not listening to me about the danger of driving on drugs. I want it to be his fault. But I know it’s mine.
“I feel awful about that. I took out about a hundred feet of that fence. Two female officers on motorcycles stopped and were in a hurry to get me out. But they couldn’t get the doors open. They were afraid the steering wheel thing might go off. What do you call that thing?”
“Right. The airbag inflates late sometimes. Those things are projectiles, you know. Well, finally they got me out and one put gauze on my elbows while the other called Cora.”
I don’t say anything. In the silence he sleeps.
Cora’s voice sleep-walks: “How did Len drive all the way to the doctor’s he fell asleep on the way back but thank God for the female officers they were so tall and slim I need to start running again oh my our fear came true remember when you talked about what would happen?”
Cora yawns and is soon asleep, too.
Thirty minutes later, Len grunts his eyes open. Cora wakes up, herself again.
“How do you feel now, Dad?”
“My body hurts. At least I was wearing my seatbelt. I’m grateful no one else got hurt. Boy, am I glad to be home. Good thing I have Cora to take care of me. Is there anything to eat? You hungry?”
Cora beams. “I’ll make you something, honey. You want a cheese dog?”
“Yes, please. Two cheese dogs with extra pickles would be a dream.”
Colton Green (@coltongreen3034) teaches high school in the Bronx. He received an M.F.A. in Writing from Lindenwood University. His prose appears at Pithead Chapel, Prometheus Dreaming, The Ignatian and elsewhere. Colton has been named finalist in contests at Bellingham Review, Blue Mesa Review, Tucson Festival of Books and Cutthroat. His work can be read at coltongreen.com