Editor’s Choice Award
BY ERIN TOWNSEND
My father crosses his hands like he’s calling for a time out. This is where the white meets the red, he says. He nods at the paint swatches on the tree. New development: locating ourselves, with regularity, especially on hiking trails. He doesn’t need maps. He is his own compass. I nod to indicate that I am paying attention, but the image in my head is glossy paper catching the light, piecemeal and blinding. I am distracted by sounds of water. The babbling brook at the trailhead—truly a brook, truly babbling—I can hear from here.
I suppose he has always done this in one form or another. Not exclusive to hiking; on the way home he reminds me that Highridge connects back to Pilfershire Lane. Down the end of Prospect is where we used to live. This here is the barn that burned down the year you were born. He takes West St. instead of Rte. 79 because it meets up with Rte.10 and it’s faster that way.
He traces the pathways in the air with his index. I tell him to watch the road, but he doesn’t like being babied. Or, I don’t like being babied. What’s the difference?
I am not there when his legs snap underneath him. A different hike for a different day. Whether or not he locates himself there I don’t know; I only know my father as his own tree, branched and immovable, and it’s impossible to picture him toppling.
Mom calls me second, or rather, last. I tell her, just pick a favorite, already. It couldn’t be me— stumbling over my words, laughing at all the wrong times, I hold sincerity like an unwilling cat. Need a laugh track for everything:
Your father is in the hospital.
What is it? What is it. I guess—it looks like a brain bleed.
Crowd is in an uproar—
Surgery is Wednesday.
What’s the laugh-equivalent of the Wilhelm scream, I wonder?
No, my brother is the obvious choice. The older, straighter, tidier offspring. He calls me, too, but only to ask if Mom has called me yet. A Momma’s Boy. His children—2 and 4, no, 3 and 5—stomp their feet in the background. Can we have lunch soon? Where are my blue shoes? Blue. Where is Mommy?
So I make a playlist. It’s called, Bullet in my Brain, and all the songs are themed: “Where is my Mind”, “Dazed and Confused”, “Blood Bank”, “Heads Will Roll”. It doesn’t matter if he knows the bands, but he does. He knows every band. He has every band on vinyl. Every band on vinyl before they were cool, and before vinyl was re-cool. He tells me: Page stole “Dazed and Confused” from Jake Holmes. I ask him, how’s the jello at the hospital? He says, disappointing. Just like my daughter!
This is the way we show love.
Technically, Jimmy Page stole “Dazed and Confused” twice: once for the Yardbirds, and once for Zeppelin. Is it the song that made him, or the audacity? This is something Dad doesn’t know.
Other ways we show love:
- Buying matching snuggies to be funny
- Reminding Mom that she has seen that movie already
- Never returning things we loan each other
- Hugging with only one arm
- Making craniotomy-themed playlists
That Wednesday I text him good luck, although I don’t tell him that I love him, even though I know I should. Instead, I say, should I request any extras? Maybe they can upgrade you. Implant some memories, like, I got all straight As in high school, or maybe they can make you a better singer. He says, can they give me x-ray eyes?
I wonder if he maps out sentences the way he does trails. In my head, he is awake and giving the doctors directions around his own brain. I know that’s not how it works. I know his eyes are closed the whole time.
He tilts the screen up. I can see the top half of his shining forehead and a grid of white ceiling tiles. They look like the kind you can push up and stash things in. Can you see it? But I can only see his receding hairline. He adjusts, looks left—there it is. A wriggling earthworm sewn into his head, ten staples puckering the skin. The roads in his head spilling over. You could be in Mad Max, I tell him. Witness me, he says.
Witness: he looks like Party City Julius Caesar. An ill-draped toga with too much sleeve, half a crown.
For some weeks, it’s brain jokes. You know where you are, Dad? What year is it, Dad? Who is the president? When he butt-dials or typos, he’s never heard of San Cisco or Electric Guest, I tell him, they must’ve left utensils in there. Forks and spoons and soup ladles clogging up all that space.
Even after Mom calls again to say that he isn’t progressing like he should be, they want to keep an eye on it, I lead us in the chorus. See, we say, told you they left something in there. Dropped a scalpel. Oh, the brain is supposed to be on the inside?
When he needs a change of scenery, he calls me to pick him up. The doctors banned him from driving so he does it from the passenger’s seat: don’t take this left, take the next one. My GPS politely tells us to make a u-turn. This will put us back on Hartland, he says. It doesn’t. I am inconsolable with laughter. It’s okay, I tell him, it’s all those forks. He points out the brook on the way in—hear that?—but today it is quiet, iced shut.
It is slower-going than usual. We break at the top, sit our asses on jagged rocks and cram fistfuls of Doritos into our mouths. He is not supposed to have them, either. Below us, the trees slope down and pour over onto frozen land, punctuated by tiny chimneys on far-away homes. It is between mouthfuls that he tells me: they want him to go back in. Something is not right. These are the words he uses.
Below his hat hair, the scar curves into a dead-end at the back of his ear. I map the seam with my fingers. Here is where white meets red, I say. Trying to locate us in the before. He doesn’t understand.