Today is Father’s Day, and S&R would like to wish a happy one to America’s dads.
At the same time, and in the contrary spirit that often typifies what we do around here, I’d like to be the one who acknowledges that our relationships with our fathers are often less than we’d hope for. Frankly, some dads are complete bastards, and in many cases they’re probably at least a complex mixed bag. And why not – being a parent is hard, I’m told. This basic reality makes the guys who get it right even more worthy of our love and respect.
It’s no worse than fair to say that my own father lived his life out between Mixed Bagville and the untamed Bastardlands, and truth be told I have a hard time remembering him as more good than bad. Whatever salvation he may or may not have reached at the end, I’ll never have a chance to make peace with the man any more than he was able to make peace with the demands and obligations of fatherhood.
So this is dedicated to everybody out there today honoring the institution of fatherhood under protest, and in particular it goes out to my little sisters, Marty and Cindy, who shared the experience of our father, Norris G. Smith, with me. I laugh as best I can, and I try to be honest about the ambivalence of it all.
Originally posted April 10, 2008.
It’s around 9 a.m. May 1, 1994. My stepmother, Kathie, has spent the night at Forsyth Memorial Hospital with my father, Larry, who will die late this afternoon. Their next-door neighbor, Wayne, is driving her home so she can shower and maybe get an hour or two of sleep. She hasn’t slept much in the six weeks since Daddy was admitted to the hospital with massive liver failure. Wayne has been a constant and salving presence during his friend’s illness.
Ten miles, maybe, down Silas Creek Parkway, through the south side of Winston-Salem, then on out Highway 109’s low, pine-strewn roll of hills to where Gumtree Road cuts across, demarcating the northern boundary of Wallburg, NC. This is where Daddy and Kathie live, and it’s where I grew up. These are the cultural outlands of the sprawling new metropolitan South. Our neighborhood straddles the Davidson and Forsyth County lines, and stands too far out into the country to be properly called suburban. But it’s also way too close to Winston to be considered rural. In some senses it’s a border town, possessing neither the urban sophistication of the city nor the kind of “agrarian virtue” my college Politics professor liked to attribute to country living. Antebellum mystique is dead elsewhere, and it never happened here.
Daddy’s place is one of the neighborhood’s older houses, built up in the late 1950s just as the baby boom was starting to lose its steam. But since they converted the carport into a den, added a new covered garage on the side, and painted everything a nice shade of sunshiny yellow, it’s one of the nicer places on the street, offering a welcome visual alternative to the predominant red-brick rancherscape. This is especially true since some of the more recent additions to the neighborhood have involved “prefabricated homes” and double-wides. Longstanding “real house”-owners like my father stand in their gravel driveways and talk about these things amongst themselves sometimes, arms crossed, eyes squinting as the sun slips behind the pines.
Wayne and Kathie turn into the driveway. The house key is hidden inside Daddy’s big smoker grill around back. Kathie cuts through the carport and turns the corner in time to look up and see Randy Wilson, my best buddy from childhood, crawling out through her bedroom window. The Wilsons live down the street a couple of houses, and our families have been friends for over 30 years. Daddy and Greer, Randy’s father, are men whose children grew up together, played baseball together. Although they aren’t intimate friends, exactly, they are men with much in common, men who relate to one another easily. Neighbors. Men who are comfortable trading tales over the occasional beer.
Kathie screams. Randy topples to the ground, more or less head first, rolls and comes up hauling ass for the woods. He’s busted, but due to the stress of the moment he hasn’t quite figured it out yet.
By now Kathie has made it back out front, hysterical, so Wayne retrieves the key. They go in the house and once he gets Kathie calm enough to explain what happened, they call the Sheriff’s department. Or rather, they’re trying to call the Sheriff’s department, but are distracted by Randy, who has evidently come to understand the nature of the pickle vat in which he now finds himself soaking. He slinks out of the woods like a cur dog, circles through the scrubby side yard between Daddy and Kathie’s house and the Weaver’s trailer, eases around the corner, and, as nonchalantly as possible, wanders in the front door. At some point during the past couple of minutes, Wayne has made his way into the bedroom and retrieved one of Daddy’s pistols, which somehow Randy missed during the burglary.
Randy begs them not to call the law. He’s currently out of prison on parole and out of jail on bail. It’s unclear what he was in prison for, but three weeks ago he got a call from his little sister, Tammy, who was stranded up in Winston-Salem somewhere and needed a ride home. Randy doesn’t have a car, so he walked up to the Baptista’s house – they live directly across the street from Daddy and Kathie – and appropriated theirs.
Apparently car thieving doesn’t constitute a parole violation in Davidson County. Then again, even a bad-ass television DA might have trouble convincing a jury that boosting the Baptista’s car, a rusting monument to the genius of coathangers, baling twine, and duct tape, merits a grand theft charge. Regardless, Randy somehow made bail, and this is how, three weeks later, he found himself rummaging through the drawers in my father’s bedroom.
For her part, Kathie has experienced nothing in her life which prepares her for this moment. She calls Randy names he’s never heard before, which is something of an accomplishment given that, in his pre-incarceration days, Randy was a Marine. Wayne tells Randy to leave while he still can and Kathie goes back to calling the law. Randy walks out the door. A moment later he’s back, doing his best to look penitent.
“Please don’t call the law Kathie, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he pleads. The dialing continues. He walks out the door, pauses on the cement porch, then comes back in again. Evidently trying to lighten the mood with small talk, he asks, “So, has Larry died yet?”
Wayne, in the passion of the moment forgetting that he’s outsized by a couple of inches and at least 40 pounds of hard, prison-yard muscle, whips around, grabs Randy by the front of his shirt, and pounds him hard up against the wall by the front door. For the first time he brings the pistol, a nondescript .45 automatic, to bear, laying it against Randy’s jaw.
“Motherfucker, you’re closer to being dead than Larry is. If you don’t get the hell out of here I’m going to blow your goddamned head off.”
Wayne lets go of Randy’s shirt, cautiously, allowing him to edge toward the door. Randy shrugs and smiles kind of vacantly at Wayne, who’s all of a sudden very aware of the odd weight of the gun in his hand. He’s never pointed a gun at anybody before, but he figures Randy probably has.
Randy holds his hands up in front of him and backs into the doorway, where he stops and bows his head for a second. “All right, all right.” He turns, walks out the door, through the front yard, and heads off down the street.
* * * * *
Larry “Chugger” Mulraney led what might charitably be called an imperfect life. He liked Cadillacs and diamond rings and junkets to Vegas. He liked women way too much to suit my mother and my first stepmother, who it turns out was originally one of the women Daddy liked too much to suit my mother. And the wheel goes around. Kathie, the third and final significant woman in his life, was the only one he didn’t run around on. That we know of.
Larry was not enlightened on questions of racial and gender equality. He wasn’t in favor of equal rights for gays and lesbians. And he absolutely, positively, had no time whatsoever for anybody who believed that smoking ought to be restricted in public places due to the hazards of second-hand smoke. Your lungs and my lungs were beside the point. Empirical research showing nicotine in the blood of fetuses whose mothers were non-smokers was beside the point. At stake was a more fundamental consideration: his Constitutional right to smoke wherever and whenever he pleased. When I once suggested that the Constitution didn’t explicitly articulate such a provision, it merely reinforced his long-held opinions regarding the relative merits of book learnin’.
Chugger was a shrewd trader of horses and cars and motorcycles and anything else you could turn a quick buck on. So shrewd, in fact, that his own family was reluctant to do business with him. I have no idea just how much I got took for in the two or three deals we transacted, and frankly I don’t want to know.
But even as he picked people clean to the bone, he did so according to an inflexible, if not necessarily noble, code of honor. My youngest sister, Carla, and her husband Bo are still scratching their heads over a deal they struck with Daddy a few months before he died. They were having financial problems (new babies can be expensive, they were learning) and were looking to unload their pickup. Daddy was quick to pay them the first amount they mentioned, even though it eventually proved to be significantly less than they could have gotten elsewhere. “I gave ’em what they asked for it, didn’t I?”
Daddy just had a gift for dealing with the dumb and trusting. He’d always give people precisely what they thought they wanted. If they were witless enough to ask a fraction of what he knew the merchandise would fetch, well, that was hardly his fault, was it? That’s why I don’t want to know how badly I got skinned when we traded my Dodge Omni for his 1976 Caddy Sedan de Ville back in 1987.
I remember one Saturday morning back in the late ’70s he paid a guy up in Winston $100 for a piece-of-trash old Dodge truck that was missing fourth gear. By sundown he sold it to some enterprising halfwit for $1,100 cash without so much as taking it to the car wash. It’s a shame that Daddy went to work for Piedmont Airlines when he graduated from high school. Had he gone into the car business I’d have had a rich father. Mind you, my sisters and I wouldn’t have been rich, just him.
Larry Mulraney wasn’t always the most indulgent of neighbors, either, and as fate would have it, the two craziest families in Davidson County live next to him. Next door you have the Weavers. If you’ve heard comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s “you might be a redneck if….” routine, you have an introductory idea of what they were like. One of my favorites lines is, “you might be a redneck if you have a house that’s mobile and three cars that aren’t.” And there’s another one which goes, “you might be a redneck if your wife leaves the Marlboro in her mouth while telling the State Trooper to kiss her ass.”
The Weavers could have posed for the poster. Their tin-sided mobile home looked to be on the verge of collapse 35 years ago, but somehow or another it’s still standing. The three junkers clogging the driveway have been there since the Eisenhower administration. This next one I made up: you might be a redneck if people who keep livestock indoors complain that you’re dragging down their property values.
Directly across the street from Daddy’s place you had the Baptistas, who were a whole ‘nother case. Whereas the Weavers were your garden-variety, inbred, white trash kind of crazy, the Baptistas had this exotic, dark-eyed, inbred, Eastern European gypsy mojo working, and folks in the neighborhood were pretty much unanimous that they were loopy even by Jehovah’s Witness standards. Daddy would sit in his living room trying to watch the evening news, but he’d wind up transfixed as the various Baptista daughters took turns pushing their 300-pound mother up and down the street in her wheelchair. The sheer visual unattractiveness of the spectacle he could have endured – he’d grown up in Forsyth County, and as such, he’d seen his share of ugly. No, the part that vexed him to oratory was the fact that Mrs. Baptista didn’t need a wheelchair.
I always thought she was actually handicapped, but I was over at Daddy’s one day when the Baptista girls were pushing the “vegetable cart” around, as Daddy put it, when he told me how he found out she could walk.
“Remember the other week when that storm blew up all of a sudden? Well, they were out rolling her up and down the street like they always do when I’m trying to watch the news. They were up in front of Fuzzy’s place when a big old lightning bolt hit somewhere close by. Thunder damn near rattled the windows out of the house. And you shoulda seen her. Came up out of that wheelchair like she had a rocket up her ass, and she didn’t walk down the street, she ran. Full-tilt boogie. You wouldn’t think something that big could move that fast, but I couldn’t have caught her on my motorcycle. Ran her fat ass all the way down the street and nearly ripped the front door out of the frame trying to claw her way into the house. Crazy goddamned bitch – I swear, sometimes I almost feel sorry for her husband.” Daddy leaned back in the recliner and drew a long gulp off his Schlitz. “Course, he’s damned near as crazy as she is.”
For awhile there was talk that Puddin’, the Weaver boy, was sneaking around with Magdalena, the eldest Baptista daughter, who was probably ten years his senior. The very thought of a Weaver-Baptista spawn running wild in the neighborhood probably kept Daddy awake at night, although he wasn’t a man to show outward signs of fear. “Let me tell you something, boy. Inbreeding is nature’s way of containing defective genes. Over there,” he waved his Schlitz at the Baptista house, “and over there,” indicating the Weaver place, “are two sets of genes that you don’t want to see getting loose. Especially with each other.”
I never thought to ask where he learned so much about genetics, but underneath all the ignorance and seething ill will was a good point. Puddin’ and Magdalena copulating was a sure-fire recipe for an ubercarny, and in this case, a policy of genetic confinement seemed reasonable.
All this talk of Puddin’ bonking a Baptista was peripheral, though. Daddy’s primary beef with the Weavers had to do with the dog they kept chained up in back. And had always kept chained up in back. It’s probably not the same dog they had in 1960, but you can’t really tell for all the weeds and trash in the yard. It’s not like you ever actually see the dog. They never walk it or play with it or let it run around. They just kind of have it. But the dog had this bad habit of barking in the middle of the night when Daddy was trying to sleep.
Every so often Daddy would get fed up with the barking. The situation would unfold something like this. Daddy’s been drinking and shooting pool at Shade’s, a cinder-block watering hole about three miles up the road toward Winston. He and Kathie get home around 2:00 a.m., get in bed around 2:30, and at 3:00 Bosco hears a squirrel snoring and commences to yapping, waking up every dog within a mile radius in the process. At 3:05 Daddy’s had all he can stand. He gets up, grabs his shotgun, walks out into the yard wearing nothing but his boxers. He aims the gun straight up in the air and cuts loose.
“I was shooting ducks,” he once explained. “There was a whole flock of ’em up there.” This sort of thing happened often enough that the details run together, but one time the Baptistas called the Sheriff. Daddy answered the door in his underwear and told the deputy he had no idea what those crazy bastards across the street were talking about. He hadn’t heard a damned thing. Didn’t mention anything about the ducks. The deputies just nodded, thanked him, and left.
A couple of years before Daddy died I was at a gun show down in Randolph County (not too far from the home of the King, Richard Petty) and found some 12-gauge shells that fired flares instead of shot. It seemed like just the sort of thing Daddy might like for his nocturnal duck hunts. I figured if he could illuminate his targets a bit it might improve his chances of actually bagging one, so I bought him a box – three white ones and three green ones. He never got around to using them.
Larry just loved beer. Loved it to death, you might say. I never checked but I assume that, commencing in mid-March of 1994 when he first went into the hospital, Schlitz sales dropped precipitously. I had pondered for years what might happen in the first meeting of Coors executives after my father’s death. Some VP of Sales and Distribution in Golden, Colorado, would note an inexplicable plummet in sales of their Schlitz brand 16 oz. tallboys. He’d see his entire career flash before his eyes, and would frantically dispatch some hapless toady to find out why in the hell the public had suddenly lost its thirst for the beer that made Milwaukee famous. Then, several years later, the grizzled modern-day Parsifal would arrive one rainy winter evening at the marble grail marking Daddy’s final repose, and there he’d kneel, praying and weeping that he never knew the man. He’d return to report his story to the corporate directors, and they would erect a monument to Larry “Chugger” Mulraney, understanding at last that it was he who had made Milwaukee famous.
My best guess goes like this. Daddy probably downed eight to 10 beers, on average, every day for 37 years or so. More on days when he was off work, but this is a good working estimate. That comes to roughly 135,050 beers. Which is 2,160,800 fluid ounces. And this was just his everyday beer routine. We’re not even talking wine with dinner and the several varieties of hard liquor associated with special occasions. Which means that, while my father only went around once in his 56 years, he sure as hell grabbed all the gusto he could lay his hands on.
The doctors didn’t waste a lot of Latin on Daddy’s case. His liver just quit. I’m not sure how much gusto the average human kidney can take, but I’m guessing that the red line on the gauge falls somewhere to the left of two million ounces.
“What people don’t understand is that he didn’t really drink that much beer,” Kathie explained. “They’d always see him with a beer in his hand, but a beer would last him an hour or so. He just liked the taste of beer.”
I remember one time on vacation he found this shop that made fake newspapers, inserting your name into one of their prefabricated headlines. He came back with one reading, in 72-point bold type: Larry Mulraney Quits Drinking; Schlitz Goes Out of Business.
* * * * *
All this isn’t to say that Daddy was a bad man. On the contrary. He was one of the most loved and respected people who ever drew breath. He wasn’t formally educated beyond high school, but there was no mistaking his innate intelligence. His sense of humor ran to the earthy, but laughter followed him everywhere he went socially, and nobody he knew ever threw a party without inviting him. And in spite of all his faults, he was in many ways one of the most honest men I ever knew (car dealing notwithstanding). His marriage to my Mom was short and ugly, lasting only long enough to produce my sister, Jeri, and me. A marriage made in hell, it was, but he was always straight with me about his failings as a husband and a father. Mom wasn’t blameless, I knew, but he never demeaned her in front of me. He actually defended her several times during periods when I was hacking through some emotional trauma and blaming her.
“Nina did the best she could, Junior,” he said. “I was out running around and she was stuck at home with two kids. You ought not blame her. She did what she thought was best for you.” He wasn’t exactly good at these sorts of talks, but he did have the guts to own up to his drinking, his infidelity, and his immaturity. Not that there would have been much point in denying it – there were simply too many witnesses. A lesser man might have been overcome by the fear of how he might look in the eyes of his only son. The only concern Daddy had, though, was that his boy knew his father would shoot straight with him.
Co-workers, friends, trading partners – pretty much everybody except the Baptistas and the Weavers – agreed that Larry was one hell of a guy. And I think even the Baptistas and Weavers had a soft spot for him somewhere. Probably. Deep down. Maybe.
Given Daddy’s immense popularity, when we had his surprise retirement party you could hardly get in the place. The house was full. The carport was full. The yard was full. Daddy had worked for Piedmont Airlines, then the Great Satan, USAir, for 33 years. When USAir bought out Piedmont it was, to Daddy’s way of thinking, the moral equivalent of having your mother raped by Yankees. But that’s another story. Everybody who ever worked with him, for him, or near him was at the party. For a while I wondered if everybody who had ever flown on Piedmont Airlines was going to show up. The party was a huge success, to say the very least.
And many of the faces from the party came around again during his six weeks in intensive care first at Forsyth Memorial, then at the UNC Medical Center down in Chapel Hill, then at Forsyth again when the doctors finally threw in the towel and sent him back to his hometown to die.
* * * * *
After the cops are called and Randy leaves, Kathie does a quick inventory and realizes that some of their stuff is AWOL. The most prominent piece of missing property is Daddy’s prized nickel-plated .38. We’re the sort of family for whom firearms often have sentimental value.
Randy has ambled on down the street to his house, presumably to wait for the deputies. Kathie storms out the front door and heads down to the Wilsons’ to personally expedite the recovery of her stolen property. Kathie is a slight woman, and she has endured a long history of poor health. Some of us have wondered among ourselves whether Daddy’s illness might not kill her before it does him. As such, she does not cut a terribly imposing figure, in spite of the fact that she possesses one of these faces in which every nuance of her emotional state is clearly readable. At this moment, she is very obviously on the edge.
Kathie bangs on the Wilsons’ storm door and demands, in no uncertain terms, that her property be returned to her right now. Randy plays dumb, tells her she’s crazy. He doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Then Randy’s mother, Carol, pokes her head out and says that Randy saw some people going in to Larry’ house and he went in to chase them away. “He was trying to help you, Kathie. Randy was trying to help.”
Carol’s slant on the events of the past half-hour might be forgiven, I suppose. Life has not blessed her with model children, and it’s no wonder she wants to put the best face on a rapidly deteriorating situation. In fact, many of us who grew up with Joanie and Randy and Tammy Wilson would argue that Randy isn’t even the black sheep in the family. That distinction goes to Tammy, who displayed abnormal hellcat potential even as a preschooler. And this was in a neighborhood overrun with all manner of aspiring delinquents. I don’t know how many of my childhood friends finally wound up in jail, but off the top of my head I can think of seven or eight the gendarmes would do well to keep an eye on.
In shock and disbelief, Kathie retreats to her house to wait for the authorities. They finally arrive around 10:00, arrest Randy, haul him up to Kathie’s to be identified, and then cart him off to the county jail in Lexington.
By sundown he’s made bail and is back at home, and Wayne wonders out loud why, exactly, the Davidson County Sheriff even needs a jail. “The cop shows on TV always make out like breaking parole is a big deal.” Of course, as I pointed out later, law enforcement in Davidson County bears a lot closer resemblance to The Dukes of Hazzard than it does NYPD Blue, so you have to lower your expectations a bit when you dial 911.
Later that night one of Randy’s acquaintances, a man the Sheriff’s deputies say is a known drug dealer, calls Kathie and offers to sell Daddy’s .38 back to her for $500. All this information – locations, descriptions, serial numbers – is handed over to the deputies.
“We’re on our way over there to bust him right now,” they say, as they hustle out the door. It’s the last she hears from them for five months.
Five months – that would make it early October of an election year, and the Sheriff’s bid for another term was on tenuous footing. The last thing Davidson County’s highest-ranking peace officer wants to see at this point is the meticulously detailed letter which arrives from Kathie via registered mail, a correspondence which is conspicuously cc’ed to all five daily newspapers serving Davidson County. Her late husband’s property had never been recovered. She had not been kept apprized of the disposition of the investigation or Randy’s trial. Her calls had not been returned. Etc.
This is the only victory Kathie wins during the whole debacle. Less than 24 hours after the letter was mailed, her doorstep was littered with public servants. That night the cherished .38 was recovered.
Six weeks later the Sheriff was looking for work.
* * * * *
Not with a bang, but a whimper. Such was Daddy’s death. The whole thing just stank of injustice. Not that he didn’t bring it all on himself – he did. Larry Mulraney abused his body mightily for nearly four decades, and several months earlier the doctors had given him a rather unambiguous ultimatum: stop drinking completely or die. And since they had just drained a gallon of fluid out of his gut, there was ample reason to expect they might be taken at their word.
And he did stop for a while. But the weekend before his liver finally checked out for good, according to Kathie, he had killed a gallon bottle of vodka. The vodka didn’t go down without a fight, and a couple nights later he was, for all intents and purposes, history.
“It was the liquor that killed him,” Kathie says. “He knew he couldn’t go back to drinking beer because he liked it too much, and there towards the end he was trying to drink liquor like he did beer.”
It doesn’t quite set that a man whose life presented him with so many chances to die dramatically should, in the end, waste into silence on the wrong end of a respirator. When he totaled his car so spectacularly back in his teens, it didn’t kill him. In 1965 he lost control of a motorcycle at 90 m.p.h. up on the expressway and slid, rolled, flipped, tumbled, and generally Evel Knieveled several hundred feet on the concrete, and somehow that didn’t kill him, either. I was four, I guess, and saw him the next morning. There was no two-by-two inch patch of skin on his body that wasn’t lacerated, abrased, bruised, or scarred, but he hated hospitals, so he had a buddy sneak him out.
And that pack of liquored-up South Davidson County dropouts didn’t kill him that night a few years back on Highway 109, just north of Denton, when they tried to run him and Kathie off the road as they were driving home from dinner at this barbecue place Daddy really liked down there. Of course, his survival that time probably had a lot to do with the other driver’s reaction when, looking over, he realized that Daddy was no longer paying the least bit of attention to his steering wheel. Instead, he was leaning out the window with the aforementioned revolver leveled at the driver’s earhole. The road simply wasn’t big enough for the both of ’em, the little thug must have figured, so he opted for a quick and cinematic detour through the cornfield paralleling the highway.
None of the bulls Daddy rode on his way to winning the very first Love Valley Rodeo Bullriding Championship killed him, either. I was maybe eight or nine the first time my grandparents told me that Daddy used to ride bulls. Grandmother backhanded me for being impudent when I laughed in her face, but I couldn’t help it. I genuinely thought they were pulling my leg. My daddy was the consummate pretty boy – 6’4″, with thin, high cheekbones tracing back several generations to a full Indian grandmother, never a strand of that immaculate jet-black hair out of place, never a bead of sweat, never even the suggestion of exertion. The very thought of my father on anything as rough and dirty and smelly as a Brahma bull – I couldn’t help but laugh. I’d never seen him brave so much as a riding lawn mower.
But once they showed me photos I had to believe them, so I asked him about it one day. Some of his stories about being chased around the ring and over the fence by a rampaging ton of torqued-off ribeye, well, to this day I prefer my rodeos with three clowns, a high fence, and eight or nine rows packed with spectator between me and the mayhem erupting out of chute five.
All of this excitement was such a far cry from the bland desperation of the Intensive Care Unit at Forsyth Memorial. That day in mid-March when they first called me they said he probably wouldn’t last the night. I’d heard that crap before – that’s what they said when Grandmother first went into the hospital five years earlier, and she lasted another year or two before officially clocking out. So I wasn’t too surprised when a few days passed and he was still hanging on. I was in Boulder, in my first year of grad school at CU, and the family told me to just sit tight until they knew more. A month later they called and said it looked grave, and that I should come home right away.
In spite of all I knew about the situation, there was a big part of me that still revered the myth of Daddy’s immortality. I knew the odds – my friend Alex is an internal medicine specialist at Presbyterian Hospital in Atlanta, and he had pretty much acquainted me with the realities of the situation, given the facts as he understood them. But the head and the heart were not quite reconciled. And when I walked back into the ICU the first time, I wished on the spot that he’d died that first night, like the doctors promised, as quickly and painlessly as possible. I wished he had died in that car wreck, or on the expressway, or on the rodeo floor. Anywhere, anyway except this. It was exactly like when I flew home from Iowa in 1989 to see my grandmother. That husk, that improbable assemblage of flesh and fluid lying inert and incognizant on coarse, institutional sheets in a dank, gray institutional room. I’ve never quite known what it was, but it wasn’t Grandmother.
Likewise, there was precious little left of my father. I had been there three days before I had any notion that he had recognized me. He was drugged pretty heavily, thankfully, and I suspect that when he was conscious he played possum on us. Ignored us. Kind of like when you’ve kenneled the family cat for your vacation and you come home and the damned thing won’t acknowledge you for a week because it’s mad that you put it in that place. Daddy would rather have been dead at home than alive in the best hospital in the world.
The hospital had him hooked up to a stunning array of life-enhancing technology. You could have taken a picture of Daddy and all these machines and used it in a medical technology brochure. Hire an artist to doctor the photo a bit, maybe make the patient look a bit more lifelike, insert little numbers on each gizmo with lines leading off into the margins, where you’d have the make and model and a brief description. Add an 800 number and a price list and you’d have yourself a damned fine sales tool.
One of the things my thoughtful side wanted to ask him then, but couldn’t, was whether he had reconsidered his decision regarding Grandmother and the feeding tube. He couldn’t bring himself to have it removed. He couldn’t “play God.”
“I can’t make that decision. Can you?” he’d yelled. Well, yeah, actually I can, I said. I wanted to ask him if he’d changed his mind in light of what was happening to him now, but I couldn’t, because even when he finally woke up he couldn’t talk. The respirator makes that pretty much impossible.
There was one moment on the last night I was there. He had attained consciousness and seemed alert for the first time since I had arrived three or four days earlier. Several of us were back in his little room in ICU – Kathie and Wayne, as well as Chester and Donna, a couple of Daddy and Kathie’s closest friends. Daddy and Donna had some sort of private running joke going which I never got fully explained to me, but which everybody insisted was really a hoot. Her part in the joke involved asking Daddy if he wanted her to fetch him a Pepsi. We were all trying to be up for him the way people are when they’re around somebody who’s going to die. We smiled a lot, joked, told him how good he looked. Or rather the others did. I’ve never had much of a bedside manner.
Donna looked down at Daddy and recited her end in the long-running joke – “Chugger, you want me to get you a Pepsi?” And she laughed, I suppose the way she always did at this point in the gag.
Daddy, of course, couldn’t speak his line. But I was watching his eyes. YES! God yes, please bring me a Pepsi, the thought as clear as any words he ever spoke. He even strained upward like he wanted to climb out of the bed. He was on the respirator, though, and couldn’t have anything to drink – hadn’t had moisture in his mouth in a month – I know Donna didn’t mean to torment him, and I don’t even know if anybody besides me noticed.
I flew back to Colorado the next day, slightly encouraged by the fact that he had shown some improvement during my visit. If we could just get him stabilized. If the doctors could keep him alive and functioning and if Kathie could keep him on the wagon for six months, then maybe UNC would consider him for a liver transplant. Maybe. Maybe.
Two weeks later the phone rang.
* * * * *
It’s May 1, 1994, around 5 p.m. Larry Mulraney has just been pronounced dead. At roughly the same time, down the street at the Wilson house, Randy is back home after making bail. Tammy comes in. She’s heard what happened this morning. Whatever faults she might have, Tammy Wilson does understand something of the respect one accords to people who have been friends and neighbors for three decades. Especially when one of those people lies upon his deathbed.
An argument erupts between the two of them, and like most of the arguments I remember them having as children, this one rapidly escalates into a full-tilt flamethrower. Tammy simply cannot believe her brother could have done what he allegedly did. Not wanting things to deteriorate further, Greer attempts to intervene and halt the argument between his kids, which is kind of like a housecat trying to pull two pit bulls apart.
At about 5:15 p.m., a few scant minutes after Daddy died, Greer Wilson’s heart goes the way of Daddy’s liver – it just quits – and he drops at his children’s feet and dies.
* * * * *
I imagine Greer and Daddy boarding the train together. Hopefully there’s a lounge car, and maybe a pool table, so they can shoot a few games, enjoy a beer or two, and shoot the bull as the celestial engine chugs their souls off into eternity. Greer has a High Life and Daddy’s got a Schlitz, and since I’m not there to jinx him, Daddy’s probably whipping all comers in eight-ball. “Goddamn kids,” Greer says, hands on his hips. “I swear, Chugger, I don’t know what the hell I did wrong.” Daddy grunts, sizing up his next shot.
He runs the eight ball down the rail to win another one. Good karma early in the next life. It’s a positive sign for a man who was raised with Jesus, strayed as a young man, then, according to Kathie, came home to the Lord in the final weeks of his life.
Still, Larry Mulraney never was much for harp music. I can’t help hoping that Daddy and Greer are sitting in the lounge car of the Big Black Train, talking, drinking, comparing notes on the day’s events, and laughing their asses off.