“What is the last thing you remember, Mr. —” she looked down at her folder. It was brown leather. It looked professional. “Griffith? Can I call you Tate?”
It was hard to move my head. My neck was stiff, like I’d slept wrong. That was the last thing I remember. Falling asleep, knowing that I was going to die.
“My name’s not Tate.”
She looked at her brown folder again. She wore a white coat. Her wrists were thin, too thin. The coat seemed to hang on her.
“What is your name then?” she asked without looking up.
“My name is George. What is this, some kinda test?”
Now I had her attention. “No test. What else can you tell me about yourself? George.”
Yeah, no test. None at all.
“What’s your name?” I asked. I figured if she wanted to know about me, I wanted to know about her.
“How did I get here?”
She asked what I remembered. Getting into the psych ward was not one of the things I remembered. My head hurt, and my hands felt strange, like they were asleep.
I told her the truth, most of it. I said two guys crashed through my door. They shot me. I said that I had just been through a lot.
I thought. “Yeah, my parents were killed in a hit and run.”
“Last month. It made the news — where am I?”
Nichols was professional. “You are in for observation after —”
“I know I’m in some psych ward,” I interrupted, pointing to the door with metal-laced glass. “Where?” I looked out the window. I didn’t recognize anything. “What city?”
She answered by repeating my question. “What city?” I couldn’t see any mountains through the window. I was high up, maybe the sixth or seventh floor. I was beginning to hate her. It felt weird. The anger rose off me in waves. I felt my face getting hot. That had never happened before.
“What city?” I repeated. “Where is this hospital?”
She relented. “You are in Winnetka. Where are you from?”
In Winnetka? Not on Winnetka?
It must’ve shown on my face, because Nichols supplied the answer. “Just outside Chicago. Where you live.”
Dad was born in Chicago. Not me. Some part he didn’t talk about, a place he was glad to get out of. When he did, he went as far as he could, landing in NorCal, picking up mom in some bar and moving to LA. Canoga Park.
I told myself other details.
I was born in Canoga Park. I just started Pierce. Auto mechanics. I was going to follow dad and be a mechanic. Everybody said I was a natural, could fix anything.
They also said it was lucky. They said I had a mechanic’s face. We’d laugh because I never cared that I was ugly. Women weren’t after my face. They always said I had the best hands in the business. A neck rub would get me places other guys couldn’t dream of going.
I never said it before, but since she’s dead, it doesn’t hurt anybody. I got my hands from Dad, my face from mom. She wasn’t pretty, not even to me. What she was, was sweet.
I missed her.
They loved to go over to Balboa and walk. It was all bikes and runners, very serious. They didn’t do that. Dad had nothing to prove, and Mom was happy. Then they were killed.
The driver was caught. He crashed into a pole after crashing into my parents. They said he was drunk, something about twice the legal limit, like that helped. I got the house. Someone said he’d help with money until everything was cleared, whatever that meant. I didn’t care. I also got the bank account. Nothing, really, but enough.
When they heard, people sent cards, my friends came by, but it didn’t matter. Sometimes people make it easier, I guess, but the three of us, we kept to ourselves, not much family, a few girlfriends, best friend. That’s about it.
I was reading in the living room when the door crashed open. I was on the floor. I couldn’t feel anything. I was falling asleep.
I was dying.
“You’re here for observation, George,” Nichols said, again. “Your parents called 911.”
I was looking at my hands. I’d finally figured it out.
“These aren’t my hands.”
“These aren’t my hands. They don’t look like them.”
“Do you remember how many pills you took? Do you remember why?”
“Your parents —”
“Tate — did you take anything besides the hydrocodone? Were you given anything else? Your parents said you had friends over. Did you take anything hallucinogenic?”
“No. What are you talking about?”
“Did you want to self-harm?”
Self-harm? What does she think I did?
“Your stomach had to be pumped. You were unresponsive.”
“I was sitting on the couch —”
“Your mother found you laying on the floor. You ingested a quantity of hydrocodone. Other tests were…inconclusive. As yet.”
“Hydro…what? I don’t even know what that is.”
Mom once cracked her tooth. She needed surgery. Those pills were old, at least ten years old.
“I didn’t take anything.”
Nichols frowned. I almost missed it, but she frowned. I wasn’t giving the right answers. My hands felt weird. She was saying I tried to kill myself.
“Were you with anyone at the time? Anyone who might have meant you harm? Your father said it looked like people may have been with you earlier in the evening.”
I was about to say I don’t have many friends. One, really. But something said I should keep my mouth shut. Dad always said only fools volunteer.
“I don’t remember much,” I said. It was true enough.
Nichols said that wasn’t uncommon. She seemed relieved, like she was getting somewhere, or like I was coming out of something.
“Tate — is it okay now to call you Tate?”
I nodded yes. Who would name their kid Tate?
“Your parents have been here all night and all morning. Is there any reason why you would want to hurt yourself?”
“No.” It was an honest answer.
“Because you can be honest with me.”
I nodded yes.
Nichols sighed, again relieved. “I’m sure your parents will be happy to hear that.”
I thought of something. It would end this once and for all. “Can I see them?”
“I’ll clear you for that, Tate. But you’ll be here for the rest of 72 hours.” Then she stood, hesitated. Smiled. “I could pick your mother out of a crowd. You have the same face.”
“I know.” I couldn’t breathe for a second.
I guess I loved our face.
Nichols moved to the door. She looked at my hands. “And such good hands. You play piano?”
I wiggled my fingers. Still not mine. But she didn’t need to know that. “Off and on.”
A woman walked through the door first. Rushed through more like. She was hugging me before I could take it all in. There were tears in her eyes. She was happy beyond words.
I heard a shuffle behind her. My head was buried in the woman’s chest. I couldn’t see anything. She didn’t turn around. I couldn’t move.
“Tate?” said the voice behind her.
It was smaller than I remembered. Distant. There and not there. But I knew it. I knew that voice even though it sounded like it was older and fainter, like it was coming across a lot of time just to me, just for me.
It was Dad.
I got loose of the woman and saw him standing back near the wall. His hands were in his pockets. He was tired, but also something else. Angry. Alone. Like he was there and not there.
“Dad?” I said, choking on the word. “Dad?” I couldn’t. “How?”
The woman hugging me pulled back. She held my hand. She sounded surprised. “George? Come over here. He wants you!”
I looked at her. She was beautiful. Even distraught and happy, confused, she was beautiful. For a second, I felt like I didn’t want to stop looking at her. But I needed answers. I needed to know.
“Dad? What’s going on, Dad?”
He coughed a bit. “Why don’t you tell us.”
“Dad?” I knew he was angry. But when Dad got angry, it was over in a shout. He never used — whatever this was. Bitch questions.
I felt my eyes get wet.
“We come home and find you on the floor — drugged out? You try to —” he lowered his voice — “kill yourself in our house?”
“George! This isn’t the time! We don’t know what happened.” She looked back at me, moved my face towards hers, trying to comfort me. I was the center of her life.
My Dad was an extra.
“The nurse said there were other people…” I said.
“That’s what I told them,” Dad said. “That’s what I told them.” He was whispering again, pointing at himself. I could hear his finger thumping his chest. It made his voice shake. It was all at me.
“George!” She was crying.
I found myself talking. I sounded like my mom. She always knew how to calm things down. “It’s okay.” I didn’t know what to call her, so I didn’t. “I don’t remember anything.” Her hand brushed my cheek. It was like a smaller version of my own. Long, slender fingers.
She loved me.
I took her hand as best I could. She was transported by my touch, contented, but that faded quickly into hurt when she heard what I said next.
“Could I talk to Dad? Alone?”
It was the first time I’d ever asked something like this. Mom knew when I Dad and I needed to hash it out. This woman, no. She moved forward like I was sick, like she was going to test my forehead but then thought no, and then squeezed my hand twice, quickly. I think it was a code. I didn’t know what to do, so I squeezed once, then again, and she seemed better, still confused but better.
“Okay.” She stood. “I’ll just go — get some coffee. Or something.”
I had to smile. Mom hated coffee. She always said it was for fools who’d pay two dollars for a kick.
After she left, I saw my dad.
If she was confused, he was lost.
My Dad. Lost.
It all poured out. All of it.
“Who is that woman? What’s going on? Two weeks ago you’re in the ground, and now you’re walking around with some strange woman and my hands are different and I had to lie to the nurse just to get her to not think I was going to kill myself.”
I couldn’t stop. It was too much. I’d never seen Dad overwhelmed. He was good at taking a step back. Now he seemed caught. He didn’t want to be in the same room as me. He was pissed. At me.
“What did I do? Would you at least tell me that?”
“Like you don’t know.”
“What the fuck? You don’t — what is going on? You’re dead, Dad! I put you in the ground, and now I’m here with this woman and you’re alive?”
Then I saw it. I might’ve missed it, but I saw him do something so natural it would’ve passed unnoticed. He put his hands on his hips and shook his head back and forth. It was the sign he wasn’t going to take much more. The sign to back off.
It was what I did when people went too far.
“What do you mean you put me in the ground? What the hell is wrong with you?” He was sneering. Writing me off.
“Dad, you died! You and mom, you died walking around the park. Drunk driver. Mom and you, smashed.”
“You’re crazy. Crazy.”
But he wasn’t leaving.
“I had your hands. And mom’s face.”
He looked at his hands. “You have your mom’s everything.”
“No, I’m a mechanic. Not yet. Soon. Just like you. I fix things. Got mom’s face but that doesn’t matter much with the right woman.”
“Crazy.” He turned to leave. But he was still there. He didn’t want to leave. He wanted to stay.
“You taught me how to fly fish in the Russian River.” I blurted it out. I don’t know why.
He spun around so enraged I thought he was going to kill me. He didn’t want me talking. He wanted me to shut up. This man was on the edge, but he pulled back. He wanted to hit me, but I knew he wouldn’t. I just knew it.
“You shut up!” I could feel his heat.
“I’m your son! George. Dad.”
“Fuck you! You’re not Tate! Where are you from?”
The truth: “California. Canoga Park.”
That was it. He was done. I said something wrong. As quickly as he flamed, he sputtered. “This is bullshit.”
“From Sacramento, originally. That’s where you met Mom. Anna.”
He found the chair before he fell on the floor. I jumped out of the bed. My body worked even if it didn’t feel like mine, not completely. I knelt beside the chair.
“Dad. What’s going on?”
He wasn’t there.
And then he asked a question: “You’re Anna’s son?”
“Yes. And yours.”
He put his hands to his face. “What’s your name?”
“George. I told you. Named after you. Not a junior. Middle name is —”
We both said it together: “Marshall.”
It was Mom’s maiden name.
Dad talked. He told me the story about meeting Mom in Sacramento wasn’t right, not exactly. He said he was about to marry Alex, the woman who was now my mother and whose face I shared, but two days before the wedding, he met a woman in a bar who reminded him he needed to put as much space between him and Chicago as he could. They spent the night together. He found his life. She asked him to leave with her, right then and there. She was going to California.
When he woke up in the morning, she was gone.
“I never saw her again. But you’re — her son? Mine?”
“Dad, I’m not just your son. You were my Dad. I grew up with you.”
“No. With you.”
“This is crazy,” he said. But he said it different. He said it like he wanted to believe me. Like he was desperate. Then: “Did you have a good life?”
“Yeah. Really good. I miss them. We fit. They fit.”
“Are you different?”
I must’ve gotten awkward, because he said, just like Dad, “Come on, spill it.”
“I don’t like my hands.”
“What kind of hands did you have?”
“Yours,” I reminded him. “Mom said that’s what women like anyway.”
We both smiled. Dad said, “Anna taught you well.”
“Both of you did.”
Then he asked the only question that mattered. It was the only one I wanted to answer. He said: “Tell me what I was like.”
I could hear him choking up. Dad.
“You loved him?” he asked.
I loved him. “He was my Dad.”
I told him about fly-fishing. I told him how I was afraid of the water, but that watching him in the middle of the river made me want to be out there with him, so I walked right out into the middle of the river when I was five or six. I told him how once he started drinking too much, but Mom pulled him back. I told him how he helped Patrick across the street rebuild the engine of a Pontiac LeMans, and how one night Patrick showed up with a black eye so he walked across the street and decked his father. I told him how he was strong, how people either loved or hated him, how he didn’t care. I told him he was happy. I couldn’t wait to be a man because of him. I told him Mom loved him. I told him more.
His voice was low and gravelly. “I was all that?”
I choked up again. “I was proud to be your son.”
“I’m not much of a father.”
I thought a lot before I spoke, before the door opened and there was Alex, three coffees in a triangle. She walked in like they do in TV shows, overly careful, all drama. I didn’t like her. Neither did Dad. I could feel his muscles tense. She set down the coffees carefully on the nightstand next to my bed. I was sitting on the bed, looking with Dad out the window. He was holding my hand. I wasn’t letting go.
I said, “Not yet, Dad. But there’s still time.”
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