"The Future is a Silver Lake" by Lisa Ortiz
“Pretend it’s an injured chipmunk you found in the forest.”
My sister spoke precisely, slowly, the way a kindergarten teacher might.
“Heat! It works by heat!” I shouted: “Stop stabbing at it!”
He slashed at the thing with his grizzled finger.
We needed to find a way to keep him in bed, and he agreed to John Wayne movies. I researched what tablets are best for old people, bought the Kindle Fire, unpacked it for him, charged it. He held it upside down, banged the corner of it on his table as it were a can of fish. He insisted it was broken, stabbed at it with four fingers as if he were trying to wound its trachea.
“You got this?” my sister whispered to me.
“No problem,” I said. Her gaze trailed off. “The boys…” Her words trailed off.
“He’ll be fine. We’ll be fine,” I said.
“Gently… “ She trailed off.
My dad lived in his studio with his life’s detritus: taxidermy ducks, paintings of Bolinas, photos of him and mom, grandpa’s gun, my uncle’s big felt hat, Audubon’s Birds of America, jars of paint brushes, boxes of chisels.
I sat on a stool by his bed and concentrated on the words: gently, patience. Patience, homophone of patients. Could be a cognate of pater, paternal, patricide.
“Gently! Chipmunk, Dad, remember?”
“Damn thing! “
“Think of it as a very cold, very injured chipmunk.”
“If I saw a chipmunk like that in the forest, I would wring its neck.”
They amputated his foot. It happened fast: melanoma diagnoses and surgery the next week. He’d mentioned he had a thing on his toe, but I hadn’t taken it seriously. He’d been treating it with salicylic acid and Dr. Scholl’s Freeze-Away, picking at it with a pocket knife. When he finally saw the dermatologist, it had spread pretty wide. My sister drove him down to San Francisco for surgery, and I drove him back. Now he was home and supposed to stay in bed. When we get these big cataclysmic events in life, it astounds me that what’s hardest are the logistics surrounding the cataclysm. When our mom died, it wasn’t so much her death that was worst, it was figuring out how to run the machine of living within the briny soup of sorrow. Same with this. Diagnosis and surgery were over in a few days, but care-taking dragged on, relentless.
When we first unwrapped his foot, my dad burst into tears. I left him alone a minute, and then I went in and put my arm around him. “I’m losing myself,” he said, “My life is disappearing, limb by limb. I’m like a logged forest.” Later, when he was feeling better, he said: “The stub of it looks like a penis. Have you ever seen a penis?”
I was single. My sister had three kids by two long-gone husbands. She moved into the family house a few years ago. Dad moved up to his studio. It was a good arrangement. He had a bathroom, electric kettle, mini-fridge, microwave, and my sister close by. My sister had a house for her and the boys. I had a family law practice and a luxury condo in the City. But it bugged my dad that I was single. It bugged him that I lived in an apartment. He thought I was no good at money, a failure at love. My therapist told me to just frame it as a concern he had for me. He worried I was lonely.
“Take a look, “ he said, waving his stump toward me, its jaunty rows of stitches crusted in dried blood. “Might learn something. They do look like this: swollen but smaller and usually not sewn-up.”
My dad came from a family of duck hunters. I always imagined the lot of them hunched in in San Pablo Bay, drunk, guns on their laps, peering through branches at fog and shallow water, waiting for ducks. Dad started his career as a sculptor by making duck decoys.
“A metaphor for his pshyco-social-survival technique,” I told my sister, but she shook her head.
My sister has no patience for metaphor, no time for reflection. But what’s more real than metaphor? One surprising thing about life: nobody has time to talk about it. We’re too busy keeping it all going, listing what’s lost and sorting what’s left. Maybe that’s why I keep coming up here. You have to keep playing it out until you get it right, my therapist said. It’s the curse of being human, she said.
But I wasn’t a natural care-giver.
“You cook like an old spinster,” he said.
“I am an old spinster.”
“At least you can take care of yourself. You and your sister both can take care of yourselves. That’s all I ever wanted. You don’t need a man. Women don’t need men! Only your mom needed me. Your mom was an emotionally needy woman.”
“You’ve told me that before, Dad.”
“Are you a lesbian?” he asked.
“You’ve asked me that before, Dad.”
“Since your mom died, I should try to keep up. You should tell me about yourself. Are you still a vegetarian?”
In my dad’s mind, vegetarianism was the gateway drug for lesbianism.
“Mostly,” I said.
I figured this out: we communicate like birds, singing the same songs over and over, staking out our territory. I just wanted him to be able to look at movies so I didn’t feel so guilty leaving him alone.
“Do you want me to set up Facebook or something? Then you can keep up with the kids?”
“Hell. They live right down there! I see enough of them already. Anyhow, I don’t even like regular books. Why would I like a face book? I have cancer.”
“Are you trying to make me feel guilty about going? I’m trying to show you how to watch movies on this thing, but you have got to learn to touch it right.”
He wasn’t even looking at the screen anymore. He stared out at the forest. The redwoods glimmered, stalwart as deputies.
“I’m going to go soon, Dad. Anything else you need?”
“My god-damn foot back,” he said.
He started to cry, and I reached to hug him—brittle and dry as branches.
“Do you want some hand lotion?”
It was all I could think to say.
He held the Kindle Fire on his lap and suddenly stroked it correctly, as you should: gently. But the screen had gone to sleep and so stayed dark and brackish. He kept stroking it kindly.
I couldn’t bear to tell him that to wake it up you actually do need to stab it with your finger.
“Dad, I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry.”
It was a general sorry, useless and universal.
He shook his head.
“All I want is to watch The High and the Mighty.”
The redwoods stood outside, exhausted sentries, the animals in them silent and exhausted too, all waiting for this to be over, for things to get better. The Kindle screen shimmered on my dad’s chest like a miniature wetland, and he petted it as if it were injured and helpless.
Poems and translations by Lisa Allen Ortiz have appeared in Best New Poets 2013, Narrative, and the Literary Review. Her collection Guide to the Exhibit (poems inspired by exhibits at the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum) won the 2016 Perugia Press Prize.