Jesús saved us, that was the joke in my family. It was Dad’s first big painting and the one most people know him by. He called it, “Jesús Died for Your Sins.” It came at just the right time—the anti-immigrant sentiment and all. He’s about to tell me about the tow truck.
“I was driving and you were right there in the back seat.”
I was two years old.
“You were just two and bam!” He slaps those two big hands together and sits up a little straighter in bed. “I see it. This tow truck. It’s got this big metal cross. And it’s just the way it’s made, the way it functions. Not meant to be a symbol at all. But it was like I was struck by light on the road to Damascus. What a revelation.”
My dad had painted a mechanic pinned to the cross of that tow truck. The guy wore a blue mechanics outfit and Jesús was written on the breast pocket. It made him famous eventually. It hangs in the Walters Museum in Baltimore.
This religious theme generates a random memory of the first Christmas tree that I recollect cutting down with my family. “Dad, you remember that Christmas tree we stole from across the Safeway?”
“Now, we didn’t steal that,” he says, just a bit irritated. “That was an empty lot, and they were going to just tear down all those trees. You know there’s a bank there now.”
“I’m not surprised.”
This was before Dad was making any real money. My parents said they hated living in the suburbs, but I think this is what he loves about it: the confluence of people in these squeezed natural settings. He never tires of seeing deer in the backyard.
My sister hung “Doonesbury” characters from the comics section of the Washington Post on the tree. I hung antlers and skulls from animals I had found in the wooded areas of our neighborhood. Then we hung up some old shoes. We were pretty irreligious, my family.
“Hey, Dad. What was that shoe of Mom’s you put on the top in place of the star? She was really mad.”
“Yeah.” He smiles. “Those were high heels. Mishka something or other. She loved those. Got them at the consignment store for holiday parties and such.”
We laugh for a moment. “Hey, what do you need,” I say. “You want me to get you some books or something?”
“No, I just need you here. Until it’s over. You know what I used to say, don’t you?”
“Be an artist or be rich so you can take the time when you need it.” I don’t know when I understood it. He told us that when we were kids. I suppose on one level it sounds selfish, but he never meant it that way.
“But you weren’t with Grandma when she died.”
“You’re right. I wasn’t. My family right here needed me then. It was hard leaving her to die on her own.”
We’re silent for a long time. Then he looks at me. I can tell it’s something he’s been puzzling about for a long time. “You remember that time you were bawling? You were inconsolable.”
I look at him like I don’t remember.
“It was after that stream cleanup we did. Remember?
I shake my head. My parents used to organize stream cleanups. Dad was always picking up bits of plastic from the parking lots whenever we stopped at a grocery store. I’m remembering this and getting emotional. He used to call it—
“You know, I do have this thing you can help me with,” he says, changing the subject. “One of my Zen projects.”
That’s what he calls them. Always have a long-term project and do a little each chance you get. Make sure it takes years, he admonished my sister and me. A project you never think you’ll finish. He did an exhibit like this. It was a Zen rock garden, except instead of stones he used buttons or bottle caps, or broken plastic flasher pieces from car accidents he found by the side of the road. Each stone (piece) was hand selected with some special quality. It took him years to complete. After that, he called any long-term project a “Zen project.” It’s the only way to understand the unfinished nature of life, he said.
“What do you want me to do?” I said.
“Watch this.” He pulls the covers off and steers his legs off the bed. He pushes away the walker.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Dad.”
He waves a hand at me. “Too late for caution,” he says. He gets up, and he walks around gingerly. “I can do the stairs, too.”
“That’s great, Dad. So how can I help?”
He sits down again. “You know that townhouse over where you and your sister grew up?”
I nod. “Of course.”
“I want you to take me there. Someone dumped a pile of asphalt in the woods there, and when we lived there, I would always take a lump of asphalt and toss it in a dumpster whenever I had the chance.”
I thought about it. I couldn’t imagine him picking up pieces of asphalt in his condition. “Sure,” I say, humoring him.
He nods and smiles.
If he couldn’t do it, well, life has limits. I felt emotional again and I could feel my chin quiver.
“You okay?” he says. He said it with the same patient kindness he had when I was a kid.
“I was just thinking of Mom, is all.”
“She died so suddenly.” Dad closes his eyes and nods. I don’t think he believes me.
“I’m going to get some groceries. For myself, if you don’t need anything.”
“I’m good,” he says, and reclines back against his pillow.
I open the door of my car in the parking lot and the blacktop slants out of control away from me. It is a hot day in April. I pause with my feet on the ground, still sitting, holding back the vertigo. It is such a stupid thing, but I can’t tell him. The futility. I remember those streams we used to clean up. Originally, I had felt so proud. But a week later they were just as filthy. Yearly, we’d clean up one week of trash and the rest flowed into the oceans. My heart was never in it again once I understood that. It seemed such an empty gesture. I think it was then I was diagnosed with depression. That’s what Dad meant when he said he had to take care of his family. He and Mom were so worried about me.
I want to ask him if it was all worth it, and instead he wants to finish his “Zen project.” I can’t speak of it either. And on top of all this, yesterday was the anniversary of my divorce. There is a plastic wrapper from a pack of cigarettes under my left shoe. I leave it and go into the store.
Back at Dad’s house, I sit in the cool of his living room staring at one of his paintings done in three panels like a comic strip. The first panel shows a young boy wading, his trousers rolled up, his hand around a trout. Remember Fish. The second panel, the same boy as a young man standing in the water, his trousers wet, looking somewhere away while the trout swims free. Forget fish. The last panel, a naked old man carried away by the waters. Remember Stream. I always felt that the boy in the first panel looked suspiciously like me.
“You know it looks like you,” my dad says from behind me.
I’m shocked as I turn to see him there.
“But, you look like me too.”
I hadn’t considered that. I was afraid he was stealing something of me, but it was self-study after all. Dad sits down next to me.
“Remember Fish, Forget Fish, Remember Stream. What’d you mean by that.”
“I don’t always know,” he says. “I think if all things are unified in some sense—if there is some beginning like a big bang—but then all things are particularized. And certainly not more so than in the mind of a young man—no one thinks of himself more than a young man.”
He seems finished but adds, “It’s not just a way of looking at things. It’s also about remembering and forgetting. I think only kids and old people get that picture.”
“So, you understand it?”
“If you’re not old, who is?”
He chuckles at this and leans his head back, closing his eyes. An enigma. “You think I have some great wisdom to impart to you in these last days?”
“Don’t you,” I say, getting up to put on some hot water.
“Most times, I still confuse myself for a young man.”
“You’re going to need that young man if you’re going to haul all that asphalt.”
“That’s why I’m so tired. I’ve been up and down the stairs five times already. Training.”
“Is training a good idea?” I take a good look at him. He’s an impressionist painting, and I see grays. So many grays. I had been standing too close. I only understand them now after going away and coming back.
“Training? In my condition, yes. I’ll need it.” He gets up and walks to his bookshelf. He takes a thick paperback. Something by Cervantes, I think. He holds it up as he takes the stairs. “See this is a piece of asphalt and I’m taking it up this hill to the dumpster.”
“Okay,” I say.
He stops halfway to rest for a moment. The tea kettle whistles.
Dad’s friend, Omar, visits the next week we are to begin his Zen project. They met after Dad quit college and spent six months in Tangiers. They sit outside and Omar smokes a cigarette, offers him one.
“It’s the perfect time to start,” he tells Dad.
“Asshole.” Dad waves him off. “You smoke all this time and now you’re going to live longer than me. You always were an asshole.”
Omar is Dad’s oldest friend. He smokes cigarettes in that characteristic Middle Eastern way (or is it French), two fingers straight up and the cigarette down toward the center of his fingers. Dad calls no one asshole more than Omar; actually, I don’t think he calls anyone else asshole.
“Take a cigarette. Maybe it will save your life.” Omar laughs.
“No, I’m getting into shape.” Dad makes a fist. “I have one last project.”
“You disappoint me. I was hoping to pinch some of your medical marijuana.” Omar waves at Dad. “You are a selfish asshole to do this to me.” He laughs. “What project requires this Spartan torture? You need help?”
“You’re welcome to come,” Dad says without asking for help.
So, Omar comes. I park in a visitor’s parking spot. Omar and I each take one of Dad’s arms to help him preserve his strength. He leads us behind the townhouses that I know well. My sister and I met other neighborhood kids around the culvert to play here.
“Here,” he waves toward the ground of the woods, but it is not asphalt. “The trout lilies. You remember,” he says to me. “They should bloom soon.”
“Yes, I remember.” They were my dad’s favorite wildflower. My sister and I tried to pick them for Mom, but they would always wilt before she got home.
Dad moves farther on. “Here we go,” he says. He bends down carefully and picks up a small chunk of asphalt and starts up the hill.
Omar and I look at each other. “He wants to move all of this?” He nods toward the pile of dumped asphalt.
“Take only as much as you can carry in one trip,” Dad says before I can answer. “Then we go home.”
I pick up the heaviest piece I see and lug it up to the dumpster. Omar takes a piece in each hand and follows me. This area is a little swath of grass cut through a wood between two developments to allow fire truck access.
Dad walks surprisingly fast and he moves toward the car before Omar and me.
“Is that it?” Omar says to me, as we walk past the pile of asphalt.
The pile looks depressingly unchanged.
“Yes. We come back tomorrow and do it all over again.”
Omar nods and releases a heavy cloud of unfiltered cigarette smoke toward the sky. “He may as well smoke; I don’t think he has enough time.”
Omar is here the next day waiting with friends.
“Frankie and Miriam were visiting, so I brought them along.”
Dad takes it in stride, but I’m a bit embarrassed. Frankie and Miriam are well tanned, and Frankie has an earring in each ear. They have a pool and Miriam has a studio in their house. My sister and I would go over and swim with their kids occasionally. We kids all changed in their master bedroom where Miriam had paintings of her and Frankie in various stages of coitus.
I’m guarded looking at Miriam even though she’s in her seventies now.
Dad looks tired when we get home, so I help him up the stairs.
“Is it worth it?” I say.
He nods, and he’s asleep by the time I leave the room.
Omar is there again the next day, and he’s sitting on a checked blanket with Frankie and Miriam, and—
“You remember Suzanne, don’t you?” Miriam says to me. “She’s divorced too.” Miriam is very transparent.
Omar and my dad go straight at it. Dad still only picks up one piece. “You still not bring the medical pot?” Omar says to my dad.
I hang back to say hello to Suzanne. As embarrassing as the reintroduction is, I’m eager to hear how she’s making out.
She’s divorced over five years now and had to move back home from New York during the downturn. She tells me all this in the embarrassed manner my generation of reduced expectations has become accustomed to. She worked briefly at the Corcoran until it dissolved. “But I’m working again. Community college. And,” she says, touching my arm, “I read your novella. Twice.”
I am light at the mention of it.
“You’ve nothing else yet?”
“A couple short stories,” I grunt. This piece of asphalt is heavier than yesterday’s. I’ve struggled mightily with an unfinished novel for ten years. I say nothing more, hauling my burden up the hill.
On the way back, I take Suzanne’s arm and steer her away from the pile. “Just one trip per day and then it’s back again tomorrow, that’s the rule. It’s art.”
“Performance art,” she says.
Miriam and Frankie have brought lunch, and we all sit down. I am cautious as I chew so I don’t need to raise my napkin from my lap. Suzanne looks so much like the younger version of her mother, I feel I’ve already seen her naked.
Dad looks toward the trout lilies. “I thought they would have bloomed by now.”
I pick my sister up from Reagan National two days later.
“He’s surprisingly strong. Getting stronger,” I say.
“How much time?”
“Anytime. Or a couple months.”
“You sound good,” she says.
“You’ll see it,” I say. “There were 13 of us today. And the trout lilies are going to bloom soon.”
“The flowers we picked for Mom?”
“I don’t remember.”
There is a line of us following Dad to the dumpster today as he slowly climbs the hill. Suzanne carries a small piece as she videos everyone on her phone. She thought we should document this. Dad cheers us as we toss our piece of asphalt in the dumpster, but I see what looks like a maintenance guy for the apartments coming toward us. He’s got the standard dark blue shirt and pants sold to all maintenance people everywhere. Suddenly, I’m wondering how I’m only now reading the warning sign “NO PUBLIC DUMPING–$2,500 FINE AND/OR YEAR IMPRISONMENT.” Great, I think, let Dad get arrested. It could kill him.
“Everything all right?” he asks everyone in general.
“We’re cleaning up,” I nod my head in the general direction of the woods and drop my load. The dumpster booms with my boulder-size chunk.
“They charge us by the pound,” the maintenance guy says.
“This is an art project,” Miriam says.
“Cigarette?” Omar offers.
He looks puzzled, and it looks like this could go either way.
Suzanne holds her phone on him and he’s taken aback at first, but then maybe the words “art project” sink in, and maybe he thinks he’ll be in a documentary.
“We’ll show you,” my sister chimes in. And she and Suzanne lead him through the access area to the pile of asphalt.
Omar lights a cigarette and says looking their way, “I like our odds.”
“You almost screwed up everything offering him a cigarette,” Dad says.
“He’s cute,” Omar says.
When they return, the maintenance guy raises a chunk of asphalt in his hand. Even I laugh and cheer as he chucks into the dumpster.
As we return to our cars, Miriam asks Dad if he is up for a swim. He looks at my sister and me.
“Sure,” my sister says. “If you’re up for it, Dad.”
“He’s up for it,” I say.
Dad tells us in the car we don’t need swimsuits, Frankie and Miriam are nudists.
“How could you not remember?” my sister says to me.
Suzanne, my sister, and I sit at a table awkwardly listening to the “adults” laughing and talking in the pool.
“This was embarrassing when I was a teenager,” Suzanne says. She stands up. “I’m tired of being the wallflower.”
My sister stands. Suzanne is unbuttoning her blouse and so is my sister.
They look at me.
How easily I say yes. Our elders give us a nod when we appear.
“Welcome,” says Omar, his hairy body buoys up as he does. His chest is scarred where his ribs have been cracked. A bypass, I remember.
I know my father’s scars well. Miriam and Frankie have theirs too. It’s an indoor pool and the light reflects dreamily off the ceiling and walls. And we swim in this dream of acceptance for another hour or two before Dad needs to go home.
We finish Dad’s project in the next couple of days. Jesús is there as we finish. Yes, the maintenance guy’s name is really Jesús. Dad stays in bed after that. He has no more projects.
My sister and I sit on the bed, and he laughs when we tell him about the maintenance guy’s name. He hadn’t caught that. He tells us Mom really saved him. In Tangiers. He probably would have become a drunk and lost all sense of artistic direction. “She probably saved Omar too. I think he was in love with me and when your mom stole me away, he seemed to have no other choice but to follow me to the states.
“And I want you two to know,” he says, “You both saved us.”
Dad dies the next day.
I have one more thing to do before I go home. I want to see if the trout lilies have bloomed. As I get to the access area, I hear a truck pulling away on the other side. It looks like Jesús at the wheel, but I can’t really make him out and my cell phone vibrates. I wouldn’t have answered, but it’s Suzanne. She’s excited about a project she’s working on inspired by Dad’s. I listen. As someone approaches her piece, a boulder will roll higher and higher up a hill, activated by the viewer’s footsteps.
“Hello,” she says. “Are you there?”
“Wait,” I say, because I’ve fallen to my knees at the bottom of the hill, unable to continue to speak. Or listen. The trout lilies have bloomed. The few yellow flowers that make it poke through cracks in the pile. Chunks of asphalt, freshly dumped there.