July 2006 - June 2007
Short Story Contest
"Before the Storm"
Written By Jacob M. Appel
In pre-Katrina New Orleans, a disaster expert and his adult son tour assisted-living facilities.
Dr. Warren Lefevre, the world’s foremost historian of ancient disasters, remains feisty and intrepid at sixty-six—but he is slowly succumbing to Huntington’s Disease. His adult son, James, accompanies him to a series of assisted living facilities, but none meet Warren’s exacting standards. They finally arrive at upscale Bonneville Park, a converted antebellum plantation, where the well-meaning Thad Faucheux attempts to give them a guided tour of the facility. Lefevre resists the guide’s hard sell, asking challenging and often unreasonable questions about daily life at the home.
The events of Before the Storm take place in pre-Katrina New Orleans, but Dr. Lefevre continually warns of the “hurricane of the century” that will inevitable strike the city. As the story unfolds, his son reveals how the two of them survived Hurricane Camille thirty-five years before—and how that earlier storm has shaped their future relationship.
“There is no such thing,” says my father, “as a worst case scenario.”
It is September, 2004. We are crossing Lake Pontchartrain, between Metairie and St. Tammany Parish. The cypress silhouettes are receding behind us, wagging their heads in the breeze. There is no traffic, virtually no humidity. The causeway drifts to the horizon, where aquamarine water melts into cerulean sky, a tableau disturbed only by a flock of brown pelicans. Even on a morning like this, my father speaks of disasters.
“Consider,” he says. “A head-on strike from a category five hurricane would bring with it a storm surge of thirty feet, maybe forty. You’re talking a wall of water three stories high—enough to breach every levee downriver of Baton Rouge. You’re talking submerged evacuation routes, people clawing each other’s eyes out to get to the top of the cathedral. Assuming there still is a cathedral. Assuming all of Jackson Square isn’t blown into the Garden District. That’s a worst case scenario, right?” My old man shakes his head. “Not hardly.”
After a brief pause, to light his corncob pipe, he continues: “Terrorists—and I don’t just mean Al Qaeda, but the Weather Underground or whoever—could use the cover of the storm to raid the nuclear reactors at Waterford and St. Francisville. That’s pounds of uranium. You’re talking a portable Three Mile Island, Chernobyl in a sack. And that’s just for starters.” He removes a handkerchief from his breast pocket and blows his nose. “Worse case scenario?!” he says. “Extinction is a worst case scenario.”
My old man can go on like this for hours. He’s a retired classics professor and the author of the three volume Disaster Response in Antiquity—a leading source on the Helike tidal wave and the Vesuvius eruption and every major calamity in between—so he also imagines himself an expert on contemporary threats to Western Civilization. I let him talk. He’s sixty-six and enjoying what will likely be his last autumn of lucidity, saying his piece while he can still control his tongue.
We have already visited six assisted living facilities this week; Bonneville Park is the final home on our list. This sanctuary has been established on the site of an antebellum sugar plantation, and its administrative offices occupy the original Greek Revival manor house. A broad avenue leads to the mansion, sheltered by marble statuary and live-oaks. Formal gardens of azalea and crape myrtle extend for acres, weaving around fountains and gazebos. The front doors open on sterling silver hinges. According to the brochure, portions of Jezebel and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were filmed on the grounds. Yet being good enough for Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor is no guarantee for meeting my father’s standards. He’s already rejected homes with rooftop swimming pools and panoramic views of the Mississippi.
Our guide to Bonneville Park is Thad Faucheux. His official title is “admissions counselor”—as though my father were applying to L.S.U. or Tulane. Thad can’t be more than thirty-five, too young for his white flannel suit and heavy gold pocket watch. If he’s aiming for the country squire look, he’s missed his target. The man clearly works his upper body, but his frame still isn’t broad enough for the part. Throw in his singsong voice, and his habit of pointing to things with both hands simultaneously, like a flight attendant, and Thad comes across as a youthful, gay mock-up of Mark Twain or Ben Matlock. “Good to finally meet you, Dr. Lefevre,” he says, extending a bony hand. “And you must be Mr. Lefevre, Sr.”
“I must be,” says my father.
Thad flashes a plaster smile. “My name’s Thad Faucheux,” he says, articulating each word slowly, as though my old man were hard of hearing. He pronounces his name F?-shay. “Your son and I spoke on the telephone.” To emphasize this concept, he holds his fist beside his cheek—thumb poised at his ear, pinkie extended toward his mouth.
“You don’t say,” says my father.
“Do you happen to be related to the Lefevre who defended Fort Morgan during the war?” asks the guide.
“Not hardly,” my father answers. “We’re related to the Levine who changed his name to get into the state dental college.”
I offer the counselor a sympathetic shrug.
My old man shuffles across the Victorian parlor, his gait wide and prancing, finally catching his balance on a gilded pier mirror. The jerking limbs and the difficulty stopping are distinctive of Huntington’s chorea. This is the genetic brain disorder that killed the folksinger Woody Guthrie, that will soon kill my father. (I am adopted, so I will be spared.) He stands with his back to us, gazing out the palatial windows.
“If you’ll come along, Mr. Lefevre,” Thad says to my father, “We’ll take a stroll around the campus.”
“In a bit,” says my father. “First, how’s your drinking water?”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Is it safe?” asks my father.
“I’m sure it is,” says Thad. He appears a bit nonplussed, unhappy to be off-script. “Would you like a glass, Mr. Lefevre?”
“Consider,” answers my father. “Water was the undoing of the Roman Empire. Why do you suppose Caligula appointed his horse a senator? Or Nero played his lyre atop Quirinal Hill while Rome burned below? Lead poisoning, that’s why. Encephalopathy induced by contaminated drinking water.”
“Bottled water is available in the cafeteria, Mr. Lefevre,” offers Thad. “Evian, Poland Spring.”
“That sheds a whole new light on Tiberius and his orgies, doesn’t it?” demands my father. “And why Claudius impaled toddlers on pikes. So much for Gibbon with his marauding Goths and Vandals. Rome fell on account of faulty plumbing.”
My old man turns to the guide, self-satisfied as Perry Mason. It’s hard to picture him as anything other than my father, the man who once ferried me from okra-den to okra-den in search of the perfect gumbo with the same intransigence and intensity that now distinguish our search for a rest home. But to Thad Faucheux, I know, Ernie Lefevre is merely another unfortunate eccentric. My father’s jacket is stained with grape soda, tomato sauce, raspberry sorbet. (You can read his entire week’s diet off his lapels.) He’s also grown out his silver hair, stopped trimming inside his ears. Today, his shirttails protrude from his fly. These miscues reflect his physical limitations, of course—but to our guide, he may just appear slovenly. When I look at my father, I can’t help seeing an epic film. Thad Faucheux sees merely a still photograph.
“Dad,” I say. “Mr. Faucheux’s not interested in Roman water.”
“Hmmph,” says my father. “Well I am.”
Our guide attempts to regain control of the scene, to return to his script. “If you’ll step this way,” he says, indicating a set of French doors with both his index fingers. We follow Thad across an enclosed porch and down a concrete ramp that, until recently, must have been a wooden stairway. A white-haired woman winks at us as we pass, then returns to watering a stand of chrysanthemums with a green plastic pitcher.
“You’ll find that at Bonneville,” Thad says, “we truly understand how much courage is involved in sacrificing one’s independence.” He sounds like a Confederate apologist, not a nursing home guide—but I hold my tongue. I desperately want this visit to go well: My father has been living with us for six months, frightening the children with prophesies of nuclear winter and apocalyptic meteor showers. He’s driven my wife to the cusp of another breakdown. So that means no Civil War jokes, nothing to egg on my old man or ruffle our counselor’s feathers. It’s my job to listen while Thad does his hard sell, to play Jimmy Carter if necessary. “The sacrifice takes courage on the part of the patient,” our guide says, “and courage on the part of the patient’s loved ones.”
“You want to talk about courage,” interjects my father. “I’ll tell you about courage. My boy and I—we braved Hurricane Camille in ’69. ”
My father still speaks of Camille in the way combat veterans recall their battlefield heroics. It is his Thermopylae and his El Alamein and his Charge of the Light Brigade all rolled into one. For me, it is my earliest memory—a first splash of clarity in a sea of primordial darkness. I remember my father loading supplies into the lime green Chrysler Imperial he’d inherited from my grandfather: a barometer, his super8 movie camera, several mason jars full of prunes and pickled eel. I also remember my mother—before the divorce—standing in the narrow driveway of the house we rented on Burgundy Street, the wind pinning her skirt to her ankles, beseeching my old man to come to his senses. She shouted, she sobbed. She wrapped her arms around his legs. When all else failed, she bashed in the windshield of the Chrysler with the handle of a garden hoe. (Even today, recounting the story, her voice quavers with rage.) If anything, her pleas just fed my old man’s determination. By noon, the two of us were heading up Route 90 into Mississippi.
We drove past wind-whipped tung tree orchards, stray cattle seeking shelter in a Catholic cemetery, two elderly black men boarding up a liquor store. My father had to lean forward in his seat to peer under the circular scars in the windshield. It was my responsibility to hold his prune jar and his pipe. “Why is everybody going in the other direction?” I asked.
“Because they’re cowards,” said my father.
“Is Mama a coward?” I asked.
My father spit a prune pit out the window. “Your grandfather survived the flood of thirty-seven. His father made it through the Galveston hurricane and the San Francisco earthquake. It’s about time we earned our stripes, isn’t it?”
“What stripes?” I asked.
My father pounded his horn, swerving to avoid a meal sack in the roadway. He flicked on the radio and tuned through the stations. Nothing but evacuation orders, nautical forecasts. When he finally found a soft music channel, it turned out they were featuring a hurricane countdown. Billie Holliday’s Stormy Weather. Sinatra’s September in the Rain. Joan Baez covering Blowing in the Wind. At one point, the highway ended in a barricade of sawhorses: National guard officers had commandeered both sides of the road for outbound traffic. After that, I remember we drove several miles in reverse, on the shoulder, then cut onto a rural pike where my uncles had drag-raced as teenagers. We arrived in Biloxi during the early afternoon.
The town appeared surprisingly alive. Tradesmen in shirtsleeves darted across Main Street, bellowing orders into the breeze. Outside the theater, a crowd of teenagers had gathered to watch the proprietor remove the panels from the marquee. Nearby, a pharmacist struggled to unmoor his awning. Services had just concluded at the African Methodist Church, and we passed a young girl chasing after her mother’s windnapped turquoise hat. Meanwhile, on Beach Boulevard, the breakers slapped against the sea wall. That’s where we’d be staying, in a vacation bungalow just beyond the lighthouse. It belonged to one of my father’s senior colleagues at Xavier.
“You ready for battle?” asked my father.
I shook my head. “I’m scared,” I said.
“Scared,” scoffed my father. “Do you think Cato was scared? Do you think Epaminondas was scared?” My father dropped the names of classical figures as though they were close personal friends. At the age of six, I imagined him sneaking off to the French Quarter for tête-à-têtes with mentors named Herodotus and Archimedes. “Do you think Pliny was afraid of lava?” he persisted. “Or Socrates of hemlock?”
“I guess not,” I said.
“Stoicism, young man,” said my father. “Show your mettle.”
Thad Faucheux is too young to remember Camille. While my father boasts of our onetime bravery, the guide steers us under sycamores thick with Spanish moss. Wrought iron benches line the paths of Bonneville Park, evenly spaced like buoys. In fact, each has a large, color-coded number painted onto its concrete base. I suspect that this has been done to orient patients suffering from memory loss, but its effect is to create the aura of a playground—as if, after visiting hours, the inhabitants toss aside their canes and indulge in secret games of hopscotch. Not that we have encountered many residents. It is only nine-thirty a.m. Most of them, it turns out, are still in the dining hall.
“That building over there is the infirmary,” Thad explains, indicating a low-slung stone structure that might have once been a carriage house. “The façade dates from 1834, but the insides are state-of-the-art. We have a full team of staff physicians. There’s also a helipad out back. We can medevac you to the Ochsner Clinic in eleven minutes.”
“How many helicopters do you have?” asks my father.
Our guide adjusts his jacket sleeves. He does this often, leaving dark thumbprints just above the cuffs. “We don’t actually have the helicopters on site, Mr. Lefevre,” Thad explains. “But we can bring them in at a moment’s notice.”
“That’s good,” agrees my father. He scratches the back of his head and yawns. “But the time it takes the helicopters to get here,” he adds. “Is that included in the eleven minutes?”
“I can find out for you, Mr. Lefevre,” says Thad.
“I’m sure you can,” my father answers.
We’ve only walked a few yards farther, when my father stops short. “In emergency response,” he declares, “Timing is everything”
“Of course, Dad,” I agree. “I’m sure Mr. Faucheux knows that.”
“Maybe,” retorts my old man. He sizes up our guide, sniffing as though purchasing an imported cheese. “Maybe not.”
Thad sneaks a glance at his pocket watch. “Would you like to take a look at the living quarters?” he asks.
“Timing,” continues my father. “Take, for instance, the Earthquake of 464. Before the Common Era, that is. The Spartans were caught unprepared. What was the result? The revolt of the Messenian helots. Yes, the same Messenian helots who fled to the Athenian camp at Pylos and helped Demosthenes trounce the Sphakteria.” My father’s face is crimson. “You may not care about this, but it is important.”
“Of course it is, Mr. Lefevre,” says our guide. “History. If we don’t learn it, we repeat it—right?”
My father nods, catching his breath. Thad takes advantage of the silence.
“These are the Cottages,” says our guide. “Each resident has a private apartment with satellite television and wireless Internet access.”
The Cottages are square, red-brick bunks. They’re tidy, modern structures with petunias and geraniums in the window boxes, but they’re no match for the manor house up on the ridge. I can’t help thinking of slave cabins. I’m tempted to ask where the slave quarters actually stood, but I know this won’t go over well. Besides, I’m confident our guide hasn’t a clue.
“You’d be surprised,” continues Thad, “how many of our residents surf the Internet. Not just the young ones, either. Twenty-four hour nursing is also provided, of course, if and when it becomes necessary.” Our guide detours from his script momentarily to wave at two figures approaching from the plantation building. “Looks like breakfast is over.”
The newcomers are an elderly couple. The husband pushes a walker whose legs end in tennis balls. The wife wears a shield of political pins. They cover the gamut of the ideological spectrum. Pro-Choice, Pro-Child and Abortion Stops a Beating Heart rest side by side. Under Kerry-Edwards 2004 sits Democrats: Get Right With God.
“Mrs. Beaufort makes political jewelry ,” whispers Thad. “She’s harmless.”
Thad exchanges greetings with the Beauforts. “This is Mr. Lefevre,” he adds. “He’s thinking of coming to live at Bonneville Park.”
“So they’ve gotten you too, have they?” snaps the woman. “Resist, while the going is good.”
Mr. Beaufort’s eyes never leave the pavement. “Please, Gladys,” he mutters.
And the couple passes on.
“They met here,” says Thad. “That does happen.”
Not promising, I think. After four wives, my father’s past his quota.
“She’s a character,” our guide continues. “I’ve wondered what she did before she came to Bonneville, but I’ve never been able to get it out of her. I imagine she’s always been a bit eccentric.”
“Hmmph,” retorts my old man. “That’s like judging Carthage after the Romans had sown the fields with salt. Do you imagine Helen, at eighty, had a face to launch ships? Not hardly.” He glares at our guide. “From meeting the likes of us, you’ve never guess we survived thunderstorm, much less a category five hurricane.”
Once again—as more residents trek past us toward the Cottages—Camille takes center stage.
The senior colleague who’d leant us his bungalow was a retired professor of horticulture. Outside, his foliage was unimpressive. Poinsettias. Cleyera. A pair of hangdog magnolias guarding the garage. Also, according to my father, a patch of marijuana out back. But he’d transformed the interior of the four room retreat into a veritable arboretum. Greenery shrouded all of the walls—dieffenbachia, sansevieria, pothos vines. Glass cabinets housed rare orchids and bromeliads. Assorted cacti covered the kitchen counters, the linoleum floors of the bathroom, even the toilet lid. The professor apparently used his beachfront pad as an escape from the stresses of his domestic life, which explained the voluminous stacks of National Geographic and American Heritage, but also several gun magazines and large quantities of male-on-male pornography. The kitchen cabinets did not contain any cooking equipment. Instead, they held a nursery of dusty board games. Parcheesi. Battleship. Three different sets of Monopoly. The front windows had been boarded up before our arrival, but the glass doors to the lanai remained exposed.
My father explored the house, room by room. He tested the cedar support posts with his bare hands and grinned triumphantly. “Feel that,” he ordered. “Solid wood. Straight off the lumberjack’s axe.” He kicked the molding with his boot. “If you want that these days, you have to build it yourself. Everything’s hollow now, all prefab and modular homes.” He retrieved a grocery bag from the sofa and scooped a slice of pickled eel from a jar. “Let’s have a snack,” he added, his mouth full of fish. “Then we’ll get some boards over that glass.”
The labor, as it turned out, took most of the afternoon. Whoever had paneled up the front windows had exhausted the stock of two-by-fours. All that remained was a stash of narrow wooden beams. These had to be applied one at a time. Many of the beams had rotted through and they crumbled easily under pressure, so my job was to sort the salvageable planks from the unsalvageable. My father did the nailing. Meanwhile, the skies darkened and the chandeliers flickered. Eventually, the power conked out. My father pulled the Chrysler alongside the bungalow and worked in the shaft of the headlights. He turned the radio on top volume—but all we could hear was the crackle of distant thunder. “Once we’re done,” he said. “We’ll go inside and relax.”
“Okay,” I said.
“It’ll be pretty snug, I imagine. Our own private Masada.”
I snapped a corroded beam across my knee.
“I’m proud of you,” he added. “You’re not afraid of drowning, are you?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. Up until that moment, the possibility of drowning hadn’t even crossed my consciousness. My fear had been broader, more inchoate. Now I had a specific threat upon which to focus. I ran periodically to the front windows and peeked between the slats—watching the tide top the seawall and slosh into the roadbed. I’d brought my favorite stuffed zebra, Mr. Nobody, with me on the trip. Suddenly, I wished I’d left him in New Orleans. I didn’t want him to drown.
My father nailed the last of the beams in place. “That should do it,” he announced. He lit candles on the mantelpiece and windowsills, bathing the African violets and wandering jews in a soft orange glow. And then we relaxed. My father’s idea of relaxing, of course, was all about history. I sat on a swiveling bar stool while he lectured me on the plague of Athens. That’s right. While gale force winds ripped the utility poles out of their sockets, my old man narrated the death of Pericles. He paused only to light his pipe and to check the barometer. I used these interruptions to gauge the tide. Already, the surf was nipping at the base of the magnolias. The rain pelted the siding like buckshot.
“What are you looking at?” called my father. “I’m at the important part.”
“Out there,” I said. “There’s a boat.”
A long, narrow light was inching its way toward us. Only it wasn’t a boat, it was a firetruck. Soon a man in a yellow raincoat emerged from the haze. He pounded on the window boards with the back of his flashlight. My father glanced at his watch. He popped a handful of prunes in his mouth. “What are you waiting for?” he asked. “There’s someone knocking.”
When I opened the door, the wind virtually blew our visitor into the hallway. He was a small, meaty man with short-cropped hair. He was wearing casual clothes, but a silver badge on his chest read DEPUTY SHERIFF HARRISON COUNTY—an emblem straight out of a John Wayne western. Water dripped from his every feature, and several seconds passed while he blinked the misery from his eyes. Together, we forced shut the door. At the same time, my father occupied the space behind me.
“I saw those headlights,” said the deputy. “That was good thinking.” He spoke with a syrupy drawl—hardly decipherable. “Never would have found you, otherwise.”
“Maybe we didn’t want to be found,” said my father.
The deputy ignored him. “Is it just you two? I’ve got room in the cab for at least three.”
“We’re staying put,” answered my old man. “I know my rights. There’s no mandatory evacuation law in Mississippi.”
The deputy blew on his hands. “Okay, mister,” he said—his tone noticeably less friendly. “Know all the rights you want to. But sure thing says that you’re gonna be shoulder deep in water in another six hours. They’re saying the whole city might go under.”
“Thanks for stopping by,” said my father.
“Jesus, mister. At least let me take the boy.”
I hugged Mr. Nobody to my chest and cried into his plush ears.
“James,” said my father. “Do you want to leave?”
I said nothing. The bungalow shook violently, as though a cavalry charge were passing overhead. Urine began to trickle down my legs.
“I asked you a question,” he persisted. “Are you going to brave it out like Leonidas or would you rather turn tail and leave?”
The deputy looked from me to my father to me again.
“I want to go home,” I said. “Please, Daddy.”
My father shook his head, visibly wounded. “Well you can’t,” he snapped.
Our guide flicks open his pocket watch. This is no longer a subtle peak, but a shameless statement. Instead of conducting us through the remainder of the facilities, he simply describes them to us: the renovated social hall, the bocci courts, the nationally-ranked rehabilitation center. Thad walks quickly while he speaks. My father’s delays have clearly disrupted his timetable. I can’t help thinking of my own obligations, of the outpatients whom I’ve rescheduled for the afternoon. As though to emphasize that our visit is rapidly drawing to a close, a bell tolls the hour. Ten o’clock. “The chapel is near the main building,” explains Thad. “You probably saw it on your way in. We offer a late mass every morning, and ecumenical worship on Sundays.” Over the gables of the manor house, the stone crest of the chapel is just visible. “Of course we have Hebrew services at well,” adds Thad quickly. “Rabbi Hershman comes in from Slidell ever other Saturday.”
We are approaching the manor house. A family has rolled out a beach blanket under a maple tree, gathered around a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair. The woman’s face appears swollen from steroids. A toddler sleeps on her lap. Two older girls, twins, play with the pump of a nearby well. It is all very idyllic, very Grandma Moses.
“What’s your policy on guests?” I ask—less to learn the answer, more to remind my father that I intend to be a frequent visitor.
“Glad you asked,” says Thad. “That’s one feature that sets Bonneville apart. We offer continuous visiting hours. Twenty-four/seven. You want to show up at four a.m. on a Tuesday, that’s your prerogative.”
“Did you hear that, Dad?” I say. “Any time you want.”
“The ancients viewed it as a privilege to visit the sick,” says my father. “Not an obligation. Of course, they often viewed illness as a blessing. Consider epilepsy. The sacred disease. Responsible for the rise of Julius Caesar and Alexander of Macedon. Or take blindness. Nowadays, Teirisias wouldn’t be revered. He’d be pitied. ” My old man steps toward out guide, looking up into his broad face. “Those were different times, of course. The ancients also didn’t warehouse their elderly.”
Our guide smiles blandly. “I’m sure they didn’t, Mr. Lefevre,” he says. He flicks a bit of pollen off his trousers.
“They had an organic understanding of illness,” says me father. “Of disease and death as a natural part of life.”
“Unquestionably,” agrees Thad. “But didn’t the Spartans drop their weaker children in buckets of ice water? Or something like that.”
Score two points for our guide. Even my father is struck silent by this tidbit. He turns his back to us and pretends to relight his pipe.
“I was a history minor in college,” says Thad. “Communications major, history minor. Good for job interviews. What’s the expression? A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
“A disaster,” mutters my father.
Our guide leads us back into the plantation house. Several other groups are waiting in the parlor, leafing through brochures and magazines. They all come in matching parent-child pairs.
“Do you have any questions, Dr. Lefevre?” Thad asks.
I shake his hand. “Thanks for having us,” I say. “We’ll think it over.”
My father also shakes our guide’s hand, but he doesn’t say goodbye. He clears his throat several times and then shuffles and jerks toward the door. As I follow, I sense the other visitors eyeing me from behind. I’d like to think that they’re sympathizing with me, but I know they’re not. No. The children, I suspect, are condemning me—an oblique way of second-guessing themselves. The parents, of course, are far beyond that. They’re deciding whether my father is the sort of man they’d want to die near.
We walk in silence toward the far edge of the parking lot, yielding the plantation house space, as one might a theater after watching a harrowing film. The ground is paved with crushed shells and bits of coral. The shells crack audibly under our shoes. A lone mockingbird serenades us from atop a hedge of hibiscus. As we approach a pair of red picnic tables, my father stops walking. He steadies himself against the side of a large blue garbage dumpster. His face is twitching, another badge of his illness. The wide sycamore canopy makes him look small and fragile.
“So what did you think?” I ask. “Pretty upscale, no?”
My father lights his pipe. “He was in too much of a hurry,” he says. “I don’t think he liked me. Especially after I corrected him about the helicopters.”
“You were only asking questions. Nothing wrong with that. Anyway, he’s just some administrative flunky—you’ll probably never have to see him, if you don’t want to. The important thing is: What did you think of the place?”
“Sick people need time,” he says. “I don’t like to be rushed.”
“I’m sure he didn’t mean to rush you. And once you’re settled in, you can make your own schedule.”
I’m prepared to emphasize several of Bonneville’s other promising features—the extensive library, the visiting lecturers—but my father’s body is quivering. All of a sudden, there are tears in his eyes. “I didn’t like it, James,” he says. “You won’t make me go there.” He’s asking, not telling.
I’m afraid I’m going to cry too. It’s hard to accept that I have all the power now, this power that I don’t want—power that I’ve never asked for. It’s hard to accept that this is the same man who once held me on his shoulders, the waves lapping at his abdomen, shouting at me not to be afraid. “Spirits up,” my father had ordered. “Think of Hector on the ramparts of Troy.” Later, the water at his armpits: “What’s the worst that might happen, James?” Atop the roof of the bungalow, watching the surf carry off Mr. Nobody, drowning had seemed like the worst case scenario.
I’m older now than my father was then.
He is waiting for my answer, but I don’t have one to give.