As it’s father’s day I thought I should post this short story, which was published in slightly different form in Redbook (not Good Housekeeping, as I misstated elsewhere) in 1992. It is based on my relationship with my father in the last months of his life, but it is fiction. First hint: my name is not Claudia Busacca.
Lately, Claudia Busacca has been noticing that many of the old men she sees, on the street, in the grocery store, everywhere and anywhere she goes, resemble her father. In general, she thinks, there are just a lot of old Italian men around. They are easy to pick out: some are barrel shaped, with heavy heads of shaggy white hair; others have thinned away to a lumpy, hollow frame, so that a belt has to be hitched up high and tight.
In the Greek diner out on Route One late on a Sunday morning, Claudia points out an old man of the first type to her husband. The man sits hunched over a newspaper, following the line of print with one thick finger. His glasses are smudged almost to the point of opacity.
“Who does he remind you of?” Claudia asks Jeff, pointing with her chin.
“An older Spencer Tracy?”
She shakes her head.
“Frank Sinatra, in a good toupe.”
“That’s getting closer.”
“Ah, I get it. Another contestant for the Frank Busacca look-alike contest.”
Claudia smiles. “I just thought he looked very Italian.”
“All old men look Italian to you,” Jeff replies.
Back at home, the phone is ringing when they come in the door. It is Joe, Claudia’s older brother, and this is his news: Dad hates all these pills because they make him faint, he isn’t watching his salt, he’s lost another ten pounds, and he won’t let Joe move in with him to keep an eye out.
She hangs up and immediately the phone rings under her hand. She concentrates on the vibration going up her arm. Then she picks it up.
“Hi Daddy,” she says.
“That brother of yours,” he greets her.
This is the way it goes: a call from Joe, a call from Dad, then usually Joe again. After Claudia has had a chance to sort out her thoughts, she starts calling them back.
“It might be cheaper to close down the shop and move it to Chicago,” Jeff jokes sometimes when he catches a glance of the telephone bill in the confusion on Claudia’s desk. He has yet to notice that she sees no humor in this.
“What’s this about your salt?” Claudia asks her father now.
“What do you mean? I don’t even have a salt shaker in the house anymore.” He is indignant, huffy. Guilty.
“Joe said something about a bacon and sauerkraut sandwich for breakfast.”
There is a rustling of paper on the other end, things are dropped.
“Daddy, if you don’t watch your salt, you’re always going to be short of breath.”
“I’m short of breath even when I do,” he says.
This tone frightens her more than anything else; she has no way to respond to him that won’t sound like her fear.
“Sometimes I think you want me to live forever, but you don’t want me to have any fun doing it,” he says, finally.
“Don’t you want to live forever?” Claudia asks.
“Of course I do,” he says.
Ten years ago, when Joe went into the navy and Claudia left for graduate school, the phone calls were different. Dad was the one with the questions that made her skin jump; he kept calling her back. Then he retired and bought a little pick-up truck and went out on the road for long weeks at a time.
Even then the questions wouldn’t stop: Claudia would get postcards of flimsy cardboard, fuzzy horizons against alarmingly blue skies, sometimes nothing but Daddy scrawled in pencil on the back, but usually with something to do or think about spelled out in clear terms: Call Joe, make nice, you only got one brother; or Transfer $500 from savings to checking; or, How many years will it take you to pay off your student loans?
When Claudia first met Jeff, she had amused him with these postcards and with stories about her father, some her own, some family legend. They featured his temper, his sense of humor, or his adventures. Now, Jeff digs out his favorites when Claudia is especially worried about her father: anecdotes which he has altered ever so slightly, pieces of her life which he has digested into something new, his own. He feeds them to her in small doses, like medicine.
“Do you remember what your father said when you got your master’s?” Jeff asks that night in bed. She is curled on one side away from him.
“He was afraid I wouldn’t get a job. Or I wouldn’t make any money if I did,” she says, yawning.
“He said that he and your mom must have had one heck of a smart iceman.”
Claudia turns over to face her husband. “He said milkman, not iceman.”
“Un-huh. I remember it clearly, I’m sure it was iceman.”
Milkman, Claudia thinks to herself. Milkman, Milkman, Milkman. She tries to swallow this, not wanting to have this discussion, not now.
But then she can’t let it go after all: the fact that Jeff has taken possession of this simple story so completely, that there is no more room for her in the telling of it, that fact irks. It itches. It irritates.
So she tells him something she has never told him before: the end of the story. “Daddy always said that, about — my parentage — whenever I got a good report card.”
Jeff pushes himself up on one elbow to look at her. She has surprised him.
“Did your Mom think it was funny?”
“She laughed every time, she thought it was a great joke.”
“You didn’t?” Jeff asks, a little put out.
“No,” Claudia replies. “I never did.”
When Jeff’s breathing is even and steady, Claudia gets out of bed and pads softly out of the apartment and down the stairs. An inner door lets her into the bookshop which occupies the first floor of their home. She casts a quick glance around, the space slightly lit by the street lamp just outside. The bookcases which line the walls, the low shelves of toys and read-aloud books, everything is familiar and orderly and safe. She likes the shop best at night, when it is hers alone, when she doesn’t have to tolerate customers looking at the books, every one of which she has picked for a purpose, when she doesn’t have to see them be critical, dismissive, oblivious. In the day time, she takes over the office, the paperwork, the catalogs, and leaves the people part of things to Jeff.
With her office door closed and the light on, she opens a file drawer. She has come down here, she tells herself, for her collection of postcards, but now she looks first through the bundle of stuff from graduate school: old seminar papers, her doctoral dissertation in its dusty black binding. It is both familiar and strange to her, like a child sent away in infancy who has now found its way home, unexpectedly, to look at her with judging and neglected eyes.
Claudia finds the bundle of postcards. On top is the one which had been pinned up over her desk for the whole five years of her graduate education: a card from Rodeo Bob’s Homestead Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico, with a message printed carefully:
What is that degree worth once you got it?
Behind it is one postmarked the next day from The Breakfast Palace in Guadalupe, Arizona:
We must have had a real smart milkman.
In the morning the phone rings first thing when Claudia sits down to her desk in the shop. With a burst of Monday morning energy she snaps right to.
“Green Gables, Children’s Books.”
“Dr. Barton calling for Dr. Busacca,” says a secretarial voice.
“This is Claudia Busacca.”
“Hold please for Dr. Barton.”
She watches her fingers turn white on the receiver while she waits.
It is Daddy’s cardiologist; his report is short and very concise; she doesn’t understand a word. She asks him to start again.
“Maybe I’ve misunderstood,” Dr. Barton says to her. “Your father says you’re an MD?”
“No,” she says, and she finds herself smiling. “A Ph.D. But he thinks I should be allowed to practice medicine anyway.”
“Why yes,” Dr. Barton says. “That sounds like your father, now that you mention it.” He starts again, slower. Claudia tries to take notes, but after a while her pen slows, and then it stops.
Perched on the uncomfortable bed in her dorm room Claudia had called her father, some years ago, to tell him that she had passed her qualifying exams. “Highest honors,” she told him.
“What do they give you for that? Any cash?”
“No, Daddy, no cash.”
“You need some cash?”
“You got some extra you want to send me?”
He cleared his throat in a rush of satisfaction, always pleased when his children failed to ask for the things he wanted to give. He liked the challenge of forcing his good will on them.
“Put it aside for a new pick-up. Or maybe Joe needs it, if you got some extra this month,” Claudia suggested.
“Joe’s got a good job, tool and die is a good line,” her father reminded her.
“You want me to quit graduate school and learn how to cast drill bits?”
“I want you should be there when I die,” her father said. “Without me having to send you bus fare first.”
“I’ll just show them my diploma,” Claudia snapped back. “They let Ph.D.’s ride the bus for free.”
His laughter was hesitant, uneasy, and followed by a longer silence. “Well, I’ll just put a little something in the mail,” he said, finally. “You did a good job. Buy yourself a beer, celebrate.”
Her face hot with remorse and embarrassment, Claudia said: “Come on out here and drink that beer with me.”
“You find yourself a younger fella,” her father told her.
That night, in the bar in the basement of the graduate dorm, Claudia had met Jeff, who was wiry and very blond, who came from Baltimore where his mother, a widow, worked as a dispatcher for a trucking company, and who in four hours of intense conversation never once asked her what she was studying or who she was studying it with.
The next morning Claudia found a postcard pushed under her door, Scenic Trenton by Night, and on its back her first real message from Jeff:
I’ve been looking for a sane person willing to break out of this joint with me.
After Dr. Barton gives her all the details, Claudia sits at her desk for a long time, listening to Jeff consulting with a customer on the right books for a four year old. He is cordial but not familiar; he is knowledgeable but not overbearing. He sells a great many books to this concerned grandmother, all hardcover.
He comes into the office waving the charge slip over his head, a silly smile on his face. “Sneak literature into a daily diet of Ninja Turtles and get paid for it. Isn’t this better than four sections of freshman composition?” he asks.
Claudia doesn’t answer.
Claudia wants to talk to Jeff, to tell him the things she has just learned, to make the sounds and the words which will set things in motion, but she can’t.
But it doesn’t matter: without prompting, Jeff comes over and kneels beside the desk to put his arms around Claudia. The charge slip flutters, twisting to the ground: white, black, white, black.
He doesn’t watch to see it land, and Claudia remembers now why she married him.
The morning Claudia and Jeff got married in the campus chapel, Daddy had called at five a.m.
“Where are you?” she asked him, wide awake on the first ring.
“Where do you think? Annapolis. Joe can’t leave the base ’til six, we’ll have some breakfast, and get on the road,” he said. “You think we’d miss your wedding?”
“I think you’d be late for it,” Claudia replied.
“You worried I’m gonna embarrass you?”
Claudia thought of the wedding reception they had put together so carefully, the modest but elegant table of puff pastry and shrimp mousse, a sparkling wine which she could offer without wincing, mineral water with lemon, and a wedding cake layered with white chocolate and raspberries.
“Daddy,” she said. “Just don’t be late.”
Putting on her wedding dress, an eighty year old relic Claudia had labored over until it deserved to be called antique, all she could think of was Daddy and Joe, headed up Route 1 toward Philadelphia in her father’s pick-up truck, in a cab that smelled of peppermints and old vinyl.
A half an hour after the ceremony should have begun, Claudia stood in the vestry with the priest, still waiting for Daddy and Joe, watching a summer storm which had come up without warning. The wind rose cool; the rain was warm; the two hundred year old oak that stood just in front of the chapel was struck by lightning and came down, just like that, in a tremendous crack and a flurry of leaves. At that moment, her ears still ringing, Claudia saw the pick-up truck pull into the no-parking zone next to the library; Daddy climbed out in his dusky black suit, the same suit he himself had been married in, with Joe close behind in his sailor’s whites.
“What a strange pair,” the priest said, and then struck by an almost inadmissable thought, asked, hopefully: “That can’t be them?”
And Claudia was overwhelmed: by her anger at the priest who voiced so simply all the things she had been thinking; by her shame and frustration with her father and brother, who wandered toward them umbrella-less in the pouring rain, waving cheerfully as if they weren’t late at all, as if what these people thought of them really didn’t matter; and by the terrible clarity of her love for both of them.
Watching her father and brother coming toward her, picking their way delicately over the fallen braches of the oak tree, both of them dripping rain, an urge came upon Claudia, icy-cold and clear: they would pile back into the cab of the pick-up truck, all four of them, Jeff too, and take off down the road. They would forget the church, forget the priest, leave the guests to eat mousse and drink wine on their own while discussing formalism as interpretation and ideology, and with rain streaming over the windows the four of them would drive off for places unknown, unnamed, while Vicki Carr played endlessly on her father’s beloved eight track.
This time Claudia calls Joe before he can call her. He is agitated, up in arms that there is nothing more to be done.
“What about another surgery — what about a heart transplant?”
“Joe. He’s seventy-four. He’s at toxic levels on all his medications. He has diabetes, he has leukemia…”
“Leukemia! Since when does he have leukemia?”
“The doctor says it’s not unusual, at his age.”
He digests this in silence. Then: “So what do we do now? Can they give him anything, so he can breathe?”
“No,” Claudia says. “There’s nothing more to give him.”
Next, she calls her father, who wants to know exactly what the cardiologist had to say.
“What do you think he said?” she asks, and curses herself for a coward.
“Not much longer, huh?”
She forces herself to answer. “He says by the end of the summer.”
It is August 15.
Claudia and Jeff close the shop at 6:00 and trudge up the steps to home, continuing their discussion of inventory and airline schedules, temporary help and medicare, bookkeeping and cemetery plots.
The phone begins to ring as they open the door.
“I been thinking a lot about your mother,” Daddy says, as if they were picking up a conversation interrupted only by a trip to the bathroom.
“What about her?”
“The summer Joe came along, it was hot like this and she was so big with him. I used to go and get her New York Cherry ice cream. It was her favorite. I haven’t had New York Cherry ice cream in years and years. We sat out on the porch and ate ice cream until it was time to go to bed.”
“That’s probably why Joe was such a moose, Dad.”
He laughs, and then he tries to catch his breath. Claudia attempts to breath for him, across the telephone line. Then when things get under control, he starts talking again.
“I been thinking, Claudy. I never should have sold my pick-up.”
“No?” she says, wary now.
“Jerry down the street wants to sell his, it’s in good shape and he’s not asking too much…”
Next to Claudia, Jeff steps in closer, alarmed at the look on her face. She hushes him with an upheld palm.
“… for Seattle, the climate out there does me good. Get out on the road again on my own, I’ll be a whole new man.”
She feels the knot pull tight in herself and then she feels it break. “Don’t you dare,” she whispers. “Don’t you dare.”
“I just thought…”
“Dad,” she says, her voice rising sharp, her panic pushing out words she will live with forever, until she is old and desperate herself, and her father’s face has long since faded out of her memory. “You are being selfish and childish and foolish.”
“Maybe so,” he says, and hangs up the phone.
Jeff first suggests that Claudia call Joe, but when she rejects this out of hand and starts packing, he doesn’t argue with her. Instead, he calls the airline and makes a reservation on the next plane.
It gets her into Chicago at 11:35, thanks to the hour she’s gained flying west. The cabby has a skinny neck in a collar that is too big, large knuckled hands, a concave chest. Joseph Manginelli, his license medallion reads.
“My brother’s name is Joe,” Claudia tells him.
“Yeah? You a Dago? You look like a Dago.”
“Yeah,” Claudia says. “I’m a Dago.”
“So, you coming home from out of town?”
“I’m just in to see my Dad,” she says, her voice wobbling suddenly.
“Then he brought you up right,” the cabby says. “You come home to pay your respects. He brought you up right. I’ll bet he sent you away to school, you must be a lawyer, a doctor, something like that.”
“Something like that,” Claudia answers. Then she says, hopefully: “Do you know my Dad?” Claudia knows full well how ridiculous this question is, but she must ask it anyway. “Do you know Frank Busacca, used to sell Oldsmobiles on Lincoln Avenue at Northside Olds?”
Joe Manginelli shifts in his seat, flexes one hand and then puts it back on the steering wheel.
“No, can’t say that I do,” he answers. “Lotsa Dagos in this city. Your Dad sick, you coming home in the middle of the night?”
“He’s dying,” Claudia says.
He hands her a box of tissue over the seat. After a long time, when Claudia’s crying has subsided, he speaks again. “He might not say it to you when you get there, but you done the right thing,” the cabby says. “You remember that, when things get rough.”
Sometime later, the street lights begin to show Claudia familiar landmarks, and then she watches them go by her window: the boys’ club where Joe played softball all summer long, the church where they were both confirmed, the Katie’s Kwick Kut Beauty Parlor where her mother had her hair done every Friday afternoon. The Jewell Grocery looms up, brightly lit. She asks the cabby to pull over.
“The address you give me is still three blocks away,” he says.
“I got to get something,” Claudia says.
“You want me to wait for you? I’ll turn the meter off.”
“No,” Claudia says. “I want to walk from here.”
“Maybe the neighbors ain’t as friendly as they used to be.”
“So who is?” Claudia smiles at him.
She finds the ice cream and then heads for home, the brown paper bag tucked into the crook of her arm, her suitcase in her other hand. At the flat, she fumbles for a minute with her keys, and her father opens the door for her.
“What’s that?” he asks, not in the least surprised to see her.
“Ice cream. They didn’t have New York Cherry, so I got you Peaches and Cream.”
“No salt, no liquid,” he recites.
“What’s the matter?” Claudia says, her voice steady but her hands shaking. “You don’t want to have any fun?”
That night, Claudia sleeps in her girl’s bed. She dreams of her father in an old pick-up truck. Together they are driving down a two-lane highway, the breeze washing through the open windows. This isn’t the way they planned to go, but it doesn’t seem to matter much; they drive on anyway. Sitting sideways on the bench seat, Claudia is content to watch her father grow younger with every mile, his hair darkening, his spine lengthening and straightening, his muscles gaining strength and definition, his eyes growing bright and his face smooth, until they look like brother and sister, until they are of the same age.
Claudia wakes long past ten; she stumbles out of her room into an empty kitchen. She knows without looking that her father is not in the apartment, that she is alone.
She tries to stay busy. She makes toast of Roman Meal bread, she puts the chipped saucer with its lump of margarine on the table, she makes coffee in the little aluminum pot. Over the sink her father has put up an index card with a thumb tack, on it he has printed No Liquids That Means Water. But Claudia goes to the freezer anyway. She gets out the icecream, which she puts on a plate of its own in the middle of the table.
Finally she sits down at the table. The grey-marbled formica is slightly tacky, her bare forearms peel away from it reluctantly when she reaches for the sugar.
The kitchen smells of olive oil and frying peppers, stale sponges and old newspapers.
She butters her toast.
The phone rings and she jumps as if bitten.
“Hello?” she says, snatching the telephone from the wall in an awkward swoop. “Daddy?”
“You know,” her father’s voice answers her. “When you and Jeff bought that bookstore I thought, all that schooling, to sell kids books.”
“Daddy? Daddy?” Claudia’s voice catches. “Where are you?”
“I mean, you could a done that here at home, you didn’t need to go to graduate school for that.”
This causes her to pull up suddenly. “I thought you were glad the shop was doing so well.”
His breathing is hoarse and shallow. “I wanted you to be a professor, like you studied for.”
Claudia leans against the kitchen wall, bound to it by the kinked and coiled cord of the telephone.
“Where are you?” she whispers.
Claudia has an immediate picture of him at the long, polished wood of the bar, hunched over on his stool, the ancient black telephone, its handset crusty with old spittle, cradled against his cheek. The only sentence which seems to live in Claudia’s mind comes out of her mouth. “How is Mr. Schneider?”
“Good. Monty’s good.”
“What about Mrs. Schneider?” she asks.
“Gloria’s gone,” her father says.
“Nah,” Dad says. “The guy who refilled the cigarette machine, she took off with him last month.”
The laughter which bursts out of Claudia causes her physical pain. She slides down the wall to sit curled on the floor, her knees hugged in to her chest, and laughs until her voice is hoarse.
When her father comes through the door a half an hour later, thirty minutes to walk two blocks, winded, his face the color of sour milk, his lips almost blue, she is still against the wall, her arms slung around her knees.
He falls into a chair, gasping. His hair stands up in spikes over a face which has been sucked dry, all loose skin and dewlaps, a rim of red under each eye. But he is neatly dressed: his shirt is clean and ironed, his shoes are polished. He has supplemented his suspenders with a piece of string through his belt loops to hold the folds of excess material in place.
“You need a belt,” Claudia tells her father, when his breathing has steadied. When it is clear that he will continue to breathe.
“Waste of money,” he whispers, and he starts to take pills out of the collection of bottles on the kitchen table to line them up in a row.
Claudia waits a while; when it is clear he has nothing more to say, she begins. “You never told me that, back then,” she says to him. “You never said a word about what I did with my degree.”
The fan hums to them as it continues on its arc through the room, casting a breeze which is gone before it gives any relief.
“You didn’t need me to tell you,” he lifts one shoulder, impatient. “Your brother, now, you gotta point things out to Joe. He’s like your mother.”
Claudia is suddenly short of breath. “Who am I like?” she asks; her voice sounds high and far away, a stranger’s voice, a little girl’s voice.
Her father spoons into the melting icecream and then sticks his pills, two small red ones, a yellow one, three white ones, into the swirl of bone white and neon peach.
“Not like your mother,” he says.
“Who am I like?” Claudia asks again, her forehead on her knees.
“You’re your father’s daughter,” he says. “No question.”
The linoleum is a brittle, speckled yellow; Claudia counts the red and green and blue drops that fall between her bare feet. When she is finally able to lift her head, she sees her father bend down to his spoon to sip softly at the icecream.
Then he says: “I bought the pick-up truck.”
From his shirt pocket he takes out a worn key on a tarnished metal ring. He looks down at the key in his palm quizzically, as if he is not sure himself what door it might unlock.
“How about we take a drive out into the country,” he asks.
Claudia responds: “I’m driving.”
Her father shrugs. “Whatever you want,” he says. “What ever makes you happy.”
He tosses the key to Claudia; she catches it with her upheld hand.