Big Old Bird
Susan Ito

 car drawing They say that the dead visit us in dreams,
that it is the only place
where we may sit side by side.
And so for eleven nights
I dove into sleep
searching, rushing from the noisy days
to find you.

And there you were.
I was glad to see
you no longer rode a wheelchair,
to see your stiff contracted feet
had softened, flattened
into your old black shoes.
There was your old belly
round and generous from years
of highway food,
there were your limp corduroy Levis
loose around the hips like a teenager's,
an inch of paisley boxers exposed.

You were packing for a trip.
Dad, I laughed, this is so obvious.

It was so long since you'd been on the road.
Six years since you'd pulled the humming car
from the driveway,
twenty-six years since I pushed the back fender
giving you a jumpstart
then ran beside you
the length of Summit Street,
waved you on to Pascack Road,
the car small as a lozenge,
your hand out the window.

Crosslegged on my old bed,
I watched you toss your old leather case,
shedding its fine brown dust
onto the nubbled chenille.
You made a fine show
of folding your favorite clothes:
the tan sweater, the too-wide ties
gaudy with stripes and diamonds,
the pale plaid boxers
and V necked undershirts.

You held up the shirt cardboards
charted in narrow rows --
days and days of mileage, expenses,
toll charges --
the small details of your journey
ballpointed in your narrow slanting script.
You threw in a plastic baggie of hard candies
to keep the sleep away.
I remember the soft click
as the candy knocked between
your tongue and teeth,
the slurp of wet sugar.

that last time in the hospital,
nothing made you happy,
not TV nor magazines nor the
punishing meals you retched away.
All you wanted were the sour candies
from the bottom of my purse:
green apple, watermelon.
Nice, you said, very nice.
Inside I was turning cartwheels,
shouting myself hoarse at this small victory
for your pleasure.
You packed all the things I knew so well.
The buzzing box of your razor, the little tin
of Cuticura ointment,
the flat oval brush like they use
on horses.
you always joked about the old days
when your hair was so black and thick
you couldn't get a comb through it.
All I ever knew was your smooth brown scalp,
the silvery stubble, just a palmful of hair.
Your last words in this life
as the orderly tucked the gauzy blue cap
over your skull:
"Careful now, to get it all in there."
You fastened snaps and latches
and buckles and stood
up straight, immensely pleased,
alive with anticipation.
Well, you said.
I'm gonna take off like a big old bird.
You patted my head.
Take care, Rascal.

I remembered something then.
Rushed down the narrow hall,
careening into boxes and piles of junk.
Mom was sitting in the living room
dark, the curtains drawn,
television exploding color and noise,
the cable sports channel.
Bases loaded.
She lifted a bowl of fluorescent cheese puffs,
her eyes trained on the screen.
"You want one?"
I panted. "Daddy's leaving. Come on."
She waved her hand in the air.
"Ah, he's always leaving."
But Mom. This is a really long trip.
"I'm busy here. You say goodbye for me."

I ran outside,
heard the thunk of the car door
the sudden rumble of engine
cutting through twilight --
ran barefoot down the unpaved lane
my hand on the warm metal of the door.
You stretched your arm through the window
and gave me a last squeeze
then the car turned the corner
and how could I be sad?
How could I pull you back
from that long strip of freeway
country music twanging around you
the candies clicking like castanets
in your mouth.

Graphics by Lisa Pintado-Vertner

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