A misty rain splattered the windshield as our speed increased after passing through Middleton, a dying gray town littered with dumpy taverns and liquor stores. Gene was driving us to the lake for his wife’s annual office retreat. My wife, Gene’s daughter Lacey, sat in back with her mother. Gene was a retired biology teacher, which occasionally had its benefits during most of the conversations we had while driving. Every now and then, his bony index finger would suddenly be inches in front of my eyes as he directed my attention to a deer, a hawk, or a particularly rare type of tree. For the final category, I was also informed that I don’t see those around much anymore.
“See that, Ryan?” he asked.
“That goose back there beside the road,” he said.
“Well, it’ll be there when we come back.”
And the conversation soon turned to something else. Sports, most likely.
By the evening return ride home, the rain had subsided, but I was prepped for the goose this time. “It’ll be on your left. Just past this bridge.”
I didn’t have time to respond before I saw it.
“How does it just stand there?” I asked. The goose was beside the road, probably no more than eight feet from any car or truck that passed by. Any other living thing would have flown or scampered away at the ominous threat of a passing vehicle.
“It’s a Canadian goose,” Gene said. “It’s lost its mate, I’d imagine.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’ll stay there almost indefinitely.” He rubbed his chin. “Its nature is to stand stone still until it’s found its lost mate. I’d imagine the mate was hit back there, seeing how that one’s facing the road.”
A crisp silence fell between us in his white sedan for the next mile, and I saw that Lacey and her mom were asleep in back, but Gene was notorious for changing the mood of the car with a corny joke, an anecdote, or a question. “So, you goin’ to any games this summer?” Gene loved baseball and our shared obsession with the Cubbies superseded over any flaws he might have seen in me.
“Actually, Lace and I are gonna drive to Cooperstown in August for our anniversary,” I said, still staring out the side window. “Maybe even make it to Yankee Stadium.”
“Good for you. You’ll love it. Man needs a break now and then.”
* * *
It was our anniversary, and I had overslept. Lacey was already in the shower, and when I finally put my glasses on, I could see that she had her suitcase ready. My shitty phone had failed me again, and she had probably been so excited to leave town that she hadn’t slept. A faint cigarette odor filled the bedroom air, which validated my prediction. Lacey never smokes in the house unless she can’t sleep.
Luckily, she was too busy to be mad at me, at least for now. I was in and out of the bathroom in five minutes, a feat I’d matched only once before–the day I got married. Awaiting us outside was seventy-five degrees full of nothing but sunshine.
On the road I offered to stop for a fast-food breakfast, but Lacey declined. The radio soon turned into another onslaught of commercials, allowing her time to unbuckle and fish out a plastic grocery bag filled with snacks from the back seat. She withdrew an apple, asked if I wanted it, but I opted for something less healthy.
We passed a brown-painted memorial cross alongside the road.
“Those crosses freak me out,” Lacey said.
“Yeah, kinda weird,” I answered.
After a loud apply crunch, she said, “I mean, I understand why the family does it or whatever, but it just makes me sad to see them.”
It was no more than five miles before we saw another cross–this one white and more recent–displayed just after a flashing-light intersection. A blooming bouquet had been stationed beside it. “You wanna count crosses this time?” I asked. Lacey had been born with infinite ideas to pass the time. Her expertise peaked whenever she took long road trips. Her best, in my opinion, had been “Cows.” In that classic, each side of the car was designated its side of the road. Should one see any cows from the road, that person was to immediately begin counting them aloud. Only the ones that were numbered out loud counted. Rather morbidly, however, she added this twist: if the car passes a cemetery, that side of the car had to return to zero. The person/side who had the highest number when the destination was reached won—usually a round of drinks or an appetizer or something.
“That’s a little too morbid, Ryan,” she said yawning. “Let’s just listen to some music.” We were already out of range of our favorite local radio station, and that prompted her to begin shuffling through her CD case for some gem that she hadn’t heard in “decades.” To me, the eighties were fine just where they were, but I didn’t want to debate the validity or staying power of Cyndi Lauper or The Go-Gos while on my first trip to the Hall of Fame. It didn’t seem right.
With “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” blaring, I noticed she had produced her phone from her purse. “Who’re you callin’?”
“Has it been ten minutes already?” I asked.
“Very funny,” she said with her perfect smile. “Remember? They’re leaving for Vegas in the morning.”
I stared at the road. My peripheral vision prompted me to begin counting five, no six cows aloud, but I remembered we hadn’t started playing.
Six months earlier, at her parents’ annual Super Bowl party, Gene had pulled me aside and said, “Ryan, you’ve got to get out of here while you’re young.” We were standing at a bowl of tortilla chips and salsa. He’d had a few beers and was beginning to slur his speech a little. Lacey had advised me not to try to keep up with him either. He drinks faster during the post-season, she’d said. It took me a few seconds to realize he wasn’t being profound or threatening. He literally meant Indiana. Get out of Indiana.
“Well, it’s kind of expensive to do too much,” I said.
“Money? Shit, son. You can’t let money get in the way of your happiness.”
That’s where the idea of the New York trip was born. With a little budgeting, I found that it was definitely doable. In private he went on to tell me that afternoon that he was taking his wife, Paula, to Las Vegas in August, and neither she nor Lacey was to know about it. Since turning seventy, Gene was forgetting little things more and more, and he was still feeling bad about telling Lacey I had bought her a diamond necklace for Valentine’s Day before I had the chance to give it to her. I think confiding this secret with me made him feel less guilty.
While on the phone, Lacey and her mom evidently discussed departure and arrival times, the cost of parking at the airport, and whether security would allow her dad to take his portable radio on board. I privately counted more cows until she hung up for the final time.
We were almost to the Pennsylvania border in eastern Ohio when we stopped for the evening. At our hotel, we learned about Billings’ Steakhouse, a local eatery that had been featured on cable television for its monstrous cuts of meat. Though I was hungry after a long day of driving, I didn’t take the sixty-four-ounce challenge.
After we ordered and had our drinks, Lacey and I had some time to unwind and reflect on the forgettable drive we had just endured. She located a pen from her purse and jotted something down quickly on her napkin.
“How many cows did you count?” she asked me, almost causing me to choke on my first sip of Killian’s.
“What? We weren’t even playing!”
She grinned and showed me the napkin. Seventy-two in big bubbly numbers. “Beat ‘cha.”
Damn. What a woman. I turned my head toward the bar and squinted at the television in the upper corner. They were running highlights of an Indians game when Lacey’s phone rang.
“Mom?” she said. She put a hand over her other ear as a group of eight cackling children holding one another’s hand and led by two grandmothers herded by our table. “Wait. Lemme go outside. I can’t hear you.”
Lacey’s index finger indicated she’d be right back, and seconds later our waitress set a basket of bread beside the salt and pepper shakers. I thanked her and wished I had brought a cigar.
Before I knew it, our salads were placed on the table, and Lacey was still outside. I had been watching the same television and trying to make out the closed captioning, but I hadn’t realized how long she had been on the phone. I waited another minute before diving my fork into the chilled glass dish.
Halfway through the salad, I could sense something had happened. Lacey was walking toward me in the restaurant by the time I got up to meet her outside. The crimson of her cheeks instantly made me lose my appetite. Saying nothing, we met near the greeter’s podium. Her arms wrapped around my stomach, and she was already crying by the time her face met my shirt. We were already in the car by the time she could form the complete sentence, “My dad had a stroke.”
* * *
The time it took to get to the hotel in Ohio shortened but was much more grueling. That feeling that your car and other drivers are conspiring against you to get home as fast as possible set in by the time I made it to Richmond. Music and conversation were completely abandoned, and all I could do was focus on passing semis and avoiding speed traps. Just through Indianapolis, about two more hours from home, Paula finally called from the hospital. Gene was having trouble staying awake, and his body, Lacey’s mom said was being invaded by all those tubes.
As I solemnly drove, feeling helpless, I tried to comfort Lacey as much as I could. Her head rested inside the pit of my right arm, and my left hand lay stationed on the steering wheel at the eight o’clock position. She cried for some time, off and on, and I could only reassure her with vague expressions like, “He’s going to be okay,” or “Maybe it’s not as bad as it seems.” Inside, however, I wasn’t as optimistic.
Gene had lived, from what I gathered, a relatively healthy lifestyle. I saw him smoke cigars or drink only when we played poker or watched big-time games, and that was about a dozen times a year at most. Recently, he had even begun to take walks, now that the city had repaved the roads in his neighborhood to include new sidewalks and a bicycle lane. For God’s sake, I thought, the man limited his indulgences to a single candy bar or a cold beer once in a while. I wondered how could someone relatively disciplined be lying in a hospital when he should be experiencing the good life in Las Vegas right now. Without prodding for more information, though, Lacey and I learned that Gene’s doctor had been on him recently about his diet. Like most of us, she speculated, Gene saved a lot of his secrets for the coziness of a doctor’s office. He drank a lot before Lacey knew what it was, and he’d been up midnight snacking many times per week.
Lacey eventually fell asleep after we passed through Terre Haute. I had to stop for gas, and by the time I returned to the car, she had reclined her seat and was out. I listened to a little music and tried not to think about Gene and Paula.
It was already after ten o’clock when we parked in the lot across from the hospital. The humidity had increased and made the night balmy. Gene had been assigned a room, and all Paula had been told was that the nurses would check his condition through the night and the doctor would be in in the morning. Lacey began crying again as she hugged her mother, and all I could do was stare at Gene, still asleep with that damn oxygen in his nose and an IV attached through the back of his right hand.
“He’s going to be fine, Lace,” her mother kept saying into Lacey’s hair. “Your dad has never failed to say goodbye. And he’s not about to start now.” They broke off the hug, and I saw the smallest glimmer of a smile cross Lacey’s teary face. God, I felt bad. I hugged Paula and kissed her cheek. “Thanks for bringing her back so soon, son,” she said. I don’t know why, but after she said that, the only thing I could think of was that this was the first time either of Lacey’s parents had called me “son.” Granted, I didn’t mind them referring to me by name, but it certainly made me feel that much more a part of the family.
We sat across from Paula on the other side of Gene for another two hours. Paula had requested that a nurse wake her up if Gene came out of it. I knew Lacey wanted to stay as well, but Paula insisted we get some sleep at home. Gene, she said, wouldn’t have wanted us to fuss that much over him. Reluctant to leave, Lacey kissed her father’s forehead, tightly hugged her mom, and held my hand all the way through the dampening air to the car.
“He’s a tough old bird,” I said. “We’ll come back first thing in the morning.”
She nodded and squeezed my hand.
I was exhausted the following morning. Over fourteen hours on the road topped by a few more in a dreary hospital room watching my father-in-law cling to life was chewing away at me. I found the alarm clock before I turned to see that Lacey wasn’t in bed.
“Lace?” I called into the cool morning air of our drafty house. After no response, I repeated her name, much louder, which evoked only a responsive murmur from our Shih-Tzu. I shot out of bed and hurried to the front door. After trying Lacey’s cell phone twice, I called the hospital. As it was ringing, a call beeped in.
“You awake?” Lacey asked me through the scratchy connection.
“Where are you?”
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I’m on my way home. M’sorry.”
“Why are you—”
A heavy sigh. An apparent drag on her cigarette. Then, “I turned off my phone because I was afraid it’d be bad news.”
She told me that she’d gone back to the hospital, but since both of her parents were asleep, she didn’t feel right waking them up. She’d thanked the nurses for taking care of her mom, and she’d stopped at Harrison’s for coffee before coming back home.
I was relieved that she was okay, but I was a little unnerved that she hadn’t called earlier or left a note or anything.
We each took a shower and were back at the hospital before eleven. Lacey looked worn out, and I knew Paula would look even weaker. When the elevator doors opened for us at Gene’s floor, the antiseptic smell of the hospital filled my brain with dread. I feared the worst, and Lacey grabbed for my hand as the room became closer and closer.
Paula was happy to see us, and Gene looked paler and hadn’t seemed to move at all. She led us back into the hallway.
“Has the doctor been in, Mom?”
“He was just here.” They hugged. “Your dad just did go back to sleep. He wants me to go home and get him his Tom Clancy novel and some cigars. Says them old nurses won’t care if he just chews the ends of ‘em.”
This humor made me feel a little better about Gene. If anything, he was always sending Paula on some hunt for something he forgot or misplaced. Half the time, I learned, he did it just to be playfully cruel. A lifetime prankster.
“What did the doctor say, Mom?”
Paula didn’t answer. She kept looking back toward his bed and then to Lacey but didn’t answer.
“Looks like you hardly slept, Mom. You look like you could use some coffee,” Lacey said.
“Okay. I’ll tell you what the doctor told me.”
“Is it good new or bad?”
“A little of both.” They agreed to go to the cafeteria and asked if I wanted anything or to come along.
“I’m good. Take your time,” I said. Lacey came back and pecked me on the cheek.
“Don’t wake him, okay?” Lacey whispered.
“Thanks, Ryan. We’ll be back soon.” After they turned the corner at the nurse’s station, I walked in and sat down.
I found a news channel and got depressed rather quickly. Gene had begun snoring a little, so I searched through the lineup and found the morning SportsCenter. I knew the old man fell asleep to sports highlights almost nightly, so my thinking was that I would make him feel as comfortable as possible.
Just as a commercial break ensued, Gene coughed.
“Paula?” he called. His eyes were closed, and after I looked closely, I could see the sleep had hardened on his eyelids. One of his machines beeped more rapidly as well.
“Hey, Gene,” I said. “She’s downstairs gettin’ coffee. Want me to call her?” I sunk my hand in my pocket for my cell phone.
A lazy wave of his free hand answered my question. He rubbed the corners of his eyes and opened them slightly, and I followed them from his face to the television screen. Someone had just hit a walk-off home run.
“How ya feelin’?” I immediately felt that I should have said something more profound than ask idle questions about the man’s health. He shook his head briefly, evidently answering me this time with his face. The room fell quiet. He had muted the television.
“Coffee, huh?” he finally said followed by a string of coughs. “Sent her home to get something else.” He breathed heavily. “Do me a favor, son. Would you please tell her I said she’s to get those things from home for me.” As he ended his sentence, his words became more forceful and definitive. He was giving me an order in the most authoritarian voice he could create.
“Okay.” I watched his eyes close again. A few more highlights and a piece on steroids held my attention for the next several minutes. Each time I looked at him, I would look at the machines and check the numbers as if I knew what they meant. A nurse came in once for his vitals and told me she was glad to be getting off soon. Her daughter had chicken pox.
I almost called Lacey but realized she probably went with her mom to get the books and cigars. Gene was sleeping deeply and breathing slowly. The snoring had stopped and I flipped through the cafeteria menu. I thought about Gene’s life and wondered if he had gone to Cooperstown. All he had said was that I’d like it there. What baseball fan wouldn’t love it, though? He’d never elaborated or told me what to look for exactly. That made me wonder about when he’d last gone to a game. We’d talked about going to Wrigley or Busch a few times before, but the four of us never made it to Chicago or St. Louis as a group. Perhaps if I got Lacey to talk about games she went to when she was younger, she’d tell me about her dad in a way she hadn’t before.
They’d been gone a half hour when I finally changed the channel. I stopped on a bounty-hunter reality show when I looked at Gene again. Then, a horrible fast-paced beep resonated throughout the room.
* * *
Thick bullish gray clouds engulfed the sky on the day of Gene’s funeral. I felt like I never knew the guy once I realized how many people in attendance were unfamiliar to me. I shook hands and tried desperately to remember the names and faces of neighbors, coworkers, and old friends to whom Lacey and her mother introduced me. Sweating and occasionally looking at my watch, I stood in the parlor until I decided to take a break outside. Lacey, who must have been dying for a cigarette, followed me. We were out there for a few minutes until we watched some raindrops hit the windshield of the elegant hearse.
Later that afternoon, Lacey and I drove Paula home. The rain had steadily increased during the funeral, we’d driven through a downpour immediately afterwards, and the sky had finished its power by five o’clock. I had not considered what Paula must have been thinking. After staying with us in the days leading up to the funeral, she would be walking through the front doors of her home—a home she and Gene had shared since he had built it thirty-six years earlier—without her husband for the first time, and I couldn’t do anything to change that.
Lacey held her mother’s hand as they took each step with grace and entered.
By seven-thirty, we had shared a pot of coffee and were sitting in her living room. “You kids don’t need to stay. I’ll be fine.” Paula said to the wall. Color from the muted Travel Channel filled the room. “Maybe I could take a vacation.”
“Where?” Lacey asked.
A final sip of her coffee and the clank of it being replaced on the saucer. “Always did want to see New York City.”
I thought about our own plans to see Cooperstown. I had trouble remembering that we had been on the road just three days earlier.
Lacey went into the kitchen to wash some dishes. For me, the upstairs bathroom was calling, and I began my climb.
“Oh, Ryan. I need to get something for you.” She got up and followed me to the top of the stairs. “Something Gene would’ve wanted you to have.”
I stood there as she disappeared into her bedroom. She soon returned with a black case in her hands.
“He would have wanted to give this to you himself, I’m sure,” she said as she wiped her eye with the back of her hand. “Said you and him liked the same kinda cigars.” She placed a leather cigar carrying case in my hand. He’d put a Cuban in each of the three slots. I thanked her profusely and said he was one of the best men I had ever known.
After I stared at the case while sitting in the bathroom, the exhaustion of the day set in and I was ready to go home. Because Paula was someone who had never asked much of others, I felt her giving me the cigars was her way of saying the best thing Lacey and I could do would be to give her some time to absorb her husband’s passing. She was going to be fine, she’d said over and over. I believed her; Lacey didn’t. I stopped at the top of the stairs and could only hear Lacey clanging the dishes into the rack. Sensing that Paula was still upstairs, I headed toward their bedroom to thank her a final time and tell her we were going to be going home. From the hallway, I could see her standing stone still in her bedroom with something in her hand. As I watched her, I realized she was holding an oblong cigar ashtray, facing the empty bed, and quietly sobbing.