The Quality of his Unsurprise

Of course the taxi was reckless, of course the franchise strip looked like bloated tinsel in Gainesville's afternoon heat, of course the airport was marooned like every other airport on a road called Airport Road, and now that you're inside and you see your flight listed, now that you know you will leave, you recall that nothing about the way she said goodbye surprised you: not the weight of her hand on your unbent neck, not the earnest slip in her voice when she asked if you were all right, not her last half-meant plea to go with you, though you both knew she couldn't, she had work, and besides she'd never even met your father, why should she care if he was dying, you could be making it up and she wouldn't know.

And she was forgettable, you've already forgotten her, you'll probably come back from Jersey and she'll refrain from calling for a while to give you your space, but she'll expect you to call in a few days, but you won't, will you, because what could you say to her? My father, he was . . . a good man. Or I never got to tell him how much I loved him. Or He's still with me, every day-and if he'd given you a ring or a pin or some sepia photo of C company, you'd clutch it in your damp hand and look into the middle distance and the sun would rise from the clouds and you'd wink in its tawny light and say Thanks, Pop.

And why speak anymore? Why speak? That's what you'd say to her when she called, finally, after a week had gone by and she'd started to get worried. You'd say, I didn't know what to say; and, knowing as she does that men have such a hard time expressing their feelings, she would understand. And you'd be silent. You'd be inscrutable and hulking and the phone wires would rustle softly as she thought of what to say; and she would coil and uncoil the phone cord around her finger and you would listen with deliberate attention to its hollow knock. This is what you wanted, you'd think. Men don't talk, you wanted a man, I'm not talking. She would cough and make tiny sympathy-noises, and then she'd say, Well, we have to get together. And you'd think, Why? I've known you for two months, we're in college, I didn't enjoy fucking you, we're just going to be alone in the end anyway. And you'd say to her, Yeah, I know. Just . . . give me some time. And then you'd forget about her.

You're not surprised at the pleasure you get from rehearsing this scene. You're vicious and your heart believes in nothing and this is more proof of it.

You. The way you refer to yourself as you. The way your thoughts are poisoned. You're not vicious, you were raised by a good man, you believe in things: in some kind of higher power, in brotherhood, in business, in money, in love-why not? Everyone else does, there's no risk. Everything is something everyone else does, every belief is a thousandth-generation bastard, and your blood is tired.

The clock tells you to be hungry. Watch yourself go through a silent transaction with a cashier propped on a stool at the register at the end of the silver track that runs along the cafeteria line (midget slices of cream pie on white plates wrapped in plastic, two stubby unhappy bananas in a wicker basket; a cafeteria run by a hotel chain, a subsidiary of a network owned by an oil conglomerate)-the cashier who of course has a pierced nose and a chin stud and hair like a putting green. What is there to say to her? Thank you? The button on her shirt collar says it already. Any infections yet? But she could just as easily be Amish-it wouldn't matter, your job is to not look interested. Your job is to expect everything. Expect that your father's hospital will be like every other hospital, and the same cafeteria will be in the hospital's food court, because the same chain of ownership extends across the country, and why don't you just stay, why don't you just concede defeat, because it will only be worse as you get older, aging makes you care less.

Watch yourself balancing a slice of pizza that looks like a burned lung; walk away from the register knowing you can't eat it, its odor is thick as paint; balance it on its paper plate until you get to the trashcan ten steps away and dump it in. And go to look for gum at a newsstand.

This airport. The plum-colored carpeting, the slabs of window at every gate, the futuristic curve of the long white terminal wing, faceless and functional: this is what we have said we want, this speed, this dullness-and it exhausts you. Imagine yourself kneeling on this conveyor belt, a people-mover people call it; you're kneeling, letting yourself be taken, and when you arrive at the end your knees catch the carpet edge and you tip over, still praying, and remain there, still praying, until someone notices that you are in need and walks by you. You are grateful: you want to be unnoticed. But then your pants snag and the belt halts. Who's that fuck-up at the end of the line?

Imagine yourself . . . but here you are. Here is your backpack, which says I'm in college, I'm unprepared. Here are your pants-slacks, your stepmother would call them-and your long-sleeved shirt and your heavy black shoes, which say I am paying my respects to my dead father. My dying father. Here is your face, which is still dry, and why aren't you crying? What is wrong with you, that you haven't cried, not once, not during the phone call from your stepmother (who also didn't cry; you felt you had to match her; "He'd like to see you," she said), not as you passed your friends on the way out of the house (too much to say, too little time), not in the taxi (driver looked disgusted), not at the ticket counter, not now, maybe not ever. Because it's like you have to prove something to someone-someone wants evidence of your sorrow, but you're not going to cry on cue, if it happens it happens, but it has to be sincere, it can't be forced.

And here is the newsstand, and what is sincere? What would your sincere reaction look like? Magazines shimmer at you, every cover is a breast or a mouth, the thick ones have the most perfume, and what is your sincere reaction? What is the proper response? Should you be stoic? Bitter? Light-hearted? Light-hearted but gently sad? Morose? Meditative? Someone is watching, you are being remembered, and what is the proper response? There are thousands of ways to watch a father die, and they are all unoriginal; they are not the way you would watch your father die. That's all you have left to give him: an original way of watching him die.

And couldn't you just not think of it? Couldn't you just pay attention to something else?

A pack of gum in an airport in America costs one dollar and twenty-five cents.

People who work at newsstands in airports wear red vests.

Most novels sold at newsstands in airports end with one of the following three words: home, laughed, away.

Because that is what everyone wants: to have a home, to laugh, to leave.

Sandra Bullock's ranch is a Texas dream come true.

No one wants to talk about the hidden connection between sex and danger.

Gainesville is Gator Country. World's Greatest Mom-

But if you don't think about it, you're being selfish. On the other hand, if you think about it, you're possibly jinxing him, because thoughts of dying inevitably become thoughts of death, and dying people have antennae that pick up negative thoughts. You'll be by his bedside trying to look earnest and helpless and he'll say, Already thinking about the funeral, aren't you? Already thinking about what you'll wear that might impress that cousin of yours, what's her name, the one who came to your high school graduation. Alyssa, you'll say. Her name is Alyssa. And you will wish you'd remembered to bring cologne. And you'll start thinking about sex with her, how it would be; she always reminds you of forests, it would be like walking into this piney musk-maybe because she's from Oregon-and it's strange, you don't think of coming with her (and how can you think of coming at all? Your father is dying-but wouldn't he want you to be happy?), you just imagine yourself inside her, being held, you stay like that without moving, the forest is dense and sweet, no light shows itself, morning could pass and you would never know.

What would your father want? A morning at work on the trails out back. An oiled jackknife. But this is what you'll give him instead: A fantasy about fucking your cousin in a forest.

And your punishment for this lousy gift is a long sickness toward the end of your mediocre life, during which your son updates you daily on his growing interest in everything unrelated to you. But you would accept him, wouldn't you? You would try to follow his lecture about the acid content of Canadian lakes, and of course you'd drift into half-sleep, and he'd sweetly lower his voice as he eased into a discussion of the very, very subtle queering of the Coast Guard, and by the time you'd come awake and asked for morphine he'd be winding down . . . and you would look at his bright eyes as he talked in a forgiving way about the savagery of geese, and you'd think, Thank you. Thank you for living a life that wasn't mine.

And you would say to him, Could you tell the nurse I really need the morphine?

Because you really don't know what it would be like. It makes you want to give up, the way your imagination is smaller than the life of your father, the life of your future son.

The crowd at the gate-parents slumped in chairs next to their erect alert children, businesswomen sitting primly with one hand resting on their luggage in the seat next to them, one hand cracking the base of a paperback's spine, the elderly, always the elderly, what do they ask for when they rise each day?-the crowd rises and forms a disinterested line, and waits to board; and surely you will sit next to someone who wants to talk but, seeing your rigid face, will pretend to read a magazine, or sleep, or study the pack of peanuts. And you will anticipate, almost with pleasure, almost with pride, the moment when, just as surely, your neighbor, who only wants a little company, will find a reason to turn to you and ask where you are going.

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Rob Morris