By the time Larry pulls into his dad’s driveway, he’s already had a bad morning. His new mattress—the one supposed to help his back—holds in heat, and Larry had been up twice in the night, soaked with sweat, to change his t-shirt and get a glass of water. His wife, Barb, hadn’t noticed. When he finally got up for good, he found that his dog, Fonzi—part golden retriever, part retard—had eaten another corner of the bathroom rug and then threw it up in the kitchen. The dog didn’t feel bad about it either. Wagged her tail while he scolded, and thought it was some sort of game when he scrubbed the floor. “Idiot,” Larry said. The drive down was painful, but that was expected. I-35 is always one crawling lane. Worse is that Larry’s radio is stuck on the oldies station and he had to listen to Journey sing “When the Lights Go Down in the City.” In what universe is “city” pronounced “sit-tay?” Some things, Larry concluded, shouldn’t be preserved.
But let’s be honest. Larry didn’t want to take his dad to the doctor in the first place. Yes, he knows you can’t drive after a colonoscopy, and yes, he’d like to help out, but Faribault is a good 40-minute drive for him, and he doesn’t see why he has to take off work—during workshop, no less, one of the few August days something is required of middle school teachers. Couldn’t his dad have done this in July? To be fair, Larry didn’t tell his dad there were scheduling problems. Then again, his dad hadn’t exactly asked.
And those aren’t the only things nagging at Larry. There’s that dream he kept having the few minutes he did manage to sleep last night, the one where he’s close to home but can’t quite get there. He’s had it before. It’s not that he’s lost exactly. He recognizes houses from his neighborhood—the squat bungalow down the block with the window boxes, the blue colonial on the corner that the lesbians fixed up, the row of manicured ramblers on Ivy Street. But they’re all out of order in the dream, and every time he turns his head, the streets shift and reconfigure, like something out of Harry Potter. Sleeping Larry gets more frantic. Maybe that, rather than the mattress, made him sweat. The images from the dream have faded through the morning, but even now, as he knocks twice and walks in his dad’s front door, he’s left with the feeling of the dream, a kind of lingering dread—the fear not of being plopped down in a foreign city, but of visiting your own and not recognizing it. Must be what Alzheimer’s feels like.
Larry Sr. yells hello from the bathroom, where he’s spent most of the last 24 hours, the effects of drinking enough Gatorade and colonoscopy concoction to, in Sr.’s words, fell a large pack animal. “Good to see you, son,” he yells. “Didn’t know I had all this in me.” It’s clear the guy remains in a good mood, which mystifies and annoys Larry in equal measure.
“Dad,” he says, “could you at least shut the door?”
This isn’t the house Larry grew up in. Sr. sold that 12 years ago, less than a month after his wife died. Too many ghosts, he’d said. But it’s hard to see what he’s exorcised. Even now, as Larry looks around, he recognizes everything from his childhood—the Hummel plates that line the dining room, his mom’s state spoon collection dangling from their necks in that wooden rack like little hanged men, the ceramic lamps she’d made in 1970s when Larry was in high school, fowl being the dominant theme—ducks, geese, a chicken for the kitchen counter. Even the furniture is arranged the same. It’s like someone picked up all the old stuff and shoved it in this new duplex where it fits awkwardly, the doors and windows in the wrong place, at the wrong height, like a bizarro version of home. The new place seems more haunted than the old.
Sr. emerges from the bathroom with a smile. “Great you’re on time,” he says, by which he means half an hour before Sr. told him to pick him up. Which is half an hour before the receptionist told Sr. to be at the clinic. Which is two hours before his actual scheduled appointment. The math may be confusing, but the point is not: the Larrys are punctual. To a fault. No Larry has ever been less than 15 minutes early for anything. It’s one of the few traits shared by father and son—genetic, Larry thinks of it, like back hair and bulbous earlobes. Other men fear other things—fire, cancer, public speaking, women. Larry’s greatest fear is hearing the morning bell when he’s still two blocks from school.
It doesn’t take long for them to get out the door. Sr. is organized—everything in his house arranged by height and color, alphabetized, in its proper place. Even the shirts in his closet face the same way. So he knows where his billfold is, where the keys are, the info he needs for the clinic, and they head out in Sr.’s 1999 Grand Marquis, a grandpa of a car—turns in an 8-mile radius, gets 14 miles per gallon, enough room in the trunk for a three bedroom, two bath. Larry feels like he’s driving a dirigible. “You could run over a person in this car and not even know it,” he says.
Sr.’s eyes light up. “I have.”
They lumber through town, past places that used to be something else. There’s a Starbucks that, in Larry’s day, was The Triangle Drive-In, the first fast-food place in town, served burger baskets to the fans after high school football games—Go Loons. You can still see a faded red key that was between the Ben and the Franklin on the new Old Navy store, and there’s a dentist office now where there was once The White House, the only barber and bait shop that Larry ever heard of— hair cut and can of worms for $5.95. Hot towel and a shave: 15 cents extra.
It’s depressing. Though the past never leaves you—Larry should be thinking, but isn’t—you never get it back. Larry is a history teacher. He ought to know that.
# # #
The Keen County Gastroenterology Clinic—which, as Sr. puts it, caters only to old people’s plumbing problems—is a low brick building on the edge of a downtown that, to Larry, now seems to cater only to old people. He can’t remember ever seeing this clinic before, though it has obviously been here forever. It’s a broad one-story, red brick, kind of hunched, with a flat roof and a row of narrow windows that make it look like it’s squinting. Larry has an urge to duck as he walks in.
Inside, a thick plastic sheet hangs ceiling to floor, separating patients from a remodeling project. Larry can hear hammers and men’s voices and the occasional table saw. Whatever they’re doing requires a lot of light, apparently. Looks like they have a searchlight back there the way that plastic sheet radiates, an almost otherworldly glow, the silhouettes of the workers shrinking and expanding as they move about. Plato’s cave, Larry thinks. Otherwise, it’s generic clinic: a reception desk divided into three stations, two of them closed; a door on the north wall where a nurse will suddenly appear and call out a name, usually three or four times at increasing volume; a waiting room with all the necessities—uncomfortable chairs, framed pictures of flowers and corn fields, a television mounted high on the wall, tuned in to a talk show.
“I may be a little early,” Sr. says to the receptionist, who’s having trouble locating his appointment. She looks familiar, Larry thinks—she’s late 20s, maybe early 30s, and her high heels and shapely skirt, not to mention her makeup and perfume, seem too formal for the place—for the town, even. Then it hits him: she looks like Ms. Grainger, his 2nd grade teacher. All the boys were in love with her. Larry was too, until she accused him of chewing gum when all he had in his mouth was the fingernail he’d bitten off. “Larry,” she’d said when he tried to explain, “do not lie to me,” and he’d had to walk to the front of the room and spit out his nail. Humiliating.
“Are you sure you’ve got the right day?” the receptionist says, and then looks around Sr. to Larry, “they do that sometimes.” They? “Oh, here you are”—perky now, pointing to the computer screen. “Dr. Lee. 3:30.”
Larry’s watch reads 12:45.
# # #
Larry has rules about waiting rooms. First, never sit near the waiting room television. Second, always leave at least one empty chair between you and other people. But the construction nullifies both rules. Larry first tries to stand, but there’s no wall space—he’d either be in the way or in the middle of the room. He finally gives up and squeezes in next to an elderly couple who seem scared—they keep their heads down, eyes on their laps. On his other side is a large woman in a sleeveless top and short shorts meant for a much smaller and younger woman. She’s wearing flip-flops and eating grapes out of a big plastic bowl. Larry thinks there should be a rule against that. To make matters worse, the chair is right under the television, and everyone else in the cramped space is looking just above his head. Makes him self-conscious. For the second time in 15 minutes he wants to duck. “You want some?” says the grape lady, holding her bowl up to his face. “Don’t just sweep,” says the television, “swiffer!”
Sr. takes the only other open chair, over by the door that leads to the examining rooms so he can hear the nurse call his name. Larry watches his father. He’s been shrinking these last years—lost weight, his skin becoming loose and almost transparent, the top of his bald head now reaching only to Larry’s chin. A few more years and there’ll be nothing left of him. Still, the man is charming. On his right is an older woman that reminds Larry of something tropical—a macaw, maybe, flowery dress, red lipstick, hair that’s been set and dyed black, a posture that goes with tea and finger sandwiches. On Sr.’s left is a hefty couple—big boned, Larry’s mother would have called them—the woman in a drab potato sack of a dress, the man in coveralls that could use another spin in the heavy duty cycle. All three of them—all three—laugh at something Sr. says, nod warmly, and settle into conversation, the macaw briefly resting her hand on Sr.’s arm, coveralls grinning like he just shot a squirrel.
His dad has always been able to do that, draw people to him, create the oddest friendships out of thin air—a skill Larry, sadly, didn’t inherit. Sr. could always make people laugh, even Larry. Larry remembers sitting at the dinner table, the one still in Sr.’s house, his mom consoling him for being the shortest kid in the class and having to stand in the first spot in the first row for Ms. Grainger’s 2nd grade class picture—a kind of ritual humiliation, like being castrated in public. “But dynamite comes in small packages,” his mom had said. “What comes in big packages, Dad?” “Well”—those eyes grinning—“shit, for one thing.” Later that same year, at that same dinner table, Larry explained that he’d been sent to the nurse’s office because he had slipped on a green bean in the cafeteria and hurt his wrist. “Tragic,” Sr. had said. “Just awful. Were they able to save the green bean?”
# # #
Larry’s third rule of the waiting room is to bring a book along, which he’s done, a biography of Alexander the Great that he started last night. They don’t cover the Greeks in 7th and 8th grade, so he’ll never teach this stuff—he’s more American Revolution, federal and state government, community helpers—and that heightens the pleasure of the read: Larry feels like he’s getting away with something. He opens to chapter three. Alexander has just subdued most of Greece and tamed the love of his life, Bucephalus, the most famous horse in history—after Trigger and Silver, of course, maybe Mr. Ed—and he’s preparing to invade the vast Persian Empire. Larry pictures the sarissas, those long Macedonian spears, and those cool Greek helmets—and, of course, the flowing silk garments of the Persian belly dancers.
“Who do you want,” blurts the frightened woman on Larry’s left, “who do you want.” Larry is startled, like everyone else in the room except the old man with her and the grape lady on the phone, and they all look at Larry like he’s got something to do with it. Tourette’s? Larry avoids their gaze, looking down, pretending to be lost in his book, but what he really sees, just below Alexander and his horse and Darius and his elephants, are the fat little toes of the lady with the grapes. She’s on her cell phone now, talking to someone named Woof – “Hi there, Woof, it’s Claire”—someone obviously deaf, given the volume at which she’s speaking. Turns out Woof’s nephew, who is also related to Claire somehow, never should have got involved with that Tiffany Mullins in the first place, thinks she’s such a little princess with that hair and those nails, she was bad news from the start, everybody knows that, and what’s her daddy doing leaving the keys in the combine anyway?
Larry reads the same paragraph four times, every sentence punctuated by a “who do you want.” He can feel the lady build to it before the explosion, which makes it even more distracting, like waiting for a sneeze, and Larry struggles between anger and sympathy, and then feels guilty about his anger. The lady can’t help it, after all, and there’s something in the posture of the old couple—how they slump over, huddled together—that looks like an apology to a world that should probably be apologizing to them. That and a colonoscopy, Larry thinks. That’s just cruel. At least she’s not screaming swear words. Like everyone else in the room, he pretends it doesn’t exist.
But the grape lady, good lord. There’s no syndrome that makes you inflict your phone conversation on others. What kind of selfishness does that take, what depth of disregard, flaunting the fragile social contract—and what sort of person goes by the name of Woof anyway? In this Larry can indulge his indignation purely, without any pesky compassion. Larry rehearses a few lines in his head, turns them over, rearranges them—he’s looking for something with style, a witty one-liner that will put her in her place and impress the crowd. Something English, he’s thinking. Then he realizes who he is—realizes that, given his character, or character flaws, he can’t say anything at all. Either his voice will shake or he’ll blow up like a lunatic. Confrontation is not his strong suit. Larry decides it’s best if he just gets out of there for a while, takes a walk around downtown, maybe. He’s got plenty of time. Behind the plastic sheet a table saw cuts through a sheet of wood. “Who do you want,” says the lady, looking at her hands. “Welcome to the show,” says the television, and the audience explodes in applause.
Before Larry can get up, though, a nurse emerges—purple scrubs, white running shoes, looks about 12—and calls for Sr., who’s sheepish at first—other people have been waiting longer, after all—but no one even glances at him. They’re all looking at Larry—or just above his head. And now Larry has other dilemmas: 1) can he take a walk now and risk his father finishing early and returning to the waiting room to find no one there to help him? Larry pictures his dad, post-colonoscopy, confused, abandoned, a lost, shrinking man with nothing to comfort him but a fat woman’s grapes. Truth is he’s worried about his dad, though he knows this is just a routine examination. Doesn’t everyone know a friend of a friend who went in one day with nothing and came out in a box? Besides, Larry doesn’t want to let the guy down. 2) Is it rude to move into Sr.’s vacant chair? There’s no more room over there than where he is, but there’s also no phone conversation or frantic questions about who he wants. To change places now, though, would be a public acknowledgement that he doesn’t much like the people he is sitting with, that he has no tolerance for disabilities. Might come off arrogant. Seems mean.
Maybe that’s the secret to his father. More than charming, Larry Sr. is contented. He’s genuinely convinced that wherever he’s sitting is the best spot in the universe, whoever he meets the most delightful company. Larry, on the other hand, has never been where he wants to be. In middle school, he longed for high school, which looked so much more grown up, the juniors and seniors refined, self-assured, initiated into the secrets of life, the mysteries of love and making out. In high school, he realized that was all bullshit. Then it was college that he longed for, then post-college independence—loft apartments, dinner dates, drinks after work—and then marriage and career and kids and mortgage. It all turned out less than he’d imagined. Will he be this way when he’s older? At 70, will Larry be saying, wait till I’m 75? Then I’ll have all the answers. For Larry, there’s always a better chair on the other side of the room.
Before he can think it all through, grape lady ends her conversation—“bye, Woof”—and turns to Larry. “Good lord, it’s noisy in here,” she says, and then, giving him her bowl, “can you hold this, I gotta go to the bathroom.” A few steps away, she turns to look at him. “And save my seat.” It sounds like a threat.
And sure enough, on cue—because, obviously, the waiting room gods have not been appeased—a couple enters and the woman heads straight to grape lady’s chair. “Sorry,” Larry shrugs, “this seat is taken.”
“Oh, great,” the woman says, “just great.” Larry looks intently at his book, the adult equivalent of the toddler closing his eyes to hide. “Hey, Bob,” she yells across the room, “Bob, this guy is saving this chair.” Waiting room eyes move again from the television to Larry. The woman shakes her head. Larry peels off another sliver of fingernail.
# # #
Chapter 4. Alexander pays his respects at Troy and heads down the Mediterranean coast, conquering suses—Ephesus, Tarsus, Issus. Who’d have thought this kid from backwater Macedonia could pull this off? And Larry is right there in it—with the victors, anyway—laying siege, toppling city walls, marching through hostile territory for a man who is brilliant or nuts, maybe both. It is thrilling, inspirational. Alexander is a man who gets things done, who sees the future and creates it, no matter the cost. Goose-bumped Larry is as nervous sitting there reading as any hoplite facing Tyre.
Adventure, Larry thinks. That’s what he lacks. It was mostly a matter of bad luck, or bad timing, that he missed out on all the great events, even of his own time—he was too young for Vietnam, too old for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He wasn’t even born during World War II. That’s just old black and white photographs. Where are the opportunities for glory now? The great war of Larry’s generation: Grenada. The greatest challenge Larry faces every day: deciding when to merge.
The waiting room begins to clear. Names are called, people follow the nurse through the exam room door and emerge 30 minutes later walking a little stiffly. “Not so bad,” they say. “Went pretty well.” Larry hardly notices. He is in Gaza, where Alexander drags the governor behind his chariot through a town he thinks needs a lesson. The march of civilization. He is in Egypt, founding one of many Alexadrias, this one with the glorious and doomed library. He is advancing into the heart of Persia.
“Who do you want?”
Back in college when they were dating, Barb liked this about him, his imagination, the ability to put himself into foreign situations, different places and times. She once told him he was a dreamer. They were sitting in the stacks of the library, studying—an activity that, according to rumor, often passed for foreplay at the university—and Larry, researching a paper on World War I, had teared up when he told her the casualty rate at the Battle of Verdun: one man every three seconds for four months. He was genuinely moved. She held his hand as he struggled to control his emotions and, giving in to the intimacy of the moment, he went on to confess the great things he wanted to do with his life. He may have been vague on details, but people would be saved, that was clear. “You are a dreamer, Laurence Johnson,” she’d said. It sounded like a compliment. Now Barb says he lives in a dream world. Which doesn’t.
# # #
Somewhere between Persepolis and the Caspian Sea, with Alexander in pursuit of King Darius and Sr. having been gone a good three hours, Larry falls asleep—though it’s less a falling than a bobbing, one of those extended head-dipping jobs that provide entertainment, even suspense, for the onlookers. At least they’re not him, they think. So Larry is out, his head finally resting back on the chair, mouth open, book in his lap. It’s not a deep sleep, though—he’s partially aware of himself sleeping—and his dream is punctuated by the sound of hammers and saws. “Your father will be out in a minute,” says Ms. Grainger, his second grade teacher. “Stay right here,” emphasized by a stern finger and two hammer strokes. Then she leaves dream Larry alone in what looks like a storage room—two metal desks shoved in a corner, a paper shredder, four mismatched chairs, a three year old Autoweek magazine. Larry feels like he’s been sent to the principal’s office.
Then there are voices. “You want some grapes?” “Who do you want.” Larry can’t tell if they are in the dream or in the real world. “See you Monday,” voices say, and “have a great weekend.” Larry hears footsteps, rubber soles on linoleum, two quick hammer beats, and then a door close and latch. Lights begin to go out. His pulse quickens. Should he go find someone? Surely they know he’s still here. Leaving seems risky. He’s been ordered to stay, after all. Larry doesn’t know what to do, and panics when he looks around and there’s no door. Just a shelf where one should be. “Dad,” Larry tries to scream, but nothing comes out. “What have you done with my dad?”
“Dead,” says Ms. Grainger’s flat voice from the void.
The others in the waiting room can hear Larry whimper.
It’s not the first time Larry has killed off his father. He did it on a regular basis when he was young in both nightmares and those childhood fantasies in which you gain sympathy and heroic stature by becoming an orphan. He had pictured himself then as part Mowgli, part Johnny Quest, his innocence hiding a courage that emerged just in time to save the tribe, slay the dragon, win the girl, finally revealing the hero he really, truly is. Now, though, there’s only panic.
“Are you sure you’ve got the right day?” says the voice of Ms. Grainger.
Then Larry wakes up. His neck is stiff, mouth dry, his view dominated by the prominent though not unpleasant cleavage of the receptionist shaking him awake. “Sir? Are you waiting for someone, sir?” He looks around. The waiting room is nearly empty. Chairs have been straightened, newspapers and magazines put in their racks, the television turned off. Silhouetted workers are cleaning up. And Larry’s head won’t clear. The only other person there is the grape lady in the next chair, staring at him. Larry feels he has done something terribly wrong.
“Grape?” says the lady.
Alexander the Great conquered an empire—what the West knows as the known world—and then died when he was 32 years old, either by poison or from a natural fever, we’ll never know for sure. Word is when Julius Caesar turned the same age, he cried, realizing just how little he had accomplished in comparison. Larry is 54. Think how he feels.
“Where is he?” Larry screams—an explosion, like Tourette’s lady, only more directed, with more force. The receptionist looks baffled, the grape lady like she’s going to cry, but Larry feels liberated, alive, as noble as any Great who has ever lived. He is on the side of the angels. “What—the—fuck—have—you—done—with—my—dad?”
Everything stops. Grape lady leans away from Larry, shielding her bowl. The construction guys freeze and look heavenward. The receptionist bows her head.
“Hey, Larry,” says Sr., cheerfully. He has walked into the waiting room with a nurse on his arm. “Let’s go, I’m starving.”
As they make their way out, the non-Larrys holding their collective breath—waiting, no doubt, for Larry’s head to spin all the way around his shoulders—Larry-the-younger stops and turns to the room. He is thinking he should apologize. Then he thinks, screw it. “It’s not gum,” he shouts. “See? It’s a fingernail.”
No one has any idea what he is talking about.
Front page image by Stephen Cummings.