“The Taj Mahal” was awarded third place in the 2006 short story contest by the on-line literary magazine Carve.
The Taj Mahal
If he had thought about it for a moment as he was picking up the rental car at the airport, Calderwood would have taken a different route — gone through Revere and avoided the Friday morning rush hour into Boston — now he’s stuck on the long ramp leading to the tunnel, the guy in the Mercedes on his left reading a newspaper, two teenage boys sharing a joint in the van on his right. It’s late January, windy and bleak, half a foot of snow on the porches and rooftops of the triple-deckers alongside the ramp, the kind of weather that makes Calderwood feel a little smug about living in Southern California. He turns on the radio. A panel of experts on NPR is discussing the latest round of fighting in the Middle East. He listens for a few minutes then presses the scan button. The boys in the van catch him watching them, and the driver grins, holding up the joint as if he were offering him a toke. Calderwood returns the grin. He’d like to roll down the window and ask the boy if he has a few extras he could sell him, something to help him make it through the weekend. Miles Davis plays a few bars of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” muted and melancholy, before the scanner jumps to another station but Calderwood goes back and finds it. The guy in the Mercedes nudges his car in front of Calderwood’s, though it’s hard to see what difference it will make. None of the lanes has moved more than a few car-lengths in the past five minutes. Normally, this kind of traffic would have Calderwood muttering and grinding his teeth, jockeying to keep the other driver from cutting in, but for now he’s relaxed, almost grateful for the delay. He hasn’t seen his parents in eight years; another hour or two isn’t going to make any difference. Truth is, they don’t even know he’s coming.
It takes half an hour to reach the tollbooths, another fifteen minutes to get through the tunnel. A few miles north of the city traffic thins out and picks up speed. Banks of crusted brown snow line the shoulders of the highway. Calderwood is cautious and stays in the right-hand lane. He hasn’t driven in road conditions like this since college. He wishes he had taken the advice of the clerk at the rental car agency and gotten a bigger car, something with more traction. Every time a truck passes his little Ford Escort starts to fishtail, a spray of slush from the truck’s wheels blinding him for an instant, his hands so tight on the steering wheel he can feel the muscles knotting in his arms and the back of his neck. There’s another long delay on 495 east of Lowell, a car upside down on the other side of the median. Calderwood is tired and hungry. He got stuck in a middle seat on the redeye from L.A. and couldn’t get any sleep; still, he doesn’t stop driving until he reaches New Hampshire and he feels like there’s no turning back. He’s going to have to come east again for the old man’s funeral in a few months, but this trip seems necessary, a matter of getting some things said before it’s too late. Maybe getting a few answers too.
At a Burger King on the outskirts of Nashua, Calderwood orders the number-three breakfast combo: an egg-and-sausage biscuit, hash browns and a large black coffee. The food is tasteless, but the coffee has a rich smoky flavor and he buys another cup to go. Back in the car, he swivels his head around and around, trying to ease the tension in his neck. His hands are getting itchy in the warm dry air. He considers calling his mother on his cell phone but doesn’t. Sometimes when he calls from California, she’ll say, “My goodness, Teddy, you sound like you’re right across the street,” her voice bright and full of hope. “Why don’t you come out and visit me?” he tells her, meaning it, and she says, “Oh, honey, you know I can’t.” It’s her decision, of course, and he doesn’t press her. She’s sweet and well-educated and slightly daft — she once called the police to report that her car had been stolen, only to remember that she’d left it at a neighbor’s and walked home — but in her own way, she can be just as stubborn as the old man. As stubborn as Calderwood himself — stubbornness being the most pronounced family trait, though even that, he’s amused to admit, is probably not something they could all agree on.
A car behind him honks. Calderwood jerks his head up and realizes he has begun to drift into the oncoming lane. He swerves back onto his side of the road and waves his thanks to the other driver. He turns up the radio and sings along, hoping to ward off the drowsiness, then finds himself in the middle of a different song, an empty patch of time gone by, and knows he needs to stop and rest. He pulls into a parking space at the far end of a strip mall. Pushing his seat back, he bunches his parka into a pillow and folds his arms across his chest.
When he wakes up, the clock on the dashboard says 11:43. He can’t remember what time he went to sleep, over an hour ago at least. His mouth is bitter with the aftertaste of coffee, his hands red and sore from an allergic reaction of some kind or maybe he’s just been scratching in his sleep. He pulls back onto the highway and cracks the car window, the cool air bracing him. At the turnoff for Peterborough, he hesitates, then detours into town. He parks outside a drugstore and goes in and buys a pack of peppermint Life-Savers and a bottle of lotion for his hands.
As he’s standing near the door rubbing the lotion on his skin, a woman comes up beside him and says, “Teddy?”
Calderwood flinches like a shoplifter caught in the act. She’s wearing a bright blue ski cap with a green pompom, gray-blond hair framing her broad face.
“Mrs. Aldridge. Hello.”
“Mindy, please,” she says. “How are you? My God, it’s been ages.”
“I’m all right. How are Jeff and Sarah?”
“They’re great, just great. Jeff’s an investment banker in New York. Sarah’s a potter, married with twin girls. They live down in Virginia, just outside Washington.”
“Twins,” he says, shaking his head. He used to baby-sit Jeff and Sarah when they were kids. “What brings you up here in the middle of winter?”
“I live in Dublin year-round now,” she says, emphasis on the I, meaning Mr. Aldridge is history. “I love it. It’s so beautiful, so . . . basic. I mean, sure, we’ve got indoor plumbing and oil furnaces and satellite dishes, but in some ways things around here haven’t changed much in two hundred years.” She laughs. Her eyes are brown and mischievous with deep lines at the corners. “Of course, I can fly off to Aruba any time I want.”
Mrs. Aldridge had been one of a group of young mothers who spent their summers at the Dublin Lake Club, playing tennis, sitting on the beach and talking, watching their children swim. She wasn’t as pretty as Mrs. Carroll, didn’t have a knockout body like Mrs. Shaw, but she was the one Teddy thought about when he went to bed at night, a bottle of lotion — same brand he’s holding right now — hidden under his mattress. Mrs. Aldridge liked to tease him and squeeze his biceps and tell him how muscular he was getting. Sometimes when he came to the house to babysit, he’d get a peek down the front of her blouse as she bent down to kiss the children goodbye. But the best moments were the lazy summer afternoons by the lake — Calderwood lounging on the grass, pretending to read a book — when Mindy Aldridge stood up from her towel to walk down to the water with the bottom of her swimsuit riding up her ass, and she’d slip her index fingers under the seam of the fabric, pulling it over the soft white flesh back down to the line of her tan.
She asks where he lives now and he says Los Angeles. He tells her he’s a lawyer.
“Nope,” he says, grinning. “Came close a few times.”
“How long are you home for?”
“Just the weekend. My dad . . . ” He lifts one hand then lets it fall.
“I know, I’m sorry. I see your mom around town sometimes. Tell them hi for me.”
They walk out of the store together. He calls her Mindy and that makes her smile. He wants to follow her home and curl up under a blanket with her in front of the fire. He wants to tell her how he used to fantasize about her, tell her how his heart would race when he’d watch her get up from her towel and walk down to the lake. It isn’t sex he wants from her now — though that has certainly crossed his mind — it’s youth, hers as well as his own. All those possibilities, as infinite as stones.
He drives up the hill through Dublin and turns onto Lake Road past the entrance to the club. The road is narrow and packed hard with snow. A pick-up truck with a raised snowplow blade comes by in the opposite direction, the driver lifting one finger from the steering wheel to say hello. Calderwood tells himself he should call his parents and give them a little time to prepare, but he can’t bring himself to do it. Right now he’s going on adrenaline and inertia, crunching LifeSavers with his teeth. He passes the McDowells’ driveway, a rusty chain blocking the entrance; then the Thorstens’, salmon-pink shutters winking between the leafless trees. Practically every house on this road holds some memory for him — his first kiss on Alice Thorsten’s back porch, the Nelsons’ crazy grandmother wandering around in her orange wig and purple housecoat with a Mason jar full of caterpillars, Ricky Knorr accidentally chopping off his toe with an ax. On the southern edge of the lake, Calderwood stops and gets out of the car. The lake is frozen, white on white; the sky is a flat dull gray, not overcast so much as devoid of light, as if the sun had stopped trying. Only the pine trees have any color, that deep dark green of winter. The wind lifts a patch of snow and sends it looping and twirling like a mad skater across the ice. A hawk circles overhead. There is, Calderwood has to admit, a kind of stark beauty to the place — something basic, as Mindy Aldridge said — but he can’t imagine spending an entire winter here. Not without a cellar full of liquor.
He gets back in the car and drives past the golf course, past the fourth tee and the little wooden pro shop. His father, known to almost everyone as Big Ed, was the club champion for a number of years, Teddy tagging along as his caddie. A master of the miraculous comeback, his father would play with joking indifference; then, when the pressure was on, he’d hit some amazing recovery shot from the woods, needle his opponent into missing a three-foot putt, and chip in from a sand trap on the last hole to win. “Every golfer gets in trouble,” his father used to tell him. “It’s how you get out of trouble that counts.”
Calderwood thumbs another LifeSaver from the roll and bites down hard.
The old man probably thought he could live his whole life like that — juggling bank accounts and filing false tax returns, investing in race horses, setting up his mistress in a pied-à-terre in Boston. Thought he could break all the rules and still find a way to pull it out in the end, everyone laughing and shaking his head, saying, “Man, that Big Ed, how does he do it.” Now he’s up here in their old summer house — the only asset he could salvage when his business collapsed — cancer eating his body, Social Security and Medicare paying the bills.
The house overlooks Stone Pond on Old Marlborough Road. Calderwood puts the car in low gear as he turns into the long steep driveway. On the curve halfway up the hill the Escort’s wheels start to spin and the car slides sideways toward a ditch. He tries to back down the hill, but the undercarriage scrapes on a rock so hard it sounds like there’s a hole in the muffler. The car is tilted to left, the driver’s door nestled against a tree. Calderwood pounds the steering wheel with the heel of his hand and inadvertently blows the horn. He’s going to have to call a wrecker to tow him out.
Crawling across the seat, he gets out and puts his parka on. He leaves his travel bag in the trunk and walks up the hill, the leather soles of his loafers slipping in the snow. The windows of the house are dark, but there’s a small blue station wagon parked in the turnaround. The steps have been shoveled and salted, a pathway cleared to the car. Calderwood pauses for a moment, then starts up the steps. As he nears the top step, a cry comes from the house — a howl so deep and unnerving he grabs the handrail to keep his balance. He clambers up the steps to the landing and tries to enter the house, but the storm door is locked. He calls out and bangs on the glass with the heel of his hand. The curtains are drawn and he can’t see in the windows. No one comes to the door. As scrambles back down the steps, another scream comes from the house.
Calderwood runs around the side past the dining room windows, knee-deep snow pulling his loafers from his feet. The lights are on in the kitchen. His mother, Ruth, is standing by the sink, looking out the window at a pair of cardinals on the birdfeeder. When the next cry comes, she does not flinch, acts as if she doesn’t hear it as she raises a cup to her lips. Calderwood stumbles into her line of sight. When she sees him, her hand goes to her heart. They meet in the mudroom and he gathers her in his arms. She is much thinner than he remembers, her spine bent and knobby under her woolen sweater. He is still hugging her when the cry comes again.
He draws back and says, “Jesus, Mom, what the hell’s going on?”
She shrugs. “It’s the pain, honey.”
“Can’t the doctors give him something?”
“They have, but he won’t take it.”
She leads him into the kitchen and asks if he wants some tea. Teddy nods and takes off his parka and sits down at the table. Ruth fills the kettle from the tap then lights the burner and puts the kettle on the stove. Her hair has gone completely gray; her dark brown eyes are droopy and her jowls hang in waxy folds. The lines on the sides of her mouth are so deep that her chin seems hinged like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Another howl comes from the living room. Calderwood glowers at the closed door that leads to the hall. Ruth gets a jar of honey from the cupboard and sets it on the table. She asks him if he wants milk for his tea and he says no. He picks at the chipped enamel on white metal tabletop. Unspoken questions, his and hers, dangle in the air. Ruth pours the tea and sits down across the table. Calderwood winds the honey round and round his spoon. The next cry from his father is not as loud as the others. There’s a short pause, then Hah, almost like a taunting laugh.
“Not much longer now,” Ruth says, and he does not know if she means the howling or his Big Ed’s life.
“Mom, why didn’t you tell me?”
“Oh, Teddy, I did.”
For high school graduation Calderwood’s father gave him a Porsche 911, silver with black leather seats. In the fall he drove the car to Dartmouth and when he came home for Thanksgiving he brought his new girlfriend with him. Ginny Hanson was a scholarship student from Bay City, Michigan — her mother a waitress and her father long gone. “Holy shit,” said Ginny as they came up the driveway. The house, which was made of fieldstone and rough timber with great expanses of glass, sat in a meadow in Weston, Massachusetts and had once been featured in an architectural magazine. For Thanksgiving, his mother put on her usual feast and his father got drunk and flirted with Ginny. The next day Ted and Ginny went shopping in Boston and when they came home in the afternoon there were three unfamiliar cars parked in front of the house — identical black Buick sedans, very official looking. Calderwood thought of undertakers, clergyman. Two men in dark suits came out of the garage and went in the front door, and Teddy and Ginny hurried after them. His father was in the foyer talking to a man in a tan raincoat. Calderwood tried to interrupt but Big Ed put up his hand and said, “Not now, son.” Ruth was in the kitchen peeling carrots. “Mom,” he said, “what’s going on?” His mother turned around and smiled mechanically and said to Ginny, “My, what a beautiful scarf.” Ginny blushed and told her Teddy had just bought it for her. One of the dark-suited men appeared outside the kitchen and pasted a sheet of paper to the glass. “Mom, please, what’s happening? Who are these men?” “They’re from the IRS,” Ruth said and started to peel another carrot. “Don’t worry, dear. It’s all a big mistake. Your father will straighten things out.” The afternoon sun shown through the paper on the window; bold letters in mirror writing across the top: NOTICE OF SEIZURE. Calderwood ran outside. The IRS agents were pasting notices on the front door, on the abstract sculpture on the front lawn, on his parents’ cars. He found a putty knife on the workbench in the garage and began scraping a notice from one of the windows. Ginny stood beside him, watching, a look of worried admiration on her face. One of the agents came over and said, “I wouldn’t do that, kid. Your father’s in enough trouble already, you don’t want to make it any worse.” Calderwood felt like slashing the man’s face with the putty knife. “Go fuck yourself, Jack,” he said. “My father’s worth ten of you.” The agent grinned. “That your car?” he said, pointing to the Porsche. “My girlfriend’s,” Calderwood lied. It was actually owned by his father’s company — a legal technicality, another write-off for the business. The agent walked over to the car and glanced at the license plate; he took a sheet of paper from his suit coat and ran his finger down a list. “Bingo,” the agent said, and grinned again.
Calderwood tells his mother about the car getting stuck in the driveway.
“I’ll call Bob Hollins down at the Texaco,” she says, starting to get up from the table, but he covers her hand with his and says it can wait.
A low moan comes from the living room, the fierceness of the earlier cries having faded into something that sounds almost sexual.
Ruth says, “He’ll sleep now. You can go in and see him later.”
“How often does he get like this?”
“Four or five times a day. He hates for me to see him like that. When he feels a spell coming on, he’ll ask me to leave him alone. He doesn’t start yelling till I leave the room. Sometimes it just breaks my heart.”
“How long do the spells last?”
“About an hour, maybe a little more. I lose track. I’ll go out for a drive sometimes or take a long walk.”
“Why won’t he take anything?”
“He says the pain-killers make him foggy, like he’s caught in a maze. You know your father,” she says with a hint of pride in her voice. “Always has to do things his own way.”
He looks away and doesn’t say anything. Even with Big Ed dying, he and his mother will probably be fighting soon enough — Teddy belittling the old man, Ruth making excuses.
“So how was your flight?” she says.
“All right. I didn’t get any sleep, but it wasn’t too bad.”
“I don’t like to fly at night.”
“I like to sit by the window and look at the countryside. In the daytime I think about all the people down there looking up at the plane and it makes me feel safer. Like nothing bad could happen as long as they’re watching.”
Ever the lawyer, Calderwood says, “What if the plane’s above the clouds? Or over the ocean?”
Ruth acts as if she didn’t hear.
“One night your father and I were coming home from Seattle. We were flying over Montana or North Dakota, one of those big empty places, and we passed over the lights of this little town, maybe fifteen or twenty houses, and then there was nothing. Total darkness, no sign of life. It was dark inside the plane too, just those tiny emergency lights on the floor. Ed was sound asleep, nobody moving around the plane, not even the stewardesses. I could hear the engines droning on and on, and I got this queer feeling, like we’d flown off the edge of the earth. I thought I was going to jump out of my skin. Then, way off in the distance, I saw a car. A pair of headlights going down some lonely country road, and it made me feel . . . I don’t know . . . like the person in that car and I were looking out for one another. Like we were connected. And when I couldn’t see it anymore, it made me cry.”
She smiles and rubs one hand with the other, her joints misshapen with arthritis.
He says, “I guess we better call about getting my rental car towed out of the driveway.”
The guy from the Texaco comes right over. He’s a burly, red-bearded fellow who looks like he could lift the car out of the ditch, which is basically what he does while Calderwood sits behind the wheel and maneuvers it back down the hill. When Calderwood asks him how much he owes him, the guy laughs and flaps his hand and says that Ruth and Big Ed are his favorite customers. Calderwood leaves the car at the bottom of the driveway and carries his travel bag up to the house.
His mother says, “How about some soup for lunch? Split pea and ham?”
“Your father’s awake now.”
The door to the hall that leads to living room is open.
“Did you tell him I was here?”
She sighs and says, “You’ve come three thousand miles, honey. Don’t turn back now.”
“He can come out here to the kitchen.”
“No he can’t, Teddy. It hurts him too much to get in and out of the wheelchair. He spends all his time on the couch now, day and night.” She tries to smile. “He calls it his cave. Like he was a big old bear.”
“He needs in a wheelchair? I didn’t think the cancer . . .”
His mother gives him a look that makes him feel like he’s twelve years old. “Just go in and see him, Teddy.”
He stands there holding his travel bag then puts it down on the floor.
The hall is lined with books — leather-bound volumes of Gibbons, Emerson, William James, H.G. Wells’s Outline of History — the collection of his grandfather, the first Edward Angus Calderwood, also called Teddy. His grandfather was a teacher, the Mr. Chips of the Belmont Hill School. When he retired they hung an oil portrait of him in his tweed jacket and bow tie in the school library. Not longer after, his health began to fail, a slow pitiable decline from diabetes and emphysema, his ailments capped by the ignominy of seeing his son’s name — his own good name — dragged through the mud: the various legal battles of Edward Angus Calderwood, Jr. duly reported in the newspapers, culminating in three trials, a million dollars in fines and civil judgments, and nineteen months in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. But it isn’t just the books in the hall that remind Calderwood of his grandfather, it’s the stench of sickness and excrement oozing through a piney disinfectant haze. The smell seeps down into Calderwood’s throat and makes him gag.
“Teddy?” his father says from the living room. “Teddy, are you okay?”
Calderwood swallows hard. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
He pulls himself up straight and steps into the wide archway. All the curtains are closed, the only light coming from a Tiffany lamp on top of the piano, no more than a forty-watt bulb. His father, emaciated almost beyond recognition, sits in a heap in the far corner of the couch, a plaid blanket on his lap and a Navy blue watch cap on his head. His eyes are lost in their deep sockets; his mouth is a scaly lipless cleft above his gray-stubbled chin.
Calderwood moves toward him slowly.
“Hey, Big Ed.”
Calderwood hasn’t called him Dad since his father left and moved in with his secretary. The old man had set her up in an apartment on Beacon Hill — a blowzy redhead who hung on until the money got tight and the legal stuff turned ugly. Then Big Ed went crawling back to Ruth.
“Welcome home,” the old man says, reaching out his hand.
“Thank you.” Calderwood takes the hand, which is soft and dry and yellow as a chamois.
“It’s good to see you. I’ve been hoping you’d come.”
Calderwood shrugs, open-palmed, as if to say, Here I am.
The old man shivers, a spasm that rocks him so hard you can almost hear his bones knocking against one another under the skin. He smiles weakly and says, “Would you see if you could get that fire going?”
Calderwood goes to the hearth and removes the fire screen. He lays in some kindling and squats down and blows on the embers, then he takes a birch log from the antique copper laundry tub and places it top. The log crackles as the scrolled white bark leaps into flame.
“Thanks,” Big Ed says. “That’ll help take the chill off.”
Calderwood turns a low armchair away from the fire and sits down facing him.
“Your mother keeps the thermostat turned way up, I’ve got this blanket and a couple of layers of clothing, but I still can’t seem to keep warm.”
“You used to tell me you had ice water in your veins.”
“Ah, Teddy,” his father says, smiling, a tooth missing on top, “I taught you too well.”
And Calderwood smiles too in spite of himself.
Ruth comes into the room with a tray — three bowls of soup and a plate of crackers, a mug of coffee. She pushes the travel books on the coffee table to one side and sets down the tray.
“I have your coffee, Ed,” she says, handing him the mug. “Will you try some soup?”
“Nah, maybe later.”
“Just try a little. It’s split pea and ham.” She sits on the couch beside him and moves the tray a little closer to his reach.
“I’ll have a cracker,” he says and takes a saltine.
He bites the cracker in half, crumbs sticking in his whiskers. Ruth’s hands fidget, wanting to wipe his chin, but she manages to hold herself back. She turns to Teddy and apologizes for not bringing him something to drink.
“I just want water,” he says, standing up from his chair. “Can I get you some too?”
“Yes, that would be nice.” Ruth beams at him, then at Big Ed — as if to say, Isn’t he wonderful? Didn’t we raise a good boy?
Calderwood comes back with the water. He sits down and tastes the soup, which is thick and smooth and salty — one of his mother’s winter staples, taking him back to days of sledding and cross-country skiing. Big Ed holds the coffee mug in both hands and brings it carefully to his lips. The half-eaten cracker sits on the arm of the sofa. Ruth asks Ted about his work and he tries to change the subject. A real estate attorney in a mid-sized firm, he spends most of his days poring over leases and purchase-and-sale agreements — tedious crap — but he’s a partner now and you can’t beat the money.
When his mother persists, he says, “It’s boring stuff, Mom. Mostly just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. The only thing that keeps it interesting is the negotiations. Then we get into good old-fashioned greed, everyone looking for an angle to make them feel like they’ve won.”
Big Ed perks up and says, “That reminds me of an article I read in the Globe a few years back. I wish I’d’ve cut out and sent it you, Teddy. It was about a guy named Harry Sawyer. Ever hear of him?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“He was a legend around Boston. Taxicabs, real estate, parking lots. Came here from Russia as a kid and dropped out of school in the third grade, but when it came to the art of negotiation, the man could’ve taught at Harvard Business School. I had a few dealings with him myself way back when. Talk about a tough old Jew. Harry would just wear you down. If he didn’t get what he wanted, he’d get up and walk out of the room and leave the deal on the table. The way he saw it, time was always on his side. If you didn’t pay what he was asking, next year his price was only going to be higher. He was ninety-three when the article in the Globe came out, still going to work every day. He had a son who worked for him for forty years, waiting to take over the business. Harry fired him when the kid was sixty-two.”
His father grins and takes a sip of coffee. Teddy remembers how people used to listen when his father told a story, the way they would lean into it, their faces rapt and admiring. Now the old man is back in form, the color returning to his face, blue eyes sparkling in their yellowed pools.
Big Ed says, “Anyway, one day Harry’s negotiating a deal over a piece of prime real estate in the heart of Boston. Post Office Square. The buyers are paying top dollar for the property. They offer Harry a fifteen-year lease on the underground parking garage. Harry’s holding out for twenty-five. Both sides start to dig in their heels. Pretty soon it looks like the whole deal is going to fall apart. Finally, Harry’s own lawyer throws up his hands in frustration and says, Come on, Harry, fifteen years is a fair offer. You’re ninety-three, for Christ’s sake. You can’t take it with you! Harry glares at him for a second and says . . . I ain’t going.”
Teddy and Ruth laugh at the story, but Big Ed is laughing the hardest of all, mocking death like Harry Sawyer, his irreverence punctuated by a loud sputtering fart.
“Excuse me,” he says, grinning. Then he farts again.
Ruth says, “Do you need to change your bag?”
Big Ed nods and she gets up and leaves as the stink fills the room. It takes Calderwood a second to catch on. Then he remembers that his father has had a colostomy, that he shits through a hole where his navel used to be. Calderwood goes to the hearth and throws another log on the fire. When Ruth returns with a bucket of supplies, he excuses himself and says he’s going upstairs to take a shower. He tries to make it seem as if he’s giving the old man some privacy, sparing him the embarrassment, but Teddy knows that this is something he never wants to see.
In the late afternoon the three of them watch television, reruns of old comedies — Archie Bunker, The Jeffersons, Taxi.
“I missed these shows the first time around,” Big Ed says. “Some of them are real funny.”
Calderwood asks him if he does much reading and his father says not much, mostly he just looks through the travel books on the coffee table. Ruth says they don’t even get the newspaper anymore. Teddy recommends they try some books on tape, but Big Ed shrugs off the suggestion.
“Do you watch sports?” Calderwood asks him.
“Oh, sure. Hockey, basketball. I let the Red Sox break my heart again last summer. You know what I liked best? The U.S. women’s soccer team winning the World Cup. Oh, man, those girls are such terrific athletes. Like beautiful gazelles or leopards.”
“You can say that again.”
“Did you see the finals? That last penalty kick when—” He stops in mid-sentence and lifts one finger as if he’s listening to a distant sound, then his whole body whiplashes and his head snaps back, a horrible gurgling sound in his throat.
Calderwood leaps from his chair. He looks at his mother, but she simply closes her eyes and lets her chin drop to her chest. Big Ed is coiled against the pain, hands clutching the blanket on his lap, his face a tortured grimace, foamy saliva dribbling from the corners of his mouth. For a moment they are all suspended in time and space. Then Big Ed’s body slowly begins to relax. He lets go of the blanket and wipes away the drool with the back of his sleeve. His watch cap is askew and Ruth reaches over and fits it back on his head.
“Come on, Teddy,” she says. “Let’s leave your father alone for awhile.” She gets up from the couch and loops her arm through his.
He takes a step or two then turns to the old man and says. “This is crazy. Why won’t you take something?”
Big Ed looks up, his eyes blank, as if he doesn’t understand the question.
“Teddy, please,” Ruth says, and he lets her lead him away.
Calderwood takes his mother out to dinner in Peterborough. The restaurant is surprisingly upscale with one of those menus with lots of hyphenated adjectives like “pan-seared” and “almond-crusted.” They order a bottle of chardonnay and start drinking before the food comes. The wine helps them both to relax and they begin reminisce about some of their dogs — Snickers, the chocolate lab, who loved to chase the squirrels in the yard, and Macho, a West Highland terrier, who turned into the mad humper after he got fixed. In the middle of dinner, a friend of Ruth’s comes over to say hello. When Ruth introduces Teddy, the woman smiles and tells him how much he looks like Big Ed.
“How’s he doing, Ruthie?” the woman asks.
“Are you still taking him over to Keene for the chemo?”
“No. It’ll take a miracle now, Helen.”
“I’ll say a prayer for him.”
After the woman goes back to her table, Ruth whispers, “Helen lost her husband last summer.”
“Do you think she’ll find him?”
She laughs — giggles really — and Calderwood remembers how pretty she can be. “For her sake, I hope not. If that man had won the lottery, all he’d do is gripe about the taxes.”
The waitress brings the dessert menu. They both get tea and Calderwood orders a slice of key lime pie.
“So,” Ruth says, “how’re things going outside of work?”
“Fine. I’ve been doing some jogging, trying to keep in shape.”
“You seeing anyone special?”
“Not at the moment.”
“Do you ever see Phyllis?”
Calderwood and Phyllis were engaged for a short while four years ago. Phyllis moved into his condo and Ruth got to talk with her a few times on the telephone. Now Ruth speaks of her as if she were her long lost daughter-in-law, mother manqué of the grandchildren Ruth has been denied. Back at the house there’s a framed photograph of him and Phyllis on the mantel.
“I really liked her,” Ruth says wistfully.
“Me too, Mom.”
“So what happened?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess I wasn’t ready to make the commitment.” He thinks about Phyllis’s stuff all over his condo — the avalanche of clothes and shoes in the closets, forty-seven different bottles and tubes in the bathroom, the weird vegetables and designer yogurts in the refrigerator — the end coming after a bitter quarrel over an umbrella stand in a city where it hardly ever rains.
“A man needs a wife, Teddy. You can’t play the field forever.”
“Maybe I should get a wife and play the field,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “Like Big Ed.”
Her face crumples with the hurt and she is old again.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I just can’t . . . I hate what he did to you, that’s all.”
“Don’t bring me into this. I forgave your father a long time ago.”
“But how? Why? Why would you want to?”
She starts to say something then shakes her head, as if she cannot put it in words or is unwilling to tell him. Either way, he doesn’t ask again.
Back home Ruth gets Big Ed to eat a bowl of Ramen noodles and a slice of bread. They watch some more TV and Calderwood heads upstairs at ten. As he undresses for bed he looks in the closet and finds a ball and one of his old lacrosse sticks. He picks up the stick and cradles the ball in the pocket. He played attack in prep school, lead scorer on the team in his junior and senior years. When college coaches came around to recruit him, Teddy chose Dartmouth because he liked the campus and its proximity to skiing. Dartmouth was everything he had hoped for, but by the time the lacrosse season started in the spring of his freshman year, his world had been turned upside down — the Porsche repossessed; the glass-and-timber house in Weston sold; Big Ed, who had run off with his mistress, embroiled in his first trial. Ginny Hanson had been Teddy’s only confidante, but she grew weary of his anger and self-pity, the sarcasm and drinking binges. Taking out his frustrations on the lacrosse field, Calderwood played with a ferociousness that resulted in frequent goals and even more frequent penalties. When he was called for slashing in the first half against Cornell, the coach benched him for the rest of the game. Calderwood quit the team the next day. The coach wished him luck and suggested he get some counseling. After exams, Big Ed told him there wasn’t any money for him to return to Dartmouth the next fall.
A friend was driving to Los Angeles for the summer and Calderwood tagged along. At night he worked at a hamburger stand; in the daytime he learned to surf. A guy he met at the beach offered him a job doing research in his law firm. Calderwood rented a tiny apartment and enrolled in a psychology course at Long Beach State. It took him five years to finish his undergraduate degree, four more for law school. Since he left for California, he has been home only twice — once for his grandfather’s funeral (Big Ed was in prison, but authorities gave him a furlough) then for the wedding of his favorite cousin, which was the last time he had seen his parents. On both visits he and Big Ed maintained a cold cordiality, just as they did on the telephone, neither willing to talk about their estrangement. Sometimes Ruth would say, “He misses you, Teddy,” and Calderwood would tell her, “He knows where I live.”
Calderwood puts the lacrosse stick down and gets a book from his travel bag, a biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton, the English explorer and linguist. He slides into bed and reads a few pages and falls asleep with the light on. In the middle of the night Big Ed starts howling again. Calderwood gets some cotton balls in the bathroom and stuffs them in his ears, tries to go back to sleep with a pillow over his head, but it does no good. He turns on the light and opens his book. He can’t imagine how his mother endures this night after night. Why doesn’t she put a sleeping pill in his food, a shot of morphine in his coffee? There are enough drugs in the kitchen drawer to turn wild horses to stone. Calderwood tries to find a rhythm to his father’s pain, but there is none. The silences, fitful and expectant, disturb him as much as the screams. When the cries start to diminish, Teddy leaves his room and sits in the shadows at the top of the stairs. In between the groans he hears a raspy whisper. The words are indistinct but cadenced, like a chant.
Still seated, Calderwood eases himself down the steps one at a time until he hears Big Ed saying, “Grab your coat . . . and grab your hat.” A quick suck of breath. “Leave your worries . . . on the doorstep.”
“When do you have to leave,” Ruth asks him, breaking an egg over the frying pan.
“First thing Monday morning.”
She pouts. “So soon?”
Teddy chooses a shrug over a lame excuse. He’s been trying to think of ways to get out of the house for the day, maybe give Mindy Aldridge a call.
Ruth tries to stifle a yawn and he says, “This has really got to be hard on you, Mom. Have you thought about getting some hospice care?”
“We tried it for a little while, but it didn’t work out.”
She shrugs. “Ed didn’t like all those strangers coming around, seeing him like that.”
Calderwood rolls his eyes.
Twice during the day he calls Mindy from his cell phone but gets her answering machine and doesn’t leave a message. He passes the time reading and watching television with Big Ed. The house is so dry his hands have begun to itch again. Every time he reaches for a light switch or a doorknob he gets zapped with static electricity. Later in the afternoon he takes his mother out for a drive. When they get home, he helps her make supper. Teddy tries to cajole his father into coming out to the kitchen to eat, but Big Ed won’t budge and they all end up in the living room with their plates on their laps. At bedtime, Calderwood finds some over-the-counter sleeping tablets in the medicine chest and takes two. If Big Ed howls during the night, Calderwood doesn’t hear him. He awakens at nine feeling groggy and hung-over though he’d only had two glasses of wine.
It’s Super Bowl Sunday. Broncos versus the Falcons. The Broncos, led by the great John Elway, are heavily favored to win for the second year in a row. All day long Calderwood and Big Ed watch the hype — the analysis and predictions, replays from earlier Super Bowls. There are interviews with the players and coaches, with members of the players’ families, former Super Bowl stars, team owners, trainers, oddsmakers, politicians. The big story of the day is Dan Reeves, the Falcons’ coach, who had emergency open-heart surgery a few weeks before and is back on the field coaching. Commentators speak of Reeves’ “courage” with cautious reverence, as if there is a distinct possibility he might expire on the field, which everyone would both abhor and admire. In the middle of the afternoon Big Ed has one of his spells, but he’s okay in time for the six o’clock kickoff. The commercials prove to be more entertaining than the game as the Broncos win in a rout.
Calderwood gets up and turns off the television. Ruth has already gone to bed.
Big Ed says, “What time is your plane tomorrow?”
“That means you’ll probably have to leave by six.”
“Guess we better say goodbye now, then. I don’t know if I’ll be awake.”
Calderwood nods again. He goes over and sits on the end of the coffee table, their knees almost touching.
“You know, Teddy, sometimes I’ll be sitting here in my cave, watching TV or daydreaming, and I’ll see a pretty girl or some athlete running . . . hell, just walking . . . and in my mind I’m right there. I’m not an old man anymore. It’s like I can’t quite believe I’ll never . . . ” He shakes his head, a rueful twist to his mouth.
“Are you afraid?”
Big Ed ponders that for a second. “More like curious.”
“So you believe in an afterlife?”
“I believe in something. Not in heaven and hell if that’s what you mean.”
Teddy says, “I’m not sure what I mean.”
“Yeah, that’s the thing about death. On the one hand it seems so final; on the other hand, there’s always that little kernel of hope.”
There’s a long silence, then Big Ed says, “I thought of an epitaph while we were watching the game.”
The old man grins. “How about, He . . . played . . . hard.” He marks each word with spreading palms as if they were emblazoned across the top of a mausoleum.
“Hard is good,” Calderwood says.
“You got something better?”
“It’s your epitaph, not mine.”
His father reaches out and pats him on the knee. “What is it, son? What is it you want from me?”
Calderwood chews his lip and says nothing.
“Look, Teddy, I made my share of mistakes. I know that. When I was in prison I had a lot of time to think about them. Thing is, sooner or later you have to let that stuff go or wind up driving yourself crazy.”
“You have any regrets?”
“Oh, sure, buckets full. I can sit here now and look at the big picture, at the whole arc of my life. I’ve got what . . . two, maybe three months left, and you know what I regret most? It isn’t my mistakes. It’s all those things I didn’t do. The things I missed. Scuba diving, mountain climbing. All the places I’ll never see. Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal.”
Calderwood says nothing.
“Hand me that book there.” Big Ed points at the stack next to Calderwood on the coffee table. “The one on top.”
It’s an oversized volume, wider than it is tall, a collection of colored photographs from India that Calderwood glanced through at some point in the past two days. He hands his father the book. Big Ed opens it on his lap and flips quickly through the pages.
“Look at this,” he says, turning the book around on his lap for Teddy to see. “Can you believe that?”
The Taj Mahal shimmers, majestic and golden, under a full moon.
Big Ed says, “Sometimes I look at that picture and I think it can’t be real. Nothing could be that beautiful! They say some people go there and it almost drives them mad. Once they see it they never want to leave.” He’s leaning forward, a mad joy in his own eyes.
This time the pain comes without warning. Big Ed’s whole body convulses like a rag doll shaken by some unseen hand, and the book falls on the floor. Trying to do something, anything, Calderwood grabs his father’s wrists. Big Ed exhales through clenched teeth, a long hissing breath that smells like rotten meat; then he yanks his arms free and falls across the sofa, his hands pressed against his ribs. A blue vein pulses rapidly in the hollow of his jawbone. It’s hard to say how long it lasts — twenty seconds? a minute? — the old man writhing on the couch, his knees drawn up to his waist. Then his muscles go slack and he lies there, panting.
Calderwood helps him sit up and fits the blanket back over his legs.
“Thank you,” Big Ed says. “It’s been great seeing you, Teddy, but you need to go now. I want to be alone.”
“Why are you doing this?” Calderwood says. “Why won’t you take any painkillers?”
“Please, just go.”
“Why do you have be so goddamned pig-headed? What are you trying to prove?”
“I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m just doing the best I can.”
“Yeah, well, there’s a lot of easier ways to do it, you know.”
Big Ed smiles faintly. “Oh, Teddy, I don’t want it to be easy.”
The book of photographs lies askew at Calderwood’s feet. He picks it up and realigns the dust jacket. The page with the Taj Mahal has gotten bent in the fall. Calderwood sits on the coffee table smoothing the fold with his fingertips, but he cannot make it disappear. Something about that crease in the photograph fills him with sadness, as if the building itself had been damaged, its ineffable beauty marred forever.
“Dad,” he says, reaching out his hand, “let me stay with you. Just for a little while.”
His father hesitates, then takes his hand, their thumbs interlocking like arm wrestlers. Neither says a word. Big Ed’s grip slowly begins to tighten, his gaze drifting toward something only he can see. Then he howls.