A Father's Day story: At the Beach of the King

Sometimes, seeing the old man is a trip to the moon, but also a voyage back to understanding. It was the closest to my Dad I had ever felt.

Crosscut archive image.

Judy Lightfoot

Sometimes, seeing the old man is a trip to the moon, but also a voyage back to understanding. It was the closest to my Dad I had ever felt.

Editor's note: This story from the Crosscut archives first appeared on Father's Day, 2009.

It was almost noon, a perfect Saturday at the Beach of the King. On the sand between the beach houses and the spoiled, sparkling water a narrow pavement ran north, full of skaters rollerblading toward Marina del Rey.

Down the street toward the apartment building where my father lived, customers were going in and out of Moose’s Bar, and locals still rumpled from bed moseyed toward the deli in shorts and rubber thongs to pick up beer and bagels, scratching their hairy chests and yawning. Playa del Rey has an all-American shabbiness that feels like home, with its low-key, peeling, hungover twinkle. You can just wander around in it and quietly go to pot.

My father hadn't sounded very good over the phone the past few months. The earthquake knocked him out of bed without hurting him, but afterward L.A. weather turned colder and wetter than usual, and his voice got faint and tired. He’d slip remarks into the conversation like “You know, Judy, I've had a good life,” or “If I can just hang on until my next birthday, the insurance company will pay you and your brother the whole thing.”

He was proud of that policy. After some calling around he hit on a company that would insure his life for $10,000 if he lasted two more years. If he’d died the first year they would have paid $2,000. If he died this year, they'd pay five. His bet was on scoring the full amount.

In back of my dad’s apartment building the Chevy he was too blind to drive anymore was parked crooked in its space, its tires slightly flatter than they were on my last visit. The new brakes must still be good. Two years ago as Dad drove me from the airport the old ones were smoking and screaming, metal on metal, so I financed a quick brake job.

The same faded wad of red towel was stuck to the left front fender, a shade paler now. Maybe another mouse family was nesting inside the engine. Last year the landlord heard squeaking under the hood and found a bunch of baby mice. He scooped them into a paper cup and showed them to me on his way to the dumpster, nudging them around with the eraser at the end of his pencil. They’d looked a lot like the eraser, pink and stubby and small.

I climbed the stairs and knocked at #12.

“It’s open.” Dad’s voice sounded hoarse. The room was dim as always. A green pillowcase was knotted around the hanging lamp to cut the glare, and the curtains were closed. There he was, hoisting himself out of his La-Z-Boy and turning glazed eyes toward the doorway.

“Hi, Dad.” I hugged his bones. He was skinnier than ever under two thick velour sweaters, ragged at the wrists and zipped up to his chin. He had shaved, missing only a few sprouts of stubble, and had selected a crumpled skipper’s cap from the hat collection push-pinned to the wall. As he turned to feel for his chair again, I could see that his belt had skipped a waistband loop and gathered his pants into blousy folds. Was he eating enough?

“Glad you came down,” he said.

I looked around. It was hard to believe I’d ever considered staying with him to save money. I could have pulled out the “FIRM QUEEN SIZE” mattress leaning against the wall behind the couch he slept on, but his bed linen was gray, and polyester pills clung to the sheets like wee dirt berries on a dog's behind. My dad was too blind to see grime floating in the sink, or soup dried on the linoleum. Shaggy pieces of Kleenex had drifted to the shag carpet, and his clothes were everywhere because they wouldn’t all fit in the closet.

He probably had more clothes than any poor man ever owned. He’d stayed the same size all his life, and every wife who followed my mother helped him shop for a wardrobe that would make it look as if the two of them belonged together. He must have had 40 pairs of pants. One pair was draped over the top of the closet door, with a pair of used Jockeys dangling from a scrunched-up cuff.

When I was in that room it was hard not to think about the germs on everything. They may be a natural part of life, but I didn’t like thinking about them, or those mites, either, built like miniature army tanks that eat skin flaked off into a mattress.

My dad was still talking: “My vision’s lousy. I can’t see the computer to work on my invention.” He couldn’t use his flight simulator, either, to hover over the cyber-map of L.A. at the spot where the ashes of his fourth wife were scattered.

“What invention?” I asked. On my last visit he told me about a system of storing thermal energy in molten salts and also sketched a bicycle pedaled by means of a closed circular tube of water instead of a chain and sprockets. His new idea, he told me, was a unique form of solar power that would require less energy to cool skyscrapers. “Spray a lid of mist over every building near the air-conditioning intake. Air going into the system gets pre-chilled by the mist evaporating under the sun, see? So the system uses less fuel. It would save the environment.”

He paused. Then: “So how are Sarah and Bill?”

My son’s name is not Bill, and my father did not have Alzheimer’s. My father had an excellent memory, but he lived on the moon and had lived there his whole life, occasionally coming down to earth to store thermal energy in molten salts. “Dad, your grandson’s name is Edward.”

“There’s always too much for me to think about.” He squeezed his eyes closed, scrunching up his wrinkles and shoulders. “Ed! Ed!” He stayed pinched up tight, now pondering something new. “I might be hungry.” He opened his eyes and sat back, saying, “Judy, sometimes I wish you weren’t my daughter.”

Why? Because I corrected him when he called my son Edward ‘Bill’? “Why, Dad?” Did I really want to know why?

“Because then I could date you.” It was tempting just to dump this remark onto my list of Incredible Things My Father Told Me, but this one I confronted. He couldn’t really see me. It was like talking to him over the phone.

“Dad,” I said, selecting my Voice of Quietly Stern Precision. “Fathers shouldn’t say things like that to their daughters.”

“Oh.” He paused and wheezed. His emphysema was acting up. “OK then, what should I say?”

I hadn’t thought that far. “Well, you could say you like me and appreciate me ... or … you think I’m a good person?”

“OK.” He cleared his throat. “I like you, I appreciate you. You’re a good girl.”

“Or you could say you think I’m good company, or nice-looking.”

“And you’re very pretty, very smart, very,” he said smoothly, as if continuing a speech he hadn’t needed cues in the middle of. “I’m happy when you call, and I enjoy your visits.” He paused. “Should I say that I … that your help with the rent is very much appreciated?”

It was the closest to my dad I’d ever felt. “You could say that, yes,” I told him. Maybe all he’d ever really needed was clueing in. Though we’d have to start way back there with the basics. Like how to remember the other person exists, and he’d need an assistant to run the TelePrompter. Still, I was touched.

With the prospect of lunch we fell into our routine and walked over to Moose’s, where my dad liked to drink while his pals came and went. He liked a tall seat when he was drinking. In his various homes and apartments that I’d seen, he always had those high stools with little backs standing in a row along a counter. He owned a lamp that had made it through his different relationships, a traffic signal that had “Bar Is Open” printed on the green light, “Last Call” on the yellow, and “Bar Is Closed” on the red.

When we walked into Moose’s, customers chorused, “Hi, Jack!” and the barmaid swooped out from behind the taps to hug him. He climbed up on a stool and hunched down looking right at home with his elbows on the mahogany, left hand curled around right elbow, right hand holding a cigarette in front of his mouth. My dad had a perfect shape for sitting at a bar. He could kill an entire sunny day in the dimness, with gin, cigarettes, admiring talk of Ronald Reagan, hazy silences, and TV bowling. I could get into it with him, too, once in a while. It evoked so many childhood memories.

Monday morning I arrived early to drive my father down to his new eye doctor in San Diego. “Door’s open!” he called from inside his apartment. The breeze from the fan flapped the hats pinned to his wall — purple beret, terrycloth crusher, straw boater, fisherman’s cap, something green with tassels.

My dad was shaving at the bathroom sink in Jockey shorts that ballooned above the thinnest legs I’d ever seen outside of an article on famine. Had I seen his skin before? On his back he had a galaxy of tiny brown moles like his grandson’s, with a palm-sized mark in the center like a splash of milky coffee.

We swung by Donna’s place in Burbank before heading south to the clinic. I’d met Donna, a very short ex-Las Vegas showgirl and my dad’s latest ex-girlfriend, who had let him live in her apartment for two years prior to Playa del Rey. The San Diego eye specialist was also Donna’s doctor. On our way to Burbank Dad told me that the doctor had cured her of cancer and purified her body of chemo poisons by putting her on a special diet of vitamin supplements with no raw food after 11 a.m. The day was acquiring the familiar outlines of a trip to the moon, but I had an air-conditioned car with unlimited mileage allowance and nothing else on my schedule.

Donna met us with the news that she’d stayed up all night with a dying kitty and wasn’t at her best. "Maybe I'll nap a little,” she said, curling up in the back seat under her purple blanket. “Tomorrow the kitty’s urn will go to the Love Cemetery. I have a whole garden of my own little graves there. Why do I keep taking in strays?" She batted her eyelashes and smiled along with everything she said, her voice husky with a thick cuteness that started way back in her throat. She wore a sweatshirt the color of her blanket and looked like a ten-year-old with wrinkles.

My dad and Donna used to enjoy what he’d told me was “a satisfactory physical relationship,” but she preferred sleeping alone, so he’d spent most of the nights in her guest room, and because there was no way to store all his stuff in her tiny apartment except piled over hers, he had to climb up on two mattress sets stacked atop each other. The Prince and the Pea.

The Widower and the Showgirl was also a fine title for the day, and I was the perfect coachperson for the carriage. I was even wearing one of my dad’s hats. Southbound I-5 traffic was making good time toward the border. Donna snored much of the way, through Dad’s whispered confidences that in Vegas she’d cultivated a taste for Mimosas and now kept champagne and orange juice in her bedroom mini-fridge for all-day sipping. She had a well-developed nap habit. Along the highway the low hills were golden and blue with calendula and lupine. The road signs carried beautiful Mexican names for California places — San this, Santa that, syllables rolling from the tongue.

At the door of Dr Tony’s row house, which evidently doubled as his clinic, we were greeted by the doctor and his wife. My dad introduced me as “My daughter, Dr. Judy," and Mrs. Tony said, "I, too, have a doctorate." Both she and Dr. Tony got their degrees from Romania, or Bohemia. We took off our shoes at the door and walked on white wall-to-wall covered with bath towels.

In the living room was a pile of National Enquirers, the headlines on the topmost issue announcing a miracle medicine that cured cancer, acne, and hemorrhoids. One wall was a single huge mirror, and on the opposite side of the room a bouquet of pink silk roses sat on the piano beneath pictures of Jesus and the Three Graces. Dad went upstairs to have his diagnosis from Dr. Tony's machine, while Mrs. Tony told Donna why she had neither kids nor pets. “Because they die. Who wants that kind of grief?"

In a little while Dad came downstairs wearing a new purple T-shirt over the green polo he’d worn all day, and Donna went up. Dad told me Dr. Tony had a wonderful machine. “You know how my mind works,” he said. “There’s a reason for everything, so I figure it out. The guy could see I’m a pretty sharp apple.” Soon he fell asleep sitting on the couch, twitching slightly, a dab of red sauce still in a crease of his cheek from the huevos rancheros we’d stopped for on the way down.

This man was my father. I watched his sleeping face.

Every morning after he woke up, he’d told me, he had to stand for an hour with his elbows on his kitchen counter/bar (“Closed” during this special period) while his system adjusted to the vertical. During this hour his eyes watered and his nose ran and he had to visit the bathroom several times. If he sat in a chair or lay down during his morning regimen, he’d have to start the hour all over again. He’d told me all this over the phone last winter in his mournful, stand-up tragedian’s voice. When he fell asleep on Mrs. Tony’s couch he’d been gripping my hand, and now mine smelled like his — that sweet-sour odor of aging flesh. Why did old people’s hands smell that way? Will mine smell that way?

Donna and the doctor came downstairs. While Donna gathered up her blanket and said goodbye to the doctor’s wife, Dr. Tony leaned close to me and said sternly, "Jour fader iss depresst! He needz to be arkued into relaxink!”

Dr. Tony went on to tell me my dad also needed to be phoned and visited more often, and needed an eye operation from a specialist in Canada, or Cuba — a surgeon skilled in a tricky form of laser surgery not performed in the United States. "Jou are hiss dauchter! He iss a zientisst who cannot zee, who cannot do hiss vork!" Dr. Tony wrote the necessary telephone numbers on what looked like a prescription pad but was actually a memo pad from some hotel. As he tore off the top sheet, my dad sat up and blinked.

On the drive back to Burbank and Playa del Rey, Dad and Donna sat in the back seat and compared notes. Donna was to eat more steamed yams, and chlorophyll from the health food store would clean out her digestive tract. The shot Dr. Tony gave my dad (he’d had an injection? Of what?) had helped him see better already, even with the sun glaring through the windshield. I heard him tell Donna, "Dr. Tony said don’t eat wheat bread. Well, OK, but I need meat with my vegetables, or who am I kidding?" Dad’s health color turned out to be the same health color as Donna’s: purple, which both were to wear as often as possible.

We drove north through heavy traffic for almost six hours in the air-conditioned white car with cruise control. Low flowers undulated along I-5, and glimpses of the sea were now on the left. Well, if it was going to cost three or four thousand for laser surgery for Dad’s eyes in Canada, or Havana, then my brother and I might have to face that. Or I might have to. I kissed my father good-bye without promising anything.

As I stood in line at the airport boarding gate that night, the young man ahead of me bent to pick up his suitcase and his fly folded open. Should I tell him his pants are unzipped? I could do it in a maternal way. No, he’d think his mother was hounding him all around the planet.

Instead, as I walked down the aisle to the rear of the airplane, I mentally groomed the other passengers — retying this woman’s scarf and threading that one’s sash through the loop she'd missed on her dress, brushing stray hairs from these shoulders, tucking in the shirttail over there, pulling up this girl’s socks. 'with everyone on the plane in perfect shape, we’d be OK.

In the seat next to me an infant with a pink bow taped to her pink scalp lay in the valley between her mother’s blue-jeaned thighs. The father, sitting in the adjacent seat, let his daughter teethe on his little finger. As the baby felt the sudden motion of the plane gunning down the tarmac, she flung out her arms and smiled into her father’s face, oblivious of the impending flight, of what all the shaking and roaring might mean. Beneath us the rows of shrinking houses, bathtubs of blue water behind them shrinking too, became as tiny as a motherboard and vanished behind a cloud.


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