Finding Fidelity – Take This Job and Shove it
Rather than thrifting, napping, or just blowing off lunch, Leo and I had begun a weekly ritual of sharing lunch on his newly reconditioned redwood picnic. This always occurred on Tuesdays. Under the circumstances of my life at the moment, this seemed apropos.
As is the natural evolution of things, I was tasked with ordering, fetching, and paying for lunch. This was totally OK, however. At his age and value, the cost was a pittance for the wisdom these sessions yielded. I was beginning to realize how much he’d given me despite myself.
I’d managed to navigate his harrowing drive with a pair of subs from Erbert & Gerbert’s, which had fortuitously opened a smattering of locations in MSP. Their expansion was both welcomed and evocative of too much collegiate nostalgia.
As I walked around the corner of his strangely geometric home, I found him perched atop one of the reconditioned benches. When I spotted him, I paused. He was sitting just over the X-shaped strut that held up the end of the bench. He was gazing into space like there was something there. From my vantage point, there was nothing. Capturing him there like that was akin to spotting a wild turkey in its natural habitat—you just linger and observe.
“Hey,” I announced.
Leo swung around, “Hey!” he echoed.
“What’s out there,” I pointed.
”Not sure,” he offered, “Maybe turkeys, but I can’t tell yet.”
“You are surrounded by wildlife out here for sure,” I made the sort of master-of-the-obvious observation I loathed.
“Yea,” Leo waived me over as he resumed staring into space.
I took a moment to assess him as he was. His feet were still swollen, at least up to his ankles. He was wearing some odd slide-on slippers that I swear he’d stolen from the hospital. But under the circumstances, I wasn’t about to critique his choice in footwear.
While his feet appeared to have expanded, the rest of him seemed withdrawn. Every time I’d seen him, he looked somehow diminished. He was not the robust Leo that played my father in so many memories, which were feverishly jockeying for position in my consciousness at that moment.
“So, what’s REALLY out there?,” I asked in an effort to snap myself out of my own head.
“Everything,” he answered.
I ventured a rejoinder, “The past and futire and the whole nine yards?”
“Maybe…” was all I got in response.
“Well, if you spot it, point me in the right direction.”
“I will,” he assured, more upbeat as he maintained his thousand-yard stare.
I proceeded to gingerly unload the paper bag containing our meal. I was careful not to make too much noise so as to scare off whatever snipe Leo was stalking in his mind’s eye. I nearly silently placed his wrapped sub and bag of chips near his resting elbow.
This was reminiscent of so many moments from my childhood where Brandon and I were just too terrified to bother the old man. He was so obtuse that we generally didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. But we knew not to bother him when he was in one of his various fugue states.
As a kid, I once woke him from a nap because someone was knocking on the door. Leo didn’t dispense much verbal advice. Most of his conveyances were non-verbal in the manner of monkey see, monkey do. But when his eyes blinked open, he scared the shit out of young me when he barked, “Never wake someone up by shaking them. You’ll give them a heart attack.”
This advice stuck with me. It was one of those seminal moments where fresh knowledge hits you so hard, it never forgets you.
I repeated the almost silent outlay of food on my half of the table.
Rather than crinkling up the bag, I placed it at the end of the table. As Leo was still staring into the mystic, I whispered, “I’m going to grab some water.”
He nodded and added, “There are Diet Coke’s in the fridge.”
“Thanks,” I acknowledged.
Nothing had changed inside. The place was floor-to-ceiling stuff. At some point after his split from Mercedes, Leo had decided that he was no longer going to be beholden to convention or neatness. The clutter accumulated at an alarming pace. Either this was always his dream, or he was doing it out of spite and protest. Regardless, he was undeniably a hoarder.
Despite his contention that everything was worth something, most of it looked like vintage dime-store junk. Gazing at it all, it seemed like the sort of stuff that would be scattered all over Wollworth’s in the ‘80s—the shiny trinkets that would draw Brandon and I like magpies. Unfortunately, Brandon and I would have to deal with all of it at some point in the near future. And it had long since lost its luster.
I grabbed the handle of Leo’s ancient fridge and flung it open. I expected to see the usual contents. What I actually saw staggered me. There was nothing in the fridge but cardboard containers of leftovers in various states of decay and enough Diet Cokes to give Nessie a brain tumor.
“Fucking hell!” I exclaimed to no one, as I shook my head.
It’s not like I expected the guy who once regularly procured nearly-expired discount ham to fry up for dinner to shop at Whole Foods. But clearly he’d abandoned any notion of grocery shopping, much less nutrition. I grabbed a pair of Diet Cokes, took another long look at the fridge, and I flung the door shut.
I tucked the cans behind my left arm as I glided the door open.
For his part, Leo remained a fucking statue. He’d yet to move a millimeter. At least the weather was perfect: 72 degrees with a dew point in the 40s. Many wonder, rightfully so, why anyone would live in Minnesota. Days like this were the answer.
I deposited Leo’s Diet Coke close enough to him, yet gently enough, to slowly jar him from his reverie. He gingerly turned toward me and swung his leg over the bench so that he was facing forward. He looked ashen and his face had sunken a bit. I hadn’t seen him in a week, but the change was somewhat unexpected. It was like his face was draining into his feet.
I tried to lighten my own mood, “What’s new here at the zoo?” I called it the zoo because any and all manner of wildlife could appear out of nowhere at any given moment.
He chuckled a bit, “Ah, you know, pretty much the same.”
Even though I didn’t want to, I contemplated asking the fucking stupidest question anyone could ask someone who was clearly dying slowly. Mainly because no one ever answers the question truthfully, I spat out the words, “How are ya doin’?”
He began to unwrap his food with some difficulty.
“Let me,” I said as I unwrapped his sandwich and tor open his bag of chips.
“Oh, you know, I’m fine most days. Just the usual issues. I have trouble sleeping, because I have to piss about every other hour, and these damn swollen feet.”
“But otherwise, you’re doing OK?”
As we both bit into our sandwiches and chewed, there were a million things going through my head. Paramount among them, I wanted to ask what the fuck was going on in his fridge. I also wanted to how the hell he was getting along alone in his condition. I really wanted to know if he was lonely or scared. But most of all, I wanted to know what thoughts were rattling around in his head.
I knew all too well what a fucking terrifying place one’s own mind was. And I couldn’t imagine his current situation was doing anything to ameliorate that spectacular hell. But way too long ago, we’d carved our rules of engagement in stone. I never confronted my old man, and he gave up absolutely nothing. If I got anything authentic from him, it was a complete happenstance.
Logically, under the circumstances, none of this made any sense. He was old and becoming increasingly childlike. I was obviously the adult at the table. And yet I could not seem to find any clear path out of the jungle that captured me and separated us from having any meaningful conversation. It was as ridiculous as it was frustrating. All I had to do was speak the words—I knew how to speak at least.
Although I couldn’t pinpoint the moment it happened, by every possible measure, I had surpassed my old man. This was a strange and unnerving realization. I was now physically bigger and stronger. I was intellectually equal if not superior to him. At the very least, I was more adept at operating in modern times. I had accumulated some hard-won wisdom through my own divorce and midlife struggles. As a parent, I felt like I was much more loving and tender than he ever was. I’d long since bested my old man to stand atop the mountain.
And yet there I sat, silently chewing on thoughts I could not articulate.
I felt like I was under some spell cast way back in time that should’ve long since faded. Everything seemed to stem from that seminal moment when we listened to “American Pie”. I was sitting in his lap, and he was so clearly the father lion with his little cub. But it wasn’t just the music, it was the circumstance. We could sit there and enjoy Peter’s record collection, but we could never talk about what happened to Peter.
By any measure, the current version of me that was sitting across from my old man was a father lion in his own right. But in my head, in his presence, I was forever a cub.
It was ironic that Brandon, the younger cub, seemed to have found a way out of the jungle that had forever sequestered me. As the alpha cub, I was supposed to be the one to take the helm. I was the heir apparent. And yet I desperately wanted my little bro sitting next to me at this moment. He bolstered my spirit. He doubled my confidence by simply being in my orbit. He had an uncanny ability to clear me straight out of my head. I could be the king of the jungle when he was around. But now, I found myself just staring into space.
Leo snapped me out of it, “How’s work?” he asked as he reached for his soda.
This was one area where we were uniquely coupled. Leo and I had somehow managed to have parallel professional lives—something that Brandon could not claim. I was over 20 years into my corporate American dream. Leo was cut loose a month shy of 30 years, a casualty of a pension cost savings initiative. But we’d both spent considerable time in the corpora trenches.
“Oh, you know, just a bunch of self-appointed management types rearranging the chess board to their advantage. Us pawns just occupy our little squares waiting on their next pointless move.”
Leo guffawed at this analogy, “Well, at least nothing’s changed. I used to say, new manager, new desk.”
It was my turn to guffaw, “Why do managers love to rearrange desks in your day and cubicles in mine?” I asked.
Leo wasted no time in responding with a mouth full of sandwich, “It’s in their nature! It’s all they know how to do—rearrange the chess board,” he set down his sandwich and circled both hands around the table top as though he was rearranging chess pieces. It was the most animated I’d seen him in a couple weeks.
With a mouth full of sandwich, I pointed back at him and nodded vigorously, “Hell yes! It’s like the manager’s handbook reads, #1: rearrange staff, #2: just look generally but not specifically busy.”
Leo laughed righteously at the truth of this observation.
“It’s like management by rearrangement,” Leo yelled through a mouthful of sandwich, launching a small piece of bread that hit me in the cheek.
I brushed it off the table and replied, “It’s rearrangement management at its finest, godammit!”
We both took a moment to absorb the absurdity of our respective professional lives. Like nearly everything else, the parallelism remained unspoken. Still lost in the jungle and without Brandon to assist, I choked on the words to express it. I took another bite of my sandwich instead.
Excerpt from Finding Fidelity, the forthcoming novel from Blake Charles Donley