Everything hurt—chewing, coughing, breathing even—so between the nurses’ questions about pain levels and decreasing dosages, I occupied myself by staring at the television. The Streets of San Francisco was on. Steve Keller was chasing a bad guy across a parking lot. Rosalyn, my wife, must have gone down to make a call, and I was alone when Albert walked into my room.
“Look at you. That contraption you’re in makes you look like a robot. You ain’t auditioning to be the next ‘Six Million Dollar Man,’ are you?” He was talking about my back brace. He stopped a few feet short of my bed and waited for a reply. His bell-bottomed slacks cinched below the volleyball of his belly and pooled at his loafers. He looked ridiculous.
But instead of telling him so, I dryly said, “You should have called an ambulance” and moved my eyes back to the tv.
“You know why I didn’t.”
“They’re medics, not policemen. All they would have asked you to do is point to where I was.”
Albert had been in and out of jail since I was the size of a quarter: theft, public intoxication, child neglect. He didn’t like policemen, so after watching me fall off the roof, he got in his car and drove until he found someone else to deal with me. Yet another example of my father’s problems taking priority over my well being.
“I’d have had to file a report, wouldn’t I?”
“People don’t know about your record unless you tell them, you know. I can’t believe you just left me there. What if I’d died?”
“Stop being over-dramatic. You were breathing. You hadn’t broken anything. Rosalyn was only down the street, so I went and got her. I figured she’d want to ride with you.”
I had been re-roofing the house. Albert was there helping me as part of a reward system we’d worked out. He started calling me about five years ago to apologize and ask to be a part of my life. I eventually gave him the chance to prove it. He sobered up; I started acknowledging his presence. He managed to stay out of jail for a year; I invited him to dinner, and so on. It had taken him three years to work up to being my assistant carpenter.
“You should have forgotten yourself for a second and called a damn ambulance.”
“You only fell fifteen feet. And you got here, didn’t you? Besides, you’ve always been good at taking care of yourself.”
“No thanks to you, Dad.” I sneered. “I had to learn to take care of myself because my parents were too lit to feed me. You know, I was talking to Carol a few weeks ago and she told me this cute story from when I was young. Seems she found me on a kitchen counter one morning chowing down on some dry spaghetti noodles. When I asked her how old she thought I’d been, do you know what she said?”
Albert was so silent that, even through my anger and the pain medication, I registered the tinkling of a commercial jingle playing on the television. I’d never brought up the bad years before; he didn’t know how to respond.
“She said I was five months old. Have you ever heard of a baby so young being able to climb onto a countertop? I must have been pretty motivated to get up there, huh? Bet I was hungry, and I bet I had to learn real quick that in order to stop the hunger I needed to climb counters and open cabinets. So, fuck you, Dad, for teaching me the hard way that I only have myself to rely on.”
I don’t know if it was the anger, the concussion, or the medication, but a wave of nausea overtook me. I grabbed the bed pan. When I finished, I saw the back of him turn out of my room. It was just like him to leave when someone was holding him accountable for something.
This story is very loosely based on family folklore.
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