Joe pushed up the creaky, double-hung window and thrust his fist into the hot, thick air like he was punching a hole in a wall. It was ninety outside, if anything. A neighbor, shirtless and barbequing looked up and saluted with his spatula.
“Hey,” Joe said, not loud enough for anyone to hear. He yanked in his hand and closed the window, still holding his unlit Marlboro Light between his left index and middle fingers. He breathed deep and an ache rolled from his gut to his chest and up into his throat, like he’d just swallowed pool water. He made an “O” with his lips and exhaled the best way he knew, counted to ten, closed his eyes and pictured the smoke ring bracelets he blew for Gabby before anyone knew that nicotine jewelry should come with a warning.
He clicked the dial on the window-unit on the far side of the room and stood in front of the cold blast. This he could control. Trickles of sweats scurried off his forehead the same way water droplets retreated when he inched the Impala through the dry-cycle at the car wash. He pushed his hand through his wet hair, cigarette intact. He wasn’t going to smoke it but what would happen if he ate it? Would he get mouth cancer and have to get his tongue amputated like those old-time ball players? Not likely. And what would it matter? He’d lose his voice. Big deal. His best words came out of his fingers.
Joe sat at his roll-top desk and stared at the loaded Selectric. He scrolled the white paper up and down, up and down, up and down. He opened the desk drawer. Two unsharpened pencils and a bottle of Wite-Out. He slammed the drawer, twirled the cigarette in fingers, took a bite and chewed.
He had nothing left to say aloud anyway.
* * *
Gabrielle turned the A/C to low and raised the shades. Her father squinted and held up his hand as a visor. He grumbled through the clenched teeth that held his cigarette. With his index fingers he pounded on his typewriter the way he had for Gabrielle’s entire childhood.
“You’ll like this new story, Gabby,” he said.
Her dad hadn’t called her Gabby in twenty years, since the time she came home from college and announced herself as Gabrielle. But now he was writing and when he wrote, he called her Gabby. She was good with that. It had been twenty-five years since he’d published, or written a book, a story, a sentence. The diagnosis was the catalyst for his creativity. Who knew that cancer could give as well as take? But, it also paralyzed him as much as if he’d been thrown from a horse. That’s why she bought a ream of paper, dusted off the typewriter and that’s why said what she’d said thirty years earlier: “Daddy, please write me a story.”
And he did.
Then and now.
Ever since her request, her father’s fingers had tap-danced across the worn, gray keys. She tried to keep him in the present and looking toward the future. That was the solution for everyone, they said. They. The doctors and nurses and therapists and friends in remission. And the books. Her father wanted nothing of the books, nothing of the advice and nothing of the prognosis.
He ignored cancer like it would be offended and go away.
Gabrielle changed the sheets and made up the bed, folding an extra mother-made quilt at its foot. Her father blasted the air as if that would freeze time. And tumors. Gabrielle zipped her sweatshirt and adjusted her baseball cap over her forehead, tucking in wisps of her brown hair. She touched the thermostat again and kissed her father on the top of his balding head.
“I’ll be back later, Dad,” she said. “There’s a chicken salad sandwich in the fridge. I’ll call you later and remind you to eat it.”
“I’m not senile,” he said, swiveling toward her. He poked one finger in the air. “Not yet anyway.”
Feisty moments gleaned hope that Gabrielle would have her real dad as long as possible.
“Never thought you were,” she said, lying.
He turned back to the typewriter and pounded on it with his fists. “The stories don’t come like they used to, but they’re coming. They’ll be done in time, I promise.”
Gabrielle’s eyes burned, she blinked hard to keep the tears inside.
Without looking up her dad tapped a loud, steady, monotone rhythm, accented by the ding of the automatic carriage return once thought of as a luxury. The work that took him away when she was a child was bringing him back to her now. This time he’d written sequels to the children’s books that made him a household name even though it never made him more than middle class—except to her.
* * *
Joe got out of bed. Who the hell made it so cold in here? He flipped off the A/C unit and walked to the front window, peeking outside before he opened it. He didn’t want the neighbors asking anything; let alone shouting their well-wishes and concerns and questions from their stoops to his second-story window.
The neighborhood coast was clear, but that was because it was ten in the morning. The kids were in summer school or day camp and the parents were at work. None of the mothers stayed home anymore like Rosalie had when Gabby was growing up. Where was Gabby anyway? Joe shook his head, unsure if the memory of typing was new or old or make-believe. He stepped to the desk and stacks of black and white pages. Page one stared him at him from three different piles. He laid his hand on top of the manuscript closest to the typewriter, willing the words to morph into clarity. The sequels. And today was his meeting with an editor young enough to be his grandson.
Gabrielle had said this guy was a go-getter. What Joe needed was to go get a publisher. He knew this kid was seeing him because of who Joe was. Or who Joe had been. Joe didn’t know if someone was always a product of his past. God, he hoped so. If Joe was only a product of his present, he was screwed.
He stood at the curb and Gabrielle arrived in a Yellow Cab. She opened the door and he bent and stepped inside. She touched his briefcase, and then his hat, and then tapped his knee, as if making sure he didn’t forget anything.
“No cigarette, Dad?” Gabrielle asked.
Joe patted his pocket.
He stared at his watch the entire cab ride. When he got out, he’d take the elevator to the seventh floor and pitch the hell of his books. Then, after he’d cemented the deal, he’d take Gabrielle to lunch to celebrate—somewhere swanky. Somewhere they’d never been. Somewhere to make a new memory. He chuckled at the now uncharacteristic optimism.
It fit him better than his old suit.
* * *
The waiter placed the caramel, peanut and marshmallow sundae in the middle of the table. He picked up Gabrielle’s napkin, and although clean, he offered to place a new one on her lap. He handed a silver spoon to Gabrielle and then one to Joe. They clinked their utensils.
“Here’s to the editor not old enough to shave,” Joe said. “Or smoke.”
With her spoon, Gabrielle scooped the maraschino cherry and whipped cream and slid them into her mouth.
Joe dug through the toppings to the ice cream below and twirled his spoon, removing it with ice cream and caramel stuck on all sides, peanuts poking out like salty spines. Gabrielle remembered ice cream outings with her dad—he always ate it like he was a child, like it was both the first and last time he tasted frozen sweetness. She rested her spoon on the tablecloth and watched him.
“Better get busy with your half of the sundae,” her dad said.
“I’m stuffed,” Gabrielle said. “You eat it.”
Her dad put down his spoon. “You only ate half your salad. We’re celebrating, Gabrielle. How long has it been since you and I had something to celebrate?”
“We’ll have lots of celebrations when your books come out,” she said, gulping back the words “I hope.”
“We’ll be lucky to have a publishing date in a year.”
He looked at Gabrielle. The lines around his mouth were deep and soft, not strong and shallow. She had wanted him to remain present and fight back. His words were his actions—and remembering that cut through her uncertainty.
“A lot can happen in a year,” Gabrielle said. She reached across the table and picked up her dad’s spoon and handed it to him. He took it and resumed his quest for the bottom of the sundae dish. “New medications, new treatments, you never know. A year’s not so far away.”
She smiled to reassure him but her dad just stared into the dripping dessert. He replaced the air conditioner chill with the brain freeze. Gabrielle knew that stare, that trance. She pulled her cardigan around her shoulders to block the frigid overflow.
* * *
“I think it’s time for your bath, Gabby,” Joe said.
“Dad? It’s me, Gabrielle. I’m grown up now, remember?”
“I tested the water, Gabby, it’s not too hot.”
Gabrielle turned the desk chair toward her father and repositioned the blanket on her lap, the towel around her shoulders, the hat on her head. She brushed away invisible crumbs and germs from her lap, unable to remove all the tension, exhaustion and illness lodged between the criss-cross of Scotch plaid. Next to her, the pack of cigarettes, open and perched with one missing and another sticking out halfway, ready to be plucked at just the right moment. Would her dad have stopped smoking if he’d known? Was it as much a part of him as she was, as writing was? She was glad to lay blame on the Marlboro Man instead of genetics or just bad luck.
“Okay, Daddy, thank you,” Gabrielle said. “You’re right, it’s the perfect temperature.”
Joe nodded and smiled, his eyes still closed. Gabrielle put her hand less than an inch from his mouth and felt his warm breath. She stared at his chest rising and falling so slowly she held her own breath without realizing it, until she gasped.
Joe’s eyes popped open. “Are you okay? Do you want me to call the doctor?”
“I’m fine, Dad.” Gabrielle said it as if it were true.
He smiled and closed his eyes again. The revisions and contract negotiations had tired him out. What reinvigorated her father also debilitated him. She was tired too—from the rigmarole of treatment; from encouraging, worrying, protecting. Gabrielle propped up her feet on the end of the bed and leaned back in the chair. She dropped her chin to her chest, removed the hand-knit cap from her head and placed it on her lap. She tucked her hands beneath her thighs. She was as cozy as she could be on a creaky, wooden desk chair.
“What happened to your hair, Gabby?” her dad said.
Gabrielle opened her eyes. She wiped drool from her lips and swallowed. “Bald is in, Dad, didn’t anyone tell you?”
“You looked better with hair.”
“No shit,” she said.
“Watch your language.” Joe smiled, arriving in the present. He looked at the typewriter.
“Oh crap, I’m on deadline.” Joe sat and swung his legs out of the comforter and to the side of the bed. He looked at Gabrielle and then at the floor. “I know what’s happening,” he said without looking up. “I know you have cancer and I know ignoring it and going off into my own world won’t make it go away. That was really selfish of me, Gabrielle. I’m sorry.” He turned his head toward her and they locked eyes like they had when he had issued teenage punishments. When he meant business. “Was worth a try, though. Don’t you think?” He said it with hopeful, quick bounce of both eyebrows.
“I guess.” Gabrielle shrugged once at her father’s convoluted logic and at the fact that she understood him completely.
“Did you read the galleys?” he said.
“You just gave them to me yesterday.”
“I wrote those stories for you, Gabby, but really, you’re the one who gave them back to me.”
“I like knowing you’re writing again, Dad.” She sat still as a stone sphinx, wishing she was one so she wouldn’t be able to taste the tears that flowed over her lips.
“I promise I’ll read them, Daddy. I’ll start tonight.”
“And you’ll finish before your next treatment. Now put your hat back on, it’s cold in here. Someone keeps turning up the air conditioner.” Joe faked a shiver. “Brrr,” he said through reverberating lips.
Gabrielle chuckled and pulled her cap onto her head down to her ears. Her dad stayed in the same position but now his eyes were dry. Gabrielle saw a distant yet familiar twinkle as he rose from the bed.
“I’m taking care of everything from now on,” her father said. “So, mind your old man, and rest. The first order of business is kicking this cancer to Hoboken.” He joggled his thumb toward the open window like a hitchhiker.
Gabrielle nodded and inhaled his unfiltered confidence. She climbed into the bed. Her father pulled the quilt up to her chin, tucked it in around her and then sat at his desk and typed.
* * * * *