Now Stan inhabits a failed body. Now he has a stomach bloated with some mystery fluid that festers inside him in a hardening mass. His left leg is missing. In its place is a sad, stumpy thing with an ace bandage at the tip, no kneecap. Alana remembers his leg fondly. Her father's leg. And she wonders why it had to die before the rest of him. Peeking out from under the sheet, she sees his good leg, the one that could support him if it had to. On it rests one of his weary testicles, which has grown to the size of a grapefruit.
“Did you get the paper, Al?" Stan sounds desperate. "Your mother forgets to bring it in every time.”
Alana hands him the sports section, leaving the front page and Calendar at the foot of the bed.
"Sometimes I think if her head wasn't screwed on to her body—." Stan purses his mouth and makes a popping sound. It's a dry kiss made by dry lips, but she'll take it. She hands him his glasses, knowing that he's going blind, and refills his cup.
In the newly remodeled kitchen of Stan's house there are childhood pictures of Alana and her younger sister Mica. They are riding bikes in Central Park. Holding up a trophy at at Lake Placid summer camp. Alana's looking sultry as an awkward teen, poised in front of the fireplace in a black velvet dress. There is a wedding picture taken on a California lawn: Alana and Alex, young and full of promise, feeding each other cake. Below the clock, a series of Clara, the only grandchild, small and exhausted from a game of pee wee soccer.
The kitchen is where Alana's mother, June, makes her tarts, her sweet desert crepes, and her lemony chicken. It's where she smokes her low tars, does her crosswords, reads her recipes. It's where she talks in quiet tones that won't disturb the sick, more a hush than a whisper:
The surgeon couldn't believe a 75-year-old diabetic still had a head of hair like that. /Too weak for dialysis/Last time he could really walk was the summer before we sold the New York apartment /He likes it when you read to him, something upbeat—David Sedaris/Emily Dickinson.
When June bends down, Alana sees that her jeans are too roomy; she has lost 15 pounds worrying about Stan. Alana imagines that her mother is as thin as she was when she kicked her sculpted legs in musicals and reviews, or when she modeled for Picone on Seventh Avenue. Even with the worry imbedded in her face, June has always had a reserve tank of beauty. June says she may lay down when Gus comes for his shift at two o'clock. Alana says, you do that, remembering how much June loves her naps in the wicker daybed on the porch—her only escape now that things like dry Vermouth and Librium are no longer on the menu.
An old jeep rumbles along, hitting the gravel driveway with a hiss. Alana watches through the big glass window in the living room as Gus emerges from the car, drags hard and deep on a Camel, and steps it out with his sneaker. Alana wishes she could smoke, but she's been trying—again—for weeks to quit. She feels a stirring when Gus arrives, relieved to have another witness.
Gus is compact and cheerful, bad teeth, toasted by the desert sun, scruff around his chin, thick black hair nearly to his shoulders. He ‘s Stan’s caretaker, his friend and companion. The one who helps June with all the mess. He cleans bedpans, changes sheets, picks up Stan's insulin supplies at the Sav-On, and entertains Stan with stories of his youthful escapades.
Gus starts his shift by opening the blinds. The sun frames the bedroom in a widening coat of afternoon light, and Stan pushes up in his bed to greet it. Gus puts on his uniform, a white lab coat, and slips a pair of clear elastic gloves on his hands. He smiles at Alana, calling her Alana de la Garza, a TV actress he likes.
Stan lifts his arm, and Gus dabs it with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball before giving him the shot he needs for the afternoon. Stan doesn't wince; he just breathes out and takes in the view. He sees flat stretches for miles, green appearing only as an accent in the brush, and wrinkly mountains shoved against the sky.
Stan reminds Gus that Alana is a writer, that she's just finished an article for one of the trades. "You interviewed –who was it—De Niro?
"It was just an awards show thing, Dad."
"She's done a few of those," he tells Gus.
He shouts to Alana, "Any kind of pay?"
Alana doesn't answer. She's preoccupied with the foreclosure notice from the mortgage company that waits on her desk, the overgrown grass on the front lawn, the broken taillight on the car, the feeling that things are not okay at home. She's worried about her untreated puffy gums, her somber facial expressions, the darkening mole on her back, her busy mind. She's anxious about Clara's book report, her weekly headaches, her uneaten lunches, her waking in the middle of the night. She's conflicted about Alex, his lack of work, his paralytic state, his dwindling bag of weed sprouting from his bedside table, his glacial responses, his entitlement issues, his spirit that seems to run contrary to what she's been taught about taking care of things.
Stan seems determined to keep up with the world outside his bed. He asks about Alex and his animation jobs. He reminds Alana that Alex is the real thing, really an artist. He breathes out, which seems to be a struggle. He tells her artists don't go straight, they don't wake up and change. He tells her that it's not prudent to push anything on him. They won't go to regular jobs, he cautions – at least not without dying a little. Then he moves on to Mica. Where the hell is she? When is she coming? Alana reminds him that Mica's in a play in New York, that she's rehearsing, that she's broke.
Christ, Stan says, you and your sister are always broke. He tells her to book a ticket for Mica on his card.
“Doctors say I'm filling up with fluid. Kidneys are shot," he says. "If you ain't got kidneys, you ain't got nothin'. Tell your sister not to miss the main event.”
As Gus' shift is ending Stan tells him about Alana's latest plan, tells him that Alana's no longer drifting, that she's thinking about teaching, that she's good with kids. Alana's reassured to hear a version of who she is, or who she might become. For the moment he doesn't condemn and she doesn't offer up her losses.
Alana doesn't say how she wishes she could have done it right, sold the script for six figures, married the right guy for Dad, become a noted someone in the world of something. She doesn't say what she told her shrink about how, at 36, she wishes she could sum up to more, be more of a presence, have more of Stan's greatness embedded like DNA.
She thinks about the typewriter Stan gave her with the onionskin paper curled inside:
This machine may be a conduit
For all your fertile thoughts –
or at least the ones that beg to be recorded.
All my love,
Dad Christmas, 1984.
Shaven and patted down with a towel, Stan leans back against the pillow with his arms stretched. He calls out. Joo-oon – yoo-hoooo. He wants his pajamas.
He tells Gus, “My wife whisked them away and put them in the goddamn dryer two hours ago and then – poof –no sign of her. The woman has disappeared off the face of the Earth."
“She said you’re refusing to wear them,” Alana says, getting in between June and Stan, like always.
Stan thinks that's crap. "Would you please get them for me before I shiver to death?"
Stan motions to a stack of CD's. "On a day like this, let's hear some Sinatra," he says.
…It was just one of those things
Just one of those crazy flings…
He sings along for a minute—a trip to the moon on gossamer wings—before his eyelids drop mast. Gus lowers the volume until the words are barely there, and leans over Stan, watching him breathe. He puts up the bar on the bed, tucks in the corners of the sheets. Then he reaches for Alana's hand.
Pray with me a minute, he says.
She resists, not one for prayer, not sure how.
But Gus' face looks serene, like a handsome young saint, like a Sinatra convert, like the only one in the room who knows what might come next. Alana closes her eyes, bows her head and takes Gus' hand. Her silent prayer feels weak, decaffeinated. She tries to think of something hopeful. Seeing her father at the end of his life feels more impossible than anything else.
Alana sits on a bench next to Gus in the backyard. He tells her he wears white to keep off the heat and to look professional. She stares down at the square cement pavers that have turned a worldly grey, the color of storm clouds and old men's whiskers.
Gus offers her a cigarette. She'll just have a drag.
"My dad and I were talking and we want you to have the car, you know, Stan's old Saab when—later on."
Gus stands up and shakes his head.
Alana says, "No, really. We want you to have it. Stan wants you to have it. He said you know how to drive it. My mother can't really drive a stick shift. It's yours, okay? For all you've done."
"I don't know," Gus says.
"Well, I do," says Alana. "You'll look good driving around in that car. Does your wife drive?"
"Bus driver for schools over in Indio/Palm Desert area where we live. Out of the house at 5:30 every morning."
Alana thinks about Gus and his wife waking while it's still dark in the winter months. About his driving to work in the Saab, top down. Then she remembers that her father won't live at the house anymore. Stan won't live at the Palm Springs place where he was planning to retire but never did. He'll be somewhere else, but she's not sure where. Heaven is too convenient. Out into the ether seems too vague. He won't be part of a well-tended lawn somewhere, that's not his style.
Gus and Alana turn around near the municipal courts and head down North Palm Canyon Drive.
"This thing hugs the road," Gus says. Europeans, they make good cars."
Gus slows in the late afternoon traffic, adjusting the radio with a tap.
"Pull over, there's a turn-out up there," says Alana. "Amazing view."
Gus slips out of the traffic and turns off the road. A mountainside hovers over them. The car quiets near a long dirt canyon that leads to a waterfall. They’re surrounded by beds of giant succulents and spiky plants that look unearthly, and by shady sections filled with patches of thick brush.
"You got a divorce, right?" Gus kills the engine and stares straight ahead.
"No divorce," says Alana. "Alex and I have some problems."
Gus knows this already. He's heard it all from Stan. He's comfortable with a partial response. He's used to sitting in rooms where sick people are sleeping, where people are dying, where things spill out, where words are useless.
Alana feels nervous about what comes next. Gus lays his jacket down in the back seat and pulls her in. He unbuttons her shirt. His face is serious, purposeful. He moves his hands and lips across the crescent shape of her breasts. He grins, as he tastes her creamy skin. Touches her with hands that have cared for the injured, careful hands that have plucked splinters from children's feet, pulled hooks from the mouths of fish, held the weight of a saxophone, and wrestled in sand and dirt with six brothers. A stranger's hands.
Alana tugs on his heavy silver buckle, wads his shirt in a ball. He smells cheap like lemony cologne and sweat. She runs her tongue across the crack in his tooth. Salve to a wound. Gus whispers, holding her head as she gets him off. Jesus. Jesus.
What is it she feels? Raw, ground down to her essence. She feels suspended somewhere, her body as light as string, night drifting down from the rounded edges of the hillside. She is all tongue, all moist, all touch, all flavor, all smell, all gone.
There was nothing that could have prepared Alana for the sight of grief, for the vision of June, crouched at the side of the bed in a worshipful pose, her two fingers, stroking Stan's left hand. And there was nothing Alana had ever seen that compared to the surreal notion of Stan, of her father, dead in his bed. Nothing compared to the cold, leathery version of him she saw that day. By the time Alana arrived all the warmth had seeped out. And still there was skin and hair; eyelids that June had drawn shut with her fingertips. Dry lips that would never make the popping sound for a kiss. A stiffened leg. A missing one.
June motioned for Alana to come closer. Her face was distorted as she whispered, "He said something to me just an hour ago, just before it happened. He said, 'You and me, June, we've been close for a very long time."
Alana had seen her mother unsure of Stan's love, making accusations, behaving badly, curled in a ball, slurring her speech at lunchtime, forgetting her keys, burning dinners, threatening again and again to leave him. But now she saw where June had landed, saw her at the foot of Stan's bed. She saw June looking at the guy she first met on the Fire Island ferry, circa '56. The funny guy, the educated guy, the film guy. The guy who said New York was over, and promised sunny days in California, closer to the grandchild, a place to thrive, not a good place to shrivel up and die. The lion in the living room.
"Where were you?" June asks, her head against the sheets. "We've got to phone everyone. What about your sister?"
The memorial for Stan is held at his brother's house in a fancier part of town. Alana and Mica sit side by side on the flowered sofa like two raggedy dolls in their loose black dresses, fingers laced together, sharing a Coke. They listen to speeches from their father's movie friends, from his platoon and college buddies. They hear about Stan's youthful pranks, about his foxtrot, his lindy style, about his muttonchops and his war protests, his art and rare book collections, and his yen for shortwave radios, bikes and vintage cars. They talk about his insomnia, his workaholism, his Mont Blanc pens, and fine leather jot pads, his dirty jokes and his disgust for mayonnaise on deli sandwiches. The family friends from New York—the geriatric ones from Brooklyn and the Upper West Side—speak slowly about Stan, calling him, the worst driver you ever knew, a helluva doubles partner, and a ladies man. Over Frank Sinatra, they talk about the early days, the move to Peter Cooper with Stan’s first wife. They praise the gorgeous June, a star of stage and runway, a dedicated mom, an around-the-clock nurse, one terrific gal.
In between the speeches, Alana goes outside for a smoke. She's hoping Alex will arrive any minute with Clara. She's hoping he'll arrive and hold her while all the guilt, all the suffering, all the sadness empties out. Instead, a truck comes up the long gravel driveway and Gus emerges, groomed and wearing a dark jacket, white shirt, and pressed slacks. He looks at Alana, swallows, and looks down at his shoes.
"I'm real sorry about your Daddy."
"I know," she says, and gives him a hug.
"Lot of people here, " he says, pointing to the crowd inside.
Alana nods. "You coming in?"
He hesitates and says, "I have to talk to you for a minute. I don't know how to tell you this, but something bad happened. There was an accident yesterday and I don't have your father's car anymore."
"My wife broke a few bones in her hand and she has her ribs all bruised. The girls and me just got whiplash, thank God. But the car. It's messed up. It's completely –Someone cut me off."
"I'm so sorry. But you're okay?" Alana says.
"Yeah, thank God, I'm doing okay."
Gus holds up his bandaged wrist.
"Listen," he continues, "I know this is the worst time to ask you this, but…damn."
"What, Gus? C'mon."
"It's the medical bills. They're wiping us out, you know. Like $5,000 and I didn't have no insurance on the car."
Alana responds, "That's awful. I'm so sorry to hear that, but I've got to get back inside. Come in and have some food. Can we talk about this later?"
"You said you wanted to help us. Can you just write us a check? Then go back to the party."
"It's not a party, Gus. Jesus Christ."
Gus looks menacing. "You don't get it, do you? You want to make me beg? You want to humiliate me some more, don't you?"
June pokes her head out of the door and motions for Alana.
Gus turns his back to June. Alana waves I'll be right there.
June raises her eyebrows and disappears inside.
"It's not my fault. It was an accident," Gus insists. "Help us out. C'mon, a thousand bucks. I know you've got it."
"You want me to give you a thousand—? Now? Are you crazy?"
Gus's eyes bulge in the sockets. "Okay, okay. What have you got? Five hundred?"
"This is a memorial," Alana turns away.
"You owe me," says Gus.
Alana is shaking. "My father’s dead."
"I know. I know. But you said you'd help us."
Alana says, "You need to leave. Now."
"Cheap, Jews," Gus says, under his breath.
Alana’s immobile, her body turned halfway toward the house. Gus motions to a friend in the driver's seat of his old jeep. The car pulls up and Gus jumps in. They drive over a flowerbed, murdering azaleas, and fly through the gate, past the flat top hedges, down the driveway and into the seething L.A. night.
Inside the house, Alana blends into the mass of dark suits and dresses swarming the buffet table. Heads bobbing. Faces melting, small cousins in velvety skirts eating cold cuts and powdery desserts. Sinatra crooning in the background.
She throws water on her face in the downstairs bathroom. Wipes her face with the embroidered hand towel. She remembers a night like this at her uncle's house. A birthday was it? Stan at the piano, one leg pressing on the pedals. June over his shoulder, a touch of Chanel No. 5 behind her ears. Alana hears her father's voice above all the rest. It sounds tired from all the deals made on the phone, tired from all the real and exaggerated stories told. His voice is deep and firm, an imprint as unmistakable as her own skin.