JONA WHIPPLE

Why Are You Still Here

The seeds of my stories are usually an image I can’t stop seeing until I write it down. This story grew from the image of a man offering a fist “like a fence post” to a young girl in crisis. This image told me a story of the quiet, unsure ways we reach out to one another in the midst of devastation. When I think about the characters in this piece, in which a slow-moving loss progresses through a family, I am grateful for that first image, as I am for the real acts of empathy that inspired it.

On the day my father promised me to the neighbor, my mother cried. It was all the sound of ritual, something no longer worth looking up from my breakfast plate for. My father banged through the side door, his unsteady metal sword clattering against the frame. He landed his proclamation, then demanded some ale. He glanced around, eyes glassy and unfocused, settling on the syrup bottle. The sword fell to the kitchen floor as he took the bottle in his hands, turning its curves over between his palms. My father: guzzling maple syrup from a glass bottle in the shape of a woman. My mother: elbows on the table, the curtain of a stained cotton napkin spread across her face, shoulders contracting with sobs.

         “What it is,” she told Mrs. Tobin later that morning, “is that he wants to see her get married before he—before he goes.” She wrung the napkin in her hands, dabbed at her eyes, yellowed orbs, red-threaded. “Before he really goes,” she whispered low, leaning into Mrs. Tobin for conspiratorial effect. Mrs. Tobin leaned back, protecting her airspace. “It’s a very sweet thing if you think about it,” my mother continued, smiling cautiously as she became ever more certain that Mrs. Tobin was a wall to be removed one brick at a time. “It means he’s still in there somewhere.”

My mother sighed, glancing toward the kitchen window to draw Mrs. Tobin’s eyes and thoughts to my father, who stood at the sink staring over the blank expanse of the backyard, digging his fingers into his beard and thinking of nothing. Mrs. Tobin’s polite smile blinked on and off like a broken neon sign, she rubbed her elbows under her crossed arms and said she’d discuss it with Mr. Tobin, who had been hiding in the garage pretending to sort bolts into tiny jars ever since earlier that morning when my father chased him out of his patio chair with shouted promises of a hefty dowry and healthy sons. My mother nodded and did that thing with her brows where she tilted them up until the lines in her forehead formed a perfect peak, a cathedral roof.

“What do you think of all this?” Mrs. Tobin asked, looking me up and down, the first time she’d ever said anything to me that wasn’t shouted across the lawn. I looked up to meet her gaze, and her eyes weaseled tight and small, as if she was trying to sort out some kind of pattern printed on my skin, decide if I was bruised fruit, just as crazy as my parents. “I think,” I said, aware of my mother’s hands, how they held the fabric of the wadded napkin so tight they looked like they might bleed, “I think it’s fine, it’s whatever.” I was not yet used to the way adults had begun looking me in the eye and asking me what I thought about things, expecting me to answer. It was like I had been standing in the shadow of an eclipse for fifteen years, and then the Earth moved and they could see me in a place where there had been nothing before.

I scratched at the skin behind my ear. I felt my mother relax. But Mrs. Tobin’s tiny eyes had found me, and they would not let me go.

 

         My father’s dementia began like a secret, a bloom of black mold behind the walls. The first few times he’d lost control of his bike on his way to and from the university where he worked, he reasoned it to be due to the dizziness he suffered when he took his heart medication too late in the day, or without enough food, or any number of other things he said could affect a body “after a half century of living.”

“Drink plenty of water,” he said, winking at me from under a gauze pad he held against his head to stanch the bleeding, “and don’t do drugs, at least not the ones I did.” That particular day, he’d slid sideways and crashed into the curb, grating his bald head against the pavement. Later, he complained of numbness that came and went. One night, he asked me to chop the zucchini for him because, he said, “My hands are tired.” His hands were tired more often after that, then his feet, his legs—and then the university began to send spies to sit in the bushes outside our house, attach trackers to our car, tape codes to the bottom of his deodorant stick. At night, my parents met in the downstairs family room to talk low and serious, unaware of my presence on the top stair. “I’m here,” my father said, punctuated by a soft tapping, which I imagined to be him placing the palms of his hands on the tops of his thighs, “I’m here, but I just can’t…” From my hiding place, I could feel my mother leaning in to prompt him forward as his pause inflated the space between them, but nothing called him back from these moments when he disappeared into himself.

“Can’t what?” my mother prompted, reaching with her voice into the clouded smoke surrounding my father’s brain.

It had always been unlike my father to stop speaking when he held an audience, and then, he walked into rooms as if searching for something, said random half-sentences, or delivered isolated clippings of poetry. “The golden is before us, and we—and we,” he once shouted in the produce aisle at the grocery store, so loud I saw the limes tremble. We abandoned the cart, and the three of us drove home in silence without the tomatoes and cereal. 

 

Family time was a holy land my mother vowed to reclaim, even across the unpredictable landscape of my father’s health and my persistent disinterest in being around either of them. She carried the cross of the notion through gritted teeth. Dinner with my parents became mandatory, and I was expected to be at home in the hours before and after, doing what my mother called visiting: sitting in the living room watching the fall darkness press down on us until someone got up to turn on a light. Hospital visits became more frequent, and then they too became family time, and my mother scheduled all of my father’s appointments at times when I could be expected to join them.

My father on those days was morose and petulant in the backseat, angry because my mother didn’t trust him to drive, or because he thought he was seven years old and she wouldn’t let him have a Donald Duck Pez, or because fuck you lady, he was Steve fucking McQueen and knew how to fucking drive goddammit. She wouldn’t let me drive either, no matter how many times I reminded her of my permit slip. “You can practice next year,” she said, teeth pressed together, hissing words out of the corner of her lips and checking the rearview as if my father could have possibly been present enough to clock her tone. “We’re focusing on family time.” I slouched and sneered, I picked at the edges of my ragged cuticles and flung pieces of skin onto the floor of the car out of spite because she’d been sitting in the fire lane behind the B building, laying on the horn until she saw me come out of the double doors, where I’d been trapped behind an avalanche of other bodies, all of them slowing down to get a look at the crazy-faced woman peering up from behind her screeching wiper blades.

My mother and I waited in empty gray rooms with uncomfortable chairs. I picked through AARP magazines for articles about diabetes medications and lists of Shirley MacLaine’s favorite restaurants that had not yet been torn out. Walls of windows looked out onto construction sites, buildings going up all around the hospital, and I huddled into my coat under blasting air conditioning and sketched geometry triangles. The metal chutes of bright hallways were lined with impersonal, synthetic closets. The waiting rooms always had televisions, and my mother and I pretended to watch football games and house-flipping shows, handing those crumpled magazines back and forth, until she reminded me to do my homework.

With my notebook balanced on the edge of a chair that felt like it had been carved from marble, I wrote an English paper on the theme of empathy in Jane Eyre. If Jane Eyre had any more empathy, I wrote, she would have been living in the attic and shitting in a bucket. If she had been any more empathetic, they would have been looking for a place in the manor to put their new doormat. In a room at the end of the hall, a doctor injected dyes into my father’s head and spoke to him through a microphone. After the test, we watched as the doctor moved a mouse back and forth across the back of a small notepad. Clouds of color in turmoil moved over the outlined surface of my father’s brain, ebbing in lasso strands, and then the bad part: At the end, a wall of gray, a wash of nothing.

         We nodded along with the doctor as he dragged the color back and forth, into and out of possibility. We nodded along with that doctor just as we had with all the others, their exhausted monologues walking us through the terrifying and endless process of crossing off the less serious diagnoses. We nodded along, smiling, with the specialist who suggested that we go along with my father’s confusions, engage him with his stories, meet him where he was living. “Stay in the moment,” the specialist said, touching his fingertips together, “and, in a word, play.”

We smiled, we nodded, we agreed that this was the best course of action, my mother and I, and we went to the kiosk at the mall where you could buy replicas of battle weapons, all painted metal with plastic edges and jewel inlays set with blobs of hot glue. That was when we were still in the stage of observing terminal illness where you believe that if you’re agreeable enough, if you just go quietly, if you move just the right way, it won’t be able to see you, it will pass you by in the dark and leave you whole.

 

         My essay won me an elegant, impressive F, and regular meetings with the school guidance counselor. I’d been assured by Mandy Jeselnik that she had turned in her Jane Eyre paper the year before and it was just the intro paragraph over and over, copied and pasted until it looked like a full eight-page paper, and had gotten an A. “She’s not actually reading them,” she’d said of Mrs. Phelps, blowing smoke out from between the gap in her teeth as we sat one cheek each on the toilet tank, feet up on the seat, in the fifth-floor bathroom.

“Anyway, if she calls you out on it, just pull the dad card. You don’t really get to use that for that long,” she warned as she ashed between our sneakers into the bowl.

The most the guidance counselor could do was scratch illegible words into a yellow legal pad in his windowless office by the cafeteria, then send me back to class. His expertise was in sudden death: Cars full of teenagers speeding into trees, school shootings, someone jumping off the roof of the L building and landing in the parking lot. No one had jumped off the roof of the L building since 1996 because they started locking the stairwell door, so he was woefully out of practice in the business of sudden loss. He’d perhaps never been in the practice of handling the kind of protracted, dissolutive exit my father had not planned.  

My father managed to keep having good days until the eighth week of the fall semester. Once or twice each week, as he was able, he would sit in a chair before his class and deliver his own lectures. Sometimes, he could only manage to show up and observe his replacement, an adjunct named Jerry Yarbrough. Jerry, according to my father, stumbled through the maze of slides my father had prepared, pausing before clicking the button to check his notes on comically large note cards before each advance, as if a surprise awaited him. On the days when my father could only observe, when stuttering prevented his speech or auditory shadows confused him until he was convinced every student was talking at once, he let Jerry do the talking. In the evenings, he referred snidely to Jerry as “One-Ball Jerry,” an uncharacteristically cruel nickname derived from Jerry’s survival of testicular cancer. “The man’s got no soul for it,” my father said. “You watch. They’ll tenure One-Ball and then they’ll be calling me to come down there and fix it.”

On what turned out to be my father’s last day at work, I came home after school to find my mother at war with the bottoms of the kitchen cabinets. “Your father needed to come home a little early today,” she said, glancing over her shoulder before letting me through the locked screen door to the kitchen. “He’s asleep now, so be quiet, please?” The cabinet doors gaped open all around us, their contents arranged on every stable surface and filling the sink. She shook her head, lifted a rag to her face to give it a light sniff. “Do you smell that?” she said, sniffing around herself, under her arms, sticking her head into the cabinet. “What is that?” she said. She grabbed the lemon cleaner and huffed at its lid. “Probably shouldn’t be using this anyway,” she said, holding out the bottle as if to read the list of its contents, “they say it causes all kinds of crazy things in dogs.”

I learned the full story about what happened on my father’s last day at work from Ryan Gibbs, who was in my father’s history seminar on that last afternoon. “Watch the door,” Ryan said, ducking down behind the dumpsters to pick up small piles of the flattened cardboard boxes he was supposed to be throwing away. I kept my eyes on the bright yellow line of light coming from around the back door of the Best Buy stockroom where he’d jammed half a concrete block to keep it open. I avoided eye contact as much as possible as he talked, embarrassed by the puckered spots around the neck of his Best Buy polo. There were wrinkled dimples around the necklines of all of his shirts where he obsessively dug in his fingers and wiped at the corners of his mouth, so they were sometimes wet with spit or dirty with whatever grime was on his face. It wasn’t the spit or the dirt that bothered me. I didn’t like thinking about the way his fingers moved without his awareness, couldn’t stand the thought of physical compulsions, like when someone pretended to be listening to you, but their eyes relaxed and focused on something like they were looking through you. I didn’t like thinking about the ways that we could disappear, but still be there.

Class that day had started normally, according to Ryan. My father had been standing, moving back and forth in front of his whiteboards, engaging with students throughout the first thirty minutes of his Iron Age lecture, like his old self, except for a limp. At some point in the lecture, he’d gone quiet, stepped back and stared at the script he’d written across the whiteboards. Without a sound, he’d wandered out into the hallway. Students glanced at each other, nervous laughter rippled through the room. Just as Jerry began to get up from his seat to go and find my father, he re-entered, but without his pants and underwear. He walked in sock-footed, dangling beneath the wrinkled ends of his shirttail.

         “My little eggs!” he exclaimed, raising his arms before the packed auditorium, exposing himself even more. “My little eggs, all of you! By God, I’ll sit on you one by one until you hatch!”

         Someone made for the door and then they all scattered, leaves in the wind, leaving my father sitting on the floor in front of his whiteboards. I asked if anyone stayed with my father.  Ryan assured me that a small crowd waited in the hall, forming a semicircle around the pile of my father’s clothes, waiting for Jerry to return with someone who knew what to do. Ryan booked it down a stairwell and escaped to his car, “called it a day,” a fact he was too stupid or immature to regret sharing with me. “Heavy shit, huh?” he said, wiping his mouth, but he said it in a way that could have been in reference to everything from my disappearing father to the pile of flattened refrigerator boxes. He didn’t wait for a response, didn’t see my shrug as he looked away to check the door.

         I walked home in the pink twilight, under a swirl of birds changing patterns over me, turning and dipping along the sound waves of some distant church bells calling out the hour. The watermelon gummy rings Ryan had given me, stored in the pocket of his cargo pants, were a mildewy green, and I let them go loose and slimy in my cheek, then set my jaw and clamped it hard on my tongue until they turned softly bitter and tangy like cut grass. I thought of my father’s legs, how when you saw them in the summer they seemed carved for a man of a different size, a man more delicate, paler in color. The smoothness of his calves had inspired his tormentors in school to call him bird legs; my mother sometimes did this too, and pinched at his thighs. He slapped her hands away, screeching like a barn owl. The light of the kitchen in those scenes seemed bright and effusive at the time, but leaked its brilliance somehow in my memory because from then on, I would think of my father’s legs as they had been on that last day, exposed under the bronze lights to the unforgiving eyes of his students.

When I came in the side door, my mother tossed a handful of cutlery into the sink with a crash. She glared at me on her way back to the table for the plates, stopping to lean into the mud room and remind me that dinner time was family time. “And why is your mouth all green?” she said, squeezing my cheeks in her hand to stare at my tongue.

         “My little egg,” I said to her, stroking her face. “By God.”

 

         On the day of the wedding, my mother cried. She folded up the sleeves of her wedding dress so I could use my hands, held the fabric together at my elbows and shoulders with metal binder clips. I tripped over the mildewed skirt when I walked, crushing the plasticized fabric under my feet and popping the clips in the back. She found a belt in her closet and used it to hoist up the excess around my waist, a backwards hem job. She stepped back to look at me and then it came, the tears, her eyes two swollen slits, the crying some kind of permanent condition. I looked like the top of a rotten mushroom. She said “I’m so glad your father can see this day. I just wish you had washed your hair.

         Outside, the News 7 van parked on the corner. All down the winding driveway to the street, neighbors stood in their sweatpants and bathrobes, my mother’s invited guests. Mr. Bankhead held a cup of coffee. Even though Mrs. Stafford didn’t live nearby anymore, she had shuttled both twins over in their matching white Sunday dresses. The little girls held plastic sandwich bags filled with bruised handfuls of petals from Mrs. Tobin’s azaleas and stood still and wide-eyed on the side of the driveway, their mother’s hands flat on their sternums, drawing them into her hips, eyeing the sword on my father’s belt. The scratched tip of the sheath scraped the ground as he limped past, calling “Good morrow” and gathering handshakes from the men in the crowd.

         Crisp, rotten rings of tulle petticoat scratched at my knees as I dragged the weight of the dress down the cracked pavement. My mother played the wedding march on a paint-splattered boombox, the sound smearing around us as the tape squeaked along at the wrong pitch and speed. “O joyous day,” shouted my father, unsheathing his sword and lifting it to the gray sky, wobbling on his right side, his foot turning in. The gauntlet of people beamed, tucking their newspapers under their arms to clap their hands.

Mr. Tobin waited at the bottom of the driveway, his cheeks red and puffed, disguising that same look of pity I saw in all the watching eyes behind me. He offered me his fist instead of his hand, placed it in front of me like a fence post, and I was grateful for it, the way he recognized the intimacy of putting your hand inside someone else’s. It could have been that he was just aware of his wife’s gaze from where she stood near the street, guarding her azaleas from further molestation, hands on her hips in her grass-stained sweatpants, ready for this silliness to end so she could get back to the yard work. The back of Mr. Tobin’s hand was red and scaly, as dry as raw wood and uncomfortable to touch when I remembered that it was supposed to be flesh. I put my hand on top of his, as gently as landing on a branch, and we proceeded.

         We presented ourselves to Mr. Landry, who lived on the other side of the cul-de-sac and held a regular D&D game in his garage. He wore a faux leather vest from a pirate costume held closed over his gut with a safety pin. The curve of an ornate costume cutlass hung from his belt. The News 7 cameraman changed positions behind Mr. Landry, this side and then the other, gathering all the best angles of the manufactured occasion.

         Mr. Landry had only read the first few words from his wedding service pamphlet when we heard the sword scratch across concrete and saw the News 7 cameraman pop his head up from behind his eyepiece. At the top of the driveway, my father lay in a heap, sword and sheath scattered beside him, a dark stain growing on the front of his khakis. A few neighbors gathered to help, leaned in and offered advice for seizures, sprained ankles, for things that can be cured, but my mother assured everyone that this was normal, even as she removed her flannel shirt and threw it over my father’s pants to protect what was left of his dignity. She lifted his head onto her knees and nodded polite thanks to all of our neighbors as they drifted away across the lawn in one wave like a flock of birds. The news van rumbled back down the street, and Mr. Tobin’s giant hand patted at the crushed lace where my shoulder might have been.

I slept under my bed that night, slid off the side and rolled under, pulling down the blankets on all sides until I found the absolute dark. There, I pressed into the floor, where I dreamed I could untie all the knots of myself, gently teasing apart the ends of twisted strings as the sky tilted sideways overhead. The silver edges of the dream rattled, first a threat, then an intrusion. I woke, hitting my head against the bottom of the bed, my cheek numb and cold from the carpet. The rattling sound persisted, and I followed it out the door and down the hall.

In the kitchen, my father sat on the floor in the dark, leaned up against the cabinets. Holding the side of an open drawer, he tried to hoist himself into the wheelchair that had been sitting folded behind the couch for weeks, and now stood by him empty, waiting.

“I used to have a rope here for this,” he said, noticing the shape of me in the dark, a slice of my face in the streetlight coming in the window. He winced as he lowered himself back to the floor. “Do you know what they did with it?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I’m sorry. What do I do?”

“You can find my rope, Private! I need it,” he barked, leaning back against the cabinets, breathing hard. Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead.

“Dad,” I said. My voice cracked, too high, too blank. “Dad, there was never a rope there. There was no rope, Dad.”

We stayed there in the dark, waiting, both of us moved by the air in the room and the pulse of our blood. I felt him crying before I heard it, and the hairs stood up on my legs at the sound, something I’d never heard, a lost and empty peal of what was left of my father ringing out into the night. I came to my knees on the tile, covered my face in the dark. He reached out until he could almost touch my hair, fingers grazing my face, both hands outstretched to pull me into him.

“What is happening?” my mother said, alarmed but half asleep, a tornado siren in a distant county. She flipped the switch on the wall and we all shriveled away from one another under the harsh light until she turned it back off. “What’s happened? I’m here!” she said, sliding to her knees beside him. She cradled his face, wiped at his tears with her shirt. He held her forearm and muttered explanations and apologies about the wheelchair, but she shushed him. She began to rock him, moved him side to side until his body calmed, his breathing slowing. I had seen her leaning over him in this way that morning on the driveway, and a week ago when he had fallen in the breezeway, all the times he had come home bleeding and confused. She had assumed this posture over time—softly, afraid—learned to curve over him in this way, an impermanent shelter for what was to come.

When I moved, it was to wipe my face on the back of my arm. My father, near sleep, glanced across my mother’s shoulder to see me again, sitting in the beam of white light from the motion sensor on the Tobins’s garage. “Why do I still see this one darkening my halls?” he asked her, lifting his head. “Did I not see her married this day?”

“Oh yes, my Lord,” my mother said, peeking back at me where I sat hunched on the floor, a breath away from them. “She will join her husband when she is of age.” He spluttered, a cruel laugh.

“And you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend,” he said, raising a finger toward my face. “And you be not, hang.”

My mother unlaced her arm from around his back, used it to make a shooing motion in my direction, waving me backwards in the dark, away to my room down the hall.

On the floor, my back to my bedroom door, I listened to them talking, hushed, then the sounds as they traveled back to their bedroom, and finally the silence of the house rang in my ears. My window stood open, the cold breeze spinning circles across the floor, winding around my toes, and if I shut my eyes it felt like I was moving on the air. I could build hidden rooms, I thought, and I began to plan them, to cover the walls with scenes of hurt. But the hours turned, and I opened my eyes to the morning pouring over the hills at the end of the street, a wall of gray, then threads of gold, again, waves of color crashing back in, night birds disappearing into the trees. I could go where they go, silent in the air, a sharpness hidden in the vivid dark. If I wanted, I could live in endless night, moving in all the ways no one hears.

But I had no desire to live behind the walls of myself, bricking up the exits and turning in silent circles. I had no desire to float unseen. My throat was full, metallic, heavy with something like rage, with something like sadness, keys to the same door, the heavy handle of an escape hatch. Down the hall, I could hear my mother in the kitchen, the clicking of the coffeemaker, the shifting of dishes in the sink, the sounds of her beginning to build the day. I looked around me, feeling on the floor for something to knock down, something to shake, some insisting noise to make so that she would know I was still here.

Jona Whipple is a writer, librarian, and archivist, in that order. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction Writing at the University of Missouri-Saint Louis. Her stories and essays have appeared in Hawaii Pacific Review, Heavy Feather, Catapult, Hypertext, and Bluestem, and are forthcoming in CRAFT. She lives in Missouri, dangerously close to where she was born. jonawhipple.com.

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Leslie Birch Was Not Real, Coby-Dillon English
Bughouse, Shauna Friesen
The Genie & Me, Rosalind Margulies
Why Are You Still Here, Jona Whipple
An Entirely Different Girl, Linda Woolford

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