Dad was dying. I was the only one of the children without a steady job and so the obvious choice to fly down to Florida and navigate him through to the end. The morning after I arrived at his condo, he entered the hospital for the last time. There were going to be more X-rays and tests, one last attempt to determine if any further treatment made sense. He’d insisted on it, though no one who saw him could doubt that it would be a one-way trip. He’d always been a wiry guy, but now he weighed under a hundred pounds. His Irish nose and high cheekbones were still bigger than life, but now tragically, were like the photos of starving internees from the death camps. His intense and confident brown eyes had charmed thousands in his lifetime as a salesman. They were sudden now, yet he must have seen something different when he managed to shave himself with a trembling hand. I stayed close beside him in case his knees gave way as he cocked his head, found his best profile in the mirror, and ran a comb through his wavy gray hair. For whom, I wondered when he slapped on the cologne.
Never for a minute did he admit that he might not return to his very lived-in nest and the piles of business papers that covered every available surface of every room. His latest undertaking had been the sale of partnerships in oil and gas ventures. Maps and leases were stacked on a rickety card table. There were files filled with the names of contacts and contracts from the innumerable other sales ventures he’d undertaken over the years. I resented him for leaving me to sort through this mess, but of course this was not his intention. He pictured himself back on the job in a matter of months. Optimism is the commodity of salesmen, and it never ran short in him. Otherwise he might not have gone bankrupt twice. He might have drawn up a will. There wasn’t one. Not a scrap.
Contacts are everything to a salesman. Dad was a master at developing them. Before he left Kentucky, one step ahead of the law, he’d made friends in every coal mining town. Not just your local yokels. I’m talking about big shots, doctors and lawyers, mayors and businessmen. They wrote the checks for his real estate deals then let him use their names to extract the small life savings off the working stiffs. Thousands lost money when the ventures went belly up. There were towns in eastern Kentucky where they might have lynched Dad if he’d dared to pause for a traffic light.
You might be getting the idea that my dad was a swindler. Nothing could be further from the case. He was a true believer in every enterprise he undertook. He projected millions in returns from his real estate investments. Dad was confident that he would be remembered for the prosperity he brought to those gritty little crossroad communities. He would have loaned his last dollar to those mountain people as quickly as he would have taken theirs.
There were a bevy of dysfunctional salesmen he’d befriended over the years who would call on him in lean times for loans. Dad never turned them down, and the loans were rarely paid back. He frequently managed crews of salesmen. They’d phone him with their personal problems and talk to him for hours. Nearly all salesmen hit dry spells when they can’t make a sale. When they’d fall into a funk, dad would talk them through it and help them hold on until they’d hit another string of good fortune. From time to time he’d play marriage counselor to the lonely, insecure women who spent weeknights alone with their husbands on the road. There was the time when one young salesman, a protégé Dad had helped to train, who decided to end it all and called my dad because he couldn’t bear to die alone. He blew his brains out right over the phone. Dad was a steady hand, not one to show emotion, but that took the wind out of him for a while.
At one time or another my dad sold leather goods, life insurance, carports, aluminum siding, and telephone book covers. The phone book covers were a low spell of scouring the state one county at a time, eating in crummy restaurants, sleeping in cheap motels. Then he moved on to sell giant slides, the ones at fairs that stretch skyward like ribbon candy and kids ride down in grain sacks. He’d traveled as far away as Pennsylvania successfully selling slides to amusement parks and carnivals. It occurred to him that he could be a rich man if he manufactured and marketed his own slides. He lined up a steel fabricator and a two-man construction crew of ex-cons. The first one sold for $16,000, a hefty sum in those days. The profit on it was equal to five he’d sold for the rival company.
It was constructed at the amusement park of some Pennsylvania steel town. It was going to be a cash machine. No bells, no whistles, no motors. Hand a kid a burlap sack and he hands you fifty cents. Their little bottoms would keep the stainless steel polished. Just shoot a little Rustoleum on the scaffolding now and then. A raffle was held. The lucky kid who was the winner would get the first ride and have a shiny new bike waiting for him at the bottom.
This was the only business trip I ever went on with my dad. We drove into the Appalachian Mountains with me popping Dramamine and sucking in second-hand cigarette smoke. Hope was in the air. We’d have money to move out of our second-story flat and buy our own ranch house in the subdivision that was cropping up in the cornfield near my elementary school. The night before the big event we stayed at the Howard Johnsons and ordered steak.
A television crew and news reporters were on hand at the inauguration of the new slide. There was a crowd of parents and kids. A ribbon was cut with a giant pair of scissors. A skinny, red-headed kid named Kenny became the center of the attention when he won the raffle. Dad shook his hand. The park owner and his wife shook his hand. The mayor shook his hand. Only my dad could have gotten the mayor and so much press to attend such an inconsequential event.
Kenny took his burlap sack and started the long trek up the five stories of steps to the top of the slide. He stopped now and then and glanced down at the crowd, look for a reassuring eye from his mom and pop. I could tell he was afraid of heights. I was thinking about the clubhouse my dad had built behind the garage, the one that had collapsed in the first hard wind. My eyes scanned the big slide for any quavering in the steel supports, but the thing was built like a rock. “Quality!” Dad had exclaimed. “At two third’s the price!”
Kenny spread his burlap sack out in an overly-neat way that annoyed me. I was scheduled as the second rider and was itching for the chance. Then he was on his way down. Faster and faster. And faster. I saw my dad’s proud smile turn to horror as Kenny took air on the third dip and plunged toward the exit at warp speed. No one had tested the slide. The steep pitch and extra twenty feet that helped it outclass the competition had turned little Kenny into a human missile. He flew off the end of the slide and stayed airborne for a full ten feet before slamming into the chain link fence. I thought he was going to be extruded through it like so much spaghetti, but it wasn’t that bad. Just a checkerboard of bruises on his forehead and a little blood. He scraped himself up and put on a brave face as my dad shook his hand and presented him the bike. Dad kept his best salesman smile, shaking hands all around as if nothing had happened. A little fine-tuning would set the project straight. It turned out that Kenny had a concussion and two broken ribs. Dad’s slide project collapsed under the weight of a lawsuit and set us on another stretch of digging through the couch for change to buy dinner.
Dad made a good living for a while selling carports to working class families and military personnel who lived on the outskirts of Fort Knox. From time to time he’d take a deposit, throw up a carport and find the buyer had no money for the last installment. Several times he was paid in used cars that came to clog our driveway. There was a Desoto, a rusted out station wagon with genuine wood paneling inhabited by termites. There was a boxy little foreign car that was a little more than a tin can with a steering wheel. When people flat-out stiffed my father he was never bitter. With his eternal salesman’s optimism he told himself they’d come through when the good times rolled around.
If Dad had stuck with selling, he might have become a millionaire, but his successful stretches inevitably inspired him to start companies of his own. That was where things really came unraveled. He’d sold so much life insurance for one company that they’d offered him a title of vice-president. He turned it down and decided to start an insurance company of his own. It was a bold idea for a man with only a high school education, but he rounded up the capital from his golf course connections and set about obtaining a license. In the south that meant envelopes of cash funneled to the right people. One $10,000 payoff went to a man who would become one of the elder statesmen of the U.S. Senate. Ten thousand dollars was a lot of money in those days, but it paled against the clout of the established companies determined to keep out competition. When they pocketed the cash and then denied him the license, there wasn’t a thing he could do about it. Dad and his investors lost everything. He was subsequently sued for breach of contract by a corps of salesmen to whom he’d promised jobs.
By this time he was persona-non-grata at the golf club. He joined another and began cultivating a new group of connections. He was ice cool under pressure on a putting green, and this always made an instant impression. He marketed himself as a specialist in raising money for start-up companies. He’d bring these ideas home and try them out on me. There was a new company called Daniel Boone Chicken that was determined to blow Colonel Sanders out of the water. My all-time favorite was the soft-serve ice cream company. An enthusiastic young entrepreneur had come to him with a recipe for ice cream that didn’t melt. Sure it would melt eventually, but not down the cone and all over the car seat. The magic ingredient in the ice cream was top secret. Dad swore me to secrecy. Freon! Stir it right in with the mix and—presto!—those curly tops on the soft serve stayed right where they were until you licked them off.
“Is it safe? I asked.
“Totally!” Dad said confidently. “A harmless gas.”
This was in Kentucky during the stone age of environmental awareness, a time when kids my age chewed the lead paint of pencils in class to quell their appetites until lunch, a time when sludge piles of old sour mash from the local breweries would occasionally let loose and ooze through poor neighborhoods like something out of a science fiction movie. Regulations were lax, and the men who enforced them would turn their backs for a price. Thankfully the project floundered. I was one of the few who ever knew how close our ozone layer came to being destroyed by thousands of little Kentuckians farting Freon gas.
Dad insisted on wearing his best suit and tie to the hospital. I had to punch a new hole in his alligator belt so that the trousers wouldn’t fall off him. It was all about respect. His hands were so shaky that I had to sign him in, but he watched closely over my shoulder. When it came to the line for occupation he had me write President, First Energy Corporation (no connection to a later company that was to be blamed for the biggest blackout in American history). This had been his last and boldest venture into free market capitalism. He’d raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from his new golf buddies to purchase oil and gas leases and do some exploratory drilling. Two of the wells actually emitted a gaseous odor. “We came that close!” Dad exclaimed ruefully.
This was not enough to console a group of shareholders who’d been left with worthless paper. They were pressing the local district attorney for an investigation into alleged financial improprieties. Judging from the new Cadillac sedan Dad had been driving, I suspected they had a case.
The very first day at the hospital, they rolled Dad off for a CAT scan and other tests. It was madness for the doctors to put him through it, but he wanted action and no one had the gumption to tell him straight out that the situation was hopeless. This included me. I wasn’t ready to make him look death in the eye. I would have had to do the same myself. We were cut from the same cloth. Our voices sounded so much alike that people found it impossible to distinguish us over the phone. We both were masters at charming strangers while we were brooding introverts in our private lives. This had ruined marriages for both of us and doomed us to painful stretches of solitude. People had often remarked how much we looked alike. His wasted features, the haunting mask he wore now might well one day become my own.
Sitting beside him for hours on end, I sometimes imagined what would be my own last words to the daughter I saw now only on weekends. I love you. I’m sorry. Of course I was waiting to hear these words now, any opening that would give me the chance to take my father’s hand and squeeze it. I didn’t dare take the initiative and risk having him recoil from such an open display of emotion. I thought the time would come, that the descent would be gradual. Soon enough the floodgates would open.
In fact, the battery of tests he received left him shell shocked. He complained of rough handling. It wouldn’t have taken much considering the terrific spasms he sometimes endured in the simple act of raising a spoon. The doctor doubled the dose of his pain medication and increased the frequency. He drifted in and out of sleep. When he was conscious his words made less and less sense. The cancer was metastasizing to his brain. He spent a lot of time rambling to himself, offering up disjointed names, locations and statistics, loose ends of business deals that he expected me to cobble together in his absence. “I’m going to be out of commission for a while,” he admitted in a lucid moment. I bit my tongue to keep from laughing, fighting at the same time to hold back tears.
I hadn’t come to Florida with the expectation of bridging the lifelong gulf between us. It was not my style to even admit that such a thing held importance for me. But now, as he slipped into dementia and his breath grew more labored, I sorted through his disjointed mutterings and listened intently for words that would let me turn the key on my carefully guarded heart. At one point, after a long silence, I heard him whisper, “No good to you, no good to you.” His voice was filled with emotion. I’d been stubbornly holding out for an apology, and now my heart leapt. An instant later his mind had slipped away. His frail hand didn’t respond when I squeezed it.
This was the next to last lucid moment I remember sharing with him. The final one came days later, in the middle of the night. The medication was increased to two hour intervals, but the pain still gnawed at him as he drifted in and out of a half-sleep. I adjusted his pillows and used the remote control of the hospital bed to help him find a more comfortable position. He‘d lost all track of time and reached the point where he was asking me to raise and lower the bed almost constantly. As soon as I would drift off to sleep in that worn-out imitation leather chair, he would ask me to change his position. There would be a faint smile or moan of appreciation. Minutes later I would feel the tension build again. By three in the morning, it reached the point where barely a minute passed without an appeal for a new rotation. Minutes were hours to him. He had no idea how much he was asking of me. Certainly he was grateful, but the vigil I was keeping was no more than any proud Irishman would expect of his son.
I had curled up in a fetal position in that cursedly uncomfortable chair with its plywood armrests, shifting my thumb from the up to the down button on the remote and pressing it each time he moaned, throwing in an occasional knee adjustment for variation. Finally his appeals came so often that I no longer waited for them. I started working the buttons continuously, like a kid with a computer game, impressed with my ability to make the mattress move in a continual undulating wave. I’d thought he’d finally settled in, and I was about to do the same when he sat bolt upright and glared at me.
“What the hell are you doing?” he exclaimed in that old demanding tone that had made me feel so foolish as a boy. I flushed with humiliation. Before I could offer an explanation he’d drifted off again.
Those were my father’s last words to me. I’m not complaining. I could have done worse, really. They’ve stuck with me and guided me in my natural inclination to find humor in the face of tragedy. “What the hell are you doing!?!” How many times have those words rung out at some pivotal moment, often just in time to save me from an impetuous and destructive plunge. I’ve inherited my father’s smile. I see it in the creases as I remember him during my morning shave. I’ve inherited his boundless faith that every new project will unfold like petals on a spring flower. I’m still amazed when things don’t pan out and old enough now to be amazed by my own amazement.
My father’s final words were those he himself might have wished for from a caring mentor. They might have granted him the perspective to recognize his limits and stick to sales. At this he was an absolute master, unheralded but among the greatest.