Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Once More to Kitty Hawk
    by Greg Kurzawa

Once More to Kitty Hawk
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

"The first symptoms most often appear in the hands," the doctor explained to the young couple and their aged father. The grip weakens; manipulation of even the most basic instruments becomes increasingly challenging. Within a very short time, you will feel that you've grown feeble and uncoordinated. None of these symptoms represent an actual loss of strength, you understand, but rather a declining capacity to interact with the physical world."

David woke at 3:07 a.m. to the sound of breaking glass. He found his father in the kitchen, staring out the dark window over the sink.

"Dad?"

His father was startled. "I'm sorry," he said. "I just thought I saw . . ." he gestured toward the window, either a dismissal or an effort to explain something outside, David couldn't tell. He went to his father's side and looked out, saw only moonlit yard, then a broken drinking glass in the sink.

"I'm sorry," his father said again.

"It doesn't matter, Dad. I'll get it in the morning." David took down another glass from the cupboard and filled it from the tap. He offered it to his father, but the older man's eyes had gone back to the window.

"Dad."

David's father absently reached for the glass, and that was when David noticed that the outline of his father's hand had become indistinct. When David didn't surrender the glass, his father looked at his own hand. "Oh," he said.

"Okay," David said. "It's okay." Retracting the glass, he transferred the water to a plastic cup.

David's father accepted the offering and drank.

"We knew this would come," David said.

They nodded together.

David's father returned the empty plastic cup to the counter, then went to their small table, pulled a chair and sat. He joined his hands on the table in front of him and stared.

David sat across from him.

"I want to go somewhere," his father said.

"We have time," David assured him.

"I'd like to see Kitty Hawk again."

David nodded.

"I'll put my things in boxes," his father said. "So you won't have to when you get back."

"Stop it, Dad."

"I have a lot of things."

"He wants to go to North Carolina," David told Laura in bed. "Kitty Hawk."

Beside him, Laura lay with her head on his shoulder, his arm around her. "Isn't that --"

"Where Matthew drowned. Yeah."

"And he wants you with him."

David thought of long hours on the road, hotels, fast food and an endless parade of mile markers. "I've always wanted to see the east coast," he admitted. "Lighthouses. Seagulls. What else?"

Laura moved her hand to the cleft in his chin, a gesture he'd always misunderstood to mean she wanted him to stop talking. But he didn't think so now. Answering his own question, David said, "The Outer Banks." Then, "The Emerald Coast."

Laura tapped his chin. "That's Florida."

David made a small noise of assent. His eyes moved across the ceiling, creating images of white beaches and green waves; piers made hazy by thick air and distance. Kites and seafood. "He wants to go and not come back."

"You'll go with him, then?"

When David didn't answer right away, Laura propped herself up on an elbow to search his face. "He can't go alone."

"So I should?"

"You must."

David heard the cry of gulls. "Shipwrecks," he mused.

Laura smiled. "Thunderstorms."

"The onset of translucency is accompanied by periods of profound disorientation," the doctor continued. He pressed his palms together for emphasis. "This kind of deterioration can be unsettling. I cannot stress enough the importance of readiness. This is often the most taxing stage for those attending the patient, and the cause of countless troubling episodes. As the translucency encroaches inward from the extremities it becomes easier for patients to disconnect from their surroundings. If allowed to wander they will undoubtedly find themselves in unfamiliar territory, endangering themselves and others."

Laura packed for David and set his duffel by the front door. But they did not leave that morning, or even the morning after that. David's father reclined in his room and plowed through a stack of mystery novels. Rarely did he read more than fifty pages of any one before discarding it for the next. David looked in on him from time to time. When not reading, he wore his massive headphones and listened to Handel and Wagner. David's bag waited alone in the tiled foyer.

For two days David waited on the couch with his shoes on. He drank coffee and flipped through Laura's magazines. He tried to watch television, but forgot everything during commercials. "He's wasting time," he complained to Laura.

"It's his time."

"He's just reading."

"What do you want him to do?"

"I want him," David said, "to do what he wants to do." He caught Laura smirking, so he tossed Living aside and turned on the television. "What he really wants to do."

"Why don't you take him for a walk?"

"No one wants to walk, Laura."

Late that evening David's father surprised them in the living room. They didn't notice him until he flipped the light in the hall to capture their attention.

"I'm thinking we can leave tomorrow," he said. "Early."

When David shuffled into the kitchen to make coffee he found that his father had already managed to do so. Using both hands, his father was drinking his third cup.

"Getting late," he said to David.

"It's 5:15, Dad. Can I have this?" He poured himself the dregs of the pot without waiting for the answer. "Laura wants to make us breakfast."

"That'd be fine."

David noticed the open bottle of Glenlivet on the counter next to him. He picked it up and smiled. "I'd join you, but I'm driving. We'll take it with us though."

They both raised their mugs to that.

"I plotted our course last night," David said. He'd left the printout on the counter, and he lifted it for his father to see. "About fifteen hours. We can do it in two days if we push it. Three if we relax."

"No need to rush," his father said. "We'll play chess."

When Laura's breakfast had been eaten and the dishes cleared, David retreated to the shower. He returned dressed and ready, and found the front door open to a view of his father dragging both his own suitcase and David's light duffel down the walk to the driveway. He could lift neither of them.

"I got it, Dad!" David called. He rescued both bags from his father and tossed them into the back seat. Laura met him coming back up the walk with a thermos of coffee and a paper bag of sandwiches, cookies, and string cheese. She held David's father for a long time. When at last they parted, he kissed her forehead and smiled for her. He said that she was lovely, and that it had been a blessing to know her. Then he gave her to David and put himself in the car.

"I'll call when we stop," David told her.

"Did you check the oil?" his father asked out the window.

"We'll get there, Dad," David said. "I promise."

They drove over four-hundred miles that first day, passing through Birmingham and Atlanta, and coming to rest in Augusta. Their hotel boasted a dirt lot and a pool that probably hadn't held water for years. Neither of them felt like eating out, so David ducked out to collect bags of food from the nameless diner across the road. When he came back his father had set the chess board and was pouring Glenlivet for both of them. "Time for the thrashing," his father announced, dropping ice into their cups. "Wisdom conquers youth."

"Can we start eating before you win, Dad?"

David distributed sandwiches before settling into his chair and pushing out the king's pawn.

"Ah!" his father said, immensely pleased with his son's foolishness. "We'll be done by --" He checked his watch. "Seven."

He checkmated David at 6:55. But ten minutes into their second game he began fumbling pieces. Two moves later he slid a rook like a bishop and couldn't seem to remember it wasn't his turn. David looked up from his final move and saw that the substance of his father had begun to fade.

"Let's finish later, Dad."

His father shifted in his chair to look around him. "Where's Laura?"

David drew him out of his chair. "She's at home, Dad."

His father couldn't work the buttons of his shirt, so David helped him out if it, then into a pair of pajamas. With his father in bed, David poured himself a third drink. He piled pillows against his headboard and turned the television on.

"Will this bother you?" he asked.

"Tell your mother to get David out of the tub," his father mumbled. "He's not a fish."

David looked towards the dark bathroom. "I will, Dad."

With the sound so low he could barely hear, David watched a series of late-night talk show hosts and their parade of guests. At some point he realized the voice from the television didn't match what was happening onscreen. He turned the volume up just enough to hear an unclear voice say, ". . . wouldn't do it. I wouldn't go in."

David looked at the other bed, where his father seemed nothing more than a mound of blankets. The voice from the television crackled, and David leaned forward to better hear.

"No one could get it open," his father's voice said.

"Couldn't get what open, Dad?"

The host and his guest leaned toward one another, laughing silently. The image clipped and rolled. "David? Where do you think they learn that?" The screen first dimmed, then brightened. "Business school," said his father's voice. "Harvard!"

David tried to turn the television off, but it shivered and persisted. Giving up, he checked the time and called Laura, trying twice before she answered.

"We're in Augusta," David told her.

"You could have called sooner."

From the television his father said, ". . . doesn't burn hot enough to melt steel. Do you know what it takes to do that?"

"It was a long day," David said. "I'm sorry. I just forgot." The channel rolled to another station, where in soft black and whites the Lone Ranger crouched behind a boulder, sidearm lifted.

"It had something to do with their shoes," his father said over the faint sound of gunshots.

Laura asked, "Everything's okay?"

"This might have been a mistake," David said.

The doctor rose, his three guests following his lead. "Best not to travel," he said as he stepped around his desk and guided them toward the door. "Even minor changes in surroundings can cause distress, which, in turn, loosens the patent's moorings to a specific locale. Set adrift, it can be exceedingly difficult to find their way back again. This leads to upsetting circumstances -- for the patient, as well as those attending him. Always remember, familiarity is a powerful anchor." He opened the door for them, but did not step aside. "That is but one reason we recommend staying with us here at the clinic once transition begins. We have private rooms, and specialists on staff. We have the means to keep them grounded. In the best of cases, we can make the entire process no more troubling than a series of dreams." He looked specifically at the young man's father. "We can make you very comfortable."

David's father was fully present the next morning, and proved it by drinking half a pot of coffee and eating the rest of the sandwiches, as well as the one David hadn't finished. He carried the luggage to the car, and flirted with the sixty-something attendant at the front desk.

"Hold my February reservation," he warned her.

"Oh go on," the attendant laughed, waving him off.

Forty miles later the color in him had bled away. When he spoke -- and could be heard -- it was broken conversations with people only he saw. He laughed at jokes his mother had told twenty years past.

At a rest area twenty miles east of Columbia, David stopped to use the bathroom. When he returned, his father was missing. David searched the bathrooms, then the wooded picnic area. He described his father to a dozen strangers. Then the bathrooms again, this time banging open every stall. He stooped to look in cars that weren't his. An hour later Laura called.

"He's with you?" David asked.

"He was in the kitchen when I got home. What happened? Where are you?"

"What's he doing?"

"He was trying to open the drawers."

"I mean now."

"He's in his room."

"Doing what?" David said as he opened his door and fell in behind the wheel. He closed it behind him to block the roar of the interstate.

Laura came back after a moment. "I can't find him."

A sudden, soft crackling entered their line. ". . . had ripped open again . . ." his father's voice said before drowning in static.

"Dad?" David said. "Dad, listen to me. You --"

"-- but I couldn't tell her," his father said.

"Dad! It's David. Laura, can't you find him?"

"I'm looking."

"Dad, where are you?"

The static hissed and popped around his father's voice, drowning it. He rested his forehead on the steering wheel until Laura came back on the line. "I thought I saw him for a second in the hall, but I don't think he's here anymore. David?"

"Call me if he comes back."

"David, what are you going to do?"

"What do you want me to do, Laura?" he snapped, and immediately regretted his tone. He took a breath and squeezed his temples. "I'm going to wait. I'm just -- I'll wait here. I'll call you later."

Ten hours later, while walking back from the vending machines, David spotted his father standing in the long grass beside the interstate. His shirt had come open and untucked, and wind stirred his hair. He turned when David called to him, lifting a hand in hesitant greeting.

It wasn't until David was leading him away from the interstate that he noticed his father's feet were bare.

"Where are your shoes?"

Bewildered, David's father looked down. "I left them at the beach."

They made it as far as the outskirts of Florence before David exited. He needed a comfortable bed, and to eat something not purchased from a vending machine. He wanted to watch television, for which he felt guilty. It had been eleven hours since leaving the hotel that morning; they were barely a hundred miles from where they'd started.

Immediately after dropping their suitcases on the floor David found the roster advertising local restaurants and ordered enough pizza to feed three people, knowing the abundance would comfort him. He didn't have to rummage in his duffel for the Glenlivet; he'd stowed it on top. Ripping two plastic cups free of their foil sheaths, he poured himself and his father three fingers each, then dropped onto the bed and dialed Laura. As the phone rang he watched his father wrestle his suitcase open. He began drawing out its contents piece by piece. David could see the curtains through him.

"I don't know how this works," his father said. He was poring over the contents of the suitcase as though disassembling a piece of complex machinery. "They never explained how this works."

"We're in Florence," David said when Laura answered. "He's getting worse fast. I don't know if we'll make it to Kitty Hawk."

"There are closer beaches."

David watched his father stuffing clothes back into the suitcase, then, unsatisfied, remove them again in frustration. "I can't make this work," his father complained. "They never explained this."

David slept uneasily that night. Once, he woke up thinking he had heard someone calling him. He sat up and put his bare feet on the floor. He listened without turning on the light, but from the volume of the silence knew he was alone.

Two hours later the phone rang. Knowing who it was and what she would tell him, he didn't bother answering. Instead, he decided -- without fully waking -- that their plans would have to change.

The doctor smiled for the young lady as she escorted the father out. But the young man he held back. "I respect your father's decision to transition on his own. My concern is that you, as his attendant, understand your role. Some feel that by resisting the process, they can suspend -- even reverse it. They try. This is a natural, albeit emotional act. A harmful act. Sometimes they feel they have succeeded. It is a questionable success, with appalling repercussions."

The doctor expected -- and waited for -- the young man to nod his understanding. "Your duty is to be watchful, not to interfere. Complications are not uncommon. If he begins to dissociate; if the medium of his communication shifts towards the abnormal; these are warnings. Your father should remain always present. Even when translucency makes him difficult to observe and understand, he should never be elsewhere. You understand?

"Ignoring the signs can lead to undesirable consequences. Do not wait too long before seeking help." The doctor held the young man's arm. If it becomes too difficult, there is no shame in bringing him back. Though he doesn't wish it now, in the final stages he won't know the difference."

David couldn't find his father the next morning, but knew he was nearby because his suitcase wouldn't stay zipped and the toilet flushed at irregular intervals. Later, standing at the mirror over the sink, his father wandered into sight behind him. David stopped shaving long enough to look over his shoulder; the room remained empty.

"We're just two hours away, Dad."

His father turned around twice looking for the source of David's voice.

"Here, Dad. Here. The mirror."

David coaxed him out with gas-station coffee and doughnuts.

It was after ten by the time they checked out. David held his father's arm, but still lost him twice crossing the parking lot. He shouted for him between parked cars, chasing a fleeting image first there, then not. They made it to the car eventually, clinging to one another as though weathering a storm.

David left the interstate where I-20 met with 95 North. The signs for Myrtle Beach drew him southeast into a tangle of state highways and marshlands. His father's solidity deteriorated to vague outlines and broken conversation coming through in fits of clarity as unexpected as they were short-lived. Mostly he was only an impression.

David pulled over once when he realized he was alone in the car. For ten minutes he waited on the gravel shoulder of a two-lane highway beside a tobacco field. Finally, he left the car and walked a little ways back the way they'd come. He intended to call Laura, to ask her if he should turn back, push forward, or do nothing at all. When he realized he'd left the phone behind he turned back and saw his father through the rear window, fumbling with his door handle.

He didn't dare stop again until Myrtle Beach.

David parked on a short street with beach access. Mostly gone, but still visible, his father had fallen silent next to him. Leaning against the car, David stripped his feet and left his sock-stuffed shoes on the hood. He opened the door for his father, and they trudged up a sandy path through the beachgrass to confront the Atlantic. Together, they went down to where the sandpipers raced up and down the wet sand. They walked for a little ways, then David sat and watched the weak image of his father lift a blissful smile to the sun, which felt so much warmer than it should have for so late in the season.

It was nearly dark when David checked them into a hotel. He asked for an upper level room with two beds and a view of the ocean. How many days? David didn't know. With the door shut behind them and their bags down, David pulled a hooded sweatshirt and the bottle of Glenlivet from his duffel. He threw wide the drapes and sliding doors, welcoming both the cold air and the crash of surf. He stepped onto the balcony to survey the courtyard below. The pool had been closed for the season, drained and covered with a tarp. Back in the room, he dragged both chairs to the open doors. The rest of the Glenlivet went into flimsy hotel cups, and he set his father's on the bedside table before dropping into one of the chairs.

For the next hour David huddled in his sweatshirt, nursing his scotch and listening to the Atlantic. He commented on how beautiful was the sound of the waves, and how he loved the ocean air. He said he might have liked living on the beach -- that he might still. Sometimes a blurred version of his father occupied the seat next to him, and sometimes not.

Despite the cold, David slept with the sliding doors open that night. He pulled the hood of his sweatshirt up and hid his hands up the sleeves. He woke sometime after 2:00 a.m. to find his father standing on the balcony.

He stepped back inside when David switched on the bedside light, then gestured outside. "Where are we?"

When David didn't answer, his father shook his head. "This isn't Kitty Hawk."

"It's the beach, Dad."

"Which beach?"

"What does it matter which beach? It's the beach. It's sand and water. Same ocean here as in Kitty Hawk."

"It's not the right beach!" David's father turned hopeless eyes to the ocean. "I'll never find him here."

"Because he's not here, Dad. And he's not at Kitty Hawk either. That's not how it works."

"Don't you tell me how things work."

David looked at his feet, the only part of himself he'd bothered to undress before lying down. He opened his hands, nothing left to offer. "I'm sorry."

"You don't even change the oil."

"You're right," David admitted. "I don't."

His father looked about him, a captive animal seeking escape. He saw the slick placard advertising local restaurants and picked it off the dresser. When he looked up, David looked past him, unable to meet his eyes. "We're not even in the right state, David."

He dropped the card and stared at his son. "We have to go," he declared.

David watched his father struggling to close and zip his suitcase. But he was already weakening, already forgetting what a moment ago he'd been so determined to enact. David watched him drag the suitcase off the bed, only to glare at it when it bumped the floor, first angrily, then in mounting confusion. David watched him struggle, watched him forget. He counted to ten, slowly, then went to his father and touched his ethereal shoulder. "Let me help, Dad."

Mostly by himself, David lifted the suitcase back to the bed.

They stood looking at one another, each waiting for something from the other. David's father felt his own cheek, then looked at his wet fingers. "Why did I cry?" he asked. "What happened?"

"We had a fight, Dad. But we're okay now."

David's father no longer heard him. His emptying gaze had strayed to the sliding doors and the vast blackness of the ocean. "You told me to wait," he murmured. "You wanted to show me something."

"I did the best I could, Dad. But it wasn't what you wanted. You were angry. I would have been, too. I said I was sorry, and you forgave me."

"I had to carry you home."

David hugged his father as best he could, then helped him back to bed. Afterward, he turned off the light and sat in the chair in the corner of the room. Leaning forward, he covered his face with both hands so his father wouldn't hear him crying.

He was alone the next morning. He looked under both beds, in the closet, the shower, and the hall outside. He found his father's half-finished scotch on top of the television. Downstairs, he sat alone and picked at a meager breakfast of eggs and toast while the weatherman on television droned about cold fronts and hurricanes. Then he walked the beach and thought, on more than one occasion, that his father was with him, barely visible from the corner of his eye. Twice David heard his voice.

David stayed three more nights at the hotel. In the middle of the first he woke suddenly and turned over to see his father standing over him, smelling of sun and sea spray. His shirt was open, his feet bare and burnt. "We had such a wonderful time," he said. "I saw your mother. And your brother when he was small. And you, too."

"They're just memories, Dad."

David's father smiled. "This is just memories, too."

In the morning his father's cup -- now empty -- had moved from the television to the dresser. After spending the day walking the beach and eating alone in abandoned restaurants, David bought another bottle of Glenlivet and left a full cup out. That night -- the second -- the bathroom light flipped on, and later the television. The scotch remained untouched. On the last night the clock radio came on, but issued only a quiet, persistent static. Buried under layers of obscurity, a hazy voice struggled to be understood.

. . . boradias . . . it insisted. Title defect . . .

After forty minutes of trying to hone the signal, David realized that never before had he struggled so hard to understand his father. Disgusted with himself, he pulled the cord from the wall and tried to sleep.

In the morning he called Laura.

"How do we know?" he asked her. "When it's over. How do I know?"

Having no answer, she listened to him talk about the beach and the waves, and how sometimes he couldn't tell where the ocean ended and the sky began. "We could live here," he finally said, which he then realized was what he'd wanted to tell her from the start.

Gently, Laura asked him to come home.

"But what if he's not gone? What if he comes back? He'll be alone. I can't . . . he wouldn't know . . . I can't just leave him. Can I?"

"David," she said. "Come home."

The doctor breathed deeply, considering how to best answer the young man's question. "I have seen transitions complete in forty-eight hours, others that sustain for weeks. Much depends on the patient: how badly they wish to move on, or to remain; how attached they've become to those things -- and those people -- they must let go. As in all things, there will be good days and bad. Be comforted in knowing that the process, in its entirety, is painless."

David gathered his few things and carried his duffel and his father's suitcase to the door, where he stood for long moments waiting for something to happen.

"Dad?" he said into the empty room.

The curtains stirred in a current, and the light in the bathroom buzzed momentarily. From the courtyard below came the sounds of splashing, the shouts and laughter of children. "Mattie!" a woman called. "Slow down!" Then a child, overjoyed: "Dad!"

http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com/cgi-bin/mag.cgi?do=issue&vol=i36&article=_004

  Copyright © 2022 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com