Far Away and Long Gone
1. Summer. Route 128.
When they kicked me out of ICU so Dad could get some rest, I’d leave the hospital and hit the road south. Get the fuck out of New Hampshire. Up there, in the sticks, the available options for getting into trouble are limited. If you don’t drink, if you’re not some white-boy dope-fiend with a hooker for a girlfriend, if you’re not poaching off-season deer, you gotta find a big city with real distractions, with real ways to get out of your head.
I’d hit Route 128, the highway when it’s late at night, like in that Modern Lovers song, just me and the neon, the moon, the stars, putting the hospital behind me at 95 miles an hour, daring these Yankee cops to pick me off.
I’d end up in bear bars in Boston alleyways, getting hit on, flirted with, and felt up, but they always wanted me to stay. They wanted me to drink until closing, and then they wanted me to spend the night, but I didn’t drink and I was too busy to spend the night. I didn’t even want to know their name. I just wanted to get laid so that I wouldn’t have to think about the old man in restraints back in New Hampshire with an oxygen tube up his nose.
Some nights, if the anxiety had screwed my skull two sizes too tight, I’d stay on the road all the way to Providence, to the row of strip clubs and porn stores and bathhouses behind the salvage yards at the butt end of the harbor. Down there, with enough negotiating skills and cash, the right kind of trouble can be had, if you can avoid the hustlers, the pimped-out girls, the drug addicts. I’d still get scammed more often than not, just another lonely old guy spitting out twenties like an ATM for any girl who acted like she cared about me, who listened to my sad stories about my dying father and promised to get me off in VIP.
Some nights I’d get as far as the Boston underground and drive in circles, speeding through the downtown tunnels under the North End and the Charles at 3 a.m. like it was my own personal video game. Grand Theft Auto, Colonial City.
And then I’d trek back north, in love with Massachusetts late at night when it’s cold outside, like that song, with the radio on. Back to the granite and moose crossings and piney woods, to catheters and morphine and death, early enough to beat the dawn even in the summer when the dawn came way too early and the doctors started their rounds.
2. Autumn. Chester Road.
“Y’know, Ray,” the old man said, “if I win the lottery, I tell you what we do, I’m gonna buy me a yacht. Go back to sea. Me and you. I’ll be the engineer, we’ll hire us a captain, we’ll go buy some groceries and find someone who can cook, just travel the world, me and you. Barcelona. Through the Med, go down, through the Suez. Head down to Singapore, up to Malaysia, Indonesia. Down Australia. After a couple of years, we’ll come home. Just sail around the world.”
I’m good with geography. I can point all those places out on a map. But he wasn’t just quoting an itinerary like some jackass flipping through an atlas. He was remembering the voyage, bringing it back from his past, not so much rattling off places as replaying memories.
If we went, we wouldn’t need a guidebook. He’d know which way to walk from the Barcelona docks, up the hill a ways, turn left into an alley and there’s a joint where you can get a beer and sit in the sun. He’d know how long it would take to make the passage through the Suez, where the local kids would wave from the bridges and you’d wave back. The bars in Malaysia where you could meet a girl and the ones where maybe you shouldn’t. How to avoid pirates, how to spot dolphins. Where to find fishermen who will pull up alongside and toss you fresh catch in exchange for a case of whiskey.
He told this story on the drive back from another doctor visit in Derry. We drove up through Chester, past the general store and the single church with its cemetery full of Revolutionary War dead. It was October. The roadside farms had their pumpkins for sale, the old houses were decked out in scarecrows and witches, and it rained a gentle downpour of yellow and orange leaves all around us, like a migration of dying butterflies falling to the ground.
It would have been a great cruise. All we needed was the Powerball money and his health back. Neither one of which I expected to happen, but as I drove I looked out over the Exeter River, and he told it so I could almost see it.
3. Another Autumn. I-93.
We took a day trip north toward the mountains to Tilton, a former mill town that housed the state veteran’s home. He was going to need more than assisted living soon, and I’d talked him into taking a tour. He had prostate cancer now, on top of the dying heart and lungs and liver, and the cancer treatment made his breathing worse. They’d just prescribed him some home oxygen the day before. “As needed,” he’d told me as we loaded the car, but he said we didn’t need to bring it.
On the drive up, he told old sea stories. About fighting ship fires on the Antarctic ice fields. Smuggling whiskey off the docks down to Whitey Bulger’s territory in Southie. Standing alone on a moonless night on the deck of a super-tanker in the Indian Ocean, how the stars were so bright they cast shadows.
He told me about the Japanese girl he bought from a brothel when he was a young sailor stationed in Hokkaido. Why he didn’t marry her, and why he gave her back to her parents instead of selling her back to the bar where he’d first fallen in love with her.
And I thought about those strippers in Providence.
There was no way he was getting out of the wheelchair again. There was no way he was ever going to sea again.
I said maybe when winter is over, I can come up and we’ll go on an overnight trip to the coast. Like Portsmouth, maybe, or Gloucester. We can stay in a nice hotel, get steak and lobster, and find a place to watch the fishing fleet come in. Watch them unload skate and dogfish and haddock the way his father used to do back in Boston when he was a kid.
He thought that was a great idea. When the weather gets warmer, he said. Maybe April or May.
He had a few years left. The oncologist had told me nobody ever dies of prostate cancer. It hits them so old, you slow it down with hormone therapy, and they die of some other ailment down the road. And his condition was stable lately. The hormones fucked with his breathing some, but he said it was manageable.
On the drive home from Tilton we did not speak at all. I drove like the wind, trying to get to his kitchen, to his nebulizer and oxygen tank. He couldn’t breathe and I didn’t know what else to do but drive fast. He was panicked and jittery, mouth open, chest heaving, fingers drumming on the armrest, feet jackhammering a dread rhythm. He stared out at the trees, eyes wide, counting the miles, counting the minutes.
He didn’t have a few years left. We didn’t know it, but he had eight weeks.
4. Winter. LaGuardia.
Hospice called on a Tuesday morning in December, while I was visiting friends in Brooklyn. They said I had to come now.
Flights were bad. They gave blizzards names like hurricanes now and were cancelling planes everywhere. It was 1 p.m. My flight was at 9. I’d make it to his bed by midnight.
I spent the day in the Delta terminal, reading Rilke to myself, mostly from The Book of Images, Das Buch der Bilder, mumbling it out loud in my barely-adequate German and wondering if I should have rented a car instead.
O wie ist alles fern und lange vergangen.
The sound of whispered German was comforting. It felt like I was in that library scene in Wings of Desire, chiming in with the confused, lonely thoughts of hundreds of people in a humming chorus audible only to angels. I imagined Bruno Ganz, the angel Damiel, leaning over me. Trench coat draped over his wings, his hand on my shoulder, coaching me through the pronunciation, giving me strength.
I chatted with a younger couple about flight delays, how messed up with snow the whole country was. A loudmouthed Texas oil man settled down next to me. He was obnoxious and gregarious in a way peculiar to Texan men of a certain generation, and he wanted to be my buddy.
At 8:20, hospice called. They were so sorry. So very, very sorry.
I took down the details. I asked them not to call the funeral home yet, and I thanked them for taking care of him.
I should have rented a car, I thought. Blazed up I-95, fuck the snow. I would have been there in time.
There was crying bubbling up from somewhere way down in my throat, but it wasn’t going to come out. Not yet. Not while I had things I had to do.
The young couple was suddenly head down into their magazines. The Texan had his ear buds in and pretended to be fascinated by his PowerPoint. Everybody ignored me, because now Death was in the room and everybody pretends to be somewhere else when Death is in the room.
I called my brother, and we were sad, and then we argued, because he wanted me to tell him what to do, to tell him the plan, and I didn’t know what to tell him other than to be sad. I called my daughter. I tried to call my son but couldn’t reach him. I paced the terminal, making all the calls, telling the same stories and details over and over. Not able to sit, not able to be still, talking faster and faster, grinding my teeth, losing my breath, trying not to panic that time was still running out.
I paced and shook and talked and paced. I must have walked past the stranger a dozen times before he spoke, a throaty resonant sound like a big-bore V-twin with some miles on it.
He was a big dude, a working man, with faded biker tattoos peeking out of the sleeves of his company shirt. Steel-toed boots and a gray sea bag, beard and a Budweiser. He leaned forward in his seat, elbows on his knees, his enormous calloused hands clasped together. Not in prayer. More like he was about to crack his knuckles.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
Jeder Engel ist schrecklich. Und dennoch, weh mir, ansing ich euch…
I mumbled something, an acknowledgment, a thank you, and my panic snapped – skidded slantwise – and sliced the strings that had been making me dance since summer before last. I flopped into the seat opposite him.
Through the window behind him, men in winter gear danced a ballet with orange-coned lights, guiding jet airliners home through the snow to the sound of late gate change announcements.
There was so much time now. I still had so much to do but there was all the time in the world.
I thumbed my phone and dialed my son one more time.
RAY SHEA’s writing has appeared in Phoebe, The Rumpus, Hobart, apt, Fourteen Hills and elsewhere. He is currently at work on a memoir about fatherhood, violence, addiction, and memory, and he writes poetry in his spare time. A native of Boston and New Orleans, he lives in Austin. His favorite road these days is the stretch of Texas State Highway 90 that leads to Marfa, where, after driving for most of the day through a barren, lifeless, rocky, Blood Meridian-esque West Texas wasteland, you gradually find yourself in green grassy mountains, where the weather is cool and the landscape is so verdant and beautiful you’d almost swear that somebody had dropped a little piece of Ireland into the middle of the desert.