The boy grows up in Toledo in the fifties, where his father works at the tire plant and for the union as a shop steward. He does well in school, studies hard, and on the advice of a teacher applies to a bunch of small, East Coast schools. His father thinks he should go to Ohio University or maybe Michigan. They fight about it, but not much, because when it comes down to it, his father is proud of how well his son has done, and he trusts his wife, who says these other places will give the boy more opportunities. For the first time, his father skips the Labor Day parade and spends that weekend driving his son eleven hours to the campus and helping him move into his dorm room. They don’t have much to say to each other on the drive or across the table of the various diners they eat in, nor as they arrive at the college. Most of the other kids have come with both parents and more belongings. They are polite to the boy and his father in a way neither of them is used to, more like salespeople at a fancy department store than neighbors. Inevitably, the boy is eager for his father to leave, to get the awkwardness over with, and his father feels much the same. They shake hands in the parking lot, and the boy promises to phone his mother on Sundays.
As he’s unpacking in his room, the boy hears a knock at the door and looks up to see his dad. There’s something I meant to say, he says, his arms crossed over his barrel chest. Before I head off. I’m not leaning on you to study one thing or another, you can do whatever draws you, you’ll be fine at it. It doesn’t matter if I don’t understand it. But one thing. Whatever this place gives you, he said, indicating with a slow nod of the head the room, the view out the window, the campus beyond, wherever you end up, don’t work for the ball-busters. There’s decent management, you’d probably be good at it, you’re smart. I’m not saying don’t go into an office. I’m just saying, remember what brought you here.
Okay, the boy says, amazed to hear his father speak at such length.
All right, then, his father says, good luck.
The boy excels at college, studies philosophy and literature, and is told by a professor he should go on to graduate school. He’s tempted. The play of concepts gives him pleasure. His parents don’t object, they just don’t say much about it when he floats the idea, as if he’s announcing that he’s moving to another continent, one they’re unlikely to visit. He ponders the possibility for a long time. Despite the enjoyment they give, there is something about the immateriality of ideas and novels that seems too abstract to him. Too impractical. They seem to lack consequence. In the end, he decides to go to law school instead, where he figures writing and thinking can be turned into more useful things. When he tells his mother, she is delighted, as he knew she would be. His father he doesn’t speak to much anymore, other than the brief hellos and how-are-yous when he happens to answer the phone.
After graduating, he’s offered a position at a firm in Philadelphia, and a few years later he marries a young woman who works in one of the curatorial departments at the museum. They buy a small house near the train station in Bryn Mawr and wait several years before having their first child, a boy, whom they name Gabriel. As a senior associate, the man, now in his thirties, works on mergers and acquisitions. This is in the mid-eighties, when hostile takeovers are becoming more frequent. Often, the client’s goal is to acquire a struggling company and sell its parts for a profit, dissolving it in the process. Among the things that complicate the deal are labor contracts that the target company may have with unionized employees. The man’s under no illusion about what’s happened: he’s participating, more or less directly, in the one thing his father asked him not to do.
I’m just saying, remember what brought you here.
His parents have moved out of the city of Toledo by now, to a suburb, and he takes his family to visit them twice a year, once in the summer and once at Christmas. His wife is the one who knows the position he’s in, and whenever they discuss it, which is not often, they decide that all in all the best course is not to say anything to his parents about it. What would be the point? What he does has no immediate bearing on his father, who’s now retired and whose pension and benefits are secure.
But it eats at him, and one Christmas, when his own son is already ten, the man tells his mother about the nature of his work. The two of them are standing in the kitchen at the end of the night after his father has already gone upstairs to bed. She is silent for a time, as she wipes down the counters. She hangs the dishcloth on the door of the oven to dry and without raising her eyes from the stovetop says, for his sake, I’m asking you, don’t ever tell him that. He’s proud of you, even if he doesn’t say it. You should hear him talking to his friends. Never tell him this. You understand?
And so he doesn’t.
His son Gabriel decides to go to the same East Coast college that the man did, and on the Labor Day weekend of his first semester, the man drives him to his dorm and helps him move his belongings in. Though the campus is much the same, everything else is different. There is no silence in the car. He and Gabriel, both Democrats, are political junkies, and it’s a presidential campaign year. They devour and dissect poll numbers like box scores. His son wants to study political science and run campaigns. And when they’re not talking about politics his son tells him other things, about girls, about insecurities he harbors about his looks, intrigues with high school friends going off to other schools. And the man describes to him what his first year in college was like and what his son has to look forward to. When the time comes to leave, he gives no speech and they don’t shake hands. They just hug for a good, long time, and less than half an hour after he’s back on the road, Gabriel is already texting him to report the latest numbers from Iowa.
A few months later the man gets a call from his mother saying that his father, who already has emphysema and a heart condition, has gone into the hospital with severe pneumonia. He flies from Philadelphia to Toledo the next day and is at his father’s bedside by late afternoon. His father lies by the window, separated by a nylon curtain from a softly groaning man well into senility. Clear plastic tubes run from his nostrils, and his mouth and nose are covered by an oxygen mask. He hasn’t been shaved in several days, and because the man has never seen his father with a beard, it is the gray hair on his face more than the medical devices that make him appear weakened and forlorn. The room smells of bleach and urine and the half-eaten cheese sandwich on the tray suspended over the bed. His father pulls his mask aside to grunt hello but immediately begins to cough, and the man tells him to replace it. On the muted television mounted to the ceiling a fake judge presides over two hapless litigants. The man knows that this will be his last visit home to see his father.
He takes the food tray out into the hall to get rid of the odor and at the nurses’ station finds a copy of the local paper. The fortunes of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Indians have for years been the stuff of his brief exchanges with his father at the holidays or before the phone is passed off to his mother. He suspects that these days his father, like himself, pays only enough attention to the teams’ progress to allow for these fleeting conversational moments. Sitting in the plastic chair between the bed and window, he reads aloud an article describing the Cavs’ win the previous night over the Celtics. His father raises one eyebrow and nods. He reads the next article about their latest draft pick and then the commentator’s column complaining about the coach, and by the time he is done he is genuinely interested, not to mention relieved at the transport into a familiar, closed universe. When it comes time for him to leave, his father gives his hand a squeeze, and reaches his other hand up to clasp his forearm. I’ll be back tomorrow, the man says, I’m not going anywhere.
The next day his father is worse. The IV antibiotics are not enough. His lungs are filling with fluid. His mother comes to the hospital along with his father’s younger sister, whose two children also come and go. Standing vigil, shuttling people between the house and the hospital, going to the store to buy the small items his mother requests for his father’s last comforts, an anxiety begins to grow in the man that he will never get to see his father on his own again. That he will slip away too soon, while everyone is there. The thought quickly obsesses him. He cannot let this happen. When his aunt suggests she and his mother get dinner outside the hospital, the man sees his chance and importunes his mother to go.
The nurses switch shifts, and soon his father’s gruel of a dinner is served. Now that everyone has gone the anxiety has been replaced by concentration on the act. He removes his father’s mask and helps him take small bites of the chicken in brown sauce. Wiping the leavings from his whiskers, he places the mask back over his mouth and nose.
Leaning in close, speaking directly into his father’s ear, the man says, I want to tell you something. Can you hear me? His father nods. I’m a ball-buster, he says. I break up union contracts. I’ve been doing it for years. I’m good at it. I’ve invented new ways to do it. It’s how I bought my house. It’s what we raised Gabriel with. I wanted you to know. Before you die.
Close as he is to his father’s head, he can see the ropy vein running down his temple distend with blood and start to pulse. Despite his pallor, red blooms on his wrinkled cheek. He tries to mutter a response but it ends as another cough into his mask. Watching this, the man feels giddy as a boy in a store stealing for the first time, all his senses heightened, light-headed to the point of fainting, his victory against the world invisible and immense.
He leaves the hospital that evening in a state of great calm. Around dawn, his father’s heart gives out. When the phone rings back at the house, his mother takes the call. From under the door of the bedroom he slept in as a child, he can hear her crying.
The service is held at their old church in Toledo. His father is buried two blocks from the old house, just up the road from the shuttered tire plant.
When Gabriel graduates from college, he volunteers for a congressional campaign and then gets a paid position in a gubernatorial race. After a few years he has worked his way up to being the field director for a primary candidate in New Hampshire. The man speaks to him two or three times a week about how the race is progressing, about polls and get-out-the-vote infrastructure and what it’s like to work seven days a week. The man organizes a fundraiser for the candidate at his law firm, and his son comes down to speak at the event. When he goes up to New Hampshire on the last weekend of the race to volunteer, he’s happy to let his son hand him instructions and tell him what to do. And when the candidate loses, the man spends hours on the phone counseling his son, comforting him, talking through what he should do next, encouraging his desire to keep going in such an uncertain field.
He’s able to watch with pride as, over time, his son gains a reputation for being a skilled organizer and political staffer, eventually going to work for a senator in Washington. Though he and his longtime girlfriend do not marry, she becomes a member of the family, and the four of them take vacations together at least once every other year. The man is a partner now at his law firm. He still works on cases but spends more of his time assuaging the worries of clients and cultivating new ones than drafting the details of merger agreements.
When he visits his mother and they go to place flowers on his father’s grave, he barely recalls his last moment in the hospital with him, so far in the past it already seems. When his mother dies she is buried in the plot that has been awaiting her beside her husband. The house and most of its contents are promptly sold.
The man and his wife are enthusiastic runners and have been since they were first married. They belong to their local club, attend races up and down the East Coast, and do at least five kilometers each morning before breakfast. They have brought Gabriel up to run as well, and though he’s stuck with it, he’s not as fanatical about it as they are. Nonetheless, he and his girlfriend agree to take a vacation in Hawaii, where his parents plan to run a half-marathon. They arrange to spend a week together beforehand on one of the smaller islands.
I can’t, he says. You go.
It drizzles for much of the week, and the running is treacherous. On the first pleasant day, the man asks Gabriel to run with him, and the two of them head up a muddy track behind their rented house onto a winding road that extends to the far side of the island. Soon they have their windbreakers tied around their waists and are enjoying the uninterrupted view of the ocean. They come to a turnoff for a path that leads steeply up the hill, skipping to a higher section of the road. Breathing heavily, Gabriel stops, leans his hands down on his thighs and shakes his head. I can’t, he says. You go. Come on, the man says, it’s just a few hundred yards. He’s still jogging in place. He taps Gabriel on the back. Come on. They start up the stony path rutted by the rains and crisscrossed with the exposed roots of trees, eyeing the ground carefully as they go, both of them huffing now.
It’s just as he looks up to see the opening in the vegetation where the path rejoins the road that the man feels the contraction in his chest, as if an invisible hand that had rested open inside him all these years had suddenly clenched into a fist. He opens his mouth to call out, but no sound comes. Then he is tripping, his shoulder and thigh meeting the ground with terrifying speed, his head smashing against the embankment. The world vanishes from sight. He hears the bellow of his breath and water rushing down the creek. When his vision returns he is staring upward, where the blinding noonday sun is erasing the tops of the trees, forcing him to look away into the fern-covered bank opposite, where birdsong fills the shadows, giving shape to the damp, echoing air. The fist in his chest grips tighter, sucking more breath from his lungs. His son’s face appears above him. He is speaking too fast for the man to understand him. Gabriel reaches his hand down and brushes the side of his father’s head, and when he retracts it, the man can see blood smeared across his fingers and palm. His son takes off his T-shirt and uses it to wipe away the blood and dirt. He looks terribly, terribly young as he does this, and it occurs to the man that his son has never contemplated the world without him. He is saying that he needs to get an ambulance, that he is going to run back to the house and call one. The man knows that this is futile. They are on a small island. His life is out of their hands. He holds on to his son’s wrist, keeping him kneeling there on the dirt path.
Now is the moment, he thinks. Staring into Gabriel’s face, he awaits his condemnation. He needs it to come soon. The hand in his chest is constricting the pumping of his heart. Yet Gabriel says nothing as he folds his windbreaker into a pillow and places it beneath his father’s head. There is only care in his eyes. And then the moment is gone and the man is released, unpunished and unseen, into the realm of the dead.