Roots. They cling hard.
Everybody has them, but you really only notice when you leave and then return, and it seems like the longer the interval the stronger the pull.
They come in funny forms, like barbecue.
I sat down to a plate of it, thick pork ribs piled up on a cheap paper plate and surrounded by a bulwark of potato salad, cole slaw, jalapenos, and white bread. Across from me sat my father, old and bent, his once straight back supported by a cane.
He gazed in confusion at the menu, a confusion that’s with him all the time now, but there is nothing to do but ask and wait. “You need help ordering, dad?”
“No, I think I’m okay,” he said.
And the minutes crawled, because as okay as he wasn’t he still needed the dignity of being able to look and wait and hope that some of the jumbled letters would somehow make sense.
Finally, they did, sort of. “I’ll have the chicken,” he said with decisiveness and relief that something on the page had finally connected with something inside his head, a picture he understood and could make sense of.
“Okay,” I said, “let me go order.” But all I could think was that dad has, in the lifetime I’ve known him, never gone to a barbecue joint and ordered chicken. “Beans and potato salad?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said, “that would be mighty fine.”
I brought his food back to the table and worked on my mine some more. His shaking hands couldn’t cut meat so tender it wanted to fall off the bones, but there were no words asking for help. “You want me to cut that?” I asked after a decent interval.
“I think I’ve got it just fine,” he said, and then, “why don’t you have a try at it?”
The food that he’d once cut up into small pieces and put on my plate as a little kid I was now cutting up and putting on his. He watched with the same eagerness as the mountain became manageable.
Most of what he stabbed with his fork made it to his mouth, but it was a long time happening. I sat and waited as, from time to time, he’d look up and recognize me and gather every ounce of strength left between the walls of his skull and ask a question.
“What brings you to Houston?” he asked.
“Came here to see you, dad.”
“Well that is mighty nice of you, son, mighty nice.”
And he’d struggle a little more with the chicken. “How’s the family?”
“They’re all doing fine, dad. They send their love.”
“That is mighty nice, mighty nice. You have a wonderful family.”
And he’d struggle a little more with the beans as we sat there in silence, needing all the quiet on earth to simply eat, until, looking up, he’d try again.
“So what brings you here to Houston?”
“Came here to see you, dad.”
And so on and so on, until there wasn’t much food left and he was ready to go home.
We stood outside the barbecue joint waiting for the Lyft. “What do you have on your plate for the rest of the day?” he asked.
“I’m meeting a friend a little later,” I said. “How about you?”
For one brief moment the fog was gone and he understood everything, a quick moment of clarity when he knew where he was, who he was, who I was, what the sounds all meant, and how to answer them. He was aware of his broken mind and that I was aware, too.
“Me?” he said with this wry look that dad always used to make when he was laughing at himself. “Today? Nothing, son. Nothing at all.”
And then the curtain dropped and we were back on the curb, him confusedly stumbling in the fog and me nothing but flat fucking sad.
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