Renewal by Joseph Falank

Page 1

Edited by Chelsea Cambeis Proofread by Caron Oty


Copyright © 2022 Joseph Falank All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, please write to the publisher. This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published by BHC Press Library of Congress Control Number: 2021944531 ISBN: 978-1-64397-307-4 (Hardcover) ISBN: 978-1-64397-308-1 (Softcover) ISBN: 978-1-64397-309-8 (Ebook) For information, write: BHC Press 885 Penniman #5505 Plymouth, MI 48170

Visit the publisher:


1 The Lament of a Life Interrupted


n an unseasonably warm Thursday afternoon in early October, my younger brother, Randy, sent an alarming text. Through my open classroom windows, the comfortable breeze brought inside the dense aroma of decay. Each invigorating breath filled my nose with the stark scent of sodden, molding tree bark, tired soil, and crisp, sunburnt leaves. It was debatable which could be considered the first true indicator of autumn: the unmistakable changeover in the air, the shifting color of the leaves, or the other teachers wielding disposable cups filled with their choice of caffeinated beverage laced with the seasonal favorite— pumpkin spice. But I digress. In the minutes leading up to the text message that interrupted my quiet, humdrum existence, I gave my annual spiel about gangs and cliques to my seventh graders, which served as a prelude to one of my favorite books, The Outsiders. About half of my two dozen eighth-period students sat upright at their desks, surprisingly engaged and eager to participate, while I asked questions about their own peers and the social groups that divided them. The other half were slumped over their desks, eyes lifeless, heads lolling back and forth, necks supported by their hands. A few may have even been snoring. By this time in the school day—about an hour after lunch, when my own energy level matched that of a full-bellied boa constrictor—my

10 • joseph falank

discussions tended to rely on my students’ input. This was my fourth class of seventh graders (though sixth class overall), and my repeated lesson felt a bit worn by this point. Nevertheless, it was a gorgeous afternoon, so I took a deep breath to perk myself up and found the sunlight fed an eagerness to finish the day strong. I reached for my caffeine pick-me-up of lukewarm pumpkin spice that I’d been nursing since lunch. A little shake of the cup forced the last of the syrupy espresso onto my tongue before I dropped the empty Styrofoam cup into the receptacle next to my desk. “Okay.” I counted with the fingers of my right hand each of the middle school social groups my students had just listed off. “So, we have the jocks, the geeks, the nerds, which, I was told, are somehow different from geeks. Do I have that correct?” The class chimed in in unison, though in different wavelengths of enthusiasm. Yes, there was a difference—duh, Mr. Aton. “There are also the band kids, the skaters, the gamers—which are also different from the geeks and the nerds, yes?” They told me that was so. I now had the names of social groups running on both hands as I paced back and forth along the front of the room. Behind me on the smartboard, the two main factions present in The Outsiders—the Socs and the Greasers—were listed. “And we can’t forget the dolls, the rich kids, and… Who else? Anyone I’m forgetting?” I glanced around at the three double rows of students. There were four pairs in each row. They took a moment to ponder while looking at their partners and around to the rest of their classmates. A few murmured answers popcorned around. Heads nodded, and heads shook; some tilted to the side. Shoulders shrugged. One kid yelped awake when his ear was flicked. After a few moments, a hand shot up near the front of the room, center row. I gestured to this eager student, whose face was pleading as her hand flapped a quick breeze for my attention. “Yes, Miss Tate?” A petite, proper thing with black, impeccably straight bangs and a sky-blue turtleneck, Jennifer Tate kept her arm in the air, hand a-flut-

renewal • 11

tering, while maintaining the most rigid of postures. “There are also the art kids, Mr. Aton.” Her peers—those awake and participating, anyway—were in collective agreement. About a dozen heads bobbed. Mm-hmms were exchanged. “And the art kids.” I lifted a ninth finger. “Anyone else?” The class resumed searching each others’ faces for the next answer. “You guys don’t have a name for the poor kids?” That question garnered a few distasteful expressions. Another hand sprang up, this one from the back corner on the window side. Alex Rider, a red-haired boy with a gracious number of freckles dusted over his chubby face was almost standing, propped up with one knee on the seat of his chair. He wore a red Boston Red Sox shirt and bounced up and down on the foot that was planted on the dingy green-and-white-checkered linoleum, spouting, “Oooh, oooh, oooh!” to ensure he stole not only my eye, but the attention of his classmates. He spoke out before being called on (truth be told, I wasn’t going to call on him). Alex Rider was what many of us faculty at Roosevelt Middle so eloquently referred to as an obnoxious turd. “The poor kids are a part of every group, except the jocks like me.” Alex said this while jutting a thumb proudly into his own barreled chest. “Our pads and uniforms are too expensive for them. And their parents sit at home and collect government money, so they can’t sell our fundraisers at work.” What a little bag of douche. “I see.” I rubbed at the coarse, itchy stubble on my chin and moved on with my lesson instead of being sidetracked by the little ass clown. “So there’s no specific label for the poor kids. Is that what you all are telling me?” “Mostly, they’re in with the gamers, which is weird, right? Their parents can’t get them good clothes or soap, but they all have an iPhone or Xbox or PlayStation. I don’t get it.”

12 • joseph falank

Whispers to shut up and stink eyes were directed Alex’s way by those in the room. Alex’s response was a smug grin on a very punchable face. “Is he right?” I asked, broadening on the response. “Do the kids whose families are poorer just get lumped in with the other groups around the school?” Most of the class not so proudly confirmed this with uneasy, resigned nodding. The rest (those I knew to be gamers) sat without answering, which was an answer in and of itself. “I find that very interesting.” I once more took up my pacing, continuing to stroke at the bristly abrasiveness of my chin and jaw. “You see, back in my day, when I was but a young waiter serving Jesus at the Last Supper, the poor kids had their own clique. We had the rich kids and the jocks. The nerds and geeks were considered one group, but we used both names to describe them. There were also the cheerleaders, the band kids, and then there were the poor kids. We called them the Trash Can Kids.” A tandem outcry of shock and dismay sprang out of my class in response. Furrowed brows dominated the room. Mouths dropped and hung agape with their loud expression of disgust. Somewhere, a politically correct angel was denied their wings. “What?” I said, playing against the blowback of their outrage. Jennifer Tate raised her hand and spoke out. “You actually called poor kids that?” “Yeah. So?” “That’s so wrong,” called out Trent McCabe, who sat on the left side of the room. He gave me a sharp glare while folding his arms across his chest. His mouth curled downward, forming a curdled sneer. If he carried a shit list, I would have been the newest addition. “I didn’t invent the name!” I said in an attempt to exonerate myself from the scorn of two dozen twelve- and thirteen-year-olds. “Besides, social groups overall aren’t kind. Wouldn’t you agree? Even the ones with catchy names or the ones where those in the group accept their label

renewal • 13

with pride—they’re still not nice. Assigning people your age to a caste system of popularity because of how someone might look or act, what their interests are, or yes, how much money their family has, isn’t right, and it isn’t fair. But life isn’t fair, guys. I’m sure you’ve all heard that one at home, but it happens with every group of kids that goes through public schooling. “Everyone, at some point in their educational experience—like the kids in this book we’re about to read—is reduced to their stereotype, no matter what kind of person they truly are. Sad, isn’t it? Unfortunately, my young friends, this is the way of life in middle school and high school.” An extended lull of silence brought on by this uncomfortable, inconvenient truth filled the room. Miss Tate raised her hand again. No flapping this time. “Jennifer?” Her voice was soft, almost too hard to hear. “Does it ever end, Mr. Aton?” “The caste system of popularity?” She nodded. In this child’s unblemished face was a genuine interest to know the outcome. Hope pleaded from her eyes. While this exercise was simply meant to be a segue into reading a piece of classic fiction, the purity in Miss Tate’s face rendered me utterly speechless. It was clear that at some point in her young life, probably even recently, she had been reduced to some stereotype amongst her peers. Hearing this in the wavering desperation of her little voice applied an aching wrinkle to my heart. The delay in my response was only a handful of seconds, but it was a noticeable lapse in a room of angst-ridden preteens hanging on to not only what I said but what I didn’t say. There was a sense, perhaps only discernible by me, that whatever group Jennifer Tate found herself cast in likely wasn’t the designation she desired. I recalled my own middle and high school days as a prominent geek—a placement I didn’t select, nor have any say in, but was, in fact, the most fitting. For even on that

14 • joseph falank

fateful Thursday in October, standing before my class, I was in an argyle sweater vest and matching socks. “Yes, Miss Tate,” I said in earnest, just decibels above a whisper. “It does eventually end.” In Jennifer’s porcelain face, her dark eyes were still wide with quiet despair. She gave the subtlest of nods. She understood. The student sitting on Jennifer’s left, Samantha Cole, shook her head and made that disapproving tsk-tsk sound by clicking her tongue off the roof of her mouth. “Can’t believe you called the poor kids trash cans, Mr. Aton.” I shrugged and offered my only other defense as I paced back and forth across the front of the room: “It was the times, boys and girls. Back then, things like that were more…acceptable? I suppose that’s the best word for it. Acceptable doesn’t mean it was right. It was just our clever little take on the Garbage Pail Kids, which—a little bit of trivia for you all—was actually a parody of the Cabbage Patch Kids.” Samantha Cole wrinkled her nose. “I wouldn’t call it clever.” Alex, the red-haired, freckled-ass weasel, spoke out of turn again. “What are Garbage Pail Kids? And Cabbage Patch Kids? They sound stupid.” Ignoring his dumbassery, I retrieved my paperback copy of The Outsiders from my desk to hold up for display. “Anyway, this discussion on social classes has been to prep us for the next book we’re about to read: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.” Except my voice quit halfway through stating the author’s name, and I dropped the book to my side after only a second or two. A doubleshot vibration growled across the dark mahogany of my desktop. An alert popped up on the screen of my iPhone, which I’d placed on the far-right side of my desk. The screen remained lit, displaying a text I couldn’t make out from my vantage point. I stepped closer and leaned over the back of my rolling desk chair. The message was from my brother, Randy. Mel, you need to come home. Dad’s not well.

renewal • 15

I didn’t touch or even reach for my phone. The text vanished within seconds as the neglected screen went dark. I stood there, frozen in a convoluted vacuum of worst-case-scenario thoughts. My inner worries amassed across my mind, beneath which came an incessant drumming deep within my ears. I had to consciously take a breath, then felt that intoxicating rush of fresh oxygen swirl around after such a long delay, bubbling up through my brain. None of my students spoke out during this long, uncomfortable silence. Perceptive as kids are, they sensed something was wrong. In our shared disquiet, they were waiting on me to provide any sign of All Clear. The screen of my phone lit up again with the same message—the second notification of the text’s arrival. The accompanying humming of the phone on the desk projected itself across the hushed classroom. I watched it, heard it happen, yet still startled. Mel, you need to come home. Dad’s not well. My mind kicked into the gear of damage control. I considered where I was and what I needed to do. The phone screen went dark again, revealing the oily smudges, swipes, and smears of my fingerprints on the glass. All forty-eight eyes in the room were locked on me. Their faces mirrored my uneasiness. I tried to speak but found my mouth dried out, tongue swollen and slathered with a remnant bitter paste of pumpkin spice that made words impossible. At the sudden clearing of my throat, a few of my students jumped in their seats. “Um…” My tone was shaky and no longer rang with the sturdy volume and confidence of my teaching voice. I couldn’t meet their confused, concerned gazes. I had to address them while looking blankly at the Writing Process and How to Construct an Argumentative Essay posters hanging side by side on the back wall of our classroom. “Why don’t we do a journal entry for the remainder of class time?” The confusion they’d been directing at me now ricocheted between them as they turned to each other. “All right.” It took a concentrated effort to force my voice through the tightening in the back of my throat and summon a percentage of my

16 • joseph falank

usual cadence. I closed my eyes to home in on what I wanted to say, then proceeded to give my new lesson plans slowly, with measured substance, so it didn’t come off as though I were offering my class a suggestion, but rather a directive. “Let’s take out our composition notebooks and turn to the next blank page.” Quietly and with subtle movements relaying uneasiness, the class did as instructed without question. Their hesitation to retrieve their notebooks indicated how much they really wanted to voice their displeasure, but they refrained. Even Alex Rider. My students became barometers, sensing the atmospheric shift in the room, and decided it was best to just go along with what was being asked of them. “For the rest of our class time, I want you guys to write a short paragraph between five and eight sentences about what social group you think or know you belong to here at Roosevelt Middle. In your paragraph, I also want you to tell me about the benefits and drawbacks to having these different kinds of groups at school. You can begin.” Miss Tate’s hand creeped upward as I went to sit down at my desk. “Jennifer?” Her face was creased in a wince, as if pained her to bring up what had crossed her mind. “You want us to write for the rest of the period?” “Yeah. Do your best with whatever we’ve got left—five, ten minutes.” This was about how long I usually allotted for journal entry assignments. “We actually have thirty minutes left.” Her slightly crooked bottom row of teeth were bared in a cringe while giving me this news. My obliviousness of the time brought a few snickers from around the room, the loudest of which came from my friend, Alex Rider. Kid looked like he had yellow Chiclets for teeth. “All right, well, if you guys finish early, just use the rest of the time to work on something for another class.” While they wrote in their journals, they also kept watch on me. The heat of their stares broke a sweat over the nape of my neck. Whenever I lifted my head from my brother’s message, their chins dropped

renewal • 17

over their open notebooks, and the pens in their hands moved with busy scribbles. The last minutes of class felt twice as long as I tried to deduce what might have happened with my father. The clock ticked the seconds away louder than usual. At about five to go, I typed a message back. I have a free period next. I’ll call you. When the bell rang, the kids gathered their things and funneled toward the door, trading quiet—well, what twelve- and thirteen-yearolds believed to be quiet—theories regarding what brought our productive class dialogue to a screeching halt. Between their sidelong glances over at my desk, I caught the following: “Yo, maybe he had a stroke.” This was from Alex, the fire-headed skidmark. “That’s how it happened to my uncle. He just went quiet. Next thing you know, bam”—he punched his right fist into left palm— “he’s retarded.” Alex’s gaggle of jackholes tittered at his flagrant use of the R-word, a term that had been deemed a forbidden no-no on school grounds. “He didn’t have a stroke, you dumbass.” This came from Paul, one of the boys not part of Alex’s tagalongs, as he pushed his way past them. “He was talking just fine—actually better than you.” Alex gave Paul a retaliating shove into the hall, then reconsidered his prognosis, donning a devious smirk as he glanced my way once more. “Betcha he sharted, then.” His friends cackled, agreeing that had to be it. I reminded myself that it would be a fireable offense to either flip the little beast the double bird or call him over to my desk and send him home believing he was adopted. The last student in the room was Miss Tate, who approached the front of my desk once everyone else had moved on. She raised her hand, standing two feet from me. I reminded her she didn’t have to—class was over, and she already had my attention. “What is it, Jennifer?” “Don’t worry,” she said, stone-cold serious, “I don’t think you sharted.”

18 • joseph falank

“Great.” Miss Tate retained her downtrodden expression. “Are you all right, Mr. Aton? You don’t look it. Did you get bad news?” With an exasperated sigh, I forced composure, folded my hands on the desktop, and mustered as big a warm, convincing smile as was manageable. “Yes, Miss Tate. I’m fine.” She wasn’t so convinced. “My dad says when my mom says she’s fine, it really means she’s not. He calls it ‘the other F-word’ and says she uses that word a lot when she’s on her period.” “Well,” I said, looking to pogo myself right over that particular field of TMI landmines, “I promise you, I’m doing all right. But thank you for your concern.” Jennifer didn’t leave. Her expression remained grim. She took hold of both straps on her lavender backpack, tugged them away from her body as if flexing a rubber band, and swayed—an obvious sign of uncertainty. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Something I can help you with, Miss Tate?” She shrugged. “I guess I was just wondering…did you ever finish your book?” Her question caught me off guard. Struck curious, I reclined in my chair, which brought out a grinding moan from the coiled spring beneath my seat. “My book? How did you know I had written a book?” “Don’t all English teachers write books?” I smiled at her stereotypical—yet, quite accurate—observation. Every English teacher and professor I could recall having or working alongside kept stacks of unpublished poems, memoir-style letters and essays, or a work-in-progress manuscript stashed away in a desk drawer or carried it with them in a beat-up messenger bag. I folded my hands behind my head. A little laugh escaped me. In the moments humoring Miss Tate, the troubled thoughts of the text from my brother slipped away. “Some of us do, I guess. But how did you know about mine?”

renewal • 19

Miss Tate dropped her chin to her chest. A bashful smile divulged her guilt. “I came in once to ask you about a homework assignment, and you weren’t here. I saw a few of the pages on your desk.” “And while you were snooping on my desk”—if we were in court, there would be an objection called for leading the witness—“did you happen to read those pages?” Miss Tate’s eyes gave her away, lighting up and exuding a smile all their own. Of course, I knew the answer before asking. “Is it getting published?” At once, Jennifer Tate became enthusiastic at the prospects. “Are you gonna be, like, super famous? Will you still be our teacher if you make a gazillion dollars? Can we read your book instead of The Outsiders?” I laughed. The tension instigated by Randy’s plea to come home and the unknown condition of my father was demolished into a pile of rubble thanks to this starburst of a compliment and the adorableness behind it. “Well, I’m not sure about it being published yet. My agent has it now, and she’s trying to sell it. Unfortunately, though, I don’t think I’ll be making a gazillion dollars or that we’ll be reading it in class. I’m sorry.” Jennifer’s mouth bent into a disappointed frown. “Is it because you used a lot of swears?” It took me a moment to grasp what she was asking, but then I clucked the tip of my tongue off the roof of my mouth in that Oh shucks, you got me manner. “That’s probably it. But, hey, you are going to love The Outsiders. I just know it. It was one of my favorites when I was your age, and I love teaching it every year. Ponyboy Curtis, Sodapop, Dally, Darry, Johnny, and Two-Bit—all of them are fascinating characters. Every single one of my classes enjoys reading it. And, after we finish the book, we’ll spend a few days in class watching the movie.” This didn’t seem to drum up the excitement in Miss Tate I was driving for. She asked, “You think they’ll ever make a movie out of your book?” “Well…” Amused, I leaned toward Miss Tate in the manner of sharing a secret and lowered my voice. The arm, springs, and casters of

20 • joseph falank

the chair’s base groaned again against the forward shift of my weight. “Just between you and me, I think it has to sell really well as a book first before it gets made into a movie. And, even then, I’ll probably have to get rid of some of the swears.” Miss Tate giggled, her smile showing a dimple on the left side. I glanced up at the clock and saw the passing time between periods was almost over. “You better hurry up or you’re going to be really late for your next class. Who do you have next?” “Mrs. Benson for Math.” I scribbled a hall pass and sent her on her way. The passing bell sounded just after she was out of sight. The noise and foot traffic through the halls and stairways diminished as classroom doors closed and the next lessons began. The building turned quiet. At the time, I didn’t know it would be a whole week before I saw Miss Tate and all my other students again. Or that, in those days gone, I would be reacquainting with a person and a whole other life I’d left behind two years earlier.

With the final period of the afternoon underway, I closed my classroom door, turned the lock on the handle, and flipped the switch to kill the overhead fluorescents. Stricken with restless legs, I paced the room—pacing was a long-established habit of mine when nerves got the better of me. Following a path up one aisle and down the next, I forced each press of the ten digits that made up Randy’s number. He picked up before the end of the first ring. Clearly, my younger brother had kept proximity to his phone, waiting on my call. “Sup, bro?” he said oh so nonchalantly, as if he hadn’t just sent me the world’s most unsettling text message. That was vintage Randy though—jerkass extraordinaire. “Long time no espeaka.” Annoyed, I cut through the rows of desks and ceased my pacing at the long windowsill that ran the length of the far side of the room. Leaning against the heating vents, I stared out the glass at the zenful sight of swaying maples and white oaks. Their spectrum of mold-spotted leaves

renewal • 21

flapped and rippled in the rising autumnal gusts, giving me something to focus on. The sharp breeze felt refreshing against the heat blooming in my face. “Yeah.” I bit the side of my tongue. “It’s been a while.” “Almost two years since we had the services for Mom.” “I’ve talked to you plenty since then,” I fired back, a bit more on the defensive side than I’d intended. Randy, however, remained neutral. “That’s the last time we saw you, Mel.” “Well, I’ve been teaching, and…writing my novel…” It wasn’t the most creative excuse, but I was being put on the spot and stumbled my way through it. Plus, it was honest if not creative. As honest as I felt like being. Besides, Randy knew what happened. He was there that night. He’d witnessed all the accusing and blaming and shouting and storming out. He didn’t need me to relive it now, and I wasn’t going to wait for him to bring any of it up. “Anyway, what’s going on with Dad?” No doubt Randy caught onto my redirection; fortunately, he decided not to challenge me on it. Instead, he took a pause for whatever effect suited him. For a beat or two, I thought the call dropped. “Honestly, Mel…things aren’t looking good for him.” The choice of words in that deflated, hopeless tone triggered a déjà vu that rendered me breathless. As I hung my head, I pressed my free hand against the chilled window glass to keep steady. The cold shock against the delicate padding of my palm kept me grounded. My head swam with a brief yet overwhelming memory. Now I wanted to sit. …things aren’t looking good… Those words reverberated, volleying back and forth between the curved inner walls of my ears before receding down one of the many corridors of my mind. That phrase… I recalled those words from the call about Mom years back. That call also happened to come from my brother. Mom had been ill for weeks during the summertime with what we all believed to be a unique case of the flu. Doctors said pneumonia. And when the symptoms persisted rather than clearing up—this after two rounds of antibiotics—

22 • joseph falank

she fought to get more tests done. Something else was wrong. Mom was certain of it. An ultrasound proved her feelings right. Lung cancer. Stage three. Yahtzee. Mom had never smoked a day in her life. How ’bout them apples? The cancer wasn’t unbeatable, the doctors said, but the odds weren’t great. Just about that time, Dad developed a series of distinct symptoms all his own. Instances of random forgetfulness, sporadic irritability, and strange misspeaks had become frequent, though mostly mild. The biggest red flag was the day he walked home from the grocery store, a mile and a quarter from home, not remembering he had driven himself there. Among the bagged items he’d lugged on his walk, the carton of mint chip ice cream was the biggest casualty. “Is this about Dad’s Alzheimer’s?” Restlessness resurged through my legs; my pacing around the classroom resumed. “Yeah.” The resignation in Randy’s voice alluded to a greater severity. “Something happened, Mel. Something pretty bad.” A dry spot settled in the back of my throat and cracked my voice when I asked what happened. “Well, he’s been cycling more frequently. Having more episodes. At night, he’s been wandering more. Doesn’t really try to leave the house, though I did have some deadbolts put in. We keep the keys hidden. He just goes in and out of the rooms as if he’s pacing.” Those words stopped me cold at the front of my classroom. My own routine with pacing developed some twenty years earlier, back in my middle school years. Afflicted with horrendous anxiety at the doorstep of my teen years, my worst episodes blossomed into near panic when sitting in quiet classrooms, terrified to be called on, even if I knew the answer the teacher was looking for. Those long, dreadful silences where teachers would stare us down, waiting us out with the walls closing in, eyeing every face in the room in search for class participation were excruciating. I feared their promise to select a volunteer at random

renewal • 23

if no one spoke up because, often, that chosen one was me. Always me. Why me? The only worst experience in school had to do with an older male gym teacher who used to squeeze by us in the locker room butt-assnaked on his way to and from the showers. This happened frequently during my four-year sentence at Serling Oaks High. At that time, no one thought sideways of a phys ed teacher showering off at the same time as the students. But on the one occasion that would be forever etched into the wrinkles of my brain, Mr. Childs had been toweling off near me when I caught a spritz across my left cheek and upper lip of some water wicking off his untanned, liver-spotted thighs. And to think, after all my angst in school, I became a teacher. “Sometimes he opens and closes the closet doors.” My brother was still going on about our father’s night excursions while I shifted around on my feet, fighting for comfort and ease without walking around. “And then, well, there was last night…” “What?” My voice carried an impatient snip. I wasn’t in the mood for a dragged-out story; however, I softened my tone after a deep breath and some remorse for my brother’s feelings. “What happened?” Randy sighed over the line. “Last night, after he went to bed, I was going around, picking things up, and then I started the dishes. With the water running, I didn’t hear him get up and come down the stairs. He woke up in one of his…displacements…” Displacements was not a recognized medical term. It was a piece of jargon coined by us Aton brothers during the onset of our father’s disease. Cycling was ours too. Creating these labels to describe Dad’s most prominent symptoms gave us a sense of inclusion into what was happening so unpredictably to our old man. We became a part of the Alzheimer’s struggle. Ironically, these invented terms also allowed us to observe Dad’s onset behaviors with a measure of distance. We could detach from how close to home this invasive disease was, from the new and baffling reality that Dad’s mind was slowly eroding, working against him, convincing him of false memories or (dis)placing him in moments

24 • joseph falank

of older, genuine ones. The influence of a compromised mind—the power of how it could select at random from a range of fading instances in Dad’s memoryscape and place him in those experiences—was both incredible and incredibly scary. Scarier to think it was almost supernatural how his mind conjured these hallucinations around him. Over the years, Randy had been much more involved with our father and the disease than I. Saying my brother dealt with it is perhaps too strong a negative connotation, although I’m sure some days felt more like dealing with it than just being involved. My own experiences with Dad had been limited to his initial bouts of confusion and irritability, when he was at a loss for the names of streets, favorite TV shows and restaurants, wrote some of his letters backwards, or was amiss for a word here and there. By this point, with Mom deteriorating before our eyes and Dad struggling with mental misfirings, my marriage had already been over almost a full year. In the hours after Mom’s memorial service at the church, when we were all gathered back at the house, Dad and I got into our infamous shouting match. Nothing since that night two years prior had been reconciled because of how I’d stormed off and then stayed away. Over time, Randy had filled me in as instances of Dad’s forgetfulness and persistent mood swings escalated. I would hear how Dad experienced trouble with recognizing faces, names, sometimes numbers too. He’d told me how Dad couldn’t explain the purpose of his house keys. Around that time, he also became prone to gazing off as if captured and stuck in a kind of trance. He would, on occasion, mumble or drool. There were times he couldn’t remember how to hold or use a pen or recall what they were used for. He became victim to incontinence. He was upset a lot and mostly with himself. The only thing Dad had yet to do was hurt someone or himself. In a moment, Randy was going to inform me that final box on Dad’s Alzheimer’s bingo card was filled in.

renewal • 25

“So, I’m doing the dishes,” Randy explained, “when, out of the fucking blue, one of the dining room chairs comes crashing down over the back of my head.” Winner winner chicken dinner. I grimaced and sucked in air through clenched teeth. Picturing the attack sent a shock wave of gooseflesh cascading over the delicate flesh of my groin. My inner thighs tingled; my knees weakened. I grasped onto a nearby desktop and whispered the Lord’s name. “Down I went to the floor,” Randy said, “still conscious, but barely. I was totally dazed. Managed to twist my ankle on the way down. And Dad’s just standing over me, screaming, wanting to know who I am and how I got in his house. Then he’s yelling at me to get out before he gets his shotgun.” “Jesus Christ.” My temples pulsed with a beat all their own. “I’m not exaggerating. Dad was that much of a lunatic. Ranting and raving, spit flying as he yelled. And I’m just sitting there against the cabinets, scared shitless that he’s going to kill me because he suddenly has no idea who I am. And it’s not like I can defend myself or plead with him because I’m practically two seconds from lights out and closing time, if you know what I mean.” “How’d you get him to stop?” “I crawled my way out of there, that’s what I fucking did. Went out the back door with Dad cursing at me and threatening me the whole time. Wasn’t much else I could do.” “Then what?” My knees became so shaky while listening to my brother’s harrowing recollection that I didn’t trust myself to remain upright on legs that wanted to fold. Using the desk that was already supporting my weight, I lowered myself to the scummy green-andwhite-checkered linoleum. It didn’t matter that I was wedged between rows of desks, the top of my head just barely beneath the lip of a desktop. Didn’t matter that my pants were getting covered with a chalky white dust from the constant foot traffic that coated the floor. My atten-

26 • joseph falank

tion was entirely focused on the voice of my brother penetrating my right ear. “Finally, I got to the porch. Dad slammed the door behind me. I had enough wits to call nine-one-one. But none of that is even the strangest part, Mel.” Lucky me, I didn’t even have to ask. “A trooper showed up, and we went inside. The faucet was still running. Water and soap were flowing over the sink onto the floor. There were pieces of the broken chair everywhere. We found Dad in the dining room, calm as could be, sitting at the table. It was like nothing ever happened.” My stomach fluttered with the peaks and valleys of Randy’s story, eager to know how it all turned out, especially for my father. My lips went dry. I could feel with my tongue the scarred split at the top center of my lip that always cracked anew when chapped. A feeling of frailty settled over me that resembled a severe drop in blood pressure. I rubbed my eyes, squeezing them shut. Fireworks of color exploded in the darkness behind my closed lids. Impatience and worry remained overwhelming. I asked, “What was he doing?” “Get this,” said Randy, as if I were about to be impressed. “He was going to town on an entire sleeve of Ritz crackers! Just shoveling them in like tree limbs going through a mulcher, crumbs and shit fountaining out of his mouth. There was a coating of cracker dust all over the table. Looked like the floor of a high school tech room after we all used the band saw.” The mental vision of Dad chowing down so ruthlessly put a crimp in my already uneasy stomach. “But here’s the weirdest part: he was acting like a child. He was sitting there—seventy-three years old, right? —in the chair, looking at us with these big eyes brimming with tears. In this timid little voice, he asked us if we knew when his mother was coming home because she was supposed to make his dinner.” In disbelief at such a bizarre scenario, I snickered. “No shit?”

renewal • 27

“No shit. I explained Dad’s Alzheimer’s to the trooper, including that I had never seen it like this. Never like this. I’m convinced the cop wouldn’t have believed the attack even happened had he not seen for himself the chair in pieces on the kitchen floor.” It took a few moments to digest everything Randy had said. Along with an intensifying headache where my brain felt like it would breach my skull, the back of my neck was damp in a cold breakout sweat. I massaged my temples in hard circles, then squeezed and pressed along the tense muscles down the slope of my neck and across both shoulders. Anything to ward off the aches and constricting angst that closed in on me. “Anything else happen after that?” “Fortunately, we were able to convince him to go back to bed. Didn’t hear a peep from him the rest of the night. And thank God too, because my head was pounding.” I could relate. “I threw up twice from being so dizzy and nauseous. Could hardly walk because my ankle swelled right up.” The pressure in my head seeped down behind my eyes. I squeezed them shut again and wondered if it were possible the headache was just a case of sympathy pain. “Please tell me you went and got checked out.” “Mild concussion and a sprained ankle.” Randy scoffed. “The trooper wanted me to go get checked out last night, but I couldn’t just leave Dad at the house alone, you know? Not after that. Not after the way he had been. Sometimes, Jules’s sister Amy will come stay a few nights to give me a break if we feel someone has to be there, and I thought of phoning her, but it was getting late, and I didn’t want to be a bother. I didn’t even tell Jules it happened until after Dad’s aide showed up in the morning. Good thing I was already on my way to the hospital, or Jules would have put me there for sure.” “Jesus, Randy,” I muttered, pressing my knuckles against the delicate flesh on my brow and kneading away. Feeding the pressure points did help a little to fend off the headache.

28 • joseph falank

“Is that the worst of it?” I asked. A concussion, especially for someone a hair shy of forty, was nothing to be taken lightly. I hoped Randy didn’t interpret my inquiry as dismissive, when really, I was just reeling, still processing. “Yeah, that’s the extent of the damage. Ankle’s nothing—doctor said the sprain was light. Overall, just a good ol’ hit on the noggin.” “Yeah, well, pretty sure we both know you’re safe there.” Randy chortled, ignoring the sarcasm that stemmed from my irritation with him for not making his own care a priority. “Amen.” Silence crept its way back in, but my brother ensured the quiet between us didn’t last long this time. “You’ve got to come home, Mel. You’ve got to. I’m just…I’m being straight with you when I say I just can’t do this by myself anymore. And with the baby coming next month…” He drifted off for a moment, then said, in total earnest, “I’m drowning here. And I would really appreciate a hand if you could spare one.” In addition to the ache pulsating in my head and feeling gutted, my heart was hollowed out by guilt. There wasn’t much more terribleness left to feel. “Jules…” Randy said, and I pictured him shaking his head with uncertainty. My brother’s frayed spirit and depleted reserves of patience were evident in the way he kept talking when I wouldn’t fill in the gaps. “It’s got to be the hormones and the exhaustion of being pregnant, but she told me she doesn’t want me alone with Dad anymore. She’s convinced something worse is going to happen. She’s had this worry for a while, and now… Jesus, I can’t do that to her, not now. Not when—” “Yeah.” I groaned with resignation while pinching high up on the bridge of my nose. I couldn’t bear it anymore. “Yeah…I know.” The answer I had to give my brother was obvious, but it also proved distressing. Adding to all my other afflictions, my heart rate sped up. Coming to terms with my responsibility and giving Randy a verbal commitment felt beyond me. It felt impossible. By way of a superhuman hivemind, common among siblings without a word shared between them, my brother sensed my apprehension.

renewal • 29

“You know he didn’t really mean everything he said that night, don’t you? It wasn’t all him—it was the disease. Well, part of it. The rest was just the old-fashioned way he was brought up. He and Mom…they were both that way. Old. Set in their ways.” I admitted to knowing this, wearing a sheepish frown. I harbored a simmering bitterness over my marriage ending. Like my parents before me, till death do us part was never an option in my mind. When it came to pass that Jess and I weren’t meant to be, the reality proved devastating. My folks were no source of sympathy. My separation and subsequent divorce vexed them. In the eyes of my parents, I gave up, and that was not their way of things. I let them down—and myself. I surrendered to the reality that the divorce was going to happen with or without my consent. Notwithstanding the fact that we had a daughter together. After the papers were signed, the proceedings complete, and Jess and I were no longer legally bound to one another, a whole new kind of hurt set in. Because it was real. I broke my biggest, most vital promise. And the real bitch of it? Early on in our relationship, I anticipated our failure. Seeing beyond the rose-colored veil, I had an inkling shortly after we met that Jess and I wouldn’t make it. We weren’t right for each other long term. We were hot and heavy out of the gate, blinded by our passionate—if not flimsy—magnetism, but we proved too different when the boiling waters cooled. And I never spoke up. I corroborated a relationship that had no legs and ended up disappointed in myself when those rational thoughts turned out to be right, because I hadn’t wanted to be right. I wanted a marriage. I wanted a family. And it all shattered under my watch. But time passed, as it does. Emotions settled. Somewhat. Our daughter, Molly, learned to cope with divorced parents. Jess and I maintained a semblance of friendship that was at times rocky, even strained and bitter, but for the most part amicable. We kept it in check the best we could for Molly. But none of that was good enough for Dennis and

30 • joseph falank

Nora Aton. My parents kept the pressure and the blame on me for the dissolvement of my family. They were relentless in suggesting I find a way to get back together with my ex despite my assurance that it would never happen. When my parents each received their respective diagnoses (this mere months after the ink had dried on the divorce papers), perspectives changed and shifted away from me, toward the direction of their care. But even that was only temporary. Jess and I had been exes three years when Mom passed. During our argument at the quiet gathering after the memorial service, my father threw my every failure as a former husband at me as if I were a dartboard and he needed the practice. Caught up in the heat of the moment, I neglected to attribute any part of his behavior to his mental illness and returned fire with his every failure as a father when I was going through my marital struggles. Then I left. From that point, I figured the best way to avoid future conflicts was to deny my father an opponent to spar with. So I stayed away. Complete radio silence. He was not on my Christmas card list. Nor I his. Had Mom been around… Well, she wouldn’t have allowed such behavior out of either of us. Her being gone made all the difference. Dad’s Alzheimer’s played a key role in everything he had become. The stress of losing his wife of over forty years—and not being able to be there for her while she fought the hardest battles of her cancer because of his own debilitations—exacerbated his delusions and caused his emotions to flare at unexpected times. Perhaps it was easy for him to take out his frustrations on me given that he lost the woman he spent more than half his life fawning over to a disease that ate away the very life of her, whereas I lost the woman I wanted to love more than anything simply because I grew tired of the standoffs. Was my father right to be on my ass about giving up? In emotionally murkier times, I thought so. It haunted me that I didn’t fight hard enough for reconciliation. That Jess and I were just not simpatico was little compensation.

renewal • 31

Staying away from my ailing father, becoming a hermit in my apartment three hours south in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and burying myself in the work of my classroom and my novel was a way to avoid facing the two monumental failures of my life. My brother asked, straightforward, “So, will you come up?” What else was there to tell him? “Yes. I’ll be there.” Randy exhaled. “How long?” was my follow-up question. There was some guilt in asking, but I explained that my administrators would need to know how long to anticipate my absence and schedule a sub. I also needed to know how much in the way of lesson plans to leave for my students. “Probably just the weekend,” Randy said. “I think that’ll be long enough for you to see it.” “See what?” My brother cleared his throat. I envisioned him rubbing his neck as he spoke. “Jules and I have been talking about it for a while…even before this all happened.” I stood from the floor, unsure which direction to pace. “Talking about what?” “We think maybe it’s time we look into…you know…full-time care.” It was inevitable from the beginning—the day we long anticipated when Dad got the results in Dr. Patel’s office, but a day never spoke of. Any combination of words linked to removing Dad from our childhood home and placing him in a facility that reeked of antiseptics and stale farts, had round-the-clock nurses pushing metal carts full of prescriptions, and was essentially a pitstop on the way to the great unknown, was a form of blasphemy. The topic had never surfaced between us because of denial. Randy and I were at the initial appointment with Dad’s neurologist. We both wanted to be present for the testing, so Jules stayed with our mother, who was in no condition to be traveling to any appoint-

32 • joseph falank

ments that were not her own. The treatments left her tired and physically ill for days following each visit. Randy and I had sat flanking Dad. The three of us faced the doctor’s large slab of an oak desk in an office lit by natural light. Thick, leather-bound volumes and wide, white binders lined several shelves on three walls. The neurologist, Jeffrey Patel, removed a steno pad from a drawer in his desk. He handed it to Dad, along with a silver fountain pen, and asked him to draw the face of a clock displaying the time of quarter after eight. Dad spent just over a full minute on his drawing. Though the three of us were unsure of the nature of this exercise (I figured it to be an icebreaker of sorts), the request was simple enough. But Randy and I traded perplexed looks when Dad held up his picture, as he was instructed to do by Dr. Patel. His clock came out looking nothing like it should. First, the circle appeared more like a misshapen balloon. The top of his clock was fat and wide, then narrowed, tapering to a pucker at the bottom right. The twelve was placed correctly, but the other numbers were crammed along the top right curve, and not all of them were in order. The numbers weren’t spaced equally. Some had a gap larger than the one featured between David Letterman’s front teeth. Numbers ten and eleven weren’t even inside the clock’s circle. The hands that should have been displaying the time as eight fifteen didn’t point to the appropriate numbers. They also weren’t drawn onto the clock’s face, but slightly off to the side, eclipsing the edges. The finished drawing looked like a two-year-old’s artistic masterpiece. Nothing a seventy-year-old should be touting. Scary thing was that Dad saw nothing wrong with his drawing. When asked by Dr. Patel, Dad confirmed he had drawn a clock displaying the time asked of him. He pointed out all the numbers and the placement of hands. Patel gave no hint that Dad was way off; he simply, and kindly, said thank you, and collected the drawing to store along with his records.

renewal • 33

That was the moment Randy and I knew. Knots had formed in my stomach, then tightened. Sure, there were many more tests to come, but the conclusion had been telegraphed and was about as subtle as being struck by a freight train. Dr. Patel spoke to Randy and me in private afterward. First, he made us promise never to let Dad attend another appointment or meeting—whether it was with another doctor, a bank, or even his barber— that regarded his care and welfare without one or both of us present. We were now vital to Dad’s continued well-being. “I’m sorry, but your father is no longer capable of caring for himself completely.” These were the exact words spoken to us. “You need to be in contact with his primary physician and have your names added to his list of medical proxies. You need to do this also with accounts at his bank. They’ll have you fill out forms to become financial proxies.” Patel then exhaled glumly, evidence that he’d likely had this exact same conversation with other children of elder parents struck with the disease. “I can tell you already, your father will never recover to what his mental faculties used to be. From here, he will only get worse.” I was winded by the invisible sucker punch and moved my hands to my mouth, my hips, folded both arms—no position felt right, and there was no room in the small office to pace. Shock had stolen away my voice. “There are a number of experimental therapies out there, and some prove quite effective against the early stages of dementia, but I’ve got to be straight here: they really only delay the inevitable. I’ll get you the information on those therapies if that’s the route you wish to take. Right now, though, I need to know you both understand everything I’ve just told you.” We both confirmed with a quiet, “Yes.” For me, there was also a silent no. Yes in that what Dr. Patel said was clear, and he was right. Dementia was plain to see in that lopsided clock and the dozen or so follow-up questions regarding simple facts Dad had failed to answer correctly—

34 • joseph falank

and this was even before any brain imaging or lab work. When asked for the date of his birth, Dad had replied with the correct month but was off by two days and nine years. The silent no in my head was linked to my sheer disbelief and the struggle to accept just how bad things had gotten so quickly. That was two long years ago, and now here we were, considering placement in a home. “We’ll talk about it.” That’s all I could promise. Randy didn’t push it. He got what he wanted: a to-be-continued instead of the anticipated brush-off. “What time will you be here tomorrow?” he asked, cutting right to the nitty-gritty. “I’ll leave as soon as I can.” That, too, was all I was willing to swear by. “Hey.” Randy’s tone had become clear of bullshit. He was straight and sincere, if not a little somber. “Thank you, Malcolm.” In the four decades we had known each other, my brother rarely spoke my full name—he’d always went by the nickname he dubbed me with as a kid, a girly one that embarrassed me in front of his friends or at school— so when he wielded it on that October afternoon, his gratefulness and appreciation carried an additional weight. “Sure thing,” I said. After we ended the call, I closed my eyes, laid my head all the way back on the hinge of my neck, and groaned a long streaming sigh. “Fuuuuuccccck.” I brought my chin forward to touch my chest when all my oxygen was exhausted. I went to my desk, plopped into my chair, and fished two capsules out of the bottle of ibuprofen from my top drawer. The coating of the tablets burned my tongue. For the remainder of the school day, I reclined back against the headrest and kept my eyes shut until the headache finally subsided. The first thing my eyes locked onto upon opening them was a framed four-by-six of my daughter and me that stood at the top right corner of my desk.

renewal • 35

That coming weekend was meant to be my scheduled visit with Molly. And I was going to have to cancel on her. Again. Once more, I closed my eyes and groaned. “Fuuuuuuccccck.”

During the week, I took turns driving to work with a friend, Tom Ford. Tom was a plump, bearded man in his midforties with a horseshoe hair pattern and piercing green eyes behind thick, clear-framed spectacles. He always wore a tweed blazer, a bow tie, and suspenders. The bow tie was the only thing on him that popped with any color. By appearance alone, Tom was even more of a geek than I—he kept his soft glasses case clipped to the breast pocket of his shirts—but like most geeks, the man had a good heart. He was always willing to listen to a problem of mine. Tom taught eighth grade math and an advanced high school curriculum geometry course in the room directly above mine. That afternoon, while driving me to my apartment complex in his periwinkle Toyota Prius, he must’ve observed that I wasn’t as talkative as usual and asked if everything was kosher. “I’m inquiring because you look kind of glum, chum,” Tom said. “Like you’re chewing over something pretty dense. Did one of the kids say something mean about Of Mice and Men again?” “We’re past that one,” I said, watching but not seeing the world pass in a blur out the passenger window. I provided Tom the rundown on Randy’s text, our phone call, and my decision to go up to my hometown for the weekend, concluding with an apology that he would be driving himself to work on Friday because I was going home early. “That sounds rough, man. Hope you guys get all that sorted out. I really do. I ever tell you my father had Alzheimer’s? It sucked a fat one.” “Yeah.” I sighed. “Having to ditch Molls for another weekend sucks too. It’s bad timing. Jess is going to be pissed, but I had to get the book finished and up to par so I could send it to Nancy. She told me there was some serious interest at Bean Hill Books, but the acquisitions editor felt my ending needed some punching up before he took it to his team, so I

36 • joseph falank

was chasing a deadline. If I waited too long, they might’ve lost interest and passed. And now this stuff with Dad…” “Well, how many times have you canceled?” I unenthusiastically held up three fingers. “Jesus, man. Don’t you only see her every other weekend?” I nodded, still staring away, full of shame. The last time I’d spent any meaningful time with Molls was six weeks ago—the middle of August. “But the first weekend I canceled was when you and I went out to Mike’s pig roast. No way was I going to bring Molls to that.” “Yeah, I getcha,” Tom said. “Good parenting call there with all the booze at that party.” He chuckled. “Remember when—what’s the art teacher’s name? Melinda?—had, like, half a dozen Coronas and danced on the picnic tables in her bathing suit? Didn’t she also play horseshoes topless? Or, wait, was it cornhole?” “It was both.” I couldn’t bring myself to laugh. With an exhale that carried only a percentage of the regret I held on to, I added, “Then all of the other weekends were spent revising and beating my head against the wall finishing the book.” We came to a red light two blocks short of my complex. The rust-scarred Toyota Tacoma ahead of us sputtered out a thick, choking volume of blue smoke from the muffler and only had one working brake light. Said muffler also wasn’t muffling. “So, have you heard anything from your agent?” Tom asked, probably thinking a change of subject would yield better results. “You gonna be making stacks of cash and getting peanut butter licked off your toes by beautiful women?” “Nothing new. I need to call her this weekend. I’m just afraid to. If they don’t call, it usually means there’s nothing to tell. I just hate all of this waiting.” The light turned green. After the Tacoma belched more smoke and made a left turn, its timing belt squealing an ear-piercing shriek, we pulled through the intersection.

renewal • 37

“It’s quite good, actually. Thought I should tell you,” Tom said. “Your book, I mean. Well, the few pages I read of it.” My head snapped around. It was the first time I’d made eye contact with him the whole ride home. “You read some of my book? How?” I was both marginally curious and an itsy bit put out, feeling as if I’d been snooped on. “I came down to your room one day last week to see if you wanted to grab lunch, but you weren’t there. I noticed a few pages lying on your desk.” Sounded familiar. “I need to stop leaving stuff on my desk.” “You could always lock your door.” “Yeah, thanks.” A thought occurred to me. “Hey, let me ask: do you think my protagonist swears too much?” The perplexed look that crossed Tom’s face told me this hadn’t been a concern on his radar. “Is that a bad thing?” I shrugged and went back to looking out the passenger window. I figured I’d wait to hear from Nancy and heed whatever feedback she got from the editors at Bean Hill before touching the manuscript again. I needed to be done with it. After so many passes, it’d begun to feel as if I was editing for the sake of editing. “What’s your book about, anyway?” Tom asked. “I don’t think you’ve ever told me.” I hadn’t told him—or hardly anyone. When asked, I gave the usual brush-off answer: “Just…you know. Stuff.” “Huh. Sounds fascinating.” The parking lot for Summit Apartments came up on the right. The entrance to the white concrete, U-shaped complex was flanked by a strip of bare elms. My gold 2006 Dodge Stratus sat in its designated spot in front of the exposed iron railing and staircase that led up to the small patio and door to unit eleven, my two-bedroom on the second floor. “Hope everything works out,” Tom said. I tossed him a wave and hopped out.

38 • joseph falank

As Tom drove off, I jogged up the stairs and went inside to drop off my work bag and change. Molls had gymnastics on Thursday afternoon, so I planned to catch her there. The knowledge that I was rushing off to let my daughter down put a stiff, weighted feeling of shame in every muscle and wound new knots within my stomach. I felt like shit. Given the delicacy of my daughter’s age—where the fantasies, invulnerability, and wonders of childhood were just beginning to strip away to reveal the stark, harsher realities that come with maturing into adulthood—the last thing I wanted Molly to consider as one of the disappointments in life was her own father.

About the Author

Joseph Falank enjoys writing that evokes emotion across many genres. He is the author of The Painted Lady, An Unexpected Visit, and Disconnected. His work has appeared in RiverLit Magazine, and he has also authored the young adult novel Seeing. He lives with his wife and two children in upstate New York where he is currently working on his next novel.