I’m not trying to get too sentimental, but I’m singing along to Alison without realizing it when Dad and I stroll through the doors in a matching gait and hear the jukebox playing. He asks, who is this again?
The Best Elvis, I say, really the only one.
He says, I don’t know about that, laughs and points at the advertisement for an Impossible Burger as if to say, as if.
Then, he shrugs his shoulders, which makes me think about carbon footprints and my addiction to death. I consider the possibilities and get my usual, a Blue Cheese Burger with bacon and sliced jalapeños. He goes with the Mushroom and Swiss. We decide to split one order of onion rings and one of fries. He asks the cashier if they have Diet Dr. Pepper and she says no. He tells her to tell Mr. Miller that this is Texas, then settles for a Diet Pepsi and pulls money from his wallet. I can see him struggle to count but not want to admit it. He wipes his hand across his brow and partially dislodges the hat he’s wearing, which covers the gigantic fishhook shaped scar that curves around the entire length of the left side of his head and stops just above the ear. It looks better than it did just three days ago when I last visited him.
In fact, on the way to the restaurant he told me, It’s been two weeks today since the surgery.
I was driving his car for him since he’s not allowed to anymore. I turned the wheel and said, Feels like a year.
He stared intently out the passenger-side window and mumbled, Feels surreal.
I thought of the joke he always tells—how many surrealists does it take to screw in a light-bulb: fish—but my dad actually preferred gorillas in clown makeup, it’s his most frequent acrylic trope. While we were eating, I suggested he start a new painting. He's been complaining that Mom won’t let him do anything, that she’s afraid he’ll keel over.
I ask, What about that self portrait you talked about in the hospital, the one with your missing parts?
He wipes the ketchup he shouldn’t be eating from his mustache and squints his eyes. The focus looks physically taxing, but aside from the golf-ball sized brain tumor they just removed from his head, he was once a kidney donor, he once had surgery to remove a torn ACL and cartilage from his knee, and he also had his tonsils and appendix both taken out when he was a kid. He says, Yeah, I should.
His tone doesn’t sound too committal. I wonder if it’s because he’s already seen the decline of his handwriting and doesn’t want to witness the demise of his brushstrokes on canvas if the urge to self-express hasn’t reached the tipping point yet.
How am I supposed to know how it feels anyway? I’m not a painter and I’m not the one with cancer. I’m just the son who keeps trying to think of him differently but also can’t help but make it about myself, what I’m losing and what I never received that I thought I wanted, or that I thought I needed, or that I just thought about because I think too much, or not enough, certainly it’s not the right amount, not the right quality of interiority. Like no matter how much I hope and hope and hope, I can’t stop sentencing him to death, the optimism turning to an opulence of worrying about the statistics, calculating his odds. Is this what it is that Freud meant, how we buy time by betting on an uncertain future with a dwindling stack of chips cashed in from a more or less valuable past?
Yet, here he still is, tapping his fingers on the tabletop as he crumples the paper that once held his burger, talking about the nap he’ll take when he gets home. We get up and make our way through the exit. As the bell dings overhead, I hear the cashier say, Take care now.
Her voice echoes both ominously and directly when we reach our front row spot and Dad nods to the disabled parking placard hanging from the rearview, saying, It’s permanent, you know.
And I agree.
Mike Hilbig lives in Houston, TX with his partner Leslie and his dog Ginger. He teaches English and Creative Writing at UH-Downtown and at Lone Star College. His first book, Judgment Day & Other White Lies, was published by Madville Publishing in Feb. of 2022. This story is dedicated to his dad Gary, who sadly passed away from Glioblastoma on January 10th, 2021.