A Chance Encounter with a Traveling Salesman
Dad fell into a deep, illness-induced sleep, not quite a coma, not quite normal rest. Somewhere between here and there, which was where he lived much of the time now. I was outside smoking a cigarette; I quit smoking years ago, but the strain and the boredom of taking care of Dad on his deathbed conspired to make smoking seem like a really good idea. Chris and I staggered under the time we were idle but couldn’t get anything meaningful done. Nothing. No phone calls, no errands. We lived in a strange nether world with nothing but time punctuated by moments of intense drama, which slipped into remarkable stillness again almost immediately.
It was beautiful outside—hot, full summer rays beating down—and I stole these moments to stand in the haze, a sensation I had missed all season. I puffed on my cigarette, gazing away from Dad’s bed, parked by his living room window so he could see his garden in full bloom, but which also put Dad on display should anyone decide to peek. What an observer found there was unexpected and often elicited a look of surprise and embarrassment when they saw a little old man in a hospital bed by his window.
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer!” Dad barked.
“You gotta understand, Dad,” I said. “It’s pretty surprising to look in a window and see someone dying.” No varnish anymore. We never really glossed anything over, but let’s just call a spade a spade: he looked like a dying man.
“Ha!” he snickered. “I guess so!” He was pleased with himself for having the last laugh: a snoop peeks in a window and finds a dying man staring back. Worst practical joke ever, but one which gave Dad a perverse satisfaction.
I was assiduously ignoring the man sleeping in the window, at least until I finished my cigarette.
A man, sidling sideways in the way severe alcoholics have as they bop down the street, shimmied up Dad’s sidewalk towards me.
“You want to buy some blackberries?” he asked. Balanced in one hand were several pints. I wondered where he got them. Blackberries grow throughout Portland; did his come from an alley on the next block? In his other hand he had a beer in a paper bag, a quaint gesture. It was a tall boy, Pabst or something.
“No, thank you,” I said.
“They’re wilting in the heat,” he said. He was wilting too, or maybe it was dehydration from the beer and sun. “I gotta unload them soon.”
I shrugged. “We don’t need any fruit.” True, since Dad was off food altogether and I was living on fumes and stress.
“Can I have a smoke?” he asked. I walked up to the porch and got one for him, brought it back. “Thanks,” he said. “Got a light?”
Berries-R-Us was having a tough time getting the lighter going. “Shit. Can you block the wind? Okay, got it,” he said, inhaling deeply. “Man, what a day, you know?” He exhaled over his shoulder politely.
“You know my best friend stole my lawnmower?” He was balancing his flat of wilting berries, a beer and his smoke, but the guy was a pro. “Who does that, man?”
I knew there was a story here, one in which the Berryman and his friend got drunk and did something profoundly stupid—but I didn’t press him on details.
“How the hell am I supposed to make a living, man?”
“I don’t know,” I said honestly.
“Shit,” he said as he handed me his empty beer can. “Can you recycle this for me?” He waited. “My best friend—what an asshole.” Berryman’s nose was florid, a combination of sun and broken capillaries. I felt him trying to work a buck out of me, but he couldn’t finesse it. After I turned the berries down, what then? I already gave him a cigarette; the well had run dry. “I’m really having a bad day,” he reiterated.
I dragged on my smoke. “My father’s catheter got a blood clot in it. It means his insides are just disintegrating. There’s nothing left in his bladder but cancer. Can you imagine what it looks like? The clot, I mean, not the cancer. You can’t believe: it was six inches long. Seriously, all bound up in the tubing and he couldn’t void any longer.”
Berryman’s eyebrows went up a little.
“Voiding? Yeah, that means he couldn’t piss anymore, not until I got rid of the blockage. ‘Blockage’ is a polite way of saying ‘blood clot,’ but enormous and gross. I had to flush his catheter until I got rid of it.”
Berryman shrunk back, frozen in the moment, wishing he could reel it in.
“I used to help my father go to the bathroom. I don’t begrudge him; he’s dying. Yeah, that’s him in the window.” I nodded toward the window where Dad was sleeping the sleep of the downright miserable. “Hi, Dad!” I waved.
My voice dipped in a conspiratorial whisper. “He can’t see me right now because he’s semi-comatose, but he’s there.” I paused.
“Anyway, I know about bad days. Dad has bad nights, though. The worst shit always seems to happen to him at about two in the morning. Crazy emergencies. Like he got this bloody nose one night. I was supposed to be on Dad-Duty because Chris was exhausted after sleeping on the floor for days. Dad’s nose had all these little blood-boogers in it because he was on oxygen and it was drying him out. He couldn’t breathe anymore.” I waved my hand in front of my nose, not wanting to be too graphic, but wanting the Berryman to understand. It’s not a gesture that works well in “Charade’s.”
“So I guess Dad tried to get rid of the ‘blockage,’” I said, emphasizing my word with air quotes. “He must have pulled a little too hard because he started to bleed.”
The Berryman was looking around for an exit into another universe.
“I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been pretty stoic about this whole thing. But when his nose started to bleed I just about lost it. I helped Dad soak up the blood for twenty minutes and realized this was way bigger than me; I was going to pass out, so even though I told Chris he was off-duty for the night, I had to wake him up.”
I thought back on the moment I walked into Chris’s room, gently rousing him for another midnight adventure.
“God, it sucked. Both of us are so fucking tired you can’t believe. Chris really deserved to sleep, just one night. But Dad was bleeding out and I was going to faint, so I woke Chris up. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I told him, ‘but I can’t handle blood. I really tried.’
“Chris stumbled out in his underwear, took a look at Dad and started to clean him up. ‘Did you call the hospice nurse?’ he asked.
“‘They told me to wait a few minutes to see if it stopped, but Dad just kept bleeding. It was too much for me.’
The Berryman, having tried his best to snare me, was appalled to discover his own ensnarement. My victim anesthetized and helpless, I spun my tale around him with its sticky hypnotic horrors. “Dad was turning gray. I was cowering across the room so I could put some distance between me and the blood, but I didn’t want to abandon Chris and Dad either. What a wuss. Chris and I talked about different remedies. I found some on the internet but the internet isn’t reliable in an emergency, you know? God, it was horrible.”
My smoke had smoldered down to the butt, but I was on a roll: why not just light another?
“We decided to use petroleum jelly because when Chris played sports, that’s what they did to stop the bleeding. I got on the phone with the hospice nurse to tell him Dad was still gushing and we were going to put Vaseline up his nose. I could feel the panic shrieking down the phone at me: ‘DON’T USE PETROLEUM JELLY!’ Which, I thought, under the circumstances, was a little over-the-top. I mean, we didn’t have any good alternatives, did we?
“But the nurse calmed down and told me to hold the bridge of Dad’s nose for at least ten minutes, possibly as long as twenty to stop the bleeding. If we couldn’t stop it, the nurse had to call the paramedics.”
The Berryman was standing limply, his flat of berries looking like roadkill, the stub of his cigarette burnt out.
“I know, right? The fucking paramedics. For a bloody nose?” I shook my head in disbelief.
“This guy, my dad, is completely bedridden, trying his best to die a nice peaceful death, and we have to haul him into the ER for a bloody fucking nose? So I asked, ‘Why? Why the ER?’ And the nurse told me—I can’t make this shit up, dude, I’m serious—they would have to cauterize his nose. No, I know, dude. It’s un-fucking-believable. They were going to haul Dad into the ER to singe the skin up his nose so he didn’t bleed to death ON HIS DEATH BED! The irony is thick, but I really didn’t want Dad to die of a bloody nose for some reason, so I panicked.
“I told Chris what the nurse told me, and I swear, he held Dad’s nose like a champ. Twenty minutes before Dad finally stopped bleeding. Almost an hour he had a bloody nose! And Chris—who really deserved a medal by this point—cleaned up his beard, cleaned up his face, really tenderly. It was so touching. I was still standing like an idiot on the other side of the room, but I didn’t faint which is something.
“Chris and I were exhausted but jacked on adrenalin, which is the way it goes around here half the time. Dad finally fell asleep, and Chris and I talked for a few minutes. ‘I can’t believe how badly I punked out,’ I told him. ‘I’m really, really sorry.’
“‘It’s totally fine. Blood doesn’t bug me for some reason. But I hate needles,’ he admitted. ‘The only time I ever passed out was getting a shot. Why no petroleum jelly?’ Chris asked me.
“‘Explosive,’ I told him. ‘We could have blown up Dad.’’’
I pondered this as I inhaled my cigarette, the smoldering tip a perfect ignition for a gas explosion. “Makes sense now that I think about it: highly concentrated oxygen with a flammable petroleum product.”
The Berryman was wan and defeated, a look I recognized from my own reflection all the time. “I’m kidding, dude. I mean, yeah, we could have blown up the house, but we didn’t so it’s good, right?” I chuckled in disbelief. “It’s hard to find good help these days.”
I blinked from my reverie.
The Berryman was still rambling about his lost lawnmower, how his friend was a jack-off. He was a good-natured drunk with little to call his own, trying to make a buck by stealing berries from briar patches on the road. I didn’t mind, really, that his day was so much less horrible than mine.
But I didn’t know who to tell about my day.
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