by Lindsay Wells
“Your father’s in trouble,” my grandmother says.
I switch the phone to my other ear. I didn’t hear the ringing at first because I was translating a television manual from Icelandic to English for one of my linguistics classes, and I translate best while listening to Fats Waller albums on vinyl, so I rushed to turn the music off and managed to flip open the phone just before the voicemail kicked on.
My father is always in trouble. Last month he was arrested for pissing on the neighbor’s shrubs and my grandmother wanted me to bail him out–if she gave me the money–because she was supposed to go to the casino with her bingo friends. Six months ago he went fishing with my grandfather on the Conimicut Point sandbar, passed out, and hit his head on a rock, pole still in hand, and she wanted me to come to the hospital to visit. Last summer, at the Gaspee Parade, he assaulted some high school kid marching with a euphonium by throwing my little cousin’s poppers at him. He said the kid played like a paraplegic, and after the cops let him off with a warning, she wanted me to take him for a walk down Narragansett Parkway to Salter’s Grove to calm him down.
“What happened this time?” I ask.
“He had some kind of seizure,” she says. “They’re not sure if he’s going to make it. You need to come up here.”
I glance at the television manual on my desk. I was in a groove. Icelandic can be difficult because they are language purists. When the rest of the world started to use foreign words (mostly American English) for newer objects like televisions and computers, Iceland refused and instead re-contextualized older Icelandic words with new meanings or made up a whole new word altogether. I’ve always been fascinated by that, how you adopt previously nonexistent concepts into a language. Because Iceland did that, they have one of the few languages in the world which has been hardly changed from the original tongue spoken by the Norse who settled there in 874.
After I graduate this spring, I plan to go to Iceland to do an internship at the Icelandic Language Institute. I’ve been working odd jobs so I can afford it. That’s how I met Jamie. I translate ASL for a client named Manny at the Groden Center one day a week, where she’s the art teacher. She keeps all of her materials–macaroni shells, paper plates, scissors, construction paper, glue, stickers–filed into boxes with neat labels. Once, Manny was assigned to work with her for the day and she had him organize the construction paper by color, in alphabetical order. After I signed to him what she wanted, Manny looked at me through his helmet–he has drop-spell seizures–and made the crazy sign by his ear. I reminded him that everyone knew what that meant, and he laughed and put his hand to his mouth as if to say ‘Whoops.’
“What did he say?” Jamie asked.
“Oh,” I said both verbally and in ASL out of habit, “he says you’re his favorite teacher here.”
Manny gave me the bird. “Everyone knows that one too, dude,” I said.
Jamie laughed and we made plans to get coffee after work.
After that, Manny made kissy faces at me; he didn’t let up until after I helped him ask Mary Ellen, a verbal client, to the Halloween dance.
“Melanie,” my grandmother says, “I know you’re angry with him. But he’s your father. Even if he hasn’t been the best one.”
My father is more of a fuck-up little brother than a parent. When I was eight or nine, he left me in his truck in the Cheaters parking lot by Providence Piers while he went inside. After an hour or so, when I realized he wasn’t going to come out any time soon and that when he did it wouldn’t be safe for him to drive, I walked across the street and called my grandparents. When they showed up in their box car, my grandmother told me to get in the back.
“Watch her, LeRoy,” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
A few minutes later she had my father in the parking lot, yelling at him. She told me when I was older that she marched right in there and pulled him away from a lap dance.
“I’ve never seen so many titties in my life,” she said.
In my grandparent’s car on the drive back, my father snored like an eighty-year-old emphysemic. After that, I spent a lot of time at my grandparent’s. I’d walk over there when my father got really bad, or I’d call and have them pick me up. Even though the circumstances sucked, I liked having the independence to come and go as I pleased. They always had a bed for me in the guest room. My father never wondered where I was. No one wanted to report him to child services or anything because I had a place to go when I needed it, and because I think they all felt bad for him after my mother died, hoped one day he’d hit rock bottom and clean himself up.
But I wonder if my grandmother is right–if, when I’m gray-haired and have spots on my skin and my mobility is restricted by a cane, I’ll regret not having some final moment with my father. Even if only to tell him off.
“Give me fifteen minutes,” I say.
My grandparents are in the waiting room when I arrive. They tell me they haven’t heard anything yet. On the television, the weatherman talks about the cold front moving up the East Coast, how it might be the first Nor’easter of the season. I ask if anyone wants coffee.
In the hallway, I wait while a woman struggles with the machine. She digs through her purse for change. It has polka dots on it, which reminds me of Jamie’s planner. When she puts the coins in, the coffee won’t come out. She punches the machine.
“Damn it,” she says.
“Let me see if I can help you,” I say. I never understand why people get so worked up about something so small. Or why they react physically to a machine; it’s completely irrational, punching it is not going to make it work.
When the woman moves aside, I notice a piece of torn computer paper half-assedly taped above the bill dispenser. “It’s broken,” I say to the woman, pointing to the paper which says as much, which she might have seen had she not over-reacted. It’s something I don’t understand about people–most of what they do makes no sense to me.
“Well now I feel like an idiot,” she says, cradling her hand. She is trying not to show it, but I can tell that she is in a lot of pain. I wonder if I should touch her, if that’s what people do for each other in these types of situations.
“You should get that looked at,” I say. “While you’re here.”
The woman smirks, and I hope she will leave. When I was a child, I was over-sensitive. After my mother died, my father would take me out quahogging with him on the weekends if he couldn’t find anyone to pawn me off on. Separating them was tedious. My father always stuck me with that job while he raked. Chowders, blue buckets. Littlenecks, red buckets. I could do it in my sleep now, with all the times I’ve gone out on his skiff when he was out cold on the couch, empty aluminum cans littering the coffee table in the living room, because I was worried he wouldn’t make the mortgage payment and we’d lose the house. I know now that my grandparents helped him out when they could. I wish I knew that then, it would’ve been one less thing to stress me out. The first time he took me out, when I was about six, not too long after my mother died, I dumped as many quahogs as I could overboard when he wasn’t looking because I was convinced they felt pain and I didn’t want to be a part of causing it. My father was pissed, but I felt immediate relief at watching them sink and disappear. I felt claustrophobic looking at them stuffed in the buckets, like I couldn’t breathe, like I’d feel better if I just put them back in the ocean where they belonged.
I debate trying to find another coffee machine, but decide against it. Even though looking for one would give me more time out of the waiting room with my grandparents pretending to be engaged in small talk, or sitting in awkward silence, I never know where I am in hospitals. The layout usually doesn’t make sense, so I always get lost. This one in particular has the mental health ward next to the newborns. When my cousin Debra was born and my grandparents took me up to visit, I was accosted by a man out on a walk with a nurse who thought I was his dead kid or something. It freaked me out. “How did you do it?” he kept asking me, shaking my shoulders. Tears poured down his face. My grandmother told the nurse if he didn’t let go of me, she would give him something else to cry about. As weird as it was, I wasn’t scared. It felt good to feel wanted, even if I had to pretend to be what the guy needed.
Back in the waiting room, my grandparents still watch the weather channel. I tell Grandpa the machine was broken, and thumb through the magazines on the table. I pick up a National Geographic with a picture of a New Orleans jug band on the cover. What is interesting to me about the Creole dialect, and in fact, all dialects in general, is how you get these cross-breed words, the ones that aren’t definitively Creole or American English. The ones that are a blurred version somewhere between the two; a language continuum. We have a term at Groden for the people like Manny who don’t really belong there–the ones who are too high-functioning to fit in with the other clients, but who aren’t high-functioning enough to not need services, so we don’t know where else we’d put them. We call them “the in-betweens.” I like applying the term to language continuums too.
Icelandic doesn’t have anything like that. If you’re fluent in Icelandic, you could read Old Norse texts from the 16th century and it wouldn’t be much different. They’re language purists. Although there is a continuum between the Northern Germanic languages, which have the same root, if you’re Icelandic, you speak only Icelandic, and within the country itself, there are absolutely no differences in dialect, which makes it a good place if you want to blend in.
I’ve wanted to go to Iceland since I was a kid, when I learned from someone’s class presentation how Iceland and Greenland were purposely named opposite from what their climate was actually like. It was a strategic move by the Vikings, so they wouldn’t be found, and so all who attempted to find them would end up in Greenland, ships stuck in icy waters. I thought it was new information at the time, something obscure that no one else knew.
When I told my grandfather about it, he said, “Everyone knows that.”
“Party pooper,” my grandmother yelled from the kitchen.
I remember being out quahogging with my father once shortly after a Nor’easter–you have to look out for black ice on the bay just as you do while driving, especially in a flat-bottom. My father hit some ice that day and we skipped across like a flat stone on a river. I gripped the side of the skiff.
“Don’t be such a scaredy-cat,” my father shouted. “It’s only ice. It’s not gonna kill you.”
Grandpa looks out the window. From this particular side of the hospital, you can see the State House, behind it the Providence Place Mall, which sticks out like a sore thumb because it’s the only newer, huge building, and though they specifically had the architects design it to look “historical,” so it would fit in more, it’s obviously a replica of a historic style building, which I believe only makes it look worse than if they had just plopped a gaudy mall right in the middle of downtown, which is essentially what they did anyway. Behind the mall, at Groden, I wonder whether Jamie’s students will put the colored pencils and the crayons in the appropriately marked box; I know how much it bothers her when they don’t, especially since she reminds them.
I looked out this same window, back when the mall was Waterplace Park, when my mother died. I was six. She was walking to the laundromat on Cole Farm Road, and as she crossed West Shore, some kid with a fresh license came barreling around a corner on her way to work and hit her. The kid said she was changing the radio station and didn’t even see her. My mother died in the hospital the next day. She was in a coma. My father decided to pull the plug, which I’ve always thought to be an awful idiom, some insensitive way to skirt around directly stating the gravity of the situation. I think people think they’re protecting you when they say things like that, but I would have preferred if someone came up to me and asked if I wanted to talk about my dead mother. So many times people came to the house in the weeks after, and I remember sitting in the living room with my father and how no one was talking about my mother being dead, even though it was looming over all of us. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like if I just said it once like I meant it–that she was dead, gone, no longer alive–I’d feel light again. I think people think they say those things to you because they don’t want to make you uncomfortable, but I think they really do it because it makes them uncomfortable. Before they “unplugged” my mother, we got to say goodbye to her. I remember staring at her in the bed and thinking even then that she wasn’t my mother anymore. I could hardly recognize her, and her eyes seemed empty, like if I looked deep into them I’d find nothing there that I recognized; that’s how I knew we were doing the right thing. I watched as they took her off the oxygen, grasping my father’s hand, listening as the monitor went flat.
“She’s gone,” my father said.
I catch Grandpa looking at me, and I hope he doesn’t know what I was thinking about, and can’t tell that I am upset remembering it. He twirls his cane with his fingers, right over the spot where he carved his initials into the wood. It was the first cane he made, and even though in the past years he’s made a lot more, he only uses that one. He burned a pattern down the length of it; it was a pattern I designed for him in high school. “If you need something done, do it yourself,” my grandfather is always saying. I look at Grandpa, who still has his eyes fixed on me, and I fidget with the National Geographic, try to pretend I was reading it.
“Do you think while we’re here they’ll give me some of my parts back?” he jokes. My grandfather only has one kidney; he lost the other a while ago. And he had knee replacement surgery last year.
Grandma tilts her head back and laughs. She has a loud laugh, the type of laugh that makes you embarrassed to be seen with her. Everyone looks. It takes her a while to calm down afterwards.
“You gonna be okay over there, Grandma?” I ask.
She gives me the bird just as someone in scrubs walks in and asks if we’re George’s family. The woman who asked stands in the middle of the waiting room, hugging her clipboard to her chest, and I can tell she doesn’t know what to say or do. She’s probably not used to seeing an old woman flip her granddaughter off, especially while waiting to hear about her son. But what she doesn’t know is that we’ve been through this scenario or similar ones plenty of times. This is nothing new. You do what you can to adapt.
“Yeah, we’re George’s family,” I say. “I’m his daughter.”
The woman takes me to the hallway. I catch Grandma’s face before I leave. I know she’ll be upset for a while if my father is dead, despite all the crap he’s put her through. I wonder how I’ll feel if he’s dead. When my father is messed up, his eyes remind me of looking into my mother’s eyes before she died, how I didn’t recognize them. That’s how I know that it will be better for us when he’s gone. For him, even. We’ll all be able to breathe again, and hopefully my father will find whatever it was he was looking for. I know this, but still I wonder if I’ll be upset, or if I’ll feel guilty for being so angry with him. Even though I have plenty of logical reasons to be angry with him, I know at some point I should let it go.
In the hallway, someone else struggles with the broken coffee machine, and I wonder whether the sign is that hard to notice, or whether people just ignore it because they only see that they want coffee. That’s the problem with letting your emotions control you; you don’t act rationally. The woman stops by the bubbler. I always assumed people were taken into comfortable rooms to be told a family member was dead, not that you would be deposited in the middle of a hallway by a bubbler and a restroom which smells like puke, probably because someone puked in there. But then I wonder if I only assume that because that is what is so often depicted in movies and things. I try to remember where we were when we were told about my mother, but that part is hazy to me. The woman opens her mouth and I try to brace myself for what might come out, but I’m thinking about how my father was obsessed with that girl, the one who hit my mother, in the months after it happened. How he read all the news reports, drove by her house a few times a day in his truck. Finally, one day he stopped the truck and knocked on her door. I saw it all happen from the passenger seat. When he got back in the truck, he still had that same lost look on his face. He thought that by talking to the girl, he would have answers, but there are a lot of things there aren’t answers for.
“Your father’s going to be fine,” the woman says.
I don’t hear the rest of what she says because I’m trying to process what that means to me. I feel slightly annoyed that this woman took me out in the hallway to tell me that. She could’ve just said he was going to be fine in the waiting room, in front of my grandparents. I find it pointless to make it out to be so sensitive that she needs to remove me from the room and tell me in private that he’s fine.
“You can go in and see him whenever you want,” the woman says. She walks away before I have a chance to respond. I always feel uncomfortable with the hospital’s method of doing things. It’s obvious that the people they assign to share news don’t care in the slightest about you or your situation. It’s all pretense. Not that I expect them to cry about it or anything, but some sign of genuine sincerity would be nice. Some acknowledgment that the news they’re sharing is difficult. But I suppose if I spent all day telling people bad news, I’d learn to keep it cold too. It’s easier that way, to keep your distance. And I suppose the woman didn’t suspect that the fact that my father is going to make it out of this one is not necessarily good news.
I watch the woman still struggling with the coffee machine across the hall. She puts coins in, shakes the machine, presses the button to dispense coffee, sees that it won’t, ejects the change, and repeats the whole pattern again. I watch her with genuine curiosity this time, wait to see how long it will take for her to notice the sign that says it is broken, or for her to realize that quantity of attempts are not going to produce the desired outcome. I wonder if she’s a puncher like the last woman. I watch her because I want to understand. Translation is like that. It’s not just about memorizing languages. You have to understand the cultures, both the one you’re translating from and the one you’re translating to. You have to know what they both value. And you have to stay true to the context.
The woman finally gives up. She sighs as she takes her coins from the return slot one last time and walks away.
I know I should go back to the waiting room to tell my grandparents that my father will be fine, but I go find my father’s room instead. I feel a need to check, to make sure he’s still doing the same things he’s always done.
In his room, my father sits in his bed, drinking water and watching Andy Griffith. There is a piece of cracker or something stuck in his beard.
“Melanie,” he says. “Glad you could make it.”
“Don’t give me shit, Dad. I’m only here because they said you might not make it, and I wanted the satisfaction of burying you.”
My father laughs, slaps his calloused hand from years of quahogging on the table.
It takes me a second to realize he is not mocking me, but reacting to something Andy Griffith has done or said.
“Did you see that?” he asks. “They don’t make shows like this anymore.”
Just like my father, I thought. Can’t even talk to the guy without him having something to distract himself with. When I was a kid, I would go to absurd lengths to get him to pay attention to me. Once, when I told him we never spent any time together, he took me to the marina with him to clean his quahogging skiff. He asked me about school in between being underwater in his scuba gear to get all the barnacles off the flat bottom. Then, when he was above water and patching up the fiberglass, which he had done himself over the original wood, a protective casing which needs to be repaired every six months or so, he always seemed to turn the radio on just as I started talking.
“What was that?” he’d say, gesturing to his ears, then to the radio, as he applied a layer of epoxy, “Can’t hear you over this thing.”
I wanted to rip the plug out and toss the radio into the bay, but I never did.
I pick up the remote control from the tray in front of him and press the power button. He looks at me. Just as I am about to tell him I’m leaving, a nurse walks in to check his blood pressure. She wraps the cuff around his arm. He stares at her chest.
When she leaves, my father points to the door. “Did you see the knockers on her?” he asks.
“You like women, don’t you? What kind of dyke are you that you don’t appreciate a rack like that?”
“I don’t even know her,” I say. “I wasn’t looking at her chest. And, besides, I don’t think she’s your type.”
“How the hell do you know?”
“I just know,” I say. “It’s an intuitive thing–gaydar–you have to be one to recognize one. But even that’s not reliable. I could be wrong.”
“You know what your problem is? You think too damn much. Here’s an easy way to test it–try fucking her. Then you don’t need to do all that creepy stalker shit.”
Jamie used to leave me signs and notes in my different languages; she’d tape them to the staircase, on a pole in front of our apartment. Shortly after we moved in together, she made me a sign that said “keys” in English, ASL, and Icelandic because I always lost mine. She hung it over the table in the kitchen where she kept hers. The sign was shaped like an arrow which pointed down to the table and, underneath all the translations, she wrote: “just so you’re clear on the meaning.”
“You still screwing that girl, the one you brought to the parade?” my father asks.
“We broke up,” I say.
“She finally got fed up with you, huh?”
“Look,” I tell him. “I don’t want to be here. It looks like you’re going to bounce back again, miraculously, so I’m leaving.”
My father doesn’t respond to that. Just picks up the remote control and flips Andy Griffith back on, loses himself in the television.
Back in the waiting room, my grandparents look a little frazzled. I know it wasn’t the nicest thing to do, leaving them hanging like that, but I had to see my father before anyone had a chance to talk to me about it. I had to make sure.
“They said he should be able to go home in a few days,” I say.
My grandmother doesn’t seem as happy as I thought she would be. My grandfather stands, steadies himself with his cane, prepares to go in and see my father.
“I went in and saw him,” I say. “That’s what took me so long.”
My grandparents remain quiet.
“Don’t call me about him anymore,” I say. “It’s not my fault he’s a drunk. And he’s not going to change. Not at this point.”
I walk out of the waiting room to the elevator. There is a couple waiting. The man wraps his arm around the woman’s back. She leans her head on his shoulder. The elevator doors open and I watch the couple enter before getting on myself. They are still laughing and kissing, still touching one another. I wonder what kind of news they got in this hospital that they could come out feeling so happy. Maybe they’re pregnant. Or maybe one of them had a brush with death and survived. I can’t believe people are happy for no reason, especially at a hospital.
Down the hall, I notice that for the first time since I’ve been here, no one struggles with the coffee machine. A woman in a red scarf walks up to it, but the other woman, the one who kept putting the change in and ejecting it before, who is now talking on her cell phone by the bubbler, tells her it’s broken, and the chain begins. It reminds me of Iceland creating new contexts for old words, how, if you get enough people to latch onto a new word, or a new meaning for an old word, you’ve created a new language. Like the time Jamie and I went to Trinity Brewhouse for drinks after work one night, and started using the phrase “that’s prairie!” just to see how far it would go. When the bartender asked us how the new brew was we said it was prairie and gave him a thumbs up to show him what we meant. When we went back the next week, all of the bartenders were using it. Pretty soon, I’d be walking anywhere in the city and hear someone say “That’s prairie!” All it takes is someone to use it and one more person to keep agreeing with it and bam; it’s like a chain effect that no one questions. Ask someone where they got it from and all they could probably tell you is that they heard so-and-so using it and that so-and-so would name another so-and-so and if you traced it back and back you might eventually get to the source: a linguistics student performing some sort of human experiment. So the universe is predictable, but it’s also relatively easy to change the pattern, create a new kind of predictability. That’s what I’m hoping to do in Iceland, initiate a new pattern, one where I’m not merely a member of the chain, but the one who started the whole operation.
Lindsay Wells grew up in Rhode Island. She earned a MFA from Eastern Washington University, and her work has appeared in Little Fiction, Shark Reef, and Queer Episodes: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose. She currently teaches writing at Leeward Community College, and is working on her first novel.