The first time my father had his foot amputated the surgery didn’t take.
We’re not talking a case of phantom limb, here. The morning after they severed the offending appendage, it was back. Just like that. Dad was up and walking around the hospital like nothing had happened.
It was the right foot, in case you were wondering.
“At least I didn’t amputate the wrong foot,” the surgeon said. He elbowed me in the ribs, winked at my brothers.
Ugh. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s probably a quack.
“How the hell is this even possible?” I said.
“Technically, it isn’t.” He tapped Dad’s big toe with a pen. ”We incinerated these little piggies hours ago. This, my friends, is a miracle.”
Glares. In triplicate.
“Careful how you throw that word around,” I told him. “Supernatural intervention is going to put you out of business.”
At least my brothers and I were free to fly back to our respective lives. Not that we planned on hanging around either way. We had hired a Panamanian woman named Edna to take care of Dad. She didn’t have any references, but she had bleached hands and smelled like a home cooked meal. Of course, she didn’t take the reappearance of the foot too well. She had already moved into chez divorcee, and dismissing her proved awkward.
“I come all this way from Panama,” she said. It took a limo ride and a first class plane ticket to get rid of her. When we called six months later to tell her Dad was having the foot amputated again, she unleashed a torrent of Spanish and hung up.
Dad was adamant he hadn’t been doing anything he wasn’t supposed to when he broke his ankle the first time. He swore he hadn’t been off the wagon.
“Were you dangling your foot over the edge? Did you get it caught in one of the wheels?” All I got for my humor was a grunt.
The surgeon said it was possible stepping out of bed the wrong way caused the trimalleolar fracture. “Your father’s in his sixties, after all.”
I was skeptical. “You don’t break your ankle in three places putting on your slippers.”
The second time he hadn’t been off the wagon, either. He had ridden it off a damn cliff, hollering the whole way down. At first the surgeon refused to perform the operation again. Said something about my father not respecting ‘the finality of the procedure.’ But once necrosis set in, Hippocrates would not be ignored.
This time the foot stayed amputated. After a week, Edna agreed to move back in, but only under the condition we sign her to a year contract. By the second month she no longer had to wait on Dad ‘hand and footless’ (another of the surgeon’s jokes). They settled into the routine of a couple who would rather coexist in mutual indifference than admit defeat. A week before Edna’s contract expired, my father made a surprise announcement.
“We’re getting married.”
“Edna and I.”
“Watch it, boy. She’s your mother now.”
It was an intimate affair. The ceremony took place in the living room, performed by a local minister. It was witnessed by Edna’s vast collection of Hummels.
Two weeks later, Edna moved her father in with them. The man was blind in one eye and borderline deaf. My brothers and I were against it, but Dad took to Diego right away. They’d sit in the living room with the TV on mute, never saying a word. It filled a family sized hole in Dad’s life.
“Better them than us,” my middle brother said.
Another upshot of the union—it curtailed Dad’s drinking. During his initial immobility he had to rely on Edna for his liquid fix. She would dole out just enough to keep him docile. But even after he could walk again, he rarely left the house, let alone his La-Z-Boy. His days of binge drinking were at an end.
Diego couldn’t drink due to poor liver function. Dad would let him smell his beer, which seemed to satisfy the man. I swear, sometimes it would give him a contact high.
We visited the following Thanksgiving, my youngest brother and I. My middle brother refused. He had declared a moratorium on interaction with our father. He only made exceptions for life or death situations. Like the dozen or so times our father drank himself into a coma. As far as the visiting patterns of neglectful children go, that put my brother way ahead of the game. To his face, we told him he was selfish. In reality, we envied his lack of empathy.
The surgeon took my brother’s place at the dinner table. “I don’t usually make house calls,” he said, “but I worry when your father goes too long without injuring himself.”
Dad had quite the track record. Fractured ocular cavity due to a plumbing mishap, broken rib from coughing too hard, hand laceration from a drinking glass that had submicroscopic structural flaws—you name it, he claimed it happened to him.
Despite the interloper, everyone enjoyed the meal. Edna prepared what she referred to as a traditional Panamanian Thanksgiving dinner. It consisted of sancocho, arroz con guandu, and something that tasted like fried fat. For dessert we had hojaldras, which turned out to be Krispy Kreme donuts.
“Do they even celebrate Thanksgiving in Panama?” my youngest brother asked.
After dinner, we all watched football in the living room with the sound off. Even the surgeon, whose first name we learned was Robert. Diego spoke all of three English words, one of which was ‘goal.’ He’d say it every time a player scored a touchdown.
“Goal?” He said it as a question. Dad would nod in agreement, sip his ration of beer. Edna knitted in the corner. She smiled to herself, a de facto matriarch proud of the family she had cobbled together.
My real mother was over 1100 miles away, enjoying dinner with her own Frankenstein’s Monster of a family. My parents separated sooner than some couples, but later than most, and she found herself remarried to the owner of a high-end shoe store. The relationship came prepackaged with two adult daughters. My stepdad had an entire garage filled with single shoe samples, all for the right foot.
“Never for the wrong foot,” he would say. My mother laughed every time. My middle brother would scowl. Living with Mom and her husband killed him, but ever since he hurt his back and went on disability he had no other viable option. So while I enjoyed chicharrones with Edna, Diego, and Robert, he slept through dinner, skulked upstairs to scavenge leftovers, and returned to his basement lair to sleep on a bed of Netflix and prescription pills.
“You know why you don’t get along with Dad?” I told him one time. “Because you guys are too much alike. And not in a good way.” He didn’t appreciate that and declared a moratorium on speaking about our father.
Dear old Dad, who that Thanksgiving watched television with Diego while Robert made love to Edna in the other room. “Con permiso,” he had told the surgeon. No one would be able to say he didn’t provide for his wife, even if it was through a third party.
My youngest brother and I were already back at the motel, thank Christ. Poor Diego couldn’t hear what was going on, but he knew. He gave my father a begrudging nod, the kind a man gives to acknowledge another man’s sacrifice.
My father grimaced, struggled out of his recliner to the sound of muted grunting. He picked up the phone and dialed a number from muscle memory. The signal shot across hundreds of miles of telephone wire, routing through various switchboards and exchanges. In his mind it traveled a straight line, the shortest distance between the recipient and himself.
The phone on the other end lived under a pile of blankets in my mother’s closet. It was an old line, but she couldn’t bring herself to disconnect it. The sound of the ringing soothed my father. Plus, if she picked up, it wouldn’t be him. It would be someone calling to tell her he was dead.
“Don’t be so morbid,” I would tell her. “After everything we’ve been through, his death will be more of a relief than anything.” For a man who should have been dead five times over, or at the very least brain damaged, whose liver and kidneys would confound doctors for years to come, who walked away from numerous car crashes without a scratch—Dad would go quietly in his sleep.
Which is exactly what he did.
The last conversation I had with my father, he told me about a dream he’d had. He tended to ramble, and talking to him could be a real chore, but on this occasion he was particularly focused. In the dream, we were all gathered at his place for Christmas dinner: me, my brothers, Edna, Diego, Robert, my mother, and her husband. We ate in complete silence. It wasn’t an awkward silence; we just didn’t have anything to say. When the meal was over, we took turns telling each other the story of our lives. Like we had all just met for the first time. There were no tears or finger pointing. It was all about cause and effect, how we got from point A to point B. In a straight line or otherwise.
Then it was my father’s turn. He tried to speak, but no one could see or hear him. He was a ghost.
“I wasn’t sad, though,” he said. “I was just glad I got to listen to everyone’s stories.”
“Do you remember any of them?”
“No.” He exhaled into the receiver. “That wasn’t the point.”
I nodded, even though he couldn’t see me. After that, he chased a rabbit down a trail. I cut him off and made tentative plans to call again the following week. Three weeks later he was dead.
After the funeral we all gathered at his place, just like in his dream. An odd feeling of déjà vu permeated the room. Edna busied herself doing what she did best: taking care of people.
“She doesn’t seem too upset,” my youngest brother said.
“I don’t think she expects this death to stick.”
The rest of the family did what they could to pass the time. Robert and my mother’s husband engaged in a quiet conversation about feet. My ever attentive mother listened in. My middle brother watched television with Diego and the Hummels.
My foot tapped erratic, like a telegraph machine. What hath God wrought? I got the sudden urge to stand and get everyone’s attention, so I could tell them my father’s story. The one he never got to tell in his dream. But you know what? I couldn’t. Because I didn’t know it. I had never cared to. It had always interfered with my own story, like an unnecessary subplot.
But someone needed to say something. An exchange of information needed to take place. So I did the next best thing. I turned to my youngest brother and, with his help, began to piece together the details of our father’s life. We started with his foot and worked our way backwards.
—Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor of literary website LitReactor.com. He also writes for the popular film site TwitchFilm and has written for ChuckPalahniuk.net, the official website of Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk. His short fiction has/will also appear in L’allure des Mots, Pantheon Magazine, and Crack the Spine.