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Swatting at Butterflies
By Joseph Conlin
Kill not the moth nor butterfly,
For the Last Judgment draweth nigh. --William Blake
He sat steel erect in the wheelchair, his chest and calves bound by thick leather straps lined with lamb's wool, yellowing from sweat and age. His blue eyes were focused just beyond his grasp, as his hands swatted at butterflies. But there were no butterflies, nothing at all floating in the air, not even dust sparkling in the sunlight coming through the window. The butterflies were Alex's. He had created them to give meaning to his father's motions, motions from a man who once had designed the structural skeletons of national monuments and corporate headquarters, who had won national structural engineering awards, and who never had sat for more than a minute without conversation, a book, or a mechanical pencil and slide rule in hand. When Alex was a child, every moment of his father's life seemed to have purpose, the quest of making the most of every day, all the while his father never realizing that he didn't have time to waste, not the time found in the span of an average existence.
Sitting in the sunlight of the patient's lounge, his tall father was a drying mass of flesh dripping off a crumbling skeleton whose consciousness had evaporated a few years ago, leaving a state short of nothingness. Tangles and plagues blocked the firing neurons of his brain, deforming his mind and addling functions of the central nervous system, ultimately stealing his speech, coordination, mobility, awareness of his surroundings, and even his ability to swallow. Alex understood the nature and the course of the disease. He had sat through long sessions at Monte Fiore and Yale New Haven hospitals listening to the neurologists talking, fascinated by his father's youth and the progress of the disease. Alex had spent hours researching medical and psychological studies about the disease at Ludlowe University. The doctors and research offered the same prognosis: Nothing could be done to improve the situation, for his father, for his mother, for Debbie, or for himself. Yet a part of Alex wished, maybe even believed, that if he smacked his father hard up the side of his head, rocking his eyeballs in their sockets, the man who had forgotten how to be himself would vanish and his father would return.
Alex looked into the hollow eyes fixed on the invisible playthings-- nothingness playing with nothing --and in that moment, he realized that if his father could have envisioned his future shortly after being diagnosed, he would have gone to a store that he never frequented, would have made a purchase, would have returned to his basement, would have swallowed two barrels of a new shiny shotgun, and would have pulled the triggers with his left and right big toes simultaneously, because his father would have believed that the splatterings of his head, brain, and mind against the basement wall would have been less ugly than this. Yet that implied his father had choice, a concept his father never could have comprehended. He could hear his father. "The living have no time. No time to think, to analyze. No ability to separate emotion from reason. Therefore choice is an illusion. You just live, the very best you can, every day. Life is more simple than most people think."
That aside, his father couldn't have known, not even the doctors believed the disease progressed as quickly as it had in four years. For Alex, its impact suddenly seemed instantaneous, as if time in the nursing home spun faster than the cycles of the sun and moon. His father's birthday was in a week. He would be fifty-four, twenty-two years older than Alex and only a few years older than Alex felt.
Alex put out his arm trying to prevent the shell from grasping at the nothing, the act that reminded Alex too much of his own life. His father's arms stiffened, the remaining mass of muscle in his forearms as taut as bridge cables. Alex pushed down on one arm hoping that it would rest on the arm of the wheel chair. His father held it suspended, his biceps and triceps, long ago atrophying at a slower pace than his mind, tightened with an adrenal strength. Alex was surprised only momentarily, for nothing regarding his father or the disease surprised him any more. He released the arm, and the shell resumed swatting at butterflies. Alex slumped in the chair.
"Damn you." There was no reaction. The curse echoed down the empty hallway, melting into the cries and moans of the other residents, all of whom were in their rooms or the visitor's lounge down the hall. The curse was the first sound Alex had uttered in a while. When he arrived, he had begun talking to his father but he had stopped his monologue within minutes. He picked up the conch shell that Brit and Deb had purchased for his father on a trip south. Debbie had insisted on the gift.
"He may be your father, but he's been a father to me, from even before you asked me to marry you," she said in the shack-like store along the northern coast of Florida.
He put his ear to the shell and listened to the peace of the far away ocean. He put it on the ledge near his father.
His father had needed a shave. Rather than calling a nurse, he walked into his father's room and found his razor. He clipped in a new blade. He grabbed a face towel in the bathroom. He ran hot water in the basin and he dropped the cloth into the water. As he left with the towel and razor, he grabbed the can of Polo shaving cream, which Brit had given him as a Christmas gift. "It will help you smell good," she said to his father when she opened the present, as he swapped at butterflies. There always was a stink about him shaped by the diffusing odors of sour milk and dried urine. He held the towel around his father's one-day growth, allowing the steam to moisten the whiskers, being careful not to interfere with his father's motions. He applied a thin layer of lather and let it sit for two minutes, to further soften the hairs. Then, and only then, he began to shave the man who taught him to shave, his whiskers like steel wool, his head twisting, his hands grabbing Alex's shirt, one time pulling him down until he was almost on his knees. When he finished, he dumped the towel and razor in the sink. The can of shaving cream he placed on the center of the bureau.
Returning into the patient's lounge, Alex smelled the aroma of food stained clothes and of urine and feces packed diapers mixed with the aroma of the nursing home's antiseptic cleansers. The odor always hit him when he first stepped off the elevator, but typically he would become accustomed to the stench, never consciously smelling it a second time. Today he was. He looked at the shit brown tile and wondered if the color was selected to hide stains. He stared at the penumbral figure, but his father never made eye contact, and Alex again floated in silence of his watch. Later he would tell friends who would ask how he did it week in and week out that he kept his vigil to keep the nurses on their toes or so that when his mother checked the register at the front desk during one of her five weekly visits, and she always checked, she would know that someone had visited the man. He would tell others that he was the only family member with an easy drive to the home, but that was a lie because the eleven-mile trip had lengthened during the past six months. They were all lies. He went because he hoped that for a second, a fraction of a second, that he would see in a corner of his father's pupil the man he missed.
Alex picked at his finger nails, studying the half moon crescents wondering how and why they were shaped so, then realizing that he didn't give a crap. He noticed his father's fingers. The nails, always a wide plateaus curving almost at right angles into the cuticles, were almost a gray color, and as if for the first time, he saw that even his father's fingers had lost weight, resembling spindles reaching for that which Alex had put before him. They were the hands that once wrote mathematical equations in the margins of newsmagazines, that held a fork suspended over his plate letting his food cool as he blasted America's southeast Asian containment policy, that never pointed, that never closed in a fist, and that never folded for prayer. They were the hands and the nails Alex admired when he was a child. He remembered nights when he would use a nail file, trying to shape his nails to resemble his father's, but his hands were like his mother's, the pianist, as his father sometimes called her.
His mother played jazz piano before Alex was born. She hung out late in the Greenwich Village clubs and returned an hour or two before dawn. His father, his mother had told him once, didn't like her being out late. He was always afraid that some white guy would get the wrong idea about a twenty-four year old woman hanging out with a bunch of Negroes, as polite people said in the early Fifties. His father liked most of the band members. Winston, the bass player, was Alex's godfather. Alex remembered Winston always allowing him to pluck the strings of his bass violin, or fiddle as Winston sometimes called it.
His father had told Alex that his mother had been the band's pianist, fiddler, and mother. She once helped a member (his father wouldn't tell Alex which one) go cold turkey in the basement, and when he passed through hard withdrawal, she found him a bed in Kings County hospital without anyone notifying the cops, a common practice in the Fifties. She would host picnics, when the clubs in Greenwich Village were almost empty on hot summer nights. For a few summers after she left the band she would call everyone together for a summer jam session, usually Prospect Park's Sheep Meadow. Alex remembered sitting in the meadow and listening under the stars to four or five of them jamming, laughing, and hooting up a storm, as his father would say any time someone was having a loud good time.
Lying on the lawn, his father would stare at his mother, trapped by the rhythms and melodies of her jazz fiddle, contented in her presence, knowing that his life was better for having known and loved her. His father had been a quiet shy man, and Alex had assumed for a long time that his mother was the stronger person, but as he grew older, he realized that his mother gathered her strength from his father. He thought he had a similar relationship with Debbie, a strong woman. Years later, his mother told him that the band and summer gigs had busted up as people got pulled in different directions. So by the time Alex was seven and the Beatles were taking America by storm, all the remnants of his mother's jazz past had vanished. Listening to her that day, he knew that she was crushed by the loss, and he had begun to fear what the loss his father might do to her.
A year after the diagnosis, his father's steps slid into a shuffle. He began peeing in the corner of the dining room and masturbating openly in the living room. Too often he would confuse Alex for his own father and his wife for his mother. The rigidity of his muscles set in and the violence followed, which Alex had discovered only several months ago.
They were finishing desert at a restaurant not far from St. Joseph's Nursing Home, where his father was staying. His mother suggested an after-dinner drink. She ordered him a Sambuca and a cup of coffee for herself. The moment was uncomfortable. From the time he was ten, she would make him call over the waiter, place their orders, and after the meal, she would hand him money and he would pay the tab. She sipped her coffee and started.
"Alex, I've rehearsed this a million times. You must promise not to interrupt and be patient. Can you do that for me?"
"Yes," he answered reluctantly, feeling as if she were about to roll a boulder on his shoulders and ask him to carry the load, a load he couldn't.
"Yes." He wanted to be positive, to help her. She had cared for the man longer than he, put up more unpleasantries than he could imagine, endured a type of death of a spouse he never wanted to try to imagine.
"One night, a while ago, before I even considered putting him in St. Joe's, I was feeling lonely, affectionate, already missing pieces of your father. I had begun to wonder how much longer I had before he would disappear entirely. We were in bed. He was lying on his side facing away from me, the way he had for a few months. We hadn't made love in that time either. I inched over and began to kiss him on the back of his neck. He didn't move. I wrapped my hands around his waist. His muscles were rigid but that had been true for a time. I caressed him, trying to get him to relax, to forget his anxiousness, to awaken his desire. He turned and faced me. He pushed me away as hard as he could. 'Get away from me. It's not right.'
"The force was so great that I fell out of bed. I'm not sure what happened, but it was one of three things: Jason, I mean your father, didn't recognize me as his wife, he didn't recognize his own sexual identity, or the thought I hate the most, he thought I was his mother, a mistake he frequently made at the time.
"I'm sorry if this sounds like a news report, but it's the only way I can get through it. You have to understand."
"Go ahead, Mom." Fucking news report, nothing. Before him sat a woman whom he loved brutalized by a man whom he respected and loved more than a father but as a man.
"Six months passed before there was another incident. One night I was putting him to bed. 'Come on, Jason, time for bed,' I said as I guided him along the upstairs hallway into our bedroom where I was planning to undress him, to give him a sponge bath in our bathroom, and to dress him for bed, to help him lie down, and then to read to him until he was asleep. The process usually took an hour. Every now and then he resisted. I was never sure if he truly wanted to stay awake, if he was afraid of falling asleep, or if he didn't like being bossed around. He felt I was bossy at times. I mean being told what to do reminded him that he was losing control.
"Your father pulled his arm away and shuffled faster, as if he could outrun me. I followed until he reached the top of the staircase. I grabbed him tightly around his forearm. Instantaneously, he swung his forearm forward, but I for some damn reason never let go until I felt like I was floating. I woke an hour later at the bottom of the stairs with Jason, I mean your father, shuffling back and forth along the upstairs hallway. I got up the stairs, popped three aspirin, and took a hot shower. When I went to bed, your father was still shuffling along the hallway. When I woke at dawn, I found him curled asleep just a few inches from the edge of the staircase. I caught myself wishing that he would wake, become frightened, lose his balance, fall, and die."
Alex moved in his chair. He wanted to leave. He wanted to know why she was telling him all this. Why she kept his father, no, that figment of his father, home so long? Why did he sit and listen?
"Please be patient. This is probably the hardest of all to tell. One night your father, Jason, no I should say the shell raped me. I should be very clear. Your father didn't rape me, your father was a gentle, kind, and satisfying lover; the shell raped me. I know you don't like me using that word, but it's true, at least for me. The outside is your father, not the inside. Anyway, it wasn't terrible. I knew I was safe. It was unwanted sex, and I couldn't get him to stop.
"I never mentioned all this because I knew that you would have insisted that I put Jason in a nursing home. I couldn't do that, not until the rape any way. I had promised your father that I wouldn't put him in a nursing home or if that were my choice that I would kill him, and I couldn't do that."
Alex watched the shell swatting at the butterflies. He had come to understand the meaning his mother attributed to shell. He recalled his mother's tears that afternoon as they sat in the restaurant, everyone around them staring, his inability to help her, and the desire for the opaque remnant of a father to die. He remembered wondering in the rain of his mother's sobs that since his father had no mind, he truly wasn't human, and if he wasn't human, then killing him wouldn't be murder.
Sitting with him, remembering too much, Alex regretted visiting his father alone, having no other distractions, caught between hoping for a return of his father and the death of what was before him. The isolation was his choice. At his request, Debbie stayed home with six year old Brittany.
Debbie loved his father. They had become allies at family gatherings, primarily at his father's instigation. His father believed he and she were cut from the same bolt because they both had graduated with degrees in science. "The tough bachelor's degree," he would say. He would tease his mother and him, who had liberal arts degrees, for being too lazy to study science. Debbie once asked if his father's teasing bothered him. Yes because he didn't like being teased, but as far as his father's intent went, no. "We all know that he can't write a lick. Every time he needs to do a report or a proposal, he brings it home. I was editing his work in high school."
The alliance between Debbie and his father evolved-- quickly for his father, who usually warmed up to most people slowly. He listened to her. He teased her. He thought of her no differently than as if she were his daughter, and he was welcomed by her. Her own father was concerned more about his scotch, his penis, and her brother, he being the only one capable of carrying on the family name, and she like his father found it sometimes impossible to abandon the rational to understand the irrationality of humanity.
Then there was Brittany. She never said much about his father. She would kiss him as they all did. Then she would sit on the sofa a few feet away from where his father was strapped into a wheelchair and watch television for a few minutes. Being Sunday afternoon, rarely were there any children's programs, so after spinning through the dial, she would turn around on the sofa and stare out the window, never saying a word. When they returned home, Debbie and he would absorb Brit's silence, which would last until dinner. For those three hours they existed on separate planes, recharging themselves.
Alex never thought it fair that Debbie and Brit should endure the pain of watching someone die so uncommonly inhumanely without receiving a twinkling of recognition. It was for all these reasons that earlier that day, he made his suggestion.
"Are you sure?" Debbie was looking away from him as she gathered up the Sunday New York Times, which had been strewn about the living room.
"Yes. Well, no. I mean that I would enjoy your company, but seeing him is so depressing, for everyone, especially Brit. She never complains. She deserves a Sunday to herself." He picked up his keys and slip on a jacket, as if he was about to walk out the door.
"It doesn't feel right. I should be with you, him. You never know what he feels or hears." Debbie looked at him with tears in her eyes.
He hugged her. "I know, I know. But you need time to yourself. So stay home. You're tired. Please." He held her away from him and kissed her gently. "I'll see you in two hours."
He never thought to tell Debbie that he wanted to be alone with his father. Only a week earlier, Alex discovered that he had a fifty-fifty chance of coming down with the disease before he was sixty. The genetic probability depressed him. He found solace only in the thought that Brittany would be grown and starting her own family even if he developed the disease as early in life as his father. During the week, he wondered what he would do if he had the disease. He decided that he would get into his car at two in the morning and drive the curvy unlit Merit Parkway with the accelerator to the floor. Debbie would collect his life insurance and she could think that the accident was some type of mid-life crisis.
What could be was before him, still swatting at butterflies, hands grasping at the nothing, with an indefatigable dedication. Alex became jealous of that purpose, as addled as it was, for at that moment, in the surroundings of the lounge perfumed by the faded scents of human waste, his father had a greater focus than he. Alex knew that if his father weren't ill, he Alex would be lying on the sofa watching a football game while his father in another house would be working on some project.
Alex needed time to "meeb out", as he would say to Brittany. He sat in front of a screen day after day playing with binary codes, feeding the information from his workstation to a CD, then playing with the results trying the design the latest fade in computer games. Then during the crunch months, just before the Christmas releases, he would spend so much time in the office that he would sleep on a cot, all in the name of making three owners richer than rich, a task not much more ridiculous than waving at butterflies, day after day, and never catching a one.
Even outside the office, he didn't even seem to be of much help. He was never able to ease his mother's suffering, she not even wanting to discuss the effects of his father's unintended brutality. And lately, he felt like he was holding Debbie back. He even wondered if his purpose with Debbie had vanished. He feared she would wake one morning and wonder why she was staying with him, not in any wicked way but from a desire for ever greater human growth, and then decide to leave him, he having been only a weigh station, the first person in her life who let her be her. There was so much about himself that he didn't feel comfortable with, even comfortable talking about with anyone, including Debbie. He knew he wasn't a great lover, mediocre at best. He was only an adequate provider, enough to be comfortable but not enough for luxuries. He was shy, not much fun at parties. He merely was dependable and loved almost unconditionally, and that seemed boring.
He looked at his father swatting at butterflies. In an ever so brief moment, Alex saw their colors, the fluttering in place. He reached to catch one. He stretched further. His father swung his arms, knocking Alex's forearm back. It hit the conch shell.
Alex stared at the broken pieces, fragments and dust of lime decaying, and he wondered if Brit and Deb would be upset with him.
© Copyright 1998, Joseph Conlin, All Rights Reserved.
© Copyright 1997, 2021, The Fairfield Review Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Document last modified on: 12/31/2000