Late May, surgeons scooped from my father’s brain a tumor the size of a peach. Peach was the surgeons’ word. It was July now, and my father’s new wheelchair gleamed in the day’s last light. His fists and feet were swollen, his arms tracked with table-corner bruises, his hands chapped and blood-crusted. He still had two black eyes.
We were on my father’s deck, which jutted into the reeds and overlooked the salt pond. My stepmother was there. She and my father had met at church. My big brother, Carter, was there, up from Hilton Head. My daughter, Cora, was there. That summer she turned ten. Her mom was gone by then. Even my mother was there, in town to say so long. Hadn’t been married to my father for 25 years. And with her I drank vodka tonics. She left the booze inside, but brought out an ice bucket and arranged a cutting board with fresh-cut limes.
Carter poured himself and my father glasses of O’Doul’s near-beer and started telling about the time we fought a man after a day of skiing out West.
“Not too much,” my father said, “or I’ll need the commode.”
“Dad,” I said. “We took him just like you taught us.”
Carter said, “One went high, the other went low.”
“You were a bruiser,” I said to my father.
He scoffed at that. He said, “I was a boozer.”
My mother said, “You were something else.”
My father sipped his O’Doul’s.
Cora was draped across my lap, running her toes along the deck boards. “Can I have juice, Mamaw?” she said.
“I’ll get it,” my mother said.
“That’s me,” my stepmother said. “You’re Grandma.”
My mother put up her hands. “It’s your house,” she said.
My stepmother went inside.
I said, “Thank you.” I said, “Cora . . .”
“Thanks,” Cora said.
“We were in Aspen,” Carter said.
I said, “We were off piste.”
“There’s a child here,” my father said. This was coming from a man who’d once drunk rye whiskey in his breakfast coffee and taught my brother and me how to fight dirty at the swing sets with sand in our fists.
“P-I-S-T-E,” I said. “Off the trail. In the backcountry.”
My stepmother brought back Cora a cup with a bendy straw slipped in. My brother raised his glass. Everybody cheersed.
“What do you say?” I said to Cora.
“Thanks,” Cora said.
“I never skied a day in my life,” my stepmother said.
I told the table how I’d rung a ski club pal, how he invited us to swing through. He said he had couches. Our first day, we skied local spots, secret stashes they don’t tell about on trail maps. Tight aspen glades. Cliff hucks into powder pockets. Pine-padded pillow lines.
“It was epic,” Carter said. “Light like jockey powder.”
My father stared off, sipped his near-beer. He said, “Who’s this now?”
“We were staying with him,” I said. “My friend.
“He’s a big boy,” Carter said.
“A giant,” I said. “Six-five at least.”
“A Neanderthal,” my brother said.
I said, “He rented us helmet cams from the ski shop.”
“This,” my brother said, “is the key.”
“Too fancy for me,” my father said.
My mother said, “Video cameras strapped to their noggins.”
“We went to the backcountry,” Carter said.
“For Godfrey’s sake,” my mother said. “There’s boundaries for a reason.”
I told how Carter and I got separated from my ski club pal. And we’d never skied Aspen before, didn’t know the ridge-lines, didn’t know when to ski high or skate low. The pines muffled the wind. Everything was still. Carter and I stopped in a grove where the sunlight broke through. We called out, got nothing back. Only limbs shifting, snow poofing to the forest floor.
“Remember,” Carter said, “All this is on film.”
“Was cold,” I said.
Carter said, “Colder than a moose’s you-know-what.”
My father gave a quick scowl.
“Easy,” Carter said. He opened another near-beer and split it with my father. My mother took my glass inside, reloaded it with vodka. I chunked in ice, squeezed in lime, spilled tonic over top.
“Salud,” my brother said and raised his glass.
My father said, “You’ll make me need a restroom.”
Foam frothed Carter’s mustache. “Tell what happened later,” he said.
“Someone finally skied down,” I said.
Carter said, “A local skied us home.”
“You boys,” my mother said.
“What’s this?” my father said.
I said, “Someone led us back to the trail.”
“We found the Neanderthal,” Carter said. “We found our friend.”
“In the lift line,” I said. “Pure luck.”
I told the table how later that afternoon we skied steep chutes near the treeline under bluebird sky and sun. You could see the peaks. Bald Knob. Maroon Bells. Sleeping Sexton.
“That night,” I said, “we watch the playback.”
“With the Neanderthal,” Carter said.
“I don’t know why no one ever took me skiing,” my stepmother said.
“I was never an athlete,” my father said.
I said, “He did 12-ounce curls.”
My mother laughed.
My father took my stepmother’s hand. He said, “Then I met my wife.”
“Mom took us weekends,” I said.
Carter said, “She raised herself some powderhounds.”
I told how in Aspen we lounged out in long-johns, and my pal fixed us beers and bowls of chili. We watched the footage on a big screen. On came the part when Carter was filming, when he and I were lost off piste. You could see the panic on my face, hear it in Carter’s breath. This was at ten thousand feet, where the air gets thin and the headaches come easy.
“Remember,” Carter said. “The camera’s rolling.”
I said, “I start cussing my buddy out. Bleep-a-dee-bleep-bleep-bleep. Because it’s just Carter and me, not remembering the cameras are on. And we’re off the grid where ski patrol won’t do rescues. And I’m freaked. I’m venting. Airing it out. The camera catches it all.”
Carter said, “He was piste off.”
My father said, “Hey now.”
My mother laughed. “You got caught,” she said.
“We’re watching on video,” I said. “And here I am, giving my pal a good rogering.”
Carter said, “Every four-letter-word in the book.”
I tell how, there in the room under the big screen’s glow, all this doesn’t seem funny at all. The Neanderthal doesn’t just shrug it off.
Carter said, “The S-O-B takes a swing.”
“For heaven’s sake,” my mother said.
“I duck,” I said. “I go for the knees.”
My mother said, “Sounds like advice your father would give.”
“I clock him good up top,” Carter said.
“Just a love-tap,” I said.
“Like you taught us, Dad,” Carter said. “Taking care of my little bro.”
I said, “One went high, the other went low.”
“Textbook,” Carter said. “Absolutely textbook.”
“On the video,” I said, “which is still playing in the room, you hear me hollering, swearing him up and down. Bleep-a-dee-bleep. I call him a cocksucker.”
Right then my father swung his swollen fist and gave my shoulder a whack. “That’s my wife there!” he said. “And your mother.”
My mother didn’t look. My brother choked back a laugh.
My father said, “Your daughter’s here!” He hacked into his fist.
I said, “I slipped up.”
“A little girl,” my father said.
My stepmother kept her head down but shot a look above her glasses.
My mother took a glug of vodka.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I got caught up—”
“You’re a father,” my father said.
Carter said, “He’s just saying what happened.”
“Have another drink,” my father said to me. And he pinched the fat of my arm, did not let go, pinched me harder than anyone ever pinched me, before or since.
I was 35 that year, pincered like a child by my dying father.
“He learned that talk from you,” my father said to my mother.
I said, “Dad.”
My mother said, “For Christ’s sake.”
My father coughed some more. “Don’t you say that name in vain,” my father said.
“It’s a good story,” I said. “Skiing with my brother. We hadn’t since Mom took us.”
My father pinched harder still. I dug my fingernails into his hand.
I said, “We got ourselves out of a bind.”
Carter said, “You taught us.”
“It’s no wonder,” my father said. He let go, turned to me, spittle on his chin. “No wonder your woman left.” His eyes were black as plums.
My stepmother said, “You’ve made your father upset now.”
“Oh, get off it,” my mother said. “He upset himself.”
My stepmother gathered the glasses and beer bottles and cutting board and ice bucket and took them in. My father called after, asked her if there were cookies in the cupboard. Dinner hadn’t filled his gut, he said. My stepmother said something back, but her voice became lost in the high ceilings inside. Once she returned, I considered the ease of cooking for one and how few laundry loads she’d run each week in the life she’d soon lead alone.
For a time no one said anything. But everybody listened. You could see it in our faces, hear it in our tight breaths and wetted lips. Gulls cried out overhead. Cora slurped the last of her juice. A foghorn called from the lighthouse. All the light had spilled from the sky.
My father’s hand was bleeding. He sucked the blood away. He rolled himself out from the table, pointed at his crotch, which was wet and darkened. His feet and legs in their sweat socks looked like clubs. My father burped.
“Grandpa,” Cora said. “You smell like a beer can.”
My father said, “I smell like an old man.”
My stepmother wheeled him out of the nighttime and into the light of the house.