Buzzers

Soon after Andrew left the hospital for the airport he knew his father would die, and that’s exactly what he did. His mother was sleeping on a foldout chair, asleep for the night, while Dora, his little sister, sat on a stool studying her father’s ventilator. She was cycling through the machines again, figuring out which worked and which did not. The heart monitor appeared to be working, but the ventilator left her skeptical, something in the way the rubber flue trembled as it collapsed and bloomed, collapsed and bloomed. Her father was expending every last bit of energy, vigor, whatever it was, to keep the machines alive.

When the heart monitor flatlined and her father let out a last long sigh, she stood up and walked over to the side of his bed. Another machine emitted a series of excited beeps, and she touched his shoulder, still warm beneath his sweatshirt, and his hair, which felt like hair, of course, but she wanted to be sure. She wasn’t afraid. She was ready. She’d seen a movie where a woman placed coins atop her dead husband’s closed eyelids. Dora liked this, but her father was on his side. He looked happy, she decided. Plus she didn’t have any coins.

On her father’s forehead, shining under the muted glow of the overhead track lights, was a single red speck of party glitter which pulsed like a tiny cinder when Dora shifted her view. Quickly, before the doctor arrived, she used her fingernail to remove it. Holding it on her finger, she hesitated to let it fall to the floor. She wasn’t superstitious but flicking away the glitter seemed like an improper thing to do. How had it ended up here, and what had it celebrated? She could feel her confidence disappearing. She had no idea what to do with the glitter. A doctor and two nurses in breast-cancer T-shirts came into the room and checked her father’s pulse. Her mother sat up. “What is it now?” she said.

Her mother and the doctor went into the bathroom, from which Dora heard the awful pull of the chain light. The nurses began printing and tearing readouts from some of the machines, and Dora thought: receipts.

She searched her father’s face. It looked gray, with an expression that was not calm or serene or undisturbed—but gone. She wouldn’t cry; she had already cried. Crying now would be a big step backward. She could wail, or keen. People still keened, didn’t they? She reached under the covers and held her father’s hand, cold. Room temperature, but cold. The moment she touched it she wanted to let go but the nurses were watching so she held on. She imagined something inside of her unspooling like an anchor chain and trailing after him wherever he was going. Away, away. Now would be an ideal time to keen, but it wasn’t the kind of thing you willed your way into, you just did it, which was why Dora wouldn’t be able to do it.

She asked one of the nurses for his ID bracelet. The nurse looked to the other nurse, who wasn’t paying attention, and then efficiently clipped off the bracelet and handed it to Dora.

She looked at her finger and saw that the glitter had vanished, and she was relieved. She had lately become a careful reader of signs and this seemed a very good sign.

In the airport, Andrew tried not to move while the hand-wand made agitated noises above his belt buckle, once, twice, three times. When the security guard was finished, he asked if the belt cost a lot of money. Andrew told him that it was his father’s, so he didn’t know, and the guard said, “In my experience, things that look expensive usually are.”

He walked with a group from his architectural design class to the gate. They wore dark simple clothes and tried to project a European uniformity. Andrew bought a newspaper and sat at the gate reading an article about a red tide on the Gulf Coast. Red tide, the article said, was caused by algae blooms, which attacked marine life and turned the water a rusty color. The article called the algae “toxic salt-loving algae,” and made it seem dastardly and inexorable, like death itself.

Seated around him were his classmates, the future architects of the world, on their way to Vicenza, Italy, for a month-long course in city planning. Andrew had always wanted to be an architect, even before he knew what architects did—especially before he knew what they did. Architect. It sounded smart, upstanding, conclusive. People had warned him that the program was hard work, but it wasn’t. It was long work. Stare, sketch, hold wooden dowels together while the glue dries, stare some more, sketch some more, solder. His finished models looked more like a building’s circuit board than an actual building. Defending them during pinup, Andrew would point out subdominant structures and transparent intersections. “What I’m investigating is the junction of these lozenges here at the center,” he would say. And: “What I’m investigating is the conversation between opposing insertions.” And: “What I’m investigating is the way space negates space.” And: “What I’m investigating are tones.”

Of course, of course, his classmates said. Many of their models were doing the very same things.

The summer trip from Florida to Vicenza was standard for students entering their third year. In Vicenza the Renaissance architect Palladio had designed basilicas and villas for the aristocracy, turning the city into his personal design lab. While they were there, the professors wanted the students to be aware of relationships, both particular to Vicenza and universal to human occupation. That is what they said. Andrew waited for them to elaborate, but they said no more. Sometimes he found their cryptic instructions interesting, even exciting, and other times, currently for instance, they seemed negligent, a way of alluding to a world without the burden of making sense of it.

Nonetheless, he was anxious to go. He’d never been on a long flight or to Europe, so the minute he stepped onto the plane he would find himself in unfamiliar territory. This was one of the reasons people traveled, he guessed, to go from the known to the unknown, a thing he’d never longed for until now. “Over my dead body,” his father had said when Andrew asked if he should forgo the trip. It was meant to be a joke but no one, including Andrew’s father, had laughed. What Andrew wanted right now was to be where he couldn’t understand a word.

Aboard the airplane before takeoff, he sat in a middle seat away from the rest of the group, between an older couple who seemed to be traveling together. They traded excited comments about the complimentary purple socks they’d been given. Both of them freed the socks from the plastic and put them on. Andrew kept his in his lap, atop the Walter Benjamin book he’d been carrying around for the past month. The woman, who sat to his left, asked his name and he told her. He asked if she wanted to switch seats with him and she said she did not. “We’ll have plenty of time to sit next to each other in Athens,” she said. “Athens, Greece.”

This conversation starter, if that’s what it was, went unheeded by Andrew. He wanted to put on his headphones and read Walter Benjamin until he fell asleep, but didn’t want to appear rude. He waited for the woman to elaborate. She wore long clip-on earrings that jiggled as she rooted around in her pocketbook. To his right, the man wrapped his old socks in the plastic and tried to figure out what to do with them.

After a few minutes the woman leaned forward and said, “I never finished telling you about Annie. Where was I?”

“Tongue cancer,” the man said.

“Can you imagine anything more gruesome? I didn’t even know one could get cancer of the tongue.”

“It’s an organ like everything else. It’s got cells.”

“It must be new,” the woman said.

Andrew opened the book. He read,: “Paris created the type of flâneur. What is remarkable is that it wasn’t Rome. And the reason? Does not dreaming itself take the high road in Rome?” He closed the book. He watched the flight attendants walk back and forth preparing the plane. They were solemn and purposeful, but when a passenger requested something the attendants brightened while tilting their heads to show utmost receptiveness.

One of them came by and said, “Please remember to turn off your portable electronic devices before we push back from the gate.”

The woman asked the attendant how many pilots there were on a cross-Atlantic flight like this one, while Andrew reached into his pocket to turn off his phone. But it had already been turned off. When he turned it on again he saw that a message was waiting. It was from his mother. An echoing sigh. “It’s happened,” she said.

The woman next to Andrew was now holding the attendant’s arm to fix her in place. She asked if all four of the pilots were co-pilots, like co-captains on a bridge team, or if one was a main pilot and the other three were co-pilots, or if they were all simply pilots, and would it be too much trouble to get a small glass of tonic water for her and her husband before the plane took off? Tonic water settled the stomach.

“I hope you get this,” Andrew’s mother said.

When the message ended, a digitized voice gave him numeric options. On the cover of the Walter Benjamin was a picture of a glass-roofed arcade below a much smaller picture of a woman’s face. It was a thoughtful face, not necessarily kind-looking, but full of thought, especially in the vicinity of the mouth. Only half of the face was visible in the frame, and if Andrew’s first impulse wasn’t to hurry and gather his things and exit the plane and make his way back to the hospital to be with his mother and Dora, maybe it was because he wanted a few more minutes to figure out this woman’s face.

At the start of his second year, his instructors had recommended that he find a single philosopher whose ideas he approved of. Not to let the philosopher’s ideas impose themselves too rigidly on what he was building, but to think of them, the ideas, as a miner’s helmet, the light by which he would see what he was building . . .

Andrew was still holding the phone to his ear, he realized. “For more options, press star,” the digitized voice repeated, another group of words that hadn’t yet cohered into anything that made sense.

It’s happened. He knew that if he stayed in his seat a little while longer it would be too late to do anything. In a few minutes the cabin doors would close, the plane would leave the gate, take off, and, seven hours later, land in London. He would call his mother from a pay phone in the airport while waiting for the connecting flight and explain that he hadn’t gotten her message until it was too late. In a few minutes the doors would close and he wouldn’t have to make a decision. He’d be locked in transit, trapped.

He opened the in-flight magazine and mentally filled in the crossword puzzle. Both the husband and the wife, he could tell, were watching him, so he turned the page. As he read an article about the steak houses of Denver, he decided that if he came across the word yes, he would tell the flight attendant he needed to get off the plane. But if he found the word no, he would stay on the plane. Searching the page, he found no once, twice, again, again.

As if to further confirm things, the man on his right offered him a piece of gum. It was the kind that came in a bubbled sheet of plastic, like sore-throat drops, and when Andrew accepted the offer, the man expertly pressed two through the foil and into Andrew’s hand. He leaned over and pressed out two more pieces for his wife, who declared, “We’ll all have the same breath!”

Andrew’s father had first gone to the hospital on Halloween morning. He’d eaten scallops for dinner the night before and been up all night with what he thought was food poisoning. When Andrew and his mother and sister visited him, the hospital staff were wearing costumes over their uniforms: pirate orderlies and vampire nurses. Andrew thought hospitals were impervious to things like Halloween, but in walked his father’s doctor, dressed in a cowboy hat and boots. “Howdy, everyone,” he said. This of course put none of them at ease.

His father was scanned and biopsied. He was given a prognosis and sent home with a hospital pocket calendar filled in with four months of appointments. The prognosis, as told to Dora and Andrew: Dad’ll be visiting the hospital for at least four more months. After that, things proceeded very slowly. From one day to the next he looked and acted more or less the same, but if Andrew compared him with a picture from before he had gotten sick the difference was startling. He looked thinner, of course, but also shorter. Everything about him seemed reduced in scale, even his bathrobe, his meals. For breakfast he often ate just a handful of raisins; dinner was a slice of toast.

His co-workers at the jai alai fronton brought tamales to the house. It became a joke between his mother and father. “I say we start freezing them,” his father would say. “Store them and thaw them out years from now to see what they tell us.” There were cheese tamales and turkey tamales and breakfast tamales. His mother cleaned the tamale pans and returned them with cookies in them.

Whenever Andrew went to a restaurant he found himself looking for scallops on the menu. He hated scallops. He hated the word scallops. It sounded like a disease in itself.

Every so often he allowed himself to imagine his father being around in ten, fifteen years, but even before his father was admitted to Fourth West, the family had resigned themselves to the worst. Andrew saw how his father seemed to be attending to last things, boxing up old clothes, calling friends he’d lost contact with. There was a slight, barely noticeable shift of balance in the house. His mother became quieter, his father louder, more erratic.

Andrew left for college, a two-hour drive. He was distracted from his schoolwork for a while, and then he was so busy he had no choice but to be swallowed up by it. He enjoyed the dull repetitiveness of studio work, making things out of other things. He went to a party where one of his female classmates said to him, “My father’s dying, too.” He didn’t know if she was offering sympathy or trying to start a conversation. How casually she said it, as if pointing out they were wearing the same brand of sneakers.

When his father was moved to Fourth West, Andrew drove home to help decorate the room and prop get-well cards on the end tables. “He isn’t going to get better here,” Dora predicted. He returned to school and waited and Dora and his mother waited at home. They celebrated Thanksgiving at Fourth West, behind the sliding blue-and-white curtain, then Christmas. Another shift: his father began complaining about the waiting, implying that anything would be preferable, anything. There’s been a mistake, he would say. He had waited too long, the whole family had. They waited and waited until waiting was a place they had gone for good.

About a half hour later, after the pilot had twice announced “Should be a few more minutes,” the plane was still parked at the gate. Andrew read every word of the in-flight magazine, including the letters to the editor. He was interested in the kind of person who’d write a letter to an in-flight magazine. It seemed a sincere and hopeful act. One of the letters began, For years my wife and I have been enjoying the unlikely grandeur of Quito. Below the letter writer’s name was his e-mail address, which Andrew jotted down on the flyleaf of the Walter Benjamin. He thought that maybe he would write the man a letter about his letter.

He imagined his mother sitting by a phone, hand poised over the receiver, waiting. The correct, the only thing for him to do was to start making his way home. If he could just stand up, grab his bag, and get off the plane, he knew he could manage the rest of it. The preparations, the funeral, picking over the remains of the unmade summer with his mother and Dora. He just had to spark the right neurons to tell the right muscles what needed to be done. But the thought of asking the woman to unbuckle her seat belt and stand up so that he could stand up, and then standing up and fishing his bag out of the overhead compartment and walking down the aisle, had begun to make him very, very tired.

As a kid he had read a book about an astronaut who orbits the earth for a few weeks and returns to find that eighty years have passed and everyone he loves is dead. It was a sad story made sadder by the astronaut going back into space and deciding not to come back. There was something sweet and fitting about the hopelessness of the astronaut, alone in his space capsule. Riding the bus home from school, Andrew would try to summon this feeling by pretending his family was gone and he’d decided to live out his days on a bus. Sometimes, to complete the illusion, he waited until the final stop to get off the bus and would then have to spend a half hour walking home. He could remember having done it several times so it must have been worth it.

Tory, from his building-arts class, stopped by Andrew’s seat on his way to the bathroom. He was wearing a black T-shirt on which moore is less was printed in white letters, a design joke. “We wondered where you were,” he said. “Why are you stranded way back here in steerage?”

Andrew told him he didn’t know, that this was the seat that was printed on his boarding pass. “I’m happy back here,” he said.

“The woman next to me took some pills and went stiff about thirteen seconds later. Her mouth’s wide-ass open. She looks dead.”

“What are you talking about?”

Tory looked at the man next to Andrew, then at the woman. “If she ever wakes up, you two could switch. It’s gonna be a long flight.”

When Tory left, the woman asked who he was and Andrew told her. She said, “I bet he’s not very popular, although everyone knows who he is.”

Andrew didn’t agree or disagree, though she was right.

“I can tell,” she said. “The instant he opened his mouth, I said to myself, Here is someone who’s talked his way into being ignored.”

This, too, seemed an accurate observation. “You’re probably right.”

“Watch out,” the man said. “My wife’s a great authority on other people.”

“Instincts,” the woman said.

“When it comes to other people my wife could win contests.”

“Years ago when we were visiting Japan,” the man’s wife said, “a very old woman on the subway came up to me and handed me a sheet of paper with some Japanese written on it. The concierge at our hotel translated it. ‘You are a lamp in a world of lamp shades.’ Isn’t that wonderful?”

“It was an advertisement for a new kind of shampoo,” the man whispered to Andrew, who could now smell the dank spearmint of the gum they were all chewing. The man opened and closed the window shade on the view of the terminal. “Any thoughts on our friend Andrew here?” he asked his wife.

“We haven’t even left the gate.”

“But you’ve formed an opinion. Nine seconds, she says it takes,” he told Andrew.

The woman nodded with her eyes closed, as if she’d foreseen the question. A sharp line ran down her chin from each side of her mouth, like a ventriloquist’s doll. She said, “Serious. Kindhearted. Has a bit of the lone wolf to him. A bit of the constant traveler. He’s resilient, no, resistant. If he finds something he likes at a restaurant, he’ll happily order it every time. He’s practical. But he needs things a certain way.”

“His way,” the husband said. “That can be admirable.”

Stand up, and you’ll never see these two again. Stand up, and you’ll be doing the correct, the only thing.

“We’re making him uncomfortable, Reed.” The woman patted the armrest as if it were his leg. “The poor boy probably can’t wait to go sit with his friends.”

“It’s okay,” Andrew said.

“Even when she’s not listening, she’s listening,” the man said. “It’s like living with a detective.”

The two said nothing else until the plane backed away from the gate. Neither did Andrew, whose body was affixed to the seat like a prop for the Walter Benjamin and the complimentary blue socks in his lap. He wasn’t going anywhere. By staying still he could feel himself being pulled away. It was like an ocean undercurrent towing him up the beach, easily, unnoticed, past hotel front after hotel front, until he’d forgotten which one he was using to keep his place . . .

He thought about how his father called the screeching crows perched on his window ledge “buzzers,” which was what Dora had called buzzards when she was small.

How he’d begun wearing calfskin driving gloves in the hospital, and would mark pauses in conversation by fastening and unfastening the Velcro.

How, especially how, Andrew had walked into the wrong house the last time he’d returned home from school. His mother and sister still lived in the town house where he grew up, in a subdivision of two-storied luxury town houses around a man-made lake. The town houses were built five to a building, with the three middle units exactly the same and the two end units mirror images of each other.

It was late and he hadn’t slept much. He climbed stairs he’d climbed a thousand times, but instead of turning right he turned left. The door was unlocked and Andrew walked into the foyer and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkened house. There was an unfamiliar pale oak bookshelf in the living room, which, since he hadn’t been home in a while, didn’t seem all that unusual. Only when he approached it to look at a framed photograph, which turned out to be of his neighbor, old Mr. Patterson, shaking hands with a man dressed up as Captain America, did he realize what had happened. But not before he wondered what the picture was doing in their house.

Then, as now, he couldn’t bring himself to move. He had looked around and tried to figure out what was different between this town house and his: a white cat sleeping on the back of a white couch, a coffee table, a mug with a straw in it. At eye level on the sliding glass door were pictures of pelicans, which Andrew remembered seeing from the other side, years ago. His father had explained that the pelicans were there so Mr. Patterson didn’t accidentally slam into the sliding glass door while drunk. The carpet was white, like the cat, and one of the walls was filled with black-and-white photographs. He felt pinned into place.

“Defamiliarize yourselves,” his instructors had said. “Don’t overlook what you’ve seen before, or think you’ve seen before, because you’ve seen it before. See things again for the first time.”

There was Mr. Patterson yelling. There was Mr. Patterson holding a nightstick in the doorway. “Identify yourself!” he was yelling.

When Andrew did, and Mr. Patterson finally calmed himself down, he returned the nightstick to his umbrella stand and sat down on the couch. The cat hopped to the coffee table to a chair to the dining room table, never touching the carpet.

“What the hell were you doing just standing there?” Mr. Patterson said. “What were your plans?”

Andrew tried to explain. It was late, he hadn’t slept much. Mr. Patterson, in a tank top and a pair of boxer shorts too small for him, smiled right through the explanation. Below the hem of his shorts peeked the stingy-looking cap of his penis. “You need to realize,” he said, still smiling, “that I would’ve had every right, every right in the world, to brain you.”

He sounded sort of disappointed that he hadn’t.

Andrew apologized and Mr. Patterson said something complimentary about his father, talking about him in the past tense, and Andrew thanked him.

“I know your daddy’s sick, but you can’t go standing in other people’s houses. You’ve got to keep your wits about you. When my wife died I moved here to Florida. Most people come to Florida to die, but I came here to live. That’s what I say when somebody asks why I’m taking skydiving lessons. Death happens to the dead. We’re here to live!”

Andrew knew that this was self-mythologizing nonsense (and who needed lessons to jump out of an airplane?) but he didn’t say anything. He just wanted to explain what had happened, so that Mr. Patterson would understand. It sounded sensible until the part where he realized he was in the wrong house. Mr. Patterson had watched him, Andrew, staring through his own face like a zombie, he said. I haven’t been sleeping much, Andrew kept saying. We have the same floor plan. Haven’t you ever woken up before your body did?

Mr. Patterson smiled, his penis perched close to his leg, like a pilot fish. Probably he was still marveling at how righteous it would’ve been to brain Andrew with that nightstick. Andrew may as well have been explaining how he was just trying to defamiliarize himself and see things again for the first time. It’s an assignment, he could’ve told Mr. Patterson. For school.

This was the visit when his father wore the calfskin gloves. His face looked rummaged but the gloves were brand-new, toast-colored. Andrew sat on the pullout sofa and waited while his father pulled on the Velcro and stared out at the window ledge, which was fixed with metal spikes to deter birds. A trio of crows had worked its way around the spikes and huddled with tail feathers against the window, screeching into the wind. “You might fool other birds,” his father said finally. “But you never can fool the buzzers. Buzzers won’t pretend to pretend.”

Although he’d heard what his father said and knew what he meant, Andrew said, “What?” Maybe he wanted to see if he’d repeat it. He didn’t. It was as if he’d been working over this idea for months and, once he’d said it, wasn’t about to spoil it by saying it again.

He continued the routine with the gloves. Andrew continued waiting.

On the airplane, which was now away from the gate and turning to taxi, his stomach tightened and he suddenly felt short of breath. His father was gone and he should’ve gotten off the plane. His father was gone and he’d failed to do the correct thing. He’d failed to do anything.

“At last,” the man next to him said as the plane inched closer to the runway. He opened the window shade and his wife leaned over Andrew and made a relieved sound. Andrew tucked the Walter Benjamin into the seat pocket, closed his eyes, and tried to breathe. He thought about why he was going to Vicenza, what his instructors expected him to look for: relationships, specific to the city, universal to human occupation. The open-endedness of this was comforting, the improbability of searching very long without discovering it.

“Sit back and enjoy the rest of your flight,” the flight attendant announced once the plane had reached cruising altitude. “May we suggest trying on your complimentary travel socks?”

Just as the husband and wife had done earlier, Andrew slipped off his shoes and socks and replaced them with the travel socks, which felt cheap and warm and new. He sat up and saw several other passengers doing the same thing. Travel socks, he’d never heard of such a thing, but he liked the sound of it.

A little while later the woman next to Andrew reached over and tapped her husband on the shoulder. He stirred awake and asked what she wanted. “Ever since I heard about Annie’s cancer, my own tongue’s felt too big for my mouth,” she told him, “like it has no business being in there at all.”

She stuck out her tongue and began moving it back and forth.

“You’ll get used to it again,” her husband said and went back to sleep.

There was a TV installed in the seat back facing Andrew, and on it he watched famous people laughing. Something inconceivably funny was going on. He could still feel a tightening in his stomach and it occurred to him that, although he was traveling far from home, he’d soon be met with what had happened. No matter how far he went, it would find him there.

 

Photo: Artykov