While You Are Gone
By Sabrina Boyer
My father and I sat on benches facing the beach in front of my Aunt Judy’s house on Anna Maria Island almost every summer, vacationing as a family where my mother’s sister just happened to own a piece of paradise. But my father didn’t like the sun; it made him too hot, too sweaty, too exhausted. I’d drink real Pina Coladas while he put his arm around me and we watched the sunset until long after it was gone, hoping it would start all over. He was supposed to go the last time, and he even bought a blue rayon collared shirt with flowers on it for the occasion. So, we buried him in it, and went anyway. I read him a poem at his funeral, where, after, strangers told me how great my father was, as if they could have known.
* * *
Rocks used to line either side of the beach in front of Aunt Judy’s house. They had sharp pointy edges and blocked beach pedestrians from coming too close to where we were. The tide came in at night, less than a foot away from the sea oats in Aunt Judy’s yard, so close the waves sounded like loud thuds against the walls of the apartment where we stayed, and the spray jumped into our porch windows trying to tag us all night long. The rocks are gone now, covered up by adult-sized Tonka trucks, buried as if they were never there. I miss them. They scraped my feet and ate my Frisbees, and offered me a place to rest when I counted the stars.
Our first day on Aunt Judy’s beach in four years the sun beats down and slices our skin and plants future blisters. We soak it in. It’s a Tuesday in the middle of summer and there are few people sprouting on the sand, mostly families with small children, buckets, and plastic shovels. The tide has drifted farther out than I have ever seen, and my mother, brother, and I are blobs in fold-up chairs, people-watching and listening to the heavy wind and the angry waves.
“These waves are kickin’,” my brother Brett says, looking out from under his sunglasses, holding up the earphones of his Walkman. “I should have brought a boogie board.” He leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees, scanning the vast ocean in front of us, watching the waves crash in and out.
“I’ve been coming to this beach for forty years, and the rocks have always been here. It must be because the rocks are gone,” my mother says. “They really shouldn’t mess with nature.”
While we are down near Bradenton, Brett and I decide to go to Counsel’s Pool Hall because they have the greatest cheeseburgers in the world. My father used to take Brett there during the week or two we’d visit Aunt Judy, a boy’s day he’d call it. Mom and I would go shopping at the outlets in Palmetto, or bake on the beach until we could peel our skin.
The sunlight against the concrete burns my eyes, and I can't make out the dirty walls or aged pool tables with torn felt. The smoke stings my nose. There are only barstools at the counter, and two older men in light cotton shirts use a stove from the early ‘30s to grill the burgers. There are only four items on the menu: Cheeseburgers, hamburgers, chili, (cup or bowl) and a salad. I am the only woman in the place. Brett turns to me, his jaw and nose and the way he hunches over and slurps his chili looking more like my father than ever. He looks at my face and rubs his goatee.
“I told you not to complain,” he says. “You wanted to come.”
His name is Dan, and he lives on Riverside Dr., where, my father once told me, the rich people in Bradenton live. He has done well for himself, we can tell, because his house is much larger than any we’ve ever seen up close, in person. On the other side of the canopy street are other much larger houses, with newer paint and cleaner lines. Dan’s is aged and looks like it could tell us ghost stories. The plans are to go to lunch, though I ’m not sure where, and to talk about my father. Dad was one of his best friends in high school and college. Jim, my father’s other best friend from high school, lives in Atlanta.
Dan owns an old Volvo that’s parked in his carport with antique coca-cola bottles and a cooler. The driveway is at the back of the house, and we aren’t sure where the front door is. Luckily, Dan is waiting outside. A portly man, he has glasses and thick brown hair brushed to either side. He’s well kept, not what I imagined. Brett and I glance at each other, and we both mouth “money.” Inside, Dan leads us to his living room, which smells of mothballs and old books. We sink down into his sofa and reach for the yearbook he’s specifically left on his coffee table. Class of ’74. We pick it up and browse. Dan sits forty-five degrees to our right.
“So, what did your Dad tell you about me?” Brett and I aren’t sure who should answer.
He’s looking at us, and we’re looking at him, and then I’m looking at the floor and the golden kitty. He or she is playing with my feet, and rolling around on its back. A friendly cat, for sure. I wonder what Dan thinks about us. Surely he must recognize Dad in Brett, but I wonder if he recognizes anything about me.
“Well, he showed us the wedding pictures. The Nazi symbol Jim drew on the car?” I say. My mom smiles and looks at Dan.
“Sure, sure, I remember that. Hey, Cindy, didn’t your mother freak out about that?” My mom is wearing that fake smile she gets, where her mouth curves up ever so slightly. It means she’s uncomfortable and trying to hide it.
We sit there in silence for a few minutes that seem like hours. I look at Brett and he’s staring at me, his eyebrows raised, mouthing “now what?”
“You know your Dad was a great man. He really was,” Dan says. He looks at Brett who, at 6’2”, towers over us, and then at me.
“Is a great man. He is a wonderful man,” I say, not looking at Dan or my mother, but instead stroking the belly of the cat. It’s shedding, and I have cat hair all over my black slacks.
“Yes, of course,” Dan says. “That’s what I meant.” He sits in the chair, rocking back and forth and smiling at Mom, Brett, and me. “So, where do you want to go to lunch?”
Mom, Brett, Dan, and I decide to eat at Peach’s, a local chain only five minutes from Dan’s neighborhood. It’s small, located in a strip mall, and pulling in I realize that the last time we were in the area my father and I ate breakfast here on our way to Sarasota to see the Ringling Art Museum. We take the last available table. I sit at the corner, my brother and mom on the other side facing us, and Dan sits next to me. Dan tells my mother about his real estate business and his wife and daughters while Brett and I scan the menu. Carmen, the waitress, delivers glasses of ice water and takes our order. Everyone orders the club special and I have a turkey sandwich.
“Did your Dad ever take you around to see his old house or school? Did he talk about his Aunt Ruth?” No one else speaks, so I guess I’m supposed to answer.
“Yeah, he did, a little, and where he used to play tennis and stuff. He told us the story about when Aunt Ruth had her stroke she wanted to pay him $5 for saving her life. That she never wanted to owe anyone anything.”
“Yeah, yeah, it was the strangest thing. Your father was on break at Publix and decided to drive to get something to eat. But he ended up just driving home and found her unconscious on the floor. And later, when she died, we didn’t know about it or the funeral until like weeks later. We were over at his house and Jim and I asked where Ruth was and he said ‘Oh yeah, she died.’ But that’s just how he was, a very private guy.” Dan took a swig of sweet tea, and looked at me.
“Yeah, we didn’t know that he was offered a Coast Guard scholarship. He never told us that.”
Mom and Brett are just staring ahead at both of us, like they're two strangers eavesdropping. Lately, we’d been finding out information about my father that not even my mother knew. He sold Amway for three weeks, he worked night shifts at a dirty convenience store when I was six months old, he had kept the pictures of his old girlfriends hidden in his sock drawer.
“It was because of your grandmother. He was fourteen when she had her stroke.”
My Mom and Brett look disappointed, wanting the waitress to deliver our food, to give us an excuse to stop talking. We weren’t finding out much we didn’t already know. I glance up at Dan and he smiles at me, beneath his glasses, and I’m left with having to find some last words.
I make the turn into our cracked driveway off Hastings Street and into the carport at about thirty miles an hour, and my tires screech as I slam on the brakes. I don’t even turn off the car before I’m out the door and throwing open our side entrance that leads into the kitchen. He’s washing dishes, wearing his polyester black pants that hang on his hips, slippers, and blue Oxford. For a minute I just stand behind him and watch him before I speak. He turns around and stares at me, and I don’t say a word.
“What?” he asks. “What is it?” His eyebrows are turned down and his big blue eyes look clear against his blue shirt. They look sad somehow, perhaps turned down like his eyebrows. They draw me in. I want to swim in them. I try to catch my breath.
“You have a donor. Mom just called. She said you have a donor, and you have to pack some belongings and get ready to go. She’s on her way now.” He just stares at me like I’ve torn my own heart out of my chest and it’s still bloody and beating in my hands.
“You have a donor. You have to go get ready, wash up, pack some stuff, and we have to go. Now.” He places the round plate that he was drying on the counter, and turns off the hot water.
“Why didn’t Mom call me herself?”
“She couldn’t get through. She said the line was busy.” His shoulders are slumped from lack of use the last two years.
He looks at me as he passes by on the way to his room, down the hall. I follow him, and as I reach the doorway, he’s kneeling down on his floor in front of his bed, his elbows resting on the mattress.
“What are you doing?” I ask him. Brett comes up behind me.
“What’s going on?” Brett, then sixteen, asks.
“Dad has a heart. He has a real live heart, and we have to get ready to go.”
Dr. Bixler orders the nurses to whisk Dad away to get him prepped for the transplant surgery. He has to be shaved, and cleaned, disinfected. They have to get him ready. When we enter the waiting room, his sisters, our Aunt Elaine and Aunt Sally, are already waiting. Aunt Elaine comes up to my mother, and looks from her to me. In the family, she is affectionately known as Sarge. She knows how to take care of things.
“Where is he?”
“They have to get him prepped for surgery,” my mother says, “shave his hair, disinfect him so Dr. Bixler can plop the heart right in.”
My Aunt Sally has her right hand resting on her chest. The waiting room is big, and no one else is waiting. This is where all five of us will stay the night. We place our bags down, and take a seat. The transplant surgeon has only given us a few details. The man is from Miami, forty-five, an accident, brain damage. The man met my father’s body weight, blood type, tissue type, lung, and actual heart size.
Brett and I decide to explore. It’s late, and we have never been let loose in a hospital before. Four years ago, with his first heart attack, we became familiar with the cafeteria, like a T.V. show restaurant, complete with four different restaurants, a grill, a sub shop, a hamburger place, and “home cooked” meals. Now was our chance to branch out. We walk to the elevator in our socks and press the up arrow. The doors open, and we enter. We’re the only ones in the elevator.
“Hit number seven. Let’s see what’s up top,” Brett says. The elevator begins to ascend, and it wobbles. We brace ourselves, placing our palms on the cool metal. Finally, it dings, and we let out sighs of relief. The doors open, and we see the words “Cancer Unit” across the top of the wall that faces the doors. Brett is already out and moving towards the left, down a hall, where at the end is a large window. He reaches it before me.
“Hey, Sissy, come here. Check this out.” I approach his side, and lean my forehead against the foggy glass. I can barely make out what is outside.
“It’s the helicopter landing pad. This is where Life Flight lands.” Brett has both hands pressed against the glass, and his growing shoulders are almost taking up all the room, but I squeeze in next to him, and for a while, we stand there, leaning against the glass in silence, checking every so often to make sure no one is behind us. Checking to make sure this is allowed.
“Hey, there it is. See those lights? Here it comes.” Brett was right. I could see the yellow lights on the chopper coming closer, and soon, the thin landing legs beneath it, aiming for the X on the landing pad. The blades swooshed against the air and had begun to slow down. There isn’t a door, and we can see pairs of white pants, and then a leg stepping out of the chopper. The first doctor is out. We see another leg, and then a man falls out of the chopper and onto the concrete, landing on his right hip. In his hands he carried a cooler, one like I used to take to camp when I was twelve.
“His heart. The doctor just dropped Dad’s heart that’s in the cooler,” I said, not worrying about Dr. Bixler. “Check his hands. Are his hands okay?” We both strain our necks to try and get a good look. We pound on the glass. They are both walking away. The cooler seems to be intact as he walks off the landing pad, and through a door a story below us.
“Take care of him,” I whisper. Sometimes I wonder why hearts are such tangible, gooey things.
Our last night on the island Aunt Judy and her husband, my Uncle Jim, take us to Johnny Leverock’s, a popular seafood restaurant. We are tired and dried up from the sun, and wait in the bar to be seated. There is a dog race on the television while we wait. Finally, after just a few minutes of this our party is called, and the too-thin waitress named Kimmy leads us to our table next to a window facing the bayside. We can see the sun reflecting on the water. Brett and I sit on one side, and the adults on the other. The table seats six, but there are only five of us. The empty chair is next to the aisle, and I am next to it. While I look at the menu and try to decide what to order, my brother glances at me, asking what I’m going to have.
“I’m not sure yet.” I put down the menu and stare out at the water, and wonder what the sunset will look like.
“What’s wrong?” he asks. “What’s the matter?”
While you are gone I want to buy you shirts. And food. Those chocolate chip cupcakes. I want to take you out to lunch. I want to see your clear blue eyes again, as wide as swimming pools and sharp as rocks. While you are gone I still plan you into my schedule. While you are gone, I wonder where you are. What you are doing right now, if you even exist in any form. While you are gone I want to visit your grave once a week but can’t bring myself to go that often. While you are gone we are missing, and the air around us is thick with fog.
Sabrina Boyer is currently an instructor at Guilford Technical Community College and hold a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She currently is studying in the Women's and Gender's Studies department at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. She has studied with writers David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, and Mark Winegardner. Sabrina has published a poem in the online journal ginbender.com.
Photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.
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