BY KEVIN CAREY
Last summer my mother accidentally chopped my father’s ear off with the garden shears.
“How did that happen?” my father asked in the ambulance on the way to Union Hospital while a beefy paramedic held a pile of white gauze to his head.
“I had them sharpened last week,” my mother answered.
We were all scrunched in around each other. The paramedic guy kept checking the wound then quickly pushing back on the gauze and making a face like he couldn’t bear to see it again. The crowded city streets flitted by the ambulance door windows, some folks watching after the lights and the siren.
“Did you save it?” my father asked. His gray hair was matted with blood around the temple.
“The young lady up front has it in a sandwich bag,” my mother told him.
“Good,” my father said, never one to want to throw things out. The inside of our house was lined with cardboard boxes piled head high, some of them ten years old—newspapers, videotapes, clothes. There were skinny walkways cleared around them from room to room. You wouldn’t know it by the outside of the house, though. The grass was green and cut, the rose bushes cared for like crystal, and the hedges around our little place looked like they were trimmed using a level.
When the paramedics wheeled my father into the ER, the driver, a young brown-haired girl with glasses, ran after them and handed over the bag. “Wait,” she said, “you’ll need this.”
“I hear you,” her partner said.
We sat in the waiting room and my mother recalled what had happened. “I was trimming the rose bush and he knelt under it with some mulch, and I snipped away.”
“Couldn’t you tell?” I asked.
“The sun was in my eyes. I thought it was a tough stem,” she said. She picked up a magazine from the table in front of us and fanned herself.
I looked around the waiting room—empty green cushioned seats and one guy with a long beard who was sleeping under a television in the corner. There was a talk show on. Two women were pointing fingers at each other and a tall bald guy was stepping in between them to stave off a fight. A caption crawled across the screen: My husband cheated with my sister.
“This isn’t good,” my mother said. “He’s already hard of hearing.” She looked older than her sixty years, like we’d been sitting in this room for a decade.
A buxom nurse in blue scrubs walked over to us. “You can come in now,” she said.
Beyond a set of gray doors and behind a curtain, my father was lying on a new gurney, his head propped on a pillow. His eyes were lazy and fogged over.
“He’s been sedated,” the nurse said. There was a new gauze taped to his head, the hair on that side had been shaved, and there was orange ointment on his skin. I could hear things beeping around us.
A man, all hooded with a mask, came in. “I’m Dr. Coreless,” he said. “I’m going to try and reattach the ear, but we need to move quickly. We’ll talk after.”
“What?” my father asked.
And my mother answered way louder than necessary, “THEY ARE GOING TO FIX YOUR EAR.”
With that, they wheeled him away.
Back in the waiting room, all I could think of was my Uncle Vinny and how he would have a field day with the jokes on the Fourth of July if this operation didn’t work.
My mother stared up at the television, but I could tell she wasn’t watching it. I wanted to say something but there is only so much you can say at times like these and if you don’t choose the right thing to say…well, it comes off as small talk, and there’s nothing worse than small talk when this kind of shit has happened.
She turned to me. “We had been arguing,” she confessed. “Maybe subconsciously I wanted to do it.”
“You’re just feeling guilty,” I said, but then I wanted to know. “What were you arguing about?”
“You,” she told me.
“You’re twenty-nine. You’re living at home. You hardly work.”
I fell silent.
“I think we’ve babied you. But your father, he takes no blame. He said every time he tried to get you going, I stopped him.” She stared at me. “That’s not true is it?”
A man walked by us limping. He had a large piece of glass sticking out of his bloody thigh. “My fucking leg,” he yelled, and disappeared down the hallway.
I looked back at my mother. She was crying. “I think I did it on purpose because I was losing the argument. He just wouldn’t listen to me. It’s like with all those boxes. He never listens.”
The doctor walked into the waiting room. His mask was hanging around his neck, revealing a thick white mustache. He was sweating slightly under the eyes. “There was a complication,” he said.
“Oh,” my mother said.
A month later my father had taken to talking less and my mother to drinking more. On a bright Saturday afternoon, after the Fourth of July parade, we sat on the deck at my cousin’s house, overlooking the ocean. My father had a baseball cap on, a size too big, pulled over his ears, the flat, wide brim just above his sunglasses. He looked like one of the later pictures of Whitey Bulger, a bad disguise job. I could hear a few of the younger kids yelling over a four-square match on the driveway. My father and I were nursing beers and my mother was on her third red wine. She put her glass down on the bench beside her. “Did you follow up after that interview?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I said. “I sent an email yesterday.”
“And did you get the box I asked for, the one with the old clothes?”
“Yup,” I said. “It’s in the trunk.”
My father turned in his chair, lifted his chin toward the sun and grunted.
“Good,” my mother said. “We can drop it at the Goodwill on the way home.” She lifted her wine glass. Before she took a sip, she turned to my father. “Did you hear that? Your son is finding a job, and he’s cleaning up the house. Isn’t that nice, dear, cleaning the house, getting rid of those old boxes? Makes a mother proud. Doesn’t it make you proud, dear? Don’t you feel better knowing that’s happening?”
My father turned toward her. “What?” he asked softly.
“I knew you weren’t listening. I just knew it,” she said.
My Uncle Vinny, who was wearing a white cowboy hat and a red apron that said I hate kale, was on the other end of the deck. He raised the grill hood and a puff of white smoke passed by us. He started lifting hot dogs off the fire with a pair of long tongs and dropping them into an aluminum tray next to the mustard and relish. “Come and get your barkers!” he yelled into the yard where the kids were playing.
The sun passed into a cloud cover and the smell of the ocean rose up in a cool breeze. A string of firecrackers went off a couple of yards away. My mother drained the last of her red wine and held the empty glass on her lap. I looked over at my father sitting there like a bag of sand and I remembered something he used to say to me when I was a little kid: “Every day is different, some days chicken, some days feathers.”
My uncle grabbed a package of hot dog buns off the table next to him and started laying them one by one on the grill. He looked up over the smoky shield and raised his voice a little so my father could hear. “Hey, van Gogh. You want your roll toasted?”
Kevin Carey is the Coordinator of Creative Writing at Salem State University. He has published three books—a chapbook of fiction, The Beach People (Red Bird Chapbooks), and two books of poetry from CavanKerry Press, The One Fifteen to Penn Station and Jesus Was a Homeboy which was selected as an Honor Book for the 2017 Paterson Poetry Prize. A new collection of poems, Set in Stone, is forthcoming in May of 2020. kevincareywriter.com
Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash
Published July 13th, 2019