hospital room was never part of my dream. Rotting men and the smell of disinfectant was playing havoc with my uneasy mind. Death feels like it floats around the room, coiling, like a snake waiting to ingest its prey.
A small window overlooks a flat gravel roof, with black air vents arranged in no particular order. I wondered if someone had sealed them shut as my lungs search for fresh air through the stench. Standing on my tiptoes I can see the parking lot, which is overflowing in a sea of cars and concrete. It’s obvious the architect didn’t care about the view when he designed the place. The walls are white, with tinges of gray. The drabness was affecting my soul. God knows how the men here feel.
Hollow eyes stare back at me, shadowy, with no expression. His cheeks are sunken, covered in stubbles of a white, making him look ancient, almost mummified. A heart monitor beeps to a cadence proving he is alive, while morphine and other drug cocktails drip into his veins.
Another man shares the room. He has the same ghastly appearance, although he is awake. His eyes follow me with a nervous twitch. There is no life in them, only fear and capitulation to his fate. I nod, and force a smile, but he looks away as if embarrassed by my presence.
They were soldiers once fighting for their country. They fought to save their fellow man from tyranny and oppression. They fought against evil. Now they fight against age and sickness. I am sure they many would have all chosen the battlefield where they could have died with honor. Here, a catheter drains the life from them. They should put them to sleep, like a dog, so they don’t have to suffer anymore. Death might give them their dignity back.
Twenty-five years ago was the last time we were together. We are strangers now. I have never seen a photo of him. His face, the color of his eyes, only came to me in brief obscured flashes in my dreams. I remember the roughness of his hands. A small detail etched in my mind. Nobody answered my questions growing up. He was a ghost I made up: A movie star, a prince, a spy—whatever my imagination could dream up, but never the skin covered skeleton that lay before me.
I was five years old the last time I saw him. It was October 6, 1950, and the Whiz Kids had come to the Bronx to take on the Yankees in game three of the World Series. The Yankees had won the first two games in Philadelphia and had come home to win the title.
Decorations covered the city. Flags and banners hung from light posts and windowsills. Newspapers printed stories about the players and the game. Boys were selling programs and other souvenirs, while bookies were taking bets on the street corners. The entire town was talking about baseball.
I knew a little about baseball. During the regular season, we listened to the games on the radio at home, but I never knew what the announcer was talking about. Daddy was so happy that morning, bouncing around like a circus clown, excited that we were going to the game together. It was a long ago, but I remember that day like it was yesterday.
Mama had curled my blond hair around my shoulders, and I wore a light-blue pea coat to keep the fall chill away. My father held my hand tightly as we entered the stadium through the tunnels and onto the mezzanine that led to the steep stairs. My eyes were wide with excitement. Cigar smoke filled the rafters in a thick fog. The crowd was enormous and buzzed like bees around a hive. I’d never seen so many people in one place.
Daddy bought me a Yankee pennant flag on a stick, and I held it high in the air with pride. A man yelled, “Peanuts, popcorn, get your Cracker Jack here.” Daddy stuck his hand up and yelled, “Cracker Jack.” The man threw a box and my dad threw a coin back. The whole motion was so coordinated that I gleamed from ear-to-ear when he handed it to me. Cracker Jack’s were my favorite. What was my prize?
The game was confusing to me at first. From where we sat, the men on the field looked so small. When everyone in the stands cheered, I cheered waving my little flag, even though I wasn’t sure what I was cheering for. A few rows from us, two men were yelling at each other. One man had a huge red face that looked like a snarling dog.
Daddy said, “Don’t mind him, Portia. He’s a Phillies fan.”
Do they all look like that? I wondered. I didn't know what a Philly or Yankee was other than baseball teams.
The game didn’t matter to me. I was with my dad. We didn’t get to spend much time together. He came home from work late every night after my bedtime. I was already at school when he woke up. When I got home, he was gone. My friends couldn't play at my house. Daddy needed his rest. He had an important job. Sometimes, he would take me to our favorite diner down the block and buy us chilidogs and root beer floats. We’d sit, and eat, while he told me stories about cowboys and Indians, Shakespeare, and Mozart.
Late at night, my parents would argue. I’d pull the covers tightly over my head, holding my ears to not let the yelling in. In the morning, Mama would be cleaning up broken glass scattered around the tiny apartment. I was too young to ask and have these memories, but they’ve stayed with me my entire life. Good memories didn’t take away the bad. I remember the bad and the game.
My father taught me the game in those first few innings. There were three outs a side and a team scored a run by one of the players reaching home plate. I wanted to see a home run. Joe DiMaggio was who everyone wanted to see hit. Daddy said he was one of the greatest players of all-time. He hit with power, stole bases, and played the field better than all the rest. It sounded to me like he was a thief, hitting, and stealing. I cheered when he came to bat.
The Yankees were winning in the bottom of the third inning when my dad asked me, “Portia, will you be a big girl and stay here? I have to go use the john.” That was another thing I never understood. Why he referred to the restroom by a man’s name?
The thought of being alone, surrounded by all the people, frightened me. But I was a big girl. My Daddy said so. It made me beam with pride that he thought that way of me.
“I’ll be right back,” he said patting me on the head. “Don’t go anywhere.”
He didn’t have to worry. I wasn’t moving from my seat. I nodded to him just as the crowd was on their feet cheering a Yankee hit and watched him run up the steep stairs until he disappeared into the crowd.
Inning after inning went by. I cheered and booed with the fans. I watched for my Daddy as the red-faced Phillies fans argued about every pitch. But, he never returned. Maybe he forgot where we were sitting? I stood on top of my seat so he could find me, but all I could see was a great mob of people. The man behind me yelled at me to sit down. I was blocking his view. He has to find me. He said he would be right back. My little mind worried that something bad had happened to him.
During the seventh inning stretch, I stood on top of my seat again looking for him, but it was pointless. I wasn’t tall enough to see over the man next to me, let alone the crowd.
The Yankees won in the bottom of the ninth, 3-2. Everyone quickly began filing out of the stadium. They looked like ants running away from water, pushing and shoving their way through the aisles. I stood on top of my seat to avoid getting trampled, hoping that my father could reach me through the swarm of people.
“Are you okay little girl?” A man asked.
“Yes. My Daddy is coming for me.”
“Okay,” he said and slipped by me onto the stairs.
I clutched the Yankee flag close to my chest, as if it were a magical shield that protected me. The stadium cleared of all the people real fast. I sat alone on the top tier, clutching my knees to my chest, with tears rolling down my face. I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I felt like a buoy, alone in a giant sea of empty seats.
The workers came and started cleaning up the trash. A large man, with a long gray beard, approached me with a puzzled look on his face and asked, “What are you doing here? Where are your parents?” His voice was deep and low. If a bear could talk he would sound like him.
“My Daddy went to the bathroom. He told me not to move.”
“He left you here alone?” he asked leaning down on one knee so we could see eye-to-eye.
I'm not supposed to talk to strangers, but didn’t know what else to do. It was late and getting dark. When the stadium was full of people, I wasn’t as afraid. Now that I was alone my little body shook with fright, like I was in a bathtub, filled with ice, to stop a fever.
“Since the fourth inning?” The man said shaking his head from side-to-side. He mumbled a bad word under his breath. “Unbelievable.”
“What’s your name little girl?”
“That’s an interesting name?”
“I am named after a lady in Shakespeare,” I said shrugging my shoulders. Some kids teased me about my name at school. Daddy said it was regal and the great poet himself used it in two of his plays. I didn’t know what the word regal meant, but I suspected it was good.
The man stood up and held out his large and dirty hand. I wasn’t supposed to go anywhere, but my Daddy never returned.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Portia,” he said sensing my apprehension.
My small hand disappeared into his and he led me out of the stadium. I hoped that my father was waiting for me somewhere, but he wasn’t.
I told the policeman the address Mama made me memorize. He drove me home in his police car. Mama stood at the door with venom in her eyes. Her hands were trembling. I’d never seen her so shaken up before. She and the policeman were so secretive. Whenever, I entered the room Mama yelled, “Portia, go to bed.” Where is my Daddy? What happened to him? I stood at the door to my room listening for him to come home, but fell asleep leaning against the doorjamb. The next morning he still wasn’t home.
“Maybe something bad happened to him, Mama? You should have seen these terrible Phillies at the game. They were yelling at all the Yankee fans. Maybe they got in a fight with Daddy.”
I rambled on for a few minutes this way with no emotion from my mother, which was normal for her. She never got excited by much, but I was a stubborn and kept after her until she told me what happened.
She sat me down at our small kitchen table and lit a cigarette. She smoked so much that a cloud constantly hovered around her head leaving black bags under her eyes.
“Portia, your father left the game and got drunk in a bar. He forgot about you.”
I didn’t understand, “How could he forget me?”
She shook her head and blew out a stream of smoke from her nose and mouth, “That’s what booze will do to you.”
I couldn’t believe it. My father wouldn’t do that to me. Mama was lying.
“Where is he now?” I questioned.
“I don’t know and it doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve decided to move us back to Louisiana to get you away from him.”
“We can’t move away. I love my Daddy,” I yelled with tears flowing down my face. If I talked with him things would be all right. “When can I see him?”
She didn’t answer me and went to her room to pack. I was numb. Daddy was my hero—my salvation from a cold and uncaring mother. He could make me laugh and would tell me stories. He just forgot me and left me there? What did I do wrong?
That morning she packed up our belongings in a hurry and we left. We only took a few suitcases of clothes with us. We didn’t own much. She left everything of my father’s in the apartment. She wouldn’t let me take anything of his, not even a photo.
On the train I asked her, “When is Daddy going to come?” I still couldn’t imagine that he was gone. It didn’t make any sense to me. He told me he loved me all the time. I was the best thing in his life. “He’s not coming, Portia.”
“Why isn’t he coming? How can we be a family without him? I’m sure he had a reason for what he did. Can’t I just see him?” I begged her. “He will say he’s sorry. I’m sure he didn’t mean to forget me.”
Her gray eyes stared at me with all their hardness, “No.”
I was throwing a tantrum in front of the other passengers to embarrass her, but I didn’t care. In the train’s tight quarters, she couldn’t run away from me, or lock me in my room like she did at home. She tried to ignore my ranting, but other passengers began giving her nasty looks and she finally relented.
“I didn’t want to tell you the rest, Portia,” she said and paused staring out the window and taking a drag from her cigarette. I could see her mind spinning as if her skull was invisible.
“There is no easy way to tell you this,” she paused as if trying to find the right words. “After he left the bar, he got into a fight and was stabbed to death by some angry men.”
My mind reeled, “He’s dead?” My eyes filled with tears.
“How...? Why...? Who...?” I sobbed grasping for breath. My lungs felt like they were frozen and my heart stopped. “He can’t be dead. I’m only five. How will I live without him?”
“It doesn’t matter, Portia. We can’t change it. Your father was a terrible man and you should count your blessings that he’s out of your life. If you only knew the things he’s done.”
There was change in her manner like she’d said too much. There were tears in her eyes. It was a sight I’d rarely seen before. Mama didn’t cry. I was convinced that her tear ducts had closed up from all of her smoking. She held me by my shoulders and said with a stern voice, “Portia, you will never see him again. Understand?”
“No, I don’t understand. Why are you saying these horrible things to me?”
She didn’t answer me. She wouldn’t even look at me. She just stared out the window with a blank expression. She was like a book, guarding secrets, that couldn’t be opened.
At that moment, the train was passing some old stone houses that lay crumbled on the ground. My heart felt like those houses. I was crushed. I’d never known anyone or anything that died. I wanted my mother to hold me in her arms, but that was a bond we never shared.
I pushed my hands deep in my coat pockets. It was the same coat I’d worn to the game. The only one I owned. My fingers felt the ticket stub from the game. It was like a bolt of lightning struck me. I pulled it out careful not to let my mother see it. It felt like a piece of my father somehow—a connection. I vowed to guard it like it was gold. She would never find it.
Something wasn’t right with her. I could sense it. Mama was not a liar, but she wouldn’t look at me. We never went to a funeral. She left all his stuff in the apartment. Why did we have to leave if he was dead?
“Where do you go when you die, Mama?”
She kept looking out the window with no expression and said, “You will go to heaven, Portia. Your father will be in a hotter place.”
“You mean Daddy will go to hell?”
She didn’t answer me. She just gave me a hard stare that said, “Leave me alone,” without the words. I knew it too well. My questions went on for years. When I mentioned his name, she’d put up her hand stopping me, like sunlight through a concrete wall.
I remember everything about the game, the fallen houses on the side of the train tracks, but not my father’s face. I’ve spent the last twenty-five years remembering that day, wondering what could have been.