UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 04/2012
LEGS THAT GO ON FOREVER
The old people are living forever. Not all of them – just the beloved ones. The ones whose relatives wanted them to live forever, who thought that thought.
We all regret that thought now.
My father worries too much, always fretting over the stupidest things. Sometimes I daydream about ways to quiet him, about placing my hand over his desiccated lips, perhaps, or about kicking him, hard, my foot finding purchase in his dry, impotent crotch, but I fear that will only bring on one of his godawful, endless coughing fits. He worries when the speedometer rises above fifty, when the neighbors are loud. He worries when my daughter visits while wearing too short of a dress, though she is herself in her fifties, and the only indecency is in the way her varicose veins have started to appear in protruding rivers down her legs. Those tortured legs don’t come from me; even now, my legs are still smooth.
“You’ve got Loretta’s legs,” he tells me, referring to my mother, a person nobody ever wished to live forever, and I argue with him. “Mother’s legs always matched her soul,” I say. “Both ugly.” When I talk back to him like this he always shuts down, refusing to talk, unable to believe I could understand his logic anyway; I am a woman, after all. Even his arguments are old-fashioned.
I make him tea he won’t drink, because the water has been heated in the microwave, which he doesn’t trust.
He’ll be one hundred and ten, on his next birthday, with no sign of an end. It could be worse – will be worse: my neighbor Edith has a mother who is one hundred and twenty-two. She and I exchange sympathetic glances, as she helps the old woman up the steps, one withered arm grasping another. Every time I see the two of them I think about how soon I will myself be leaving this earth, how my father will bury me. This is a sure thing; my ugly-legged daughter rarely visits. She has never desired my immortality.
When I was young he knew everything, and was the solution to all my problems. People called me a daddy’s girl, which was true. He and Loretta were the two sides; they were the good and evil. White hat and black hat, like a comic book played out in real life. He taught me how to drive, the trick of slipping smoothly from one gear to the next, and I used this knowledge to escape Loretta’s house, and become the girl of other boys, other men. For these boys I slid my perfect legs up, creating spontaneous too-short dresses he never could’ve imagined – daddy’s girl! – and I had some good fun for awhile.
He drives me crazy, still offering me the old advice that did me no good even back then. He can’t see the age in my face; he believes he does but his weakened old watery eyes have imagined a stranger that looks nothing like me. At Wal-Mart he wants to buy my daughter dolls, and I let him, because I know they irritate her. She hates the responsibility, the guilt, of disposing of them. I help him with the gift wrap, delicately folding the paper over their blank, pretty faces as though closing a casket on them.
At the very least he shouldn’t outlive me. That can’t be fair.
In death, I’d be no better than her.
On my daughter’s next visit I give her money, stacks of bills I’ve withdrawn from his ancient safety deposit box. I tell her it’s for her to make a wish, although it’s actually a payoff, because it’s my wish she’s making. I tell her, “Say you want me to live forever, because you love me so much.” I know this is what she needs to say, that it will work, because it is exactly what I told him, and I watched the change that came over him. She says, “But it’s not true,” and I realize how much power is in genetics: she could be Loretta. I tell her she can wish it, and then take the money, and be done with us, no more dolls to unwrap, no more porch steps for her ugly legs to climb on those rare, perfunctory visits. “Just take the money,” I say, and at last she does - she makes the wish, and then she is gone.
Afterwards I go to visit the graveyard where Mother is buried. I can talk to her, tell her anything now that she is unable to interrupt. I can confess to her that after all it was about having him more than she had had him – that was why I’d wanted him around for always. That such a thing would make us – me and my father – more successful of a marriage than the two of them ever could’ve had. Two white hats, together. I don’t mention to her how he idealizes her now, how he has smoothed out her legs, her stupidness and her infidelity. She only answers me with silence, and so I remain sitting there for a long while, talking and thrusting my legs into the grass above her, which is level and unblemished – as though the earth itself is doing its part to make her immaculate – and then I head home, because he will be there, waiting, hungry.
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