Jenny sat inside the roar of the plane, concentrating on distracting herself. She was flying to Seattle in response to one of those phone calls during which the world momentarily freezes in its orbit. “I’m a friend of your father’s,” the woman had said. What was her name? Una? Mia? Something like that. Her voice gave the impression she had wonderful bone structure.
He was in the hospital. He was recovering nicely. He was asking for her. Asking to see her, after all this time.
“Recovering from what, exactly?”
“It was an accident. There were some pills. I think he was probably a little drunk, wasn’t quite aware of what he was doing. I’m sure it was a mistake.’’
Jenny wanted to be that sure. She had often envisioned this meeting, the first since she was a small child, but it always took place on a golden beach in France, with her simple white dress reflecting the colors of the luminous twilight. The image of her father would not come to rest on a narrow bed in a sterile room. So she imagined nothing. She visualized a white field, across which white birds flew, discernible solely by their motion. The plane landed in the rain, and left Jenny standing in the terminal surrounded by modern art.
“You must be Jenny.” She jerked around to face a woman smiling at her. The woman’s hair was dark red and dominated her face, radiating outward and seeming to shed light over everything nearby. Her smile had a lot of teeth in it. When Jenny nodded, more teeth appeared. “I’m Lia. I talked to you on the phone. I’m so glad you could come.” Jenny smiled faintly.
They went out into the rain, which was coming down in soft, obscuring sheets. Lia held an umbrella over them both, but the wind washed rain over Jenny’s knees anyway. Lia kept talking all the way to the car, never asking a question which required more than a monosyllabic answer. Jenny wondered how Lia had recognized her, but there was never any place to insert a question.
Lia’s car was a battered Sunbeam with a leaky convertible top. She drove with competence and speed, her face assuming a look of rapt absorption. Conversation ceased. The freeway slid away underneath them, blurred by the gray rain which seemed to rise from its surface. Jenny watched Lia’s strong profile. The eye was Oriental, the nose Greek. She could not be past thirty-five. Her father had never mentioned her, but that was not surprising. His letters rarely addressed such banalities as the names of lovers. A letter from him was more likely to be, for example, an epic prose poem on chlorophyll. Once she had gotten a postcard from Quebec about the various colors of noise. She had been ten then.
“You have his hands,” Lia said suddenly, not taking her eyes from the road. “They’re very like.” This did not seem to require a response.
Another long silence.
Jenny thought, my hands are very like. She looked down at them. Her long, pale fingers were clutching her purse. The knuckles were too big; rings never fit well. She felt separated from them by a vast distance, as though her head were floating some hundreds of feet above her body. She thought of her neck as a string, like the string of a balloon, swaying gently in the air.
When they got out of the car in the hospital parking lot, Lia smiled largely again and said, “I’ve always wanted to meet you. I’m glad to have the opportunity, even if it has to be —” She paused. “Well. Everything’s going to be fine.”
“I haven’t seen him since I was six,” Jenny said, trying to make it a mere informational statement. “He writes me, though. He’s always written me. And calls me at Christmas.” She thought vindictively, how pathetic.
As she followed Lia through the maze of vaguely luminescent hospital corridors, she noticed a run in one of Lia’s sheer black stockings. It was immensely pleasing. Lia was wearing a black wool suit and pointed black pumps. Her posture was superb.
Jenny fought against a feeling of weightlessness. She had a vision of a regiment of hospital staff trying vainly to peel her off the ceiling. Someone was saying, “It’s the irresistible-force-meets-the-immovable-object scenario again.” Lia stopped at the half-open door.
She put her finger to her lips and peered in. “He’s asleep,” she whispered. “But you can come in and see him.” They both walked in, Lia on her toes to avoid the click of her heels.
The man in the bed was the same color as the sheets, and almost as flat. Jenny would have said he was very old, except she knew he was not fifty. She found nothing recognizable in him.
“I see you both,’’ the man said without opening his eyes. “Since they found me, I have acquired the faculty of seeing through my eyelids. My eyelids have become translucent. Like rice paper.”
Since they found me. “Hello,” Jenny said.
“Hello, Jenny,” said her father. “Are you filled with bile? I am.”
“No,” Jenny whispered. But he heard her. He said, “Are you lying?”
“Yes,” she said, and smiled.
“Never lie to your father,” said her father. He had not moved at all.
“Or anyone else,” put in Lia.
“No,” Jenny’s father said. “She can lie to anyone but me.”
He opened his eyes and looked at the ceiling.
“Jesus, what a place this is.”
“You’ll be out soon,” Lia said. She was sitting on a hard plastic chair without touching the back. She was still smiling, but now it had a forgotten quality.
“The worst thing about it,” said Jenny’s father, as if she hadn’t spoken, “is that the quality of the lying is so low. Of course, it’s too late to tell the truth, even to the person who needs it the most.”
“Who’s the one who needs it the most?” Jenny asked. Her father turned his head to gaze at her. His eyes were as dark as her own.
“I couldn’t see through my eyelids how beautiful you are,” he said. Jenny felt a panicky rush of tears beginning but crushed them down. In a moment she had even managed an ironic conspiratorial smile. He smiled back, a sweet, mocking smile with closed lips and, still smiling, closed his eyes.
“I wish I knew what the sky was doing right now.”
“It’s raining,” Lia said.
“Oh yes. The lovely Northwest. Land of a million alcoholics.”
He sighed. Jenny sighed also. He said, “Then read to me, Lia. Read me old what’s-his-name. Rilke.”
Lia obediently picked up a small book from the night table. It had the rubbed nap and pale red binding of an old book. She opened it at the bookmark and read:
How deeply the cry of a bird can move us . . . Any cry that is cried out whole. But children, playing in their open space — already their cries have become unreal. They cry out chance. And into the silent seamless world, into which birds’ cries fully (as men into dream-space) blend, they hammer the hard-edged wedge of their noise. Alas, where are we? Freer and freer, like colored kites torn loose from their strings, we toss half-high-up, framed by cold laughter —
“And how are we today?” cried a little blond nurse, prancing in with a tray like a trained pony. “My, don’t we have a lot of company for lunch!” They all looked at her blankly. There was an attentive silence as the nurse arranged the little table for dining. The tray held two bowls: one contained a steaming, clear brown liquid; the other, cubes of yellow-green jello. There was also a tall glass of milk with a straw, the kind with a little accordion in it.
Jenny started to giggle. She was nervous that it might be the incorrect response, but couldn’t help herself. She saw her father smirk and conceal it with a broad smile at the nurse.
“Yes, Miss Mercy, it’s a full house today. Allow me to introduce my daughter, Jenny. She lives in California.”
Jenny swallowed her snickering and blinked her eyes politely at the nurse.
“Pleased to meet you,” the nurse said. “But my name’s not Miss Mercy.” She frowned reprovingly at Jenny’s father. “You know that perfectly well.” She leaned toward Jenny as if to confide an indelicate secret. “My name’s really Debra.” She winked at Jenny and trotted out the door.
When the door had closed, Jenny’s father said, “Will you look at this? This must be what they serve dead people in hell.” He sat up and leaned against the wall, drinking the milk through the straw. He was gaunt and white, and there were blue-brown shadows like bruises under his eyes.
“I can’t believe it’s been so long,” he said to Jenny. “And your mother, how’s your mother?”
“She’s all right. She lives in Pasadena. She has two miniature poodles, named Alphonse and Celeste. She remarried — but you know that. He has a Chevy dealership.”
“I have to go to the john,” said Lia. She rose and stalked majestically from the room.
“Are you making this up?” he said.
“He played football in the Army,” Jenny said. “He’s always talking about Survival of the Fittest.”
Her father’s mouth twitched. He sucked on his straw. “Have you ever been to Africa?”
“It’s really nice there. Because it’s so hot. And so many big animals. There aren’t very many places left with really big animals. We could go together.”
“All right,” Jenny said. She imagined them riding across an immense yellow plain under a white sky. Huge black birds soared over them. They were riding on some kind of buffalo, and laughing. It was impossible. “What should I pack?”
Her father observed her with a crooked smile and shook his head. “Ah, Jenny,” he said. “I think they make people like me go to Africa when they die, and we have to sit and watch all those goddamn big animals eating each other until Judgement Day. A fitting atonement. The worst thing I ever did was to ask for you here.’’
“No —” she began, afraid.
“Yes, absolutely,” he said, overriding her. He set down the glass and stared at the jello. “It was a moment of weakness. I thought I was, how do you say, going to Africa. It was supposed to be sort of romantic, of course. But they saved me.” He grimaced at the tray. “They saved me for this lime jello, I suppose.”
“I’m glad you asked for me,” she said, although for the first time she wasn’t. He didn’t seem to hear her.
“You know who you look like? Not her. Not me. You look like my cousin Lucy from Des Moines. You’re the spit of her. I bet you never met her.”
“You’re right,” Jenny said. There was a long pause. Her father had slumped against the wall with his eyes closed. She wondered if he had fallen asleep.
“Cousin Lucy,” he said suddenly, as if announcing the title of a poem. He did not open his eyes. “Cousin Lucy was adorable. She was always a little hoarse. I think she sang too much. Or drank too much. Or maybe she was a little horse. A young mare. A sweet little filly. Bay with white stockin’s. Or maybe she was a little whore. I get it mixed up. A little hoarse, a little horse, a little whore. Lia probably remembers which it was. Lia? Where’s Lia?” It was as though he were blind.
“I’ll go find her,” Jenny said. She went out into the labyrinth of hallways. She did see not Lia. Nurses brushed by her, their white shoes squeaking. She kept walking. She passed a table of gleaming silvery objects on white napkins. She passed a bearded young man in a soiled lab coat leaning in an alcove, eating a sandwich. He smiled at her, chewing. She walked by quickly, eyes averted, and turned the first corner she came to.
By now she was completely lost. She could not retrace her steps; she could find no landmarks. A little hoarse, a little horse, a little whore. I couldn’t see how beautiful you are. She tried to think of what she had expected. In all the different dresses she had worn in all the differently postmarked countries, in all the profound and intimate conversations imagined in such detail, she had never been afraid of him.
There was no place in her for the cold, enticing smile of the real father, and she felt her heart fill up with grief for herself. This, at least, was familiar; she watched it with old, sad hatred. She thought of the hospital room, with Lia sitting next to the bed like a black swan, and her father looking at the ceiling. She should go back. Lia had probably already returned.
A matronly nurse came striding up with a clipboard. “Can I help you dear?”
“I was looking for a pay telephone,” Jenny said.
The taxi ride to the airport was dazzling. It had stopped raining, and towering white banks of clouds were parting to let the sun bathe the newly-washed city in clear gold. The sky was cobalt. Jenny pressed her cheek to the glass and gazed up into the pure blue. She saw the blue, she saw through the blue; she saw how it must darken the farther from Earth you go, until finally you leave blue behind, and swim in the stars.