When I was sixteen years old I came home from school one day and found my dad crawling around on the kitchen floor in a big pool of blood. He was down on all fours with a dishrag, trying to mop it up, but there was a lot of blood and it was a small dishrag so things weren’t going very well. When I walked in from the back hallway and saw what he was doing, it wasn’t immediately obvious where the blood had come from. I stopped in the doorway and stood there for a minute, hoping he’d look up and see me and offer some kind of explanation. But he just kept scrubbing away.
“Dad,” I said, after a pause. “Hey, Dad.”
He finally looked up at me and smiled placidly.
“I fell,” he said. Now that he was looking right at me, I could see that some of his hair was caked into a sticky mess on one side of his head. A little knot of tension let go in the back of my skull. Once I knew the blood was his, I knew what to do: I went to the phone in my bedroom and called a cab. I thought about calling an ambulance, but I wasn’t sure Medicaid would cover it and the last thing we needed was another bill we couldn’t pay. When I came back out a minute later, Dad had gone back to scrubbing at the blood. Same patch of floor, same dishrag. He hadn’t even rinsed it.
“Dad,” I said.
He didn’t look up.
“Hey!” I said. “Dad!”
He looked up at me slowly, like he was seeing me for the first time. This was how it was with him now. Everything happened at one quarter speed, and half of it ended badly. Watching him use a step stool or a kitchen knife was enough to give me nervous fits.
“Come on,” I said. “We need to go downstairs and wait for the cab.”
I tried to make it sound fun, like we were going on a trip to the park.
“Cab?” he said. “No… I have to… we… have to clean this up.”
“No, it’s okay,” I said, still talking to him like he was a reluctant child. “I’ll clean it up when I get home. Come on. We have to go.”
“Go?” he muttered.
“We have to go. Downstairs. For the cab.”
“Oh,” he said, looking like he was trying to remember something. “Okay. Um.”
He tried to stand up, but I could see right away that it wasn’t going to happen. The linoleum floor was slippery from all the blood, and Dad was profoundly stoned on painkillers. He went up, he came down. Went up, came down. I watched him flop around for a minute longer than I probably should have, then I stepped in and hoisted him onto his feet. Once he was standing he started looking around and patting his pockets.
“I need…” he said.
“You’re fine,” I said. “Come on.”
I managed to get him out onto the landing and down the stairs. I was worried about the stairs, but he didn’t weigh anything. I carried him down in my arms, like a baby. When we got outside, we sat down on the front steps and waited for the cab. The building we lived in was an old house that had been subdivided into apartments, so it had a proper porch and a small front yard.
We waited longer than I expected to. Longer than I wanted to. Holding still this long had been hard for me lately. If something bad or scary didn’t happen every few minutes, I started to worry that someone somewhere was saving it up for me.
“My son’ll be home from school soon,” my dad said.
I looked over at him. He was staring out at the street. I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right until he followed it up with, “He’s doing really well in school.”
When I understood what was happening I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
“He’s got the whole world in front of him,” Dad continued. “Anything he wants to do. He’s… he’s doing really well. He’ll be… really well.”
I thought, not for the first time, how satisfying it would be to kill my father. How easy. To just fucking kill him.
I went back and forth with myself about whether it was a good idea. There was the whole getting caught thing but, really, that wasn’t a significant problem. He overdosed on his pain meds all the time. Once or twice a month, I had to sit next to his bed, timing the interval between his breaths on my cheap digital watch. If he didn’t take one at least every two minutes, I was supposed to call 911. But that would be the time to do it. If I just held a pillow or a damp cloth over his face one of those nights, I doubted anyone would ask questions.
My real hesitation was that I might regret it. Probably not right away, but eventually. If I lived a really long time. And I never wanted to regret anything to do with my dad. When he died — which would happen soon, with or without my help — it was important to me that I’d have the moral authority to despise his memory for the rest of my natural life. So, fine. If taking care of him until he died of natural causes was what it took to establish for good and all that I was different than he was, then the insurance was cheap at the price.
Dad kept muttering about how great Jason’s grades were and how bright Jason’s future was, but I tuned him out. I dug at the peeling paint on the front porch stairs with the toe of my sneaker. When the cab arrived, I got Dad up and helped him into the back seat.
“Swedish Hospital Emergency Room, please,” I said to the driver.
When we got there, I eased Dad onto the curb and leaned in to pay the cab driver.
“There’s some blood on your seats,” I said, tipping him with my last five dollars. “You have to clean it with bleach water. Wear gloves.”
He looked at me like he had no idea what I was talking about.
“Gloves?” I said, making totally incomprehensible gestures, like jazz hands. “You have to wear gloves. His blood’s poison. You understand poison? You have to wear gloves.”
The cab driver gave me a look and nodded. I handed him the money and he drove away. Then I got my dad up again and helped him along through the automatic doors, into the emergency room.
It was a slow day at the hospital or something. When they saw me come through the doors they all came running; a couple of nurses, and an orderly with a gurney.
“What happened?” one of the nurses asked.
“He fell and hit his head,” I said. “But be careful with him. He’s got AIDS.”
They all skidded to a stop. One of them put on a pair of elbow-length gloves and helped me get Dad onto the gurney. The others left and came back in blue plastic moon suits, with huge Plexiglas face shields.
“I feel sick,” Dad said, as the hospital people surrounded him on the gurney.
“We’ve got him,” one of the space-suited nurses said to me. I stood back while they wheeled him into an exam room. One of the orderlies barely managed to get a bedpan in front of him before he sat up and vomited into it. It was a wet, focused explosion, like he was breathing fire. The nurses started giving each other instructions in those loud barking tones they use, while one of them talked to my dad, trying to keep him calm. Trying to keep him awake. Every so often one of them would ask me a question: What was he on? Did he have any allergies? How long ago did this happen? I answered their questions and wished Dad had one of those conditions where vomiting and passing out actually meant the end was nigh. That this would be over soon.
I don’t know how long I stood there before I looked down and noticed I was covered with his blood.