The Key to My Father
“A Work of Fiction”
The Key to My Father by Harlan Coben.
Source: The New York Times. Published on Father’s, Day June 15th, 2003.
Let’s get something straight right away: my father was hopelessly unhip. He was the corporeal embodiment of an Air Supply eight-track. He’d come home from work, shed the powder-blue suit with reversible vest, the tie so polyester it would melt during heat waves, the V-neck Hanes undershirt of startling white, the gray socks bought by the dozen at Burlington Coat Factory. He’d don a logo T-shirt that was compulsorily a size too snug, if you know what I mean, and shorts that were, uh, short, like something John McEnroe wore at Wimbledon in 1979.
His sunglasses were big, too big. They might have worked on Sophia Loren but on Dad they looked like manhole covers.
He had thin legs. My mom teased him about this, this 6-foot-2 man with the barrel chest and olive skin, teetering on spindly legs. His hair, as described by my mother, was “tired,” wispy and flyaway. He had big arms. To his children, they looked like oak branches. The biceps would grow spongy with the years. But they never had time to fully atrophy.
He would play ball with us, but he was a terrible athlete.
I remember going to that Little League coaches’ softball game, the one they have at the end of every season, and watching my father — this man who had taught me to keep my elbow up and back foot planted — take to the plate and ground out weakly to third. Three times in a row. To his credit, he never made excuses. “You,” he’d tell me. “You’re an athlete. Me, I’m a spaz.”
His after-shave was Old Spice. There had been a radical period when he tried an eau called Royal Copenhagen — someone had given him a gift set and damned if he was going to let it go to waste — but he veered back onto his Old Spice route. That is still my strongest bar mitzvah recollection — that smell.
No, I can’t tell you what part of the haphtara I recited from the pulpit of B’nai Jeshurun. Something from Ezekiel, I think. But there’s that part in the ceremony where the father blesses the son. My father bent down and whispered in my ear. He said something about loving me and being proud — much as I want to, I can’t remember the exact words — and then he kissed me on the cheek. I remember the feel of his cheek on mine, the catcher’s-glove hand cupping my head, and the smell of Old Spice.
On Saturday mornings, we went to Seymour’s luncheonette on Livingston Avenue for a milkshake and maybe a pack of baseball cards. I’d sit on a stool at the counter and twirl. He’d stand next to me, always, as if that was what a man did.
He’d lean against the counter and eat — too quickly, I think. He was never fat but he was always on the wrong side of the weight curve. He was uneven about physical activity. He’d discover a workout program, do it for three months, go idle for about six, find something new. Rinse, repeat. Like with shampoo.
He hated his job.
He never told me this. He dutifully went to work every day. But I knew. He didn’t have a lot of friends either, but that was by choice. He could have been a popular man. People liked him. He could feign charm and warmth, but there was a coldness there. He cared only about his family and he cared with a ferocity that both frightened and exhilarated. You know those stories about someone lifting a car to save a trapped loved one? It took little to imagine him performing such a feat. The world was his family — the rest of the planet’s inhabitants no more than the periphery, deep background, scenery.
The night was his domain. He slept lightly, too lightly. I wonder if that is to blame, the way he’d startle awake. I would try my hardest to tiptoe past his door, but no matter how great my stealth, he would jerk upright in his bed as if I’d dropped a Popsicle on his stomach. Every night the same thing:
“Marc?” he’d shout.
“Just going to the bathroom,” I’d say. “I’ve been going by myself since I was 14.”
During my freshman year at college, after a particularly debauched frat party, I was struck by a strange realization: this was the first time I’d woken up sick without my father present. His hand was not on my forehead. He was not speaking softly or rubbing my back.
I was alone.
I blame myself for what happened.
Three days before my college graduation, I dropped my father off at the airport.
We were late. He ran to catch his flight. That is the image I can’t shake all these years later. My father, hopelessly unhip and out of shape, running for that stupid flight so he could be at a meeting that meant nothing to anybody.
Six hours later, he called from the Comfort Suite in Tampa.
“Let me speak to your mother.”
I handed her the phone.
I watched her listen. I saw her face turn white.
“What?” I asked.
“He’s having chest pains, but he says he’s fine.”
And I knew.
And she knew. I called the front desk. I told them to send an ambulance. I called my father back. “I told the front desk to send someone up,” and then my father said the most frightening thing of all: “O.K.”
No argument, no brave front, no I’m fine.
“But I have to find the room key first,” he added.
“They’ll be here soon. I have to go. I have to find the key.”
“Forget the key.”
“You might need it.”
But he hung up. And again I knew. He had never been ill, but I knew. With my father’s strength, you somehow still sensed the fragile.
My mother and I rushed to the airport. I called the hotel from a pay phone. They just wheeled him out the lobby, I was told.
Wheeled him out. I pictured the oxygen mask on his face. I imagined him as I had never seen him: afraid.
He liked building things, my father, but he was bad with his hands. He gardened on weekends, but our shrubs never looked right, not like the shrubs that belonged to the Bauers, who lived next door. Their lawn looked as if it’d been trimmed for a P.G.A. event.
Ours had dandelions tall enough to go on the adult rides at Six Flags.
My father fought in the Korean War but never talked about it.
I didn’t even know he’d been in the military until I explored his junk drawer when I was 8 and found a bunch of medals in the bottom. They were loose in the drawer, mingling with spare change.
Our plane had a stopover at the Atlanta airport, the epicenter of the stopover. I called the hospital. The nurse assured me that my father was fine.
But I didn’t believe her. She transferred me to the doctor. I told the doctor I was calling about my father, that I was his son. The doctor did that calm voice thing and asked me my name. He told me, Marc — using my name so often it became like an annoying tick — that my father was in serious condition, Marc, that they are going to operate in a few minutes. I felt my legs go. He’s awake and comfortable, the doctor told me. He understands what is happening. I asked to speak to him. “The phone cord won’t reach, Marc,” the doctor said.
“Tell him we’re on our way,” I insisted.
“I will.” But I didn’t believe him.
My father always longed for a Cadillac. He got one when he turned 52.
He listened only to AM radio. Every once in a while a certain song would come on and he’d turn it up. His face would change. The lines would soften. He’d lean back and steer with his wrists and whistle.
By the time we arrived at the hospital, night had fallen. I sat in the waiting room. He was still in surgery. My mother did not speak, something that is usually accompanied by a parting sea or burning bush.
I began to make deals with whatever higher power would listen, you know the kind, about what I’d do, what I’d risk, what I’d trade, if only it could be morning again and we could leave for that damn plane a few minutes earlier and if he hadn’t run to catch that flight, if he’d just walked instead, if he didn’t devour his food, if he kept up with an exercise program, if I’d been an easier son.
At 4 a.m., that awful hospital beeping sound echoed down the still corridor, then a rush that stole our breath. The air was suddenly gone. And so, too, was my father.
We bury him on Father’s Day.
The weather is, of course, spectacular, mocking my gloom. The men his age come up to me and tell me all about their own heart problems, about their close calls, about how lucky they’ve been. I look through them, wondering why they are the ones who get to stand before me, happily breathing. I wish them ill. I call his former boss, the one who sold the company and made my father stuff envelopes with his resume at the age of 56. I tell him that if he shows up at the funeral, I’ll punch him in the face. He, too, is to blame.
I wonder if my father was scared near the end or if he went into surgery thinking it would be all be O.K. Don’t know, of course.
There is a lot I don’t know. I don’t know what my father wanted out of life. I don’t know what he wanted to be when he was a young man, before I came around and changed everything. He never expressed any of that to me. And I never asked.
A week after the funeral, I call his doctor down in Tampa.
“He died alone,” I say.
“He knew you were there.”
“You didn’t tell him.”
“What did he say?”
The doctor takes a second.
“He said for you to check his pocket.”
“You’d need a place to stay overnight. He said to check his pocket.”
Cradling the phone, I go to the closet where his belongings, still in the plastic hospital bag the nurse handed me, are hanging. I break the seal. The Old Spice scent is faint but there. I dig past the Hanes V-Neck and find his pants.
“What else?” I ask.
“What else did he say?”
“Those were his final words? Check his pocket?”
His voice is suddenly soft.
My fingers slip into the pocket of his pants and hit something metallic. I pull it out.
The hotel key. He’d found it after all. He put it in his pocket. His last words, his last act, for us.
I still have the key.
I keep it in a drawer with his medals.
The Key to My Father by Harlan Coben.
Source: The New York Times. Published on Father’s Day, June 15th, 2003.