FULL STORY | "Lucky That Way" by Jonathan Coumes
Dad was always the strong one. The one who held the family together, the one who kept Mom from going over the edge when Katherine disappeared. Dad coaxed her back out of herself, out of the valium fog. Got her to walk, got her to read, to take two bites of a six-hour meal. Dad was the rock on which we built our whatever. It must have been his hobbies—piles of Hemingway, half-drafted blueprints, sawdust and woodwork, an endless succession of fly rods. He could center himself and bring us into orbit.
So I guess we should have noticed. When he started me tying his flies, stopped carving and then left his shop altogether, when he started The Old Man and the Sea at breakfast and hadn’t made it to the marlin by dinnertime. I know I should have noticed. Not that it would have helped.
I was lucky enough, though, coming back when I did.
Even in Mexico we’d gotten word of the germ. Governments and agencies were closing their nets down, turning communications more local, more parochial, but messages made it out, bounced from satellite to satellite, skirting authority. News was vague—maybe it was something natural risen up out of the east, or maybe it was just a new bug cooked up to keep one despot or another republic from getting the bomb.
I flew into Detroit four hours before they torched the hospital in DC. All that effort to get the ambassador back from Tel Aviv just to blast him and his folks. Must’ve been some crossed agency wires at work there—it’d been awhile since any two parts of the government had what you would call “cohered.”
What went down in the capital was far off enough, though, as my ride dropped me off at my folks’ place and tootled a good day from the dash. Mexico still had cabbies and they still took paper pesos. I guess I was lucky I still had two year-old dollars to get me out before they sealed the airports.
What I remember coming up to the house were the trees, turning colors in the summer now, leaves blazing red and gold because of heat stress instead of cold. The trees in the Sierra did the same thing, green right up until the dry season, and then red, and then grey. I worried about what I’d find when I finished crunching through the scarlet carpet.
I was never nervous about Dad when they retired—he’d worked harder off the clock, building decks and furniture and wading into the freezing Muskegon for steelhead. Mom, though, she’d hated her job so much that she’d made a lifelong point of doing as little as possible at home. Some gardening here and there, a brief fit of scrapbooking at graduation, flurries of activity around the holidays. I thought she’d be one of those quick decliners, brains leaking out their ears without the structures of employment.
I tried to sell her on an implant, an Apple or a Samsung, something I could use to badger her into Scrabble, keep her mind active through my spotty connection out in the bush. She pushed back though, stuck with her phone even after her friends went under the laser. I got it at the time—I’d hauled paper notebooks all around Mexico. Neither of us could convince Dad after his diagnosis. He said that if he had to rely on flash memory, he’d rather stick with his own, failing all the same.
I stopped for a cigarette behind the wilting maple in the yard. I knew I’d reek when I got in, but as far as I could see, the arguments on my side were getting stronger all the time. I’d be lucky if the cancer took me before what Dad had, and what’s fear of the ever-more-treatable when we have the decay of the world to be afraid of?
Dad’s Alzheimer’s and the weather, Dad’s Alzheimer’s and our politics, all of us forgetting what the sky used to look like, all of us forgetting what used to make us us. We could grow a new lung, maybe a new throat too by the time I’d need it, but every cerebral stem cell setback was more encouragement for those people down South to commit us to the Lord’s inevitable will and keep any homegrown cure off the table. If my folks had stayed in Singapore, the techs could have syringed a whole fetus into Dad’s prefrontal, but they were GM lifers and after what happened to Katherine, Michigan must have felt like the safest place to make their stand against old age.
“My baby!” Mom wrapped me up, pack and all, childhood perfume wafting up my nose. Pulled back and regarded me. “Smells like cigarettes.”
I grinned and shrugged and then dipped down to kiss her on the forehead. “You only quit when you got pregnant.”
She cupped my cheek and then pinched it, hard.
“David! Come say hello to your son Jonathan. He’s back from Mexico!”
“I know where he’s back from, woman. And quit yelling—it’s not my hearing I’m losing.” He walked around the corner and looked at me, confused. “Well tell him to come in then.” He stuck out his hand and I hesitated, fear settling. “You must have met my boy down there. I’m David.”
I looked over at Mom, but she’d turned away and put a hand to her mouth. “Dad, I—” and I trailed off, raising my hand to meet his.
“Too slow!” He snapped his hand back and Mom burst out laughing beside me. “Close your mouth, son,” he said, and bearhugged me, strong as ever. “You think I’d forget my favorite boy?”
“I’m your only boy.”
“And my favorite in spite of yourself.” These jokes were a constant since the year in elementary school he’d spent calling me Alice.
“It’s good to see you, Dad,” I said, relieved. Grandma couldn’t pick any of her four sons from a crowd twelve months after her diagnosis.
“We thought you were going to stay down south until I really couldn’t remember what you looked like.” So did I. Maybe I even hoped I would. It was easier with Grandma Barb after she’d forgotten to try remembering. She was happy to let anyone call herself her grandson, as long as they held her hand.
“Play a game of chess, son?”
“Sure,” I said, and I hucked off my pack and followed him into the living room.
Even before his illness, he’d been a reactionary player. No planning, just picked the best move on the board at the time. For a while that was more than enough, but I joined chess club in high school and smartened up a bit. Now he’d achieved a kind of Alzheimer’s perfection to the technique, impaired short term giving him a Zen I found cornering my queen. I hadn’t done myself any favors in the interim, playing game after game with Alejandro out in the Sierra, fucked up on cane liquor.
“Don’t be using that chip in your head, son. Let your old man take you to school now.” I rubbed my temple reflexively.
“I dunno if it’d know what to do with you anyway.” I watched as he used his knight to swat a bishop out of my back row. Mom bustled in and put a plate down.
“We read about your girlfriends cooking for you down there on your feed, but this is the first and last sandwich I’m making you. Don’t get used to it.”
“Wouldn’t dream, Mom.” I moved my king’s rook up and Dad’s knight put me in check.
“You have to see the whole board, son. The whole board.” I shook my head in disbelief, took an absentminded bite of sandwich and grimaced. Mayo and ham on mayo and ham.
“Mom looks really good, Dad. She’s been keeping busy?” He snorted.
“I’ve been keeping her busy. Pills, doctors, losing the keys. You know she’s always been steady in the storm.”
Steady in the storm.
Back in high school, I broke my back sledding on their second tour through Michigan. I’d thought it was just pulled muscles and we’d tried bedrest for a couple of days. Then Mom’d had me take my shirt off and seen the fragments of my L2 tenting out the skin like stegosaurus vertebrae. Dad was spending weekdays at the plant in Ohio at the time and she cut work to get me to Sinai Grace.
Menopause and hormones had hit her hard on the back side of life and I could tell she was barely holding it together by the time we made the intersection at Southfield and Twelve. No designated left turn signal and we were edged out when the red left us stranded in cross traffic. GM was the only outfit still making driveable cars by then and the early self-drivers played well enough together, but didn’t know what to make of our erratic navigation. She started quietly tearing up as they edged around our bumper and I leaned as far over as I could to pat her on the shoulder. “It’s uh. It’s gonna be okay, Mom. We’ll get the next light.”
Repeat at the hospital when they told us in the office on the third floor that we’d have to go to the X-ray on the ninth for the fifth time. I stood up and sat her down. “Mom, look, you take care of the paperwork down here, and I’ll be back in a second.” She nodded at the floor and pressed my hand with her own damp, teary one. I inched to the elevator with a crutch I’d looted from the hall closet out in front of me. Pressed the button and then tapped my glasses, called my sister’s name and her face floated into view.
“Yes, brother?” Sleepy, anime posters on the dorm wall behind her.
“Would you believe my back’s broken and Mom’s the one crying? Give her a call for me.”
“Your back’s what?” Awake now.
“Yeah, we don’t talk enough. Call Mom now though?”
“Will do. You’re…?”
“In an elevator, gonna lose you. Thanks.”
Turns out that none of the smithereens impinged on my spinal cord, even if I’d lost a half-inch and any chance of making six feet. No surgery, just an under-shirt brace that gave me an aluminum B-cup for six months. My own following of five or six wide-eyed nurses repeating, “You’re very, very lucky, young man.”
Dad wasn’t wrong about Mom now, though, and my surprise turned to awe as we settled into those initial months. Every year since middle school she’d shrunk into herself as he got more vital, maybe wider around the waist but her skin thinner, slacker, her hair going grey all at once the summer she stopped dyeing it, silver roots blending awkwardly with the last of auburn.
Now she was a force, rousting me out of bed at six and sitting me down right before we went in to get Dad. She picked up every piece he’d put down, tackling the kitchen and then the yard, filling up the spaces he’d left empty.
Alzheimer’s patients learn tricks to hide the holes crowding out their memory, and he must have prepped for that first day, because it was never as good afterwards. Me and her he had, and he would not let go, but he’d cycle through books, starting in the middle and reading a page, frustrated muscles working in his jaw whenever Mom and I started reminiscing about anything more than a few days before.
And all the time it was creeping closer. Decades of sick-scares had brought hysteria home and then put it to bed. Quarantines were rough, but we’d gotten good at them, and our initial calm was unflappable, no matter how threatening the new strain.
It was the implants that shook us out of our cool cynicism in the end. It wasn’t just that video got out; that was always gonna happen. So much of the domestic grid shot through floating redirects and commercial sats that no combination of agencies could block them all. It was the perspective the plants could give you on this new germ, listening to panicked breathing like it was coming from your own mouth and looking down at metacarpals sloughing flesh like they might have been your own hands. The first time I tapped into one, watched myself stroke an oozing sore with bare white calcium, I knew that, for horror, the written word was as dead as television.
I don’t know why we ran, where we Americans got this idea that a cross-country road trip was the right response to the end of the world. A virus that thrives on crowds and we were doing our damnedest to move like cattle. No safety from the germ in the herd instinct.
They thought they’d caught it when they burned the hospital, but somebody must have made it out and into Washington proper. When it leapt quarantine into Baltimore, that’s when things got Bad. I mean, empty a symbol as it was, losing DC was a blow, but the spread, that was something else. Big quarantines need people, see, lots of people, and what we had was machines. Great at killing, not so great at crowd control. First they wasted Baltimore, torched the city but good. And then I guess they figured fuck it and they glassed the metro area. But they must not have got it all, and the idea had already taken hold and people kept moving outwards.
Baltimore riled folks. That burst of white blinded half a million watchers on the live feeds, and in the aftermath, the communers in the Renaissance Center on the river took up with the UAW leftovers who’d colonized the Armory and a few hundred college kids from Wayne State. Built barricades and turned the center of Detroit into the protest capital of the country. I drove out there once or twice, tried to freelance a piece on the breakers chaining implants for big time hack-ins, but even the dodgier outlets shied away from anything that seemed anti-quarantine.
Dad fell around then anyway, and I stopped going out. He called me from the second floor looking for his glasses and when I came around, he was standing at the top step with the frames perched on his head. “Dad,” I laughed, “Bet you ten dollars I know where they are.” He turned away from me and pointed.
“I know they’re in the bedroom. I just saw them in the bedroom.” This had been a problem even when I was in grade school.
“Nah, Dad. Try scratching your noggin. Get the juices flowing.” He lifted his hand and found them.
“Alright, alright. I’ll take ten off the four-hundred thousand you owe me in tuition.” As he turned again, his foot missed the top step and he came down. Not in slow motion but with terrible velocity, folding and tumbling and cracking the rails. I caught him at the bottom with his eyes closed, left hand bent and wrong, and blood from the broken lenses trickling down his face. The sour smell of voided bowels stole out and I called for Mom.
I wanted to help, somehow, but I ended up back in my room instead. Weakness in him made me sick inside. Like the only time I saw him cry, the day that Grandma died, the end of her own five-year odyssey with Alzheimer’s. She’d been diagnosed just as I was getting old enough to know her, and I couldn’t see her passing as anything but a relief. Grandma was papery skin and farts I pretended not to notice and acting like whoever’s name she used was mine. She was holding hands for hours in the Alzheimer’s ward as less ruly patients drooled and gibbered and pissed themselves while tired orderlies saved their abuse for when grandsons weren’t around. I liked Grandma more as the box of ashes we kept in the drawer under the phone while we waited for Grandpa to die, too, and I’d hated Dad a little for crying over it.
I checked out for a while there, let Mom take care of cleaning him and babying him and helping him eat with one hand. I spent my time in the yard smoking and getting the house ready for winter. The weather’d changed in every way except the ones we thought it would. We were in for the deep cold, an adjusted Gulfstream blasting the Arctic straight to us December through March. Detroit used to be safe from the lake-effect, but we were about to have half of Superior snow down on us.
I boarded and foam-sprayed the windows, filled the ferro-cistern in the basement, brought out the poptunnel and ran it from the door to the street, shored it with two-by-fours from Dad’s woodshop. Learned a bit of the carpentry and pipework he’d been trying to teach me since I was old enough to implant out during a lecture. Even went and felled some lumber for fire. Buckeye Wind and Solar was turning out all the power in the world, but no amount of progress seemed to get Detroit Edison’s grid through winter without the rolling blackouts.
The times it was too dark to work I spent ‘planting into the protests in Detroit. Routed through a server in Alabama, figured if anyone was gonna follow me back, those guys might as well taste a bit of the endgame they’d been praying for. It was real exciting going in the city for a while, agency sites crashing left and right, symbolic victories against forces that played more with hard lethalities than the semiotics of revolution.
You could tell a change was in the wind when stories on the commune started cropping in the Times. Somebody’d ended the press blackout and it was only a matter of time before we saw the contrails over Detroit. Screams and glass and fire and end of feed. Social unrest in the land of the free and the home of the fast forgotten.
First big blizzard of the season came in that same day, right on the heels of an ice-storm that glazed the trees in an inch of brilliant crystal and brought down power for a hundred miles around. Either some agency had a real maverick meteorologist helping them time the Detroit strike or they just got real lucky. I stoked a fire in the living room and Mom lit a propane lantern so Dad and I could play. Ten moves in and I was down a knight and a bishop to his single pawn.
“Grandpa used to fall asleep. He can’t even remember that we’re playing, and they both whip me.” Mom tousled my hair.
“Karma, hon. You’ve been mouthing off to your father since high school.” From tenth-grade on, if I found myself winning, I’d make up a Russian and tell him I was playing the ‘Chicorsky Offense’ or the ‘Suvarov Gambit.’ Dad took another pawn. I’m not sure he could remember. He’d zone out, couldn’t hold me and his move in his head at the same time. He shivered, thinner than me now.
“You warm enough, Dad? Dad?” He looked up, eyes glazed, then focused.
“Plenty warm, young man. Plenty warm.” I stood and draped another blanket across his lap. He moved twice while I was doing it.
“Check!” I shot Mom a glance and she shrugged.
A banging from the door. “Alarums, off-stage,” mumbled Dad. Mom started toward the front.
“It’s Mike, honey. He said he’d come over for a lantern if the lights went out. You keep an eye on that game.”
I looked at Dad, his queen trembling in his left hand on the way to checkmate, and then followed her.
She turned the knob and the door slammed open, snow whirling in like prop-blast from the tunnel around a man who was not our neighbor Mike. Big bulges at his temple, serious hardware, coat in shreds, blood leaking out around a hunk of shrapnel in his leg. He tumbled in and Mom caught him and laid him down, his mouth working silently as he pawed at the singed flesh around his implants. “Mom, I’ve got him. Why don’t you go get that shit off you.”
She picked herself up, pressing blood from her hands onto her jeans and headed for the bedroom upstairs. I nudged the guy with an umbrella, no response. A breaker escaped from the attack in the city, must’ve hit him in the blast and then torched him plantside-out. Little seizes running up his arms and legs, agency burnware shorting his nerves.
“How in the hell did you make it out here, guy?” I poked him again. He turned to face me and opened his eyes. Deep, deep red, pupils lost in the germ. An ache settled in at the back of my throat.
Mom was sitting on the bed, rubbing her hands on a towel.
“Can’t seem to get it off.” She smiled weakly, red on the terrycloth. “You have a cigarette, hon?” I laid a pack and a book on the bed. “You know, I buy some every time I fly, throw the pack away afterwards. Just in case we get to ‘smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em.’”
She struck a paper match and I could see her eyes pinking in the sulphur flare.
“Thirty-five years,” she exhaled. “Why don’t you check on Dad, baby, see if he’s alright.” She closed her eyes and leaned back against the headboard.
“Yeah, Mom. Sure.” I walked downstairs and found the chessboard alone, my king laid on its side. Checked the kitchen, the garage, still and frigid. Dad’s Stingray split-window under a sheet and the Suburban with chained tires. Not the study or the dining room either.
I climbed the stairs slowly, figuring how many days I could stick around, afraid I’d find him crying hot blood tears right along with her. He caught me by the arm coming from the bedroom, a glimpse of pillow-covered face and the still-lit cigarette in silent hand before he pushed me back down again. “It’s done, son. Let’s go.” He kept moving me forward by the small of my back, steered me to the garage, motioned to the camping bins and climbed in the passenger door of the big van. I loaded them in back, got in, and punched the ignition. Dad put his hand on mine as I reached for the stick.
“Are we going on a trip?” Face blank, questioning. I shut the door and shifted into drive.
“Yeah, Dad. Going on a trip.”
We found out later they’d hit the city twice. Once to put the commune down and once to dust them. Germ spreading so fast that agencies were more worried about retribution than containment. Must have got some wires crossed there.
I wonder sometimes if I could have gotten to the door first.
I guess I’m just lucky that way.