The Dangers of Open Air

Monday, April 19, 2010

“While you were gone, some time in the midweek, they took me away. On a trip to the coast. I went to a birthday party in California. I don’t know how I got there, if they flew me or whatever. It was only for a day, at any rate. I saw Uncle Jim. He said Bianca was visiting and she’d show up before the cake. She never did, though. She had a hair appointment. I remember that it always took her longer than expected to get her hair done.
Woman I wouldn’t be surprised if she went in for a trim and ended up with a perm. Jim was the one who told me she was getting her hair done. But, only just now, I realize: she wouldn’t even know a stylist in the Bay Area. I can’t imagine she’d go to anyone but her regular girl. Bianca’s been gone for twenty years now, but old habits die hard. I wonder if Jim told me she’d be coming as a —a ploy to lure me out West. Jim and that whole bunch of them are crazy. But they did get me out there—if only for a day.”

I have to ask him: So how did they get you out there? To California? How did they move you 3,000 miles? How, in fact, did they get you out of this place? Down the pine-scented hall and out that front door? I lay it out there and all he does is nudge his straw, the striped plastic one that bends at the neck. It’s fallen on his tray. Too bad he can’t manipulate it anymore. Those fingers haven’t had that kind of precision in years. Not that I’ve ever specifically noticed until just now, nor would I dare say it aloud. I’m thinking about tapping it back into his vanilla drink, but I’ll leave that to those who are paid to bear that honesty. I pay them good money to deal with the intimacies of his deterioration. He’s lost his interest in his lunch anyway. I ask again: What was the mode of transport?

“I couldn’t tell you. I fell asleep after the Jewish services downstairs to find Mass in full swing on that TV hanging over there. I missed the homily and was out again before Communion.Next thing I remember, I’m in San Francisco and Uncle Jim is there. He was making vanilla sundaes and waiting for Bianca. She can be late, he said. No kidding, I told him. I waited for her for every minute of our marriage, and now I’ve been waiting for twenty years alone. Jim’s ridiculous, anyway; he knows I like desserts more than I should, but he keeps making them for me. There was a lot of hubbub and party preparation, so there was no one I could ask about how I got out to the coast. I didn’t want to be in the way. And, frankly, I was more concerned about whether my wife would be long at the salon.”


The guy can smile, put on a happy face, but this transcontinental jaunt must’ve killed him. It must still be killing him. He hasn’t gotten a decent shave in at least a week, it looks like. Those little gray hairs are creeping down his neck. Being clean-shaven and presentable is important to him, even at this age. Even as a kid, I never saw a trace of hair on that face. If they thought it so important for him to make this trip, to some birthday party in California, couldn’t they at least have shaved him? If he went out there mangy, that alone would be tearing him up. But, the prospect of Bianca, dangling his wife just out of reach—that’s like offering a rabbit to a greyhound. Look at him. The physical strain alone. Muscle atrophy and ossified joints—I bet they had to crack him before they put him on the elevator. He’s laughing the whole thing off. Just pluck a guy’s wife out of thin air and throw them together. Or make him think that’s going to happen. That ain’t easy. Not by any stretch. So I ask him again: What kind of flight? Charter or commercial?

“I don’t know. I did see the rabbi on the way out the door, though. He told me to enjoy myself. I think he’s the best of the whole gang. He’s sharp, and he treats me like I am too. That priest’s a royal S.O.B. That’s why I have to rely on the TV for God.
giftOut West I met a minister. Presbyterian. Uncle Jim was there, and he’s a convert. Not when he got married, but ten years later. Aunt Laurel (who you never met), she was from the Midwest, so she was Protestant. Jim hasn’t stopped going to her church since she died, every week. If I had more time out West, I would have gone with him. But I had to get back.”

The guy knows every man of every cloth; what the hell can I do for him? What could I give him? What is the perfect gift? It’s the least I owe him.

“After the vanilla sundaes, they hung up bunting. I wanted to help, but I’m in no shape to be climbing up stepladders. These fingers couldn’t even fold a decent napkin. So I waited outside in the sun. It’s different out there in California. California shines more like Japan, or Wake Island, at least. It feels good, better than the patio at this place. But that was the tough part of my trip. Across the parking lot I saw your father.”

Hold on. Goddammit. This is too fucking much. Bianca’s his. But this one’s ours. Or maybe mine. I’ve got to do something. Those prickly little hairs are crawling down his neck. And he’s got patches on his cheeks, patches that never had a chance to grow before my father was gone. There’s only one thing I can give him: a hot shave. A hot shave from an aging barber. There’s nothing so curative, so decadent, so healingsoothingwarmgratefulright. Nothing so appropriate. I ask him what my father was doing out in California.

“He was getting out of his car. It looked like he was coming in, to the birthday party. He held up his hand, as if I should wait a moment. Then he disappeared behind the building. That’s when Uncle Jim (he was throwing the party) pushed me back inside. He reminded me that Bianca was on her way from her hair appointment. I don’t know if he even believed me when I told him I had seen Little Gerald, your father, out there. He was standing there, towering over his car, smoking a cigarette. It was unmistakable. Things are clear in that California light. The filters in the sky are more complete. Like above the water, off the coast of Asia. It was Little Gerald. No one stands that high. I could smell him clear across the blacktop. But I went back inside and waited for my wife.”

I would call an attendant over right now if I wasn’t worried about leaving him alone, even for two minutes. What if these incompetents decide another field trip is in order while I’m gone? If I could just grab one of these attendants—by the wrist—he would get a mouthful. Did they know my father would be out West when they sent the old man on this trip? Look at him. The smile and the glassy eyes (leaking enough mucus to fill a trough). He keeps saying ‘Little Gerald’; that had to be a punch in the gut. Don’t they need a waiver before they pull this shit? Before they take him outside? Into the open air? No one asked me to sign a waiver. Did they charter him a private flight? Who’s going to be billed for that? Did they even think to get a priest to bless him before he left? And not that usual stiff.

“I was glad that I saw the rabbi on the way out. His rites suited me nicely. Especially considering I didn’t know how far I’d be traveling. You always want to be blessed before you step out into the open air. Outside: that’s where everything happens. Out in California, I spent hours inside, waiting for that birthday party to begin. And not a blessed thing happened. Bianca never showed up, and Little Gerald never made it inside. But I know it was him I saw out there. I asked one of the men hired to hang the bunting if he’d push me back outside. He did, during his next coffee break.”

I thought the flight was bad enough, but this back-and-forth business with his wife and his son seems downright sadistic. I thought they had a staff of doctors, head doctors to oversee these things, to ensure that his life is without shock; I pay highly educated professionals to keep him inside. They fucked up and now I’ve got to make it up to him. I don’t pay them because I have money to burn; it’s because I understand the dangers of the outside. I live out there. I know the outside threatens the infirm, my infirm. An encounter with the past is likely, pretty much inevitable, if you let the guy fly all the way across the country. He ran headlong into the past, and amazingly he’s still sitting here—intact. Whatever plane they flew him on must have passed its safety inspection with flying colors.

“He was still out there smoking a cigarette, your father. He never turned toward me, and these lungs didn’t have the capacity to call him over. I stomped my feet, but all he did was cough a little and clean something out of his ear with his pinkie. I thoughtabout rolling over to him, but it used to be him who pushed me. There was a grassy hill that went down from the parking lot, and that’s the direction in which he walked away. I saw his head pause for a moment; I thought he might come back. And then he’d see me sitting there, out in broad daylight, waiting for him. But his crown disappeared and Uncle Jim came back out to get me. He said the party was starting and Bianca would arrive any minute. He looked over at the green hill nervously and I said, Why?


Why what?, he laughed.”

I would have been too nervous to eat cake. He can’t even sip down his vanilla nutrition supplement. It’s like we violated a contract. We, as a family. And they went straight to the top to punish us all. They struck at the patriarch. And he won’t give them the pleasure of squirming. Won’t give God the pleasure; God is who he attributes these things to. He just sits there and wipes the mucus out of his eyes and smiles about his free trip to California. Couldn’t they have at least made him presentable? Just given him a shave?

“The cake was frosted with chocolate. Chocolate is usually too rich for me. They offered me a slice but I wanted to make sure some was left for Bianca. She loved rich—even cloying—desserts. They ate the whole cake and I sat beside the final slice. I kept watch and guarded it until the last balloon was deflated. Then they came to take me home. Bianca had never arrived to eat her cake. I told them to wait, to give me five minutes. And I shoveled it down. I shoveled down that sweet chocolate cake in a manner so enthusiastic and disgusting. And then we left.”

I have to ask him. I want to forget this detail, but I can’t risk the temptation. I ask him definitively. Did you see my father again?

“The parking lot was empty. The road was empty. It was clear of familiar faces all the way to the airport.”

I stand right up and push him. We go straight out the doors, and I don’t check once to see if an attendant is watching. We hit the open air and he gasps, necessarily. I stop to button his sweater before we rush to the parking lot. As we leave, I know I’ve exposed him, I’ve done the same thing as those incompetents who sent him on a trip to the coast.

* * *

They came in nervously. Really, the young one, the grandson, was nervous. The old man didn’t know what was what. He was laughing, actually. He kept asking if he was going back to California. Apparently, he knew some folks out West. He said he’d had enough vanilla ice cream, though. It didn’t look like the barber was offering desserts.

The kid closed the blinds on the front door behind him, as the welcome bells still tinkled. The barber stopped to take in the sight: the skinny kid, peeking out at the street he’d left behind, scratching his unshaven cheeks, and his old grandfather, sitting snug in his wheelchair, smiling at the bottles of Barbasol. The kid asked for a hot shave. One for him and one for his grandfather. “Do you still do hot shaves?” he asked. “The old-fashioned kind?”

The barber laughed. “Is my funny-looking pole still spinning?”

The kid couldn’t decide who should go first. Finally, he sat in the chair. His grandfather looked out the covered window and laughed. He said that he had no idea that his wife and son had been living out on the West Coast. “Some facts are more shocking than a battlefield,” he said.

The barber shaved the grandson’s face with swiftness and precision. He traced his jawline with the soft metal edge of the razor, then brushed it up and down his cheeks. He stayed silent, let his customer meditate. But the kid couldn’t relax. His muscles twitched each time his grandfather muttered something or laughed. He even sat straight up a few times, mid-shave. It was whenever squeaky brakes eased a car to a stop on the street outside. The barber kept his head down and let him settle back, then set back to work. Still with swiftness and precision. He ran his fingertips all over the kid’s scalp then placed hot towel after hot towel on every bald and reddening patch of his neck and face. Talcum applied, the kid jumped up, nervous as the moment he entered the shop, and pushed the old man over to the chair.

He took his grandfather by one arm and the barber took the other. The kid shook him off. He wanted his grandfather to rely on him alone.

The old man settled into the barber’s chair and smiled at his scruffy face in the mirror. He touched his gray stubble and looked at his grandson. “How long has it been?”

“Too long,” the kid said. “They haven’t been watching you as closely as they should.”

The barber set to work, the same soft razor gliding over the same red jaw. The old man sighed and his eyes half-closed. His grandson watched closely, standing hardly a foot away. Watching the barber’s manner, swift and precise, he forgot the world beyond the blinds, the one that conspired against him and his grandfather, the one that moved them against their will.


John Dermot Woods

John Dermot Woods

John Dermot Woods is the author of the novel, The Complete Collection of people, places & things (BlazeVOX, 2009). His stories and comics have appeared in many journals, including The Indiana Review, Hobart, American Letters & Commentary, Salt Hill, and 3rd Bed. His comic chapbook, The Remains, is forthcoming from Doublecross Press. He edits the arts quarterly Action,Yes and organizes the online reading series Apostrophe Cast. More information can be found

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