This is a section from chapter 1 of my novel, tentatively titled, Boy Privilege. The work is set in a dystopian America which has fallen into a second civil war brought on by ecological collapse and the resulting economic depression. It follows Jonas Mills, young a middle-class English major, attending the University of Washington. Before the war starts, Jonas’ father is killed in a seemingly random car accident, which he later discovers is connected to the nation-wide uprising. His father’s death sets him on the path that will take him into the war, across the country, and into the heart of the rebellion. In this scene, he and his mother receives the news that his father has passed.
We did take a walk, around the little central garden built on one side of the hospital. Then we waited for another hour, before Dr. Rawlins and O’Brien came back.
They walked into the waiting room, their faces dark, like stones. Immediately I knew something was wrong. I didn’t expect Rawlins to just come out and say it. He stood in front of my mother, a little at an angle, to be less intimidating, with Dr. O’Brien next to him, her hands clasped in her lap. They were both still in surgical scrubs, their masks around their necks.
“Mrs. Mills, your husband died in surgery. He had an embolism and we couldn’t close it in time. I’m so sorry.”
My mother didn’t howl in anguish. But the tears began, then a deep hiccuping sobbing. I was too shocked to process the information for a minute, and sat, mouth agape, staring at one doctor then the other, trying to tell if this was some kind of joke. When my mother started wailing, I turned to hold her, and we cried together. It seemed like ten minutes long, her arms squeezing my chest, hands kneading my lower back as if she was trying to get a good grip to lift me. I dug my face deeper into her shoulder–as if I kept my face buried there, in the knit of her sweater–then this couldn’t be true. I felt exposed, our pain open for everyone to see, and I wished there was somewhere we could hide. My mind kept trying to backtrack on itself, to earlier in the day, when he was alive. Trying to forget, to make it unreal. I peeked around my mother’s tangle of blond-gray hair to see if the doctors had left. They hadn’t, and stood waiting, like funeral attendants.
Eventually, when we’d recovered a little, Dr. Rawlins knelt down on his haunches and explained that there were counselors on staff we could talk to, and encouraged us to set up appointments. But first we should come and pay our last respects.
When we finally stood up, I wiped my eyes, and struggled to keep my balance. In that movement the only thing that kept me on my feet was that I couldn’t believe the old man was dead. I needed to see him, to prove the doctors were lying. Somehow, I also knew that he was gone. This whole scene was a dream, or some alternate reality. It wasn’t happening.
For a moment I felt thin, weightless as rice paper, free of all my other minor worries. My grades didn’t matter, Kim didn’t matter, the election didn’t matter. It was all mundane, tiny, compared to what had happened. I felt a sudden fury then, following the doctors back up to the room, while nurses walked briskly past us over the beige tile floors, casting looks of professional sympathy. How could the world just go on, with no one caring, no one stopping to ask about him? This anger was immediately subsumed by my icy thought from earlier: why do we even struggle to accomplish anything in this life? We’re gone so quickly. My father had written three books in his fifty years here, and raised one son and one daughter. Almost nothing in the eyes of the world. How would history remember him? It wouldn’t.
When we finally got to the room, the reality of it had sunk in further. My core felt numb, and my stomach as empty as if I hadn’t eaten in days. A terrible weight hung on my chest, like a kettle ball suspended from my heart. It was difficult to walk, to keep my head up, to breath even.
We came to the room. He was on the bed, the same as before, a bit more wizened perhaps, but still my father: strong chin, high forehead, heavy beard. He could have been sleeping, except his chest was still. They’d taken out the breathing tube and his arms and head were now just bandaged, the intravenous tubes removed. The annoying beeping of the heart monitor was silent, the holo-board above his bed wiped clean. The falseness of the image of him being asleep–conked out after a minor tumble, say–made the whole room shimmer and take on a false, surreal sepia tone, like the moment during first waking when you try to realize what is real and what is a dream. My mother stood and looked, hand on her chin, choking on her tears. She moved to the bedside and held his hand, stroked his face, while I rubbed her neck, staring at my father. Eventually, she patted me on the thigh and whispered thickly:
“Leave for a minute, Honey. I need some time.”
I stepped outside, found the doctors, talking quietly with another nurse. They turned towards me.
“She needs some time,” I said, feeling lost and idiotic. They nodded.
I walked the halls, passed through double doors, looked into rooms, got shoed out of a surgery ward. At one point, I found a door to a balcony, and stepped out to look up at the leaded clouds above the city. The ghostly lights below, the fog horns out on the Sound. Eventually, the same nurse who’d helped us visit that morning found me and brought me back.
My mother was waiting, talking quietly to Dr. Rawlins, who was recounting how they’d done all they could. She looked at the floor numbly. There wasn’t anything to say, it didn’t matter that they’d tried, that there was nobody to blame. Eventually the doctors explained they had to move his body and clear the room, but the words didn’t seem to carry any meaning. All we knew was that we had to leave, and that my father was gone.
My mother called my sister on the way out of the hospital, and I could hear her crying on the line at the news. I felt bad, worse for her, because she was away. What was the point of flying up now? My mom gave me the phone for a minute.
“Hi, sis,” I said.
“Hi.” Hearing the break in her voice, the gurgle of snot in her nose, I couldn’t speak. Part of me wanted to say, “I’m sorry, Elise. How are you holding up? Are you OK?” But they were all stupid questions. Instead, I said:
“I know you’re not OK, I’m not either, but you’ll be here soon.”
“OK.” Elise’s voice was flat, almost emotionless.
“I love you, little Sis. Call when you and Ali catch your flight.”
“I will. I love you, Jonas.
“I love you too.”
In the auto ride home, whoever had set up the car had on an oldies mix, and it was playing the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia”. The wail of the harmonica, the crooning, drunken voice of Mick Jagger seemed in one moment a kind of rough and tumble elegy, on the other, bitterly disrespectful. The sarcasm in “wading through the wastes, stormy winter, and there’s not a friend to help you through . . .” struck me like a slap. Why should they have any fun? Get to be flip about death and suffering? Why should they get to sing about it, coming up with bawdy show tunes after lounging in French Villas all day? I looked at my mother, who seemed indifferent. I tersely ordered the car to turn it off before it reached the chorus.
On the silence of the ride, I felt a sudden revulsion for gangster rap and soldier rap, which I had listened to so often. It struck me that it was a swirling mix of gurgling triumph over violence and killing and disrespecting those murdered. A line from a Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony song kept ringing in my head, filling me with rage and disgust: “Bust straight caps with the infrared on his forehead . . . Put a card in the motherfucker, send it to his momma, tell her he was dead wrong . . .” Who would do such a thing? And what sick demented humans would brag about it? I felt appalled that I had ever found enjoyment in such music. How could one not show respect for the dead? Where did such wanton profanity come from? It didn’t occur to me then, how easily the world could drive someone to those lengths. That that triumph was an only a thin, feeble armor against fear of one’s own death, and the death of one’s friends and family.
It was raining when we got to my parent’s home in Queen Anne Hill. They lived in a two-story house, just off Galer St. on 6th Ave at the top of the hill. I’d lived there from the time I was twelve, when we’d moved across town from West Seattle after my father made tenure. I’d hated it at the time, leaving all my friends from West Seattle behind. But I’d gotten over it pretty quick.
The house was raised above the sidewalk, with a cement stairway leading up between shrub-filled garden beds on either side. This moss-specked path divided a small yard, each lawn centered on an ornamental cherry tree. As we reached the front porch, my parent’s black lab, Sax, started barking from the grey cedar fence on the side of the house that bisected the front and back yard. I was too tired to let him out, and my mom wearily opened the front door.
As we stepped into the parlor hallway, which was lined with bookcases and my mother’s art, the house’s comforting dusty smell of old books and painting supplies struck me. My mother marched down the hall towards the kitchen at the back, to call my sister again. I felt exhausted, wracked with aches, and longing for sleep. I turned left and fell onto the livingroom couch. I knew I should call Kim, post something on my social media, and barely found the will to carry through with it. What difference would it make? I kept seeing my father in the hospital bed, kept imagining him waking, asking the staff why his family had left, like some modern-day Finnegan.
I opened up my connections on my eyephone and recorded it bluntly for my page:
“My father died tonight. He was knocked off his bicycle this morning in a hit-and-run. They haven’t caught the driver.” I wanted to write, “and probably won’t” but I didn’t need extra questions. “He had a hemorrhage and they couldn’t stop the bleeding in surgery. I’m at my mom’s house now, probably won’t be out for a while.” I looked on the thumbnail of my wasted face, posted the video and logged back off.
Kim immediately called me. Her face looked beautiful and fresh, her hair up, a workout sweater around her neck. She was appropriately glum, but her face didn’t have the same lines of devastation.
“Baby, oh God, I’m so sorry. How could this have happened? I thought it would just be surgery? . . .”
“Like a freak thing. One in a million,” I said. “Usually traumatic head injuries don’t go this way. I dunno. Look, I can’t talk right now, I need to sleep.”
“I’m so sorry, Darling. What can I do? Do you need–”
“I just need space right now.”
“Are you sure? I can come over–.”
“No. Look, I’m gonna go see my Mom now. Call me tomorrow, or just come over in the morning.”
“OK. I’m so sorry, Baby. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
I broke the connection and got up. Already my feed was filling with responses, and my best friend Danny was calling me, but I hung up and shut it off. In the kitchen, I found my mom in one of the dining chairs, legs splayed out before her, arms at her sides, chin down. Like a fighter after a bout. Her eyes were closed, her phone probably off. Her sweater slathered in tearstains and snot, her pants wrinkled, boots wet. She didn’t look up when I came in.
I found my parent’s bottle of scotch in a high cabinet above the fridge and took a pull straight from the bottle, in no mood for a glass I wasn’t sure I could even hold. The smoky fumes seemed to have no heat, no impact on my brain. I offered it to my mother. She shook her head.
“I called your uncle Philip, and my sisters, told them to contact the rest of the family. Saw your post.”
“You post anything?”
“Fuck it. They can call me.”
I was taken aback hearing my mother swear. After years of teaching high school kids, it was rare.
“Time for bed, Mom?”
Saying this I felt a burst of guilt, as if not staying up somehow disrespected my father. Or abandoned my mother in her hour of need. But what was there to do? We couldn’t make arrangements yet, it was almost midnight, and the important family had all been called. I needed to call my work, but that could wait until tomorrow. I wanted to offer her food, but from my own numb stomach, I knew there was no food in the world she’d want right now.
My mother simply nodded at my question, on the verge of sleep herself.
“Go let Sax in,” she said, with some difficulty, as if she had a sore throat and it hurt to speak. I wondered why she didn’t just have the robot maid do it, but I realized she must have shut all of them down, finding their noise and bustling disrespectful.
I went to the sliding glass back door and found Sax, now sitting under the back patio in his crate out of the rain. His paws were muddy. He bounced up as I opened the door, and I used the dirty towel by the door to wipe him down. He was happy to see me, his tail shaking his whole body, but he became subdued coming inside, viewing the mourning-zombie versions of my mother and me. He clacked into the kitchen slowly, nuzzled my mother’s hand.
“Hi, Sax.” She said, absently petting his ears.
He sniffed at her legs, her feet, the smells of the hospital imbedded there.
“He smells your father,” she said, and I had to turn away at this and hide my face. I stepped out of the kitchen, back into the livingroom, and gripped the spiral staircase banister in the middle of it that led upstairs. I bit my lower lip to keep from balling and dabbed my tears with my shirtsleeve.
“Goodnight, Mom” I called behind me, my voice breaking.
“I love you, Honey.”
“You too,” I whispered.
I barely made it to the guest bed; I was asleep before I hit the pillow.