Very short stories r us r pleased to present to you number thirty-eight in a weekly series. Thank you for reading.
Arthur was late to meet his father and his car was stuck in an unmoving line of cars on the thruway extending to the horizon. The woman in the car directly to the right of Arthur’s was smoking a cigarette with full lips and long, languid fingers. She had her windows open despite the frigid March air. Arthur’s windows were closed. Her face was not quite gaunt, but gaunt enough to reveal her as someone who suffered. Her facial skin was stretched taut except for the skin of her lips, which was relaxed. Despite his extreme distaste for smoking, Arthur would tolerate it in this woman in the life with her that he imagined, and by successfully consoling her for her suffering he would himself be consoled. This he imagined despite being 43, but he could not open his passenger side window without it being obvious why he was doing so, and the sheer number of details he had already ascribed to their future life together would prevent him from knowing what to say or how to move his body once the window was down. She turned her head to look at him and blew smoke out her window. She flicked her smoked cigarette toward his car with a quick arch of an eyebrow. The man in the car behind him honked and Arthur turned his head abruptly forward to see that the car ahead of him was twenty yards away, and that the whole line of cars was breaking up and moving on. He put his foot on the accelerator and looked back over at the woman. Her car was accelerating in tandem with his. She glanced at him again and she did not smile but simply made a visual presentation to him of her lips in their natural relaxed state. She lifted her left hand and gave him one of those flirty waves in which each finger moves in succession starting with the pinkie, and then he could not continue to look at her without crashing his car. Besides, he had to call his father to tell him he’d be late. His father grunted in response, not because he was gruff, which he was, but because he’d had a stroke. The home care aide who had the 8 to 4 shift answered the door of Arthur’s father’s large suburban house in her faded polyester smock on which were printed many frolicking cartoon cats, part of a bewildering design trend Arthur had noticed on the female healthcare workers who had been a part of his father’s life since the stroke. “I’m just going to tell you right now that I’m not paid to clean, because when you walk in there I promise you’re going to wonder, and you should convince him to hire someone for that,” she said. She was probably about Arthur’s age but looked older, and, in fairness, he imagined his life with her too. She, too, was a smoker, he knew from the smell of her smock, and with her he would find the habit a source of great frustration, not to mention anxiety—about her health and his own. He would dislike her and she him. They would develop chronic coughs of increasing severity. They would contract emphysema and die slowly together. In the physically painful end of their unhappy years as a couple, a strong camaraderie would develop between them that he would have to recognize as love, dissoluble only by death, first hers and then, three exquisitely sad months later, his. He found his father, Arthur Senior, in his den, a hellhole of food crumbs, cat hair, cat litter stink, and actual cats with month-old clumps in their fur. He sat on a cushioned chair across from the old man, who sat in a luxury wheelchair that cost more than Arthur’s car. No TV was playing, no book or magazine was in his father’s hands, no chessboard lay before him or any condescending geriatric brain teaser to extend what remained of his cognition. Arthur had not seen his dad in six months. The skin hung off his face in folds, the eyes were viscous and red. “So, Dad, I’m sorry I haven’t—” Arthur Senior made a stop sign with his left hand, the one that still functioned. “Anyway, you invited me here, so…?” “Muh,” Senior croaked, his post-stroke version of speaking, and looked down at his lap, on which Arthur now saw a folder thick with papers. “Muh!” he croaked again, meaning, “Take it and look through it.” Arthur came to his father and removed the folder from his lap. The man grabbed Arthur’s wrist with his working hand and whispered, “Muh,” implying this was a solemn ceremonial occasion between father and son. Arthur returned to his chair. A cat leapt onto Senior’s lap in place of the folder and he shoved it violently off. Arthur opened the folder. On top of the stack of papers was a one-page will leaving ninety percent of his wealth to the Animal Welfare Society and ten percent to his son. Arthur tried to let this fact sink in but it wouldn’t, he was numb and wanted to leave. He closed the folder and was standing up when his father said, “Muh,” meaning, “Look at the remaining papers.” Arthur did, over the next ten minutes. The papers detailed Senior’s holdings, amounting to about ninety million dollars, nine million of which would belong to Arthur upon his father’s death, minus taxes. “Dad, I… wow, I’m—” Senior stopped him again with his hand, with which he then pointed to his lap. Arthur put the folder back. Senior held out his left hand for Arthur to shake. Arthur’s heart was overflowing with tenderness and he tried to transmit as much of it as he could to his father in the brief clasping of hands. Senior nodded to acknowledge receipt of it. As Arthur crossed the threshold on his way out of the den, his father said, “Muh, nuh,” meaning “Use it wisely” or “I love you” or maybe “Money.” “I’ll hire a cleaning person,” he said to the home care aide in the kitchen as he took in her tired face, on which a default look of annoyance resided. As he walked across the gravel driveway to his car in the late afternoon, the first snow of spring began to fall. He was sorry not to be one of those men who would have known how to make love to the home care aide on the kitchen table and leave within forty-five minutes to the complete satisfaction of both parties. He was sure such men existed.