He looks nervous the way a child would, or like an animal abducted for the pleasure of a schoolyard crowd. The collared shirt and slacks seem to be foreign objects; he wears them without the confidence of a person who understands why it is that the shirt should be tucked in, a belt worn, and his hair brushed in that certain way. His shoes are those casual tan slip-ons they sell in Payless. They’re strong enough to walk around in and look nice enough with his slacks, but I’m happy that the portrait will end at his middle or, at worst, his knees.
Now, put your hand on her shoulder, says the Sears portrait girl. Now, move in a little closer. Tilt your head toward her. Look this way, and—stand up straight, and—smile!
The bulb flashes. The portrait girl taps a few keys on her computer then wheels it around so that we can all see it. My mother sits pinch-eyed in the centre. My siblings and I are arrayed behind her by height, color, and affiliation—sister with brother-in-law in tan, my brother and I, the singles, together in blue. Just behind my mother is him, my father. He looks uncertain and confused and old.
He’s old. I’m still not used to that. At least, that’s what I say when the subject comes up. Your father’s getting older now, someone will say. Yes, I say, he is. It’s weird, you know. I guess, I never thought that I’d see my dad get old and frail like this. That’s what I say. I say that I thought he’d be young forever, like he was when I was a kid. That’s what I say, but that’s not what I’m thinking. Privately, I’m not sure I can remember a time when he wasn’t confused and frail and cantankerous and crazy—the hallmarks of old age according to the movies.
He’s always been like that. He looms large in my memory as a shrivelled thing.
There are early memories of him in his blue jacket, now replaced, tall and thin, leading his three children through the mall or to the couch to watch a movie Mom isn’t sure we should see, yet. He’s like this on the day that I stood up in the mall food court and announced that I felt like I was going to throw up. This wasn’t the first or the last in a wave of stomach problems, but it was a false alarm: I didn’t throw up, but I talked with him in the bathroom. He’s young in that memory, but that image is hard to hang on to. In the rest of my memories, that young man has been strangled by the Toad King.
The Toad King, bloated Lord of the Living-room. A crown of greasy tendrils adorns his head, he’s robed in stretched clothes spotted with somethings, and in his hand he holds a hollow sceptre filled with ruby wine. His slurred croaks and slapping bare feet dominated my early teens; their ghostly echoes still hold sway over my early twenties.
For all of that dominion, you would think that I’d remember those years more clearly. I remember snatches and bits, a phantasmagoric slideshow that flickers without chronology—My mother, foot swathed in bandages, screaming from her crutches. If I could beat the shit out of you, I would—Standing in the garage over a mound of empty wine boxes, realizing that there was something wrong with that sight—The hot reek of that house in summer—Him dozing off as my mother yelled at him—His slack-jawed, snoring mass when I proclaimed him the Toad King—The empty pill bottles—Xanax.
On the night of my sister’s going away party—escaping to college, the lucky bitch—he descended the stairs with his entourage of shakes and jitters to announce that he had just been thinking about ending his life. My mom and my uncle took him to rehab; I curled up in my cousin’s lap and sobbed into her chest. I was certain that I would never see him again because he was smart; even under suicide watch, he’d find a way.
I visited him in the hospital and, when he got out, went to all of his A.A. meetings with him. He stopped drinking, but they didn’t take him off of his drugs because well and truly he is a very sick man. I didn’t learn that until after rehab, but it would have been nice to know. The wine helped with the pains in his stomach, the Xanax with his self-loathing, the horde of other drugs with his diarrhea, his nausea, his whatever else—I’m not sure what he has or what they’re treating him for. His drug cocktail has been remixed so many times with so many side-effects and withdrawals that I’m not sure where his sick ends and his drugs begin.
The drugs will lay him up for weeks at a time turning him into something thick and loathsome lounging on the couch. The alcohol is gone, the Xanax is history, but the Toad King is still there, dethroned but no less revolting for it. You can see him if you look. He’s there, with one hand on my mother’s shoulder, looking confused and ancient in the Christmas portrait. What am I doing here? Can we go home, yet? I want to lie down for awhile. . . .