The surgeon told us to be at the hospital by 11:00 a.m., and we are. But my father is nervous. His blood pressure is too high for someone about to have three hours of IV fluids. Nurses come into his hospital room several times in an hour to wrap the black band around my father’s tattooed upper arm and shake their heads. Finally a doctor okays some high blood pressure medicine, but by then it’s been 13 hours since Al last ate. His stomach is upset.
“Can’t I have just a couple sips of soda-pop?” he wheedles Cheryl, his current nurse. Standing aside, I witness the time-warp of genetics: Al is my five-year-old son, begging me for candy; my 20-year-old brother, borrowing gas money to get to work on the day after payday.
“One sip,” Cheryl finally agrees, “7-Up or ginger ale. Just swish it around in your mouth a little, make it last.”
I empty the pockets of my jeans onto the beside table, looking for change for the machine down the hall. I’m impatient, too. In my backpack is an un-read letter from a woman I recently met at a writing workshop. Living over one thousand miles apart now, we have a rich and voluminous friendship-by-mail. I am anxious to read her response to my last letter, but don’t want to bring it out until I’m alone. For my father, a private letter is like Pandora’s Box – he can’t wait to open it, the temptation to know is more than he can bear.
Meanwhile, my pockets yield up mints, hairbands, pennies …
“What the heck is that?” Al asks, pointing to something brown, teardrop-shaped, not much bigger than a silver dollar, that has emerged out of my pocket.
I surprise myself. I hand him the soft leather pouch that my friend recently sent me. A few years ago I would have been angry at my father for asking, and at myself for inadvertently revealing something dear to me.
Al picks up the pouch, pulls on the drawstrings with the delicacy that always seems so unexpected from those huge, calloused hands. He shakes out a round medallion. Even with his glasses, he squints down through bifocals, rotates the disk in his palm.
“It’s an angel,” I explain. I’m not sure how much sight he has left. He’s good at faking it.
He pauses, lets his eyes focus. I know the exact second he finds the angel imbedded in epoxy, the gold, purple, blue and silver glitter, foil hearts and stars swirling around her, because my father says in almost startled recognition, “That’s for protection!”
After a second, he asks, “Is this a magnet on the back?”
I say yes. “I guess it goes on a refrigerator.” I don’t say, it’s been living in my pocket as a talisman instead.
“No,” Al states positively, “It’s to go in your car. For protection.”
Suddenly he is remembering.
“We had a station wagon once, a pink Plymouth with black trim, big fins on the tail like that, eh?” Thick hands craft a curve in the air by his hospital bed. “Tepa, your grandfather, bought it for us … you were just a baby then, not more’n nine months. We were living down on Barrington, your mother and I. One morning I drove that car to work when I was still hungover from the night before.” His voice lowers as he speaks, mindful of the man in the next bed, as if the thin curtain between us was capable of blocking any sound.
“And I musta fallen asleep at the wheel. On the freeway! Next thing I know, man, I was off the road and that station wagon was flipping over, rolling over and over through the bushes, this tall grass. And then it landed on one side, on the driver’s side, and kept sliding. And I went down, down about nine or twelve feet, into a ravine, and hit a concrete overpass coming down like that –“ again, his hands diagram angles and motion. Carpenter’s hands.
“I landed on a cyclone fence, man and I couldn’t get the door open! I turned the engine off but I could smell the gas, you know? And I couldn’t get out. Then I thought, this thing has electric windows. I pushed the button for the back window and it went down! So I crawled out that way, crawled up the embankment to the road. A lotta people stopped, they seen me go off the road and come running. I was in shock, didn’t know nothin’ …”
Al’s round, flat face is distant. He is on the shoulder of the freeway again, his knees pierced by gravel, his guts heaving.
“. . . and these people were yelling get the babies out, get the babies out, and I was like, ‘Okay Al, go back, get the babies out’ and starting to slide back down.
"Then I remembered. I had two big dolls in the back, I won them for you at the bar – and I tol’ them people, no, no, it’s two dolls, dolls, not babies …”
Now the IV team comes in to do the needle, and Al tells me to forget the pop. He hates the IV, always complains about being “poked too goddamned many times” without success. I know he is afraid. This same man still bears the gang tattoos of his youth, walked the girders of skyscrapers in L.A. for a living, did eight years in San Quentin and emerged alive.
This time, though, there is no problem; the technician is smooth and practiced, and Al grunts “Good,” as if it’s the least they could do. Soon his dark, compact body is strapped onto a cot and waiting for a ride to surgery. He has long since handed back my angel. I stand with my hands in my pockets, flannel shirt untucked, a question on my mind.
“Your mom almost killed me,” Al says suddenly from the doorway.
He looks at me sideways from under his carefully combed silver mane. He doesn’t use Tres Flores anymore – maybe he’s been too far from home too long – but I still smell it in his presence.
He measures me with his half-blind eyes, says, “Your mother used to be different –“ smiles, shamefacedly, “she used to yell at me. Oh, she read me the riot act. ‘What are you going to tell Tepa, how will you get to work, what about the baby’s appointments …’”
I laugh at the absurd image of my quiet mother letting her temper fly. I don’t remember ever seeing that happen in my thirty years, but then, there are a lot of things from that time I don’t remember.
I forget to ask my question.
My father’s gurney is rolling down the hall. His thick glasses lie on the bedside table. He can barely see without them. Glaucoma. There is no choice but this last-ditch operation.
The leather bag is a hard lump in my pocket. I touch it gently with my fingertips. Can’t believe I let him hold it, open it; can’t believe I’m even in this hospital as his next-of-kin. I used to hate this man; fear him so much that I couldn’t eat, couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him. His demons contaminated all of his children, but especially my brother, his last child, ten years younger than me.
I raised Little Al until he was six. We had each other on those crazy nights, Al’s hand like a paw in mine as we listened together to the sound of that old red pickup truck barreling down the dirt road away from us again. Though I was not allowed to interfere when our father pulled off his belt to discipline, I snuck into Little Al’s room afterwards as he cried what we both knew had to be perfectly silent tears. In the long summers while I was home all day, we walked the woods and pastures together.
I was Little Al’s big sister, surrogate mother, friend; he was my first child.
When my parents separated for the last time, my father took his son with him. Fathers had that right in Al’s universe.
What it really meant was that at age six, my brother was on his own.
He could use a guardian angel of his own.
But it’s just a bottlecap filled with glitter, a paper angel, and clear epoxy; it fits snugly inside a smooth 2” pouch with tiny crimson beading around the top lip.
I think about the friend who gave this angel to me: a good poet, a strong woman who has worked hard to live her mixed-blood heritage with dignity and love. In my heart, I call her sister. A woman who looks like me, my brother, my son. Like my father. I’m thirty years old; she is the only other California Indian I have met.
I think of everything: the Maidu song her mother sang in a scale she couldn’t learn – her mother’s early death – the way things get lost. My last letter to her, confessing, “I don’t have an enrollment number, I don’t have stories. All I have is my father’s face, my grandmother’s hair, these Chumash hands …”
I find an unoccupied sofa in the waiting area by the picture window. The white envelope rips open across the postmark. Pages of fine, precise handwriting slide out.
You do have stories … those stories your dad tells are connected with older stories, stories that might not have been passed down to you, but which existed and maybe even still exist in a world that isn’t this one … It is a fragment in one way, but like the shard of a pot that can be restored ..Sitting cross-legged, I feel the hard edges of an angel pressing into my thigh. I pull out themedallion, set it down on top of the envelope beside me. Look at her, all sparkles and glitter, hearts and stars, hands held out – in warning? Greeting? Pronouncement?
Angels. They show up in the strangest places.
I wonder what it was about this pop-art medallion that brought back that memory to my father. Was he thinking of a St. Christopher stuck to his dashboard, a Virgen de Guadalupe swinging on a chain from the rearview mirror, as he saw that concrete pillar coming towards him? When he was trapped against the cyclone fence unable to get the door open, did he hear a celestial voice say, Try the rear window release?
What did my father see that day?
There is an angel in this story somewhere. In the pocket of my jeans at a hospital in 1994. In a pink Plymouth station wagon on a Los Angeles freeway in 1962?
Outside, the pines and rhododendrons of Western Washington glow green under midsummer sun. I know the names of all these Northwest plants, yet I am a long way from home. My father’s surgery will last about two hours.
I unpack my journal, find a pen. If I hurry, there’s time to write this down.