Trials of Isaiah

As soon as Isaiah awoke, he knew he was in his father’s home. Being in his boyhood room–blinking at the blank walls where once he hung comic book posters, where his father laid beside him and they took turns reading from the Epic of Gilgamesh, 1001 Arabian Nights, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King–did not produce any sense of disorientation. The reality of his immediate circumstances was something he felt keenly aware of, and it came to him instantly. He was a middle-aged man, urgently summoned to a house he had not stepped into for six years.

The tightening along his temple made him recall his father’s stash of vodka which he’d plundered last night, right under the kitchen sink where a bottle always seemed to be. If not for the headache and the need to piss, Isaiah might very well have spent the morning right there with his heavy head deep into the pillow. As it was, he dragged himself to the bathroom, where bright light drove pain into his eyes. He blinked it away and saw the lipstick message on the mirror. “Come over when you get up. Sorry about last night.”

The chunky letters could’ve been any of his three sisters’, each of whom lived here in Harrisburg within a few miles of this home where they all grew up. The lipstick messages were a common means of communication between his sisters back when they were all teens living here, in the days before white boards, post-it notes, emails, or texts.  This was a time before the neighborhood slid onto hard times. All three of them, Donna, Julie, and Isaiah’s twin Margaret, had been with Isaiah last night, here in the nearly empty house.

Opening the medicine cabinet, he saw the clear, clean shelves. He opened a drawer only to find virgin floral facecloths, folded perfectly in case a potential buyer got nosey. According to Donna, his eldest sister, the new realtor wasn’t doing much better than the old one at selling the house. Even the big idea of “staging” the property hadn’t produced much interest.  Like so many homes in the area, the house was viewed as a grand old dame with “good bones”, full of potential for someone who wanted to take on a major restoration project. 

Isaiah headed for the oversized master bedroom, passing through rooms with foreign furniture he’d never seen before, matching sets of dressers and framed art and perfect accent pieces. But in his father’s room, preserved in time like a museum exhibit, things felt entirely familiar. Here was the old square TV where they’d watched Tuesday night boxing, and here the ancient dresser with the feet chewed by Beowulf the dog before he drowned in the Condoguinet Creek. Though impossible, Isaiah smelled the faint hint of cigars. Yet even here, there was an anomaly–evidence of the abject wrongness of all things. A second bed, this one motorized with a mattress bent nearly in two. Next to it, a white-bucketed toilet.

Forgetting about his headache, Isaiah approached the nightstand, where a red spiral notebook rested. It was the same kind he’d used for algebra homework in seventh grade, which his father would review with him after dinner, while his mother cleaned the dishes by hand. Isaiah recalled his frustration when his father would only put a question mark by the wrong answers and not simply solve them. On the cover of this notebook was scrawled, “Day Nurse Notes.” He picked it up and flipped to a random entry: Wednesday, March 3. Up at 5:15. Voided bowels. Productive bm. Morning meds. Sp. Bath. Back to bed till 9. Oatmeal brkfst, coffee. 10-12 watched news. Lunch Lentil soup. Choc. milk. Attempted physical therapy exercises (8 plz x 12).  Afternoon nap. Patient refused to play cards, Scrabble. Watched Judge Judy. Isaiah skimmed through the pages, nearly a hundred such entries. And of course, there might be other books.

When he lifted his head, his eyes fell on a series of hairline cracks in the wall. Like veins they arched down the plaster. On the ceiling above, the thick cloud of a water stain. Isaiah couldn’t tell if it was old or a result of last night’s downpour, the one his sister Julie, the youngest, had fled into crying.

After locating some Tylenol in his father’s bathroom, he decided a shower might clear his head. He let the hot water scald his neck and back, but clarity did not arrive. When he twisted the silver knob, he noticed the showerhead leaked. It was also filthy with black grime. He dried, used his father’s comb to settle his hair, then went back to his bedroom and climbed into the same clothes he wore yesterday. The lump in his jeans pocket brought his hand there, and when he pulled out his cell phone, he saw he had a text message from his sister Margaret. “Up yet?”

Down in the kitchen, with a strangely immaculate fridge and a perfect table (never crayoned or scratched by pencils), one with four matching seats and bright cushions, Isaiah tried to locate a coffeemaker.  When he found the Maxwell House Instant, he recalled his father’s incomprehensible preference. What kind of English professor prefers tasteless coffee? Despite his feelings, Isaiah put a mug of water in the microwave, making a mental note to later get a real cup. For years after college, when he lived here until he met his wife Marie and found a decent job down in York at a firm that published yearbooks, Isaiah jokingly argued with his father about “real coffee.”  Isaiah dreaded the bland taste, but expected too it would bring back warm memories. His cheeks bunched up as he smiled. Yet as soon as he hit the power button, the microwave went dark, as did the overhead kitchen light. The notorious circuit breaker, unfixed for decades.

Marching into the basement, Isaiah had to brush back cobwebs along with the memories of the train station he and his father had constructed down here, the model airplanes, and the devices that together they took apart to better understand. Radios, an Atari joystick, a dehumidifier, old clocks. With a screwdriver and patience, listening to jazz on the college station, in a fog of cigar smoke, together they revealed the inner workings of things. Often they chatted about literature, and Isaiah recalled long talks about the difference between the Greek gods and the Roman, the trials of Hercules, the epic journey of Ulysses.

Isaiah was so distracted by his memories that he didn’t see the water before he stepped into it.  He stopped and looked down.  It was more than a puddle, at least an inch thick, and he wondered how long it had been standing. The sheetrock on an interior wall, unfinished, was stained with a floating mountain range of moisture. It would have to be replaced. As for the outer wall, the concrete foundation was crumbling. Isaiah brushed his hand along it, and it flaked off in chunks. He glanced at the plumbing overhead, then looked toward the hot water heater, but there was no sign of a leak. Finally he sloshed his way to the basement door in the corner. When he pulled it back, sending a tiny flood across the room, he saw the source of the problem.

At the bottom of the concrete steps outside was a small landing, and at its center was a storm drain. It was clogged by sticks and leaves, clumps of pin oak bits and the whirligigs that spun from the branches each spring. Isaiah reached down into the murky water and used his fingers to rake free the debris. Immediately, as in an unclogged toilet, the water began to swirl downward.

In the corner of the landing was an ancient Maxwell House tin, the bottom rusted out, trampled. Isaiah picked it up for inspection and saw the holes drilled through the sides, summoning the memory: he and his father together in the workshop, crafting this makeshift grate. This had been thirty years ago, and Isaiah doubted this was the original. More likely his father had made a series of them as each one became worn. But still, the lettering was awfully old, and the label proclaimed, “Approved by leading doctors!”

Back in the basement, he sat on a cooler and watched the waters recede. They exposed the bottom of the doorframe, rotted, and Isaiah again looked at the walls the whole house was built on. The rust, the rot, the crumbling foundation. How long till the whole thing collapsed? Rising, he wondered if the neighborhood hardware store could possibly still be open.

Seven years ago, a few years into his marriage, Isaiah attended a company retreat in the Poconos. On the second night, he drank too much and slept with a new sales rep, a woman from Ohio with long blonde hair. In the morning when he woke, he was horrified to see her in his hotel bed. But when she rolled over into him and began to slide her hands over his body, he had succumbed. Sober and aware, he had failed.

He told Marie a month later, began sleeping in the guest room, and they signed up for marriage counseling.  After a year, Marie forgave him, but somehow this only compounded his guilt and he found he couldn’t forgive himself. Perhaps to drive her away, he was again unfaithful, this time with a teacher at the preschool where their daughter Haley was enrolled. Marie filed for divorce. Isaiah didn’t contest, not even when she decided six months later to return home to Kentucky. In a small town like Camp Hill, rumors and gossip were hard to escape, and not long after Marie left, Isaiah quit his job in York and resettled in Norfolk, where the yearbook company had a branch that was expanding.

  His father drove down once to see his new place and visit with him. For two days, they didn’t speak of his ex-wife, the daughter who now lived hundreds of miles away. They went to bookstores, a movie about horse racing, a maritime museum. But in every silence between them, Isaiah could hear the question. Finally consumed by regret and guilt, on the night before his father was to return, Isaiah drank and drank until he found the courage to be truthful. At the kitchen table, with an empty bottle between them, Isaiah stared at the floor and said, “So I cheated on Marie. That’s what happened.”

His father was silent for a time. When he stood his chair scraped the floor. He said, “I’m going to bed.” At the doorway he paused and turned, steadying himself with one hand on the frame. He looked back at his son. Isaiah was looking at his shoes when his father added, “I raised you to be better. I raised you to be a hero.”

Al’s Hardware and Supply was, remarkably, still open at the corner six blocks away from the family home. The pizza parlor next to it was now a Subway, and the old arcade had transformed into a laundry mat. But Al’s, where he and his father had trekked many a Saturday for supplies for their weekend list of projects, still survived. Stepping inside was like stepping back in time.  The door chimed behind Isaiah, and he settled a hand on the gumball machine at his side, recalling the thick crank, the sugary satisfaction. No one was at the counter, and the store seemed empty. The wooden floor creaked beneath him.  Tall shelves surrounded cramped aisles, and as he walked down them he had the illusion that the shelves were curving in at the top, threatening to topple. At the pay-by-the-pound bin, Isaiah shoved the metal scoop into a pile of penny nails. He wandered a bit aimlessly by the plumbing section and picked out a showerhead. A tortoise shell cat with half its face mangled trotted over to him and studied him with its one good eye.

His cell phone buzzed, startling the cat. Isaiah reached in his pocket and pulled it out. The text was from Diana, and it read, “Get here. The doctor says he’s close.”

At the checkout, a grey-haired man now sat on a stool reading Fish and Stream. When Isaiah approached, he stood, remaining the exact same height as he’d been while seated. He limped the two steps to the register and asked if Isaiah had found everything he needed. Isaiah shook his head. “I need a grate to cover a drain. Something big.” He lifted his hands up as if holding a basketball.

The old man nodded and limped back into his store, and Isaiah followed. He walked him down an aisle of grass seed, then paused before some gutter covers. He pulled what looked like a wire light bulb down from a hook and said, “If you put this in the spout, it’ll catch all the leaves and gunk.”

“It’s not for the gutter,” Isaiah explained, not impatient. “The drain outside the cellar door gets clogged all the time. The basement floods.” He lifted his hands again, showing the size he needed.

The shopkeeper nodded.  “Industrial grade. I don’t carry anything like that. But I can special order it. Hang on.” He hobbled back to the front and slid through a gray curtain, into an office maybe. When he returned carrying a thick book, the cat followed him. He dropped it on the counter and flipped the thin white pages before coming to a stop. He spun the book around and aimed a crooked finger at a picture of exactly what Isaiah felt he needed.

Isaiah leaned over and said, “How long till it would be here?”

The man shrugged. “Three to five days. But it’s $139 dollars.”

Isaiah straightened. “That can’t be right.”

“Look for yourself. I’d be giving you my price. Mostly only contractors order stuff like that.”

“Contractors,” Isaiah said. He thought of the Maxwell House coffee tin, how even if he made another one, that in time it would decay. He thought of the rotting wood in the basement, the mold and the crumbling cement foundation. Putting the showerhead on the counter, he said, “Just this.”

After the old man rang him up, Isaiah handed over his credit card and the owner glanced at it, then up to Isaiah’s face. He paused, then continued. Once he’d put the receipt and the showerhead in a plastic bag, he gave it to Isaiah and said, “I knew you looked familiar. You look a lot like him, you know.”

Unsurprised, Isaiah nodded. His resemblance to his father had plagued and delighted him all his life. Plus his name, also the same, was on the credit card. He said, “So I’ve been told.”

The old man worked something in his mouth. “You even sound like him. Your voice.”

Isaiah held his silence.

The shopkeeper dipped his head.  “I heard about what happened. I’m very sorry. He was a good man.”

It unnerved him to hear his father spoken of in the past tense. Isaiah was trying to decide if he should tell the shopkeeper that his father was still alive when his phone erupted. It wasn’t the buzz of a text but the sharp ring of an incoming call. Startled, the two men looked at each other until the shopkeeper asked, “Ain’t you gonna answer that?”

Isaiah shook his head. “I know who it is.” He reached into his pocket and turned the phone off, then he left the shop.

Two days ago Isaiah had arrived on the three o’clock bus from Richmond and walked the half mile to the hospital complex, which overlooks the river. On the walk, as he had on the long bus ride, as he had for six years in his most private moments, he rehearsed what he might say. He knew he would tell his father he was sorry for the distance that had settled between them. They had spoken on the phone, sat at the same holiday meal table at his sister’s home a few times, but never really talked since that night in Norfolk. Isaiah wanted to thank him for his childhood, for the many sacrifices he’d made and the blessings he’d bestowed. Isaiah was pretty sure he’d forgive his father for the harshness of his judgment regarding his infidelity, though he doubted the old man was seeking absolution for that particular sin. What Isaiah couldn’t decide was whether or not he’d release the venom, the poison he’d been carrying in his gut since he was in college, home on winter break his junior year.  At the time his mother was in the hospital recovering from her surgery. Nine months later the cancer would take her. But that day, Isaiah was in the kitchen when the phone rang, and when he answered it, the female voice said quietly, “I need to see you. Can you get away?”

Assuming it was a wrong number, Isaiah asked who it was.

“Isaiah?” the female voice asked.

And, truthful, he said, “Yeah. This is Isaiah.” After a moment, he added, “Isaiah junior.”

The next thing he heard was the dial tone. He wondered if that woman ever told his father that she’d given away their affair, or if she’d kept the secret the same way he had. And walking to the hospital from the bus station two days ago, Isaiah rehearsed all the lines he might use to reveal what he knew. “You cheated on mom.” “I talked to your girlfriend once.” “Guess I’m not the only one who isn’t a hero.”

But when he arrived, his father was curled up in the bed, crooked legs propped by pillows, wrists turned inward. Without his glasses his face looked empty, and the skin across his cheeks was taunt. Blue veins forked like rivers. His eyes, wide open and cloudy, fixed on the ceiling straight over his head, and he didn’t respond to anyone. He only blinked and stared and breathed through his mouth. The doctor and his sisters spoke as if Isaiah’s father was not in the room. This second stroke was much worse than the first, and no one had discovered him for quite some time, too long for TPA to have any effect.  “We’ll just keep him comfortable now,” the doctor said.  After he left, Diane inserted a dropper in a glass of water and brought it to her father’s open mouth. Instinctively he wrapped his flaking lips around it as an infant would a baby bottle, and Diane pressed the plunger and their father sucked the water, swallowed.  His twin sister Julie reported that their father had called out in his sleep for his grandmother, that earlier in the week, still somewhat lucid, he had reported seeing people who were not there: his parents, his older brother who died in the war, his wife.  Isaiah’s sister said these spirit visions, whatever they were, had comforted their father. In the window, taking in what light it could, was a bouquet of a dozen pink roses. Isaiah wondered who would send such a thing at a time like this.

Including a quick stop at the house, where he dropped off the showerhead, the walk from Al’s Hardware took about forty-five minutes, and Isaiah reached the hospital in a light rain. He dried off in the bathroom on the first floor, passed the receptionist’s desk and the coffee cart and the gaudy-bright gift shop. In the elevator on the way to the third floor, Isaiah considered his cell phone, which he hadn’t turned back on. He knew that right now, it may contain a message that would alter his life. But he didn’t want to hear such a thing in that way.

The doors split open with a pleasant ding and Isaiah stepped through, but instead of heading down the corridor, he paused at a large window by the elevator bay.  There was a tree with plastic leaves in a plastic apple basket.  Rain trailed down the glass, though not so much that he couldn’t see outside clearly. On the roof just outside the window, huge air conditioning units hummed. He could see their fans spinning.  Rain water puddled around a large vent, pumping steam.  Beyond the edge of the roof, the river ran beneath the six bridges. A train chugged across one, and on another traffic was stopped heading into Lemoyne. Isaiah thought about the room he was about to enter, what he was likely to see and hear. He knew too that what he’d wanted all these years, a confrontation, reconciliation, forgiveness, an explanation, were all now impossible. 

There was nothing to do now but bear witness.

As this settled over him, Isaiah’s eyes fixed on something on the roof. The rain was coming down harder, and as it pooled and gathered, it ran towards a central low point, where it passed through a familiar-looking metal grate. Isaiah squinted but was sure of what he saw. Without thinking, he reached up and undid the twin latches of the window and shoved it up with his palms. Cooler air eased in. Isaiah climbed up through the opening and stepped out into the thickening rain.

His feet sank a bit into the spongy black surface, and overhead an emergency helicopter on the roof began to spin its blades. He started to walk toward the grate, about fifty feet away. But after he wiped his eyes to clear some rain, he looked to the side and saw pink roses in a window. He paused. Something drew him towards that window. The pull was like a current, and he did not resist it.

When he reached the window, he cupped his hands to his forehead and set them on the cool, wet glass. Inside, he saw the backs of two of his sisters standing at his father’s bedside. Another sat on the far side of the room, bent elbows to knees. Isaiah wondered if they were crying softly or praying or if they were silent.

The sister by the head of the bed stepped away, and suddenly Isaiah could see his father, turned on his side, facing the window. His gauzy eyes were open, and they fixed on Isaiah through the glass. He blinked, and his eyebrows lowered as he peered intensely. Isaiah wondered, through the delirium, through the medication, without his glasses, if the old man could make him out at all. He wondered if his father thought he was another apparition sent to ease his passage. Isaiah smiled, tight-lipped, and set a hand flat on the slick glass. He nodded.

Perhaps it was coincidence, but his father, almost imperceptibly, nodded too. And Isaiah decided his father saw him and knew who he was.  The two men recognized each other.

His sister returned to her position, holding something, and blocked Isaiah’s view. In the rain, he turned from that room and made his way to the center of the roof. The water flowed evenly through the grate, swirling down the holes of a drain. Isaiah reached down and clutched the metal, but when he lifted it did not budge. He pulled harder still with the same result, and it came to him that the thing might be bolted down. Next he squatted with bent knees, and with both hands he took hold of the grate. And now he tugged and heaved, lifting his face into the rain, straining so that pain pierced his back, but he did not stop. From his father’s evening tales, he remembered the would-be kings testing themselves at the sword in the stone, and he tugged all the harder, even though it did no good.