The Matters of Mondamin Street

In the latter half of 2001 I made several trips to my father’s home, where, for a week and sometimes two, I took care of him while he convalesced. Neighbors he had known for years, who he himself had helped in times of trouble, could not manage the task, nor could nurses, whose job it was to handle such matters, find the temperament in themselves to care for a man with so difficult a personage. It was not that he was cruel or unjust, but that as his pneumonia receded he became particular to the point of devastating the patience of anyone who was not me — his son. So when the call came from our family doctor, I was taking photographs for a magazine of the still smoldering rubble at Ground Zero, which a month earlier had been the World Trade Centers. In an hour I was on a flight back to Chicago and driving the fifty or so miles to Minooka, where, as the sun was setting, I saw the last of the October light dust with a copper glaze the newly planted mulberry trees along Mondamin Street. Beyond those trees was a woman, who looked like a high school teacher of mine, walking with her five-year old son, the two of them looking into shop windows at their reflection and laughing at the silly faces they made. How distant, it seemed, my hometown was from that world-ending devastation I had witnessed only a few hours earlier. And despite the fact that my father was recovering, as the doctor told me he would, I harbored the morbid notion that this trip to Minooka might be the last time I saw him. Why this premonition occurred to me with such strength and clarity is still a mystery, since my father lives to this day, and why that trip in October in particular seemed more ominous than the others I do not know, but all this led me to question what would happen in the event of his death, who I would see and how I would go about wrestling with the inevitability of selling his property and dealing with his possessions. Would I call the Methodist pastor, whose name escaped me at the time but who had phoned my father more often than I had, or would I call the parent of a high school friend, whose mortuary off Simon Street was where everyone in town would end up one day? I was, without fully knowing it, preparing for my father’s end, which prompted me to wonder too if I would be at his bedside when it happened, or if I would instead be attending to some menial task, like preparing soup on the stovetop or taking a nap on the couch, in which case I would miss what words of wisdom he might want to bestow on me before he passed. All this I meditated on, and it must have sufficiently preoccupied my attention because not long afterward I noticed I had driven farther than I needed to go and was now on the outskirts of town near an old railway overpass where as a boy I had once hatched a plan to run away to Chicago. When I slowed to turn the truck around, realizing that my father could in fact need me, I looked at the overpass again and thought about what it meant to me as a child, how I had taken refuge there one rainy night, how in the sleepless dark I could not avoid timing out which trains sped through Minooka on their way to Chicago and which ones slowed down long enough to be boarded. I parked the truck askance in the tall roadside grass and crossed the pock-marked highway where, even before entering the overpass, I felt the cool October air made more cool and more dense by the walls of reinforced concrete, which emanated with an ammonia scent that, over the years, must have come from the urinations of countless strays — dog, cat, or human. From the road, the overpass seemed like a place of safety, but once inside, that feeling lessened, as if I had entered that vast network of bunkers in France or Belgium during the wars of last century, or maybe as if I had come across an entry point to the Cu Chi tunnels dug by the Viet Cong for the Tet Offensive in 1968. To know I would likely be safe with twenty thousand tons of freight moving over my head was a comfort, but there was also a stupidity to my being there, to anyone being there. Why stay any longer than you needed to in a place that would invite even the possibility of disaster? With that as a parting thought I left the overpass and drove back to my father’s house, where I idled up the driveway and sat in my truck a few moments looking into the garage at his beat-up suburban. Whether my father had gotten into some kind of accident I do not recall, but one of the headlamps had been ripped out, leaving a jagged metal cavity the size of a watermelon. And the longer I stared the more I could not see how this was any kind of accident. Someone, I thought, must have come by one evening with a sledge hammer and smashed out the headlamp, leaving my father in that cost-benefit analysis state of wondering whether to endure the suburban the way it was or call the insurance company to have it fixed. But there were other things, too, that stood out, which I hadn’t seen from the road, or maybe it was because of the waning light, but now that I was closer, the paint on the side of the house had bubbled up in tiny cottage-cheese flakes and the hedges of the northern bayberry had not been trimmed for the winter, and beyond the house lay our vast and fallow fields that hadn’t grown corn for several years. It was as if the farm itself had moved beyond its original intent, which led me to think again of my father’s death and how much longer he would be on this earth and the arrangements and the conversations that would need to happen with people who were his friends, most of whom had likely attended my christening, but who, after he was gone, would treat me with a practiced pity or a fabricated kindness. How unwelcome and unhelpful, I thought, those conversations would be in mollifying my grief. And from those imagined conversations I leapt to the evening of a future memorial service, in which friends and relatives on a cloudy day would all collect on the vast front lawn next to the driveway, all of them mingling and gesturing and moving about in tiny ash-colored groups the way sheep graze a pasture, only the groups would avoid the hickory benches and the dining room chairs and the faux highboy, all of which were inexplicably out on the lawn too, and all of which my father had built during a woodworking spree in the eighties. Just then, while I sat there, a brief gust of wind hit the idling truck with a gale-like quality, and suddenly the vision I was having of the memorial service started to merge with reality, and all those people and hand-crafted pieces and many more things too like flatware and China, blankets and clothing, were blown about mercilessly on the lawn by a wind that – only in my mind – turned cylindrical and lifted everything and everyone into the air and away, leaving the house in the stilled and crepuscular state it actually was. What had started out as a plausible rendering of a memorial service – almost a planning of it – had turned into a projection of disaster, the effects of which must have led to a kind of automatic pilot in the way I moved about because I do not remember doing things I must have done, like getting out of the truck and walking onto the front porch, or, after entering the house, hearing the screen door slap or stepping onto the creaky floorboards in the picture-ridden hallway that led to the bedrooms. What reclaimed me from this dream state must have been the sight of my father, sitting up in bed in his pajamas, his blank lemur-like eyes staring at me over nickel-plated reading glasses. We hadn’t seen each other in more than a year, yet, instead of greeting me, he asked for a pen off the bureau: something in the newspaper must have needed circling, or so I thought. This was the first of my visits to him that fall and he struck me in that moment as both the man I had always known as well as the man I would never know. How many times while growing up had I seen him, not in bed, but in the morning at the kitchen table, turning the large butterfly-wing pages of the Minooka Herald Times and circling the names of people he wanted to hire or a tractor he wanted to buy or a restaurant he wanted to go to, only to have these avenues of interest swatted away by my mother’s frugality, which was not really frugality at all, now that I look back on it, but more an encounter with an economic truth that many farming families in the Midwest confront from time to time. And though my mother had already been dead for several years, it seemed that my father was still playing his role, the role of dreamer, and tonight, to fulfill that role, he needed a pen. Why it was so far away from him I did not ask, but I walked it over to him nonetheless, half hoping he would use it to circle the name of a lighting consultant who would replace the single bare bulb overhead with either a bedside table or, at the very least, some recessed lighting where the ceiling met the wall. But wanting there to be more and better light did little to improve the brightness of the bulb, whose glow fell away from the ceiling in concentric circles of ever increasing shadow, shadow that seemed to mobilize the darkness in the room. When the bulb flickered, as it did occasionally, I could sense the darkness closing in from behind the several waist-high stacks of magazines and newspapers making a pathway to the bathroom, also from the thousands of creases in the pitcher’s mound pile of dirty clothes on the floor, and too from the angular night shapes that seemed as much a part of the books on the bookshelves as the books themselves. I recall too the ink of the ballpoint pen being a gunmetal black as my father scribbled onto a piece of paper the number of a post office box, which he told me to check immediately because the insurance companies had been calling him, wanting to know the status of the mounting medical bills. I felt like I had hardly walked into his room before I was walking out into that hallway with the creaky floorboards and the picture frames, a hallway that was no longer lit by the waning light of the day but instead engulfed in total blackness. Now, like a blind man, I felt my way toward the front door and in the process tipped several picture frames off center, after which I tried as best I could to straighten them out, though I could not see them, or my hands in front of my face. How long had it been, I thought, since I had experienced such darkness, a darkness that would not lift? I then shut my eyes several times, and in the blackness of those long blinks came – unsolicited – the image of the last lighted thing I had seen, that of my father in bed, staring at me with his wide and incurious eyes. And it was in that ephemeral image that I saw my father from then on: the skin around his jowls that over the years had drooped a little and eventually merged with the rooster-like wattle of flesh under his chin, the strawberry red rosacea which in the year since I last saw him had spread slow as lichen from his cheek bones down toward the bone-white bristles of his unkempt beard, at the stunted cloud-gray hairs on his head that were as sparse and maddeningly erratic as those on the head of a newborn child. It is that vivid and unrelenting image I saw during those long blinks that I compare my father to when I see him today, whether in person or in photographs. And even though I sensed that more frames were tilted off center, I continued toward the front door, and was soon outside and into the truck and driving off toward town, into the moonless night that dampened even the Halloween glow of the r-shaped streetlights in the post-office parking lot. I had seen Miss Burmeister and her son only an hour before looking into shop windows, but now she was walking alone and across the pavement toward me with a stack of mail in her hand. She was at that moment the undisturbed and fearless photography teacher I had known as a senior fifteen years ago. And what specifically I had planned on saying to her has now been lost to memory, though I do remember having something more in mind to say than “Hello”, which is what I did say. However, the tone of her response was different from mine; hers was more of a “Hello” in acknowledgement, as if she were greeting a perfect stranger rather than her favorite student, the one who would go on to become so interested in photography that he would leave farm and family for free-lance photo journalism, documenting the atrocities in Srebrenica during the war in Bosnia and the genocide between the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda. And before I knew it we were past each other, she continuing to walk through the blackness of the parking lot into an adjacent neighborhood and me, muttering to myself in confusion while I scooped mail out of my father’s PO box. Had it been that long, I thought, had I changed that much? Before I knew it I was sorting the mail on the hood of the truck under the municipal-orange glow of the streetlights, and doing so, I noticed right away the many envelopes from Morris Hospital, located in the nearby town of Channhan, where my father spent several days being treated in early September. And inside those envelopes were several pages of bills, and on those bills were rows of seemingly endless charges ranging from a few hundred dollars to over fourteen thousand, charges for antibiotic injections, x-rays, blood work, medications, bone density tests, hearing tests, cardiovascular tests, kidney functioning, liver health, diabetes, bills for services rendered from doctors of nearby hospitals as well as – unbelievably – my father’s GP, who somehow managed to send a bill for a physical exam all the way from South Beach in Miami where, said doctor, spent the month of September. Each statement had a different color, title, and account number, as well as columns that were labeled thirty, sixty, and ninety days in which to pay the staggering totals. How anyone, I thought, doing this accounting could think that such astronomical sums could be paid by anyone but the very wealthy was itself a mystery. And while there were pages with numbered columns for time lengths, there were also whole other pages devoted to very different column headings, ones listing what health care providers would be charged versus how much my father would owe, which at first looked promising until I discovered that my father had signed up for Medicare B and not Medicare A (B being compensation for the cost of medication and A being the cost of a hospital stay). It seemed, then, within this labyrinth of financial detail, Morris Hospital, and the nurses and doctors there, and Medicare itself, had all conspired to run every possible test they could in order to bilk my father out of tens of thousands of retirement dollars. How anyone was supposed to navigate this sea of financial obligation without going mad or bankrupt was beyond me. But even before I arrived home I knew I would not disturb my father with the details, all of which could wait until morning. Instead, when I arrived at the house, I went to the basement, to the old dark room, where I wiped the dust and grime off the shelves and then prepared the solution baths for developing the pictures I had taken at Ground Zero the day before. I had planned on shooting at least twenty roles of film in those two days I was scheduled to be in New York, but because of the call, I ended up with only five, which I processed over the next few hours, until almost three in the morning, when, while the last of the pictures were on the drying rack, I looked through the shelves and found some canisters with old negatives. How I had never seen them over the years I do not know but I opened them up and rolled out the contents under the infrared light. Here were pictures I had never seen of my parents’ wedding day in 1969, silly pictures that someone had taken and that must have ended up in a secret photo album I had never seen. Everyone was in formal clothing, the men in tuxedos and the women in varying styles of ruffled dresses. In one picture my Uncle Bill had looked toward the camera and stuck out his tongue, in another an aunt of mine put her hands and fingers to the side of her head like devil horns. And somewhere in the middle of the role was a picture of my father standing in the receiving line, my grandfather to his right and my mother to his left. Unlike the others, I had seen this picture before, but with the smallness of the negative and in the infrared light the picture came to mean something different than it ever had. The story goes that my father had been yawning during a brief moment in the receiving line, his mouth open as far as he could make it, like a lion roaring. Anytime I had ever seen this photo when I was young or when I was reminiscing about it with him, it had always struck me as a lighthearted moment on a day when monumental things were happening in a person’s life. Yet that night, in the dark room, my father’s gaping maw did not remind me of a humorous moment on his wedding day. Instead, I saw a never-ending scream.