"So he's living with you now? At your apartment? Doesn't that make you nervous? I mean, Natalie, he's a ... how do I put this ... a homeless person, for Godsakes."
"He's my father, Rona, no matter what I might think about him." She sipped her mocha cashew cappuccino, staring blankly out the window. "What is a homeless person, anyway, but a person without a home? I mean if either you or I didn't have a home, we would be homeless, too." There was a sea of suits walking by and in the middle of them an older woman in fur walking a cocker spaniel with its nose glued to the ground.
"Yeah, right. That's so profound. You sure you weren't a philosophy major and not a business major at school? You're missing the point. He's not just homeless, he's ..."
"He's what?" Natalie turned suddenly and glared at Rona.
"Oh, come on, Nat! You told me yourself! You said he was an alcoholic, a druggie, lived on the streets. For godsakes! He told you he was a dangerous man, didn't he? How's that supposed to make your living with the man make me feel comfortable?"
"He's harmless. That's what my mom said."
"Yeah, she said that. But did she tell you to take him in to live with you? I mean he's your father and you haven't seen him in what? Twenty years? Without ever sending you a card or calling? I mean, come on, what does that tell you about the man? He didn't care about you for all those years, and now that he needs something he shows up on your doorstep! Can't you see that?"
"But what? He hasn't asked for anything."
"Wake up, Natalie. He's a bum!"
No matter what she said, she knew she could never convince Rona. But she had to say it anyway, maybe more for herself than anything else: "You don't understand. He wants to change, he wants to know me. That's why he showed up. He wants to know me."
* * *
"You have him what?" her mother asked over the telephone.
"Sleeping on my couch."
"Oh, no, Natalie, you have to get him out of there. He's not exactly the kind of person you can trust."
"But, Mother, you yourself said he was harmless."
"He is, he was, normally, believe me. But he hasn't been normal in a long, long time. It's the booze and the drugs. They speak for him. Oh, baby, I'm so sorry he's shown up like this. It would have been better if your father had died or something. Not show up like he has, shell of a man that he is, after so many years. Maybe I should come over to talk to him."
"When was the last time you saw him?"
"Fifteen or sixteen years ago. He showed up on my doorstep. Begged me to give him money. You'd think he'd have a little dignity left after the way he used to abuse me. He threw me down the stairs once in a fit of rage, did I ever tell you that?"
"No," Natalie said, inhaling deep, then exhaling, saying: "you didn't."
"Not that he's necessarily a bad man. Inside him somewhere there's a heart. If only he could get off the booze. But he's too weak maybe for that. It's been too long. The bottle is his mother, his wife, his family to him now. It's sad but I'm afraid it's true. He's too far gone."
"Mother. How can you say that? No one's ever too far gone. You can't give up hope like that!"
"Oh, my darling, you're so young. You don't know how many times I tried with him, tried to get him to clean up. He would promise, and then, a week later, fall into his old ways again. He'd be gone for days at a time, then show up looking like he'd gotten run over by a train. And the men, the ghosts he'd bring home sometimes ... there was not a spark left in their eyes. They were the junkies, the lifeless, the walking already dead. It's not me that's given up hope. It's him. He's given up life, his own life."
"Then why did he come back? After all these years?"
"I don't know. Maybe you can find out. Just be careful with him, baby, that's all I can say. He can hurt you without even knowing he's hurting you."
"You don't think he would hurt me physically, do you?"
"No, baby, not physically, not usually. That's not the way he operates. But the other is worse, much worse, believe me. The knife to the heart, once it's in you can't pull it out again."
* * *
That night she came home from work and didn't know where he was. At first she was afraid he had left. But then she heard a noise in the bathroom. She slipped off her shoes, and padded softly on the brown shag carpet in that direction. The door was open. Two blue jeaned legs were dangling out from the opened cabinet under the sink and there was a metallic scraping noise.
"Julius?" she said, He jerked and banged his head on the bottom of the sink, let out a scream, swore, then pulled his head out of the space and rubbed his head.
"Sorry," Natalie said, shyly. She felt like a little girl again, staring at her father, her daddy. There were fleeting, foggy memories of a scene something like this. Her as a little girl in a dress, a special blue dress. Looking down at her father, sprawled down on the floor with a tool in his hand. Like now, like the way he, her father, lay on the floor before her now, a pipe wrench in his hand.
"I found these tools in your closet. Thought I'd give this clog in your sink a shot. I think's it's okay now, though I'm not sure I am."
"Thanks," Natalie said, her heart starting to fill with something she wasn't sure she wanted to let in, remembering her mother's words. She stood there for a moment, staring at him, her hands clasped awkwardly before her. What did she know of this man? And what of the memories? They were more like a dream she'd had long long ago. She turned then, suddenly, and left the room. "I'm going to make dinner," she said, feeling his eyes on her, the eyes of a stranger.
It was nothing fancy, hamburgers on buns. Frozen french fries thrown from the bag into the oven. But he seemed to savor every bite. Pouring gobs of ketchup onto his plate and daintily swirling the fries in the pool of red. Thoroughly getting into the moment, enjoying the experience. But, why shouldn't he? It must be wonderful to sit down at a table, in a heated place, where he was welcome, to eat, without having to watch his back every second, as Natalie imagined he would have to, on the streets, in the soup kitchens where he went, or whatever. His hair was a tangled mess of curls on his head. His face was riddled with black and gray dots of beard, even though she'd bought him a razor, shaving cream and blades. Shaving was a thing he didn't seem to have much time for. Or combing his hair. Or brushing his teeth -- his teeth were browned like wood and his breath was bad, like a dog's breath. Why couldn't he even take care of himself in the most basic ways? What was it about his life -- when he'd had a life that was so terrible -- that he had fallen to this?
A drop of ketchup was stuck on the corner of his mouth. It looked like blood. He chewed, looking right at her, but not really seeing her, it seemed. It was more like a foggy look, like he barely even recognized her. The food, however, he gave his full attention to.
He was looking right at her, but when she said, "Julius, you've got something here," pointing to the corner of her own mouth, he said "Hmmm?" and looked at her, really looked at her all of the sudden, like he'd just seen her. Then he looked down again at his plate, and back up at her. This time his eyes seemed empty. She wanted to know where he'd been.
"What were you thinking about?"
"Just then. Before I said anything. I was watching you and you looked like you were thinking about something."
"I don't know. Nothing. I just sort of fade in and out sometimes. It's hard to explain."
"Are you here now?"
"Yeah. I'm here."
"Good. Because I need to ask you something."
She leaned back in her chair and tilted her head down, staring right across the table into his foggy eyes.
"Why did you leave us? Why did you leave Mom and me when I was little? And never come back?"
He put his half-eaten hamburger back on the plate, and looked down at it. "It's no use talking about it now. It was so long ago, like a different life. What good can come from talking about it now?'
She got mad then, banged the table with her fist before she even knew she'd done it, and, in the same moment said "Because I need to know, Goddammit!"
He stared at her with his eyes wide (in shock, in fear?) studying her face, rubbing his fingers together gently, forming a steeple with the finger tips. "Okay, all right. You're right, you have a right to know. But truth is I don't know why exactly. It's just things took a turn for the worse for me. Lost my band, lost my job. The drinking, I couldn't handle it anymore. I was a bad man, no good to anyone, not to your momma, not to you. Spent all the money on booze and gambling. And I was mean, heartless. I didn't think I was that way, but I saw myself becoming that way. I saw it in her eyes, your mother's eyes mostly. If I raised my hand, made a sudden move, she jumped, she flinched. It was fear in her eyes, that's what it was. And it made me sad, down in the core of my heart, sad and desperate. And you didn't deserve it. No one deserved it. I didn't want to do that to you anymore. It wasn't fair. You were so young and innocent and hopeful. You always had that loving little girl smile on your face for me when I came home half-loaded. Of course you were so young, you didn't know. You'd lift your little hands high to the sky for me to grab you up and take you in my arms. But I sloughed you off, ignored you. And you cried. I was a mean man. Good to no one. Believe me, you were better off. And I yelled at, hit your mother. Who could live with that? I couldn't. Why should you have to? You deserved better. So I left, to leave you with a better life."
Natalie rose from her chair, her eyes wide. "A better life? You really believe that's what you left us with?"
He peered at her from atop the temple he'd created with his fingers.
"You know how Mom had to struggle to keep us fed, to get me through school? You know how hard it was being four years old wanting a father and not having one? Do you know how cruel kids can be? I'd go to school only to hear that my daddy was a drunk, a no good drunk who ran away with some other neighborhood drunk. Because he didn't care about me. He didn't love me."
He closed his eyes then and rested his chin down in his folded hands. "It's not true. I did care. I always cared. That was why I left."
"Because we deserved better than you."
"Yes," he said, his eyes still closed. Tears were starting to wash down his cheeks."I loved you. I always loved you and your mother. It was me I didn't love."
She went to him them, despite herself. She walked that long walk around the table and gently put her hand on his shoulder, then hugged him from behind, placing her head against his back and closing her eyes. "I missed you so much," she said, the tears coming to her eyes now. "I still do."
* * *
He was lying on the couch, watching soap operas, sipping a beer, reading a newspaper. It had been a week since his daughter, his treasure, his savior, had taken him in, and now he was living the life, the good life. Just like he was part of it all again. A television in front of him. A beer. His feet up on the coffee table. Heat and indoor plumbing. Even a refrigerator with food in it. Not much but some. How had he lost all of this? And when? It seemed too long ago now to even remember.
One Life to Live was on the television. The irony, he thought, chuckling to himself, closing his eyes, and folding his hands on his chest. How many lives he'd led, and now it was all coming to an end. Just like that. It was way the chips fell, the way his chips always fell. But when would he tell Natalie, because he had to tell her. It wouldn't be fair not to. She had a right to know. She had a right. He took a deep breath and floated on that cushion of sleep, as the dull constant throbbing pains throughout his body continued, they always continued. He deserved it, he figured, he deserved all God could dish out to him for all the pain he'd caused to his daughter and the others, all the others, in his life.
* * *
It could have been an hour, or a day or two or more, and he wouldn't have known the difference. Time had stood still for him. He couldn't tell one day from the next. But it wasn't an hour, it wasn't a day -- it was a week later, two weeks after Natalie had taken him in. He was on the couch again, asleep again, trying to bury the pains in his side and in his stomach with sleep. The sound of the key rattling in the lock brought him to. He'd learned over the years, the many years, the price of being too light a sleeper out there. That he was safe now, not sleeping in someone's doorway, not being stirred awake by some cop's foot or night stick, didn't matter. He would never in his life sleep soundly again, that he was sure of.
She came, a bag of groceries cradled in her arms, her key chain dangling from her mouth, as she banged against the door and bobbled from one foot to the other.
"Could I get a little help here, please?" she said.
"Oh, sure," Julius said, throwing the pillow off his chest and jumping to his feet. He stood next to his daughter ("his daughter," how strange the words sounded!) awkwardly for a moment, not knowing what to do. Then she said "Here," and shoved the bag into his arms which he almost dropped, but caught hold of just before it fell. He stood, inches from her, just looking at her, not believing that this was his daughter.
"Do you want to put those away?" she asked. He just stood there. "In the kitchen?" He moved suddenly, woodenly toward the kitchen. After closing the refrigerator door, he moved back toward the couch and collapsed on it.
She stood in front of him, arms crossed, and asked "Have a rough day?"
"Huh? No. Fine day. Relaxing. No problems."
"So, what is it you were saying last night, that you've been saying every night, about wanting to do something to improve your situation?"
He sat up. Put his arm up behind him, and scratched his head.
"I'm looking for a job," he said.
"I want to. I'm going to."
"And when is all of this going to happen."
"Soon. Day after tomorrow."
"Not the day after tomorrow. But tomorrow. You're going to get up, take a shower maybe, have a cup of coffee, get dressed and go out there, start looking."
He laughed. Couldn't help himself. The thought of it seemed funny, him, unemployable him, looking for a job.
"Uh, yeah. Or you can pack up your ... your ... backpack and hit the pavement again, sleep under the bridge again, if that's what you want. There are no more free lunches. Do you catch my drift?"
"Look, I can no longer work a job, go without a drink for eight hours than I can have a baby. Don't you understand that?"
"And that's all you've got to say? You want it to be that way forever?"
"No. I don't want it to be that way. What do you think? But do you think I have a choice?"
"Yes," she said, crossing her arms in front of her. "You do."
"Aw, come on. Grow up. You don't think I've been a druggie and a boozer for twenty-five years because I want to be?"
"At some point you must have wanted to. And after that you still did to some extent or you would have done something about it."
"I can't. Can't you see that. I need ... I needed help."
What did he mean by that, needed? She looked at him standing there, leaning against the wall almost looking like he were a ghost, without substance. Just a shadow on the wall.
"Then someone needs to help you. If you're willing."
He smiled. "Who? Who would help me then?"
"Me. I'll help you. "
"You. But I'm beyond help now. It's too late." He bent forward and hugged his arms around himself. His teeth were chattering. He looked pale, she thought. After a moment the shivering stopped and he stood upright against the wall again.
"Are you all right?" she asked. She'd thought it was from the drink, from his generally bad health. But maybe there was more. She really didn't want to know, but held her breath for a moment and asked anyway. "What do you mean it's too late?"
"It doesn't matter. And why would you want to help me, anyway? What have I ever done for you? Besides leave you and make your life miserable, fatherless. I never was a father to you, never knew how to be. Never knew how to live at all, really. Forgot how. How do people live? How do they manage? I forgot how a long time ago."
"Tell me what you meant. When you said it doesn't matter anyway."
He smiled the broken smile of a broken man. "It's the cancer. Found out last month at a clinic. Cancer in my pancreas. Funny, I'm not even sure where that is, what it does."
"And there's nothing they can do about it? You should be in a hospital or something."
He looked right at her then, his eyes wide, begging. "If you want me to leave, I will. You don't deserve this. I left you alone in life and only return to see you before I die. Selfish, I know it is."
"But, there's nothing they can do? What about chemotherapy or radiation treatment?"
He shook his head and looked down at a spot in the floor in front of him. "Nothing, there's nothing they could do. It's gone too far, been left too long. When you live on the streets you get used to the pains of life, even the wracking, earth-jarring pains. But this was worse, this was something much worse. By the time I got into the clinic to see what it was. I was already gone."
She didn't know what to do. He was still an odd presence, a stranger in her home, a man who she hated, yet, in some unexplainable way loved, too, even though she hadn't a clue why. She went to him then, walked across the kitchen floor and wrapped her arms around him. He stood there stiffly at first, resisting, then loosened up and let her hug him.
She moved him into her bedroom, let him sleep there while she took the couch. Her mother and Rona, couldn't believe it, that she would do this for this man. But we all deserve a place to die, she told them, don't we?
She brought him in to see her doctor who could do little but shake her head and give her a slew of prescriptions for pain killers. That was all she could do, she said, apologizing, and offering her help if Natalie thought she couldn't deal with the situation any longer. But, she told the doctor, she was determined to do what she could for as long as she could. He was her father, after all, she said, the words sounding strange coming off her tongue but light and sweet at the same time.
She brought him meals in bed. She brought him pills and water. "You shouldn't be doing this, you don't owe me any of this," he would say, but she would shush him, tell him to stop. He was her father, she said and, in some strange way she loved him. That was exactly what she told him. There's no reason, he replied, there's no reason for anyone to love him. Maybe that's what was wrong with your life, she said, maybe that's what's been wrong all along. You didn't have anyone to love you. She got up from the chair beside his bed, the chair that had been permanently glued to that spot and hugged him gently, not wanting to hurt him any more than she knew he was already hurting, the tears cascading down her cheeks.
"Natalie, this is insane," her mother whispered after leaving the bedroom on her first visit to see him after fifteen years. They'd greeted each other cautiously like distant relatives or acquaintances, like people who'd known each other vaguely in another life as, indeed, it seemed it had been ... another life. She'd touched his hand, his shoulder, asked him politely how he felt, kept the talk surfacey, thinking, what can be gained by getting into it all now, after all this time? The damage had long been done. And now there was nothing more that could be done to fix it, to fix anything.
"But, Natalie, what are you going to do when he can't help himself any more, when he can't go to the bathroom by himself, or eat, or bathe? What are you going to do then? He needs a nurse, but of course you can't afford that, or he should be in a hospital, somewhere where they can take care of him."
"Take care of him why? So he can die?"
"Die in the most comfortable situation possible."
"This is the most comfortable situation for him. You should see the way he looks at me now. I can see the love in his eyes. The way he smiles at me. I don't want him ..." (she dabbed her eyes with a tissue -- she was so emotional all the time now) "... I don't want him to die alone."
"I know, Darling, but..."
"No," Natalie, said, pushing her mother off her. "No, Mother," she said holding her arm in her hand. "You don't know."
But it did get harder, it did get more than Natalie could handle. And one day, with the doctor's help, an ambulance pulled up to her door to take her father away to a public hospital for terminal patients. It broke her heart, it wasn't what she wanted, but what other choices did she have?
She accompanied him in the ambulance, his figure gaunt, the cheek bones visible now, his face white. He would come in and out of consciousness, but she sat beside him, holding his arm lightly. "I'll be with you, Daddy," she said, feeling that, once again, she was the four year old daughter with her eyes raised up to the skies. "I'll be with you till the end."
And on one cold, still, but sunny day, in November, winter's chill nipping the air, she was there as her father's last breath passed, sitting beside him, lightly holding his arm in her hand. "Natalie," she thought she heard him say, just before he left, turning his head toward her once last time, "Daddy's got to go." Then the breath left him for good.
The church was mostly empty at the funeral, just Natalie, her mother, and Rona, who'd seen Julius on a couple of occasions after he'd come for his last stay.
At the cemetery it was just the priest and them. Natalie wept and her mother and Rona put their arms around her, led her to the casket where she took one red rose, kissed it and bent down to place it on the black casket raised up in the plot. "I missed you, Daddy, for so long," she said. Her mother patted her back gently, and the three of them moved slowly away, back toward the car. "I love you," she whispered softly, so that no one else could hear, "I love you, Daddy."