When your roof caves in, there’s not a lot of time to put together a plan. My housemates and I all scrambled and scattered. I packed up my things in a van from the U-Haul, got no reassurance from our landlord (“You can come back when you can come back.”), and I made a few calls to find help. Thank god for Mike. Not only did he drive my car back from U-Haul, he said I could stay in his garage and store whatever would fit. But, he warned me, there wasn’t much room. Fine, I said, no problem, but once I arrived I saw what I was actually in for.
“You need to KonMari this fucker,” I said, after I shoved the last box in I could possibly fit. It wasn’t much. Less than a third of what I brought could be squeezed into the garage if I wanted enough space for my cot.
“I could say the same for you,” Mike said, digging through one of my boxes. “Is this your fourth grade report card?”
“So I’m a little sentimental,” I said. “Why do you have six fish tanks?”
“We had to make room for the girls,” Mike said. That wasn’t really an answer, but I wasn’t in a position to push. I was, in fact, just the latest arrival – Mike’s sister-in-law and two nieces were here after a house fire. They were why I was in the garage.
It was a strange summer. I was constantly hustling on ride shares, and every person I picked up had a story like that. Everybody’s houses were flooded or burned or blown over. It felt like everyone in Indianapolis was getting bulldozed all at once, and I never figured out if that was true or if I just paid more attention since it happened to me.
“I really do appreciate it,” I said, trying to stay in Mike’s good graces. “So, hey. Can I leave the U-Haul out front for a couple hours so I can do some driving?”
“I mean, you can,” Mike said. “But we can’t watch that van every second. I got a lot of kids inside that need my attention right now.”
Mike, who bounced nights at Clancy’s and kept me company between fares, was a human climbing gym as far as the kids were concerned. He couldn’t walk from one side of the house to the other without children clinging to his back like socks on a bath towel.
“I’ll be back before it gets dark,” I said. “I just need to make a little money so I can get this stuff in storage while my landlord gets shit figured out. Hopefully fast. Hopefully I’ll be back home in no time.”
“Yeah,” Mike said. “I’m hearing that a lot lately.”
After I parked the van out front, I lit a cigarette and opened the ride share app on my phone. My car had a quarter tank of gas, which wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t be driving anyone to the airport. I just wanted a few little jobs around town so I could stack my tips and move on. Normally I had a few other income streams – off-the-app regulars I take around town who pay pretty well for discretion – but this month those streams were a trickle. Sometimes things dry up at the worst possible time.
My phone buzzed but it wasn’t a rider. I thumbed over to a text from my dad. Or I should say, a text from Dad’s phone, sent by my uncle.
<You coming over tonight?
I wasn’t planning on it>
<It’s been a while.
My phone doesn’t show when somebody’s typing, but I swear that I’ve learned how to sense it. My uncle likes to text in whole novels, so until he’s actually said goodbye you can assume he’s still busy composing. But before his next message my phone buzzed again and I tapped back over to the app. It was a fare in Little Flower looking for a ride to the Whole Foods in downtown Indianapolis.
My uncle’s text came through as I was accepting the job, so all I saw was the preview. That turned out to be plenty.
<One of the responsibilities you have now is
I headed east on 10th Street then turned north on Dequincy. Little Flower is a sweet, grandmotherly kind of neighborhood where everything still feels like the fifties, but house by house it’s filled up with twenty-somethings looking to live close to the city. My rider was a young guy in slacks and a gray polo shirt who carried reusable bags.
“Dan? Whole Foods?”
“That’s me,” he said, and we were off.
A good way to make small talk is to act like you’ve never been where you’re going, so I asked Dan what he liked about the place and he told me about the bins of bulk grain. If I ever decide to make bread, I guess I know where to go. Then he went into a story about organic produce, and the only thing I could think to ask was, “Isn’t that extra expensive?” I meant it sympathetically, but it came off like I was reminding him who had to drive and who got to ride. I tried to recover.
“It’s probably worth it, though, not to get cancer.”
“We’re all getting cancer,” Dan said. I stopped making small talk.
Once he was out of the car I decided to end the suspense. Before I took the next fare I read my uncle’s text.
<One of the responsibilities you have now is to visit your father for his own sake, not to mention yours. Routine is good, but only to a point. Sometimes it just makes things cloudier. If you’d visit more often, take him out now and then, it would go a long way toward helping him contextualize …
I sort of fogged over after that. I thought about ignoring him, but I couldn’t remember how phone snitching worked, if he’d see I left him on read even if I wasn’t using an iPhone.
I’m working rn. Roof caved in at home, staying with Mike. Long story. Need cash for a storage unit>
I guess he was just sitting at home, phone in hand, because my uncle responded immediately.
<Store your stuff here.
It’s a lot>
I considered his offer. It was an easy solution. Maybe even kind of an obvious one. But there was a reason it never even crossed my mind to ask.
I didn’t want to see my dad. I wanted to stick to my plan. But even as I went to pick up my next rider I knew it was a stupid idea. If I unloaded my stuff at my uncle’s I wouldn’t have to pay any storage fees, and I could take the van back tonight. With the way things were going lately, could I afford to ignore an easy solution? I had plenty of other hard roads I could take, any time that I wanted.
I dropped my second fare off at a duplex in Emerson Heights and closed out the app. Then I drove back over to Mike’s.
Two sets of eyes looked at mine when he opened the door. Mike’s niece was dangling off his neck, trying to peer past his shoulder before she slipped off.
“Hiiii Jonnnn,” his niece said, that way kids do when they want you to notice them.
“Holy shit, Lili! When’d you get so tall?”
She grinned and kicked her legs in the air, trying to clamber up on his back. Her heels dug in his ribs as she pushed herself higher. Mike winced but didn’t make any move to stop her.
“You in for the night?” Mike asked.
“I’m going to my uncle’s,” I said. “He says I can leave my stuff with him.”
“Your stuff from the garage?”
“Well, no,” I said. “He’s only got so much space, and I was thinking, you know, that stuff is already in storage, so …”
“Jon! Uncle Mike can carry all three of us with one arm.”
“That’s because Uncle Mike is strong.”
“Are you strong, Jon?” Lili asked.
“No,” I said. “I don’t eat my vegetables. Mike, you think you can go with me to U-Haul again?”
“I’ve got a shift at eight. You gotta be back before that.”
“For sure,” I said. “Maybe I’ll go, too. Keep you company.”
“Yeah. I need more of that.”
“Byeeee Jonnnn!” Lili said, as Uncle Mike closed the door.
My dad’s brother lives on the west side of the city, not too far from the Speedway. “Walking distance,” he says, but when me and my cousin did it as kids it took us nearly an hour, and that’s if we didn’t stop at McDonald’s. But I guess he’s not technically wrong.
Until Dad moved in, Uncle Denny lived alone in a white one-story shotgun built sometime in the 40s. The front yard is tiny, barely enough to grow grass, but there’s a little space in the back for a sweet gum tree and the silver maple he always complains about but never cuts down. There’s always tree shit back there, gumballs and helicopters, fallen branches and leaves, and with the overgrown hedges and the moss on the siding the house can look pretty junky. But what am I going to say about it? He takes care of my dad, and I can’t.
I parked the van on the street and got out. The first thing I noticed were the tire tracks that ran across the front lawn and toward a new hole in the siding. Uncle Denny had covered most of the spot with a big sheet of pressboard, and there was another one over the window. I rang the bell.
“Somebody drove into your house?”
“My father?” There wasn’t a worse answer. “The fuck? Is he okay? Why the fuck is he driving?”
Uncle Denny raised his hands and smiled like this was a big misunderstanding, like I should agree that dads will be dads! and just leave it at that. I couldn’t even think straight. If Dad wasn’t safe here, where the hell would we put him? We couldn’t afford full-time care and I couldn’t help him. Denny must have read my mind because he kept on smiling and said, in low tones, “It’s going to be fine. Your Dad just forgot not to drive. It won’t happen again.”
“Where is he?”
“Outside,” Uncle Denny said. “Cleaning up the back yard.”
We went straight through the house and out the back door. Dad was there like Denny said, apparently still alive, so I calmed down a little. He had his back to us as he inspected the ground, a gray bucket in hand. Now and then he stopped to pick something up and toss it into the pail, then he’d resume his inspection.
“Hey Brad! You got a visitor!”
Dad turned to see who was calling. He didn’t forget things. His dementia wasn’t like Alzheimer’s. He was losing something else. Language and processes and linear time. Events happened to him now for no discernible reason, and never one after the next. Causes and effects were now just isolated incidents, as unfathomable and mysterious as an act of god. That included his son coming by for a visit.
He nodded. Hello.
“You helping clean up?”
He stared back until I pointed at the bucket and asked the question again. I made sure to exaggerate my inflection, lilting up extra hard at the end so he knew it was a question even if the words made no sense.
“Got … the things here,” he said, shaking the bucket. “All that, then these.”
He tilted it toward us so I could see what he’d collected. I got closer. It was just full of leaves and grass, gumballs and clods of dirt. I glanced at Denny but he didn’t seem bothered.
“Looking good, Brad.” He crossed the yard to take the bucket from Dad, then led him back to the house by an arm. He set the bucket on the edge of the patio as they started across. “We’re going to help Jon unload a few boxes. Okay?”
He took a step into the house, then asked him again. Okay? At that my dad followed, though I doubted he knew quite for what purpose. I hung back, giving them a minute to go inside and get out of sight. Then I kicked the gray bucket high over the fence, trailing grass clippings behind like a comet.
Denny’s guest room had the least furniture, so that’s where he wanted to store all my stuff. Never mind that it was also where Dad was staying. I tried not to read too much into it, or come to the obvious conclusion that this was the designated spot where Denny stuck anything that I couldn’t handle. No, this was just where my uncle had room. That was all.
Dad has trouble with language. It’s part of his “variant.” Other people with frontotemporal dementia have behavioral problems. They send their life savings to a prince in Nigeria, or they develop a compulsive eating disorder. Uncle Denny says we’re lucky because Dad doesn’t do any of that. He’s still the rough outline of the man that he was. He just can’t read or write or watch anything on TV. He can’t talk very well, or understand most of what anyone says. But outside of that we’re just ducky.
Dad watched us out front for a minute, then got the gist of what we were doing. Sometimes he had trouble choosing a box, but if I handed him one he’d follow Denny into the house and set it down where he was told. After we made a couple trips back and forth like that he caught me by the arm and pointed at the house where my uncle had boarded things up.
“No. Come on, guy. No.” He shook his head hard and then laughed. “No!”
He was chastising himself for my benefit. I didn’t even know how to respond. Tell him all was forgiven? Wag my finger? What good would it do? When his thinking got fuzzy he’d make bad decisions and nothing I said could change that. And somehow that still wasn’t considered the “behavioral variant.” The whole thing was fucked.
So I nodded, then put a hand on his shoulder and gently pulled him back toward the van. We didn’t have a whole lot of time, but when we finished with the boxes Uncle Denny wanted to make us some coffee. Dad disappeared in his room.
“You might want to go watch your stuff,” Denny said, which didn’t bode well for the long-term prospects of my precious belongings. I went back to the guest room and found Dad digging through boxes, pulling one thing out after another. He puzzled over a stuffed rabbit and then tossed it on the bed with my high school term papers, a Star Wars VHS boxed set, and my youth league bowling trophy. None of this was what he expected, and that agitated him. I wasn’t sure whether I should interrupt or let him finish whatever this process was.
Dad opened the next box. This one had all my kitchen stuff, dishes and pint glasses, hot pads and silverware, things that wouldn’t fit on my designated shelf of the little blue house’s shared kitchen. I’d been storing it all in my room because I didn’t want to replace it once I got my money straight and moved out. But it had been packed away for so long that now, seeing it spread across my dad’s rumpled sheets, it seemed to belong to somebody else.
Uncle Denny appeared in the doorway, holding two mugs of coffee, just as Dad finished unpacking the last box. I took the coffee and watched my father survey the scene, but had no idea what he made of it.
“What we’ve got,” Dad said, “this. You?”
“Yeah, Dad. That’s my stuff. That’s all mine.”
“I ….” His face fell, impatient with himself. He picked up the rabbit and tried to explain. “What, you? Come on, guy.”
He made a gesture I didn’t understand, sweeping the rabbit through the air from one wall to the other. I hated asking Denny to translate, but Dad was clearly getting bothered and I had no idea how to reassure him. I looked back at my uncle.
“He’d not moving in, Brad. He’s just leaving a few things behind.” Uncle Denny held out the second mug to my father, trading it to him for the stuffed rabbit. Dad took a cautious sip. “This is still your room. It’s yours.”
Dad must have understood, because he looked relieved.
I couldn’t even guess what he imagined. That we were going to have to share his room? That he was getting kicked out to make room for me? I wanted to reassure him, but I didn’t know how to explain that I was just storing things here because my roof had caved in, or that I had to leave soon for a night of driving drunks home from a strip club, or that I didn’t need to stay here because I was sleeping in a bouncer’s garage. Explain that to Dad? I wasn’t even sure I understood it myself.
We put more things away. Dad wanted to help, so I worked with him while Uncle Denny did most of the actual packing. We were still working through our first box together when Dad’s attention got snagged on a yearbook. He wouldn’t let me pull it away. I glanced at the time on my phone.
“Show him your picture,” Denny suggested.
Freshman year I was not at my best. I was still pudgy with baby fat and wore round math teacher glasses. My hygiene was also not great. I didn’t shower every morning, so even in black and white my hair is lank and greasy looking. Pinprick pimples around my mouth and chin make it look like I just finished eating a cookie. It’s really not a flattering photo.
Dad looked at the picture. Mentally I tried to will him to close the yearbook and hand it to me so I could shove it back in a box. But he just kept staring at the photo.
“I looked ug-ly,” I said. I sat next to him and gave him a friendly nudge with my shoulder, like we’re just a couple old buddies joking around. “You should have told me. I embarrassed both of us, looking like that.”
Dad looked up and smiled. I couldn’t tell if he understood or just liked me sitting close.
I reached out and took the edge of the yearbook. Dad let go. I handed it behind my back to Uncle Denny, who silently put it away.
“Talk,” Dad said, then shook his head. He was quiet for a long time. “No good, guy.”
“I know, Dad.”
He took a deep breath and sighed through his teeth. Anything we hadn’t already said just wasn’t going to be spoken. We didn’t have the language anymore. We didn’t use it when we did.
I gave him a sideways hug and Dad understood I was leaving. He followed me down the long hallway and out the front door and I said goodbye to him and my uncle. Uncle Denny held Dad’s hand so he didn’t follow me into the street.
“Don’t be a stranger,” Uncle Denny said. “At least come back to visit your stuff.”
I got back to Mike’s with no time to spare. I assumed the only reason he was still home when I got there was the frantic ON MY WAY!!! texts I sent at every stoplight. But that wasn’t quite the truth.
“Trianna needs a break,” he said, meeting me out front with the three girls trailing. “Can you fit everybody?”
Mike had a niece on either arm and his daughter on his back. If they could all fit on Mike, they could squeeze inside the Camry. I gave Mike my keys, then followed him and the girls with the van. I guess I could have let one of them ride with me shotgun, but I never trust these things. The brakes always sound like they’re about fifty-thousand miles overdue for replacement.
At U-Haul I got the van checked in, then Mike moved over to the passenger’s side and I drove us all home, the kids crammed together in back. It wasn’t much of a break for Trianna, maybe thirty minutes at best, but it was all Mike could do in that moment. We dropped off the kids and then I drove us to Clancy’s, and we worked a perfectly normal shift on a perfectly normal night.
For me that meant sitting at the bar and sipping my Sprite, waiting for everyone else to get drunk. That’s when they start asking for rides—to their homes or their dealers or to women who are not their wives. But that night I kept going back in my mind to our drive back to the U-Haul. The way I was sat inside of the van it was like I was up on a perch. It felt like I was looking right over the roof of the Camry. I could see still Mike and the girls, and see them goofing around, but I could also see the road up ahead. I had this sick, awful feeling about it, like what if I could see way too much? What if a truck swerved into their lane, or a semi blew through a red light, and I saw it even before they did? That’s all I could think about the whole drive to U-Haul. I kept looking for signs I could do nothing about.
I should have felt better once we dropped off the van, and definitely once we dropped off the kids. But that night at Clancy’s I sat there drinking my Sprite, watching Mike as he worked the front door. I kept looking above his head, where the bright lights from stage danced across the dry plaster ceiling. I could already see the cracks.