The Gray Hours


By Megan Turner

I. Present Day, 2006

          I wait for him on a wooden bench. I have lilies, his favorite flower, but he will throw them away.
          “They remind me of her,” he will say, even though he never bought lilies, only red roses. He placed them on the counter every Thursday before the petals of the old ones dried away.
          My father will arrive in the dark. I will want to tell him of the way the sun painted the sky only minutes before. There were autumn leaves. There was the smell of charcoal.
          “There were geese, too, Daddy,” I will say. “Remember the way we used to watch them fly south?”
          He won’t say anything, but I will keep speaking. Pausing to let him know it’s okay to answer.    
          “Remember how I used to ask about the geese? How they knew where to go?”
          “But in a V-shape. There was always order.”
          “And they made that sound: Caw. Caw.”
          “No. Those are crows, my dear. And you always asked so many questions,” he will say. These are the words I will want him to say.
          Instead he will ask, “How is your mother?”
          “Dad.”
          “How is she?”
          I won’t talk anymore. I will sit. I will wait for the geese to return. When I hear their caw, I will point to the sky.
          “Daddy, look,” I will say.
          Caw. Caw.                                                          
          But these are crows. They circle above aimlessly. There is no order to their flight.

II. The Gray Hours, 1996

          In the gray hours, we are not allowed to speak. These are the rules: No talking. No music. No T.V.
          We drift like shadows as my mother sleeps. The blinds are shut, our curtains a lampshade against the outside world.
          “Do not disturb her,” my father says. My mother is always She. Her. The lion, I call her. “Let the lion sleep,” I think he says, but I am always hearing the wrong words.
          “What’s for dinner?” I ask my dad.
          “Pork chops, sprouts, and apple sauce,” he says. My father has lived in the north his entire life, but he is a southern man. He speaks with a drawl so lovely I want to carry a tape recorder and play back his words when we’re supposed to be quiet.
          “Where is that noise coming from?” he will ask the gray.
          “I don’t know, Daddy. It sounds like you,” I will say.
          “Pork chops, sprouts and apple sauce,” the words dance as he says them again and again.
          “How about some pancakes in the morning?”
          “We’ll see,” says Daddy.
          “Maybe an omelet. And sausage?”
          “If your mother’s awake.”     
          I look down at the carpet. I stare long enough to imagine it’s a moat surrounding our loveseat and couch. I lift my toes off the cushions, threatening to dip them into the gray below.
          “Daddy, look,” I say, as I inch my toes closer to the water, but Daddy is sleeping. His belly slowly rises up and down. 

III. Present Day, 2006

            They have told me about Daddy. His bones are not frail. He does not suffer from dementia. It’s depression, they say. That’s our diagnosis.
          “Can’t you give him something?” I ask.
          “Sure,” says the nurse, “but it won’t help. Your father’s old,” she says. “But there’s nothing wrong with him.”
          I want to stop visiting Daddy, but once a week I go.
          Today I head towards the lake and find Daddy. He sits beside me in a wheelchair. I put the lilies in his hands, but I know he doesn’t feel them. It’s as if he is holding a baby, not knowing its weight. The baby screams. It reels in his arms. But Daddy is deaf. He is dumb. When I touch him on the shoulder, my arm is that muted baby. I am the shoulder. I am the hand. I do the feeling for both of us.
          “How was your day?” I ask, but he doesn’t look at me. If he did, he would see my mother’s eyes. Picasso eyes, he used to call them. Set so far apart they looked as if they might fall off her face.
          “Did anyone ever tell you, you have your mother’s eyes?” friends used to say, as if they were looking at a row of boxes. A factory line has pumped them out. This one is ten inches by twelve, so is the next. But if they looked closer, they would know how different those boxes are from each other. Even by the way they sit, by the lighting that strikes one but not the other.
          Daddy knows my eyes are different, but he doesn’t look anymore. They are my mother’s eyes now. He has forgotten their specks of yellow.

IV. The Gray Hours, 1997

          In the gray hours, I count time. The minutes are slow, but when I close my eyes, time can jump; it can dance; it can forget itself. Eight forty-five becomes ten o’clock. Eleven becomes three. Sometimes there are seconds to count. Soon the minutes begin to carry themselves. I can close my eyes then. I can forget.
          The most beautiful things cannot be counted. When I look outside my window, I watch the trees. There is one that curves and twists across my window like braided hair. I touch my hand against the pane and pretend I can feel the bark against my skin. In the summertime, the glass is warm. It’s not there at all.
          One day, I will leave. There will be no journals to write in, no time to count. Still I wonder if there is anything as beautiful as a tree you cannot touch. I imagine I am that tree sometimes. My hair the leaves, each strand blowing as if it did not belong to me. The veins in my arms suck water from my feet, circulating, pumping through my system. I don’t need water or food. I don’t need to be touched. There is the grass underneath my feet. There is the sun turning my hair any color it pleases.
          When I stare at the tree long enough, I wonder why I would ever leave this place.

V. Present Day, 2006

          I wheel Daddy to the edge of the lake. I look down at his feet and see a pair of old Reeboks that gap at the sides.
          “When you going to start running again?” I ask Daddy.
          I unknot the laces and pull off his shoes. There are white socks with gold toes underneath. I peel them away.
          “How do you feel about that air?” I ask. 
          They are not the right words.
          Daddy and I once staked vegetables in our garden. We grew tomatoes and squash.
          “Look how red those tomatoes are,” Daddy would say. “The trick is to catch them before they fall off the vine.”
          We ate the tomatoes with ketchup and mayonnaise. We drank iced tea and grilled sausage and corn. Daddy and I watched the ash seep from the grill.
          “How was your day?” he would ask as we sat together on the back porch.
          We didn’t need words then.
          Now there is a bench between us. There is a lake.
          Daddy’s feet are bare. I do not recognize them. There is a strand of pale hair crossing each toe. The feet are fat and swollen.

VI. The Gray Hours, 1998

          In the gray hours, it is clear Daddy will never be good enough.
          We sit on the couch, sipping soda, Daddy burping softly.
          “Did I ever tell you about Vietnam?” he whispers, and I shake my head no. He’s told me more than once how they shipped him to Okinawa instead of Vietnam. How it rained there, and he lived off rice and seaweed for three months.
          “Came back thin as a rail,” he says. “Your grandma fed me bacon and eggs for eight weeks. Thought I might disappear.”
          I know Daddy is still here. None of his limbs have been buried somewhere in the soils of Saigon. But I wonder if there’s not another Daddy still eating pork and fish at Maeda Shokudo restaurant, watching the waves and the thin waists lining the shore.
          Daddy and I sit in silence, waiting for my mother to end her sleep. When I get off the couch, I can hear my heart beat. In the hallway, I am a black shadow.
          There is a partition between us. On the other side, I can see Daddy. He’s on the beach. The sand is wet and cold; it clumps through his toes. A piece of hidden shell cuts the bottom of his foot. He uncovers a sliver of silver.
          “I want to hold it,” he’s saying. “I need to hold it.” He bends over to pick up the shell, but his hands are too small to hold anything.

VII. Present Day, 2006

          I want to throw Daddy’s shoe as far as I can. It’s sitting in my hands, the laces curled through my fingers. There is a forest on the other side of the lake. There is a man missing a shoe. He is hobbling along with one white foot and five gold toes. The shoe will appear from the sky. It will rain like money.
          A breeze runs through the forest. I watch the tops of the trees.
          “Did you see that?” I ask Daddy, but he is silent still. I grip the shoe tighter.
          I want to throw Daddy’s shoe as far as I can. I want to hold it as well. I could throw the shoe halfway between Daddy and the man in the woods. It would float then. No good for either man.
          I kiss Daddy on the forehead. The kiss is warm, and I lift my hand to my face. But by the time my fingers reach my forehead, the kiss is already gone.
          I drop the shoe into Daddy’s lap.
          “Take it,” I say, but Daddy doesn’t hold the shoe.  
          I reach down and double-knot the laces.
          “I’m taking your shoe,” I say. “I won’t give it back,” but I don’t pick it up. I kiss him instead. Once more on the forehead. Then I am gone.

VIII. The Gray Hours, 1999

          When my mother leaves Daddy, he forgets to open the blinds. I find him in the dark, counting change.
          “Daddy, what are you doing?” I ask, but he holds up his hand.
          “Eight-five. Ninety. Ninety-five. A dollar.”
          For years Daddy has kept a plastic jar in the corner of his closet. After work, he would unknot his tie, throw his jacket on the bed, and empty his pockets of change.
          “What’s that for?” I always asked, but he would push me out of the room and close the door.
          “Do you mind?” he would say.
          Now he’s on the living room floor, surrounded by quarters, nickels, and dimes.
          He is in his work clothes, his gray pants wrinkled, his coat and tie on the floor.
          I open the thick curtains that have covered the living room windows for years. Daddy stops counting. The carpet is beige now; the sofa is pink. There is a white film on the mirrors that I have never seen before. It covers the reverse of my face, the change on the floor, the shine of Daddy’s polished shoes.
          There are two nickels in Daddy’s hands. The coins look small and foreign, although Daddy, too, appears small. I look down at the gray of Daddy’s pants.
          “Blue,” I say when I find them. “They’re blue.”
          “What?” Daddy asks, but his eyes are already on the floor. There are nickels in his hand.
          “It’s not enough,” I want to tell Daddy. “It won’t be enough.” Still, he is counting.
          “Fifteen. Twenty. Twenty-five. Thirty.”

IX. Present Day, 2006

          I want to tell Daddy about life on the outside.
          “I’ve been going on dates,” I would tell him. I almost turn around, running back to find him, but Daddy wouldn’t know what to say.     
          After the first date, I stood in the kitchen. The mountains were pink against the gray sky. I wondered how they could change color like that.
          This is what it feels like, I thought to myself. I was afraid to say how I felt out loud. I braced myself against the kitchen sink. When I looked out the window, there were gray clouds still, hovering over the mountains. I saw them sink and disappear.
          “Tell me about yourself,” the man at dinner said. There was nothing I knew about myself, really. Nothing except for Daddy.
          “I am just starting out,” I wanted to tell the man. All around me, I felt the brilliance of newness.
          I almost told him, but instead I held it in. Somehow the man knew anyway. He took my hand underneath the table.
          Not everyone is like Daddy. I realize that now. It makes me feel hopeful and afraid for the world at the same time.

X. The Gray Hours, 2000

            In the gray hours, I see Daddy one more time before leaving for school.
            “Will you be okay here without me?” I ask. Even when he nods his head, I know he won’t be. Daddy is growing round in the middle. His hair is gray with white dandruff sprinkling across his shoulder sleeves. I want to brush it away.
            “Your mother would’ve thrown a party,” he says. Daddy picks up the phone and holds it, but there is no one to call.
            “I don’t want a party,” I say. I take the phone from his hand and put it back down.
            Daddy moves into the living room. He sits down on the couch, the dark falling over him until he is invisible in it.
            “Daddy,” I say, “why not drive me to school?” If I were still a child, maybe he would—but the school is far away. I have booked a flight for one passenger, not Daddy.
            “I don’t want to intrude,” Daddy tells me.
            I leave him in the living room and go upstairs. In my bedroom, I take my suitcase from underneath my bed. It is spotted black and white like a dog. I am sick of the color. “Come watch this show with me,” I think Daddy calls from downstairs.
            “In a second,” I call back, but I don’t move. It’s my last night in this house. Somehow, when I am out in the world, I will miss this space most. It’s the only thing I won’t get back.

XI. Present Day, 2006

          As I leave, I see a family by a picnic table close to Daddy. There is a woman walking with a cane.
          “I shouldn’t have burned that money,” she is saying. “It wasn’t mine to burn.”
          Their voices surround me, growing louder as I walk away.
          “I could have kept it, at least,” the woman is saying. “Bought myself a raincoat.”
          By the picnic table, there is a girl sitting on her mother’s lap. There is a thin boy, dark and awkward. His eyes deeply set.
          “Are you still taking walks like the nurse told you?” the mother asks the man with graying hair.
          “Once around the lake,” the man tells her. “In the mornings and at night.” 
          Even as I walk away, their voices are inside my head. The boy with the deep-set eyes hears voices, too.
          “Clean up, you slob,” his grandfather’s voice rings inside his head. “You coward. You coward,” says the mother’s voice.
          I walk towards the parking lot. The red of my jacket is darker than it should be. When I get inside the car, I will turn on the light. I will drive home with it on. Still, the gray will cover the trees. My hands will disappear in shadow. When I look down, I will have to remember the blue of my jeans.
 

Megan Turner graduated from the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2009. Her work has appeared in Rio Grande Review, Spark, Witness, Grasslimb, Atticus Review, and others. She lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, please visit: www.MeganRTurner.com.

Megan Turner.jpg