He shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess I wasn’t ready to make the commitment.” He thinks about Phyllis’s stuff all over his condo — the avalanche of clothes and shoes in the closets, forty-seven different bottles and tubes in the bathroom, the weird vegetables and designer yogurts in the refrigerator — the end coming after a bitter quarrel over an umbrella stand in a city where it hardly ever rains.
“A man needs a wife, Teddy. You can’t play the field forever.”
“Maybe I should get a wife and play the field,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “Like Big Ed.”
Her face crumples with the hurt and she is old again.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I just can’t . . . I hate what he did to you, that’s all.”
“Don’t bring me into this. I forgave your father a long time ago.”
“But how? Why? Why would you want to?”
She starts to say something then shakes her head, as if she cannot put it in words or is unwilling to tell him. Either way, he doesn’t ask again.
* * *
Back home Ruth gets Big Ed to eat a bowl of Ramen noodles and a slice of bread. They watch some more TV and Calderwood heads upstairs at ten. As he undresses for bed he looks in the closet and finds a ball and one of his old lacrosse sticks. He picks up the stick and cradles the ball in the pocket. He played attack in prep school, lead scorer on the team in his junior and senior years. When college coaches came around to recruit him, Teddy chose Dartmouth because he liked the campus and its proximity to skiing. Dartmouth was everything he had hoped for, but by the time the lacrosse season started in the spring of his freshman year, his world had been turned upside down — the Porsche repossessed; the glass-and-timber house in Weston sold; Big Ed, who had run off with his mistress, embroiled in his first trial. Ginny Hanson had been Teddy’s only confidante, but she grew weary of his anger and self-pity, the sarcasm and drinking binges. Taking out his frustrations on the lacrosse field, Calderwood played with a ferociousness that resulted in frequent goals and even more frequent penalties. When he was called for slashing in the first half against Cornell, the coach benched him for the rest of the game. Calderwood quit the team the next day. The coach wished him luck and suggested he get some counseling. After exams, Big Ed told him there wasn’t any money for him to return to Dartmouth the next fall.
A friend was driving to Los Angeles for the summer and Calderwood tagged along. At night he worked at a hamburger stand; in the daytime he learned to surf. A guy he met at the beach offered him a job doing research in his law firm. Calderwood rented a tiny apartment and enrolled in a psychology course at Long Beach State. It took him five years to finish his undergraduate degree, four more for law school. Since he left for California, he has been home only twice — once for his grandfather’s funeral (Big Ed was in prison, but authorities gave him a furlough) then for the wedding of his favorite cousin, which was the last time he had seen his parents. On both visits he and Big Ed maintained a cold cordiality, just as they did on the telephone, neither willing to talk about their estrangement. Sometimes Ruth would say, “He misses you, Teddy,” and Calderwood would tell her, “He knows where I live.”
Calderwood puts the lacrosse stick down and gets a book from his travel bag, a biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton, the English explorer and linguist. He slides into bed and reads a few pages and falls asleep with the light on. In the middle of the night Big Ed starts howling again. Calderwood gets some cotton balls in the bathroom and stuffs them in his ears, tries to go back to sleep with a pillow over his head, but it does no good. He turns on the light and opens his book. He can’t imagine how his mother endures this night after night. Why doesn’t she put a sleeping pill in his food, a shot of morphine in his coffee? There are enough drugs in the kitchen drawer to turn wild horses to stone. Calderwood tries to find a rhythm to his father’s pain, but there is none. The silences, fitful and expectant, disturb him as much as the screams. When the cries start to diminish, Teddy leaves his room and sits in the shadows at the top of the stairs. In between the groans he hears a raspy whisper. The words are indistinct but cadenced, like a chant.
Still seated, Calderwood eases himself down the steps one at a time until he hears Big Ed saying, “Grab your coat . . . and grab your hat.” A quick suck of breath. “Leave your worries . . . on the doorstep.”
* * *
“When do you have to leave,” Ruth asks him, breaking an egg over the frying pan.
“First thing Monday morning.”
She pouts. “So soon?”
Teddy chooses a shrug over a lame excuse. He’s been trying to think of ways to get out of the house for the day, maybe give Mindy Aldridge a call.
Ruth tries to stifle a yawn and he says, “This has really got to be hard on you, Mom. Have you thought about getting some hospice care?”
“We tried it for a little while, but it didn’t work out.”
She shrugs. “Ed didn’t like all those strangers coming around, seeing him like that.”
Calderwood rolls his eyes.
Twice during the day he calls Mindy from his cell phone but gets her answering machine and doesn’t leave a message. He passes the time reading and watching television with Big Ed. The house is so dry his hands have begun to itch again. Every time he reaches for a light switch or a doorknob he gets zapped with static electricity. Later in the afternoon he takes his mother out for a drive. When they get home, he helps her make supper. Teddy tries to cajole his father into coming out to the kitchen to eat, but Big Ed won’t budge and they all end up in the living room with their plates on their laps. At bedtime, Calderwood finds some over-the-counter sleeping tablets in the medicine chest and takes two. If Big Ed howls during the night, Calderwood doesn’t hear him. He awakens at nine feeling groggy and hung-over though he’d only had two glasses of wine.
It’s Super Bowl Sunday. Broncos versus the Falcons. The Broncos, led by the great John Elway, are heavily favored to win for the second year in a row. All day long Calderwood and Big Ed watch the hype — the analysis and predictions, replays from earlier Super Bowls. There are interviews with the players and coaches, with members of the players’ families, former Super Bowl stars, team owners, trainers, oddsmakers, politicians. The big story of the day is Dan Reeves, the Falcons’ coach, who had emergency open-heart surgery a few weeks before and is back on the field coaching. Commentators speak of Reeves’ “courage” with cautious reverence, as if there is a distinct possibility he might expire on the field, which everyone would both abhor and admire. In the middle of the afternoon Big Ed has one of his spells, but he’s okay in time for the six o’clock kickoff. The commercials prove to be more entertaining than the game as the Broncos win in a rout.
Calderwood gets up and turns off the television. Ruth has already gone to bed.
Big Ed says, “What time is your plane tomorrow?”
“That means you’ll probably have to leave by six.”
“Guess we better say goodbye now, then. I don’t know if I’ll be awake.”
Calderwood nods again. He goes over and sits on the end of the coffee table, their knees almost touching.
“You know, Teddy, sometimes I’ll be sitting here in my cave, watching TV or daydreaming, and I’ll see a pretty girl or some athlete running . . . hell, just walking . . . and in my mind I’m right there. I’m not an old man anymore. It’s like I can’t quite believe I’ll never . . . ” He shakes his head, a rueful twist to his mouth.
“Are you afraid?”
Big Ed ponders that for a second. “More like curious.”
“So you believe in an afterlife?”
“I believe in something. Not in heaven and hell if that’s what you mean.”
Teddy says, “I’m not sure what I mean.”
“Yeah, that’s the thing about death. On the one hand it seems so final; on the other hand, there’s always that little kernel of hope.”
There’s a long silence, then Big Ed says, “I thought of an epitaph while we were watching the game.”
The old man grins. “How about, He . . . played . . . hard.” He marks each word with spreading palms as if they were emblazoned across the top of a mausoleum.
“Hard is good,” Calderwood says.
“You got something better?”
“It’s your epitaph, not mine.”
His father reaches out and pats him on the knee. “What is it, son? What is it you want from me?”
Calderwood chews his lip and says nothing.
“Look, Teddy, I made my share of mistakes. I know that. When I was in prison I had a lot of time to think about them. Thing is, sooner or later you have to let that stuff go or wind up driving yourself crazy.”
“You have any regrets?”
“Oh, sure, buckets full. I can sit here now and look at the big picture, at the whole arc of my life. I’ve got what . . . two, maybe three months left, and you know what I regret most? It isn’t my mistakes. It’s all those things I didn’t do. The things I missed. Scuba diving, mountain climbing. All the places I’ll never see. Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal.”
Calderwood says nothing.
“Hand me that book there.” Big Ed points at the stack next to Calderwood on the coffee table. “The one on top.”
It’s an oversized volume, wider than it is tall, a collection of colored photographs from India that Calderwood glanced through at some point in the past two days. He hands his father the book. Big Ed opens it on his lap and flips quickly through the pages.
“Look at this,” he says, turning the book around on his lap for Teddy to see. “Can you believe that?”
The Taj Mahal shimmers, majestic and golden, under a full moon.
Big Ed says, “Sometimes I look at that picture and I think it can’t be real. Nothing could be that beautiful! They say some people go there and it almost drives them mad. Once they see it they never want to leave.” He’s leaning forward, a mad joy in his own eyes.