This time the pain comes without warning. Big Ed’s whole body convulses like a rag doll shaken by some unseen hand, and the book falls on the floor. Trying to do something, anything, Calderwood grabs his father’s wrists. Big Ed exhales through clenched teeth, a long hissing breath that smells like rotten meat; then he yanks his arms free and falls across the sofa, his hands pressed against his ribs. A blue vein pulses rapidly in the hollow of his jawbone. It’s hard to say how long it lasts — twenty seconds? a minute? — the old man writhing on the couch, his knees drawn up to his waist. Then his muscles go slack and he lies there, panting.
Calderwood helps him sit up and fits the blanket back over his legs.
“Thank you,” Big Ed says. “It’s been great seeing you, Teddy, but you need to go now. I want to be alone.”
“Why are you doing this?” Calderwood says. “Why won’t you take any painkillers?”
“Please, just go.”
“Why do you have be so goddamned pig-headed? What are you trying to prove?”
“I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m just doing the best I can.”
“Yeah, well, there’s a lot of easier ways to do it, you know.”
Big Ed smiles faintly. “Oh, Teddy, I don’t want it to be easy.”
The book of photographs lies askew at Calderwood’s feet. He picks it up and realigns the dust jacket. The page with the Taj Mahal has gotten bent in the fall. Calderwood sits on the coffee table smoothing the fold with his fingertips, but he cannot make it disappear. Something about that crease in the photograph fills him with sadness, as if the building itself had been damaged, its ineffable beauty marred forever.
“Dad,” he says, reaching out his hand, “let me stay with you. Just for a little while.”
His father hesitates, then takes his hand, their thumbs interlocking like arm wrestlers. Neither says a word. Big Ed’s grip slowly begins to tighten, his gaze drifting toward something only he can see. Then he howls.