“Start from the beginning,” Audrey said, and Walter’s story tumbled out. He jumped ahead of himself, then circled back again, but she managed to piece it together. Early that morning, while he stood in line at the town pharmacy, the elderly woman ahead of him chatted up the pharmacist. On and on they nattered at the counter, without as much as a glance toward Walter. The longer he waited, the angrier he became, until he’d had enough, he told Audrey from his hospital bed. She imagined her eighty-one year old father’s fury—his fierce scowl, the way his pink cheeks turned a bright, flaming red. She knew that face too well.
“She blathered on about every grandchild within a fifty mile radius,” Walter said.
Finally, when it was Walter’s turn, the pharmacist said the co-pay was five dollars for his blood pressure medication.
“Five dollars?” Walter asked. “I used to pay a dollar!”
In the seconds it took the pharmacist to check the price, Walter swiped the pills from the counter and ran for the exit. A hefty security guard lumbered through the greeting card aisle and tackled Walter to the ground, bringing on a heart attack. Soon after, an ambulance transported him to the emergency room.
Audrey was mulching her garden when the hospital called with the news. The previous day she’d submitted her students’ final grades at the community college in San Luis Obispo and was looking forward to a relaxing summer. Realizing she might be staying at Walter’s house for a few weeks, she packed her bags and drove the forty miles north to his small town on California’s central coast.
She wasn’t prepared for Walter’s appearance in the hospital room: hooked up to an IV and oxygen, tubes twisting every which way, his white hair in matted strips across his scalp. A heart monitor made persistent beeping noises. His skin had turned a pallid gray. Seeing him this way reminded Audrey of her mother in the hospital two years ago, when she’d been admitted with pneumonia.
The bed sagged when she sat on the edge of it, waking Walter. He seemed perplexed and scanned the room, his eyes flitting back and forth. They landed on Audrey. He stared at her for several seconds.
“Helen?” Walter asked.
Audrey paused before answering. Helen was her mother, the one he ran out on when Audrey was a teenager.
“No, Walter, it’s Audrey,” she said.
“Oh Audrey, I’m sorry,” he said. “You look just like your mother.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes and Audrey wondered if the heart attack had worsened her father’s memory, whether he understood her mother had passed away two years ago. She decided not to remind him just yet.
Walter put a finger to his lips and pointed to the door.
“Not too loud,” he said. “He can hear us.”
“Who?” she asked.
“The CIA agent outside the door,” he said. “He’s been listening to my conversations.”
“He’s a sheriff, Walter,” she said. “He’s there because they think you’re a thief.”
She watched him take this in, glancing distractedly from her to the door. He seemed surprised by this information, which worried her. How could he not know what was going on?
“That’s a nice necklace,” he said. She touched the threaded shells resting on her chest. He never noticed anything she wore. Now she knew something was wrong.
After her mother died, Walter had written to Audrey, asking to “renew their relationship.” The email had surprised her. It had been decades since he’d left her and her mother. His years of drinking and abuse had destroyed her parents’ marriage. Audrey was a senior in high school then and it pained her to see her father leave, but she took her mother’s side. Sometimes she yearned to see him, yet didn’t want to appear disloyal to her mother. One night before high school graduation, he took her out for a celebratory dinner. Their conversation was awkward and as she watched him drink his dinner, she felt both sadness and pity for her father, then relief, when they’d finally finished their meal. She would start UCLA in the autumn and it was easier to ignore the pain, to push it away and leave it behind her.
She stayed in Los Angeles after college to teach, marry, raise a family. Over the years there were occasional phone calls, but she and Walter grew further apart, and neither one of them made much effort to change things. Sometimes she had wished it was different, especially after the twins were born, but this was how it was between them, and she’d accepted it.
Walter’s email arrived shortly after her mother’s funeral, thirty-five years after she’d kicked him out. By then Audrey and her husband had divorced, the twins were in college with their own lives, and she’d moved from Los Angeles into her mother’s home in San Luis Obispo. She thought about Walter’s letter for several days before replying. Renewing? Maybe repairing was needed—maybe even overhauling—and she told him so, in a return email. But after more consideration, she reasoned it might be time to have him in her life again, despite all the horrible history, and especially now, when she felt her mother’s loss so acutely. So she agreed to see him in a second email, although for days later she questioned herself, feeling a betrayal to her mother.
Audrey and Walter got to know each other all over again—slowly at first, then more regularly, at coffee and donut shops, for movies and dinners. He’d been sober for many years and their relationship took on an ease she hadn’t experienced before. It occurred to her this might be good for both of them. Sure enough, Walter’s old self returned, but she seemed better able to manage it now, as a mature adult. Calling him “Dad” after all these years didn’t feel right, so they agreed she’d call him Walter.
Now in the hospital room, after he’d recounted what happened at the pharmacy, he pulled the blanket over his chest.
“My morality is not going the way I thought it would,” he said.
“You mean your mortality?” she asked. She adjusted the oxygen tubes in his nose and wrapped the straps around his ears a little tighter.
“I thought I would’ve had a heart attack by now,” he said.
“You did have a heart attack,” she said.
She fluffed a pillow and put it behind his head.
“Was it on the 15th hole, with a nine-iron in my hand?” he asked. “That’s how I wanna go.”
“No Walter, you had yours after stealing medication from your pharmacist, miles away from your favorite golf course,” she said.
“I used to pay one dollar, now he wants five. What was I supposed to do?” he asked.
“Let’s see, pay five dollars or get arrested for stealing your meds. That’s a tough one, Walter.”
After a week in the hospital, Walter was well enough to be discharged but not strong enough to go home. He transferred to a rehabilitation center. Right away he became more confused and irritable, unsure about the time of day, asking questions which didn’t make sense. Audrey worried he was slipping into dementia. He hallucinated about his early Army days, although he’d only served for five years, decades ago. Walter’s doctor suspected delirium, a state of confusion which sometimes occurs post-surgery or after a traumatic event.
“Is it temporary?” Audrey asked.
“Can’t say,” the doctor said. “But it’s not unusual for an eighty year-old man recovering from a heart attack.”
It became obvious to Audrey that Walter couldn’t care for himself at home and returning there was out of the question. She researched assisted living homes and found Ridgeview Retreat at the south end of town and convinced him it was only for a month or two. He argued he’d be better sooner than that, but she wasn’t convinced.
Walter moved into Ridgeview with a suitcase and a few personal belongings. She helped him unpack and showed him how to find his beloved Dodgers on TV. Slowly he settled in, made friends, played daily card games, shared his California history books. Audrey was pleased to see him adjusting and getting along with other residents.
But it didn’t take long before things turned sideways and the complaints began: the food was bland, the nurses unfriendly, the residents ignorant. Each time she saw him, he grumbled about Ridgeview.
As she was leaving one day, he told her he wanted to move to a hotel.
“A hotel? You can’t stay in a hotel,” she said. “They won’t take care of you.”
“What do you mean?” he asked. “They deliver food to your room, make your bed, clean your laundry, shine your shoes. What more do I need?”
“But it’ll cost a fortune,” she said.
“Like this place don’t cost a few nickels?” he asked.
Audrey threw up her hands. She wasn’t in the mood to reason with him.
“Let’s talk about it tomorrow,” she said, waving good-bye and closing the door.
Looking after Walter had become more work than she’d anticipated. Frankly, she never thought she’d be in this position, caring for her father after all their years of separation. What was her obligation to this man, someone who’d abandoned all responsibility to her and her mother? She imagined walking away from it all now, freeing herself. And yet, deep down she knew she couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t leave him. It had to do with being cast-off years ago and knowing full well how it felt on the receiving end. The bigger question was whether she could ever forgive him for it.
The first time Walter escaped from Ridgeview, Audrey was furious with the nursing staff. She couldn’t believe they allowed her father to walk out the door, as if he were simply on a stroll to the park. Someone tried to stop him but Walter swung his fists, missing everyone in his path. In the end, they let him go and a supervisor phoned her.
“It’s not as if he’s institutionalized,” the supervisor explained. “He can come and go on his own free will, if he’s able.”
“Yes, that’s the point—he’s not able!” Audrey yelled.
She’d been in Walter’s house all morning, scraping charred bits of food stuck to the stovetop from his last fry up and disposing mysterious food from his packed refrigerator. And now she had a Houdini for a father. She picked up her car keys and was almost out the door when her cell phone rang again.
“Hey! A little close buddy!” Walter shouted into the phone. “Kiss my ass next time!”
“Walter? Where are you?”
“I’m on Highway 1,” he said. She took in a deep breath, relieved to hear his voice, but suddenly realized he was standing on the two-lane coastal highway.
“What are you doing there?” she asked.
“Watching the elephant seals,” he said. “I can’t hear you too good Audrey, I’m on a payphone and cars are flying past me.”
“Walter, you need to get off that highway,” she said, controlling her tone to stay calm.
“Can you hear me?” he shouted.
A recorded message cut in, prompting more coins.
“Walter?” The line went dead.
Merging onto Highway 1, she passed a sagging grove of cypress trees, tilting toward the sea. She found her father several miles north just as he’d said, at the elephant seal rookery, where the massive creatures colonized a local beach. Audrey parked and watched him for a few minutes. He took photos of one lazy seal then another, because, she thought to herself, you can never have too many photos of lazy seals sunning themselves. She wrapped a sweater around her and walked toward him, leaning into the wind.
“No salt,” Walter replied, when she asked him why he’d left.
She tilted her head and tried to make sense of this.
“The cooks don’t salt the food?” she asked.
Walter shook his head.
“It’s not good for the blood pressure,” he said, rolling his eyes. “So they say.”
“It can’t be that bad,” she said.
He counted off his fingers one at a time.
“No salt, no sugar, no fat,” he said. “I already gave up booze. What the hell’s left?”
His thin white hair blew in every direction in the breeze, exposing his pink scalp. Seeing him alone in these surroundings—the enormous seals, the wide expanse of the sea, cars whizzing by indifferently—made him appear small and vulnerable, unlike the insufferable man she’d known in childhood, the perpetual drunk who constantly yelled at her mother.
Walter turned to the seals again and they both watched them for several minutes.
“Your mother loved this part of California, coming up here from San Luis Obispo when you were young,” Walter said.
Audrey inhaled the briny sea air.
“I remember,” she said, quietly. She wasn’t ready for this moment but it came anyway, the pure joy she’d felt on those trips as a young girl in the 1970’s, when they’d driven almost an hour on the coastal highway to the nearby State beach, where they spent long afternoons lounging on the sand, searching tide pools, wading into waves. She’d forgotten about those trips until now, but felt as if she’d been longing for them her whole life.
Walter pointed his camera at a seal pup following its mama into the water. Click. Click. Heavy clouds rolled in and the wind suddenly turned cold. A foghorn bellowed from the lighthouse. Audrey wondered how many more photos he’d need of these seals.
“Look, over there,” he said, pointing. “I call that one ‘Grand Poobah.’” An enormous bull elephant seal stretched his thick neck and yawned awake, lifting his bulbous nose in the air.
“They’re cute together,” the receptionist said to Audrey, at Ridgeview’s front desk.
Audrey was taking Walter out for lunch—a place where they salted the food, she had promised. Maybe a donut and coffee afterwards. She looked up from signing the visitor’s book.
“Who’s cute together?” she asked.
“Walter and Barbara,” the receptionist said.
“Barbara?” she said, “He doesn’t know anyone named Barbara.”
“Oh yes he does,” the receptionist said, smiling.
Audrey walked down the hallway to Walter’s room. She opened the door a crack, just wide enough to see inside. A woman sat next to him, wearing a lavender sweater set, her auburn hair stacked in a bowl-shaped coif. The television blasted the Dodgers game, but neither of them were watching it. He was showing the woman one of his California history books, pointing to one photograph then another.
“There’s Point Junipero Serra, the tallest mountain peak in the area,” he said.
Seeing a woman so intimately close to Walter made Audrey draw back, away from the door. She stood still for a minute, puzzled. How did this happen? And when? She closed the door and told the receptionist she’d return tomorrow.
The next day, when Audrey parked at Ridgeview, she spotted Walter in the garden sitting on a bench with Barbara. They were holding hands. Every now and then, he chuckled. They appeared so besotted with each other, they didn’t notice an elderly resident strolling past in a walker, clearing his throat and spitting two feet away from them.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Walter said later, in his apartment.
“Walter, it’s not like I’m a child,” Audrey said. “Try me.”
“She pursued me,” he said. “In the dining hall.”
“Really?” she laughed. She pictured Barbara sidling up to her father, asking to borrow the salt from his table as she leaned into him. On second thought, she didn’t want to imagine any of this.
“There aren’t many men here with all their faculties. Upstairs and downstairs, if you know what I mean,” he said, raising one eyebrow.
“Spare me the details,” she said. “When did all this start?”
“A few days ago,” he said. “But I first met her many years ago. I didn’t realize she lived here until after I moved in.”
“You guys didn’t waste any time,” she said. “I wish you’d told me.”
Walter became quiet and peered out the window, then turned back to her.
“I didn’t want you to think I was cheating on your mother,” he said.
“That’s an odd thing to say. How could you cheat on her?” she asked. “You’ve been divorced for decades and now she’s passed.”
Audrey recognized the tightening in her chest, which always meant she was about to learn something she didn’t want to know. She felt it before her mother told her Walter was leaving them; when her own husband told her he was in love with someone else; when the doctor said her mother had passed away in the night.
“Your mother and I made amends before she died,” he said.
Audrey looked at her father and blinked. Wait a minute. What did he say?
“Made amends?” she asked.
Walter nodded and tapped his finger on the arm rest. He took in a deep breath.
“What does that even mean?” she asked.
“We didn’t say anything to you because we didn’t know where it would lead,” he said. “And it didn’t lead anywhere after she was hospitalized.”
“She never mentioned anything to me,” she said.
Walter shrugged. “What can I tell you?”
“I don’t believe you,” she said. She crossed her arms over her chest. Frankly, she didn’t think Walter had it in him to make amends with her mother.
Years ago, therapy had helped Audrey see the person Walter had been for most of her young life. He was never physically abusive, but she’d witnessed his drinking binges and explosive temper, and the verbal abuse was horrific enough. And how she hated the way he took it out on her mother. Audrey was the one who cleaned up the broken plates, after her mother disappeared to her bedroom and her father sat brooding in his chair. Once during dinner, he tipped a perfectly good steak onto the floor claiming it was overcooked, only to have the dog snatch it and race out the door, which made Walter go ballistic. A round of apologies and regrets always followed, but days later, his temper would flare again: the soup was scalding hot, the refrigerator was broken, the house wasn’t clean enough. It was always her mother’s fault. She never did anything right. These episodes continued as his drinking worsened—or worsened as his drinking continued, Audrey never knew which. What she does remember is how often she had wished for a new family.
When she attended sleep-overs at friends’ houses, she saw how their fathers were home most nights, and their mothers weren’t alone in the kitchen crying. No one came home tanked after work; no one lost their temper at dinner. By the time she was a teenager, Audrey was spending long hours in her friends’ homes, away from her father and also from her mother.
It’s what pains Audrey the most when she thinks about this time, just before her parents’ separation. Something she’d realized later, when her twins were teenagers and her own marriage was crumbling: surely it must’ve saddened her mother to see her family falling apart. And at a time when she might’ve been comforted by Audrey’s presence—with a chat over an after school snack, or a distracting trip to the town shops—Audrey was simply not around.
“I can’t imagine it Walter, you making amends with my mother,” Audrey said.
“She thought you’d be disappointed,” he said. “She let me back into her life because I’d stopped drinking.”
“But you’d stopped drinking years ago and didn’t go back to her,” Audrey said. “What was different this time?”
“I don’t know. Our age, I guess,” he said. “History, maybe. Loneliness, probably.”
Audrey felt her stomach turn. How could her mother keep this secret? In her final days, there was no mention of it—no mention of meetings or dates, of his presence in the house, the very same house that was now Audrey’s.
“We had some fun times, before she got sick,” he said. “Went to the Sunset drive-in movies once, like the old days—you remember—we did that when you were a kid. Remember getting ice cream and popcorn at the snack bar? You were about ten or eleven.”
“Yeah, I remember,” she said, her face hot with anger. “But I remember it differently: you boozed your way through the entire double feature. You were so drunk, you tried putting the car keys into the radio. When mom took them away, you pounded the radio so hard, it broke.”
Walter grew quiet. Audrey had felt powerless as a child, whenever her father went into a drunken rampage. She wouldn’t allow him to make her feel that way again, now that she was an adult capable of remembering the truth.
“I need to sit with this for a while,” Audrey said. She grabbed her purse and walked out.
As she drove out the parking lot, she considered again the inner struggle she’d been suffering for most of her adult life: how the person Walter had been to her and her mother—the drunk and cruel father and husband—stopped her from fully loving him.
Two days later, Audrey couldn’t stop thinking about her parents’ reconciliation. How was it possible, after all these years? Had Walter actually atoned for what he’d done to her mother? And had her mother forgiven him for it?
To distract herself, she cleaned Walter’s garage, tossing old magazines and newspapers into the recycling, all of it smelling like mildew. This old house. He’d been here for years—a small two-bedroom bungalow just outside of town. She wondered if he’d want to live here anymore, now that he’d met Barbara at Ridgeview. Assisted-living romances changed with the weather, but this one seemed different. She saw the way Walter had nodded attentively at Barbara on the garden bench, as if hanging on to every spoken word. Had he listened to her mother in the same way, when they’d reunited? Her back pocket buzzed and she reached for her cell phone.
“He asked for a Maple Glaze, then fell over,” said the woman at the donut shop.
“Walter? What’s he doing there?” Audrey asked.
“Ma’am, it’s a donut shop and he was buying one,” the woman said.
“But he’s supposed to be at Ridgeview. Did he escape again?” she asked.
“I don’t know the answer to that, ma’am,” the woman said.
“Where is he now?” Audrey asked.
“He’s sitting at a table, eating his donut,” the woman said. “He asked me to call you. Seems okay now, maybe a little dizzy.”
Audrey drove to the donut shop. She was adjusting to the idea of her parents reconciling, but still felt furious they’d kept it from her. Knowing about it would’ve reassured years of uncertainty on her part, when she’d wondered if her father had ever loved her mother. She’d spent most of her youth wishing away her dysfunctional family. They might’ve had a chance to start anew, had they told her in the first place.
She turned off the engine and sat in the shop’s parking lot for a few minutes. She wondered if she was too mired in the past, spending hours thinking about circumstances she couldn’t change. Maybe the question she’d been asking was the wrong one. Maybe it wasn’t a question of forgiving Walter.
Sitting across from him inside the donut shop her father seemed fine, albeit a little disoriented. She picked up a napkin and brushed the donut crumbs from his cheeks. He stared out the window towards the highway, absorbed in his thoughts.
“I lost myself,” he said.
“What do you mean?” she asked, though she had a notion. He sometimes appeared adrift and misplaced, as if he’d left some part of himself on the side of the highway. This was the first time he attempted to articulate it.
“Your mother,” he choked. “I screwed up.”
Tears pricked Audrey’s eyes and she felt her throat thicken, the way it had when she was a young girl, listening to her parents fight.
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, you did.”
He lowered his gaze and tried to continue but covered his face with both hands.
“I need to get out of here,” he said. He struggled to stand but she put her hand on his forearm and he settled back into his chair.
“Why do you keep disappearing?” she asked.
He picked up a donut crumb and rubbed the sugar between his thumb and finger.
“Why do you keep finding me?” he asked.
Audrey didn’t know how to answer. She took in the old man sitting in front of her: his sagging cheeks and drooping eyelids, the craggy wrinkles across his forehead. His thinly stooped shoulders. This was not the cruel man she knew long ago. And yet, how could she forget that man? If she stripped away all the old layers, at his core lay one simple truth: he’d failed her and her mother. Failed them in compassion and tolerance and empathy. And now it seemed, he might live his final years regretting it.
Maybe her mother predicted this might happen. Maybe after years of him treating her like she didn’t matter, she knew he would remain unfulfilled and remorseful in her wake. Maybe she understood this all along and it was her final reckoning. But where did that leave Audrey?
She handed her father a napkin and he blew his nose, wiped his eyes.
He glanced around the crowded shop, but seemed oblivious to the comings and goings of customers. She stretched across the table for his hand. As a young girl, long before her parent’s divorce, there were times when she had buried her small hand in his palm and his thick fingers curled around hers. Between them, she swung their hands together. How much she had wanted to prolong those moments then, to make them last.
“Tell me about Barbara,” she said.
Walter’s milky blue eyes met hers.
He shrugged. “What do you want to know?”
“Start from the beginning,” she said.
For a little while more they sat together quietly talking, drinking coffee, amid the shop’s busy chatter. And when it was time to go, they stepped outside into a morning so fine, even the cypress trees stood taller in the magnificent sun.