n average lap is four minutes, long enough to suck the muscle off a pork rib or realize that you will die alone.
Whip knuckles away from wheels. Cock and explode, rotating the shoulder to exert maximum force. The motion is simple, a reach behind the back as though flushing a toilet or skiing through thick snow. Eight hundred thirty two is the number of strokes in one mile. My dad will have jogged ahead to the line where he stretches and waits to push me one last lap. Never did I imagine going back to high school on these terms. As an entrepreneur, family man, a writer maybe, but not in a wheelchair, dependent on my parents for baths.
The summer after high school I would run perfect circles around our suburban neighborhood and drop by the breakfast nook for a grape soda. My dad would have a rack of ribs on the grill and a batch of sauce brewing before work. His white coat was folded in his car, and when he got home, he would leave it there, a tidy square. Latex and starch lingered even after treadmill, shampoo, sunscreen, and Levis. So he smoked pork shoulder until his beard turned grey, trying to escape exam rooms and endless yards of skin.
“I left out one ingredient,” he said. “So you always need me to finish it.”
My dad prides himself more on barbecue sauce than a career of acne cured and tattoos removed. When obligated to start a new batch by shrinking inventory or special request, he digs up a prescription pad. Ketchup, vinegar, molasses, Worcestershire, and marmalade, Wendy Rene on the stereo clapping “Bar-B-Que.” He named the formula “Doc Bell’s Bar B Cure,” sketched his bushy face on labels and taped them to peach jars. Before I left for college he copied the recipe on an Rx. “I left out one ingredient,” he said. “So you always need me to finish it.”
Now I am almost 23, secret ingredient still unknown, and because I can’t shave my dad is cleaning the razor in a saucepot. My legs are wrapped in garbage bags to keep the casts dry. I have already been hosed off like a dog. Even in St. Louis, where the summer is thick and tropical, I suspect frostbite. Dad laughs at my discomfort. He applies exquisite pressure as though feeling his own face in the dark. The blade cradles the lower curve of our jaw where it dips behind the ear into a shallow arc, rounding into our chin. I feel the image of myself emerging in his hands, and with every flick and scrape it draws closer to his. My lips thicken into his cherry mouth, my legs grow sinewy, my belly plump.
Crippled in the desert, I dreamt about Dad grilling on New Year’s Eve: Two feet of snow scabbed with ice and he’s out turning pork steaks.
I have been bathing in the driveway since my accident. Cars roll past to catch a better view of the half-naked man in the wheelchair. I would like to invite them to join in the fun, make a bikini carwash of it. I would be wearing a three-piece suit, which they would cut off my broken body with concern and lust. They could soap my shoulders where I can’t reach. Giggle and spray me, tenderly. I think Dad would recline with the Post, shielding his face from mist. During such quiet moments I could admit to myself that I fell off a cliff and crawled out of the canyon following footsteps in the sand. That as I screamed at something to save me, spare me, to answer me, there was no pain. Only the sadness that I would never watch myself become my father.
Crippled in the desert, I dreamt about Dad grilling on New Year’s Eve: Two feet of snow scabbed with ice and he’s out turning pork steaks. The house is clouded with smoke, damp gloves and earmuffs, and we’re all huddled around the TV watching Meet Me in St. Louis while he barbecues. Judy Garland is beautiful in blonde wig and nightgown, crying in the snow. On New Year’s Day we will watch It’s a Wonderful Life, and like every year, Jimmy Stewart will learn that no man is a failure who has friends. We will probably eat salami and eggs.
Some years later I will be facedown in the sand or at stroke number two hundred and five and smell the red rubberized track, red as the desert, and remember January snow melting over a grill. I will look up to ask my dad, lapping me with legs that should have been mine, what it was he put in the sauce those years ago when it tasted so wonderful. But then he will be gone and I will be left with what’s missing.