Daniel Lynch (Queensland University of Technology, Australia)
My father was an old man all his life.
He’d been saving his last words, he told me, on a napkin folded in his pocket.
‘In case my voice goes,’ he said.
We were in his bedroom when he said that. He was being held down by a light blanket. I’d moved a chair from the kitchen into his room. Its legs scratched the hardwood floor. The curtains were open because the nurse told my sister, Angela, that sunlight was good.
‘Do you want me to look after it?’ I asked.
‘Nah,’ he said. ‘Safe as houses.’
Dad had this joke about prostates and how they’re checked.
‘It’s amazing what doctors can do,’ he’d say when he’s making the joke. ‘They can take photographs of skeletons and they can make your blood glow in the dark. But the quickest way to check your prostate is by jamming a finger up your clacker and giving it a tickle to see if it tickles back.
‘I’ve had my prostate tickled so many times,’ he’d say, ‘I think the only reason they haven’t invented another way to look at is because they like telling people to take their pants off. There’s a lot of power in a command like that.’
Dad’s prostate tickled back the last time he had it checked.
That’s why he wrote his last words on a napkin.
My prostate will likely tickle back when I’m Dad’s age.
I don’t know what my last words will be.
Here is how he finishes his joke about prostates: ‘Now take your pants off,’ he’d say.
It was Angela who called to tell me Dad had been moved home after his treatment went balls up. She tried to get me to move back too.
‘Just for a few weeks,’ she said. Her voice was a whisper, but a violent one. I guess Dad’s night meds hadn’t kicked in yet.
I was sprawled on my couch. My laptop was on my stomach, and I was eating from a box of fruit loops.
‘I can’t uproot like that,’ I said.
‘You’re not even working, are you? Did you get a new job?’
Angela’s older by three years.
She was planned.
Sometimes the way she acts reminds me of that.
‘I’ve got interviews,’ I said.
I’d gotten fired from my last café for swearing at a customer. He complained about his coffee being cold. He used the word ‘disappointed.’
It was exactly the kind of thing a thin lipped lizard man would say.
I was thinking about Dad.
I was thinking about Dad and about how the gland inside my anus might someday tickle me to death.
I told the lizard man I was disappointed as well.
‘That I’m not allowed tell motherfuckers like you that you’re all motherfuckers.’
I guess I’m not the smartest guy.
‘I’m a smart guy,’ I told Angel on the phone. ‘A couple of interviews and I’ll be set.’
‘At least try and get down here on the weekends,’ she said. She sounded like cotton wool.
‘I will,’ I said.
I made it exactly once.
That’s when dad told me about the napkin.
That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to see him again.
I told him so.
‘I’m not going to see you again,’ I said.
‘Do me a favor,’ he said. His blanket was blue knit, and clung to his thin legs. Light leaked in through the window all over his shins.
He used to have a mustache.
‘What is it?’ I said.
‘Try to have a good time at my funeral. You can use my joke if you like.’
Here is Dad’s funeral joke: When someone says to you ‘My condolences,’ or ‘You’re in my prayers,’ you say to them, ‘Who the hell died?’
The first time I heard Dad use that joke was in the eulogy he wrote for my mother.
‘Thank you all for coming,’ he said. ‘And by the way, who the hell died?’
She didn’t have a prostate that tickled.
She had breasts. That’s gross to think about. Her having breasts. But she did, I guess. And her breasts had cells that multiplied wrong.
I spoke at Mum’s funeral too.
Dad had already made his speech, and the service was nearly over. I wore an uncomfortable suit that Mum helped pick out. I was seventeen.
I slipped on the stand they had behind the podium. Banged my knee on the thing and tried to breathe the pain in quietly. I did it in front of the microphone though. It was loud.
I almost bailed, started folding up the paper with my speech on it, when Dad yelled out.
‘It’s alright, son,’ he said. ‘You don’t have to pretend you like her anymore. Have at it.’
The way he said it broke people down. They laughed and I only stumbled on a few words in my speech.
It was Angela who checked the old man’s pajama pockets when he kicked off a few months later. He’d had those pants at least a decade and they were worn thin in the knees. He kept them because he liked the pockets.
‘They can’t hold any dreams,’ he’d say, ‘but they can hold change, which is better than nothing.’
He stole that from a comedian.
When Angela called to tell me about it, I asked about the napkin.
‘I put it back in his pocket,’ she said. ‘I think that’s what I was supposed to do.’
I made the three hour drive home after that.
It was only just dark by the time I got there. Angela answered the door.
‘Who the hell died?’ I said.
‘Dad,’ she said.
I asked her if she’d called anyone else. She said she hadn’t.
The house was clean and big. It made me feel guilty.
I wasn’t ready to go into Dad’s room, so I went to the lounge instead. I sat in one of the old recliners there. Angela made some tea. We sipped it for a while.
‘What’d you do while I was driving?’ I asked.
‘Baked a cake,’ she said.
‘No. Idiot. I sat with him. Held his hand.’
‘Right,’ I said. And then, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t help out more.’
Here is what she said to me then: ‘You know you’ve run out of parents to practice being a good person on, right?’
The way she said it made me smile a little. I smiled right into my teacup because I didn’t want her to see it. She always said not to encourage Dad.
Here is what I wanted to say to her, but didn’t know I wanted to say it until after I read Dad’s napkin: ‘We’re all fucked one way or another. Maybe the best thing to do is scratch goodbyes on hardwood floors. Maybe not. Maybe the best thing to do is to lean into the finger. Maybe not.
‘Whatever the best thing to do is, it probably isn’t worth spending a whole lot of time figuring out.’
Dad’s voice had gone towards the end. He used a small whiteboard and marker for a while, until his arms ran out of things to say. It was resting on the bedside table when I entered his room. There was a drawing of a smiley face on it, and underneath it, the words, ‘I’m just sleeping.’ Those weren’t his last words though. Not technically. Not the ones he wanted to be his last words.
He was curled in his bed when I put my hand in his pocket. He was still. I felt the absence of warmth from his body, and took out the napkin.
I read it aloud, letting the words fall to the ground near the scratches from the chair I sat in that one time.
‘Made you look,’ it said.
I called the ambulance after that. Told them it wasn’t an emergency. They said they’d send someone.
Daniel is a writer, living in Brisbane, Queensland. His short fiction can be found in REX, Stilts, Cow Hide Journal, and Fiction Vortex. He has twice been shortlisted for the QUT Postgraduate Writing Prize and is a regular speaker at Yarn Storytelling. He is currently completing a PhD because it is a qualification he can spell.