After getting some groceries in Livingston, Dad and me drove past the Soda Baptist Church and their sign said in big, bold letters ‘Jesus Loves Virgins.’
“Damn it, son,” he said. “We’re going to hell for being horny.”
“Maybe we read it wrong, it probably said Jesus Loves Virginia,” I said.
“I know Jesus loves a lot of things, but what’s in Virginia?” he said, clutching onto his chest. I pulled into our driveway and Mom was standing on the porch with a bottle of water for Dad, waiting for him to roll himself over to her. He started using a walker after his heart attack. He would grip onto his walker and let the wheels roll him wherever he had to go.
“Brandi, I learned something real interesting today,” Dad said when he reached the porch. “Jesus don’t love us no more.”
“What are you talking about, you nutcase?” Mom said.
“I saw a sign at the Soda Baptist Church and it said Jesus Loves Virgins,” Dad said and they laughed together.
“Are you sure you didn’t make that sign, Dad?” I asked him.
“No, son, I ain’t done that in a long time,” he sighed.
Dad grew up Baptist, but by his adult years, he wasn’t. The thought of getting up early every Sunday to get yelled at by his pastor didn’t appeal to him. Dad hated church, so he bought sets of marquee letters and he’d change the sign at the Soda Baptist Church all the time since that was where he used to go. Every time the sign said WE LOVE BAKE SALE SUNDAY, he’d switch it to WE LOVE NAKED MALE BOYS. Sometimes Dad’s arrangements were more vulgar than that. When I was in 10th grade, he changed the sign from GOT AN HOUR? ENTER HERE, OF COURSE! to GOT AN HOUR? HAVE INTERCOURSE! At first, the Soda Baptist Church wanted to have Dad fined, but more people stopped in for a service when the sign was funny, so they dropped the charges. Dad hadn’t changed a sign since before his heart attack and I doubted he ever would again.
Every night before bed, Dad ate several oranges. He’d sit in front of the TV, peeling them with his pocket knife and squirting juice on the rug. The whole living room smelled like badly made air freshener. When I lived in Houston, Mom called me every day and each time we spoke, she’d complain about the stink of oranges in the house.
“For God’s sake, why do you always do that?” Mom asked Dad.
“Helps me go to the crapper,” he said. He kept on peeling and getting orange drip on the rug. He had been sick for a while. The doctors at Chief Kina Clinic said part of it was his lifestyle. Dad was over 400 pounds and considered walking to the refrigerator daily exercise. But Dad always said he was ready to die, even when he was younger, so he never seemed interested in staying alive.
“I’m more active than most people,” he said at our family barbecue just a year before his heart attack. “I tell you, son, I’d win a gold medal for walking to the fridge in the Olympics.”
“Dad, that’s not a sport,” I said.
“It should be,” he said. “Walking to the fridge is hard work, especially on days when I’m tired.” Dad got another can of soda, drinking it fast like he always did. Some of the soda spilled onto his shirt, drizzling down his belly, staining his white shirt. I noticed his belly had gotten bigger, but I never told him.
Before I went home to the rez, I was the owner of Big Clem’s Pizza, over on Heights Boulevard and West 18th in Houston. Customers would come in like flies at a dump – they were all over the place, but they’d leave their trash behind. No matter how much money I made, I got tired of picking up after them. It was Labor Day and I was counting up my sales for the week when Mom called to tell me Dad had a heart attack. That same night, I took off and I was at Dad’s side two hours later at the Memorial Medical Center in Livingston.
“I’m here, Dad,” I said. “I made it.” He turned his head to me, squinting his eyes, like he didn’t recognize me. After a moment, he mumbled, “Damn it Clem, you came all the way up here and you didn’t bring me no pizza?”
I moved in with my parents three weeks after Dad’s heart attack. I left my most responsible worker in charge of my shop and broke my apartment lease. My younger brother, Keith, lived in San Antonio and was a history teacher at John Jay High School. Keith said he couldn’t drop everything and come back to the rez. He said that even when he lived in a studio apartment with a cardboard box for a dining table.
My parents spent most of their lives at Chief Kina Clinic. When I was a kid, Dad was the receptionist and Mom was one of the nurses. Mom retired after thirty years of service, so she stayed home, making quilts to sell for extra cash. But Dad still visited Chief Kina Clinic several times a month for his appointments.
“I hate it here, Clem, it’s always colder than a meat locker,” he told me.
“Because it’s always a hellhole outside,” I said and flipped through an old National Geographic. Dad watched The Price is Right on the TV hanging from the ceiling, calling out prices for every item that came on.
“That dryer’s $560,” he said and it was.
“Dad, you only knew the price because that’s the same dryer Mom wants.”
“And she ain’t getting it ‘cause it’s $560,” he said and I laughed a little.
When Dad was finally called for his appointment, he asked me to go in with him. He grabbed onto his walker and I was right behind him with my hands stretched out in case I needed to catch him. Before Dad had his heart attack, he used a metal cane, but he didn’t actually need it. He was mugged while shopping in Livingston, so he got the cane to smack future thieves on the head. But he actually needed the walker. The nurse told Dad to step on the scale and his weight was 408.
“You’ve gained a few since last time,” the nurse said.
“Don’t you be talking about my weight, I saw you wolfing down a chocolate cake the other day,” Dad said and got off the scale. The nurse led us to a cold examination room down the hall and told us the doctor would be in soon.
“Clem, when you was little, you got sick a lot,” Dad said. “Strep throat, scarlet fever, whooping cough, everything. Once you couldn’t stop throwing up, so me and Mom took you to the hospital and they pumped you so full of fluids, you pissed on the nurse.”
“That’s disgusting. Why would you tell me that?” I asked him.
“Because I heard that nurse say something about us being Indians,” he said. “So after you were all out of pee, Mom and me grabbed you and took off laughing.”
Dr. Whiteshirt came in and checked out Dad’s heartbeat. He said it was fine, so Dad asked why the hell he had an appointment in the first place.
“I’ve got to make sure you’re not dead, Mr. Redhawk,” Dr. Whiteshirt said.
“That’s bunk. You can just check the obituaries,” Dad answered. After the appointment, Dad wanted to stop by the gas station for a bite. He browsed the aisles for a few minutes, looking over what he thought was good for him. Then he grabbed three packs of mini powdered doughnuts, a mega sized chocolate bar, and a can of soda.
The annual pow wow was on again in early June. Mom and Dad had their usual food stand, selling fry bread, peach cobbler, and lemonade. Keith didn’t come, but no one really expected him to anyway. The last time he came to the annual pow wow was when me and him were in high school and he spent both days flirting with tourist girls.
“Keith was always a hider,” Dad said to me at the pow wow. “I never liked playing hide and seek when you two were little because I knew it would take forever and a day to find him.”
“Or maybe you suck at finding people,” Mom said, stirring more lemonade. “If you hadn’t crashed into my car, we probably would’ve never met.” As the story goes, Mom was driving home from work and Dad rear-ended her at 60 miles an hour. Mom got out of her car, called Dad the biggest idiot in the world, and threatened to run him over, but then Dad asked her out on a date.
“You’re the one who braked for no reason,” Dad said. “If bad driving was in the Olympics, you’d win a gold medal.”
“There was a baby squirrel crossing the road,” Mom told him. “If it weren’t for that squirrel, we would’ve never gotten married.”
After the pow wow, I watched TV with Dad, but I mostly watched him peel oranges again. He was wheezing a little and when I pointed it out, he told me I was only imagining it. I wished I had been.
“Son,” he said. “If breathing was in the Olympics-”
“Then you’d win a gold medal,” I said, shaking my head a little. I went to the kitchen and Mom was there, looking at the bills. She said she was behind on one of her credit cards again, the one she used to pay for Dad’s walker.
“I told those idiots I’m behind ’cause they keep forgetting to mail me the bill.” She reached to the side of the kitchen table and showed me a stack of bills from the credit card people, all in order. I raised my eyebrows at the sight.
“Don’t look at me like that, Clem. If they want their money, they shouldn’t be
so damn gullible,” Mom said.
A little before bedtime, I saw Dad out in the backyard, reaching his hands over his head. He had his knees on his walker, keeping him steady. After a while, he put his hands to his sides and I heard him say, “I’m ready when you are.”
“I’ve never seen you pray before,” I said when he came back inside.
“You’ve never seen me take a crap, don’t mean I don’t it,” he said.
In the middle of the night, I was on the couch, trying to sleep, but then I heard Dad calling my name. He was standing over me, clutching onto his walker.
“I don’t feel so good,” he said. “Can you take me to the hospital?”
“Sure,” I said and put my pants on. “Want me to wake up Mom?”
“No, if you do that, she’ll start talking and that’ll kill me faster.” I helped him get into my car. By the time we got to the hospital, Dad wasn’t able to balance himself, so I hopped in front of him and held him by his hands. He looked old. When I was a kid and misbehaved, Dad would take me by my hands and swing me in the air, telling he was going to toss me up to my grandparents. “They’ll take care of you good,” he’d say. “I ain’t got the time for your messing around.”
“I don’t wanna see them yet, I’m too little,” I’d say. “Put me down, Dad, please. I’ll be good, I promise. I don’t wanna go up there.”
Dad was suffering from heart failure. The doctors said they wasn’t much they could do, but he could go to the Texas Medical Center in Houston and see if they could help. Dad said he was okay without treatment, but Mom wasn’t.
“You ain’t dying on me without a fight, Gary,” she told him. “We’re going.”
“Brandi, I’m 58 years old, I’ve had a full life,” he said.
“That’s right you have,” Mom said. “Always ate a full plate and now look where it got you.” Dad kept saying he didn’t want to force himself to live. Mom didn’t budge though. She went to their room and started packing bags.
“We’re leaving in half an hour,” Mom said. “Clem, go put gas in the car.”
When I was back from the gas station, Mom and Dad were standing outside of the house with their bags. They got in the car and I sped down the road towards Highway 59. We passed the Soda Baptist Church and Dad told me to stop the car.
“Gary, you ain’t changing that sign. We gotta run,” Mom said.
“Brandi, I might not ever get another chance,” he said. He wobbled himself over to the sign with his box of marquee letters. The sign said PASTOR RAY IS ALWAYS HAPPY TO SEE YOU and Dad slowly added another sentence underneath: JUST CHECK HIS PANTS.
“All right, son, step on it!” Dad said when he was back in the car. He couldn’t stop laughing for a while. Mom called him an idiot, but she was laughing too.
After about two hours, we were at the Methodist Hospital. The building was nice, clean, and well lit. But even if it had been made out of gold with jewel crested ceilings, I would’ve still hated it. The doctors in Livingston said nothing could be done for Dad, so I thought he might end up dying in Houston, which wouldn’t be what he wanted. He always said he wanted to die in his own house, sitting on the couch, with Mom yelling in his ear, just like any other day.
Dad was admitted into the hospital and given a big room with everything he liked – food, TV, and a big bed. The doctors said all they could was monitor him and see if things got better or worse.
“Won’t be long now,” Dad said. “Clem, when I go, you can have anything of mine you want. Tell Keith he can have my dirty underwear.”
“Where is that boy anyway?” Mom said. “I’ve been calling him since last night. I should drive to San Antonio and smack him.”
“He’s a history teacher. Maybe he’s grading a load of papers,” I said.
“Then I’ll smack him with those same papers,” Mom said. “I changed that boy’s diapers and raised him and he can’t pick up his damn phone?”
“Ease up there, Brandi. You’re giving me another heart attack,” Dad said. “If complaining was an Olympic sport, you’d win the gold, silver, and bronze medals.” He sunk himself deeper into his bed, closing his eyes. I left the hospital soon after to find a motel to stay in. I ended up going to my pizza shop, seeing Geraldine at the counter. I left her in charge because she was the only worker who actually showed up on time.
“Our customers miss you, Big Clem,” she told me. “Is your dad better?”
“He’s getting there,” I said. “He’ll be there soon.”
By day three of being in Houston, Dad wasn’t looking good. It seemed like he aged ten years overnight. When I’d talk to him, he’d stare at me, not able to understand what I was saying. Mom said the drugs were making him act funny. I took her word for it since she was a nurse for thirty years, but part of me thought Dad was getting ready to leave.
“Have you gotten in touch with Keith?” I asked Mom. She said she did and Keith swore Dad would be fine and hung up.
“He ain’t my son,” Mom said. “A man who acts like that ain’t my son.”
“Mom,” I said. “I’ve screwed up before too.” And it was true. I wasn’t the perfect son. Keith went to college but I didn’t. Instead, I spent my time drinking and sleeping with multiple women. It was fun until I took Karen Big Tree on a date. I always liked her and I drove her home drunk as hell because I wasn’t thinking right. We weren’t hurt, but the next morning, she said she’d never go out with me again because I had peed on her porch in front of her parents.
“So you peed your pants,” Mom shrugged. “You did that every night until you were five years old for goodness sake. At least you didn’t ditch your father.”
On day four, the doctors said Dad would be leaving very soon. Mom thanked them, but that wasn’t the kind of leaving they meant.
“He should be gone any day now, Mrs. Redhawk,” one of the doctors said. “It happens to everyone.”
At lunch time that day, I left the hospital to go grab some food for me and Mom. She wouldn’t budge from Dad’s bedside. He spent most of his time sleeping or cussing at the nurses who came to check on him. There was a sandwich place up the street, so I parked my car, but I felt nauseous. I turned my car around to go back to the hospital. When I was in Dad’s room, Mom told me he was getting worse by the minute. Now he couldn’t even recognize her.
“Dad,” I said to him. “Dad, I’m here.”
“Where did you go?” he said in a voice that didn’t sound like him.
“I went to get lunch, Dad,” I said. “But I’m here, I’m not leaving again.”
“Damn it, Clem,” he said. “You mean you went out and came back and you didn’t bring me no pizza again?”
On Friday afternoon, day five of treatment, Dad died. Mom missed him by a minute. She had gone to the restroom and rushed back as fast as she could, but she wasn’t fast enough. As for me, I had gone to my shop to get him some pizza. It was still warm when I got his room. Even though Dad never showed any fear of dying, I knew he didn’t want to go yet. I knew he wanted to be on the couch and he wanted Mom yelling in his ear. If he had gone that way, I would have been happy.
A few days after Dad was buried on the rez, I packed up my stuff to go back to Houston. Mom reminded me Dad said I could have anything of his I wanted, so before I left, I rummaged through the garage. When I picked out what I wanted, I kissed Mom on the cheek and went out to my car. I drove down the road, slowing down as I got closer to the Soda Baptist Church but their sign had already been changed.
REST IN PEACE, GARY REDHAWK.
WE LOVE NAKED MALE BOYS AND YOU.
Darlene P. Campos is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at El Paso’s Creative Writing Program. In 2013, she won the Glass Mountain magazine contest for prose and was awarded the Sylvan N. Karchmer Fiction Prize. Her work appears in Glass Mountain, Prism Review, Crunchable, Cleaver, The Aletheia, Red Fez, Bartleby Snopes, Elohi Gadugi, The Writing Disorder, Connotation Press, Word Riot, and many others. She is from Guayaquil, Ecuador but has lived in Houston all her life. Her website is now available at http://www.darlenepcampos.com