Jonathan Starke is a former bodybuilder and boxer who highly values vagabond travel and is often missing the Golden (80s) and Attitude (90s) eras of professional wrestling. He is the founding editor of a literary magazine for the underdog called Palooka and serves as a writing coach at jonathanstarke.com. His essays and stories have appeared in The Sun, The Missouri Review, Brevity, Michigan Quarterly Review, Third Coast, Passages North, Fourth Genre, and Post Road, among others. You might find him watching old boxing matches on a Sunday evening. You might not.
The Radio Men
My father’s name is Raymond. There’s this joke he often tells, usually out of nowhere, while watching a ballgame or shaving his face or spilling sauce over a steak dinner. He’ll say, “Jonny. You know what I’ll be when I die? An x-Ray.”
I have feared my father’s death since I was a child, and I don’t mean just occasionally feared it, but thought of it every day. When I was ten years old, I gave eulogies for my father in the shower, under a faucet that was so weak the water limped out. Some would probably call this perverse preparation, but I didn’t think of it as preparing. I’m not sure I think of it that way now. I just understood all too young that he was going to die, and so I would put my hands into fists and hold them together under my chin, the shower water dribbling on my back, my eyes shut tight, and I would practice the things a ten-year-old boy would say about his father on the day of his funeral. Most of what I said was a repetition of the phrase, I did not want you to die, Dad. I did not want you to die. Followed by questions like, Who will take me to the ballgames at Kauffman Stadium and buy me ice cream in miniature helmets? Who will throw pass patterns to me in the yard? Who will call me L-Man (short for Little Man) and tell me it’s “Bedtime for Bonzo” and carry me over his shoulder in the night?
I often wonder if this preoccupation with his death might have been instilled by the very man I’m afraid to lose—my father. He always talked about death, but took such a light-hearted approach to it, often making jokes about it or offering zany fictional worlds in which death might exist only as comedy and without consequences. He showed me his collection of The Far Side comic strips, Larson always shooting out clever jokes about the devil or heaven and hell, often drawing animals or insects, anthropomorphizing them to jest death. When I was thirteen, my father introduced me to the movies of Woody Allen, a man so obsessed with dying that his characters often speak about it straight into the camera’s eye, addressing the audience (young me) directly. The first Woody Allen movie my father chose for me to see—Love and Death.
When I’m visiting and my father makes his famous chili, he’ll yell to me from another room, “The Chili of Death is ready!” When the weekends come to a close, he calls me on the phone, sounding tired and beat, and tells me Hell Town is approaching (the name he has given to his place of work). I’ve been to his building, to his office. The soft yellow lights and scrubbing-alcohol smell will not kill anyone, but my father believes this place has eaten him away over time. The way he depicts these things, exaggerates them, makes me feel they’re funny and not serious. I can picture him crossing the border into Hell Town, a welcome sign charred and smoking along the road, my father entering the building, where a solitary, oil-stained cloud hangs overhead. He enters the twisted hallway to his office, grease fires climbing the walls, crooked bars on the doors and broken windows. My father sits down at his desk, yellow water dripping from the ceiling, covering all of his manila folders and work papers, and he loosens his tie in the heat. And this is how I picture him, always pulling his tie away from his neck.
We rarely talk about actual death and almost never talk about the living casualties of it. The only time we did, when I felt I understood a bit about my father, was when his mother died of cancer a few years ago. I don’t remember driving to Missouri or what the funeral was like or the reception at the American Legion, but I do remember driving back to Iowa with him. He was quieter than usual, and I knew my attempts to comfort him were failing. We stopped at a gas station near the border of Missouri and Iowa. We were running on empty, the needle shaking at the E, and my father is not the type of person to let a gas tank go below half. When he got back into the car, we were silent again for a while. It was dark outside, and I remember watching each set of headlights stab at us from across the highway as I waited for his words.
“Are you okay?” he finally asked. I realized I should have been asking that question of him.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said.
“I sure wish you’d have seen Potamus before she died,” he said.
“I know, Dad. I’m sorry,” I said. I hadn’t realized how much it would have meant to him. He had insisted I visit my grandmother on several occasions, but I told him I didn’t need that kind of final connection. Maybe I said that because I wasn’t sure she would really die. I had never lost anybody I was close with, and either I wasn’t ready for the truth of death or I didn’t want it to be a truth. My father looked so much like his mother—soft blue eyes, kind hands, and dangerously overweight. I had lived too long in a world of cinema and comic strip death where neurotic Russian Jews danced with giant white Reapers and antelopes laughed at other antelopes, trotting off the edge of a cliff. Maybe I didn’t go and see my grandmother because it wasn’t real to me, because my father called her Potamus, and that made her into a mythical creature that always existed and never existed.
It wasn’t until much later, long after my grandmother had been buried, did he tell me that death wasn’t always about those who were being left behind, that maybe it was selfish of me to not visit her, to not consider that she might have needed to have a final connection with me, a moment of seeing my young face one last time.
We didn’t say much in the car. Having grown up in Iowa, it was easy for me to be comfortable driving along old highways, watching the tick-tock sway of the cornstalks as we rolled on. I broke the silence this time.
“Are you okay, Dad?”
“I think so. I hope so. It’s going to take some time.”
“Yeah,” I said. I was nodding my head, but my father wasn’t looking at me. He pushed his glasses up his nose.
“You know, with Potamus being alive, no matter how old I got, even in my later fifties now, I always felt like everything would be all right. A person needs that kind of comfort in life. As long as she was alive, even if we only talked on the phone a few times a month, even if I only saw her once or twice a year, I just felt okay with the world.”
I couldn’t say anything to that. It was hard to think of speaking with my father like this, a man who was honest, but rarely let me in. Once, when he left on business, I dug through an old chest in his room and found several photographs of his high school classmates. I assumed they were friends of his and turned over every picture, finding that each person had written essentially the same thing on the back—they did not know who my father was.
I watched the blue light from the moon cut in and out on his forearms as the traffic went by, and I was stuck there in that moment for a long time. My father had expressed what I didn’t understand about my obsession with his future death, that he was the compass I used to gauge my own existence. I was relieved to know this, but also sad, wondering what he would do now in a world without the only parent that ever raised him, the only person who could secure his existence. And, late one night when awoken from a violent dream, I turned over and wrote on a torn piece of paper, You obsess over his dying, but never his living.
My father recently told me he didn’t feel like he was needed anymore, that he’d earned his education and maintained a job and raised his children. He said he wasn’t sure he was worth much to anyone now. I told him he needed to stay around for my brother and me, that he needed to wait for us to marry and have children. I said regardless of what happens that I wanted him here, alive with us. It wouldn’t have been hard to simply agree with him, tell him I understood where he was coming from, that his stance made sense. It did. It does. But, it also made me question how much of his saying this was affected by the death of his mother the year before, how much of it was a bubbling depression he may have had from being alone now—his sons, the only two things left that might keep him feeling alive and needed, were adults now, living in different states, thousands of miles away.
A few weeks later, my father mailed me a photocopy of a savings plan he’d taken out on himself in the event of his death. His note: I’m worth more to you dead than I am alive after all!
I’d decided to try and help my father achieve some of his goals by setting an example and also by reminding him how important it is to do the things you want in life before it stops you. I had him making lists. We were making lists together and crossing things off. We added Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to his collection of states and visited the Hoover Dam. We went to the Kentucky Derby and sat on the fifty yard line at the Super Bowl. About a month ago, my father and I went on a trip to Europe—something we’d always wanted to do. When we discussed Europe, he said he really wanted to see the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany, something that only happens once every decade and has been going on for centuries. He pitched it as possibly his last chance to make it, being that he might not live ten more years with his perpetually climbing weight always a threat to cause a stroke or heart attack.
A strange thing happened in Italy on the way to the play. My father had gotten a new C-Pap breathing machine for the trip—sleeker, lighter, supposed to help him stay breathing in his sleep. We lay in our separate cots in the dark, the machine pulsing, the air streaming out, sounding like nothing more than swiftly moving air.
I woke in the middle of the night. There was a breeze coming through the open window, the curtains twisting. I could distinctly hear the voices of two men on the radio. I stood, groggy, and walked to the window and looked out. Nobody was out on the small, crooked street. The lights were all off. Air conditioners buzzed outside the window, but there was no radio. I stood at the door and listened to the hallway. Nothing. I lay back in bed and heard it again. The radio men were speaking, but it was fuzzy, distorted, sort of muted like they were talking through their fingers in front of the microphone.
I rolled to my side and looked over at my father. He was lying in bed with his hands folded on his chest like he was trying to keep his heart in. The breathing apparatus hummed at his side, its yellow and green lights blinking.
I was barely able to hear my father’s breathing over the whirr of the fans and intricate mechanical parts, and I realized something, that the radio men were not outside the window or somewhere in the hall. The radio men were inside the machine. I tried to hear my father’s human sounds over them, but the radio men talked back and forth in wall-thick baritones, yet somehow spoke lightly, as if arguing from one pew to another under the steeple-high pitch of a church. I was relieved when I saw my father’s mouth open and close through the plastic mouthpiece, his shoulders shake. He was lost in a dream. I knew this. I had seen it before. He took a few drawn-out breaths and finally settled, one arm landing angled beside him. It was difficult seeing my father like this, imagining this scene a few years from now under the heavy white lights of a hospital room. But we were in Italy for the moment, and I watched him working hard to breathe, a machine plugged into a machine.
I rolled onto my back and lay like him, placing a hand on my chest and one at my side, mimicking the shut-eyed posture of a man I could not fully see into, and feared one day speaking of him and not being able to put together the pieces of who he was. And as I lay beside my father on a cot in Italy, sharing the one breath of the room, I pulled my sheets in tight, crossed my legs at the ankles, and tried my hardest to wish death away from him as I drifted toward sleep, hoping to encounter my father in his dream, praying for a rebellion in dreamland, where neither of us would ever wake, but remain together in that existence, walking scattered lands, lulled to sleep each night by rolling aqua waves or the pitter-patter language of the radio men.