The Green and the Gold

Photograph by Sheila Sund. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CCO 2.0. Four weeks sharing a room in San Francisco, four weeks since I decided not to go back to England. Gabe wasn’t sleeping. A quarter tab of acid for his breakfast. Spliffs throughout the day, booze and blue raspberry C4 preworkout all through the night. He was recording an album, working on his set, making a website, building a 24-7 open-source radio live-stream at a free hackers’ space, and not finishing anything. I was trying to write but spending a lot of time crying on the hot roof of the apartment building when he wasn’t around. He found me up there one afternoon at the end of one of his twelve-hour stints at the hackers’ space. Two straw hats, a beer, two cups. “I know you like to drink out of little cups!” He smiled and the inside of his mouth was blue from the raspberry preworkout. How do you hate someone as much as you love them? He said he’d been looking for me because he had a great plan. A childhood friend in the city was driving down to their hometown and we could get a ride. I could meet Gabe’s parents; go to the beach; see the fields, wildflowers, and back roads. So beautiful this time of year. I wondered if it might save us. “It’s God’s country,” he said. We arrived at his parents’ the following morning, after a four-hour drive south. A low ranch-style house on a wide road of low ranch-style houses. Gabe said it was too nice a day to be stuck inside, so he took me around the side and we climbed straight up onto the roof: “I know you like roofs in California!” I did like roofs in California. The front and back yards of gravel, wood chip, and pebbles, interspersed with the occasional palm tree or redwood. At the end of the road was the main street, a couple of stores, a steak house, and a taqueria. Beyond, fields of lemon trees and mustard grass and farmland that stretched a few miles inland, up to a range of golden hills. Above us, the sun shone like the grill of a new truck. The house was full of knickknacks and shells and crystals and string lights. A “Be Grateful” sign by the coffee maker. A “Be Grateful” mat by the front door. A canvas in the kitchen printed with a picture of three fluffy ducklings and the words “I have joy down in the bottom of my heart.” It was hard to make out how many cats there were. And then Birdie, the overweight chihuahua, waddled in from the hallway and charged at Gabe, baring his red gums and gnashing tiny, pointed teeth. Gabe told me the dog was the spawn of the devil and the root cause of all the issues that existed between him and his parents. I already knew that the issues between Gabe and his family had begun when Gabe had gone to college in Santa Cruz five years before, found drugs, wouldn’t get a real job, and kept having to move back home when he ran out of money. His parents were musicians who’d met in Santa Barbara in the seventies. She’d sung in one band and he’d played guitar in another. They’d both worked in the same hippie jewelry store downtown before marrying and moving to a smaller town up the coast. I met them that morning when they followed the pets into the kitchen. Lou was short and round with a kind face, freshly shaved with a peaked cap on his bald head and a smart cowboy shirt tucked into chinos. He gave me a warm hug that smelled of Irish Spring. He picked up Birdie and fed him some bratwurst from the fridge. Julie went straight to the coffeepot. She wore a blue shirt with cropped leggings and had her blond hair put up neatly in a clip. She had the same unblinking stare as Gabe. Lou left to work his shift at a music shop in the next town over and Julie said she needed more coffee before her pain medication kicked in and she could talk properly. She had arthritis and had pain from a series of botched surgeries. The pain was the worst in the morning, but she was managing it with physical therapy, swimming, and half a pill on the bad days. She spent the next hour pacing around the house, telling me about all the things she needed to do—pay the bills, fill out paperwork, physical therapy, feed the dog, feed the cats—only to be derailed from doing any of it by the pets, or the phone ringing. She kept apologizing for being so busy, but she couldn’t seem to get anything done. The bills stayed untouched in a pile that took up most of the kitchen table, the phone rang and rang. There were Post-its all over the house: “Put coffee out,” “Tell Dad to clean sink,” “Ask Gabe where he is living in SF,” “Be Grateful.” Gabe derailed her the most, as he tried to make breakfast and clean up after himself. Mother and son knocked around the place, from the coffeepot to the piano to the back door, to the front door to the coffeepot again. They both had the habit of getting lost midaction and the same strange sweetness. At one point, just after getting at him about putting the dishes away in the wrong place, she went into the living room and sang out with joy. When she came back int

The Green and the Gold

Photograph by Sheila Sund. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CCO 2.0.

Four weeks sharing a room in San Francisco, four weeks since I decided not to go back to England. Gabe wasn’t sleeping. A quarter tab of acid for his breakfast. Spliffs throughout the day, booze and blue raspberry C4 preworkout all through the night. He was recording an album, working on his set, making a website, building a 24-7 open-source radio live-stream at a free hackers’ space, and not finishing anything.

I was trying to write but spending a lot of time crying on the hot roof of the apartment building when he wasn’t around. He found me up there one afternoon at the end of one of his twelve-hour stints at the hackers’ space. Two straw hats, a beer, two cups. “I know you like to drink out of little cups!” He smiled and the inside of his mouth was blue from the raspberry preworkout. How do you hate someone as much as you love them? He said he’d been looking for me because he had a great plan. A childhood friend in the city was driving down to their hometown and we could get a ride. I could meet Gabe’s parents; go to the beach; see the fields, wildflowers, and back roads. So beautiful this time of year. I wondered if it might save us. “It’s God’s country,” he said.

We arrived at his parents’ the following morning, after a four-hour drive south. A low ranch-style house on a wide road of low ranch-style houses. Gabe said it was too nice a day to be stuck inside, so he took me around the side and we climbed straight up onto the roof: “I know you like roofs in California!” I did like roofs in California. The front and back yards of gravel, wood chip, and pebbles, interspersed with the occasional palm tree or redwood. At the end of the road was the main street, a couple of stores, a steak house, and a taqueria. Beyond, fields of lemon trees and mustard grass and farmland that stretched a few miles inland, up to a range of golden hills. Above us, the sun shone like the grill of a new truck.

The house was full of knickknacks and shells and crystals and string lights. A “Be Grateful” sign by the coffee maker. A “Be Grateful” mat by the front door. A canvas in the kitchen printed with a picture of three fluffy ducklings and the words “I have joy down in the bottom of my heart.” It was hard to make out how many cats there were. And then Birdie, the overweight chihuahua, waddled in from the hallway and charged at Gabe, baring his red gums and gnashing tiny, pointed teeth. Gabe told me the dog was the spawn of the devil and the root cause of all the issues that existed between him and his parents. I already knew that the issues between Gabe and his family had begun when Gabe had gone to college in Santa Cruz five years before, found drugs, wouldn’t get a real job, and kept having to move back home when he ran out of money.

His parents were musicians who’d met in Santa Barbara in the seventies. She’d sung in one band and he’d played guitar in another. They’d both worked in the same hippie jewelry store downtown before marrying and moving to a smaller town up the coast. I met them that morning when they followed the pets into the kitchen. Lou was short and round with a kind face, freshly shaved with a peaked cap on his bald head and a smart cowboy shirt tucked into chinos. He gave me a warm hug that smelled of Irish Spring. He picked up Birdie and fed him some bratwurst from the fridge. Julie went straight to the coffeepot. She wore a blue shirt with cropped leggings and had her blond hair put up neatly in a clip. She had the same unblinking stare as Gabe.

Lou left to work his shift at a music shop in the next town over and Julie said she needed more coffee before her pain medication kicked in and she could talk properly. She had arthritis and had pain from a series of botched surgeries. The pain was the worst in the morning, but she was managing it with physical therapy, swimming, and half a pill on the bad days. She spent the next hour pacing around the house, telling me about all the things she needed to do—pay the bills, fill out paperwork, physical therapy, feed the dog, feed the cats—only to be derailed from doing any of it by the pets, or the phone ringing. She kept apologizing for being so busy, but she couldn’t seem to get anything done. The bills stayed untouched in a pile that took up most of the kitchen table, the phone rang and rang. There were Post-its all over the house: “Put coffee out,” “Tell Dad to clean sink,” “Ask Gabe where he is living in SF,” “Be Grateful.”

Gabe derailed her the most, as he tried to make breakfast and clean up after himself. Mother and son knocked around the place, from the coffeepot to the piano to the back door, to the front door to the coffeepot again. They both had the habit of getting lost midaction and the same strange sweetness. At one point, just after getting at him about putting the dishes away in the wrong place, she went into the living room and sang out with joy. When she came back into the kitchen she was smiling. She put her arms around her son. He rested his cheek on the top of her head and closed his eyes.

Gabe and I spent the afternoon walking around town. Not a place built for walking but it had its charm, the slanting golden light making even the Vons supermarket look beautiful. We bought three beers for five dollars at the Stop and Shop and watched the sun go down as we sat against a fence by a dusty abandoned lot. He told me that the most famous thing about this town was a Dorothea Lange photograph of migrants from the thirties.

For dinner Gabe made sandwiches and, to his mom’s exasperation, moved the bills off the dinner table and told everyone we were going to sit down. They were very good sandwiches, pastrami and banana peppers and mayo with a steak seasoning, on thick slices of bread. He made a sandwich each for his parents, and two types for me and him to share. “Me and Helen share everything,” he announced. “We’re in love.”

After a few bites, Julie started talking about how hard it was, living with her husband, how she loved him but needed him to leave. “I keep telling him, but he won’t go. He does nothing around the house, just eats and spends and plays his guitars.” She said that when she married him, he was already deep in debt. He’d never told her how bad it was. Then she said to me, “I love my son, but I’d understand if you wanted to leave him. Don’t make the same mistake I made.” Lou didn’t say anything in response, just happily ate his sandwich and seemed to be somewhere else. Gabe went to the fridge and popped a Corona.

The next day was a Saturday. We borrowed Lou’s car and spent the day in the ice-plant dunes of Grover Beach. When the sun set, we snuck into a motel jacuzzi. Crouched in the bubbles, Gabe said he’d told his dad that he’d marry me if he had a dollar. “I dunno about marriage,” I told him.

Lou was in the kitchen when we got back, enjoying a Corona Familiar in a frosted glass. He was in a good mood from playing a gig at a wedding where he’d devoured a seafood-platter buffet. “I tell you … those crabs. All that fish. Mountains of it.” We sat at the counter with him. Over more Coronas, Julie cackling along to Scrubs on the TV, he told me about his first love. At one point he made the mistake of asking Gabe what his plans were. Gabe said he was going to start an open-source 24-7 radio station that spread empathy across the world and freed a billion people. He already knew his mission on Earth, God had told him. His parents didn’t need to worry. Lou turned to me with a smirk. “I told Gabe to experiment with LSD. I didn’t realize he’d be experimenting every day for five years.”

They drove us to the train station in San Luis Obispo the next afternoon. Another sunny day but things felt different. Now I knew that this impossible person had a mother and father and that he made some kind of sense beside them. When his parents hugged us goodbye his dad whispered something in Gabe’s ear. “If I had a dollar,” Gabe said.

We found a booth with a table in the train’s observation car, beside a window. Lou and Julie spotted us as they were driving out of the parking lot and circled back through three or four times, waving as the train left the station. Leaving San Luis Obispo, the train wound around and between the Pacific Coast Ranges. The slopes reached up on either side, rolling above the windows. Gabe leaned on my shoulder while I read him a story I’d written about my alcoholic dad. It made him cry. I told him not to move yet—a girl in another booth was painting a picture of us. I could see it in the corner of my eye, strokes of yellow and green and gold.

***

Six months later, Lou was diagnosed with stage four cancer. A melanoma that had not been removed properly in the spring had spread to his organs by September. Gabe and I were living in Chicago by the time Lou began chemo, sleeping on a futon at an event studio that my sister ran and earning a bit of money setting up and cleaning up after baby showers and photoshoots during the day and after parties and music videos at night.

The family told Gabe not to come back yet. So we stayed in Chicago for September and into October. Gabe’s desperate restlessness and acid-fueled benders had subsided, and the deranged passion that had brought us together had calmed to a more dependable, if rocky, companionship. We kept our clothes in a cupboard and pretended to the people who rented the space that we didn’t live there. When the studio was in use, we visited my sister and her son, or wandered around Lincoln Park, or walked along Lake Michigan, waiting for the call from his family to say that he needed to come home. Sometimes Gabe brought his guitar and I brought my notebook and we’d sit playing and writing, cooling our feet in the lake. Other times we had long, agonizing arguments walking around the humid parks. He said I was unloving and spiritually dead inside. I said he was cruel and overbearing, that we were two very different people from different worlds and it would never work anyway, it was doomed. He said that only proved how godless and unloving I was. What was cruel was how little I believed in us. All that needed to happen was for me to find faith. We were twenty-seven. We could move off the grid, have lots of children, and raise chickens. I wanted to get on a plane and go home. Whenever we had an especially bad argument, he stormed off to the hot-dog place around the corner from the studio, where the staff was famous for insulting its customers. He made friends with the people who worked there. “The only real people in this city,” he said. Baby Jesus Ted Bundy was one of the names they called him. He would come back in the best of moods. He was on one of those hot-dog runs when his sister called and told him the doctor said it was a matter of days. He spent his entire savings, four hundred dollars, on a flight for the next morning. I packed up the futon and moved into my sister’s apartment. He called after two weeks at home. His dad really was dying now and he needed to see me. Please could I come? My sister found me a flight from Chicago to LA for fifty dollars for the following week.

***

The Amtrak train from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo goes up the Pacific coast, at times along the beach and at others high in the cliffs. Gabe was waiting for me on the platform, wearing a black hoodie and a black cap with a small red-and-white mushroom on the front. He called it his mourning costume. In the car he gave me a paper bag. Inside was a bar of chocolate wrapped neatly in tissue paper. As he drove out of the lot a full moon appeared over the trees.

We arrived at the house to find Lou sitting on a red La-Z-Boy, watching Blazing Saddles, Birdie on his lap. The dog jumped off when he saw us coming and charged at Gabe’s ankles. Gabe picked him up, thrashing, and plopped him outside, slamming the screen door. Lou had almost halved in size, his face completely sunken, his arms and legs, bluish and pale, poking out of a baggy T-shirt and shorts. I tried to hide my shock but it must have been apparent. People had been coming over all week to say their goodbyes.

When Gabe had first told me they’d put Lou on home hospice, I’d assumed it meant he would be home under regular medical care. What it really meant on his low-cost insurance was a hospital bed in their house, medication, and thirty-minute visits from a nurse twice a week. The rest of the time it was up to Gabe, his mother, and his sister to look after Lou. By the time I arrived, the home hospice had been going on for two weeks and they’d stumbled into a rhythm. Lou slept in the Blue Room (blue walls and carpet), which had once been Gabe’s bedroom, then the bedroom of a series of lodgers, then a room for Julie to stretch in. Now it was the room where Lou was going to die. There was the hospital bed in the center and a folding table against one wall, covered in a red paper tablecloth, pieces of hospital equipment, dozens of pill pots, and Gabe’s junk. Gabe and his mother took turns administering a regimen of medication every few hours: liquid morphine, vitamins, blood pressure pills, pills to help his organs deal with all the pills. There was a mattress in the corner covered with a Lion King quilt where Gabe had been sleeping. Lou had a little bell by his bedside that he rang when he needed something.

I was tired from the travel, so Gabe set me up a bed in the Green Room next door. It had a single bed, another folding table, and a few blankets laid out for the cats to sleep on. Gabe gave me his pillow and the Lion King duvet and put on another hoodie over the hoodie he was already wearing. We sat down on the bed for a moment and he rested his head on my shoulder. From the next room the little bell rang and he shot up. I curled up and drifted off.

The next morning Gabe woke me up at nine o’clock with a mug of creamy coffee. “Get up! We’re going to the store!” His dad wanted egg bagels. They’d already given Lou his medicine, taken him for a shower, and rustled up a small first breakfast of eggnog and toast. It was only a quick drive to Vons but Gabe drove very slowly, all the windows open, lighting one cigarette after another.

We returned to the sound of the little bell ringing. Lou wanted to sit out on the lounger. He wanted a coffee. Gabe helped his dad outside and made the bagels. I did the dishes and Julie put on another pot of coffee while telling me how much pain she was in, her arthritis, her hip —she was falling apart.

I soon discovered that the most demanding part of the home hospice was Lou’s appetite. Over the next week we went out three or four times a day to find whatever thing he craved. The bell would ring and Gabe would go running. “My dad wants a steak dinner!” We’d jump into the car to go pick up a steak, then sushi, then burritos.

Julie was paying for these elaborate requests with envelopes of cash she’d saved over the years, each one labeled with a particular purpose. Every time she pulled out a new one from the back of a drawer, my heart sank: forty dollars for Gabe’s birthday, a hundred dollars for a plumbing emergency, a hundred for yard work—all gone.

As the morphine doses got larger and Gabe more sleep-deprived, nights and meals and dreams collapsed into hallucinations. Lou would wake up, feel hungry, and ring his bell. Gabe would help him into the kitchen and cook whatever Lou instructed. I’d hear all about it in the morning. Clam chowder from a can with packet noodles. Chicken soup with pork gyoza and taquitos. Gabe told me that sometimes he’d drift off in the middle of cooking, laying his double-hooded head on the kitchen counter.

I slipped by the Blue Room one morning, sheepishly hoping I could just make a coffee and bring my book out into the backyard. “The English Muffin!” Lou called out. “I want an English pot roast. Can you do that?”

I returned to the doorway. Birdie, who was more or less living on Lou’s chest by this point, greeted me with a growl.

“Yes!” I said. “I think I can.”

Waiting for the coffee to brew, I googled English pot roast. It seemed to be something to do with potatoes and meat, a stew. I couldn’t find Gabe anywhere.

“Lou …” I said, eventually going back into his room. “What do you mean by English pot roast?”

“I mean Henry VIII creamy banquet pot roast. Pig’s blood! Potatoes! Lots of meat. Don’t forget the meat!”

I called for Gabe all over the house, in the front yard, the backyard, down by the shed. Finally his voice came down from the sky.

“I’m up here!” he said. I couldn’t see him, but some branches moved at the very top of the thirty-foot redwood.

“He wants me to make a medieval pot roast,” I told Gabe when he came down.

“He’ll go back to sleep. I need to give him some more morphine now anyway. He’ll forget all about it.”

Gabe was right. While Birdie barked and tore at his fingers, he fed his father the liquid morphine, and Lou fell back to sleep. Gabe took a nap. An hour later the little bell rang again.

“Blueberry pancakes!” I heard. “Can she do blueberry pancakes?”

I found a mix for blueberry muffins in the cupboard. It was the middle of the day by the time they were done. One came out with a funny face. Two freeze-dried blueberries for wonky eyes and a crease below them like a sideways smile. I thought it looked a bit like Gabe. I showed his mother and she agreed. Excited, we woke Gabe up with the muffin doppelgänger on a plate.

Hold it up to your face, we told him. Do your wonky eyes. Smile sideways a bit. See?

Julie brought a muffin cut up in four with a pile of butter to Lou on a little plate. He put the whole lump of butter on one quarter, had a bite, and put the plate down on his lap, exhausted. “Do you like your muffin, Dad?” Gabe said. Lou didn’t respond. I felt that in some great way I had failed.

***

Gabe’s sister, Joni, lived in the next town over. She had a two-year-old girl, Sofia, and was heavily pregnant with her second. She’d bring a meal or some shopping over every few days and spend a few hours with her dad. When she and the little girl spilled in through the front door, the whole house seemed to calm.

One afternoon, Lou and Joni were stretched out on the sofa, the patio doors letting in a warm breeze. Sofia was running around, looking for the cats. Julie was out in the hammock. I was sitting next to Gabe on the piano bench. He started playing a peaceful, sweet song. I asked Joni what Sofia’s birth had been like. She said it had been an amazing experience. She said she went full wild woman. At the moment of the birth, she’d been on all fours and felt her whole heart open wide to God. There was no pain, no body, no one else, just her baby and God. Lou said that was the way he felt about death. When the moment came, he was going to go into it with arms open to God. He held his arms out wide as he said it.

Later, Joni’s husband, Joe, came over. They got out some guitars from the garage, brought them into the Blue Room, and sang songs around Lou’s bed. Nineties folk—The Moldy Peaches, Bright Eyes—and then an amazing rendition of “O Holy Night,” Joe on the harmonica, Gabe on the guitar, and Joni singing. I sat on the mattress and watched them. I wanted them to keep playing—no more talking, talking, talking. “O night divine, o night …”

At the end of the song, Julie came in. She said it was late, Dad was tired, she was tired, we were all tiring him out. Gabe said, “Wow Mom, you even managed to ruin this.” Joni snapped at Gabe, “Don’t talk to her like that.” Gabe said, “Yeah, yeah, it’s all my fault.” Joni’s husband asked no one in particular if they’d noticed that the moon’s face had changed. “They’ve done something to the moon’s face,” he said. “I swear …”

“He’s tired,” Julie said, turning to Lou. “Are you tired, sweetie? Tell them you’re tired. No one believes me. Someone’s gotta look after him. He needs his rest. Tell them for once. I know how tired you are. He’ll never say it himself …”

“All right, Julie. I’m tired.”

I followed Gabe out to the backyard with a beer and a cigarette and found him up in the redwood again. I coaxed him down with my offerings and convinced him not to climb all the way up the tree in the dark.

***

Lou’s body was shutting down. His legs and arms were swelling and leaking fluid. He had to carry paper towels around with him to mop up the mess, but he never complained. We took turns massaging his legs to ease the pain. When it was my turn, I made a bit of conversation, asked him about his life. He didn’t want to go into any of that. He just smiled and told me to massage with all the strength my skin and bones could muster.

Amid all this, Gabe wanted to have sex whenever he had a minute free. When his dad was sleeping he’d usher me into the Green Room or drive us out to the back-road fields and pull over on the side of the road. At night, with the hills behind us, the hum of cars in the distance, a light breeze through the grass, it was kind of spectacular. But I was never in the mood. So often we would go all the way out there for me to freeze over. “You’re removed,” he told me. “Checked out. A sandbag.”

“Well, sorry,” I said. “But I massaged your dying dad’s legs earlier. I’ve come all the way here. I’m doing what I can do. Right now all I can be is a sandbag.”

“I’m exhausted and I need love.”

“We just had sex.”

“Oh yeah. ‘We just did this, we just did that. I gave you a blowjob last week …’ ”

“I know you’re sad but you’re being a dick. How can you not see that?”

“I don’t want to talk.”

“You were the one who started the conversation. I was just lying here.”

“Exactly.”

***

The days went on and Lou held on. One evening I noticed a slice of a moon through the kitchen window and realized it had been two weeks since I’d arrived. Despite the pain, Lou still wanted to move around, take a stroll with his walker, barbecue pork, play guitar on the patio with his son. “This is not how normal hospice patients behave,” Julie said. We were standing in the kitchen, looking at family pictures. In many of them the whole family and some friends were sitting around jamming, having a good time. Not that long ago—five years, maybe.

“Most people just lie in bed. But my husband—he’s on his feet demanding fine dining! I don’t want to complain, but it makes me think—miracles can happen. And if he does get better, things would have to change around here. There’s no money. We can’t live like this. Steak-dinner takeout! We’d lose the house.”

I nodded and made to say something, but she carried on.

“Sometimes I think I might be an alien,” she said. “I’m not like other people. Like lying—people lie so easily but I can never lie. Neither can Gabe. We’re both like that. I can see how hard it is for him in the world. We just don’t make sense here! He needs to get a job, get a car. Get going with his life. You’re so good for him. He listens to you. I always told him, If you wanna just do what you want, then find a groupie. You’re no groupie. You’re like an angel sent here. I mean it. I prayed to God for you and you came. But you’ve got your life ahead of you.”

Gabe must have been listening because he ran out of the Blue Room at that point.

He took my hand and peeled me away. “We’re going on a walk now, Mom. She doesn’t wanna talk anymore.”

“See,” Julie said. “He’ll do anything for you.”

***

Lou was still ringing his bell on his sixty-fifth birthday, November 16, a milestone that had seemed unthinkable a month before. We arranged a small party for his family and a few of his music buddies. Gabe spent the morning setting up the backyard with microphones and guitars. He even put a TV and VCR on a cart on wheels to play home videos. We drove out to the Mexican supermarket and bought carnitas and a case of mini Corona bottles. On the way out he impulse-bought a ceramic Day of the Dead guitar to give his dad. When the friends arrived at the house, Julie took the opportunity to go have some time alone and run errands at Vons and CVS.

The men barbecued pork, and I made pico de gallo, according to Joni’s instructions. It was a hit. The men in their cowboy getups were shocked that the English girl had prepared it. The sun was shining, people were sitting out, eating the barbecue. Gabe tried his best to get people to play music but it wasn’t happening. How do you celebrate the birthday of a dying man? I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself. At one point, Gabe gave his dad the ceramic guitar wrapped up in Christmas wrapping paper. “Día de los Muertos,” said his dad. He held the guitar in his palms, disgusted.

The men got it together and started playing “The Cowboy Who Started the Fight.” Lou watched on in his wheelchair. He closed his eyes as they sang “screamed through the veins of the street.” They sang a few more songs. Gabe and I took a break to catch the sun go down over a field of tomato vines. In the ten minutes that we were out, Lou stood up with a guitar to play a song with them. He was just sitting back down as we came in the door. Soon after, the guys all left.

“Man plans, God laughs,” Gabe said.

Julie was gone for most of the day. She returned from her errands with a gift for Gabe. She was so excited about it, she wanted to give it to him straight away. Out of a green and white paper bag, Gabe pulled a fluffy llama with wonky eyes. He squeezed it and the llama squeaked.

“It’s a dog toy,” he said, sounding like his father when he held the Day of the Dead guitar. Julie laughed and laughed. She said it reminded her of Gabe and the blueberry muffin. I laughed too. Gabe grimaced.

“Oh no … I think he’s angry,” Julie said.

“Here,” I told Gabe. “Don’t be angry. Squeeze your dog toy.”

He took the llama in both hands, crossed his eyes, stuck his tongue out, and let it rip.

***

November 18 was the eighth anniversary of my own father’s death. I woke up feeling sad and drained. At this point, I thought to myself, Lou needed to die or someone else would. I spent the morning swinging in the hammock by the redwood at the bottom of the garden, hiding from everyone. I heard Gabe and Julie calling for me from the house. Lou wanted a massage, they said. His legs were hurting. I couldn’t face it. Gabe called my phone. I ignored it.

When I went back inside, the two of them were maneuvering Lou into the living room. Gabe almost dropped him and he fell back on the sofa with a cry of pain. “You’re not helping!” Julie screamed at Gabe.

“Mom. I am midhelping. You’re brain-dead from your painkillers.”

“Enough!” Lou’s voice boomed from the sofa, where he was half-collapsed, falling off the side of it. “Stop it! Both of you!”

Julie and Gabe stopped, ashamed.

“Now, son.” Lou took in a quiet, pained breath. “Can you help me off this damn sofa and take me back to bed?” Gabe pulled him up by the armpits.

That night Lou could only manage a spoonful of canned tomato bisque.

“I think he’s going to die today. The same day as your dad. If our dads die on the same day that’s God talking. We’ll have to get married.”

Later, Gabe slept next to me in the Green Room while his mom was with Lou. I dozed while I listened to Julie talk to Lou, telling him about their life together. “We’re good people,” she told him. “Weird people.” She could have been saying anything really, the hum was so soothing. “There’s no one around here like us.” It kept sending me back to sleep.

I woke up to Lou’s voice crying out: “Help! I can’t breathe!” I pushed Gabe and he bolted into the Blue Room. Julie woke up too. “I’m coming!” she called out.

I stayed in bed, listening. They were arguing about how much morphine to give Lou. Julie said Gabe was giving him too much. Gabe said it wasn’t enough. She ran to get the phone to call the nurse. Lou was desperately trying to get words out. He couldn’t breathe. And then a desperate gargling, drowning on thin air. Gabe was saying, “It’s okay Dad. I’m right here. I’m right here,” all through the gargling until Lou was no longer making any sound.

When I walked in, Lou’s skin had already yellowed. I realized I’d seen three dead bodies now. My dad, my granddad, and Lou. They all looked the same, laid out on a hospital bed. It was five minutes to midnight. An hour later a nurse came. Another hour, and a man and a woman arrived from the mortuary. At the door, their long, gray, thinning hair obscuring half their faces, they told me they were here for the body. Never have I seen more ghoulish-looking people. They wore baggy suits with sleeves that came down over their hands, and round, shiny shoes that also seemed a few sizes too big. They moved slowly. “Was he in the military?” they asked. “No,” we said. “He was not in the military.”

“Okay, thank you.” They put a sheet over Lou’s body and wheeled him through the house, out the front door. Julie followed him out, holding Birdie. She wanted to show the dog that Dad was leaving. Dad was being wheeled onto the van.

“See, it’s okay, Birdie. There he goes. They’re wheeling him in now. He’s going …”

Gabe didn’t want to watch his dad go into the back of a van. I found him in the backyard with a tall glass of vodka, smoking a cigarette. He joked that he’d been praying to his dad as he was dying. “Come on, five more minutes. If you make it five more minutes I won’t have to marry her.” Then he said that he was plotting to steal morphine to kill the dog.

All the lights were on. It was three in the morning. Gabe pulled out a crate of home videos and Julie and I told him to put them away. I made us some tea. We had some more vodka. Julie went to bed and I put Gabe in the shower. I washed his hair and cried, but he was like a stone. I could tell he was still obsessing about killing Birdie. After the shower, I put him in a clean T-shirt and underwear, tucked him in to bed, and held him tight until he fell asleep.

I woke up in the morning to Gabe sleeping soundly next to me. He looked so at peace I didn’t want to wake him up. It made me cry. His eyes opened. “Dad?” he said. I couldn’t tell if he was joking. Soon after, we heard Julie howling. Long, slow howls. One of the saddest, strangest noises I’ve ever heard. “My life!” she called out between the howls. “My life!” It was almost like singing.

After that first day Julie said she needed to mourn alone. We needed to leave so she could scream and cry and talk to God. We went to Joni’s for a night but then Joni said she was too sad and stressed to have us there, with the baby coming soon. A little desperate, we decided to go camping. For the next week we drove between beaches along the central coast, walked, wrote, drank beer. Gabe wrote a list of plans for the future, plans that involved him getting paid to travel, recording his album, singing at a body of water every day, building the 24-7 radio live-stream, moving every three months. He was going to give this list to his family, to prove to them that he had a plan. “You two need to move on with your own life now,” Julie had told me before we left. I couldn’t understand how his family could abandon him at a time like this. I’d had to remind her that Gabe had come home to look after Lou, that we’d been living and working in Chicago. At the same time, I got what she was saying and why they didn’t want him hanging around. Gabe was a liability, and now he was my liability.

***

Lou didn’t have a funeral. They were going to take his ashes out to the ocean in the spring. After the week of camping, Julie got lonely and wanted Gabe back again. I decided to leave, to stay with a friend in Brooklyn for a while. I found a flight from San Francisco and booked a train from San Luis Obispo up the coast. Before I left, I found Gabe a job doing yard work for a neighbor. He would save some money and leave in January. We said we might travel around. I tried to believe it could happen but I knew that it would not.

As we left for the train station, a commode arrived for Lou, more than a month late. Julie couldn’t bear to look at it, so we said we’d give it to Goodwill on the way to the station. She gave us a trash bag of old blankets to donate, too. I said a tearful goodbye to Julie and she gave me an envelope with a hundred-dollar bill in it. She thanked me for all the help and told me to get something nice for myself.

“Gabriel doesn’t want you to go,” she said.

I hugged her again and got in the car. “I never say goodbye,” she said. “I only say see you later.”

We drove up to the back of Goodwill and waved down a man who seemed to be accepting donations. “Is that a commode?” he asked.

“Yep. My dad just died. He never used it.”

He shook his head and tutted. “Nah. We can’t take that. That’s nasty.”

“How about these blankets?” Gabe said, pointing to the trash bag.

“This bag? Those blankets?” The man took a quick sideways look. “Nah, we can’t take that either. That’s nasty, too.”

We were in a silly mood, driving to San Luis Obispo with the commode rattling in the back. It was a fresh December day. You could feel a change in the air. We stopped off at Ben Franklin’s Deli and I ordered three Californian sandwiches from the cashier, one for me, one for Gabe, and one for him to bring home to his mom.

“My dad just passed away and my girlfriend is leaving for New York!” Gabe announced out of nowhere.

There was still some time before the train. At the station we ran up over the footbridge to get a good view of the tracks and the hills. I took a few pictures of Gabe. He took a few of me. The train came, we said goodbye, and I found a spot with a table at the back of the second-floor observation car, the same booth we’d sat in after that first trip. My bags stowed away, I looked down and saw Gabe on the platform below, dancing to get my attention. He was trying to say something, but I couldn’t understand him. He mimed and danced around a bit more. Got on his knees. Drew a picture of a house with his finger in the air.

A man sitting a few seats ahead of me watched the scene in awe. All of a sudden he began narrating it to the rest of the car.

“Marry me,” the man said. “We’ll have a house by the sea.”

Gabe mimed writing in a notebook, then swimming, then playing guitar.

“You can write poetry. I’ll swim. Play music,” said the man.

By this time everyone in the observation car was watching. The narrator turned to me.

“Does he have a phone number? I want to tell him something.”

“He doesn’t have a phone,” I said. “But you can leave a message on his mother’s answering machine.”

So the man dialed Julie’s number, and Gabe, feeding off the audience, mimed a phone in response. I thought of Julie at home alone, rattled by the phone ringing. The man spoke to Gabe through the glass and Gabe nodded along, though he definitely couldn’t hear. Neither of them broke eye contact. The man said he was a preacher. He’d married about ahundred couples by now. Each time it had been uniquely special. “Why wait?” he told the future Gabe, who would be listening to his mother’s answering machine if he ever got around to it. The preacher ended his message with his number, saying to call him if we wanted to get married.

The train started moving and Gabe ran along the platform. I waved until I could no longer see him. Soon I was coasting inland. A rush of green-gold on either side. Pesticide farmland, trees, bushes thick with leaves, sunlight gracing the tip of everything. I stared out the window the whole journey. No sign of December anywhere, no sign of time passing. So much talk of marriage in God’s country. No doubt He had it all planned out for me.

Helen Longstreth is a writer currently living in Brooklyn, New York, after growing up in Bath, England. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, Touchstone Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. She is working on a collection of stories and essays.