One day over the summer, as my daughters and I were passing through my parents’ apartment on our way to the back yard, we noticed, through the windows, that the next-door neighbors were pulling up all the grass from their yard and putting in Astroturf. My father, who lives downstairs from us and whose kitchen we always have to walk through if we want to enter or exit by our back door, was sitting in his usual chair in a V-necked T-shirt stained with spaghetti sauce and a pair of boxer shorts, reading Star magazine. He was, at that time, eighty-seven years old. He ignored us as we passed behind him on the stairs. He was reading aloud to himself about Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.

Though I should have known better, for some strange reason I said, “Look, Dad. The Victorines are putting fake grass in their yard.”

My father looked up abruptly. He had not realized we were there, and seemed surprised to see us. His eyes followed my pointing finger and he saw the neighbors laying their Astroturf. “What the hell are they doing out there?” he asked.

“Putting in fake grass,” I repeated. I had already been speaking loudly, but now I raised my voice loud enough that the neighbors themselves probably could hear the conversation. Bartender ear, my mother called this back in the days when my father’s not seeming to hear anything we said was elective on his part. He had listened to drunks repetitive ramblings for so many years that he learned simply to tune voices out. He lived to a private Stan Getz riff in his head.

Now he looked at me accusingly. “Fake rats?” he shouted. “What do you mean, fake rats?”

My daughters started laughing. “Fake grass!” they shouted in unison. “Fake grass, Papa! Grass.”

“Grass,” I explained, over them. “You know, green stuff that grows on the ground.”

But my father wasn’t looking at us, which may have meant that, since he couldn’t see our lips moving, he didn’t even know we were speaking to him. Some days, his ears work better than others, but those days are fewer and farther between.

“Fake rats!” he cried indignantly. “What do they want to do something like that for?”

“Dad,” I began. My daughters and I were all, I confess, basically guffawing into our hands by then. “Dad, not rats! Nobody wants fake rats on their lawn. We’re talking about grass. G-R-A-S-S!”

“Jesus Christ,” my father said, turning back to Lohan and Hilton in Star. He was finished with us and was muttering to himself under his breath. “Fake rats,” he hissed, shaking his head while his eyes perused the pictures of twentysomething celebrities. “I never heard of such a thing.”

***

My father was not always like this. He used to wear a Brooks Brothers raincoat. He used to have a penchant for tea and marmalade—while other Italian men in our blue collar neighborhood wanted to be Brando, or just Joey Iupa, my father the Anglophile aspired to Cary Grant. Though he went bald in his early twenties, he never had that greasy look some men get. He always smelled good, of Polo cologne. I suspect that, to ward off any appearance of shine, he used to use Old Spice powder on his head.

***

About ten years ago, my mother began speaking to me in a conspiratorial tone. She began opening conversations with lines like, “Your father has bought this cookie jar in the shape of a suckling pig and is keeping it on his dresser. It has no cookies in it—he just thinks it’s a nice decoration.”

A product of the Great Depression, my father began to hoard cans of ravioli under his bed.

His hearing failed, but he insisted my mother and I merely mumbled. When we insisted this was not the case he said, “Oh Jesus Christ, you two never say anything interesting anyway.”

Apropos of nothing, he would sometimes rail about things like why pregnant women wear skimpy tops.  “See, here’s Gwenyth Paltrow from a magazine and even she looks like shit, women shouldn’t do that!–don’t they know how bad it looks?”  His face would grow red with frustration when in thirty-five years of knowing him I had never before heard him voice an opinion on maternity fashion, or anything to do with pregnancy, or really even raise his voice except when driving.

One day five years ago, he couldn’t move his foot–which was already riddled by peripheral neuropathy so that he experiences his feet as “round,” without the feeling of his toes or heels—off the gas pedal and had to drive his car into a sign post to avoid harming anyone on the road. After that he didn’t drive anymore, and my mother, in her seventies, got her driver’s license for the first time, and something irrevocable shifted between them.

He needed a cane to walk, but was too proud to use one, so instead he began to fall down a lot. Then he used the cane, but soon needed a walker. The week of his 85th birthday he fell on the way to the toilet and fractured his pelvis. He contracted pneumonia in the hospital and hallucinated being in the apartment of one of his many long-dead friends, Tommy Catalano, and kept saying, “What the hell did Tommy do to these walls?” He didn’t recognize my infant son and called him a “big headed little German who’d turn you in on a dime.” The doctors essentially wrote him off for dead—an eighty-five-year-old man with a broken hip and pneumonia is practically a cliché for which they offer you a special funeral rate—but against all odds he was home within the week, albeit unable to move and wearing a diaper. Then he was stricken with some of the nastier side effects of massive doses of antibiotics; we spent Christmas 2006 changing his diaper almost on the hour while he screamed at the ceiling, begging for the Death he had cheated once again.

He never walked again without a walker. Sometimes, even with the walker, he still falls. As winter snow and ice hit Chicago early this year, he announced he would just not be “going out” anymore.

When my parents were first dating, my father would do things like drive my mother to New York so she could taste the cheesecake. They would drive all night, and once they got there and downed a slice, my father would want to go out to the jazz clubs, and then he would drive home all night into the next day to make it home to work at his bar by evening.

Now, my husband, kids and I spend a great deal of time on a 160 acre farm only a few hours away in Wisconsin. It has a dilapidated old red barn my father would love—he used to stop at roadsides and take photos of barns just like that when I was a kid. But he has never been to the farm—he has never seen “our” red barn. Long car rides hurt his back too much now, and he has difficulty controlling his bladder and can have accidents if cooped up too long. We try to convince him that we’ll pull into every rest stop we see—every twenty minutes if he likes—but he is unconvinced. “Oh honey,” he says. “What am I going to do when I get there anyway? I don’t want to go anywhere anymore. I can’t even walk.”

When someone says something like this to you, you want to turn into a cheerleader. You want to protest that just sitting on the wide front porch and watching the children play in the overgrown grass, that surveying the poetic barn, would somehow be enough. But who are you to say what is enough? My father has already hit the point of “enough,” but then it left without him, and he is still here.

When I was young, my father loved to make fun of old people, to my mother’s horror and my amusement. He would shuffle around like Tim Conway and make puttering noises and twitch his hands theatrically when drinking his tea if there were gray-hairs nearby. The ironic truth is, even his most dire imitations of the elderly did not do justice to what it is like right now just trying to watch my father make it from his bedroom to the kitchen table in the morning: a ritual involving a walker, an entire pill case of tablets to lessen the pain from his osteoarthritis, his spinal stenosis, his temporal arteritis, and his peripheral neuropathy. His journey some twenty feet involves a string of repeated expletives (Oh boy oh boy oh Jesus Christ this fucking body boy oh boy oh boy), and an obsessive compulsive need for a milkshake involving ice cream, milk and bananas.  To be clear: the shake has absolutely no relationship to his medical requirements, yet he will not take his pills without this shake, so that if it is midnight and there are no bananas in the house, my husband and I will get a call to go and fetch some or otherwise the routine cannot be followed come morning. If there are no bananas; if my parents are out of milk, hysteria ensues.

***

The first half an hour of my father’s day goes something like this: He sits in his kitchen chair reading a gossip magazine, maybe Star or People or something of that ilk—something he never would have bought or even perused as a younger man, when he read Royko religiously but otherwise was not much of a reader; when he was into Lenny Bruce and foreign films and smoky jazz and All in the Family and Carson. Now, my father could tell you the latest weight gain of some obscure starlet I wouldn’t even recognize if she fell on me in the street. He reads these magazines because they are “easy,” and nothing else in his life is easy anymore. Early mornings, when he first begins to read, he does so silently like a normal person. If he can read “in his head” and actually comprehend what he is reading, then he knows better than to stand up and try to walk yet, because the pain in his body will still be too intense. But as half an hour goes by and my father’s regimen of pain pills begin to kick in, the words he reads become blurry to his eyes and his mind, and he begins to speak them aloud to keep track. “Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are fighting again,” he might read. (They know each other, right? Or is that Nicole Ritchie? My father would know the answer to this.) Still, he dares not get out of the chair. Finally, reading aloud doesn’t really work either. His brain has become so fuzzy that the sentence sounds more like this: “Lindsay Lindsay Lindsay Lohan and Paris Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton and Paris Hilton Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are fighting are fighting are fighting again.”

The pills have done their job. Now he can stand up and make it to the shower. Now, his daughter–can you believe she’s forty!–and his almost-teenage granddaughters can traipse downstairs on their good legs and talk to him about fake rats in the neighbor’s yard, and who knows why people do the things they do, and who cares anymore anyway? But where is the baby—why doesn’t his daughter have the baby with her; the little boy they named after him, with his ringlets and his big eyes, who looks so much like his daughter at that age, back when he called her Little Flower—where is the baby, when the only reason he can bear to sit here at this table and get through another day is for a glimpse of him. Why doesn’t his daughter have the baby with her—she leaves the baby too much, she works too much, runs around too much, the baby will grow up so fast, she’ll see, then it’s over, then the kids are all gone, even if they live right above you, still, they are gone.

Another day begins.

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GINA FRANGELLO is the fiction editor of The Nervous Breakdown. She is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (forthcoming from Algonquin in Feb 2014), Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press) and My Sister's Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She is also the Sunday Editor at The Rumpus, and was the longtime editor of the literary magazine Other Voices, as well as the co-founder and executive editor of its book imprint, Other Voices Books (now an imprint of Dzanc Books). Her short stories have been published in many lit mags and anthologies, including A Stranger Among Us: Stories of Cross Cultural Collision and Connection, Prairie Schooner, StoryQuarterly, and Fence, and her essays, journalism, reviews and interviews have appeared in such venues as the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post and the Chicago Reader. In her nonexistent spare time, she runs a writing program out of Mexico, <a href="http://www.othervoicesqueretaro.com/" Other Voices Queretaro.

43 responses to “II. Fake Rats”

  1. Brad Listi says:

    Damn, Gina.

    Are you just cranking this shit out or have these essays been brewing for a while? Because if you’re just banging these out in two hours or whatever, I’m going to be hugely impressed and insanely jealous.

    Couple things:

    1.) That farm in Wisconsin sounds lovely. What part of the state? I was born in Milwaukee.

    2.) I have a Stan Getz riff in my head, too. John Frangello. Bless him.

    • Brad, I’m flying by the seat of my pants here! No idea where I was going with this when I started, so have given myself three essays to figure it out. What I’m figuring out is that it would take a lot more than three–fear not, I will stop at three on TNB!–but I may have to keep working on this on my own for awhile.

      I’m not “famous.” My dad’s not famous. It seems weird to think of writing a memoir about him and my family, for no particular reason. We are not significant to anyone other than ourselves.

      But this is making me remember, actually, that writing for yourself is why we all start writing to begin with, and things like “who is the audience?” and “is there a market?” are concerns that come much, much later. Maybe I will keep going even if these are only for me to have and read, and someday for my kids.

      The farm is in Berlin, Wisconsin, about half an hour from Green Lake. It belongs to our best friends, Tom and Brad–inherited from Brad’s uncle–and is basically our fake vacation home: we have keys and go whenever we want, with or without them. It’s the sweetest (as are they.) Five bedroom old white farmhouse, furnished with these sort of beaten up antiques, with a wild crane refuge on the land, and the awesome old barn, and corn crops they rent to a farmer. Tire swing, picnic table and cheap pool out in the yard for the kids. Everything I never had growing up in the inner city. It rocks.

  2. D.R. Haney says:

    I started off laughing, and I ended feeling very sad. Oh God, what becomes of us all.

    This is splendid writing, Gina. I hope another installment is coming.

  3. Fake rats… I don’t know, but that was really, really funny to read. Thanks for that.

  4. I’ve told that story orally so many times, David, and it’s still just kind of hilarious to me. Here’s another in the same vein:
    My mom goes to visit an old man she knows in the hospital. He’s looking really frail and he’s speaking in a whisper. He mutters something to her that she can’t hear. She leans closer. He mumbles, “Straighten my big toe.”
    My mom doesn’t know what to do. She feels odd about it, but maybe he’s got a cramp. He’s in the hospital and sick and can’t move very well, so she doesn’t want to refuse him. So she throws up the covers and starts pulling on his big toe. Then she thinks, “Well, while I’m down here, maybe I should straighten all his toes,” and goes to work on the others, until they’re all straight.
    The old man is horrified. He starts sputtering his confusion. My mom withdraws. They stare at each other.
    The guy says, “I asked you to straighten my pillow!”
    My mom goes and gets herself a hearing aid the next week.

  5. Anon says:

    I am very moved by all of this, Gina. Thank you for sharing. I was never all that close to my father, although I did my duty as his son towards the end. Congestive heart failure over the course of fifteen years (my father wasn’t much for quitting – anything), with only eleven percent of his heart tissue still functioning, his body filling with fluid and his swollen legs all but useless to him at the end. Frankly, he was an asshole towards his kids for most of his life and the rest of them, while living within an hour’s drive, wouldn’t tend to him the one time my mom had to leave the state for a week. I ended up flying halfway across the country to make sure he was still breathing, get him to the bathroom on time, change his diaper when we screwed up and help him in and out of the shower. In my lifetime he went from a thin and fit man to a bloated lump to a pathetic stick figure, with the obviously mechanical lines of his pacemaker horribly outlined by the sagging skin of his chest. He died in 2007 at the age of eighty-three. One of the last coherent things he rasped was, “Would you all please just SHUT UP!!”

    You break my heart with this stuff, but in a good way.

    • As much as it’s killing me to see my dad as he is, I actually believe it’s easier to lose a parent with whom one has been very close than one with whom there has been so much contention. My husband’s mother has Stage IV cancer that she’s been living with for 3 years now, and I’ve watched him struggle with some of the emotional issues you and your siblings faced. I commend you for stepping up for your dad when he needed you, whether he appreciated it fully or not.

      • Anon says:

        “…I actually believe it’s easier to lose a parent with whom one has been very close than one with whom there has been so much contention.”

        I’ll let you know when my mom goes ;). We’ve grown very close over the past two decades or so – I get all of my horrible habits from her and I love her dearly for it – but I expect to be thoroughly devastated when she dies. We’ll see. She takes very good care of herself and is about to turn eighty-three. Given that her diabetic and lifelong alcoholic mother made it to eighty-six, she’s feeling pretty optimistic. Hell, she might outlast me….

  6. Matt says:

    What a bittersweet essay. Like Duke, I found myself laughing out loud at bits, and then felt immediately guilty about it. His calling your infant son “big-headed little German who’d turn you in on a dime.” made me imagine you holding a very small Peter Lorre (even though he was Austrian).

    But man, that ending…..I feel like I need a stiff drink right now…

  7. Zara Potts says:

    Jesus Christ Gina! (as your Dad would say)
    These pieces are just beautiful. Sad and poignant and delightful and loving. What wonderful parents you have – It’s no surprise really, given how wonderful you are. I feel like I’m getting a personal slide show of your parents and the slides are like perfect little memories that while they aren’t my own, I feel like they are now part of me. Thanks for sharing your family with us. What a gift.

  8. It was crazy, Matt. My mom and I were in my dad’s hospital room and he’s basically at death’s door with the pneumonia and the broken hip and it’s his 85th birthday week and it’s like there’s a shroud of Sad Tragic Energy floating over us all . . . and all of a sudden he says that about the big headed German, and my mom and I start hyperventilating laughing, which is even crazier because my dad is so sick and we don’t know yet that he’ll get better, but yeah, it was so fucking funny, especially because he is just OBSESSED with my son and how much he loves and adores him–my son is his whole reason for living, basically–but in that moment, man, he was just somewhere else; we just didn’t exist.

    • Matt says:

      It really just makes me wonder exactly what memory came bubbling up at that moment….the worlds people carry inside of their heads, you know.

      Of course…I’d bet you and your mother needed a good laugh at that moment….maybe his subconscious was getting wily with you.

  9. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    I “heart” your dad. And this essay. Looking forward to the next one.

  10. “Oh Jesus Christ, you two never say anything interesting anyway.”

    Gonna have to disagree with your dad on this one, Gina. This was fantastic. And interesting.

    But he did make a good point about the fake rats. Why the hell would anyone want those? Unless they had some fake cats to keep amused.

    Touching and sad and funny all at the same time. Very well written.

  11. Well, that would go with the fake grass. In fact, the reason for the fake grass was that their dog kept tearing up the lawn: maybe they should just have gotten a fake dog.
    Thanks, Simon!

  12. JB says:

    Is it brave to write about your parents? I think it is. I can’t really do it. Not yet. I admire anyone who can. It’s tough work. And you do it quite beautifully here.

    JB

  13. Hey, JB. I have said before on this site and many other places that writers are “liars, gossips and thieves,” and that anyone who is close to us has to inherently accept this. We steal other peoples’ stories (hopefully at least properly attributing them to their original tellers) and we spread and embellish on gossip/fantasy, and when we are REALLY inspired we tell outright lies. Given this, I have “treated” my parents–whom I adore–far better than I have most of the characters who populate my writing. I’m not sure if this is brave or ruthless or if writing the things that most strike me is just such a compulsion that I can’t avoid it even if there is good ethical cause to do so . . . but I would advise any writer to write as though everyone you know is illiterate or dead. Otherwise, the best stories never get told.
    Thanks for your words!

  14. Greg Olear says:

    I was so sure I had left a comment saying that I love these pieces and that the big-headed German line slayed me, yet it has vanished. So I leave it again.

    Gina, these are superb. My English teacher in high school, when he particularly liked something you said, would do the Italian gesture and kiss his fingers at you, with accompanying pucker noise. This I am doing to these pieces about your dad. (I’m Italian, too, but no one ever realizes it because of my Medidon (sp?) name).

  15. That’s weird, Greg, because I actually did get the comment in my email inbox, but it never showed up on the TNB page. I went back in to respond to you, and it wasn’t here. Damn technology. But yes, the “big-headed German who’d turn you in on a dime” line goes down in my family’s Hall of Fame, for sure. Thanks, and a Italian kiss right back at you.

  16. Jay says:

    Thanks for the story. when I saw that you teach writing I said “ah haaa.”
    your stories are like a beautiful painting or tasty home cooking. very nice.

    I found you through reading a mom blog (dooce) which linked to a dad blog (gboone) where “asshole” and “lifes a kick in the ass” caught my eye. my dad is 77 and losing health (altzeimers) and although we were never ‘close’, in fact when I was old enough to realize I could walk out the front door, I did, at age 13…and 16…and permanently at 18. I got over anger decades ago realizing both parents were big kids who never grew up and that live is both a beautiful gift and…’ a kicj in the ass’ or kick in the ‘head’ as Dean martin sings. So I mourned never really having parents long ago so that my sadness for him is weirdly impersonal. ….

    re: “We try to convince him that we’ll pull into every rest stop we see—every twenty minutes if he likes—but he is unconvinced”

    rent a huge RV (living room on wheels, with big windows, a nice bathroom, and ramp for an electric wheel chair (those cool fast ones you see advertised on TV). how could he say no?

    • Jay says:

      how do I put my picture in that picture box? (I know its something simple!)

    • Thanks, Jay. Interesting to hear the circuitous way you found this piece–I had no idea I was linked on Mom or Dad blogs! Cool.
      That RV idea is not the worst one ever . . . I may just have to try it. If anything he would have to agree because he could not stand seeing us waste the money if he didn’t use it–my dad hates to waste money more than anything!

      • Jay says:

        “Interesting to hear the circuitous way you found this piece–I had no idea I was linked on Mom or Dad blogs!”

        I am a total geek when it comes to the twists and turns of thoughts and links which lead to somewhere new, thus I will tell you exactly how I ended up at your article.

        it all started at (boingboing.net) a “guide to wonderful things” site
        a site I’ve known for 5-6 years

        which led to (kottke.org) a tech site
        this year

        which led to (dooce.com) a mom blogger
        this summer and today

        which led to (momversation.com) a mom megablog
        this summer and today

        which led to a momversation writer (Claire Bidwell Smith)
        today

        who linked to her blog (lifeinchicagoblog.com)
        for the second half of her article ( Jealous of My Daughter’s Nanny)
        today

        after which she linked to (thenervousbreakdown.com)
        for an article (It’s Always Just One Naked Guy in a Fanny Pack That Ruins it ..)
        by her husband (greg boose)

        which led to several of his TNB articles including (Preparing for the Birth of My First Child)

        at the end of which was a list of “Related Posts” links
        of which two were your articles:
        (Lifes a kick in the ass) and
        (fake rats)
        today

    • Jay says:

      “my sadness for him is weirdly impersonal.….”

      yet, I know he is still generally ok. For instance he drove cross country to Florida in November, with his wife, where they vacation in the winter. They are both very active. She is smart and strong and 15 years younger than him. They’ve been married 26 years. He has good insurance.

      I have kept the calls and visits occasional, brief and uncontroversial as necessary in order to barely maintain positive contact over the years as he is harsh.

      I must acknowledge that he taught me to think and be independent…perhaps to a fault (it will still be a bit before I possibly start a family at age 150..thus my general and specific interest in mom and pop blogs). he taught me to be a hard worker. and to sail. and If its at all possible to do I have the ability to make the most ornery person laugh. I made sure he knew that I knew and appreciated each of these positive things. Unfortunately there is much I could not do and certainly things I could have done but failed. my sadness there is common, personal and painful.

      and it is here in writing this comment that I will again mourn the dad I knew and the dad I did not know.

  17. Autumn says:

    I have got to stop reading things about fathers, and fathers getting old. I can’t take it anymore.

    Damn, Gina. This put me in tears at work, and then it made me laugh, which caused the tears to spill over, and now my nose and ears and eyes are all red and my cheeks stained and all I want in the whole wide world is to go home and hug my dad. (Thank goodness I’ll be home soon for Christmas.)

  18. Yes, give your dad a big hug. I’ll be very happy to think my dad inspired that in some way! Thanks, Autumn!

  19. Marni Grossman says:

    Gina- this is so gorgeous. As maybe you know, my grandparents are getting…older. That’s what we’ll call it. And since I’ve been living at home, their presence has grown much larger in my life. So this rings true in a lot of ways for me.

    “Oh Jesus Christ, you two never say anything interesting anyway.” Your father is wonderful.

    Can’t wait to read the next one-

  20. Thanks, Marni! Happy new year to you and your grandparents! Hope to meet you in 2010.

  21. Gina–as always you kill me with your stories. In a good way, though. It is a bittersweet thing to watch your own parents age and have their bodies betray them. And funny enough, my grandparents put astroturf on the steps up to their house. we were all just kind of going, “huh?” but funny what he misheard turned out to be the reason for this piece. I absolutely love it. xo

  22. […] *And then her seriously old, half-deaf father wants to know why the hell the neighbors have fake rats in their backyard (Part 2 of 3). […]

  23. […] Gina Frangello (I, II, and […]

  24. […] Gina Frangello’s father fails to see the point of fake rats […]

  25. stars with out makeup…

    […]Gina Frangello | Fake Rats | The Nervous Breakdown[…]…

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