My father leaned his head forward to sip more scorched black coffee and let it fall back again onto the headrest of his recliner. "Dr. Milton says she could be in this condition for weeks. Maybe longer." We stared in unison at the blank, liquid-gray window of the console television, the focus of the room's furniture, trying perhaps to peer into it, behind it. Avoiding eye contact.
"That's no way to live." The cushions on my parents' couch sagged and the frame of the pullout bed beneath cut into my thighs. My legs were numb. I crossed them under me. "But can't he help you?"
"He has his license to think about." I glanced at my father and accidentally met his eyes. They were as dark and blank as the TV screen. There was an animal sense about them, weary of the past, fearful of the future. I had to look away.
My mother had insisted, before we got married, Nina and I spend an evening with the two of them. A sort of family council. I had been living with Nina in New York—'in sin' as it were—for nearly a year. My parents had managed to overcome their qualms—they pretended to accept our saving-on-ungodly-high-rent-for-two-apartments argument—and overlook this effrontery, though my mother had made it clear they did not like, much less condone, it. Nina had balked at the idea of any sort of pastoral counseling—we were bright, modern, aware adults; we knew what we wanted, knew what we were getting into. Religious issues were mere afterthoughts. Quaint. But I owe them that much, I had said, after all, they are my parents. She acquiesced.
The two of us had huddled together on this same tweed sofa—even then the stuffing in the cushions had begun to give. Nina leafed through the thick scrapbook of snapshots my mother had plopped onto her lap: there I was mewling and stupid in a fat diaper with an ankle tag and an inky foot; there in a series of Halloween costumes: a bunny suit with lopsided ears and a black eye of unknown origin, a black mask and fedora and Zorro cape with a plastic foil, a Frankenstein's monster menacing a group of teenage girls; there I was in a series of pointy paper hats blowing out an increasing number of candles on various birthday cakes; there in different sets of pajamas on numerous Christmas mornings riding a hobbyhorse or playing with some forgotten mechanical toy; there I was standing with my father in front of our old Rambler station wagon or the new Dodge in the gravel driveway of the parsonage in Fallstone Trace; there I was in a new Johnny Carson Spring suit with my arm around Amy Bowen's shoulders after church one Easter; there, in the same suit, strutting across the stage as the lead in the high school play, long-haired and mustachioed; there, again in the same jacket, pounding a wooden podium as captain of the debating team. And there I was, gowned and tassel-capped, graduating from college. I suspect that for my mother this scrapbook was as much a marketing tool as memento; I never knew her to be so rankly sentimental. But, as Nina chuckled her way through the faded and browning pictures, I winced with the feeling that they were no more than an advertisement for my meager upbringing.
Mother's eyes that evening had reflected the gleam of the silver urn she'd set out for us alongside a napkin-lined plate of homemade brownies after dinner. It was the only time I could recall her using the silver service, which she reserved for special guests, for me. We had eaten a dry, baked chicken with wild rice, over-boiled broccoli, and sugar-glazed carrots off her mother's bone china. She kept our crystal goblets sweating throughout the meal with sweet tea so cold it made my teeth ache. Still sporting her lap apron, even though our meals had been cleared away, she took the scrapbook from Nina, measured out our coffees, then sat down in the side chair she always sat in—the one with the blue toile print of a shotgun-toting hunter and his dogs jumping a brace of pheasants—smoothed the creases in her flared skirt, and crossed her ankles.
My father looked directly at Nina across the top of his coffee cup, arched an eyebrow over his horn-rimmed glasses, and said, "So, which of you is it going to be?"
"Joseph Bethune!" my mother said. She rarely used his first name, even in my presence, choosing to refer to him in the royal third-person: Reverend Bethune. "Now, you be polite. We just sat down to coffee. Give the kids a moment to get settled. Here, have a brownie." She thrust the plate at him.
Nina fluffed a kidney pillow behind her back. I stared at the silent, coffin-sized console stereo that took up half of the opposite wall in those days. Even then, though it had not worked in a dozen years my parents refused to junk it. Instead, they used it as a television stand and an occasional sideboard.
"Nina?" My father chose to ignore my mother's upbraiding. "Why don't you tell me what you think?"
"I'm sorry?" she temporized.
"Which of the two of you do you feel should be the first to die?"
She stared at him as she might a sales clerk who had just informed her she'd tapped out credit card limit. "With all due respect, Reverend Bethune, that's hardly a fair question."
"I know it's not a pleasant subject but it's a serious one. I always ask it of the couples that want me to marry them," he said. He turned to me "What about you, Joshua? Any thoughts?"
"Let's not do this tonight." I had known this was coming, had told Nina to expect an ambush—even though my father, much to my mother's chagrin, would not be performing our wedding.
"We've thought this through, Son." My mother's words surprised me. "And your father feels you should as well. Every couple who wants to get married should. Remember, the vow says: 'til death you do part.'"
"So...?" I looked at her. "What did you two decide?" A favored tactic of my youth that still worked well at my job, putting my inquisitors on the defensive.
"There is no one right answer," my father said. "But as a matter of faith, there is one way of looking at it. Mary Helen and I discussed it at length, didn't we dear? Before our wedding."
She nodded and smiled. "More coffee?" She leaned forward and laid her hand on the curving silver handle of the coffee pot, examining each of us and our cups in turn. Nina and I shook our heads. "Another brownie, dear?" She picked up the plate and handed it to my father. He took two.
"When we were engaged—we were much younger than the two of you at the time—we had this same discussion with our pastor, Dr. Griggs. Remember him?" He caught a crumb tumbling off his chin.
"Sure, didn't he have a farm out in the country?" I milked my first cow there, rode my first horse, plucked my first chicken, picked my first boll of cotton. "A sort of gentleman's farm," I added for Nina's benefit.
"Right." My parents' living room was paneled in knotty pine. A thick brass eagle, wings wide spread, a patriotic shield in its talons, hovered over the wide brick fireplace they never used. Vases of dried, brown flowers bracketed the mantle. A clumsy, primary-color portrait of the three of us, done in oil by one of my father's parishioners when I was a round-headed baby, hung (still hangs for that matter) behind the sofa. "And I think it is fair to say we were just as surprised as the two of you by the question." He smiled at my mother.
"No, we had never thought about it," she said. "Who does at that age? You think you're going to live forever. But Dr. Griggs gave us time to think about it. We talked about it practically every night for a month. Remember how we used to sit out on the porch swing at your mother's house every evening after dinner?"
"Yes, that's right, dear. And normally I would ask this question the first time a couple comes to see me so they can think about it before the next session. But we don't have that luxury since y'all live in New York." He peered over the tops of his glasses at Nina. "But you're a bright couple..." He smiled. "What do you think?"
Nina filled her and my coffee cups, holding down the top of the pot, and wadded a paper napkin to mop up a small drop that had trickled onto the salver. She glanced at me as she dribbled in a few drops of cream, her smile masking what I took from her eyes to be a certain imploring desperation. "More cream, J.?"
"Thanks. Just a tad." I took a sip: coffee, cream, and air. "Okay, so, Dad, what did you and Mom decide?"
He looked at me, then at my mother. "Well, that's really between us," he said. I looked back and forth from one of my parents to the other.
Mother had nodded. "You two need to resolve it for yourselves first."