Jeffrey opened the door and was greeted by the cool insides of the small hospital room, his sleeping father judging his delay from the depths of his slumber. The room looked the same as last time, as if it had been waiting for his return. He loosened his scarf, walked to the corner of the room, and hung his coat on the stand. His father was sleeping peacefully in the bed, the machines beeping a slow beat. He left his gloves on the nightstand by the picture Molly had brought last time she had visited. Jeffrey adjusted the picture so it could be seen from the bed.
He sat on the old leather recliner by the bed. That recliner was probably the worst place in which he had ever spent a night. It wasn’t the worst place in which he had ever slept because that would mean it was possible to fall asleep in that recliner, which wasn’t.
He slipped his hand into his father’s. The hand was freezing. If this were his first visit, he would’ve called a nurse to check his father’s temperature, but he knew everything was fine — the machines were still beeping. The old man had always had cold hands anyway, the only difference now was the prominent dark veins on his bony, white fingers.
Mr. Stratford used to have strong hands, not only to open pickle jars and slam tables in anger, but also to run his small business and raise his children. Now, his fingers looked like meek birch branches against the red of Jeffrey’s warm hands.
“Happy new year, dad,” Jeffrey said without a smile, “I’m sorry I didn’t come in December.”
The only answer was the constant beep of the machines keeping his father alive.
“I need to talk to you,” Jeffrey said. “I have important news.”
He looked for a reaction from his father — an old habit — but there was none. Mr. Stratford’s eyes were closed and his mouth slightly opened. His sparse white hair had been carefully combed back by Jeanine, the nurse (just as he would wear it), and small tubes were resting on his high cheekbones, gently sliding into his nostrils. There was a slight frown always present on Mr. Stratford’s face. It had always been there, and it hadn’t left him in his coma.
Jeffrey had not inherited his father’s high cheekbones, but his full dark-brown hair was carefully combed back just like Mr. Stratford’s. He had been taught to use his hair that way. It was elegant and professional, but also fashionable. It showed you were careful with your appearance, that you took care of yourself. “How can you manage a business if you can’t manage your own hair?” Mr. Stratford would say. Well, Jeffrey could manage his hair.
He rubbed his hands together. It was colder than usual in that room. He tightened his scarf and searched for the source of the cold. The window had been left open, just a narrow crack. Jeanine probably had forgotten to close it. This had never happened with Betty or Mark.
He went to the window and slid the glass closed. From there, he could see the hospital’s snow-covered parking lot. His car was parked in the usual spot, next to a tall tree with no leaves. He could remember the yard from back when his father had been admitted to the hospital. They were renovating the place back then. The parking lot didn’t exist, and they had just planted that tree, right at the intersection of two long grass strips. It was small and full of green leaves then. Now, it was three times Jeffrey’s size and it looked fragile against the snowy background, its branches bent in weird angles.
He stood by the window, giving the tree an empty stare.
His phone rang. It was Molly.
“Are you there?” she asked before he could say hi.
“Yes, I’m here,” Jeffrey said, facing the window.
“How is he?”
He turned to the bed. His pale father was barely visible against the white of the bedding, he looked frail and vulnerable, only the ghost of the man he had once been.
“The same,” Jeffrey said.
“Have you told him?” Molly asked.
There was a prolonged silence. Jeffrey stepped away from the cold that was still emanating from the closed window.
“Tell him I love him,” Molly said.
“Tell him now.”
“Do I need to?” he said.
Jeffrey turned to his father and said “Dad, Molly says she loves you.”
The beeping was the only answer.
“Thank you, Jeff,” Molly said.
“You’re welcome,” Jeffrey said, “I’m going to hang up now. I have to tell him.”
“Okay. Hey, it`s going to be okay,” she said. “Be strong. Bye.”
Jeffrey pocketed his phone and walked back to the recliner. The seat was as hard and cold as a marble slab.
“So, dad…” he started, trying the impossible task of getting comfortable on the recliner. “The thing I have to tell you… I don’t really know where to start.”
Before he could continue, the door opened and Jeanine entered, carrying a clipboard. She gave Jeffrey a surprised smile.
“Jeff! I didn’t know you were here,” she said.
“Hey,” Jeffrey said, shifting on the recliner. “How are you, Jeanine?”
“Good, good!” She walked to the machines on the other side of the room. “Happy new year!”
“Oh, thank you. Happy new year.” Jeffrey tried a smile. “How is… how’s Bob and the girls?”
“Good,” Jeanine said with a grin, “they’re good.” She made notes on the clipboard, reading the numbers from the machines. “Jocelyn went nuts on Christmas morning! She was going crazy and Kate wanted to open her gifts so they started fighting. Ugh, it was a mess! But you know how kids are.”
“And how are you?” she asked, hugging her clipboard. “Did you come to visit on Christmas? I wasn’t here.”
“No. I…” What he wanted to say was “I need to talk to my father, could you please leave?” Instead, he said “I don’t visit on Christmas.” Betty knew this, and Mark, before her, knew it too. “Old Mr. Charles Stratford over here never liked Christmas,” he explained. “He used to find the whole idea of exchanging gifts stupid.”
“Really?” Jeanine said. They were all always impressed when he told them.
“Yeah,” Jeffrey scratched the back of his head, careful not to mess his hair. “He didn’t like any gifts people gave him and he hated having to pretend he did. He also hated giving gifts because he didn’t know what people wanted. He used to say it was much easier if people just bought gifts for themselves, everyone would be happier.”
Jeanine laughed walking to the door. “What a character,” she said. “Well, there was a snowstorm on Christmas anyway. It wouldn’t do you any good coming here.”
“Yeah. Oh, by the way…” Jeffrey pointed to the window he had to close a second ago but trailed off. What was the point? “Well, nevermind,” he said.
“Oh, I just remembered,” she said, “there used to be a Stratford Paper Company if you can recall. I was wondering these days, was it related to your family in any way?”
Jeffrey took a deep breath. “Yes. My father was the founder.”
“Oh, you don’t say! I knew the name from somewhere and when I remembered the paper company I thought to myself ‘I have to ask Jeff.’ What a small world,” she said with her hand on the doorknob.
Jeffrey hoped that was it. But it wasn’t.
“So what happened?” she asked.
He sighed. “Well, back when my father had the accident I was still in college, so I quit to take care of the company while he was in the hospital. But I didn’t know anything about paper,” Jeffrey’s eyes were lost in the depthless white outside the window. He had the look of a child staring at the backyard on a rainy day, forced by the weather to stay indoors. “After five years I had only accumulated debt, so I sold it and they changed the name.”
“Oh, I see. Well, everything is digital now anyway, so you probably dodged a bullet there.”
Jeffrey nodded. “Sure.”
“Well,” she said, “it was nice seeing you, Jeff.”
“Yeah,” he said with a small wave. “Goodbye, Jeanine.”
She said bye and finally left.
It was still too cold in the room. He shifted in his seat and his eyes caught the picture on the nightstand. It was their Disneyworld family picture.
Molly was hugging Mickey Mouse with all her strength as if she wanted to squeeze the soul out of him like toothpaste out of the tube. She had the largest smile and she was missing a front tooth. Jeffrey was standing behind her, one hand on her shoulder and the other hugging Mikey’s back. Even though he was seven years older than his sister, he too had a large smile on his face.
“Do you remember this picture?” Jeffrey asked his father with a smile. “It was so hot that day, I think you never bought us so much ice cream. Molly was in ecstasy. I had never seen her so happy and I think I’ve never seen her as happy ever again.”
“It was a nice thing you did for us,” Jeffrey said. “I remember Molly was driving you mad to meet Mickey Mouse, but I think you would have taken us anyway. You were always this humorless, solemn man, but…”
Jeffrey studied his father in the picture. Charles Stratford was standing on the other side with one of his hands awkwardly resting on Mickey’s shoulder and the other one in his pocket. He was wearing the subtlest smirk in the world’s history. If you looked too fast, you wouldn’t even see it. Molly had brought that picture to the hospital because that was the closest Charles had ever gotten to a smile in a picture. His brows, as always, were furrowed.
The man in the picture was ruddy-faced, standing perfectly straight, the sun shining on his dark hair. The man in the bed was pale and wrinkled, his skin, translucent. But the furrowed brows were the same.
“Did you ever love us, dad?” Jeffrey asked his father. “Did you ever love me?” He put the picture back on the nightstand and grabbed his father’s cold hand. “I think you did. You rarely said so, but I think you did. You rarely showed, but I think you did.
“For a long time, I thought you hated me. Always judging me, always with that frown. I don’t blame you. Being a single parent must be hard, especially with Molly and me. She has always been… artistic. By the way, she is sorry she couldn’t come. She is still in Germany. You know her…
“I had never caused as much trouble as she had, but I was an underachiever. I know that, and I don’t hate myself for it because, for the longest time, I had you to hate me. But after the first three years, seeing your frown here every day, I finally got it. This has never been an angry frown. You were worried. You were concerned about Molly and me. You were afraid you weren’t doing a good job. You’re still worried, to this day. If there’s anything of you left in there, anyway.”
He caressed Charles’s bony finger joints with his thumb. He could feel where one bone ended and the next one started through the skin. He searched his father’s face. The frown was unaffected, the machines still beeping. Jeffrey could feel the beeps in his chest.
“You don’t need to worry about us anymore, dad. We’ve been living by ourselves for eleven years now. But you still have this frown. And when I see it, I sometimes ask myself, were you ever proud of me?”
It was colder than ever in that room, a freezing sensation was tightening Jeffrey’s throat.
“That I don’t think you were,” he said. “But I don’t blame you for that either, especially after what happened to the company. At twenty-two, I was still a kid!”
He let go of Charles’s hand and sat back on the wooden spikes he imagined laid under the recliner’s thin leather.
“It was so unfair. I had to come to the hospital, and pay the bills — you have no idea how much it costs to keep you here — and put up with Molly’s shit while she went to high school, and still manage a paper company. I really did my best those five years, but of course it wouldn’t be enough. I think my only good decision all these years has been going back to college.”
The cold was crawling down from Jeffrey’s throat to his chest.
“I didn’t come here to talk about the past, though,” he said. “I have important news.” He leaned forward and grabbed his father’s limp hand once more. The cold was burning itself a hole into his chest. He shivered.
“Ever since I graduated, I’ve been trying to get a good job. But there’s nothing for me in Creekville. I’m not even talking about jobs, there’s nothing for me at all in Creekville. I know every inch of this town, and I hate every one of them. It’s full of bad memories and disappointments. But how could I leave? Molly did leave, and I don’t blame her. In fact, I envy her. I wish I had her courage. I think she got it from you.
“You know, it’s been years she tells me to move on. And I try, I really do.” Jeffrey chuckled. “It’s almost depressing, but ‘moving on’ has been my new year’s resolution for quite some time.”
The cold made itself a cozy little home in Jeffrey’s chest, freezing his heart, making every beat hurt. There was a knot in his throat.
“Well, yesterday I received a job offer from New York.” His grip on his father’s lifeless hand tightened. “And I said yes.”
He studied Charles’s face. There was no movement. The frown was intact, his eyes closed, his mouth ajar. The beep of the machines was the only response Jeffrey would ever get.
“That means I have to leave town. That means I have to leave you.”
Jeffrey waited for an answer, for a roll of his father’s eyes, for the smallest sign of approval or rejection, for anything. There was nothing. As always.
The cold was burning in the hole it had made for itself inside Jeffrey’s chest, but it was the other way around. There wasn’t a hole because of the cold, it was cold because of the emptiness that had been growing inside him all these years, and that hollow space was larger than ever.
“For years,” Jeffrey said, “I believed you would come back. I thought you would wake up at any minute. I tried keeping the paper company intact for you and, when everything started to derail, I was terrified that you would wake up and see the mess I had made. But then that fear changed. What if you never woke up? What would I do?”
Jeffrey gazed through the window to the world outside. He wanted to loosen the scarf around his neck but it was too cold.
“When Molly left college I tried to accept that you wouldn’t wake up. But how could I? I didn’t know how! Still, I had to. And when I started making my own decisions, trying to take control of my life, I was terrified. I’m not in control of anything! I couldn’t even control my thoughts. Some nights I would go to bed wishing I would get a call from the hospital saying the machines couldn’t keep you alive anymore. And when that thought crossed my mind, I hated myself for having thought of it.
“But Molly is right, dad. I do have to move on. I’ve come here every month for eleven years and I talk to you for a few minutes. I see you age, and I talk to you about my life, about how frustrated I am, about how lonely I am. But I’m not talking to you, really. I talk to the machines. I’ve been talking to the machines for more than a decade.”
A single tear escaped Jeffrey’s control and ran down his face. Many more followed.
“I hate my life, dad!” he said. “I hate this town, I hate this hospital! I hate that fucking tree outside. I’ve been watching it grow out there my entire life while I stand inside watching you die. Except you’re not dying. You’re already dead! You’ve been dead for eleven years. And for eleven years I’ve been dead with you.”
Jeffrey let go of his father’s hand and covered his face. His own hands were cold. The frost burned in his chest as if he was lying shirtless in the snow.
“I have to let you go, dad. I have to start living my life. I can’t make you proud anymore, so I have to try making myself proud.”
The tears stopped for a moment and Jeffrey smiled, standing up.
“You know, I thought I would be ready for this. I knew this would have to happen someday. I had accepted it. I wouldn’t let it affect me. But I guess you’re never ready to say goodbye. Well, it's time. Goodbye, dad."
He picked up the picture, his gloves, and his coat, and walked to the door. Jeffrey looked at his father one last time. From this particular angle, he couldn’t see the frown on Charles Stratford’s face. He was resting peacefully in the snow-white of the bedding. But Jeffrey was probably just seeing things because of the cold.
He left the room and closed the door. It was time to get warm.