By Darlene P. Campos
Every time I went outside to play with my friends, Dad grabbed my legs and placed me in his lap. Then he would bow his head, close his eyes, and say “May the angels be under your feet.” I never understood why he said that since we were not religious. We believed in God, like nearly all of Ecuador, but we didn’t go to church except for weddings, baptisms, or funerals. By Grandma’s judgment, we were heathens.
As I approached my teenage years, Dad stopped saying his quick prayer. I assumed he didn’t worry about me anymore. I was old enough to take the public bus alone, run to the grocery store four blocks away, and cook simple meals for myself. But I missed hearing his prayer. There probably wasn’t as much substance in it as one of Grandma’s prayers which dragged on for several minutes. It was nice to know Dad cared for me and how he enjoyed showing me.
“Dad,” I said one evening. He didn’t turn to look at me from his recliner. The World Cup was on and Ecuador was in the lead.
“What is it?” he asked, impatient.
“Why don’t you sit me on your lap and pray for me anymore?” I said. Dad muted the screaming announcer on the television. He squinted his eyes and scrunched his mouth.
“You’re 17 years old,” he said.
“So? You don’t have to put me on your lap, but you could still pray for me.”
“Since when do I pray?” he said. “I haven’t been to church since your grandmother died five years ago. Now either watch the game with me or go find something to do.” I took a seat on the couch across from Dad’s chair and watched the Ecuadorian team make another goal. The whole neighborhood erupted in joy. Dad stood from his chair and jumped up and down. I never saw him so enthusiastic about anything else.
The day after my 20th birthday, I left home. I moved into a tiny apartment on the north side of Guayaquil. It was much quieter than living in the central neighborhood. Dad visited me about two weeks after my move-in. He brought a basket of fruit, olive oil, and assorted breads and cheeses. He took a seat at my little table and looked out the window.
“Are you sure you like it here?” he asked. “It feels like a ghost town.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “I sleep easy at night.”
“You know you can come back home anytime,” he said and crossed his legs. “Your room is empty. I haven’t touched it since you left.”
“I’m okay by myself,” I said, even though I wasn’t really sure.
My first year away from home was the easiest. I found a good job at the public hospital, writing and editing health related articles. It gave me enough money to pay bills and spoil myself on the weekend. Occasionally, I missed seeing Dad every day, but I reminded myself I was now an adult and I didn’t depend on him anymore. As the second year approached, Dad started to worry me. He was diagnosed with advanced diabetes and my cousins who lived fairly close to him told me he got into the habit of taking long walks at night. He would leave the house around seven each evening and he wouldn’t return until midnight or later. I asked how they knew this and they claimed to be following him to make sure he was okay.
One evening, I waited for Dad down at the corner. He came around 7:15, wearing dark clothes and a pin striped hat. He didn’t see me, so I tapped his shoulder and he fell into the busy street, almost hit by an oncoming taxi.
“What are you doing?” he said. “Don’t you have work?”
“It’s Saturday,” I said. “Where are you going?”
“Out,” he said and hurried past me. “Dictator.” I walked behind him, but he picked up his pace and soon, I couldn’t see him anymore.
A couple of days later, I rode my bike to Dad’s house. It was past nine o’clock and he wasn’t home. I still had a key, so I let myself inside. The living room looked the same as the day I left. The kitchen seemed fine too. Dad’s study was different. Dad retired from dentistry when I was 18, but he still read about it during his free time. All of his books were torn and scattered on the floor. A set of plastic teeth he used to practice on when I was younger had been crushed. I heard the front door unlocking and I ran to the living room. Dad wobbled inside, sweaty.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” he said, breathing heavily.
“I didn’t want you to worry,” I said.
“About what?” he asked and flung himself into his recliner.
“I didn’t want you cooking for me or anything like that,” I said. “I know you get tired more often because of your diabetes.”
“There’s leftover soup in the refrigerator,” Dad said. “Help yourself.” I shook my head and told him I wasn’t hungry, but he still got up to get me a bowl of soup. He placed the steamy bowl on the table and whistled at me.
“Sit, sit,” he said as he pulled out a chair for me. “Eat, this stuff is healthy for you.”
“Dad, shouldn’t you be eating this?”
“Me? I’m 67 years old,” he said. “I got to 67 years old by eating that soup.” He sat next to me and took off his hat. As I ate, I could feel his stare upon me.
“You look just like your mother,” he said. “I wish she could have seen you grow up.”
“I’m sure she did,” I said to make feel him better. She was kidnapped and murdered when I was two years old. Gang members mistook Mom for a rival’s wife. They apologized to Dad for the misunderstanding, but he never forgave them. Dad rarely talked about Mom, but every time he did, his face changed. His eyes shut halfway and his mouth tightened, like she was a dark held secret only the two of us knew about.
“Your mother loved soup,” Dad said as I continued eating. “She swore it was the cure for all ailments. For any kind of sickness I came down with, she had a soup recipe for it. She loved cooking so much she wanted to open a restaurant at the beach when you were older. Well, then you know what happened.” Dad got up from the table and walked outside to the balcony. He spit off the side of the railing multiple times to cover up his soft sobbing.
On Dad’s 68th birthday, we took a bus ride to the cemetery to visit Grandma. She lied in a small grave with my grandfather next to her. Dad placed flowers upon both of them, even though he had never met his father in real life.
“How about some cake?” Dad asked me as we walked back to the bus stop.
“But you’re a diabetic,” I reminded him. He shook his head.
“I’ve lived,” he shrugged. “What better way to die than by eating cake?”
We walked to a small bakery down the street. I looked over the display and asked for two slices of bread and two slices of chocolate cake, Dad’s favorite. We sat down at a rusted table near the front window, sipping on cold guava juice.
“68 today,” I said. “How do you feel, Dad?”
“Hungry,” he said. “Where’s our cake and bread?”
“They’re cutting it up for us,” I said and took a drink of my juice. “I meant do you feel 68? Or do you feel younger?”
“I can’t feel my legs most of the time,” he said. “Doctor says he might have to cut part of them off. I feel old. Really old. I wish I would have had you when I was younger so you could’ve known me better. You’re blossoming and I’m wilting. I’m sorry.” The waiter brought the fresh bread and cake to our table. He took our glasses to bring us more guava juice.
“You don’t have to apologize for that, Dad,” I said. “Kids happen.”
“I know, but you should have happened sooner. The older you are, the better you can deal with problems. It’s just common sense.”
I wasn’t sure what Dad meant until a couple of weeks later. His circulation was getting worse and the doctor said amputation was necessary right away. Since I was working at the hospital that day, I managed to take a break during Dad’s procedure. Dad lost both of his feet, but he didn’t react the way most people would. He looked down at himself and said, “At least I don’t have to buy shoes anymore.” I offered to move back in with him to make sure he was taken care of. He told me he was fine.
“Feet, who needs them?” he said. “Things live without feet all the time. Look at fish.”
“You’re not a fish,” I told him.
“I am now,” he said and held his breath. I patted his back and reminded him to call me if he needed any help.
Dad finally called me after three weeks. He sounded distraught, so I hung up the phone and got to his house as soon as I could. When I arrived, I found him staring at the television, mumbling words I didn’t understand.
“Dad?” I said and placed my hands on his shoulders.
“Yes?” he said, clearly.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. He pointed down to where his feet used to be.
“That,” he said. “That is what’s wrong.”
“You couldn’t help it, Dad,” I told him. “It’s not your fault.” Dad shook his head. He muttered again. Then he reached out to my arm, squeezed it, and looked into my face.
“Thank you for coming,” he said. “I appreciate all you do for me.”
Working at the hospital started getting tedious for me. My pay rate rose as did my holidays and benefits. They loved having me as their writer, so much that my supervisors often gave me gift baskets. But I couldn’t stand seeing Dad at the hospital every week. He needed more frequent checkups after his amputation to make sure he could keep his other limbs. Every time he came in, he would race by my office in his wheelchair. Sometimes he would toss a paper airplane at me which contained either money or one of his unfunny jokes.
What do you call a man without an ability to speak up? Married!
The staff at the hospital grew to love Dad, probably as much as I did. But I hated seeing him there. I wanted him healthy again. I wanted him to have his feet and be able to walk endlessly at night the way he used to.
On Christmas Eve, Dad invited me over for dinner. He made soup, chocolate cookies, and a large tub of Caesar salad, even though he hated Caesar salad.
“Why did you make all of this if you don’t like it?” I asked him.
“You like it,” he said. “Do you know why it’s called Caesar salad?” I shook my head and he cleared his throat to give me a ‘history’ lesson.
“Caesar salad was invented by Brutus,” he said. “You know, the one who stabbed Julius Caesar. Nobody actually likes salad, so Brutus called it Caesar salad because nobody actually liked Julius Caesar either.”
“What book did you read that in?” I asked.
“The one you obviously didn’t read,” he said. “Sit down and eat before this food rots.” He pulled out a chair for me and wheeled himself beside me. I served myself a hearty portion of the Caesar salad and soup.
“Your teeth look dirty,” Dad said. “Have you been flossing?”
“Dad, who cares?” I said. “It’s Christmas.”
“So because it’s a holiday, your teeth can go to hell. That’s good thinking. For New Year’s Eve, I won’t wipe my butt after using the bathroom.”
“Okay, Dad, I’ll floss,” I said. “It’s my New Year’s resolution.” Instead of dropping the topic, Dad wheeled over to his study and came back with his plastic teeth set, even though it was still breaking apart.
“What are you doing with that?” I said. “Get that away from the food, it’s full of dust.”
“Those are your teeth without floss,” he said. He laughed loudly, but then he clutched onto his heart. I dropped my fork on the floor and felt his chest with my hand. His heart was beating so fast, I could hear it.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Side effect from my medicine.”
“Are you sure? I don’t think hearts are supposed to go that fast, Dad.”
“Hearts can take a pounding,” he assured me. “They go through a lot. The only body part that deals with more crap than the heart is the rectum.” I laughed lightly and he squeezed my arm, laughing much louder.
After dinner, I sat with Dad in the living room. We watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” with the Spanish dubs. Dad’s first language was Spanish, but he was also fluent in English, French, and Portuguese. He stuck his tongue out at most of the scenes.
“Whoever translated this movie must have been drunk,” he said. “Or, maybe the translator couldn’t speak well because he didn’t floss his teeth.”
“I’m sure,” I said. “It’s almost one in the morning, do you need help getting to bed?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t sleep in my bed anymore. I sleep in my chair.”
“Do you want me to help you get in your bed?” I asked. Dad nodded and opened his arms out to me like a small child. I lifted him out of his chair and carried him to his bed. He threw himself on the mattress, smiling.
“This feels amazing,” he said. “I forgot how great a bed was.”
“Anything else you need from me?” I asked. “I’ll be in my old bedroom.”
“No, I’m fine,” he said. I turned to walk away, but I felt his hand tug at my pants. I looked back at him and sat down on the bed.
“Have you had any nightmares lately?” he asked.
“Not any I remember,” I said. “Have you?”
“I had one a couple weeks ago,” he said and pulled a blanket over himself. “Ecuador banned guava juice.” I smiled and told him something like that would never happen.
“Just like Ecuador winning the World Cup,” he said and I laughed out loud.
“They might win next time, you never know.” He stayed quiet and held my hands tightly. They were cold and clammy. Then he bowed his head and closed his eyes.
“May the angels be under your feet,” he whispered. “And hold you up, away from all danger, away from temptation. May the angels lift your soul to the sky and never let you go.” Dad unclasped my hands and sunk his head down into his pillow.
“I never knew there was more to it,” I said.
“There always was, I just never felt like saying the whole thing,” he said. “Your mother used to tell you that every night as you slept in your crib.” I nodded and straightened Dad’s blanket. As I left his bedroom, he whistled, so I turned back.
“I figure the angels, if there are any,” he began. “Should be under your feet since they don’t need to be under mine.”
“You still have feet, Dad,” I said as I leaned against the doorway. “You just can’t see them. I still have a mother, don’t I?”
“You’re right,” he said. “I still have a wife.” He held up his hand and his wedding ring, now a shade duller, stood out from the rest of his fingers.
“Goodnight,” he said. “Don’t forget to floss. I refuse to have a child with bad teeth.”
“Goodnight,” I told him. “May the angels be under your feet.”
“The angels probably smelled my foot odor. That’s why they left me,” he said. I gave him a kiss on his forehead. After he finally fell asleep, I went to his study to try to put his plastic teeth set back together.
Darlene P. Campos is an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at El Paso’s Creative Writing Program. In 2013, she won the Glass Mountain magazine contest for prose and was awarded the Sylvan N. Karchmer Fiction Prize. Her work appears in Prism Review, Cleaver, Red Fez, Bartleby Snopes, Elohi Gadugi, The Writing Disorder, Connotation Press, Word Riot, Plain China, and many others. She is from Guayaquil, Ecuador but has lived in Houston all her life. Her website is http://www.darlenepcampos.com