In “Early Roman Kings”, today’s New Voices story from Rocco DeBonis, we meet Marco, the professor, and Clemenzo, his father, full of life. What first captured us was the marvelous relationship these two share. Follow along as they race recklessly toward their fates.
“When you’re coming up on another car like that your brakes are worthless,” my father said, no longer smiling, but not angry either, just disappointed. “The only thing to do is change course. It’s too late to brake after you’ve crashed.”
My father and I followed his nurse—a plump woman with rosy cheeks and freckled arms—along a row of curtained cubicles. Through the curtains, I glimpsed shrunken people sunk deep in lounge chairs. They held TV remotes in bony hands, their cavernous eyes cast upward, pale faces lit blue, IVs in their chests. The ward was designed to look like a hotel lounge with abstract art framed on the walls, Muzak in the air, and carpeting on the floor. A snack counter housed a Keurig machine, chips, and cookies, but there was also the strong odor of antiseptic. Machines chirped and beeped as they monitored vitals. Everywhere, the slow drip of Cytoxan, Taxol, Taxotere…
Before we reached his cubicle, my father had unbuttoned his shirt, baring his hairless chest and IV port. Implanted under his skin, it was a plastic disc, the size of a quarter, with a catheter that fed directly into his superior vena cava. He settled into his lounge chair, and the nurse flushed the port, injecting it with saline. He was tan and thin and still muscular from decades of construction work. The cancer hadn’t begun to destroy his body yet, though he’d lost clumps of hair and his eyebrows to initial chemo treatments.
As she set his drip, the nurse complimented my father’s fedora. It was black with a small, violet feather tucked into a cobalt blue band. He wore tight jeans and a box-cut shirt patterned with tiny black diamonds over a field of blue that matched the fedora’s band. This was a skill I never knew he possessed, matching his clothes. When I was younger, he wore faded jeans, corduroy shirts, and scuffed boots—his work clothes—all week long, even over the weekend. My mother fought with him to wear a tie to my high school graduation, so he wore a tie with faded jeans, a corduroy shirt, and scuffed boots. After her death, and after my sister introduced him to internet dating, he started to pay attention to his appearance again. The way he started to dress reminded me of a man I never met but saw in a picture once: my father at nineteen, in a white t-shirt, sleeves rolled, denim jeans cuffed to show off motorcycle boots, a cigarette perched on a pouting lip, and a magnificent sleek black pompadour to top it all off. The nineteen-year-old in the picture leaned back, arms and legs both crossed, on the forest green Le Mans he raced late at night on the brand-new Brooklyn Queens Expressway. The city had built the BQE right through the middle of his neighborhood—he could wave to passing drivers from his bedroom window—so he and his friends treated it like their own personal racetrack after midnight.
I sat on a plastic chair in the corner of the cubicle and graded papers. I was up from Virginia for a week to take my turn shepherding my father to various doctor appointments and treatments. I grimaced as I read my students’ essays, though I accentuated the positive in written comments, goaded students to dig deeper in revisions, and drew smiley faces beside passages that were coherent. I’d worked Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI of the Aeneid into my syllabus so I would be forced to find time to read it myself. I’d read the Aeneid many times in various English translations—and once, slowly, painfully, in Latin—though Aeneas’ attempt to hug the shadow of his dead father in the Underworld had transformed into a cautionary tale for me.
The nurse massaged an IV bag to loosen the liquid inside and then hung it on a pole. She warned my father, “Clemenzo, the Gemcitabine’s gonna feel thick and cold at first.”
“Not my first rodeo,” my father said, flipping through TV channels with his remote. “Grading papers?” he asked me.
“My son Marco, the professor,” he said to the nurse. Then to me, “Tell her the title of your latest article.”
I hadn’t written an article in five years. In that time, my son and daughter were born, my mother died of breast cancer, and soon after that my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but I didn’t want to disappoint him. I scanned the student papers in my lap and a title caught my eye. I spoke in the portentous, professorial voice that I imagined he imagined I would use in classroom lectures. “Temporal disorientation, games of chance, desperate love and desperation as by-products of trauma and wellspring of restoration in Virgil’s Aeneid,” I said in one breath. It sounded impressive, though I’m sure it would be like all the other student essays, full of thoughts like stale croutons moistened by a viscous soup of words.
“Just the title makes my head hurt,” the nurse said.