“Early Roman Kings” by Rocco DeBonis

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.

I nodded.

“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.

“I don’t understand a word, but,” my father pretended to wipe away a tear, “I’m so proud. I can’t believe students pay money to hear him talk about these things. I mean they go into lifelong debt to learn this stuff. I know I’ve done good as a parent when I hear that title.”

I allowed him to brag to the nurse. I allowed him to think I’d made it big because that meant he’d made it big. He understood academia as a game I’d mastered, a scam I employed to con rich college students. He was born in southern Italy, where the Camorra ruled, and he grew up in Brooklyn, where the Five Families ran things. Everything, in his worldview, when distilled to its essential nature, was a scam someone was running on someone else. Everything was corrupt. Even the hard work he put in for decades was only his bosses trying to get as much work as possible out of him, while he tried to get as much pay as possible out of them, pay he supplemented by selling scrap from worksites and organizing poker tournaments during lunch breaks. I’ll admit, though, that I played some petty games and ran minor scams at work.

On Monday, at University A, I’d lectured about Virgil’s imperialist mythologizing because the dean of the literary studies department was a well-known adherent of post-colonial criticism. On Wednesday, at University B, where Judith Butler was popular, I focused on Dido’s performativity of gender, and on Thursday, at University C, whose English department was still mainlining cultural studies like it was 1985, I discussed polyphonic narration in the Aeneid and American popular music, closing my lecture by playing Bob Dylan’s Early Roman Kings, which compared the fabled Kings of Rome, distributing corn and drag racing in regal garb, to the Roman Kings, an Italian-American gang in New York City known for their community outreach and late ’60s finery: sharkskin suits and high-top boots.

Though I was predisposed to post-structuralism—it had been all the rage in the 1990s when I was an undergrad—I didn’t like or dislike any lens I was paid to hold up to student eyes. It was my job to teach students to peel away cultural and historical presuppositions from texts, even two-thousand-year-old texts like the Aeneid, in order to map new ones in their place. That was academia. That’s what produced journal articles and books and ascent to the next terrace in professorial purgatory. I never explained to my father the difference between adjunct, associate, and full professorship, or that I was trapped on the first terrace of this purgatory. I kept it to myself that the adjunct positions I juggled offered no stability, no benefits, and hardly any salary. I could, perhaps, clothe, feed, and shelter myself on my accumulated wages, but I certainly couldn’t do those things for two children without my wife’s work as an attorney. Despite all that, I allowed him to believe that I was the one running a big scam, not the university.

Once the drip was set, and the nurse was gone, and my father had fallen asleep, I went back to the paper I’d claimed as my own and read: “The prophecies in the Aeneid are never what they seem. Upbeat in tone, and delivered to the downtrodden and discouraged, they habitually omit crucial details and encourage the supplicant on the basis of false hope.” I thought of the oncologist’s upbeat report earlier that morning. She recommended more chemo because the chemo thus far had shrunk my father’s tumor, though not enough to remove it surgically. It was still wrapped tightly around the splenic artery, but it was smaller! A micron or so smaller. I laughed loud enough to rouse my father from sleep. I drew a smiley face next to the passage.

* * *

After a few hours of the gemcitabine drip, it was time for what I called the satyr shot, a cocktail of vitamins and steroids that would, for a day or two, tamp down any nausea or lethargy from the chemo, while giving my father the energy to drink, eat, gamble, visit girlfriends, and, after midnight, race his Corvette on Nesconset Highway, just as he did decades ago on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. After a day or two of satyric abandon, he’d sleep for a week with all the shades drawn, unable to eat solid food. He’d get sores on his tongue, sores between his fingers and toes, and more hair would fall out. However, in the immediate aftermath of the steroid shot, he needed to be managed, like someone who’d snorted too much coke at a party. He wasn’t allowed to drive after the steroids, so I would ferry him around, satisfying whatever whim he had: Clams Casino in Port Jeff, underground poker in the warehouses in Babylon, shooting pool at Don’t Break My Balls in Setauket.

That day he wanted to bowl. I drove directly from the cancer center to his favorite lanes in Smithtown. In the trunk of his Corvette, he kept a pair of bowling shoes, talcum powder, and a fifteen-pound ball, with custom cut finger holes and his monogram in lavish script. I hate bowling, but, thinking of Aeneas’ heroic arms grasping for the shadow of Anchises, I was determined to enjoy as much time with my father as possible while he was still alive.

When we entered the bowling alley, the manager came out from behind the counter, where he’d been spraying shoes. A gold-plated badge on his chest read Mike. I assumed he was coming to greet my father and tell me what a great customer, bowler, and human being he was. My father was pitied and revered around town after caring for my mother as she slowly died from cancer. People’s pity and veneration only intensified when they learned of his diagnosis.

The manager, however, was waving a green bowling shoe at my father. “No, no, no,” he said. “You’re not welcome here anymore.” He kept waving the shoe as he shouted. “I didn’t say anything when you and the other old men bet on games right out in the open. But you grifted a sixteen-year-old boy. His father was in here with the police looking for you. If I knew your address, I would’ve gave it to them.”

People stopped bowling to enjoy the spectacle. A wide-eyed crowd gathered, munching on nachos and sipping from soda cans. My father played to them.

“Sixteen?” my father said. “He drove up in a Porsche! How was I supposed to know he was sixteen? He had more facial hair than my son, who’s forty-five.” He always tried to defuse tense situations with humor.

I went along. “Dad, I’m forty-seven.”

“And I didn’t grift him. He just lost a bet, fair and square. It’s a rite of passage. He’s a man now.”

“He won six games in a row,” Mike said, “and then you take all his money in the seventh. That’s grifting.”

I acted as if I were offended by these preposterous accusations against my father. I spoke loudly, so that the crowd could hear me. “My father has cancer, Mike. We just came from chemo.”

I knew more than likely my father had grifted some spoiled sixteen-year-old who drove up in a Porsche, but there was a code. You defend family, no matter what, even when they’re wrong, especially when they’re wrong. Defending someone who’d done nothing wrong was no test of loyalty.

The manager’s tone softened. “You can stay but no more gambling.”

“No thanks,” my father said. “We’re going across town to Kings Park Lanes. They have all-you-can-eat Buffalo Wings and Mozzarella Sticks for $6.99 on Tuesdays. And their hand dryers actually work.” He recited the address for the crowd as we walked out the door.

Outside, my father said, “Kings Park really is better. Newer, cleaner.”

“Why didn’t we go there in the first place?”

“They don’t let you gamble.”

* * *

As we drove to Kings Park Lanes, we listened to Dylan. He assured us, in a gravelly rasp, that he was not dead, yet, and that his bell still rang. My father’s phone buzzed. He patched the call through to the car stereo. Dylan disappeared.

“Clemenzo?” a voice asked.


“No, it’s Natalie.”

“Oh, it didn’t sound like you.”

“Who’s Sandra?” Natalie asked.

“I have you on the car intercom. It makes you sound different. My son’s here.” My father punched my arm, and said, “Be polite. Say hello.”

“Hello, Natalie.”

“Clem, take me off speaker phone. I need to talk to you.”

He poked at the digital screen on the dashboard and then put his phone to his ear. Even though he’d switched Natalie to his hand-held, I could hear her words clearly. She was upset. She was breaking things off with him, she said. She couldn’t keep doing this to Allen. She said she loved my father, but she couldn’t leave Allen, not now. My father listened calmly and then said, “So, this is the last time I’ll ever speak to you, and it’s on the phone?”

She said yes, but without much conviction.

“Do you remember where we first met?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Meet me there. Just to say goodbye. In person.”

“Allen will be home from the physical therapist in an hour. He’s already suspicious.”

“My driver can get me there in twenty minutes.” He placed his hand on the back of my neck and squeezed. This gesture often took the place of a hug. It reminded me of the way wolves pick up their pups by the scruff of the neck with jaws that could tear flesh from bone and also tenderly carry their young. “We can talk,” he said. “We can say goodbye, and you can be back home in time for Allen.”

She was silent. He took this for acquiescence, and said, “I’ll see you in twenty minutes.”

He hung up and turned to me. “We’re going to the boardwalk at Sunken Meadow Beach.”

“I can’t get there in twenty minutes,” I said.

“You can in this car.”

* * *

It all went roaring out the window—my kids, my wife, life insurance, traffic laws, mortgage payments, teaching contracts, office hours, and syllabi. Speeding was a crude pleasure I’d forgotten along with so much else from my teenage years on Long Island. It was a pleasure that was impossible in my Honda Fit, affordable, reliable, and slow, a vehicle emblematic of adjunct professorship. Sunken Meadow Parkway, all the parkways of Long Island, had been designed by Robert Moses—the master builder and racist—with low bridges and sharp turns to keep buses full of city people from making their way out to the island for the day. Yet, even at high speeds, through the parkway’s impossible turns, the Corvette drove so smooth and noiseless that it seemed like the cars around us were going in reverse, and we weren’t moving at all. Time had stopped! This was something I’d yearned for often in the previous few years, as my children grew so quickly, going from being carried, to crawling, to walking, and feeding themselves. In that same period of time, my mother went from walking, feeding, and dressing herself to being pushed in a wheelchair, fed through tubes, and dressed in hospital gowns and sheets by nurses.

My father opened the sunroof and took off his fedora. His remaining patches of white hair whipped in the wind. He placed both hands on the dashboard and leaned forward with his mouth open as if he might eat the road. He let the air howl down inside him, and it looked as if he were swallowing the yellow lane markers, gobbling them up before they could streak past.

I sped through turns without that feeling I got in my Honda Fit that the car might flip over or fall apart, and then, in one of the few straightaways, I took the Corvette up to eighty-one, eighty-two, eighty-three, expecting any moment for my father to say, “Slow down, son.” But he peered at the speedometer and then at me, and he smiled broadly. I’d never been good at sports, kept my nose in books, was awkward around girls, and dropped out of law school after a semester, but, damn, that car was going fast. Too fast.

I started to slow down, the wind quieted, and my father shouted, “Your brother took it over a hundred the other day.”

I accelerated again.

Then a curve in the road rushed up so quickly that I became flustered. There was a car suddenly in front of me. I hadn’t been able to see it around the turn. I was coming up on the other car so fast that it seemed as if it were parked in the road.

I started to brake, which was what I thought you did when you needed to stop—it always worked at sensible speeds in my Fit—but this made the Corvette shake violently, like a space capsule on re-entry, so I stopped braking. I realized how little control I had over the car. I resigned myself to the horrific accident we were careening towards. I submitted to its inevitability, hoping only not to kill myself, my father, and the innocent passengers in the other car.

My father was shouting. I could see the cords in his neck straining, but I couldn’t hear him over the wailing wind. This seemed a portent of death, no longer his alone. Then he grabbed the steering wheel and nudged it to the left. There was no shoulder, only the road, a low curb, and then a meridian of grass and trees. There was a percussive thump-thump/thump-thump, as the front and then the back tires went over the curb. A shining silver hub cap shot off one wheel and across the parkway.

The Corvette skidded and spun in the grass, my father and I both gripping the wheel. We were slowing down, the wind was no longer shrieking in my ears, and I could hear my father say, “Now tap the brakes.”

I slammed on the brake pedal. My head jerked forwards and then back against my seat. We finally came to a stop. The smell of burnt rubber and grass filled the car. In the rearview mirror, I saw the black trench our tires had made in the ground. Cars on the highway were speeding past. Time had caught up with us again.

“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.”

“But we didn’t crash.”

“I could see it on your face. In your mind, you already crashed.” He unlocked his door. “I’ll drive the rest of the way.”

“You’re not allowed to drive. The steroids.”

“I’ll drive,” he said.

* * *

Sunken Meadow was mostly a vast parking lot paved in the middle of tidal flats, salt marshes, and bluffs that overlooked Long Island Sound. There was a boardwalk and a sliver of beach, a strip of pristine sand trucked in each spring. We pulled into the parking lot, clods of grass stuck to the Corvette’s windshield, a hubcap missing. A woman sat alone in the only other car, a blue Volkswagen. She saw us and offered a half-hearted wave.

My father said, “Wait here,” and crossed the parking lot to open the door for Natalie. He leaned in to peck her cheek before she could stand up out of the car. As they headed for the boardwalk, my father tried to hold her hand, but she snatched it away. Then something seemed to occur to her. She grasped his hand and pulled him towards me in the Corvette.

I lowered the window, and Natalie stuck her hand through. I shook it. She wore bright red lipstick, yoga pants, and a tie-dyed, low-cut blouse. A gold cross, hanging from a gold chain, rested against her chest, which was streaked with sun block. Time had mapped wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, and there were strands of silver in her pale blond hair.

“Hi, I’m Natalie. I’m a friend of your Dad’s.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Marco.”

“I love that name.”

“Thank you. Natalie is a pretty name.”

There was an awkward silence I felt no compulsion to fill. She smiled at me, and I smiled back.

“Well,” she finally said, “it was nice to meet you.” She shook my hand again.

“Same here,” I said, closing the window as they walked away. I was still shaken up by what had happened on the parkway. I wanted to be left alone to grade papers and think. My father had been doing his best to live years of life in the six months to a year the doctors said he had left. But that desire to live sometimes morphed into its opposite. Gambling, drinking, and racing his car looked more like a death wish, a desire to end things on his own terms, not the cancer’s. I’d followed him farther down that road than I should with two young children and a wife back home.

My father and Natalie climbed the stairs to the boardwalk, which had been damaged by Hurricane Sandy, some of its planks splintered, some completely missing. The food stands and bathrooms were all shuttered and locked. In the summer, the boardwalk would be crowded with people in bathing suits and sunglasses, but it was mid-March, too early for swimming and sunbathing, which made it the perfect place for their liaison.

A teenager on a trike splashed through puddles and popped wheelies on the other side of the parking lot. A group of seagulls fought over a bag of Doritos. I pulled out the student paper I’d claimed was my own. I read it from the beginning. It was good. I couldn’t believe how good and then I got to this passage:

“Unresolved loss stalls the soul. Denial stores up energy like damming a river. Renewal is possible, however, when death is approached as an exchange between the living, the dead and, occasionally, the soon-to-die. The difference between beaten spirits and those that recover is knowing how to grieve.”

I read the passage over and over, marveling at the fact that this was the first time in decades of teaching that a student’s writing had forced me to reflect on my own life. Then something occurred to me. I took out my phone and Googled the paragraph from the paper, word for word. I clicked the first result on the first page, and there on my screen was the exact paragraph I’d just read, written under a different title by Catherine Frost, a professor at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Canada.

Another car pulled into the parking lot, not far from me. The driver was a man with a white beard and white hair ringing his head like a laureate. He swung his door open and then swung both of his legs out of the car. They hung limp over the side of his seat. He reached into the back of the car for a wheelchair. He wrestled it open and then transferred himself from the car seat to the wheelchair and set off toward the boardwalk, but he stopped at the foot of the damaged ramp.

I got out of the car and rushed over to him. “Sir, can I help you?”

He turned to me. His face was red, his eyes piercing, as if he were angry with me for offering help, but he said, “I’d appreciate that.” I maneuvered his chair over the broken and missing planks and set it at the top of the ramp with the brake on. He reached over his shoulder, patted my hand, and thanked me.

I turned back toward the Corvette, when the man called to me, “Do you mind? There’s more damaged boards. What do they do with all our tax dollars?”

I rushed up the ramp and pushed him farther along. I figured he wanted to look out at Long Island Sound, so I pushed him toward the metal bannister at the far edge of the boardwalk. The water was choppy, the wind churning the surface. Seagulls circled and swooped over the vast blue cauldron.

In the distance, I could see Natalie’s hair as bright as gold in the sunlight. Shining strands whipped around her head. She kept tucking them behind her ear as she spoke with a serious expression. My father’s face was shadowed by his fedora. Natalie stopped talking and let her hair loose to the wind. Now my father tucked it behind her ear for her and leaned in to kiss her.

I noticed the man in the wheelchair was not looking at the water or the seagulls. He was staring at my father and Natalie. He started to curse and slammed his fist down on the armrest of his chair. “Will you push me down that way, towards those people?”

I shook my head no.

“No?” The man’s face grew red. “You won’t help me?”

I was torn between protecting my father and helping this man. I felt frozen, unable to help him or run away. Down on the beach, Natalie had seen us, Allen and me. She pushed my father away and headed toward us. I retreated down the ramp and back to the car.

Back in the Corvette, I took out my students’ papers, but not to read them. I used them to hide, holding them to my face like someone in desperate need of glasses. Yet, I peeked around the papers as Natalie wheeled her husband down the ramp and to his car. My father lingered on the boardwalk. Natalie tried to help her husband, but he pushed her away and lifted himself out of the chair and into the car on his own. He let her fold up the wheelchair, but the minute she stowed it in the backseat and shut the door, he sped away, leaving her staring at the empty space where his car had been.

My father was still on the boardwalk, sometimes staring at his phone, sometimes looking out at the water. He seemed too ashamed to return to the car and face me, but Natalie wasn’t. She came to the window again. I lowered it, unable to mold my face into some civilized expression. I was horrified to think that at their age, these people—my father—could be acting like this. It was undignified. Looking down at them from the elevated plateau of middle age and a mild marriage—neither a valley nor a majestic mountain peak—I was embarrassed for them.

She said, “You must think I’m awful, but your father and I love each other.”

For a moment, I considered doing what I’d done at the bowling alley, supporting my father, right or wrong. All I needed to say was that he loved her too, and then I could raise the window and grade papers.

My father was heading down the ramp and back to the car. I spoke quickly, “You’re not the only woman he’s seeing. You seem kind, despite all of this, but my guess is he picked you because you’re taking care of your husband, which makes it easier for him to see other women, too.”

Without a handshake or goodbye, she hurried back to her Volkswagen, her eyes fixed on the ground. My father followed her, pleading with her to wait, but she pretended not to hear him. She closed the door and glided away without a word, without looking at him.

As he slid into the driver’s seat, I couldn’t look at him either. He said, “Before Allen had a stroke, he cheated on Natalie left and right. She was going to leave him and then he wound up in the chair, and she’s just too nice for her own good.”

“She is.”

“The two of you were talking before she ran off. What did she say?”

“That she loved you.”

“Oh, no. What did you say?”

“That you didn’t feel the same.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Because you don’t love her, Dad. If you did, there wouldn’t be all the other women you’re seeing.”

He smirked. “Maybe I love them all.”

“Natalie seems like a nice woman. Her husband may or may not be, but neither of them deserves this. Don’t mess with their marriage. Would you want someone to treat Anna like this?”

“Your sister’s a lesbian. Thank God.”

“What if you’d died first, and Mom was alone? Would you want men treating her like this?”

His thick knuckles turned white as he squeezed the steering wheel. The cancer and chemo hadn’t robbed him of his strength. Not yet. He squeezed the wheel to keep his hands from doing something more violent. I wasn’t sure what: punch the dashboard, punch me, rip the steering wheel out. I’d seen his meaty fists go through walls and pull doors off hinges. He never put a hand on any of us—my sister, my brother, my mother, or me—though I worried this might be the first time.

But he let go of the steering wheel, and said, “Don’t talk about your mother when we talk about these women.”

I was glad to hear him acknowledge that there was someone else entangled in the mess he was making of what was left of his life, incredibly precious time. My mother may have been dead but that didn’t erase their marriage. How he conducted himself, even after she was gone, had an effect on what had been, what still was. The marriage we remembered, recreated, and remolded in our minds was still at stake.

“You could see other women, Dad. But not like this,” I said. “And it’s not just the women. It’s the gambling and speeding and drinking. I know you miss Mom, but I’m not ready for you to join her.” I worried this was too saccharine and honest. I was afraid he might laugh, so, in that portentous, professorial voice, I quoted Heaney paraphrasing Virgil: “It’s easy to descend into Avernus. Death’s dark door stands open day and night. But to retrace your steps and get back to the upper air, that is the task, that is the undertaking.”

“Did you make that up just now, professor?”

“No. Virgil made it up a long time ago.”

“What the hell does it mean?”

“It’s too late to brake after you’ve crashed.”

He laughed, and said, “Twisting my words on me.” He placed his hand on the back of my neck and squeezed.

Rocco DeBonis has been published in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, where his story “Big Casino” was chosen by Amy Hempel as the Best Fiction Entry for 2006. He was a Poe/Faulkner Fellow at the University of Virginia Creative Writing Program. He has taught science, creative writing, and library science. He is currently a school librarian in Alexandria, Virginia.


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