A few years ago, my mother handed me a set of faded papers browned at the edges and neatly tri-folded to fit in a slim envelope. On the first typewritten page was a title, “The Greatest Gizmo,” and, underneath, my dad’s name and the address of the house he grew up in.
“I thought you might like to have this,” she said.
It was a conciliatory gesture, we both knew, since she’d spent much time and energy campaigning for me to give up on writing already and get a real job.
I read the story, which was about a device that could create anything its owner dreamed up—a spaceship, a mythical beast, an enchanted island. The story was structured like a riddle for the reader to solve—what exactly the Greatest Gizmo was—and, don’t fret, the solution would come at the end. I reached the bottom of the last page, which stopped mid-sentence and did not solve the riddle. I went to my mom and said, “But the ending’s missing.” To which she replied, “I know.” She lifted her hands in disappointment.
Doctors told my mom they got all the cancer out of my dad. “They said they might have left a few cells, but everything else was gone,” she told me. “Well.” She picked at a piece of lint on her shirt. “A few cells are all it takes.”
Spinal cancer paralyzed my dad a little at a time, from the feet up. My dad continued to work for as long as his body would allow. He worked in downtown Cleveland’s version of the Empire State Building, the Terminal Tower. My mom drove him in the mornings and I rode along. The drive was about an hour-and-a-half round trip, a long time for a kid, but I didn’t care. I loved being in the city. It was a world of its own. Entering the streets lined with tall buildings was like being taken in to a huge embrace. I lay down in the backseat so I could see how each building challenged the sky. The city beat with the energy of life. And I loved that my dad was part of it.
On my dad’s final trip home from the hospital, paramedics brought him into our house on a stretcher. At that point, he could only move his head. I was in second grade.
In my first-grade school picture, my hair is combed and carefully braided. I’m wearing a dress, country blue with white flowers and a flare of ruffle at the shoulder. I’ve even snuck a flash of tongue in the side of my smile. In my second grade picture, my hair is messy. I smile with my mouth, but not my eyes. I’m wearing a jumper whose straps hang crooked.
Not long after that picture was taken, I woke earlier than usual, before dawn, and opened my bedroom door. Every light was on. I made a slow trail to our family room, pushed my back against a wall and watched my dad die. Then, just like it was any other school day, I returned to my room, changed into my Catholic school uniform and boarded the bus. At school, about four kids stood in line in front of the teacher, waiting to talk to her. I joined them.
“Guess what?” said each kid.
“What?” said my teacher. She was enjoying the game. One kid told her his TV had been knocked out by lightning.
“Guess what?” I said.
“My dad died.”
Her face went slack. I hadn’t cried all morning. I’d stuffed all that in the pit of my ribs. But, when I saw my teacher’s face, all the stuffing came out. I tried to push everything back inside, but it was too strong.
The principal came for me. I didn’t like the principal. None of us kids did. We speculated she stopped being a nun when the schools did away with beatings.
“Can I see Miss Jack?” I asked. Miss Jack had been my first grade teacher. I liked her and she liked me, even though I’d shouted “Done!” once after a test to prove not only was I the smartest, but the fastest, too. Miss Jack took away all my tickets for that. Every week we got five tickets and, if we did something bad, we had a ticket taken away. At the end of the week we could buy stuff with our tickets. The kids with all their tickets got the best stuff. I didn’t care so much about puppy stickers or rainbow erasers, but I did care about keeping all my tickets. The tickets proved I was good. And, if I was good, God would make my dad better.
Over the years, we’ve found bits and pieces of my dad’s writing. The Greatest Gizmo. Dungeons and Dragons storylines from games with my brother. A chunk of a typewritten science fiction novel. The beginning of another, handwritten science fiction novel. But never a complete story or manuscript.
I didn’t know about his writing when he was alive. As far as I was concerned, my dad’s hobby was music. He played Beatles music on an organ that stood near the front door of our house. He played the saxophone in high school and when it was time for me to join the school band, I was handed his clarinet. Maybe because I didn’t get to choose my instrument, but more likely because my dad wasn’t around to teach me or push me to do better, I never really took to music. What my dad and I did share, though, was a true love of stories. He read to me every day, especially when he became confined to a bed. And later, I read to him.
My mom and I never did find the ending of “The Greatest Gizmo,” which seems fitting and like my dad’s own story: one that ended too soon. My best guess at the riddle’s solution—the magical device that created whatever its owner dreamed up?
Photo: Smith Corona by Thomas Hawk