NOR 19 #28: Chemistry

By Micheal George

Featured Art: Steps by Manierre Dawson

Sunday at one o’clock, my sister Denise arrives at my father’s house in Elizabeth, New Jersey. We don’t hug; I know that many siblings engage in this ritual, but it’s never been our way. Instead we share a kind of wry, shy smile, a brief flash of eye contact that’s almost like flirting. I ask her how she’s doing, and she says she’s great.

“And Dad?” She nods toward our father, who is reclined in his La-Z-Boy, watching the Cooking Channel.

“He’s great too.”

Denise doesn’t ask about me; such questions we probably both understand as unnecessary formalities. I can see through the window of my father’s one- story bungalow that her camera crew has arrived behind her, and are unloading equipment.

“The cooking shows,” Denise mutters, shaking her head at my father, who shows no sign of acknowledging her arrival. “What’s up with that?”

Well, it makes a kind of sense, given Dad’s career as a chemist, but I don’t feel right talking about him, literally, behind his back. Denise’s point might be that our father has not cooked anything in years. Carmela, his PCA, handles his food during the week, and Denise and I feed him on the weekends.

A light rapping on the door. Denise lets in her crew, who tote digital cameras, tripods, and sound equipment. There are two of them: a stocky Hispanic man with a collapsed, cowed-looking expression (Hector), and a skinny white kid with a cloud of fine, prematurely thinning blond hair (Lyle). Maybe they are in love with Denise, I don’t know. She can’t pay them unless the film is distributed and brings in some money. Denise is making a documentary about our father’s transformation under Alzheimer’s disease. The movie is not just about him, though. It’s about Denise, too. Her struggle to pursue her performance career while taking care of her ailing father. Her struggle to maintain a romantic life while taking care of her ailing father.

For the time being, Dad remains utterly transfixed by the culinary spectacle onscreen. His forehead is wrought and his blue eyes glimmer with an intensity that invokes the chemist he was at Searle, the man who helped to develop the first birth control pill, an achievement that seems more prominent in his memory than his own deceased wife.

“I think I have it from here,” Denise tells me. My younger sister is wearing a magenta V-neck sweater and tight jeans. At forty-three, she’s still a head-turner, and should have no problems finding boyfriends. From what I’ve gathered, her movie tells a different story.

“I was thinking I might stick around for a while,” I tell her.

Her eyes widen. “Okay,” she says warily. “You mean . . . in the same room?”

“Why not? I’m feeling a bit of my old star power today.”

Denise smiles uneasily. We used to make Super 8 movies together when we were kids. Farts and allusions to nudity were among the dominant motifs. Denise’s comic sensibility has been manifest in performance over the years, including some Off-Broadway work, the occasional musical, and a few bit roles in feature films, but her own laughter often feels forced. “You mean you want to appear in the documentary?”

I was mostly just resisting the idea of being kicked out of my father’s house. Which is strange, because I’ve been stuck here for the past three weekends straight while Denise attended to her private students and her film. “Why not? I mean . . . I do take care of him a little.” I don’t add that my romantic life is also affected. I suspect that Denise sees my weekends in Jersey as a kind of vacation from my wife, Melinda. This is wrong, but not entirely false.

Denise momentarily looks to the side, considering her words. When her eyes return to mine, they are almost explosive with gratitude and sympathy. “I know you take care of him,” she says. “It’s just that this is a film. In a film you need to have focus and clarity. It’s an idealized version of reality.”

Streamlined version of reality was how she put it last time. My presence in the film would compromise its premise; I understand this. And I genuinely hope that I am not so petty as to need that kind of recognition. After all, this documentary may never play outside a few film festivals, if it even gets that far. I should only want to support my sister, who probably, deep down, sees me as the successful one, with my family and steady job as a brewmaster, while she scrabbles away in her tiny Greenwich Village apartment teaching acting and voice to teenagers.

Then again, maybe my sister doesn’t see me as the more successful one. Maybe not at all.

“I’m not trying to upstage you here, babe. I’m just . . . curious.”

This time her smile feels genuine, even kind. She directs me to take a seat in the midcentury chair that my mother used to sit in, out of view of the cam- eras that Hector has set up on tripods, aimed at Dad’s La-Z-Boy from different angles. He’s holding a third, while Lyle wields a boom.

“Okay,” says Denise. “Are we ready? Hector, you want to get me coming into the room.”

She retreats to the kitchen. Dad is watching a car commercial with the same grim fascination he studied the cooking, though there’s something tensed in his expression, as though he’s bracing for what comes next.

Denise enters the living room taking short steps that make her seem to float. She’s tied her hair back. The shift in her presence is palpable, from princess to Cinderella, from maestro to martyr. She gets in Dad’s face with those sympathetic eyes and asks him how he’s doing. Dad mumbles something inaudible and tries to peer around her at the TV. Denise continues to talk to him in low sooth- ing tones, but Dad isn’t really responding. There’s something animal-like in the way he’s nosing his gaze past her, in his refusal to connect with her, as though he has lost even the understanding of human conversation.

“Cut.” Denise pulls up the folding director’s chair that her men have brought in, and stares at our father for a while. “Dad,” she says in her normal voice. “Dad, what’s up?” She turns around and looks at me. “He’s getting worse,” she says.

Angrily, I put a finger to my lips. Denise rolls her eyes. I really don’t know if he’s hearing her or not.

Hector and Lyle stand with their equipment like sentries.

“You know what?” Denise sighs. “I’m just gonna go with it. Let’s do another take.”

She leaves the room and enters again, exactly the same way, as Hector films. She bends over our father and tries to engage him. But this time when he doesn’t respond she becomes flustered, then frustrated. She puts her hands on his shoulders and shakes him a little. Dad blinks, but otherwise remains focused on the frying of sturgeon. Now Denise is crying. Hector is homing in on her face with his camera, and to my amazement, there’s a tear running down his cheek, too.

“Dad,” she sobs. “Dad!”

Finally she finds the remote and shuts the TV off. My father immediately swivels his head toward Denise, stricken-faced. “Why?”

“Dad,” she says, hesitant. “How are you today?”

“I was watching that.” He raises a quaking finger in the direction of the 44-inch Samsung LCD TV I bought him a couple of years ago with his own money. In his whining tone there is something of the child who feels that he is being unjustly punished.

“Dad, it’s Denise, your daughter. I would just like to . . . connect with you for a while.”

The old man blinks at her, looking both baffled and annoyed. Maybe it’s the intensity of his expression that draws Hector’s camera in close, and Dad finally registers him. “Who are you?”

Hector smiles and continues to film Dad’s bewildered face. Dad swivels his head in the other direction, and locates me. Even with his glasses, his vision is

not great, and lately he has sometimes even failed to recognize me at close range. “Who are these people?” It’s not clear who he’s talking to, or about.

“Dad,” Denise says, taking hold of his hand, “we’re making a little movie about you and me. Do you remember?”

“No,” he snaps.

“This is Hector, my cameraman, and that over there . . .” She looks at me and seems to hesitate. “Well that’s Perry, my brother.”

“Perry?” He seems to be trying the name out.

I wave.

“So Dad,” Denise continues, “we just want you to be yourself. This movie is about our relationship, so the scene we’re going to do right now is going to be just you and me talking. You always have really great stuff to say.” She smiles encouragingly.

“I want to watch TV,” he says.

“You can, Dad. You will. I promise. But first you must act. Okay?”

A steeliness is suddenly manifest in Denise’s voice, and it silences my father. He looks up at her like a dog who has just been delivered some forceful but incomprehensible command. There is tremendous force in this woman, and tremendous determination. In her mid-twenties, when her star was rising, Denise was offered a big role on a daytime soap but rejected it. Whenever Denise brings up this subject, as she is wont to do at holidays, her conclusion is always that she made the right decision. It would have debased her craft. It would have blocked her from getting the great roles she did get, including the lead in an Off- Broadway revival of The Goodbye Girl, her current highwater mark.

Denise massages Dad’s hand. Hector has pulled back, out of my father’s sightline, and the anxiety on Dad’s face is melting away, as though he’s already crossed back over the line of object permanence.

“How are you feeling today, Dad?” Denise asks him.

“Tired,” he says immediately.

“Well, maybe you can take a little nap in a bit.”

“I want to watch TV.”

“What is your favorite show?”

“General Hospital.”

“Oh, that’s a great show.” Was that the soap that offered Denise a role? I can’t remember. “I don’t think it’s on today, though. They only show your soaps on weekdays.” When Carmela is here. Carmela runs the TV, presumably. At only $16 an hour, it’s her prerogative.

“I have to work on weekdays,” says Dad.

“You don’t work anymore, Dad. You’re retired.”

I am disturbed by the look on my father’s face as he tries to process this. Wounded, diminished. Why does she have to correct him? Out of some misguided sense of propriety, or is this expository dialogue for the film? Maybe Denise actually enjoys having, at last, the upper hand. She scored 720 on her math SAT, topping me by a neat 100-point margin, much to my shame and consternation. Dad pressured her to go into the sciences just as hard, no sexist gender roles for him. He would have never said outright that he disapproved of the acting career, but for the most part he’d shake his head when anything about Denise’s performance ambitions and activities came up, as though she were willfully bound down the road to perdition. He was worried about her, of course, worried about her future and security, and considered her tiny living quarters in the Village something of a hovel. Where was it all going to lead? I much more closely adhered to my father’s career trajectory, majoring in chemistry and working for Anheuser-Busch in Newark before finally joining a start-up microbrewery. It pays the bills fine and I enjoy my job, though of course I will never be involved in the manufacture of something like the Pill, something that changed the world.

Dad’s gaze has wandered away from Denise, and now seems to have fixed on one of the standing cameras.

“What’s that?”

“Dad, let’s talk about when I was a little girl.”

But he’s getting up now, and when Denise tries to gently push him back down, he becomes aggravated, clawing the air and nudging her aside. He walks up to the camera and places an index finger on the top of the thing. “What is this doing here?”

“Dad,” says Denise, her voice lowering an octave, “I told you that we’re making a film.”

“A film?” He frowns at her, then sees me. “Did you know about this, Perry?” He swims back into himself less and less often, but occasionally the brain chemistry reacts the way it’s supposed to. It’s like a parting of clouds. “Yeah, Pop.”

He turns around and regards Hector, who has followed him with his handheld camera. Lyle is not far behind.

“Don’t look at the camera, Dad,” says Denise. “In a movie, the actors aren’t supposed to look at the camera.”

“But I don’t even know what the movie’s about,” he whines, and turns back to me. “What the hell are they filming me for, Perry? Are you in it?”

“No, Pop, it’s just supposed to be you and Denise.”

“I don’t . . .” He’s shaking his head. “I never agreed to this.”

“Yes you did,” says Denise, a little sharply. “You agreed to it at the beginning. You just don’t remember.”

Dad looks at me questioningly. It’s not the kind of expression that often crossed my father’s face. He was almost always serene in certainty, a quality that seemed to frustrate my mother to no end. Only in times of the deepest frustration—usually something with Mom—would this look come over him, a look that seemed to ask why life sometimes had to be so goddamn hard. Here, on his much older face, it seemed tinged with an extra layer of sadness, as though he’d come to realize that life would always bewilder him, that its answers were not just remote, but forever out of reach.

“Look, Denise. Maybe Pop isn’t into the filming right now. Maybe he’ll be into it later.”

“And what am I supposed to do with them?” She makes a vague gesture indicating her crew, who are recording everything as diligently as ever, Hector even including me in the sweep of his camera. “They have lives, Perry.”

Dad has a life too, I want to say, and as though to underline this fact, our father is making his way out of the living room. He could be headed for the bathroom, though he’s been frequenting that destination less and less often, which is why he now wears a diaper. More likely he’s bound for his bedroom, where he either naps or works with the advanced-level chemistry set I bought him a year ago. I had to get an Italian set over the internet because in the U.S. nothing with actual chemicals was available anymore, presumably due to the threat of lawsuits. I can only assume such regulations are well-intended, but I’m not going to kick him out of the one domain that still has meaning to him, the one domain in which he was an indisputable master. Call me irresponsible. I believe in the concept of dignity.

Hector and Lyle look inquiringly at Denise, wondering whether to follow, and after thinking about it for a moment, she gives a barely perceptible shake of her head. The crew lower their equipment, and Denise collapses into the sofa. “Oh man,” she says, pushing back her hair and refitting the band over her ponytail. “It’s not usually this difficult. He’s getting worse.”

It’s not clear whom she’s talking to. Is it me and not Hector, or Hector and not me, or both of us? “Well, yeah,” I say. “He doesn’t remember about the film, and so of course he’s going to freak out with all these cameras aimed at him.”

“Maybe I ought to make this thing a bit more meta,” she considers. “Use some of this stuff. What do you think, Hector?”

Lyle has gone outside to smoke, but Hector is fiddling with the cameras on the tripods. At Denise’s question he lifts up his sad-looking face. “I think it could work,” he says, nodding.

“Do you really want people to see our dad like that?” Denise looks at me. “Pardon?”

“Do you really want this to be his living testament? Footage of him shambling around in his pajamas, confused?”

My sister blinks at me steady metronomic beats, her lips about a half-inch ajar. “Perry,” she says, in a low tone of barely-controlled patience. “This isn’t just about Dad. This is about everybody in his situation.” More blinks. “In our situation.”

I can feel it like a sudden change in the barometer, the blowback.

“Don’t you realize that this is happening all over the fucking country? It’s a goddamn epidemic and it’s about to get worse. With the baby boomers it’s just starting. In ten years, one in eight people is going to be like Dad. And you don’t have one-tenth of the money that goes into cancer going into Alzheimer’s. Not a hundredth!”

“And this film is going to change all that.”

Her stare turns icy. “Maybe not, Perry. Maybe this is all just some self-indulgent ego trip. A desperate, last-ditch attempt to finally make myself the movie star that I always believed I deserved to be. Is that how you see it?”

I’m kicking myself for opening my stupid mouth. “Why would I think that? You weren’t into movies. You never went to L.A. I mean you’re a classically- trained actress. This is something entirely different. More like a reality show.”

She squints at me, and I realize that I’ve just insulted her again. “Do you want to be in this film, Perry? Is that what’s going on here? Because if you’re really feeling excluded, it’s not too late to expand the focus. Make it about the two estranged siblings brought back together over their ailing father.”

Estranged. Is this how she sees us? I should call her more often, take her out for dinner once a month. But we’re just not that way, Denise and I. We’re not naturally affectionate people. In Melinda, I found a woman who could accept that about me, and even love me for it. But Denise? She’s never had a serious relationship lasting over two years. And it’s not that she doesn’t have plenty of suitors, however her movie wants to tell it. “No, Denise, I don’t want to be in the film. I know it’s going to be great without me. Let me just say bye to Dad and I’ll be out of your way.”

I find him in his bedroom, sitting at his desk and peering into the microscope I bought him to supplement the chemistry set. He exchanges the slide he’s looking at for another, and then peers into that one. When I sit on his bed he takes no notice, continuing to examine the slides (animal and plant tissues, preserved in cedar wood oil), placing each one carefully back into its slot in the box.

“Dad, I’m taking off. Denise will be here with you for the rest of the weekend.”

My father still does not acknowledge me, continuing to examine his slides in consecutive order. After helping to invent the Pill, he spent over a decade heading a team developing a male version, but the project was eventually shut down. Dad was convinced they’d been making progress, and so he quit and formed his own company, at which point our family savings began to shrink instead of grow. This was why he’d been able to pay for my college education but not Denise’s. She could have gotten a scholarship anyway, he’d insisted, if only she’d stuck with science. Denise ended up putting herself through the City University of New York working as a waitress, though in her last year she lived with a forty-six-year-old analyst who apparently paid for everything. Nobody was happy about that situation, especially not me and Dad.

“Denise’s movie is really important to her, Pop. Maybe you should go back in the living room and . . . just talk. That’s all she wants from you, Dad. Talk.”

He pauses. Turns and looks at me. “That woman’s crazy. I don’t have time for that kind of thing.”

“C’mon, Dad. You have time for your daughter. That’s your daughter in there.”

A shake of his head. “My daughter’s dead.”

My instinct is to correct him. At the very least, it seems that I owe this to my sister. But I hold it in check. It’s the most lucid I have seen him in a while, and I don’t want to break the spell. “But you remember your daughter, don’t you?”

“Of course I remember my daughter.” A look of naked pain comes over his face, then is gone. “Denise was a . . . she used to run after the ice cream truck.” The urgency of that music, appearing out of nowhere, soon to recede into nothingness. You had to get money fast, because it only came around once a weekend. I haven’t thought about that ice cream truck in how long? Twenty, thirty years? “Hold that thought, Pop.”

In the living room, Hector and Lyle are sitting on the couch, each with beer in hand. I can hear Denise in the kitchen, taking plates out of the cabinet. Hector’s handheld camera is lying on the seat of the La-Z-Boy. I grab the camera, tell him I need to borrow it for a minute. He nods sadly.

I find the on switch and hit it. When I return to my father’s bedroom, he’s still sitting in the position I left him in, gazing off into space. He takes no notice of the camera I rest on his desk, aimed in his direction.

“Denise ran after the ice cream truck, didn’t she? She would ask you for money.”

My father smiles at me. “Yeah.”

“And what did she look like, Pop? What did Denise look like?”

A tear streaks down his cheek. His eyes are red. “She was the prettiest little girl you’ve ever seen.”


Michael George has published short fiction in Cimarron Review, New Orleans Review, and Silk Road, among other publications. He has also written several as-yet-unpublished novels, at least one of which he believes merits the attention of enlightened readers interested in human psychology. He lives in Manhattan.

Originally published in Issue 19.

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