Dewey arrived at our father’s bedside three days after my sister Kay and me. We exchanged solemn greetings, all of us in yellow Tyvek prophylactic jackets the nurses had given us to guard against airborne contagions, specifically the Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus that had spread from a sore on the back of our father’s ankle up his leg into the rest of his body. Lying asleep in his room in the Flagstaff Medical Center’s quarantine unit, our father didn’t have long to live. A hospital sheet covered his lower half, but his chest and arms were bare to alleviate his fever, which overnight had produced hallucinations or visions, it was hard to say which. I’d stayed with him as over and over he’d sat up in his bed and addressed figures from his past, some I’d known and some I hadn’t, all of them, I had the feeling, dead. I did my best to comfort him, with pipettes of morphine and sips of Coke, the tubes running into his forearms and swaddled loins pulled taut as prison chains, as all around us spirits stood vigil.
“Really, Dewey?” my sister said, holding in her gloved fingers a glossy blue and
yellow cardboard box my brother had set in them like a small but exquisite gift he’d
brought back to her from the Australian outback, where, indeed, he’d been cast in the role of Khan’s manservant in the latest Star Trek reboot. “Have you no shame?” He didn’t,
which was something I admired about him and feigned among colleagues and friends
who didn’t know to whom the trait actually belonged. The youngest of us, Dewey had
escaped the pall of guilt in which I, and then Kay, had matured into teenagers, for by the time he said his first word—“Kaka!”—our father was anchoring the nightly news and no
longer gave a shit what anybody thought.
“Open it,” Dewey said.
“It’s a fart machine,” Kay said. “I see what it is.”
“Then give it to Howard,” he said, “He’ll appreciate it,” and she handed it to me.
“You kids,” said our mother, who lived for family reunions, and with the four of
us together in one room her husband for fifty-eight years dying was no reason to sulk.
Eventually, he’d awaken, as he’d done the night before, and Dewey would sit with him
through his night terrors. I’d done it, Kay had done it, and our mother had done it night
after night for almost a month inside their home in Forest Highlands, a gated community
just off the highway to Sedona, until she’d had no recourse but to call an ambulance.
This deeply upset our father, whose last wish was to die at home staring through
cathedral windows at ponderosa boughs draped in snow and who told our mother as
EMTs wheeled him from the house on a gurney, “You’re going to be haunted by this,
I removed the fart machine from its flimsy packaging. From the dog-eared flaps,
I concluded that my brother had opened it before me, no doubt to put in the 9-volt
battery. As I held the sturdy, black, flame-resistant casing housing the single, low-
fidelity speaker, the thing vibrated in my latex-covered fingers as it produced one of
fifteen different fart sounds, the first like a lone note performed on a tuba, the next a pitch higher and longer, a sort of whistling, the third reedy and wet. Over and over Dewey thumbed the button on the remote control, forcing from the machine its impressive
repertoire of farts, no two remotely alike. The durations and tones were what
distinguished them, and I imagined reproducing one on an oboe, another on a bass viol,
and yet another with a gum wrapper and comb—though none was replicable, not really.
One lasted a full three seconds, beginning with a squeak and ending in a sigh. Another
brought to mind a slashed tire. Some sounded involuntary, others intentional. Some
conveyed embarrassment, others menace.
None of us would see fifty again, and night had fallen, and it was Dewey’s turn to
watch over our father, but I knew he was going to get out of it, just as he had every other responsibility from the time we were kids. When I looked at him, his cheeks were
glistening. Between the yellow hood that came to a widow’s peak at the bridge of his
tinted aviators and the surgical mask that covered his nose and mouth, his cheeks were
his only visible features. Except for our father who lay on his bed with arms splayed
across his sheets and head atilt on his pillow, we might’ve been monks, each in his cowl, come to pray before a tomb.