Over

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Why I Chose It: Michigan Quarterly Review Reader Matthew Wamser introduces Glen Hirshberg’s “Over” from our Summer 2020 Issue.


A warning: It is so easy to fall in love with the father in this story. In the narrator’s hands, the father comes alive as a truly specific character who couldn’t possibly be anyone other than himself. As much as he loves being alone, he loves “talking about it more.” He has “a thing for notecards,” leaving messages on them for his family and using them to catalogue his favorite artworks. And he’s a person with his own lovely way of describing his world. He experiences “chocolate feelings” and relishes “stolen days” when he shirks his responsibilities to enjoy a few carefree hours. The father became so alive that I almost forgot the impetus for the narrator’s catalogue is his father’s debilitating illness.

The nature of the illness lends a terrible significance to all the story’s details. The narrator has questions about his father to which he will never know the answer. “Over” is not a story with earth-shattering family secrets and revelations. It’s a quiet piece that asks, where did he and the dog go on their walks? Why did he record his impressions about pieces of music on notecards? These are small things the narrator doesn’t know about his father, and now he will never be able to ask.

Here’s #3 in the narrator’s catalogue, entitled “That noise while shitting”: “I’ve always wondered if he did that when no one was home. Like moose call in woods, its meaning unclear possibly even to him. I’m here? Stay back? Anybody out there? For sure, it was a performance. He knew it was funny. I’ve just never known if it needed an audience.” “Over” makes me feel the humor, wonder, and joy of the father and son’s relationship. But I also feel the profound sadness that comes with permanent loss, not in spite of the story’s moments of joy, but because of them.


Over

Pick your metaphor: 

Cut! That works. Stop, hold your marks, freeze. Okay, everyone take five. Or forever, obviously. Depending on your role. 

Or how about an extinction event? The asteroid we don’t even see until it hits. That just happened for real, you know, or it almost happened, some big rock we didn’t know was there whizzing right past the planet. Well, our asteroid hit us, and it came from nowhere, or it came from where it was always coming from, and it caused what it caused. Is causing. So. 

Maybe Chernobyl? That’s better, more apt, because both effects and understanding spool out slowly. You know something’s happened, but by the time you realize what, everything’s irreversible, and you’re already dead except for dying. 

But no. Extinction asteroid, because of how much was instantly over.

I’ve got a running tab—more a catalog, I suppose, because any additions aren’t new events, just new realizations—of things that ended for my father at the exact second he started spouting words that weren’t words in the middle of critiquing a new song of my brother’s. He still thought he was speaking sense; he knew what he was trying to say. Couldn’t even tell he wasn’t saying it at first. 

Which means, huh, maybe Chernobyl after all.

Anyway, in no order. Or, the order they came to me. Or maybe order of importance, and I’m just not sure to whom. 

 1. Driving.

I mean, anticonvulsants these days, pretty miraculous, really. If he’s seized since that first time, we haven’t noticed. Him either. But if he did, or when he does, because that’s one of the inevitables (or is it a constant, I can’t keep those straight in this context), you don’t want him behind the wheel. Endangering someone else.

Of course, one of that drug’s potential side effects is depression, or magnification of depression, which does make me wonder. Because another thing that died, right in the middle of that sentence, was his urge to go. As in, anywhere. My father, Mr. Urge-to-Go. Probably, that’s a separate entry on this list. But maybe he’s just sad. Maybe it’s the drug, and at the very end, when he’s off everything except pain control—if there’s even pain, there might not be, there hasn’t been so far, and the brain doesn’t feel any—maybe that urge will come back.

2. Record shopping. 

CD shopping, whatever. My dad called it record shopping. Still would, if he were calling it anything. Me, too, being son-of. I’m so son-of that I call surfing Bandcamp record shopping.

Really, if I was going order of importance, this might be number one, for him and me. So many good days.

Actually, how many? Especially together. If I stepped back and counted? More than fifty, but only if that includes my early childhood, when I was more impediment than participant (or partner, or reason). Less than a hundred, for sure. But even more than when he was painting, more than when he was playing Marco Polo or Fake-Dramatic-Underwater-Death with us in motel pools, or whining about having to see people instead of painting or listening to music, my dad was most my dad (whatever that was, whoever that means) in record stores. That classical one in Ann Arbor, especially, although I’m not sure why I think that, since I was too young to remember much about going there with him. I remember the hairy guy behind the counter. Tom? Black bushy hair all over him. Black beard that funneled down to a point and really did waggle, like a needle in a groove.

3. That noise while shitting.

I’ve always wondered if he did that when no one was home. Like moose call in woods, its meaning unclear possibly even to him. I’m here? Stay back? Anybody out there? For sure, it was a performance. He knew it was funny. I’ve just never known if it needed an audience.

4. Phone calls about socks. Sometimes shave soap.

Not a luxuries guy, my dad. This was a skin thing. His skin was thin, easily scarred and susceptible to itching, prone to acne outbreaks. Soft things soothed him. Inordinately. Still do, that didn’t end, won’t until everything does. It’s innate. Fundamentally him. But he doesn’t call anymore, meet my hello with that low, wordless hum—the opposite, if noises have opposites, of the blare cellphones make when there’s an Amber Alert—and then tell me about his new loofah.

5. Walking the dog alone.

He didn’t want the dog. He fought so hard against getting the dog. Refused to help pick it out. Refused to name it. Will never, if he can help it, be more than two feet away from it for the rest of his days. Feeds the dog everything he eats. Talks to the dog more than he has to any friend, ever. Tolerates the dog touching him more than my mom touching him. Their walks lasted hours. Him and the dog. Whole mornings, gone. I know they always stopped for coffee at that place with the dog biscuits. Probably, they shared both.

But then they kept going. Where did they go?

6. Being alone.

I used to think he loved this most of all. But I actually think he loved talking about it more. Especially to anyone else who loved it. It was another thing we shared. If that’s something you can share.

7. McEnroe, Federer, Sampras.

The weekend after he got home from the first hospital stay, I tried showing him that new documentary about the 2008 Federer-Nadal Wimbledon final. I don’t think we watched that match together. But we probably called each other six times during it to say, “Oooh, did you see—” and then “It’s on, bye.”

He wasn’t interested in the documentary. He probably wouldn’t have been even before, now that I think about it. He loved playing tennis, though not enough to bother getting good at it. Not enough to take more than a few lessons, because there were too many other things in the world worth trying or playing.

He loved playing tennis.

And also watching John McEnroe, Roger Federer, and Pete Sampras. Just those three. A seething obsessive, a slick and graceful master-of-one-thing who wears $1000 watches, and an unknowable victory machine. Why them?

I’ll never know.

Did he?

8. Not music, but…

Music, mercifully, did not end for him on diagnosis day. The tumors have grown on the left side, and if anything, he seems even more open to his elementals: sunlight on skin, dog lick on face, and pretty much any CD or record we put on the stereo. His eyes roll back, his lips curl, his hands— those surprisingly stubby hands, chunky fingers, such blunt instruments for producing what he sometimes could and did with pen or brush or clarinet—fold over his chest.

Talking about music, though. Articulating rapture at a new piece or rediscovery. “This,” he sometimes says now, though if you ask him what he means, he can’t tell you. I’m not even sure he recognizes specific symphonies or songs anymore. Decades of building his collection, pruning it, refocusing, broadening, annotating (see below). All irrelevant. The music plays him, these days. Discovers him.

9. Texts about how to get into his email.

Like most people, he mastered technology that mattered to him. Facebook, yes, not so he could post updates or even accept friend requests (which means he has probably offended half the people he’s ever met), but so he could play Scrabble against my aunt and my cousins and me. HDMI and surround sound wiring, check, because how else should he watch a movie? Texting, sort of. That is, getting my brother or me immediately, sure.

But e-mail? It’s not mail, not vocal interaction, there’s no face, no light, no shared moment. Better to be with the dog.

10. Driveway notecards.

This was the way my father greeted my brother and me when we came home from college. Or when we came home with wives. Little squares of sketch paper or sometimes index cards taped to the asphalt. Occasionally he’d ditch paper entirely and scrawl his messages in sidewalk chalk. When we started bringing grandkids for him to play with, the number of note-cards more than doubled.

BASKETBALL POPPED. NO BASKETBALL.
WE’RE OUT OF PILLOWS.
THE MOVIE THEATER RAN OUT OF POPCORN. ALSO MOVIES.
THE DOG’S BROKEN.
THE BEACH, TOO. ALSO, THERE ARE BEES.

Only now am I wondering if he created similar cards for friends. When he and my mom had dinner club or whatever.

I doubt it. They were for us. Him-with-us. A riff on an even older family riff, come-on-we’re-going-to-be-late-for-the-MOVIE. A hardwired Jewish reverse-hex to ward off the Evil Eye. Poo-poo. A reminder, in case we’d forgotten, of the fun he expected to have. Starting right…this…

11. Collection notecards.

Hmm. Never thought about it before, but maybe my dad just had a thing for notecards. The driveway cards were simply vehicles for messages. But the ones he used for cataloging and making brief comments about every CD or video or DVD he kept had significance in themselves. Definitely, they were awards, meant to bestow honor and status on the artworks that earned them. I hope they appreciated it.

In fact, the cards may have been the point of my father’s collections in the first place. They’re my favorite part of it now, for obvious reasons.

They don’t catalog consistent information. Sometimes my dad listed individual pieces or songs, sometimes just the name of the disc. Sometimes he included record labels. Directors or conductors. Sometimes he mentioned place or method of acquisition.

But usually, whatever else he put there, he recorded a response.

Which response, though, Dad? The first impression? The one you settled on, decided was right? Did you ever erase or rewrite them? Were you reminding yourself, and if so, of what? The way you felt then, or the way you expected each specific piece of art to make you feel the next time you viewed or heard it? Were you telling me, or whoever you imagined reading all of these thousand, thousand cards? Did you ever read them?

A couple weekends after he was diagnosed, one night when everyone else was asleep, I started flipping through my father’s catalog drawers. Desultorily, I gravitated toward pieces I know and love, and found his card for Arvo Part’s “Canticle in Memory of Benjamin Britten”. Which I didn’t remember pointing him to, or even specifically discussing with him.

Deep, radiant blue universe. So beautiful. Thank you, Son!!!

On the spot, I started a project. A set of my own notecards in their own file drawer, full of things we’d loved and played and enthused over and shared. They were for him, not me. I gave him the first set for Hanukkah a few weeks later, in the hopes of…what? Not cheering him up. Not making sure he knows, because he knows.

I was more than a little worried these cards might make him sad, whereas I was almost celebrating.

Instead, he sort of smiled as he flipped through them, then put them back in their drawer. As though he wasn’t sure quite what they were, or were meant to be.

12. Stolen days.

That is, days you were meant to be elsewhere, having less fun. Sometimes these days included companions, often not. Only the right companions, for sure. The plans were rarely grandiose—these were opportunity thefts, not train robberies—and almost irrelevant. Usually, there was a record store or a movie involved. Sometimes two.

13. Chocolate feelings.

You have your own name for these. Everyone does.

But do you love them? Do you know how to cradle and nurture them without letting them out of the blanket in which you’ve swaddled and contained them? Can you apply them to windows in rain and Arvo Part CDs?

Do you know what to do with solitude that’s at least partly soul-deep loneliness, no matter what else you call it?

He did.

Hence the name.

14. Columbus.

I knew that word would be on this list. I just thought it would refer to something else. To our Ohio State chatter. He went there just long enough to adopt the football team—he graduated from another school, much later—and even that came afterward, really. His Buckeye-love, at root, was a way of teasing and traumatizing and interacting with my uncle, who went to Michigan. A driveway notecard. Then it was another Saturday thing to share with me. One more way of treasuring Saturdays.

But this Columbus is actually the last film to make it into his collection. It isn’t even about Ohio. It’s about—no, it takes place in—Columbus, Indiana, which for some reason, in the middle of the last century, became a modern architecture mecca, then turned back into a forgotten Indiana town, only with those buildings in it.

The movie is mostly people looking at buildings. Or rather, people sitting next to buildings but only one or two of them looking. There’s a lot of staring into (gorgeously framed) space. There’s a young woman with some talent and a way of seeing. Someone just awakening to what she loves, and the possibility of using what she loves to live.

Is it her that caught him (or stirred him, comforted him, whatever)? Is he remembering being like her? Is it the buildings? The fact that almost no one else notices?

All I know is that he showed that movie to pretty much everyone who came over to sit with him, once he was mostly reduced to sitting. He also watched it alone. For a while, he was even putting it in the tiny portable DVD player someone gave him—for the coming months, for when he wouldn’t even be getting out of bed—and going to sleep to it.

15. University Challenge.

Actually, this is the thing that didn’t end. It’s more the thing that started. The last of my dad’s passions, and the least expected, in some ways. He always had some kind of Oxford-Cambridge romantic fascination, the kind you could imagine a ferociously talented poor kid from poor-kid Ohio having. But he wasn’t good at knowledge-based trivia questions. My dad’s talent was synthesis—also invention—but not recall.

And yet, long after he stopped being able to track movies or tennis matches, after staring out windows or watching lonely people staring out windows got too chocolaty or too scary, he made us cue up episode after episode of brilliant kids competing at quizzes. Whole seasons, or just the same episode over and over. Didn’t matter to him. It wasn’t about who won, or about getting anything right. He still didn’t remember the answers.

I think it was a rhythm thing. The hum of lit-up brains firing. If he’d made a collection notecard for it, I think he would have filed it with the music.

* * *

One day, months past the last time he’d asked to do anything but go to breakfast, go to coffee, or watch University Challenge, my dad suddenly struggled sort of upright on the couch in his studio where we’d laid him for the moment, grabbing and fumbling at a sketch pad.

The pad, placed there ages before—according to the doctors, there was no reason he couldn’t draw, the tumors weren’t in that part of the brain, that didn’t have to be over—had served as coaster for his coffee cups for so long that we’d forgotten its original purpose. We’d tried getting him to sketch. Put pen in his shaky hand, pad in his lap. He hadn’t so much as scratched
out a line since diagnosis day.

But now, all but ripping the pad open, he went to work. His hand shook all over the place. His whole arm, really, like a downed power line in a sudden surge of current. Momentarily, that stopped him. He stared at the marks he’d made on the page, and we started to reassure him, urge him just to keep going. But the look on his face wasn’t frustration or anger. I don’t know what it was. But it might have been wonder. As though he’d just realized something was on the page. Or wasn’t yet but could be. The kind of wonder that can trap someone in a Columbus only she can see forever, but also set her free to roam there.

Then he was off again. His movements got more furious, more desperate. As though he were scrabbling up a wall. Or writing a will.

Actually, it looked even more frantic than that. Like he was cramming a message in a bottle. Setting a distress signal on endless repeat as his ship slowly, slowly, then not so slowly sank.

(Hey—there’s the metaphor. The one I’ll pick, anyway: communications room, unmanned, its operator fleeing back into the bowels of the boatas the water rises, but the signal still blinking, blaring, beating on its waves of sound or light like a heartbeat: Hello? Anyone? This is our last known location. Anybody out there? Can you hear me? Over…)

My dad’s final drawing took him six minutes. Maybe less. When he’d finished, he looked up, past me, past my brother, to my mom. That, clearly, was not over. New drawings went first to her. For approval, critique, love. Who knows?

We couldn’t help it, we all crowded around. We were hoping…I was hoping maybe he’d drawn my wife, who I know he loved and meant to paint someday. Maybe one of his grandkids again.

The face on the page was a teenager’s, all right. But not one I knew. My mom didn’t either. Not at first.

Then she said, “That Silver kid? Oh, hon.” She looked at my father.

He’d sunk back on the couch, closed his eyes. He said he had to go to the bathroom, and we took him. He never asked about the drawing. I don’t think he remembered doing it.

When we’d laid him down and he was sleeping, my mom picked up the sketch again and stared at it. She shook her head.

“It’s…just some kid. His parents hired Dad to paint his portrait. For some reason, your dad couldn’t get him. It happens sometimes, some faces, who knows why? But Dad couldn’t capture him. He wound up giving back the money.”

“When was this?”

“God, I don’t know. Before either of you were born? When you were really young?”

The three of us stared at the face a little longer.

Beginnings of a beard. Hint of something in the slit of the eyes. Mischief or trouble. Maybe joy.

“Did he get him now?” my brother asked. “Is that him?”

When I think about this moment, I imagine it was one of the times my mom let herself cry. But I don’t think it was.

She shrugged. “Who even knows what that kid looked like? I can’t even remember his name.”