By Sheldon Lee Compton
I stopped at Ruth’s Diner twenty minutes after we left the dentist. Six of my teeth had been cracked and pulled loose from the gum line. I couldn’t feel my face. I wanted a hamburger.
You reminded me about not eating when we pulled in, looked down, and then said you’d like a grilled cheese, asked me for quarters to play pool while we waited. I dug around and found a few. I couldn’t feel my forehead.
I watched you watch me eat. Hamburger, fries. I didn’t see the blood, but you did.
I wish you would have told me before I swallowed. A good son would have said something sooner.
Your mother was not home to say anything about my having eaten my own lip. The emergency room nurse was all the care I got from anyone. She was nice until I spoke. And so it goes with everyone. I think she must have seen you trembling in the corner. You should have more courage. I’ve done nothing to help you with this. It’s my fault.
There’s no way you can know, but in two years I will be gone and you’ll need to make it on your own. I should say something, but the more I say, the worse it gets. It’s this way all the time.
I take you to baseball games and sit in the truck, parked away from the field, and watch through the rearview mirror. You will write a rather bad poem about this years later and I will never read it. It may come up in conversation and I will say that you’ve killed me a hundred times in your bad poems and you’ll agree.
You’ll agree with me and I’ll say you’re just like me. It’s something you won’t want to hear, but that doesn’t matter. There’s a circle and that circle will be completed. Besides, my Agent Orange lawyer is planning a civil suit. Millions, he says. Millions, I tell you. But you just drop your head, just like you always do. What is so interesting at your feet? It’s only your destiny. Those feet will walk many miles in my shoes. What happens after your teeth are pulled, rotted from the inside out? Will your son tell you that you’re eating your bottom lip? Or will he let you be, hoping you manage to choke the rest of you down, disappear all together?
In two years I’ll be gone. My end and your beginning. When you speak to people, any people, try to be polite. Don’t look directly at them. Keep your tone soft and never let them see what you are, where you came from. It most likely won’t help, but try anyway. And have a son. Teach him to hold his head high. Teach him to take it like a man. Teach him something, anything.