Graham enters the cinderblock one-story building for the fifth time this month. The month is December, and everything is gray. Gray skies and gray snow. Graham finds all of the gray comforting in its consistency.
He walks to a semicircular structure to prevent those entering the building from going any further without first stopping here to identify themselves. Graham tells the woman at this desk that he is here to see James Humboldt. “My…” unsure of how to say for several infinite seconds until he recalls the word, “…my..f-father.”
The woman nods from below the semicircle, seated in a stained computer chair covered in, what looks like, dog fur. She nods from the great chasm that is below the top tier of the desk, and tells him to have a seat.
Graham sits in a short row of chairs across from the reception desk and waits. Dr. Blaze meets him at the front, though he is unsure of whether Dr. Blaze intended to run into Graham, or if he accidentally did on his way to another wing of the building. Regardless, Dr. Blaze escorts him down the hall to the left.
He notices how clean the floors are, how shiny and impeccable, while everything else appears stained or marred in some way. Even Dr. Blaze’s white coat and dress pants are rumpled. The fluorescent lights from above reflect perfectly back to themselves as the two make their way to Graham’s father’s room.
James is seated with a remote in one hand and his other hand draped delicately across his crotch. Like a ballerina’s hand, Graham thinks. Each time he visits, his father has the remote grasped tightly in his hand even if he’s not watching TV. He’s not exactly sure, but it looked like during the last visit, his father covertly pressed the mute button while Graham was talking.
The facility lets James keep his dog in the room, which is nice. The brochure boasts its “pet-friendly atmosphere.” Graham doesn’t know what to think of his father’s dog. It looks like a stuffed animal dog. Its name is Muffin, which sounds ridiculous to Graham. Muffin’s great, round, black eyes are so unnaturally large that Graham has to look closely to convince himself they are not marbles, and even then, it is questionable. Pieced out sections of fur cover the rest of it; fur that never quite comes together again, just like a well-handled toy.
Muffin is curled up next to James looking sullen, ossified into position. Dr. Blaze talks enthusiastically about Graham’s father’s current condition, flipping through some rudimentary handwritten notes. This impresses Graham. A personal touch. Dr. Blaze flips quickly through the notes but Graham catches something that looks like “given to laconic moods” in a lank, choppy script.
The doctor and James interact and start laughing about some incident with another resident, something that must be rather amusing, something they refer to as “the scandal,” but what must be something much less intense. Graham shifts his weight through this conversation from foot to foot while the other men talk, having to go to the bathroom suddenly but feeling the need to stay, knowing he should wait until it is over without really knowing why.
Dr. Blaze pats James on the shoulder and walks out. For the rest of the visit, Graham and James watch an old sitcom and look at each other’s feet while they talk during the commercials. So many questions bubble up in Graham, but he suppresses them by sipping coffee from a shockingly white styrofoam cup.
As Graham leaves, he overhears a woman say to another woman right outside the main doors, smoking together, “I figured my sanity was more valuable than that jar of organic mayonnaise.”
Earlier that month, when Delia called to tell him the news, Graham knew to pick up the phone because she rarely called. She had sounded perplexed even though she was the one relaying the news.
“They found Dad…” she started, and he could picture her moony, pregnant face swollen even more from tears. Graham expected from that half-statement to hear that they had found him dead. But she continued, “He…he was in something called a dissociative fugue state. A protracted dissociative fugue state. Whatever the hell that is. I think it was on a Lifetime movie once. I didn’t think this stuff was actually real.”
Graham wasn’t sure how to respond, so he grunted in what he hoped was a sympathetic way.
“They found him in one of those traveling government work programs. He hadn’t made it very far, just Morgantown. You know, the kind of program that goes door-to-door selling magazines. They get to ride around in buses all over the country with crumpled lists of magazines in their pockets trying to get people excited about subscriptions. It’s pathetic,” she sighed.
Graham knew the kind. He could tell when they were legitimate if they seemed illegitimate.
“Anyway, he ended up somehow convincing some rich widower to let him live with her. He was just at her door trying to sell magazines, but somehow he managed that. I don’t really think they know all the details yet, but they know her name, and she used to work for the paper up here. Maybe you know her.”
Graham tried to picture an old widower until he remembered a young, attractive Executive Editor whose husband had died tragically a year or two ago. She had moved to West Virginia after his death and supposedly lived on a large estate with exotic animals. That must be her, he thought.
He remembered seeing her only once at a party hosted by the Gazette. She was often mocked by staff for saying “telephone” instead of “phone,” enunciating the word too clearly every time. When I heard he was running for Vice Mayor I said to Susan, ‘Susan, get him on the TELEPHONE immediately.’
At the party, he remembered glimpsing her for only a few moments. Her green flowing dress and sleek, set hair made her look like a plant, like one of the many types of foliage surrounding the room, blending her into her environment. Her jungly look, in combination with the live plants, cast a feral filter over the entire room as well as the rest of the guests. Graham had stood up against a load-bearing beam the whole time as if it were a secondary backbone. Others at the party could only see about half of his face at one time given his angle against the beam. He didn’t like parties, especially work parties.
“They said Dad was calling himself Erie Moseby. He insisted that was his name. The thing is, he doesn’t remember running away, creating a new identity, anything. The doctor said he’s in recovery, which means he remembers his real life, his life with us, but doesn’t remember running away. Oh, it’s awful. When can you visit him?” Delia said.
“Where is he?” Graham asked.
“Some facility. I don’t know if it’s a hospital or a nursing home or what. They all sort of look the same.”
His sister had been right. The facility is unclear and unmarked so that residents would not be labeled. But all buildings are starting to look the same to Graham. He thinks it would be easy to slip into another life, to slip into something strikingly different and not really know it had happened. He is surprised that not everyone experiences this condition of his father’s at least once. He wonders where his father got his fugue name, Erie Moseby.
Graham and his sister talk more often now, mostly about their father and his current state. They say he has completely recovered from the fugue but now has dementia.
Talking to Delia reminds him of when they grew up together. When he was young and always too small for his grade, carrying books thicker than his arms.
Their mother would do the wash but not want to dry her more delicate items in the dryer, so, on certain days, for hours there would be bras and underwear strung up on hooks, posts, doorknobs, whatever was available around the house. It made him think of a butcher with slabs of meat hung everywhere, swaying and cold as death. She would also sing or hum all the time, but only one line of a song, over and over through the hall. Never more than one line. These were not songs other people sung or even recognized. Graham wasn’t sure if his mother made them up, or if they were just so old no one else remembered them anymore.
He also thought of secrets. Delia and their mother always told obscene amounts of secrets to each other, back and forth. Graham was never involved. Delia knew when her mother was leaving. She actually told her own daughter ahead of time, as if they were co-conspirators. He never knew what to make of this. Delia told him what was happening right after she had left. He was finishing up a math worksheet at the time. He got distracted and had erased a wrong answer too vigorously, forcing the metal on the pencil to scratch the cheap worksheet paper until it tore, bunching it up like an accordion.
Graham’s car had a flat tire, so he takes the bus to see his father. Beside him, a woman speaks over the phone fluidly in Spanish. She switches to English a few minutes in as the bus groans into a curve, then seamlessly back to Spanish, articulate and equally confident in both. It is effortless for her, Graham notices. Graham’s phone isn’t getting a good connection on this bus. He can’t even check his email.
He studies her. It is like looking at himself; he has no idea what he looks like, really. Every picture of himself is like a new person, similar but morphed somehow. Staring into a mirror doesn’t help. He likes to think of himself as incredibly dynamic and to make everyone else caricatures. Reduced. As if he has some level of depth others do not possess. His co-worker is always angry. His neighbor is consistently beautiful. But he, he changes into a wolf at certain hours of the day. This woman, he thinks, he is able to see the complexity in her like he can see it in himself. This makes him appreciative, feeling connected to her in some way. Everyone else on the bus, all of their faces are vague in an almost violent way.
He reluctantly leaves the woman, gets off the bus to visit with his father. The snow around the sidewalk is firmly packed. It is strong and unwavering, but, of course, he knows it will melt eventually.