The End of the Beginning of the End
Dying brought out the worst in Tex. He was becoming unbearable to live with.
“That’s him,” said Elizabeth, glancing at her cellphone, which she had laid flat on the sticky kitchen table. She pushed back the tired brown hair from her reddened eyes.
“It doesn’t sound like him. Didn’t you make him ‘God Save the Queen?’” Her brother Winston, nearly bald, sipped his tea. He peered at her over his dark glasses.
“I changed my ringtone for him. Now he’s ‘Rule, Britannia.’”
“Not much of a change, is it?”
“I just couldn’t take ‘God Save the Queen’ every ten minutes. If she’s not saved by now, it’s hopeless.” Elizabeth made no move to pick up the phone.
“For Christ’s sake, Liz.” Winston began drumming his fingers on the table.
“I can’t. You go.”
“He called you. Not me.”
“Your phone is off, isn’t it?”
Winston carefully moved his teacup away from the phone. He had delicate gestures for such a large, ungainly man.
“A daughter should not change her father’s diaper,” said Elizabeth.
“Since when are you so fastidious? The table feels like flypaper. This chocolate stain has been here for a week.” He moved his teacup further from the stain. “It is chocolate, isn’t it?”
"Rule, Britannia" stopped. Then it began again.
“Do you know what just happened, Win? In that little interval of blessed silence?” Elizabeth put her arms on the table and leaned forward toward Winston. She had big forearms for a woman and the no-nonsense gaze of a long-time teacher of mathematics to high school students.
Winston said nothing. He put his teacup down and laced his fingers together.
“He tried to call you is what happened,” said Elizabeth.
“I have the vibrator on. I didn't feel a thing.”
“When do you ever?”
“I’ll feed Tex—later,” said Winston.
“And watch TV with him tonight. The Battle of Britain DVD. Again.”
Elizabeth hesitated. “Rule, Britannia” began again. “And his feet.”
“Oh God,” moaned Winston, closing his eyes behind his dark glasses.
“Feed. TV. Feet. Or no deal.” Elizabeth folded her arms across her flat chest.
“How do you know he needs to be changed? Suppose he just wants his back scratched?”
Elizabeth leaned forward again. Winston leaned back. “It’s three o’clock,” she said. “He’s as regular as Big Ben. Still.” The imitation Big Ben hanging on the kitchen wall chimed three times. “It’s the only thing in him that still works. Except for the other thing.”
“What other thing?”
“What other thing do you think?”
“Oh Christ,” said Winston.
“The nurse says it’s not intentional. He can’t help it. It’s just—well, you know. Like a knee-jerk reaction.”
“I hope my knee jerks as well when I’m eighty.”
Elizabeth began to cry. “Classes begin again in two weeks. If you don’t do more, we’ll have to hire somebody for Father.”
“All right, Liz. Feed, TV, and feet. Deal?”
“All right.” Elizabeth dried her eyes. She took a deep breath. “You could clean the table, too, you know. Help straighten out a little. When Mum was alive this place was as immaculate as the Virgin Mary. And I at least helped when we were kids. You were a do-nothing.”
“Mum was a nurturer. You’re a nurturer. I’m a nurturee.”
“Why didn’t we get married, Win?”
“Because we’re brother and sister?”
“You know what I mean.”
“You almost did. What was his name again? Erwin?”
“Erhard. How could you forget?”
“Oh, yes. The sour kraut, as Father dubbed him.” Winston smiled.
“Mum told me to say he was Dutch.”
“Would Erhard have gone for that?”
“Nein. He was proud to be German. Even though he had never been to Germany. Or even Pennsylvania.”
“Why would he go to Pennsylvania?” With one pinky Winston nudged the phone further away from his teacup.
“Forty percent of the state is German-American. Don’t you remember?”
“Oh, yes. That’s why Tex refused to take us to see the Amish when we were kids. Nazis in straw hats, he called them.” “Rule, Britannia” chimed in once more. “You had to show him how to speed dial, didn’t you, Liz?”
Elizabeth groaned and snatched up the phone. “Hello?” She paused. “Oh, hi Father. My phone must have been off.” She glared at Winston and held the phone away from her ear. “Who? Me. Elizabeth.” She paused. “Your daughter. You called me.” She looked down at the table. “Well, you just sit still and try not to let it get all over. I’ll be right up.” She put the phone back down on the table and took a deep, painful breath. “You could come upstairs with me, Win.”
“Feed, TV, feet. No shit. That’s the deal for today. I’ll be back by six.” Winston got up.
“How do you rate three hours off?” asked Elizabeth. “God, Win, you’re not even employed.”
“Not gainfully employed. An actor is always employed. Employed in looking for employment.” Behind his dark glasses, Winston winked at her. “Come on now. This can’t go on much longer. What’s the quote Father always muddles? This is the end of the middle of the beginning of the something, something.”
“It’s Churchill,” said Elizabeth, “and he doesn’t muddle it. You do. And I do. Tex knows it by heart. And you better be back by six or I’ll track you down and cut off your knee jerk.”
Tex stared up at the ceiling as Elizabeth did something he could not feel in a place he no longer cared about. He groaned.
“All done, Father. Okay?” She hovered over him. “Tex?”
“It hurts,” he said and fingered the cell phone by his side.
“I don’t think so,” said Elizabeth. “I think you just remember it hurting from before. Like when they cut off a leg and you still feel the toes.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Lizzie? To cut off my leg.”
“Yes, that’s every girl’s dream, isn’t it? To cut off her father’s leg.”
“Where are you going? You just got here.” His voice was dry and hollow.
Elizabeth sat down in the old armchair by the bed. She was startled. She thought she saw her mother, but realized it was herself in the mirror on the closet door. She winced. “I’ve been here for three weeks, Father.”
“Where have I been?” Tex tried to lift his head, but it felt full of lead.
“Here. But before that in the hospice. You wanted to come home. Don’t you remember?”
“Oh yeah,” said Tex. “The hospice. They treated me like I was dying.”
Elizabeth stood up. “I’ll be downstairs. I need to tidy up a bit.”
“Yeah. You need make-up. Or maybe a new hairdo. Or something. Jesus, Lizzie, how will you ever get married?”
“I mean the house. And you know, Father, there are people who think I look just fine.”
Tex looked at her. “Who?”
Elizabeth sighed. “I’ll be downstairs. Call if you need me.”
“Will you have your phone on this time?” Tex turned his head to look at her even though it hurt his neck.
She turned her back on him. “Yes.”
“You promise, Lizzie? You promise on your mother’s grave?” Tex felt a cloud pass over him. “Is your mum back from the store yet?”
Elizabeth stood for a moment with her hands on her hips. Then she left.
The mid-afternoon light was dim through the window behind the dusty curtains. It made the room and everything in it look like a sepia-toned photograph. The gold English Garden Trellis rug had browned and the once pretty floral wallpaper had lost its bloom. The imitation Georgian chest of drawers and the matching nightstands were dull and without the sheen that once had warmed their oak veneer. The headboard and footboard of the brass bed were tarnished and between their prison bar-like rods, beneath a crumpled blue blanket, lay what was left of Tex. His large and lanky frame, which had earned him his nickname in the army, was shrunk and shriveled by age and encroaching disease. A few remaining gray hairs clung stubbornly to his head, a patchy stubble covered his cheeks and chin. His muddy brown eyes peeked out from beneath low-hanging lids that made him look sleepy, though he almost never slept anymore. Sleep had been replaced by a semi-consciousness through which he wandered in and out aimlessly day into night into day.
Tex tried to pull himself up and achieved an inch or two. He reached toward the nightstand and knocked over a glass of water, the water cascading down onto the rug. “Son of a bitch,” he said and pulled himself forward by the edge of the nightstand. He reached past the framed wedding photograph of him and his wife to another larger one next to it, but couldn’t quite grasp it. He lay back down and took a deep breath. Then with one quick movement he twisted himself on his side, shot out his arm, and grabbed the far photograph. He fell back down and rested the photograph on his heaving chest. “Son of a bitch,” he wheezed and smiled at Winston Churchill sitting at his bedside in the 61st General Hospital near Oxford in 1944.
Winston scanned the mahogany bar at O’Malley’s Authentic Irish Pub in the predominantly Hispanic town of Freeport, Long Island. There were a half-dozen men at the bar and stout George the bartender was arguing with one of them. George stopped arguing long enough to nod at Winston. “Hey, Hollywood,” he called and pointed to a booth by the rear door.
“A Guinness, George. And a few of your lovely hard-boiled, if possible.” Winston made his way between the tables and the wall of booths to the last one in the row and squeezed in opposite his agent Sid Kline. Kline was a small, nervous man with quick gestures. “This is real pissy beer, Winnie. Can’t you find a better dive to drag me to? Or get on the train and come to 54th street?”
“Shhhhhh. George is a sensitive guy. And he gives me credit. And I can squeeze free eggs out of him.”
“Hey, Hollywood,” shouted George.
Winston went to the bar and took his Guinness and a bowl of three hard-boiled eggs. “Put it on my tab, Georgie. And my friend’s there, too.”
“You’re going to settle up soon, right guvnor?”
“You bet. I’m up for something big.”
“Cut a leg, buddy.”
“Break. That’s break a leg, George. And thanks.”
Kline fidgeted on the bench. “Who built these booths? Noah? I think I’ve got a splinter in my ass.”
“That’s authentic mahogany imported from a pub in Ireland. You’re now part of a long tradition of Irish asses that have graced that bench. Feel the history.”
“Next time you come to the office like my other Oscar contenders.”
“Stop bitching, Sid, and give me the good news,” said Winston. “It’s good, right?”
“You better eat an egg.”
“Oh Christ. You’re kidding, right?” Winston took a long drink of beer.
“You were close, Winnie. Real close. Second, as a matter of fact. You were the second best frog out of twenty.”
“Who got it then? There was nobody there that could touch me. And you said the producer really, really liked my work.”
“She did. But they gave it to that old Mexican guy. The one with the gravelly voice.”
Winston cracked an egg and peeled the shell bitterly. “Goddamn. How could they give it to him? He had an accent a mile wide. How can he be the voice of a British frog selling toilet paper?” Winston shoved the whole denuded egg in his mouth.
“They went nuts for this Mexican guy. The animators are going to make a Mexican frog wearing a sombrero. Just based on his accent.”
“That’s great. I can’t even croak better than a guy who can hardly speak English.” Winston chewed his egg sullenly. He got teary behind his dark glasses.
“I’m sorry, Winston,” said Kline, sipping his beer and making a face. He wiped some foam off his thin black mustache. “But I think voice-overs are definitely the way to go for you. And there’s more and more of that work, what with Internet ads and all.”
“I’m a legit actor, Sid. You know that. This voice-over shit is just filler. Right?”
Kline pushed his beer to the side and took an egg. “Look, some actors are better heard rather than seen. You’ve gotten a little—well, a little hard to cast. You’re a man of a certain age. And weight. No offense.”
“I’m a fat old fuck. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Come on, Winnie. There were a lot of great fat old fucks. Orson Wells. Brando, for Christ’s sake. I mean later on.”
“And my TV spots as the doctor in those Gas-B-Gone commercials. I had my own father thinking I’d somehow graduated med school. His friends called me for medical advice.”
“You were great in those. Gas-B-Gone, chocolate flavored. Too bad it bombed.”
“I was the best Herod in Wilde’s Salomé you ever saw. Didn’t you tell me that?”
“That’s right. You were.”
“Even if it was off- Broadway.”
“And four years ago,” said Kline. “You want that last egg?” Winston shook his head. Kline took the egg and put it is his pocket. “You still staying at your sister’s place--temporarily?”
“We’re at my father’s house.”
“Didn’t he die last month?”
“Yes,” said Winston. “But he came back. They resuscitated him. He can’t seem to let go.”
“Tough old bird. He’s a vet, isn’t he? Didn’t you say he was at D-Day?”
“Yes. It was the turning point of his life.”
“I guess it was for a lot of men.”
“I don’t mean the landing,” said Winston. “You going to finish that beer?” Kline shook his head. Winston took it. “He was wounded and shipped back to the UK. So he’s in a hospital there and Winston Churchill comes through visiting the GIs—with a cameraman, of course. Churchill spends some time talking to Tex—my father—I guess he kind of took a shine to him. He even wrote a letter to my father after the war.”
“You’re kidding.” Kline glanced at his watch.
“So Tex goes kind of Churchill crazy. He becomes a rabid Anglophile. Married my mom, a Brit he met back in the States. Named my sister and me after the Queen and the PM. He was as British as a man born in the Bronx could get.”
“Good thing it wasn’t Hitler who visited him in the hospital,” said Kline. “They’d be calling you Adolf.”
“He had his great moment. And he made it last. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing for a man to do.”
George called from the bar. “Hey, Hollywood. You want champagne?”
“I got to go,” said Kline. He put a fifty-dollar bill down on the table. “Pay your tab, Winnie. And give me a call sometime.”
Winston sat for a while alone in the booth. Then he called, “Georgie boy, bring me that bottle of champagne—and another egg.”
Elizabeth sat scrunched in the old faux leather easy chair. She nestled in the valley left by her father through his years of sitting there and thumbed through a photo album on her lap, the TV casting a flickering light over the photographs. She turned when she heard Winston’s heavy foot on the stairs and caught a glimpse of him passing by the living room.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she called.
Winston appeared momentarily in the dimly lit entry to the living room. He was spattered with something outrageously orange. “I am going to the bathroom, Liz. To attempt to wash off a dozen pureed carrots from my shirt. And face. And the little hair I haven’t as yet pulled out.”
“Why do we even try to feed him? This is ridiculous.”
“Because he demands it. What can we say, no? Give us a break, Tex, and starve to death?”
“He doesn’t really want to eat. He just uses us for target practice.”
“And he’s got damn good aim. May I go detox myself now?”
“Don’t be long. You need to go back up there.” Elizabeth clicked off the TV.
“It’s okay. He’s watching the bombing of St. Paul’s. That’s his favorite part of the Battle of Britain DVD. He’s good for ten minutes at least.”
“Says you. He’ll be calling in no time and I’m off duty. Better hurry.”
“Thank you, Florence Nightingale.”
When Winston returned, his blue shirt was riddled with wet marks, the orange now the brown color of dried blood. He sat heavily on the sofa.
“Why don’t you take that off? I’ll throw it in the wash,” said Elizabeth.
“You can throw it in the trash. It’s full of bad memories now. What are you looking at?”
Elizabeth held up the photo album. “Remember this?”
“Mum and Father on Brighton Pier. You in your bonnet, me in my sailor hat. You were what, four? Me, nine, I think.”
“Father was in his glory. His first and only trip back to beloved England.”
“He still has the shirt. In the closet. The one with the great gloppy grease stain from his Brighton fish and chips,” said Winston. “Mum could never wash it out.”
“He wouldn’t let her try. He never wore the shirt again, just kept it hanging in the closet and would pull it out now and then and look at it like it was the Shroud of Turin.” Elizabeth smiled.
Winston began to cry.
“Come on, Win. Please. Don’t.”
“This sucks. This really, really sucks. Poor old Tex. He doesn’t want this. What’s he waiting for?”
“Sometimes people need someone to tell them it’s okay to go,” said Elizabeth. “Someone they’ll listen to. Where’s Mum when we need her?”
“Rule, Britannia” jingled on the coffee table.
Winston blew his nose. “Coming, your lordship,” he said in a thick British accent.
“I’m going to get some sleep. Wake me up at midnight. I’ll take the graveyard shift.”
Elizabeth pulled herself up and trudged out of the living room then reappeared. She bent down and kissed Winston on the top of the head. “Love your accent,” she said.
“Wake up, Liz.”
Elizabeth opened her eyes to the near darkness of her old bedroom. Only the dim nightlight by the door allowed her to see Winston sitting on the edge of the bed. “Oh God, is it midnight?”
“It’s one. I was giving you a break,” said Winston.
“Can’t you just shoot me? That’s the kind of break I need now.”
“Listen, you were right. I think Tex just needs someone to tell him it’s okay to go. Someone he really trusts—and respects.”
“Did I say that?” Elizabeth sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed.
“And I know exactly the man for the job. Winston Churchill.”
“God, Win, have you been drinking?”
“Maybe just a little. But so did Churchill. And not just a little.”
Elizabeth turned on the lamp on the night table. Winston was still wearing his dark glasses. “Don’t you ever take those things off anymore?”
Winston took off his glasses. His eyes were dark and beady.
“I can do it, Liz. I can be Winston Churchill.”
“Oh, come on, Win.” Elizabeth leaned back against the headboard of the bed. “Tex will see right through it. You’re his son, for God’s sake. How could he not know you?”
“Because I’m a damn good actor. Better than good. I’m so good I could fool my father into thinking I’m a dead great statesman.” Winston smiled. He was excited. His little eyes twinkled.
Elizabeth stood up and walked to the small window overlooking the quiet street where she grew up. The same lamppost cast a feeble glow on the same darkened lawns. She remembered the days when her big brother would pace back and forth in her room, declaiming lines from Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, and she, sitting on her bed, would shout bravo, a phrase he had taught her, although she didn’t exactly know what it meant. He had always, it seemed to her, wanted to act. He’d had some small successes, but they were few and far between and were fading further and further into the past. “Come on, Win. You don’t look remotely like Churchill.”
Winston didn’t say anything. He looked at her crumpled pillow. Then he put his dark glasses back on.
Elizabeth bit her lip. “But—you’ve got the heft.”
Winston looked up at her. “I do,” he said.
“And you could listen to his speeches on the Internet. Get the voice down.”
“I could,” said Winston.
“You know people who could do make up—what’s her name, the one you nearly married when you were playing Herod in Salome´?”
“Marla. She’s a wizard. She can make you anyone you want to be. And she could still get me into wardrobe at the old company.”
Elizabeth turned to him, hands on her hips. “You are a damn good actor. You could fool God if you had to. And Tex is not exactly God at this point. Not even exactly conscious.”
Winston stood up. “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”
“Don’t you hear that, Lizzie? What’s the matter with you?” Tex squinted up at the ceiling.
“Hear what, Father?” Elizabeth took a clean undershirt from the dresser.
“That buzzing,” said Tex, “Buzz, buzz, buzzzzz.” His voice trailed off.
“That’s in your ears. I’ve told you before.”
“It’s a fly. Can’t you even kill a fly? Where’s your brother? Is he coming home for Christmas? Jesus, Lizzie. Can’t you kill that fly?” Tex tried to push himself up in bed, but couldn’t move.
Elizabeth bent over and gently pulled him up. “It’s August. Win was with you a few days ago. He’s away. On business.” She slapped her hands over his head. “There. I killed the fly.”
“It’s still buzzing.”
“Come on, Tex, hold still. You need a clean shirt.” She pulled his T-shirt over his head and winced at her father’s skeletal frame and got the fresh shirt over him as quickly as she could. She fluffed his pillows and laid him back down. She felt a twinge in her back.
“I want to eat,” said Tex.
“No. Not now.” Elizabeth pulled down the shade behind the curtains and the room softened into twilight. She took a deep breath. “Now listen, Father. You have a visitor.”
“Can’t you kill that fucking fly?”
“Shhhhhh. Listen to me. Someone very special is here to see you. But you’ve got to be good.”
“Is it Mum?”
Elizabeth fell silent for a moment. “No,” she said. “Not yet. But maybe soon.” She propped Tex up on his pillows, straighten the scant hairs on his head, and ran her hand over his cheek. “Maybe we should have given you a shave. Well. You look fine anyway.”
“You should fix yourself up, Lizzie,” Tex whispered.
“You stay just as you are, Father. Don’t slouch. I’ll bring him in.”
Tex heard him before he saw him.
“Tex, my boy. May I come in? I trust you’re not too indisposed.”
Tex could barely see the large man approaching him, but the voice was unmistakable. Elizabeth followed close behind. “Father, do you remember Mr. Churchill?”
Tex stared. “Who?”
“Come now, my friend,” said Winston. “I haven’t changed all that much now, have I?” The small eyes, the high furrowed forehead, the jowly cheeks, the straight thin lips, and clamped between the lips a big cigar—all in the shadow of the Homburg hat.
“Your honor?” Tex’s eyes widened.
Winston stood for a minute giving Tex the full effect of his black wool chalk stripe suit, blue polka dot bow tie, and the large unlit pseudo Cuban. He took off his hat. “Can I sit for a bit, Tex? I’ve come a long way to have a chin wag.”
Tex’s face froze, like a plaster mask hardening, then suddenly softened into a smile. “I have to get up, sir. I have to get dressed,” said Tex.
“Now, now, you just lay back, my boy. You’ve had the devil’s own time of it, haven’t you?” Winston pulled the chair closer to the bed and put a hand on Tex’s arm.
“Do you want me to leave you two alone for a while, Father?” asked Elizabeth.
“This is Elizabeth, my daughter,” said Tex. “She takes good care of me. Lizzie, this is my friend Mr. Churchill.”
“It’s an honor, Mr. Churchill. Father has told me much about you,” said Elizabeth.
“I have a son, too,” said Tex. He motioned Winston closer. “Do you know what I named him?”
“Now what would that be, Tex?”
Tex reached out a gripped his arm. “Winston. After you, sir.”
“Well, sir,” said Winston. “That is a special honor. And as good a one as has ever been conferred on me.”
“He’s an actor,” said Tex. “I saw him in a play. And on TV once. Oh, he’s very good.”
“Better than good,” said Elizabeth.
Winston said nothing.
“I’ve done my best, sir,” said Tex. “I can’t do any more.”
“I know that, my boy. There’s no more you have to do.”
Tex took a deep breath and seemed to hold it for a long time. As he exhaled, he melted down into the pillows. Elizabeth stood on the other side of the bed and took his hand.
“You killed that fly, Lizzie. Your honor, there was a fly, but it’s gone.”
“I’m glad, Tex,” said Winston, his hand on Tex’s arm.
The room darkened and they sat in silence for a while.
“Your honor?” whispered Tex.
“Yes, my boy?”
“Is it the end?”
Elizabeth looked at Winston and closed her eyes.
Winston put his head close to Tex and said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”