Blood Work

Fred Arroyo

He was my father’s uncle, a distant relative or a friend. On Sundays, when we lived in Connecticut, my father would drive down an oak-lined avenue to a set of tan and aqua green high-rise buildings. There must have been an elevator up to his floor, though when I go back in time I only have a vision of looking up towards the high-rise, or being there in his small room. I would probably never have seen the bedroom, the bathroom, and I don’t remember a kitchen. There was one room with dark green carpeting, a sitting chair, a round table pushed into the corner of the room, and two chairs. He didn’t really need any of the chairs, I suppose, because he was in a wheelchair, always a few feet back from a window without curtains, the shades pulled high, as he looked out towards Hartford.

I don’t have a name for this man, and rather than cause my father any worry or pain by asking, the only name I can settle on is Diabetes.

He always wore a fedora, a white or yellow guayabera, or simply an undershirt, his hands gripping the wheelchair’s arms, or folded on his lap. He wore shorts--his thighs were very brown, smooth--and sometimes bright white tube socks over his amputated legs, the yellow or blue stripes around the tops of the socks encircling the edges of his thighs. My father and Diabetes talked. He shifted his weight when he wanted to emphasize a memory, stress a phrase, a stub rising from the seat of the wheelchair like a pointing finger. When he wasn’t wearing socks, the skin at the end of his leftover legs seemed soft, and his thighs flexed with muscles in the gleaming light falling through the window. There were roundish sores near or above where his knees should have been, the injured skin kidney or island shaped, some of the sores a deep maroon color or tinted with a lime green.

I wish I could remember anything of their conversations—all the stories of work, memory, drink or women. The weather outside the window. Anything. That small room, in what may have been an assisted-living building, is now silent as I look back on his stubby legs. Diabetes. It’s all I can hear. Then I hear my father describing how his uncle’s legs were slowly taken away, one surgery after another, diabetes and gangrene ravishing his body. Many have diabetes in my father’s family, sugar as deep in our blood as the sugar cane planted on the island, as working in those fields, and as sweet as the solace of rum, alcoholism. In my father’s eyes there was a moment of imagination as he spoke of what happened to his uncle: as if he could foresee the moment when sugar slowly ate away his own legs or arms, even though he never went to the doctors, and didn’t even know, at the time, he was diabetic.

My father’s uncle died long ago, the amputations rising closer to his hips, until there was nothing left to cut away. That was always the story I lived with—once they started cutting away, gangrene set in, and then the amputations continued on until you were just a chunk of meat remembering your butchered body.

 

 

A memory returns to me like morning sun breaking through gray clouds after a stormy night: my father in the shower, drops of water splashing on his head and running down his shoulders from the leaking showerhead, his right foot under the faucet gushing hot water as he bends over with a long, thin knife and begins to cut across his big toe. I watch his elbow move in a jerk left to right. I watch the water, almost silver, slowly falling down his shoulders. I watch how white and cold his skin seems, and even though steam rises around him, my father is shaking. I try not to look at his big blue toe, the nail swollen with blood. I hear his grunt turn into a deep yell.

I am looking in the mirror at my 10-year-old face, looking at a face of wonder I have never seen before, and I wait for something to appear, wait for something to change, wait for a tear to fall, wait for a hair to sprout from my chin, wait for a scream or a laugh to break through my tightly closed lips.

I grip the edge of the sink for a moment, hard, raise my feet off the ground. I turn and walk out of the bathroom.

There is no break in the gray clouds giving way to light as to why I went into the bathroom to see my father release the blood under his swollen toenail with a butcher knife because in a drunk rage he had kicked over a huge, heavy kitchen table. I was alone with him in the house. Always alone with my father: walking down a cold winter street in the night, standing a few feet back as he stood at a bar, sitting in a living room, working with him in the yard, on a car, or in a field, following him on some quest. Maybe I followed him when he walked through the living room with the knife. Maybe I had to go to the bathroom and found him there. Maybe he called me to bring him a towel, and once I saw him cutting his toenail, I dropped the towel next to the tub and walked out. Maybe, and this seems closer to his working class drunk personality, he went into the bathroom and started the water so it would get hot, got undressed, stepped into the tub, started to soak his toe under the rushing hot water, and then called for me—Freddie, Freddie, Freddie—to bring him his knife from the kitchen (that wooden handled and gray and blue bladed thin knife for slicing meat, cubing pieces of pork or goat, cutting heads of fish and scaling them). Freddie, his son, was never too young to work and help his father.

 

 

The first house my parents bought, when I was ten years old, was on Third Street in Niles, Michigan, and directly across street was a gray, two-story house that in my childhood was called The Puerto Rican House. There was an older Puerto Rican man who lived in the bottom of the house, and his apartment and porch became a meeting place for Puerto Rican men. When the weather wasn’t too cold, these men would spend great amounts of time sitting on kitchen chairs and fruit crates on the front porch—talking, laughing, drinking, watching cars pass by, and looking across the street as I played in the yard. They may have been some of the original young men who came to work at the Green Giant Cannery in the 1960’s, and they all seemed shipwrecked on that front porch, castaways on Third Street, marooned up on that bluff above the St. Joe River, lost in their middle years with no way to get back to their island home. Most of them seemed of my father’s age or a bit older (in their late thirties or forties, although some were even older, in their fifties or sixties; and that is possible since they may have come to work in Michigan in the ‘50s to help save the sugar beet crops). They were mostly unemployed or worked odd shifts, and these men were drinkers. My father was in some of his worst years of alcoholism (drinking with “a great fever,” I remember, because that’s the way he spoke of anything one should do with intense passion). And it must have been easy for my father to walk across the street and join those men—friends—to drink, remember, and tell stories.

These men were his contemporaries. They were my father’s motley community of single men as he faced his own shipwreck in Michigan. As a young man, beginning at the age of seventeen, my father had migrated back and forth between Puerto Rico and Hartford, following his own father’s migration to work at place called Coach’s Grill. (That is the story I was given over time, and there is a picture of me, three-or-four years old, in a blue turtleneck, pedaling a small tricycle in a Hartford apartment, the edges of the image blurry, but there I am stopped for a moment, smiling, and cocked on my head the small paper hat my father would’ve worn to wash dishes, he and my mothering returning to Connecticut, and now his brother working at Coach’s too). At one point he had travelled much further than his father: a long journey out to Michigan for work at the Green Giant Cannery, in a town where he met my mother, and although living near a freshwater sea, there must have been moments, no matter how small and fleeting, when he felt how far he had been driven from his familiar course across the Atlantic.

The image of The Puerto Rican House has never left me—sitting on that porch, a paper bag tight around a can of beer or a bottle of rum, the sense of time lost and yet forever—and it has a mysterious, even seductive, pull I can’t escape.

I have always imagined that I would die in a very small room, a cheap apartment or hotel, alone, forgotten, and, if I was lucky, after a hard day’s work. I have always kept death close, even though I’m often told I should take much better care of myself so I’ll be around for my son. Somewhere—I don’t fear this—there’s a small room, like the rooms in that Puerto Rican House, where one day I still may live. Diabetic. Sitting at a table with a bare bulb overhead. A small window to look out onto the street and catch the gleam and blur of colors as cars pass by. My legs shift, the chair creaks, there is no one else there. 

 

 

I am sitting at the kitchen table with my father. I’m drinking coffee, and he has a coffee, as well as a bowl of steaming oatmeal, and a bottle of insulin and a syringe. He has finally learned he’s diabetic, and I am saddened that after all his years of drinking and violent rage, after he’s finally arrived to a place where he will stay sober, where he can sit still and quiet and live his life with some sliver of peace, he has to lift his shirt or pull down his pants—every morning—in order to take his shot. I think I’m saddened because I have to confront such a change in who my father has become, and there’s a great silence I can’t seem to cross after that change. He lifts his shirt, and then lifts the needle towards his stomach. I begin to look away, and he stops. He says, You don’t have to turn away, Freddie. Nothing more. Just those words. Words I return to, and I turn them over and over and over.

 

 

When my father cut his toe, I wonder if the pain from kicking over that table warranted the sharper pain he must have inflicted on himself with that knife. Even though he wasn’t on insulin at that point in his life, even though he was drinking way too much, he may have had an insight into the danger of his injured toe (and then that led to the rash decision that was more violent, could have led to greater harm). We each carry words, fragments of sentences, images, bits and pieces and even the whole cloth of stories within our blood. No doctor can identify this quantum of blood coursing through our beings. No microscope or MRI can see this blood. But in each and everyone of us it’s deeply written within, and over time, if we begin to piece or stitch it together, this blood language becomes a kind of book of the heart that guides us to remember, know, and become someone better than our biological self. This memory of my father, rises without will, and I cannot ignore it: hours and days pass as I closely listen to it, as I try to read this book of memory, blood, and story. A simple, sometimes sad story of a father, a son, and a knife in a bathroom.

There are times, though, when I don’t hear it all; it’s simply a part of my unconscious gestures, like caressing the fading scar between my fingers before I pick up a pen and begin to write.

Growing up around sugar cane, the bread and soul of his island childhood, my father’s father made him quit school in the third grade to work in the fields, and my father may have spent hours and days cutting cane, and sometimes he did so next to burning fields, the soot of that gray and black smoke smudging his clothes, burning his eyes, sugar in that smoke deep in his being with every breath he took. Sugar was also in his blood, I imagine, because he must’ve been aware of those in his family with diabetes, and perhaps when he cut his toe that day he thought of his mother’s diabetes, and he was also remembering those Sundays when he took me to visit his uncle. In that one quick gesture—with that knife, by sharing that image of a man in a wheelchair—maybe my father taught me something about writing, and he did so without ever saying or writing a word.

When you have diabetes there are great periods of sadness. You go through so much denial, you continue to ask why, and you avoid watching what you eat and drink, and when you begin to forget to take your meds, it’s as if you are willing this misremembering. So you wake up one morning with huge blisters on your legs; or you find round, swelled patches of flesh on your shoulder or hand that will move from bright red to a purple bruise over time; or you are constantly fighting flu-like symptoms; or you wake up in the early hours before dawn, everything blue and black in the room, your eyes straining with some hidden pressure, and for a moment you accept the fact that you are going blind.

I continue to return to not turning away, to wondering about the things we forget, overlook, that second of choice to avert our eyes. Or maybe I’m returning to acceptance. There are men who have never offered many words to others; they didn’t need to talk, maybe they were taught not to talk, not to raise their voices, only to sit silently and invisibly as they gave their bodies, minds, sweat, and souls to work, and, in most cases, only expressed themselves by giving their passions to drink. To migration. Distances. Aloneness. Moving ever so close to being lost forever. The physical toll of their working lives is visible to anyone who looks closely, but I’m becoming more obsessed by the emotional lives they struggled with, that deep current of affect that’s so hard to see as it courses through their veins: blood work.

There were many strangers who I encountered, and my father said, without doubt, That’s my cousin. Everyone seemed related to him, and now I feel that I cannot turn away because I must gather all those men who are my relations. They are my cousins and uncles, even if we are not related by blood.

Most mornings I prick one of my fingertips and read my glucose. The readings often rise and drop—395, 210, 115, 289—or, better yet, they constantly change, like memory, no matter how hard I try to control my sugars. In one drop, I return to a room where my great uncle sits in a wheelchair telling a story. In another, I return to a room where I find an uncle under a single bulb smiling at me. In another I stand outside a gray house, look up at my uncles staring out onto Third Street as they sit on kitchen chairs and fruit crates, and I wonder about their lives, where they have been, and where they’ll go to find permanent residency on this earth. In each drop there’s a pattern and a pulse I can’t turn away from, some region deeper in my heart, and the more I listen to and read this faint language, the closer I get to understanding the work I still need to do in helping men like my father find their way home. 

 

 

I am seven-or-eight and trying to fix some toy. I catch the edge of a stubborn roll of black electric tape, and when I press the blade of the knife against the tape it slips, jumps, and slices across the webbing between my index and middle finger, up into my knuckle. I drop the roll of tape. There is no immediate pain, nor do I scream, only give a slight, quiet gasp when I see the bright pool of blood thick and still rising between my fingers.  I dash to the bathroom to run water over it and staunch and hide my accident, my stupid mistake, because once my father sees the drops on the floor, the streaks in the sink, and then the wad of toilet paper bunched between my fingers, I will feel a sense of shame deeper and more painful than the cut, since we can’t really afford to go to the hospital.

The scar is still visible when I spread my two fingers across the top of my table, written there in my skin like a hastily scribbled word. I run my other index finger over the scar, and it’s as smooth as the rest of my hand, almost gone after some thirty-five years, and I see immediately in memory’s window the dark wood and brass pins of the handle, the long thin blade from years of sharpening, and then the speckled splotches of gray and blue and dark maroon looking splashed along the knife’s blade. And I see, in that bathroom long ago, I may have gently handed my father his knife through the cloud of steam rising between us.

Author Portrait

Fred Arroyo is the author of a collection of short stories, Western Avenue and Other Fictions (University of Arizona Press, 2012), as well as the novel, The Region of Lost Names. His essay “Pulsar Watches” appeared in Watershed Review in 2013. He is in the process of composing one book of essays, Close as Pages in a Book, in which he lyrically meditates on work, reading and writing, migration and place—those sources of creativity arising from his life and work in the Midwest, growing up bilingual on the East Coast, and being caught between urban and rural worlds. He teaches creative writing at the University of South Dakota.