A Boy Named Hu

The school called. Again. He can hear his wife’s anxious, incredulous voice. She comes back to sit at his side, cradling her mobile phone. “Well?” he asks. “He wasn’t at school today,” she says, wringing her pretty hands. If she wrings them any tighter, she might manage to extract some of the anxiety she feels. He breathes deeply to stem the anger that has risen. Exhales, trying to control his voice. “We cannot leave work every time he goes missing. He will be back to eat.” She shoots him a furious look. “We are talking about my son, not a stray dog!” The familiar scene repeats, ending in tears and apologies, both the mother and step-father in a state.

A client calls for their attention. She offers him a seat on a footstool as he takes off his shoes. She pours her special brand of hot water and herbs to relax and soothe the feet. The men make small talk as the client’s feet soak. The wife is massaging his shoulders, back and neck. She is kneading the muscles and her frustration and fear for her son evaporates. Her job consumes all her attention. She must be focused to do it well. She cannot allow herself to be distracted by worry. As the client relaxes, she gets into a rhythm. “Shall I do the head too? It’s extra.” The client agrees. He is putty in her hands. The cranial technique is like opening a valve. She likes to think of it as a Ouija board. She lightly touches the head and it responds on its own, revealing secrets.

Time for the feet now. Her husband has prepared the lounge chair with fresh towels. He dries the client’s feet and props them on the footstool. It’s a busy day on the street and the client takes in the hustle and bustle from his oasis. The foot and leg massage has begun, with the husband expertly applying lotion to one foot and rubbing and massaging pressure points on one foot, then the other. He’s working on a few rather painful points as his wife is offering tea and a snack of dried plums. She wraps the kneaded feet into a hot towel and rubs them then dries them. The husband continues working up the leg, and into the thigh, then handles the other.

They make a great team. They have a steady stream of clients and cannot resume their conversation about Hu. They close shop at supper time. They live upstairs so it’s not like they waste time in the commute. They hardly ever give each other a massage, though she would sorely need his healing hands today. She complains of a headache. He offers tea, but no massage. He is tired too, and anxious she knows. The boy has not returned, and night has fallen. He can feel her gaze on him though she says nothing. He tries to read the paper, knows he won’t escape it. He puts his mobile phone in his pocket. “Call me if he comes back,” he says softly as he heads out for the Internet cafes.

Hu is possessed by the gaming demon, has been since he was a boy. As a teenager, he is even harder to corral, and all their efforts have come to nothing. Hu dreams of fame, of being discovered. He haunts Internet cafes where he is a local celebrity. His parents want him to have normal dreams, at ground level. He wants nothing to do with the business. It is a rough patch like all parents and children go through. They hope that with patience and love he will find his way into the foot massage business, an honourable occupation, if not profitable. The father walks the streets alone, entering arcades and cafes, on his fool’s errand, handling the phone in his pocket to feel the vibration that will call him home. Being a father can be a lonely business.

Mr. Klein

I stand by my father’s bed. We never had much to say to each other and this is no exception.
– You want water?
– Sure.
I pour a glass. He takes a sip. I figure I should stay at least 15 minutes, then I should be able to leave. I told Marion I was going, hoping she would drop by. Instead, my sister was relieved and said, lightly, “Three’s a crowd.” That’s always been my line, and I could see now how she would have resented all my years of copping out. It was a shock to find our dad sprawled on the floor, in pain, his hip fractured though he’s not that old.
We look grimly at each other. I am eyeing the clock. It’s only been five minutes.
– Are you still in pain?
– Nah, painkillers.
– How’s the neighborhood?
I point at the curtain between the two beds. Dad has insisted on a semi-private room “for company.” He hates people, so I can only assume he’s been frightened out of his wits and fears another fall, another long wait. Dad frowns and pulls me close.
– I think he’s dying, he says in a low voice.
So much for company.
– Why do you say that? I reply in the same hushed tone.
– He’s hardly ever conscious. He moans and groans. The doctor comes and only talks to the nurse. He hasn’t gotten up at all.

Now I’m curious.
– Any visitors?
– Nope.
I suddenly feel righteous. At least Dad has me. Five more minutes.
-They should install the tv tomorrow. Do you want anything in the meantime?
He’s dozing off. I kiss his forehead lightly, as you would a child. His hair has thinned.

I stop by the nurses’ station and enquire about my dad’s roommate. He’s in the last stages of cancer. No family has claimed him. I hear myself say, “When’s the best time to visit? I mean, do you think it would be okay if I visited? Is he sometimes conscious?” The nurse’s features soften. “If you come around 7 pm, we can postpone his morphine until after you leave. Company will do him a lot of good. Thank you.” “His name?” “Mr. Klein.”

I visit Dad the next day. He’s back to his old self.
-The tv’s not working.
I try the remote.
– You have to press here.
– Give me that.
He finds the news channel and starts watching the news. I watch a little with him, then I head over next door.

– Hello, I’m Rick. I’m your neighbour’s son. He wants to watch the news. May I sit with you, Mr. Klein?
He looks at me, non-committal. I stay put. He ushers me in with his chin. We sit in silence. He has pleasant features, though etched in pain.
– May I sketch you?
He looks intrigued, motions at the pillows. I straighten the pillows. He runs the hand without the IV through his hair. I take out my sketchbook. He stays motionless, with a purpose. I draw him in broad strokes, the elongated forehead, the diminutive chin, the fine lips, the fiery eyes and bushy eyebrows.

I show him. He chuckles.
– “It’s good. Rick.” He nods. “It’s good,” he repeats.
– Thank you. It’s for you to keep. What shall we call it?
– The last hurrah.
I write ‘The last hurrah’ and hand it to him.
He points to the bedside table. I place it there, near a picture. I don’t ask. He’s looking at me, but his gaze is faltering.
– Time for your morphine?
He nods. I press for the nurse, who arrives promptly.
– Shall I come back tomorrow?
– Yes, Rick.
I go see Dad. He’s still riveted by the tv and mumbles his comments. I can tell he’s feeling better by the venom he projects.
– I’m off, Dad. Do you need anything?
He waves me away. He’s got his tv.

The next day, I make it earlier to the hospital and slip in to see Mr. Klein.
– Do you need help eating?
He looks up and smiles.
– You could eat my share. I’m just pushing the food around.
I am starving.
– At least eat the soup.
He complies and watches me down the pasta and bread. I look at him guiltily.
– I should have kept the bread for you.
– Eat, eat.
There’s applesauce and Arrowroot biscuits. I push it towards him. He says, “Take the cookies, they’re too dry.” His appetite is better. I tell him about desserts I liked as a kid. He says he could have applesauce everyday. I put the tray on the floor and push the table out of the way. I can hear the tv sounds from Dad’s side.
– Does the sound bother you?
He answers, “He’s got it running all day, all night.”
It’s loud. I suspect they took out his hearing aids.

– Hi, Dad.
– Rick, you’re early. Aren’t you working?
– I wanted to see how you were doing. The tv’s pretty loud. Let’s get you set up with the earphones and see if we can get the volume down.
I fiddle with it until he’s comfortable. He’s eaten all his food, so I get rid of his tray as well. He’s absorbed by the tv. I leave him to it.

Mr. Klein doesn’t ask me about Dad.
– Better? I ask.
– Yes, thank you.
He’s pretty lively for a dying man.
– How’s the lighting? Are you managing to sleep?
– I would do better with my cap, but I can’t get to it.
I rummage and come back with it. He puts on the cap. He looks dapper.
– Do you want to pose with the cap?
His eyes are softer. They are no longer fighting the harsh light. I push the cap a bit to the side. This time, I draw the boy in him. He gasps when I show him.
– What shall we call it?
– Springtime.
I title it, date and sign. I notice the first one is gone. It’s been a long visit. I bring it to a close. We shake hands.
– See you tomorrow, Mr. Klein.
– Goodbye, Son.

Dad doesn’t hear me leave. He’s got the baseball going.
I come the next day with flowers. Mr. Klein is heavily sedated. A forbidding woman is sitting by his side, her back very straight. I introduce myself and hand her the flowers. She seems to need them. I go and see Dad.
– The tv’s too small. I could hardly see the ball yesterday. I’m ready to leave. They say I have to do physio. I’ve been getting up and exercising but I’m supposed to always wait for help. They’re afraid I’ll break something
– Did Marion come by?
– Marion? Yes, she says hi. She missed you yesterday. She says to wait for her today.
I start sketching him.
– When are you going to get a real job? None of that doodling.
I put my pad away. We stare at each other.

I hear the woman getting up next door. She stops at the foot of my father’s bed. “You have a good son.” She leaves with the bouquet. I catch up with her in the hall.
– You drew those pictures, yes? You have made him so happy. He is dying, you know. But now, he is lighter. Your visits make him happy.
– He’s in pain today?
– Yes, they had to increase his dose.
– I will sit with him until my sister comes.
– Thank you, I must leave now. For work.
I take out my pad and sketch his dreams. He is playing the fiddle in a field. People are dancing. Dogs are trying to get a bite from a table full of food. I leave the drawing on his bedside.
Marion has arrived, and Dad and she are arguing. She wants him to turn off the tv so they can talk. I intervene.
– Dad, you’ve got a better tv at home. Maybe we can discuss ways to get you there sooner.
I’ve got his attention. We agree on a plan that Marion will discuss with his medical team tomorrow. If they agree, we can take him back home. We leave Dad to his tv.

During the night, I get a phone call from the nurse. “Mr. Klein is asking for you. I think it may be time. Will you come?” I hurry to the hospital. They’ve moved Mr. Klein to a private room. His breathing is laboured. He relaxes a bit as I take a seat by him. I take his hand. It is cold but firm.
– How did you know about the dream?
I look at his blue eyes, the child, the dream, the old man.
– My hand knew.
– Draw again, please.
I look into his eyes and see death. I draw a beautiful woman with a peaceful smile. She has long curly dark hair and tiny feet. I feel music around her. I change the curls to notes. I am immersed in my vision, drawing quickly. I show Mr. Klein the drawing. His eyes are focused and clear. He seems to recognize the woman. “Ah,” he sighs. He takes a deep breath. After a pause, another breath. I have stopped breathing and I am holding his hand. His grip relaxes, his breathing stops. We sit in silence, the drawing on his silent chest.

Dad went home today too.