In Barbara Miller’s “A Midcentury Man,” a grieving daughter recalls her last moments with her father, ultimately revealing the tragic nature of his death. The story is quiet and contemplative at times, yet Miller has a talent for surprising the reader. She punctuates even the grimmest moments with bits of humor and a quiet story ultimately builds to an unexpected crescendo as we move back and forth in time.
Mr. McCann turned, then silently bowed to Jill and swept both arms toward the surprisingly ornate casket. Inside, a small, dark-haired body lay.
“Oh!” Jill felt faint. “You know what? This isn’t my father.”
“No?” He hadn’t spoken since they’d set off through the bowels of McCann’s Funeral Home, and she was again jarred by his voice—a hollow, disconcerting treble.
“Nope.” She couldn’t contain herself if they had to stand there another minute. But the dead man looked familiar; he might be a friend of her dad’s, someone she’d met on an earlier visit.
With tiny eyes set in a spongey moon-shaped face, Mr. McCann looked from Jill to the body, clapped his hands in mute astonishment, then quickly clasped her elbow with his long fingertips and escorted her out. Glancing back as they left, it came to her—with that moustache and sleek, parted hair, the body reminded her of the old movie star Adolphe Menjou, who must have been dead at least forty years. She kept the thought to herself.
Her nerve endings crackling in the gloomy silence, Jill followed Mr. McCann’s charcoal suit past many more closed doors. The sheer number of rooms distressed her as she hurried to keep up with his muffled steps. The plush, rose-colored carpet was intended to soothe, but there was something too hushed about everything—especially Mr. McCann, who towered at the end of the long hallway where he had stopped. He wrapped his heavy manicured hand, a diamond ring glinting on the pinky, around the large brass handle of the last door.
Her father would be in there lying in a cardboard box. Despite the funeral home’s display book of caskets, Mr. McCann had not persuaded Jill’s mother that anything more was needed for cremation, and Jill was choosing her battles. But she resented it. Her father took pride in being stoic, so it might not matter. He wasn’t fanciful about death, either, as far as she knew. But why had she never asked?
Mr. McCann opened the door while slowly bowing from a great height, making Jill feel small and even more insignificant. She really hated him by now. He had taken over everything when she wasn’t ready, and he was clearly incompetent. He’d even pretended to know her father from Rotary, but he obviously didn’t—waving her over to a totally wrong dead man.
She followed Mr. McCann into the room, inching her way toward the box, wondering as she stepped closer whether it would be her father. She gasped when it was. Mr. McCann loomed behind her, perhaps to confirm that this time he’d got it right, or he might be waiting for her to say that Dad looked good. Her limbs were tingling; she nodded to mask her fury at the unforeseen cosmetic fixes that had been wrought, though of course she might have expected those.
When she didn’t say more, Mr. McCann had the decency to go. Now she wasn’t sure how long she could or should stay. The room was chilly, the air thick and hot outside. The relentless sun that shone even now through the draped window had made her squint and lower the visor in the car.
They had removed the bandaging around his head and somehow filled in the wound behind his ear. Its absence distracted her, stanching the tenderness she’d expected to feel. What had they done to his skin? Suffused with an eerie translucence—it glowed pale against his green checked shirt and dark jacket.
But it was definitely Dad.
Standing beside him lying there, as she had on many nights in the past year, she had a momentary impulse to check his diaper. But he wouldn’t need one, which brought her to tears.
That last day in the kitchen, her mother had driven her crazy, offering Dad a cocktail at lunchtime. It had been heartbreaking to watch him still attempt the things he used to do—carry a tray, drive a car, sign his name. He had fallen a lot.
“The doctor said you can have a glass of wine with dinner, Dad,” Jill had said, trying to sound upbeat, feeling like a wet blanket.
“Do you want one, Howard?” her mother said, undeterred, bending over the freezer drawer to scoop ice for her whisky sour.
He had lifted his head, his glasses slightly askew, but didn’t respond.
“Suit yourself.” She poured bourbon in her glass, then took time to rearrange the dishtowel that Jill had tossed on its hook.
At the table, Jill and her father had been watching a hummingbird flutter by the spouts of the red plastic feeder. She didn’t like hummingbirds; their busy wings got on her nerves. “Mom, the windows are sparkling clean!” she said in a false happy voice, hoping for a reset. “I don’t know how you do it.”
“I don’t. Peggy does them. She’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“Do you want some lunch?” Jill asked. “I’d be glad to fix you something.”
“I’m just having a libation.” Her mother got away with things, coming up with lines like that. People were amused at parties. But from the moment Jill walked in the door, she began counting the days until she could go home to New York.
“How are things with Hans? Any news?” Mom asked.
“I’ve told you before; I have no control over that.”
Her mother sauntered off to the den where she would check the mail, adjust the lights, stick her thumb in her plants to see if the soil was moist. Jill seethed at the sound of her cowhide slippers brushing lazily across the linoleum. Despite the fact that Hans had left Jill after impregnating his young assistant, he was still a favorite with Jill’s mother. She seemed to suspect the fault lay with Jill, who lately wondered if maybe it did. She could be so needy, demanding at home, fearful outside of it.
Dad looked content, gazing at the treetops beyond the patio, peering up at the hummingbird. In his own world.
“Want something to go with your yogurt? Some crackers?” Jill asked.
He looked at her, then cleared his throat. “I need to discuss something with you.”
Here it was again. She could tell by the solemn way he brought it up. “You do?”
“I’m thinking of withdrawing from the experiment.”
“Are you very tired of it?” She wanted him to know she understood, even if there was no experiment. “I would be too.”
“I don’t want to participate any longer.”
“I see.” Her mind raced. For more than a year, he had understood and accepted the necessity with real dignity, but mounting confusion had come to this—a former corporate executive, in charge of research and development, convincing himself that a research project accounted for the cruelly baffling ritual: lying helpless at bedtime, another’s hands strapping him into diapers. Hours later in the darkness, fingers again tugging, checking for wetness, intruding on his dreams.
She could never figure out what to say, but he’d been bringing it up more and more this trip. No wonder, the way her mother made a point of draping last night’s diapers across the patio furniture—so they wouldn’t be wet for the garbage man. They were out there now in the midday sun.
“I can see it’s a real nuisance.” She cringed at the inadequacy of her words, a forty-year-old’s attempt to empathize.
“Is he talking about that again?” Mom called in from the den, all ears, appearances to the contrary. “You have to wear them, Howard!”
“No—he isn’t!” Jill called, hurrying through the kitchen to the den where her mother puttered with her shiny brass watering can, her whisky glass, half-empty, on a nearby coaster.
She smiled at Jill with a hint of challenge, her head cocked. “If he hasn’t yet, he’s going to bring it up.”
“And that makes you glad? What’s wrong with you?” Jill said.
Her mother squinted back, then reached for her glass.
“I’m sorry, Mom, I’m very tired.” An understatement. “By the way, Hans didn’t send a check this month. He’s getting quite unreliable.”
Mom took a long sip and smacked her wrinkled lips, staring out the bay window at the gravel drive. “Peggy’s late.”
“Did you hear me?” Jill knew she had. Money always got her mother’s attention. Maybe she was worried Jill was about to ask for help. They must know she was barely scraping by. “He’ll probably send it soon,” Jill lied, relenting as if her mother had asked.
Her mother ignored her, and Jill turned to go.
“I need some fresh air. I’m getting a headache.”
“Why don’t you take something?”
“I don’t need anything!” Jill was staging a private protest to combat the pills and dispenser cases, prescription bottles, hemorrhoid ointment, in this house of pain. Back in the kitchen, she shoved the plastic thermos with its hospital insignia back into the broom closet. There were half a dozen of them, identical, stacked on a shelf; her mother brought them home like door prizes from the ER.
“I know what you need, Dad. Some Ritz!” Jill reached up to a top cabinet and grabbed a box with trembling hands, chattering as if she were hosting a party. “Remember how we used to eat these with cream cheese and jelly?” As a child, she would put on her princess costume and pretend it was high tea in the colonies. She would eat the crackers but refuse the tea—a political act. On rare occasions, wandering by, her father might absently enter the game, tip the teapot, so she could say, “Thank you, no, kind sir.”
“No,” he said, faintly, now.
She pulled some crackers out of the sleeve. Returning to the table, she kissed the top of his head; something she would not have allowed herself in his prime. His thin white hair was very soft, longer than it used to be.
They sat together and munched their crackers. “The hummingbird really likes that,” she said, as if she enjoyed its incessant flutter.
“Sugar water,” Dad replied. “Willy fixes it. On Fridays… I think.”
“The planters look great. He does such a good job with everything—I really like Willy, and he loves you.” Lately, she would catch herself speaking this way to her father, as if he were a child, and wonder if it grated on him.
“Who?” His right knee had begun to jump in his corduroys. She might have upset him.
“Willy. He’s been working here a long time, hasn’t he?”
He watched her expectantly, as if she might answer her own question.
“I almost forgot, I’ve got a couple pictures of the kids.” She grabbed her new flip phone and began scrolling through them. Here’s one of Tommy. They did Peter Pan in after school—he was one of the lost boys.” She held it out. “This bit was a showstopper.” She hadn’t shown it to Hans. He hadn’t been there.
“I need to discuss something with you.”
“Here’s one of Franny, Dad. It’s a volcano experiment for science. Isn’t that something, for a first grader?”
He managed a smile. A few years ago, he would have been impressed by the Nokia’s camera. He and Hans shared a love of technology. She put the phone away.
“What did you want to say, Dad? I’m sorry.”
He straightened up and cleared his throat. “I’ve made a decision. I said I’d lead the research, but further delay is unwarranted.”
“Is this about the Drydies, Dad?” Jill asked softly, reluctantly. “I do understand. I wouldn’t want to, either.” She stopped abruptly since he looked a bit startled. She might have disturbed the fantasy by commenting, but he regrouped, with impressive sangfroid.
“They’re ready for production. We have the data we need.”
“I always liked that name, Drydies.” She still remembered sitting around the dinner table one night over coffee, in her teens, hearing her father say they were developing a new soft, more absorbent diaper; they were going to enter the market, take on Pampers. She remembered his pleasure in announcing it. She and her sister Becky had cheered him on—Drydies was the best name ever—which pleased him. Even now, she could see him clearly in the candlelight, lighting a cigar, his face handsome and vital, flush with wine and achievement. His work was a mystery to her, but she had depended on him utterly, his confidence, his success in a world she couldn’t seem to navigate. She didn’t know why the company had never brought them to market. But they were back on his mind, all mixed up, now that he needed Drydies himself.
“Did you think of that name, Dad?”
“Drydies? No. But it’s a good one. And it’s time. I agreed to the test phase only.”
“Maybe, maybe you could keep up for a bit longer.” She was winging it now, wondering if he would permit this coming from her, his daughter—a mere office worker weighing in on his new product line—but he was listening, and she hoped to enter his dream unobtrusively, painlessly. “Could a bit more time on this phase improve the absorbency?”
Jill had first checked on him when her mother was in the hospital, and swallowed her astonishment at the cold, wet sheets. Since her mother always bought the bargain brand for anyone but herself, Jill was convinced that spending up a bit was all it would take. She had been sadly mistaken. Even though Mr. Terwilliger, the pharmacist, had eagerly introduced Jill to the latest Depends “booster pad” when it came out recently, her father’s diapers still leaked by the middle of every night. Had that stirred thoughts of product development, or was it simply the indignity, for a man like him, that required it?
He was watching her. She hoped her words, intended to soothe, hadn’t instead yanked him back to reality. It would be awful if he knew she was pretending. She looked away.
“Oh, no. Where’d the hummingbird go?” she said sadly, though she felt relieved.
A few minutes later, Peggy Becker arrived. She helped Dad up from his seat and walked him to the spare bedroom where he would lie down for his nap. She was a stocky, evangelical Christian with curly red hair, and he seemed to relax in her care.
Jill was with him now but had nothing to say.
His corpse was frightening. If the kids came tomorrow, maybe she should tell Mr. McCann to close the box, but then the cardboard would be even worse.
“Oh, Dad, I’m sorry—what an awful place you’re in!”
She turned away, as if to make sure they were alone, though she knew they were. She got out a tissue, eager for something to do, before looking back.
He lay so very still. His face smooth, untroubled. She was secretly proud of his hairline, the high forehead suggesting a judicious, wise temperament that she had believed in as a kid.
He was not going to breathe. She felt oddly stealthy, peering at him, a private man.
Standing her ground, she felt it recede—the vanishing wish to commune somehow with her childhood dad, the one who had sometimes let her ride his bare, slippery back in the Bachmans’ pool. The one who had reassured her completely when she got scared, his word absolute. Only in adulthood had she questioned a tendency to gloss over unpleasant truths. The dreadful impacts of the corporation he served hadn’t come to light for years. Long after his Parkinson’s diagnosis, he was still defending it—he believed in plastic wrap and pesticides.
Jill’s feet were numb, her thoughts sucking all of her up into something like a whirling cloud of bees in an old cartoon.
“Dad,” was all she came up with.
She told herself it wasn’t that different from recent times when she had tucked him into bed, stiff but alive, his features skeletal. He had maintained his system even in the last months and would always raise his hand and check the space between the crown of his head and the headboard, close his eyes, then sleep. She would wait, then bend down and shyly kiss his forehead. A few minutes later, he would snore. His simplicity in those moments allowed for an intimacy that consoled her, though he might not welcome it if he knew.
She searched his face, longing to resurrect something: the hope that she had amused him as a child. Hungry for praise, she had sprung from the table to do tricks at dinner, landing on the carpet to perform backbends, then arching her back to make a fish, touching her toes to the back of her head. If her delight in herself offended anyone, she hadn’t guessed until she grew up. He might once have been tickled by her eagerness, her girlish wish to please and be noticed. Did that equate to love?
She was reluctant to kiss him now, but you were supposed to.
“Daddy?” she whispered, her childhood self riding in on a wave of warm tears that made her blink and swallow hard. “What should I do? Are you okay?” Her nose began to run. “Your skin is different.”
I’m sorry I wasn’t with you when it happened, she communed in mournful silence.
She jumped at a faint knock on the door. Had she taken too long?
After seeming hesitation, the door slowly opened. Mr. McCann stood at the threshold, his heavy notebook of laminated photos open in one arm. He seemed lost in thought. His little eyes blinked in a ray of sunlight streaming through the window, and his grip on the book loosened. One of the coffin photos slipped from its plastic sleeve and fell to the carpet.
“Did you need something?” Jill asked.
He gave her a vacant smile and began nodding, as if recollecting why she was there, then bent down stiffly and crammed the photo in his jacket pocket before backing away, closing the door behind him.
Jill had felt liberated that day, heading out for errands, strolling the bountiful produce aisles at the gigantic new Ingles. The sound of the automated sprinkler misting the vegetables was soothing. She selected a few tomatoes, peppers, and artichokes, picked up a chicken and ice cream, then pressed on to Rexall.
Mr. Terwilliger’s pace was leisurely as he rang up her items at the old-fashioned register. “Your mother’s Ativan has a coupon,” he told her as he unfolded it, pointing out the bar code with a pudgy finger. He seemed to make a point of speaking slowly, sanctimoniously, in Jill’s opinion.
His attention turned to her purchases. “Dad’s still liking the refastenable pull-ups? The tabs customize the fit.” Mr. Terwilliger had explained all this when they first came out. He was forever plugging his merchandise. “Helpful for a man with his—his affliction.”
“You mean the Parkinson’s? It’s okay to say it.” Annoyed by his mincing, she couldn’t help raising her voice.
Jill was pulling in the driveway when she heard a clap of thunder. There were terrible cloudbursts in the foothills. Her flights home were often delayed, even cancelled, due to the weather. She was fretting about her return flight to New York as she parked next to Peggy’s Caprice.
Switching off the radio, she heard more thunder and hurried out with her bags, when cries erupted from the little bedroom off the front.
“Howard!” her mother screamed.
Jill began to run, Peggy was shouting, “Dear Lord, stop! Mr. Archer!”
Jill dropped the bags and ran inside. On the floor by the bedroom door, arms waving, Peggy was piled on top of her mother, who lay sprawled beneath her, a trace of blood trickling from her shoulder. At the foot of the bed Jill’s father stood, a wobbling gun to his head. The look in his eyes was confused but determined, though his palsied grip could not steady the gun. Jill’s scream set off the quick shuffling steps that meant he was about to fall.
“Dad! Please! Put the gun down! Sit on the bed!”
Gazing back at her, he sank obediently, the gun still raised. Jill stumbled over the two women blocking her path, and he fired before she could reach him.
Jill shrank in terror, but when she opened her eyes, her father still sat erect. He had missed.
“Daddy!” she cried in relief, hurrying toward him. “Why did you—"
He turned, and she gasped—blood bathed the side of his neck. “You’re bleeding! Peggy, call 911!” She tore the gun from his hand, grabbed a pillow, and ripped off its case. Rolling it up, she pressed it against the wound behind his ear. “Is Mom okay?”
“Great God, there is a higher power!” Peggy cried, pushing off from the floor. “Mrs. Archer, can you get up?”
“Yes, ma’am. Here.” Peggy helped her to her knees.
Dad’s blood was soaking the pillowcase and tears spilled on his cheek. Jill had never seen him cry.
“I want to die,” he whimpered. “I saw them.”
“No, no! Please, Dad. Please, who did you see? We can make it better. Can you call, Peggy? 911?”
“Praise Jesus—it’s only a nick, Mrs. Archer, but you’re bleeding.”
Jill whirled around. “Where’s your phone?”
Peggy had lifted the sleeve of her mother’s shirt. “It’s not deep. Press down here, I’ll be right back.” She hurried off to the phone in the kitchen.
“Try to hold this, Dad.” Jill lunged for the top sheet, wadding it up. “Okay, let go.” Blood gushed from behind his ear. What if the bullet was still in his head? She had to press the sheet to stop the flow.
Her mother was standing now, by the door, holding her shoulder.
“Mom, are you okay? I’m so sorry! Maybe you should sit down!”
“He shot me.”
“Yes. I’m sure he didn’t mean to.” Jill wasn’t sure, actually—she herself had sometimes wanted to.
“When we came in, Peggy tried to stop him, and it went off. You shot me, Howard.”
At these words, her father slumped against Jill. “Dad! Mom, please—he’s passed out!”
“I was going to Grace Allen’s for bridge. Peggy thought I should tell him I was leaving.”
“I thought you were going to lock up the gun, Mom. I told you and Peggy to get rid of it months ago!” She was feeling for his pulse.
“That was his grandfather’s revolver. It’s an heirloom and very—”
“Valuable! Yes, I know. Just . . . you need to sit down. I have to think.”
They had hoped Dad’s shooting was accidental since he was suffering hallucinations from his medication. And the doctors had said the wound wasn’t life threatening. But while recovering in the hospital, the day before he was scheduled to go home, he had died suddenly of a heart attack.
Her mom had said that when she woke in the chair by his hospital bed and saw him gasping, clutching his chest, after so many years of deterioration, she had asked, “Howard, should I call the nurse?”
He had grabbed her hand and squeezed.
Mom told her that meant no. How could she be sure? What if the squeeze meant something else? But why must Jill always peel away at the sinister core that she insisted was her mother? They had been married for fifty years; the end of it all must have frightened her too.
Jill silently asked the stillness in him and in her head, the stillness that enveloped them: Did you want her to call the nurse, Dad? “You can tell me,” she whispered, wishing she were an old, trusted friend. He’d had several.
The awful night nurse had yelled at Mom for not alerting her. Jill had told the woman to mind her own business when she repeated it to her and told her mother she did the right thing.
He had pulled the trigger, hadn’t he, even if maybe it was all a mistake. He had been out of his mind sometimes, believed people were up on the roof. Coming for him and Mom. What did he make of all the news, the world imploding? Oceans, global warming, his part in it, for that matter? He couldn’t want to consider all that—how could you rethink your life, when it was too late? But maybe he had.
Jill bent down but hesitated, afraid of his death, that it might be contagious.
When she kissed his forehead, the cold stunned her lips. He’d been refrigerated, and something clammy in the unexpected chill confirmed her foolishness. That she had transgressed, disturbed him with peevish devotion. All to allay her guilt at escaping the complicated entanglements of a fragile family, yet one that hadn’t—until now—stopped living, breathing, wishing for more.
Trudging through the parking lot, Jill fumed again at Mr. McCann’s ineptitude, wandering in on her like a sleepwalker.
As she got in the car and lifted the visor, it felt wrong that her thoughts were overtaken by the shock of seeing Adolphe Menjou, resplendent, nestled in his fancy coffin, when she was expecting Dad.
She laid her head against the steering wheel and wept.
A door slammed in a car next to hers; she hadn’t heard it pull in. She tugged on her seat belt, put the key in the ignition, then sat there a long time.
She had barely known him.
It had all been so hard to maintain, she was sure. Heartbreakingly hard, to be the kind of midcentury man people pretended you were, needed you to be, when you knew you were merely a man, maybe even afraid to die. She had never asked.
Why go back in, when she hated the place? It was too late. He wouldn’t even know.
But she was tearing off the seat belt, nearly falling out of the car, scraping one rubbery knee on the doorframe, twisting the other ankle. She had to, for her mother as much as herself. She slammed the door and staggered toward the awninged entrance. A group of mourners was crossing the parking lot, pausing to greet each other and embrace with hushed affection, arriving for a wake. It was nearly six. Wiping her face against her arm, she couldn’t help sobbing for pity as she hurried past them, all together like that. At the door, she rapped the knocker hard. Mr. McCann opened it and stepped aside but said nothing.
“Don’t you recognize me?”
He looked at her, eyebrows raised.
“It’s me, Jill Archer. You took me to see my father. You said you knew him from Rotary, but then you took me to the wrong room.”
“Of course. I remember,” he said, unconvincingly. “May I help you?”
“Yes.” She stood there, trembling, fighting back tears. “I want him out of the cardboard.”
Mr. McCann’s tiny eyes widened.
When they reached the conference room, the people for the wake were ringing the doorbell, so he sat her down with the sample book.
Her mind made up, excited, heartsick, Jill dug a tissue from her pocket and blew her nose. She flipped through some pages and gazed at the pictures. There were some very showy models centered on one page, with dark wood and gleaming fittings. But he wouldn’t want that.
She scanned the next page and saw a nice one that calmed her down.
She looked up, sensing Mr. McCann’s return. “I like this one. The simple one.”
“Very well.” He patted his suit pocket, pulled out a pen, and gave it a click. He seemed to perk up at making a sale.
“I like the pillow.”
“Yes. The lining is—"
“It’s nice.” Her cheeks felt sticky as she tried a smile, since she was interrupting. “Here.” She found her MasterCard and shoved it in his hand, hoping, praying it would go through. “I’d like to—"
“Oh. Very well.” He was holding the card in his hand, turning it over, as if to inspect it.
“What kind of wood is it?” Jill asked.
“That’s pine. And for the price, it’s . . .”
“Wait,” she reached out but stopped short of touching his sleeve. “I need to ask. It will go in with him? I mean, he can still be in it, right? When the time comes?”