They stood by the bed side by side, not touching but almost - that breadth away that provides the warmth of contact without the strictures, that holds the scent of aftershave and light sweat and hopefulness in its moist atmosphere. Together they looked down on the sleeping face turned slightly away from them, the green oxygen tube denting the old man's cheekbone where he pressed it against the pillow. His breaths were hard and quick, even in his sleep.
"Papa," Davis said softly, leaning toward the long thin ear, so fragile it appeared useless, unhearing. "Pa. It's Davis."
The head moved slightly and a grimace of pain shot across the old man's drawn lips before he even opened his eyes. His free hand waved in the air, searching for contact. Davis grasped the hand in his, held it, his own strong fingers hiding the veiny, spotted flesh.
"How are you, Pa?" Davis asked, bringing their joined hands to rest on the covers.
"Not worth a goddamn," Pa wheezed on a labored breath. He grimaced against it as if the strain of speaking pained him.
"The doctor says you're going to be all right," Davis said. "Rob and I just talked to him."
"He said that?" Grandpa pulled his hand away and brought it trembling to tug at the cannula. "Then he ain't never had one of these up his nose." He tried to smile. He was looking at Rob. "You all right, boy?" he whispered.
"Just worried about you," Rob said, swallowing on the choking lump in his throat. "I don't know what gets into me, Grandpa."
"Well, I do," the old man said, panting between the words. He paused, trying to gather the breath to go on. "It's what all younguns got in them. I had it in me and your daddy had it in him, if I remember correctly. We both growed out of it." He stopped again and closed his eyes, waiting for the pain in his chest to subside. "Well, we got a little bit left, I reckon."
"We'll let you sleep now, Papa," Davis said gently. "I'm here, though. Both of us are. We'll be around when you wake up."
"Come morning I'm going home," Grandpa said, this time loudly, as if he'd been saving up strength to say it.
"We'll see," Davis said, patting his shoulder. He ran his hand down his father's arm to his wrist, tracing the bone under his fingers. They stood watching the colorless face, the slight furrow across the brow that came with every shallow breath.
"When I was a boy I used to look at his hands," Davis said so softly Rob had to strain to hear. He moved slightly so their shoulders were touching. "I used to look at the torn nails, the permanent ridges of oil and dirt on his knuckles, the calluses, and I'd feel such contempt. I hated the work they did, that scratchy roughness when I couldn't avoid his touch, the way he had to force his fingers to hold a coffee cup by the handle or to do up buttons. I wanted a father with fine hands accustomed to leafing through the pages of books, like Mr. Turnage who taught history at the high school, or one with the touch of old Doc Waters who played the piano when he made house calls because he couldn't pass a piano without seeing what it could do. I wanted a father like that."
Rob felt tears on his cheeks, but he didn't move to wipe them away.
"I was a grown man, a father myself, before I could admit my hands are exactly like his, but even then, I couldn't let go of that fear of being like him. I couldn't turn it around and use it. I still can't. I haven't been any better son to him than he was father to me, but I could have been. I had resources he didn't have. I had opportunities. I could have, at least, done better by you."
"Maybe someday you won't think you've done so bad," Rob said. He caught a tear on his lip, rubbed his tongue across it.
"I'd like to think two intelligent people could work out their differences, could learn how to talk to each other," Davis said.
"They probably could," Rob said, "if you could find two."
"I was thinking about you and me, you jerk," Davis said, a lightness in his voice he hadn't expected to find there. He let go of his father's limp hand and put his arm around his son's shoulder.
The contact they made was unnatural to them - only estrangement was familiar - and yet Rob did not move. There was no pulling back, no studied maneuvering that would give one of them advantage over the other. Rather the hand on Rob's shoulder provided an unexpected solidarity, an attachment as true as the blood tie between them. They both knew there was no escaping that.