He sits down next to me at the picnic table, his back against the red-and-white checkered tabletop, his long legs extending out on the grass. He turns to me and smiles the friendly smile of a man who is comfortable in a gathering of strangers.
“Are you a nurse?” he says.
“No, I’m a teacher.”
“Oh,” he says. “Seems like most of the people here are in the medical profession. What grade?”
“High school,” I say, adding, “English.”
“Well, God bless you!” He laughs.
I look past him to where my older brother is fishing off the end of the dock and my children are splashing in the shallow water along the lake’s edge.
He stands, posture erect despite his years. “Can I take that for you?” His eyes are on my paper plate, empty now except for a few greasy spots, residue of fried fish, potato salad, beans.
“Beautiful day,” he says, smiling with satisfaction. He takes my plate and drops it in a trash can as he walks away.
The next morning I see him sitting on the nubby plaid sofa in the resort’s common room, elbows on his knees, a framed family photograph held in his hands. He’s staring at it hard, like a kid about to take a test he hasn’t studied for.
That night, I watch him as he sits in a lawn chair next to a camp fire in a circle of children, supervising the marshmallow roasting contest. Purposely he lowers his own stick too close to the coals so his marshmallow catches fire.
“Not again!” he cries, and the kids giggle. They take turns boasting about which of their marshmallows is most perfectly browned.
I go over and give him a hug from behind. Instantly I regret it.
“I’m a married man,” he says, recoiling.
“Dad,” I say, but his eyes are dark now with fear and suspicion, and he avoids me for the rest of the night.
The next day, though, he remembers me.
“I’m in and out,” he says with simple candor.
Ten years ago he told me he was ready to die. “I’ve had a great life,” he said. “I’m ready any time.”
We’re here for a week, all of us together, maybe for the last time, all the brothers and sisters and wives and husbands, kids, grandkids, cousins. My brother had tee shirts made.
We put them on and pose for a family picture.
The last night we have our talent show, a family tradition. Some of us have actual talents like singing and playing musical instruments, and some of us use our time slot just to make each other laugh. My sister and I have written a play about how our parents met. Her daughter looks the most like Mom and my son the most like Dad, so we cast them in those parts. My younger brother wears a costume sea captain’s hat for the re-enactment of their wedding vows. The grandkids run across the lawn with a bobbing paper cutout they’ve made of Dad’s ship coming home after WWII and one of them holds up a crayoned yellow circle to represent the Florida sun that gave Mom a terrible burn the first day of their honeymoon.
Outside the cabins, under the stars, encircled by candlelight, Dad wears a delighted but confused expression as Mom holds his hand during a re-enactment of their vows. I wonder how much of him is there, what we look like from his perspective, whether he’s experiencing the evening like some Dadaist film, all disconnected imagery and bizarre but benevolent strangers.
Not long after the reunion, he forgets Mom. She moves him to a place filled with others like him. I try to imagine what it must be like for him, held against his will by strangers. Frequently he exercises the right of any prisoner, to try to escape. He’s a big man and they subdue him with injections. They strap him to the bed.
One day, a smile on his face, he says, “Mama,” reaching through the empty air beyond us all.
Tara Williams divides her time between Oregon and Arizona, where she teaches English at a community college. She earned her MFA in Fiction at Fresno State University. Her work has appeared in Southwest Review, Entropy’s Black Cackle, Apparition, among others, and is forthcoming in the climate fiction anthology Fire & Ice: Tales of the Anthropocene from Black Lawrence Press.