The sounds of crinkling wrapping paper filled the den of my parent’s townhouse. It was October and the leaves had bled out most of their chlorophyll, leaving shadows of brown and orange and purple. The cold breeze swept through the streets taking little bits of that colorful foliage with it, swirling on the grey concrete. Cars passed, interrupting the whirlwind. We were warm inside the home.
Dad was turning sixty-five. Jeez. It had been such a slow transition. It’s hard to look at him and believe it. I hadn’t even noticed that his hair was grey until just now. But it is. It’s grey now. But he still seems as youthful as always. He plays with my son the same way I imagine he played with me when I was four. His eyes sparkle with that little hint of mischief, the look that gently encourages a little boyish chaos. He and my son roughhoused with the dog, which was a little too old, but still loved the attention.
“Ken!” my mom called from the living room. “Leave Gizmo alone and come back out here. There’s one more present my sister sent. I put it in the closet and almost forgot about it.”
“Probably some dumb old ties,” he said as he made a face and winked at my son.
He shuffled back into the living room. His shoulders sagged a little from having his fun interrupted. “Can’t you just let me spend some time with the boy?” he said addressing his wife of thirty-four years. My mom wasn’t his first wife. He had another early in his Twenties. She was a few years older than him. Everyone close to my dad told him not to go through with it. That ever since the Mandate it would only end in heartbreak. He did anyway but it weighed on him heavily. The prospect of her going before him. The prospect of him being alone. Eventually, despite being deeply in love, he listened to reason and they divorced. He once called the divorce “an attempt to preempt heartbreak.” He rarely spoke of it though. Shortly thereafter, he found my mom, who was only three days younger than he. I’m surprised she didn’t come to the same conclusion he did: committing to an older lover, even if it was only by a few days, would certainly end in sorrow.
Dad reached out and accepted the small box that my mother had held out to him. The tag on the package read, “To: The Best Brother-in-Law. Sorry we can’t be there. We’ll miss you.” The tag also had a crude drawing of a sad circular face. He slipped his skinny finger into the side of the wrapping paper and began to inch his way along the box. He removed the rest of the paper, balled it up into his palm and threw it past the dog into the dining room. Gizmo went chasing after it with my son toddling behind.
He opened the box and examined the contents. His eyes narrowed and then widened again. “Well Deb, I’ll give it to your sister. She knows how send a guy off.” He held up an old photo, back when images were still printed on paper. It displayed a young man carrying a young woman on his shoulders. Judging from the bathing suits and the lounge chairs, it looked like they were at some type of swimming pool. “Remember this?” he said showing the photo to my mom.
She winced trying to make out the image. When it came into focus, tears immediately filled her failing eyes. “Oh my,” she said covering her mouth. “Was that the Fourth of July party? How did she find that picture?”
“Is that when you two first met?” I asked.
“Not exactly,” my dad replied. “We knew each other and were already dating at the time. It was just…” he trailed off trying to find the words. “It was just a wonderful day.” He reached out for my mom’s hand and kissed her brittle fingers with a delicacy I hadn’t seen before. “I’m going to see if they’ll let me take that with me. Might have to hide it.”
My mother glanced down at her watch. I looked at mine as well. We were all very aware of the time. 6:02 PM. “Oh no!” she cried. “C’mon, we’d better hurry up. The Governance Officers will be here soon. We need to have cake.”
My wife, Ellie, emerged from the kitchen with a small birthday cake. One pink spiral candle burned at the center of the green frosting. A baker had written the phrase, “Goodbye Ken! We love you!” in cursive. She placed the cake down on the table as the family gathered around.
“Well?” I looked at my dad. “Should we sing?”
He thought for a moment. I know he hated that song, but he nodded his head anyway. So me, my wife, son, and mother all sang the “Happy Birthday” song as best we could. He closed his eyes and seemed to suck in all the voices through his nostrils, inhaling them. He wanted to take the low melody with him in his lungs and in his blood. My son danced anxiously at his side with excitement.
“Grigory, do you want to blow the candle out?” he asked. My son shook his head excitedly and blew out the candle with a big huff. He looked up at my dad.
“Grandpa, when um was you to be born?” Grigory prattled.
“When was I born? I was born at 6:17 PM October 9th, 1992.”
Grigory, like most toddlers, had little sense of social appropriateness and asked another follow-up question. “Grandpa, when did you um to be dead?” My dad chuckled a little bit at the question.
“At 6:17 PM, October 9th, 2057. I’ll be 65. I’ll go through a dismissal like everyone else my age.”
A silence ensued. Most families in the United States were split down the middle on how to tell their children about the Mandate. Some thought that up front communication at the beginning was the best shot at healthy adjustment. Others felt that they should wait until their kids were a little bit older, so they would at least have some semblance of an innocent youth. My dad made the decision for our family right then and there.
He took a few small bites of cake and pushed his plate away, then flicked a few crumbs to the center of the table. We heard a large-sounding vehicle pull into the driveway. Its heavy engine idled and lightly shook the windowpanes. “Sounds like the cavalry’s here, eh? Punctual bastards, aren’t they?” He checked his watch just to make sure it was time. He stood up from his chair and began to walk around the table.
“Goodbye Ellie,” he said to my wife, who was holding Grigory in her arms. He leaned in and kissed her on the forehead. He gave a little tickle to my son and held his hand on Grigory’s tummy just for a moment before breaking away. He looked back at Ellie, “Take care of my two little boys, OK?” He moved over to me and held out his hand. “I guess you’re not so little anymore though are you?” I clasped my hand in his and shook it. Simultaneously feeling as though this was too formal a gesture for the occasion, we both pulled each other in and hugged as hard as we could. I kissed his cheek and he kissed mine. I felt the knot in my throat pulsating as I tried to remain dignified.
There was a loud knock on the door.
“Helen,” he grabbed her arm and pulled her close. They walked off into the foyer. I felt the need to remove myself and give them some privacy but something in me just had to watch. I wanted to see how they conducted themselves. I wanted to see how two people could say goodbye to one another. I wanted to see one last glimpse of the truest love I had ever known. It was a love that I had seen since before I was born. It was truer, I thought, than the love Ellie and I shared. Truer, in my mind, than my love for Grigory. It had been proven over and over again with years of well-placed kisses and forgiving glances. I stepped to the side, still in their periphery but out of earshot of the two of them. Let there be some mysteries in the world.
They put their heads together. Even though the sight of the departure was painful, neither one of them closed their eyes. They stood staring at one another reflecting on their past, each one remembering a thousand different memories.
The knock at the door came again and louder this time.
“Alright I’m coming! Keep your shirt on!” my dad yelled at the door. The Governance Officers were punctual. They had to be for equity’s sake. In the early years of the Mandate the Officers came heavily armed. Self-preservation is the strongest of human instincts. People used to fight back violently, sometimes suicidally. But through the decades the Mandate had proved that resistance was not only useless, but also quite embarrassing. So eventually and despite all natural instinct, the will to fight and the will to take flight were replaced by a sense of protocol and stoicism. Even so, my mom began to cry as my dad turned to open the door.
Two young men stood at the door dressed in lilac uniforms. I may have gone to high school with the one, although it was hard to tell with the lightly mirrored visor. “Mr. Applegate?” one said.
“That’s my name, don’t wear it out,” replied my dad and winked at me now. The little bit of mischief was still present but a shaking dread had clouded the shine in his eyes.
“It’s 6:17 sir. Time to come with us. Have you said goodbye to your family?”
“Sure did. You fellas are punctual bastards aren’t you?” As he walked out the door he turned to my mother. His voice wavered, “Helen? I will see you in three days. I’ll make sure of it. Goodbye for now.”
The two Governance Officers placed him in the back of a windowless white van. The old Fourth of July photo peeked out of his back pocket. There was an old woman in the van as well. It was hard to see her face because of the darkness. Mrs. Gebhardt from up the street had the same birthday as dad, now that I think about it. At least he wouldn’t be alone.
My thoughts turned to my poor mother as the van pulled away, sending little purple and orange leaves tumbling to the sidewalk. We had her sixty-fifth birthday to plan.