China

A Story by Matthew Batt

Dad used to sing almost constantly. Not that he was a particularly good singer—his voice was ragged from cigarettes and whisky, and no matter the song he affected a sort of brogue, despite the fact that Fort Wayne was the closest he’d ever gotten to Ireland. After a long day of work at the hospital, he’d go downstairs to his workbench, mess around with these model planes he was always building, singing all the while. I could feel the vibrations through the kitchen floor.

The night before his surgery, Mom washed the dishes and I dried. Dad sat at the kitchen table, chain smoking his Pall Malls. Dr. Fitzsimmons had called earlier and told me to make sure Dad didn’t eat anything after three—they had been in the same foursome for years and Fitz knew what a knucklehead my father could be, on or off the golf course.

Even though we had one less setting to wash, I thought we’d never finish with the dishes. Mom kept washing, so I kept drying, and none of us talked about anything.

Dad was a physician too but he had a near total disregard for his own health. There were things you had to treat, and there were things you let heal, go away, or fall off. A broken femur, for example, had to be cast; a busted metacarpal, not so. Weight-bearing bones and non-weight-bearing bones. He had told no one about the polyp until one day—it must have been a Wednesday because we were having the usual humpday beef stroganoff—when he said, “I’ve got a thing on my throat. I’ll have Fitz lop it off in the morning.” A month later, after two biopsies and three MRIs, here we were.

In the kitchen, none of us said a word until Dad pushed his chair away from the table and proclaimed in his usual way, “God damn it all. God damn it. Fitz didn’t say a word about a man not having a drink.”

He coughed, and then held his breath. Mom turned around from the sink, water sluicing in and out of a bowl. She stared at him, her eyes full of worried questions, but he just exhaled tightly, waved his hand at mom to move.

Dad opened the cabinet and took out two short glasses. I was paying too much attention to him and failed to grab the bowl Mom was handing to me.

“Thomas!” she said. Thankfully the broken china gave her something to cry about. Her set didn’t look like much, but it had belonged to Gram—her mother—and Mom made sure we knew that each plate, cup, bowl and saucer was as unique as it was priceless. It was Portmeirion and each piece had a different flower on it. I always thought it was weird that they included the root system too. No two were alike and so, no matter how expensive they were, I never thought they really could be counted as a matching set. I kept that thought to myself.