China

Mom jerked the towel from my hand, then turned her back on me. She folded the towel and wrung it into the sink, and then she did it again, even though it was dry. “Hey now,” said Dad softly. “Hey. It’s gone. Just let it go.” He put his hand on her hip, moved her to the side, and got the dustpan out from under the sink.

Dad winked at me and started sweeping. “One of those glasses is for you, Tommy. We’re going to have us a little drink, aren’t we?”

“Sure,” I told him.

“One drink,” he said.

We all knew what tomorrow meant. He’d be in the hospital for a few days so long as things went well. When he’d come out, he’d have no larynx. No vocal chords. No voice box. No voice. Instead, he’d have a battery-operated metal cylinder the size of a toilet paper tube, and when he held it up against the side of his neck it would approximate a voice. He’d feel the words more in his fingers than in his throat, because his finger, not his diaphragm, controlled the volume. And if he practiced and figured out how to shape his lips the right way, and if his listener was patient and more or less already knew what he was trying to say, he just might make himself understood.

Dad lit another cigarette and half-filled one glass with water.

“Listen to me,” he said. In the one glass he added whisky to the water, then poured a full glass of whisky for himself. It was so beautiful, I thought, the whisky. A glass of amber, somehow full of light.

“Are you listening to me?” he said. He slid me my drink. “Listen,” he said. He laughed. He ran his thumb along his jaw. “You won’t be hearing that much again, will you?”

I didn’t know what he wanted, but I could hardly bear to hear his voice. The pressure of the next day was palpable, every word he spoke from now until tomorrow was countable and catalogued, the way mom’s Portmeirion was, or Dad’s little planes on his bookcase. I knew he wouldn’t die, though of course he could. But no matter how well things went, the operation would still be a defeat—a part of him, gone. The part that could make the china rattle in the hutch, the part that could make my feet tingle while he sang some God-awful tune from the basement, the part that, at my basketball games, I could pick out of a gymnasium packed with otherwise identical dads.

“I want to make a tape,” he said. He drew on his cigarette. “Of myself. You know how bad I am with that damned hi-fi. Is it a big deal? To make a tape?”

“No,” I said. I felt my voice in my fingertips against the glass. “No big deal.”

“Frank,” my mother said.