Chicago, Illinois, United States
You can get to know a person pretty well when you’re helping them wipe their ass. My name is Ernie Fischetti. I was named after “Mr. Cub,” Ernie Banks. I used to hate the Cubs. In fact, until this year, I hated baseball altogether. I hated hearing guys talk about baseball at work or on the train or at parties. I hated listening to potbellied, ex-jock sportscasters discuss baseball on TV. I hated baseball hats. I hated—you get the idea.
You may have heard of my father Charlie Fischetti. He was fairly well-known on the North Side back in the day. We come from a long line of Chicago Democrats. In fact, my brother was named after Hizzoner Richard J. Daley. That was the first Mayor Daley. In addition to running a print shop, my father was a ward heeler. Everybody in the neighborhood knew him, and a few even liked him. He had strong opinions and not much tact. Women, however, found him charming. When he got sick, the women on our block would send food home for him. He never got to taste any of it, though, because my mother would throw it away. She would politely thank Mrs. Koslowski or Mrs. Ramirez or whomever, but she never let them in the house. As soon as the door was closed she’d march straight to the trash and dump it out. In the months before Charlie died we threw out enough casseroles to feed the whole 33rd ward.
Charlie’s best friend was a guy they called “Mookie.” He always brought in orders for printed signs from the aldermen and committeemen. Those were the jobs that put me through college. I was the first Fischetti to graduate from a school that didn’t offer courses in heating and air conditioning. Mookie was a real character. He was always chomping on a big cigar, and every other word out of his mouth was “fuck.” “Fuck dis” and “fuck dat” and “I oughta’ stick my big fuckin’ foot up yer fuckin’ ass.” One year Mookie and my father decided to sponsor a Christmas toy drive for “da poor kids.” They shook down every business in the ward, and when they were through they had more toys than FAO Schwarz.
Charlie was good to my mom, who adored him, and he would only come home drunk once in a while. One hot July day, on one of the family’s many excursions to Wrigley Field, he got the announcer to do him a favor during the seventh inning stretch. I don’t know who the announcer was because I refused to go to baseball games with my family. I don’t think it was Harry Carry. Anyway, right before singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” whoever it was wished my mom a happy birthday over the PA system. He got the whole crowd to applaud. The best part was that her birthday wasn’t until November. Charlie wanted to surprise her.
When I was in grade school, Charlie signed me up for Little League. For three summers I spent every Saturday standing out in right field, thinking about bugs. When I was a kid I was crazy about bugs. I knew all their Latin names and which ones were insects and which ones were arachnids. Charlie didn’t like bugs. He liked baseball, and he wanted me to like baseball. Whenever the ball was hit out into right field I would miss the catch. Since I wasn’t paying attention to the game, I would usually throw the ball to the wrong base. The coaches only let me play because they knew Charlie. The other kids wouldn’t talk to me. The parents hated me. They would groan whenever I was up to bat. I would occasionally get on first, but more often I would hit a pop-up to an infielder or strike out. On Friday nights I would lie awake worrying about the following day’s humiliation.
As soon as I hit puberty my interests switched from bugs to girls. My brother could talk baseball with Charlie, but the only balls that interested me were my own and how I could get some girl, any girl, to touch them. When I was in my late twenties my mother started pestering me to get closer to my father. She painted a picture of him as a regretful, middle-aged man who wandered around the house moaning about his poor parenting skills and how he had let Richie and me down when we were kids. We went out on a couple of father/son “bonding” evenings. These were mostly dinners with long, uncomfortable pauses interrupted by an occasional conversation. Sometimes, for variety, we argued over who would pick up the tab.
A typical conversation was: “You know, your namesake, Ernie Banks, got the MVP in 1958 and ’59, and I saw him play both years. He was one of the greats.”
Smile and nod.
“Pitching. It’s all about the pitching. If the Cubs had a decent pitching staff they could go all the way this year.”
Smile and nod.
He just didn’t get it. I still hated baseball. I was working as a researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History. I traveled all over the world, evaluating specimens for the permanent collection. I loved my job, and he never asked me one question about it. The most I ever got from him on the topic was, “Still workin’ with bugs?”
One time I suggested that we go to the movies. I thought it would eat up a nice chunk of the evening and give us something to talk about over dinner. At the time I was trying to cultivate an interest in cinema and the arts, so I suggested we see an Andy Warhol film called Trash, which was screening at a neighborhood art gallery. I guess the title should have been a warning. The film turned out to be the story of a heroin addict who wanders around shooting up and having sex with all kinds of low-life, arty types. This guy’s mouth was fouler than Mookie’s. Right around the time some pregnant chick started masturbating, I realized that I was embarrassed to be watching this movie with my father and suggested we go. I was almost happy to sit through his baseball talk over dinner that night.
When Charlie was in his seventies he contracted ALS, a disease that paralyzes its victims. It starts with the extremities, working its way in until the muscles that move your lungs are paralyzed and you stop breathing. It’s slow, progressive, and incurable. Initially my mother seemed more upset about it than he did. ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Charlie refused to refer to it any other way (despite Gehrig being a damned Yankee). He seemed to take pride in the idea that he was going to be killed by the same disease that claimed the “Gibraltar in cleats.”
He put on a brave face for a few months, but eventually it became obvious that he was depressed. He had shut himself off from all his friends except for Mookie. One day Charlie and Mookie were talking, and Mookie was giving him his usual “You’re gonna’ kick this fuckin’ disease’s ass” pep talk. Charlie joked about how he wished it was diabetes instead so he could be like Ron Santo, the great third baseman on the ‘69 Cubs. He started to get up to walk to the bathroom, when his legs gave out. As he fell, Mookie tried to catch him, but he slipped, and they both went down. Mookie got up, and when he looked down at Charlie he saw tears in his eyes. Charlie tried to look away, but it was too late. He felt humiliated, and Mookie’s reassurances only made it worse. After that my mother had instructions to tell Mookie that Charlie was napping whenever he came over. I think it broke Mookie’s big, cigar-chomping heart.
One dreary, autumn day I had an argument with my mother. Richie and I had gone over to put up the storm windows and take the air conditioners to the basement. Charlie was depressed and just sat there watching us work without saying a word. Mom started talking about him as though he wasn’t there, but he was. He was right there in the room, listening to us talk.
“I can’t tell you boys how hard this is. Your father needs something every minute of every day. It’s driving me crazy. I can’t remember the last time he let me sleep through the night.”
“Oh, please. Your father’s a changed man. He just sits there staring off into space unless he needs something. Then he talks to me like I’m his goddamn waitress. I’m exhausted.”
“But you shouldn’t embarrass him by discussing it here. Let’s go in the other room if you want to talk.”
“What the hell do you know?” She tossed her dust rag on the floor and stomped out of the room.
Richie and I discussed the situation later that evening and decided that it wasn’t fair for mom to bear the brunt of the responsibility for Charlie’s care. We were both financially strapped, so having a nurse or caretaker come in was out of the question. We did scrape together enough for a cleaning woman to come twice a month. Finally Richie came up with an idea that seemed to have multiple benefits. We would take Charlie fishing.
Once, when we were kids, we had all gone fishing on the Des Plaines River. Charlie wanted to show us the spot he used to fish when he was a kid. The water was dirty and polluted; rusted shopping carts and engine blocks made little islands in the water that were surrounded by swirls of soap scum. We didn’t catch a thing, and though Charlie was disappointed at the condition of his old fishing hole, we all had a great time. He even pretended to listen when I told him the names of the bugs we were using for bait.
This was the perfect plan. We would take Charlie somewhere that had actual fish and spend a weekend trying to catch them. Mom would get a well-deserved break, Charlie would get a little taste of fresh air, and Richie and I would have a chance to bond with our father like we had on that childhood fishing trip. Despite his tremors we figured he could still hold a pole. We booked a room and a pontoon boat up in Wisconsin, loaded the trunk with fishing gear and a wheelchair, and took off.
We had lunch at a little country diner, which included fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and a cute, middle-aged waitress who flirted with Charlie through the whole meal. I was cutting the corn off the cob for him when the waitress came by to refill his coffee cup. He looked up at her, and his voice choked with embarrassment, “My boys have to help me eat.”
She sidled in next to him so that her hip was firm against his shoulder and tousled his hair. “You’re lucky to have boys who love you. My idiot son only calls me when he needs money.”
The pontoon boat worked fine. Charlie had been worried that he would fall in the lake and drown but the boat was stable. We put him in the chair with a seat belt so he wouldn’t be dragged overboard if he hooked into a 200-pound catfish. We stayed out all day without seeing any sign that the lake ever had a fish in it. We didn’t talk much. Richie and I told a few jokes, but Charlie would just nod and smile, kept apart from us by his wall of sadness. That night we ate at a local pub where they assured us the lake was stocked with enormous bass and walleye. There were a few trophy fish on the walls, and the bartender had a story about each one and the angler who had landed it. Apparently, they were all tough fish who had put up quite a fight. They had worn out the men who caught them, and out in the lake lived their equally vicious cousins just waiting for the likes of us to hook into them; true fighting fish that would test our mettle and see if we had the right stuff.
We each had a couple of drinks with dinner. Richie and I had decided that it was more important that Charlie have a good time than to be cautious about interactions with his medication.
“I’d like to catch a fish like that,” Charlie said. He pointed at an enormous bass with his quivering hand. “But we covered this whole lake today, and I doubt there’s a fish left in it.”
“Hell,” Richie said, “that isn’t even a real fish. I bet if you turn it over there’s a Made in China sticker on the back.”
I raised my glass. “A toast to fish and waitresses!”
Finally Charlie grinned. “You got that right.”
“Yeah, she was hot for you,” Richie said.
Charlie tossed an ice cube at him. “Don’t tease your old man. I’ll run you over with my wheelchair.”
That night Charlie got up every 20 minutes to go to the bathroom. It wasn’t so much that he had to go, but that he felt like he had to. He was consistently uncomfortable and, rather than risk crapping his pants, he would get up. He couldn’t get out of bed on his own, so he would lie there and call for help until I woke up and took him to the bathroom. Somehow Richie managed to sleep through all of this. Granted, his bed was on the other side of the room, but I think he was faking it most of the night. I also found out that when Charlie actually did manage to take a crap, he needed help to wipe his ass. He was no longer strong enough to raise his butt off the seat to get his hand back there. At first I tried to put my hands under his armpits to lift him off the seat but he was too heavy for me to hold and that position seemed to shorten his reach. Finally, around 4am, we came up with the solution.
“You know, your mother and I have a technique for this that works pretty good.”
“Mom has to hold you up?”
“Sure. Somebody has to.”
“Does she get up with you all night long too?”
“I keep the walker by the bed at home. She only has to get up when I need help wiping.”
“Okay, what’s the technique?”
“I’ll bend over, and you put your arms around my middle. Then when you pull me forward I can wipe.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
He leaned forward at the waist, and I wrapped my arms around him. I found that by rocking back on my heels I could support his weight without too much trouble. I tried not to watch what he was doing, and my gaze fell on the skin of his back. It was almost transparent, a yellowish, white color with blue veins and a smattering of dark blotches. And it was thin, thin like wax paper or tissue. It frightened me. I thought, This is what growing old is. Then I heard him sob.
“This is hell, Ernie. I’m living in hell. I’m sorry you had to see me this way.”
I eased him back onto the seat. “I don’t mind, Dad.”
“It’s humiliating,” he said. “I just wish it was over.”
We didn’t catch any fish the next day either, but we talked more. Richie confided that he and his wife weren’t getting along and had been going to counseling. Charlie talked about his will, which made us all uncomfortable, but we were grateful to learn that mom was well taken care of. I talked about baseball. I asked questions that I didn’t even know I knew, and Charlie was glad to have the chance to educate me. He talked about the origin of the designated hitter rule and the time, in 1998, when Barry Bonds was thrown out after a hit ball bounced off the pitcher’s foot. He talked a lot about the Cub’s bull pen, and I didn’t mind a bit. Finally, the gentle rocking and the slap-slap of the waves on the pontoon lulled us into a trance. A kind of easy quiet washed over us.
On the way home Richie had a flash of inspiration. He pulled into a truck stop and told us to wait in the car. When he came back he was carrying three of those big, plastic, singing fish. He tossed one to Charlie and one to me and then I tossed the third one to Richie. That way we could all say we had caught a fish on our trip. Charlie kept pushing the button on his and chuckling. All the way home we were treated to the same 12 bars of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
TIM CHAPMAN is a former forensic scientist for the Chicago police department who currently teaches English composition and Chinese martial arts. He is also a graduate of Northwestern University’s MCW program.