What I Mean to Say
by Harmony Button

It probably started long before I saw it happening. He always had a thing for maps. My parents’ house was covered in them: decorative, carefully detailed designs; old, pocket-worn street maps collaged into travelogues; prints of ancient medieval world maps full of cyclopses and sea serpents.

The drawings were the first indication. My father had never been the kind of man who draws. He was artistic, sure, but his kind of art was more functional or craft oriented: cherry pies and cabinetry were his specialities.

The drawings were dark charcoal sketches.

Why does extreme heat register as coldness against the skin? It’s like the brain freaks out at the intensity of the feeling and sends off one message that gets crossed with the opposite intention. Only context helps you sort reality out.

Christmas: my jeans pant leg folded against my shin and I yelped in pain, backing away from the fireplace and flapping my pants to cool them off.

My father didn’t look up from his page.

I thought he had been reading, but when I looked over his shoulder, I saw the first of them: a pencil sketch of a black, swirling maelstrom – right in the middle of the page.

“Dad,” I said. “Isn’t that a library book?”

From there, things got worse. I found him the next morning, staring into the freezer. He’d filled it full of hot coals and ash from the fire and was watching the subsequent movement towards equilibrium: the frost that coated the old freezer walls melted into grey, ashy sludge. From out of his mouth, my father pulled a dried prune.

“I was going to eat this,” he said. But instead, he placed the prune just off center in the melting mess of the freezer.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“It belongs there,” he shrugged, and closed the freezer door.

The doctor said I should bring him in for an evaluation.

My father said the doctor could go fuck himself.

He never used to swear. I told him so. He shrugged and continued drawing. I had brought home a tablet of medium weight sketching paper, hoping that this would keep him away from the walls, the new carpet, the mirrors in the bathrooms. It had worked – sort of.

“There,” he said, and carefully washed the charcoal off his hands before picking up the hot glue gun and semi-permanently affixing the newest piece to the front of the dishwasher.

Soon after, my father stopped talking. Instead, he drew thought-maps: visual representations of complex brain patterns. The doctor said they were just backwash, nonsense. I knew better. They were too careful; they were made with far too much intent.

A dotted line connected a fat circle to a ladybug surrounded by diamonds and wavy sun-rays. He offered it to me like a question.

“Sure,” I answered, even though I didn’t have any idea what I had agreed to. Still, he fell back into his chair with a deep sigh, relieved.

Of course, the print-out of the brain scan looked exactly like the charcoal pictures. It was the same swell of black and gray, the same punctuation of the fat spot of tumor that was enlarging every day. Is that so hard to believe? The man was losing his mind, but on some level, he knew before anybody. Science shows us what we already believe.

These were our best days together. The pictures were punctuated with images of the tumor. One day, the tumor moved out of the brain swirl and ended up sitting in a chair at a table, a triangle in one hand and a flower in the other.

“Are you sure?” I asked my father. He nodded.

“Well, then,” I said, “we can do that.”