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  • But I Can Only Do It Once
  • Barrett Bowlin (bio)

Before the fire blows out a corner of the house where Jack Marsh and his family live, before my father’s oxygen tank overheats and sends shrapnel into the neighbor’s yard, he opens his eyes in the rental Trendelenburg bed, licks his lips, and tells me a story.

“So there’s this talent scout.”

My father’s face is now as gaunt and sagging as his scrotum, which my mother and I now wipe. He is blotchy and bruised in improbable places, like the top of his head, where all his hair has fallen out but is beginning to grow back in. We’ve been told this is what happens when you stop chemotherapy. He will do this occasionally: wake up from the middle of a horrible sleep, pick up on a conversation he thinks he’s having or one we’ve had already and from much earlier in the day. We talk a lot about breakfast.

It’s late for tonight, a Wednesday, and I’ve been having difficulty sleeping. Sleep feels less and less necessary, but I’m busy reading my Civics primer and learning about U.S. senatorial protocol. Concerned about the dark patches I’m wearing below my eyes most days, my mother has yelled up that it’s time for bed soon, but my father either doesn’t hear her or doesn’t care.

“And he’s taking appointments for new acts, and all these people are coming through the door, lining up and waiting for their minute with him.”

My father licks at the corner of his mouth. His breath smells like oatmeal.

“Dad,” I say. “Hey, are you thirsty?”

He picks at the new Fentanyl patch that’s driving concentrated morphine into his skin.

“And the talent scout hasn’t seen anything new all day.” He pauses, looks down at his arm. “And he’s just about to close up shop when this clown comes in and starts juggling.”

Next to his bed is the plastic water pitcher he’s brought home from his last trip to the hospital. I shake it. Ice clicks at the sides as the water sloshes.

“And the talent scout says he’s not interested. Packs up his briefcase and papers.” [End Page 25]

I fill his cup up again and reposition the straw. Before coming home on hospice care, my father would receive straws in his drinks at restaurants without asking for them, pull them out, and lay them by the side of the glass. He would gulp and leave grease on the rims as he would drink.

“So the clown jumps on a unicycle and starts pedaling around the office carpet. The talent scout? He’s not even looking up.”

My father, Jack Marsh, blinks on and off and on again. He stares at me like he’s sleeping, and I have to stare back to see if he’s unconscious most days now.

“So now the clown knows he’s in trouble. And he’s desperate. So he says all quiet-like, ‘Hold your horses; you’ve got to see this.’ From some pocket or something, okay, he whips out a bottle of nitroglycerin. Drinks that down like it’s lemonade.” He slurs out lemonade and rolls his eyes. “Then he pulls out a stick of dynamite and munches it down to the wick like a carrot.”

I’m trying to remember that the vice president has the power to break a tied vote in the US Senate. I will be quizzed on the material in the morning.

“Then from nowhere — this guy’s a magician, too, apparently — he shows off this red can of gasoline, slurps it down from the spigot and wipes his mouth clean. Now this? This is where it gets interesting.”

My father stares at me, at my book.

“They still have talent scouts, right?”

He slips his head down and closes his eyes again. I wait for five minutes before I push the cup of water with the straw a little closer to his lips.

My mother and I have always had the benefit of knowing exactly what to...


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pp. 25-41
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