Down for the Count

by Leslie Carper

For months after Tracy’s father had a stroke, he did nothing but sit in the living room and stare out the picture window. He was only partially paralyzed, mostly on his right side, and his speech was affected, but he was able to get around, slowly and stiffly, with the help of a walker. And although his neurons didn’t always travel a straight path to the nerves in his arms and legs, he still had some use of his body. Tracy’s father sat immobilized in his easy chair day after day, not because he was forced to, but because he refused to accept what had happened to him, and by not moving, he didn’t have to.

Every morning a visiting nurse arrived to help bathe and dress him, and Meals-on-Wheels appeared twice daily at the door to his apartment. He was supposed to go for physical therapy, but he adamantly refused to sit in a wheelchair in the specially equipped van that would transport him to the clinic, so Tracy was forced to arrange for more expensive home care.

He was a difficult patient. At first he wouldn’t let the physical therapist, Felicia, touch him. Despite his impaired motor control, he would wrench his hand free of her grasp. Slowly, though, after much coaxing, she managed to win him over. Every other day she arrived with her padded table and isometric equipment to put him through an exercise regime designed to smooth out the muscle spasms that periodically sent his arms and legs flying.

Felicia flattered him into cooperating by asking him about himself. He responded eagerly, lurching his way through slurred, incoherent ramblings. Tracy listened to the animated rise and fall of his voice from the hallway. She strained to identify stray sounds that she could piece together as words to attach meanings to, but usually she just came away with a headache. Still she tried. She wanted desperately to understand her father and thought that this might finally be her chance. She watched as Felicia nodded and made small murmurs of encouragement while manipulating his rotator cuff.

He’d been a career athlete, gifted at any game he picked up. He started out in the ring as a welterweight known for his fancy footwork. Even when he bulked up to heavyweight, he still dodged more punches than he took. He went semi-pro playing tight end for several football teams before moving on to tennis and golf, traveling on the circuit, and was the resident pro at various country clubs. He was magnetically charismatic and much in demand, the kind of easygoing guy that other men didn’t mind losing to. He had the unassuming air of an overgrown boy who won games seemingly by accident, as if he couldn’t help it, his body just couldn’t lose. People were powerfully drawn to him and he came to expect it. Even “golf widows” who refused to touch a club and play with their husbands signed up for private lessons with him.

That he was thoroughly at home in his own body was apparent in every effortless stretch of his long limbs. He never appeared to be reaching too hard for a stroke, yet always managed to make the play. And because things had always come so easily to him, he coasted through a lifetime never trying very hard for anything. When he decided to try his hand as a hunting and deep-sea fishing guide instead of settling down to coach high school like Tracy’s mother wanted him to, she abruptly left him. And so in his later years the responsibility for him had fallen to Tracy.

One morning, as she was removing his breakfast tray, he struggled to lift his arm and point. A smattering of age spots blurred on his tremulous hand.

“Turds!” he said.

Tracy was startled, but only for a moment. Her father had never outgrown the adolescent habit of swearing, something she attributed to a lifetime spent in locker rooms. He was still titillated by the shock he could provoke with curse words and toilet jokes. His hand jerked toward the picture window. She turned.

“Oh,” she said. “Birds.”

It was early spring and the courtyard of the apartment complex was alive with bright, fleeting flashes of color. Blue jays and cardinals flitted through the budding branches, staking out their territory and building nests. They dipped and darted with the agility of acrobats, alighting daintily on the tiny fluttering new leaves.

“Feces!” he spit out.

“Felicia?” Tracy guessed.

Her father’s head bobbed awkwardly.

“Felicia likes birds?” She glanced out the window. “Ahh, the birds remind you of Felicia.”

In fact, Felicia was rather bird-like. She was petite with delicate, feminine features. Her small hands tapered to slender fingertips. Yet, she had the kind of nimble grace that conveyed physical authority.

“Peed!” Spittle flew from his mouth. “Turds!”

Tracy thought a moment. “Feed? Feed birds?”

His tongue thrust out at her, like a little boy giving a raspberry. A barrage of undecipherable sounds followed. Since his stroke, all his words and gestures had become emphatic. Often he seemed angry, although Felicia explained that this came from the effort involved in speaking and moving, not from fury. But Tracy had her doubts. The partial paralysis had made his face mask-like and inscrutable. He was forced to talk out of one side of his mouth, which lent a vaguely menacing tone to everything he said, like a Mafioso hitman in an old shoot-em-up. Occasionally, after spitting out a string of unintelligible syllables, she caught a fierce glint in his eyes.

* * *

Tracy had inherited her father’s oversized genes. She’d always been a big girl, tall and solidly built. She shot up early. Even before she reached high school she towered over the boys. She went out for every sport, but because she wasn’t fast or agile, she usually ended up blocking. For a while, her father thought she might have the makings of a basketball player, but she was flat-footed and uncoordinated. Despite his relentless coaching and her dogged practicing, her big hands could never be trained to catch or throw a ball. She had inherited his athletic build, but not his natural ability. When he finally gave up and quit coaching her, nothing else stepped in to fill the void that opened up between them and it sometimes seemed to Tracy that he’d quit her altogether. His distance was her punishment and as the years passed, it began to seem like a life sentence.

When she was ten years old, over her mother’s loud objections, Tracy’s father took her to the fights. She wanted to go, had in fact, been begging for months. When he decided it was time her older brother Buck saw his first fight, Tracy pleaded to be allowed to go along until he finally relented.

They drove to a part of town Tracy had never seen before and were jostled through a turnstile by the pressing crowd. They settled into dark seats perched high above a brilliantly illuminated square platform. Her father explained that two men who were roughly the same size would box twelve rounds. He went over the rules, what constituted fouls, and pointed to the neutral corners. He described parrying and clinching and what a feint was. He was discussing the fine points of a knockout versus a technical KO when Tracy interrupted him.

“But daddy,” she said. “What are they fighting for?”

He looked quickly at her, a puzzled expression creasing his brow. “Why, to win, of course.”

Tracy was confused. She had learned in school about fighting for your honor and for your country, but neither of those seemed to apply here. It was inconceivable to her that people would fight for no reason, just to win. It had to be over something.

Two boxers entered the ring wearing shiny yellow and blue satin shorts. Their hands were curled into rigid red leather gloves. Their mouths were stretched tight in open-mouthed grimaces. A bell sounded and they began to hop around in circles lightly jabbing at each other. It reminded Tracy of the playful punching she and Buck sometimes engaged in with their father. They’d be in the backyard and he’d shove the picnic table aside and get them on their feet. He’d grit his teeth and flex his abdominal muscles until they stood out in chiseled relief and invite them to sock him in the stomach.

“C’mon, hit me,” he’d say. “Give me your best punch.”

She and Buck would poke him lightly with their tiny fists, giggling helplessly as he urged them on.

“Is that the best you can do?” he chided. “You’re not going to do any damage with that jab. Let’s see a real sockeroo.”

And they’d swirl their balled up hands in the air trying to land harder and harder punches. The game always made Tracy uneasy. She didn’t want to hit her father. Never mind that she couldn’t actually hurt him. It was the hitting that bothered her. But as their fists fell against him, she swelled with pride. Her father was so strong, so powerful, it seemed nothing could injure him.

As she got older the game changed. His invitations to spar sounded more like demands. He’d come home from the country club, slam the door, kick the furniture out of the way, and insist on taking them on. He’d goad them into belting him and sneer when they merely tapped him.

“You call that an uppercut, Mary?” he’d sneer at Buck. “You throw a punch like a girl.”

Tracy would shrink from him then, hiding her hands behind her back. Her mind would be moving in a million directions at once. Why was he so mad at them? What had she done? Why did he want her to be mad at him? But he never explained himself and she couldn’t make sense of it.

She turned her attention back to the square of white light. The boxers were punching each other aggressively. They struck out savagely. Blood spurted from their noses and sweat spiraled off their spinning heads. They doubled over. The right eye of the man in the yellow shorts turned violet and swelled shut. The other’s lip split, ballooning hugely. It looked to Tracy like they wanted to kill each other.

A bell rang. They stopped, sat, then started again. Around them people cheered and whistled and threw popcorn. Tracy stole a sidelong glance at her father. He was hunched eagerly forward, his face shining, his lips parted in anticipation.

She peeked at her brother. His back was pressed up against his seat. His face had a faintly greenish hue. He looked like he was about to be sick.

The crowd roared to its feet. Tracy turned quickly to the ring. The men were holding each other in a locked embrace, swaying slightly. A third man came between them. They staggered apart. The man in the blue shorts arced a glove lazily through the air. His opponent lurched forward. His outstretched arm fell against the other’s jaw. The man in the blue shorts fell back flat on the floor. He didn’t move. Tracy stared at him. The third man bent over him, counting out loud.

“One! Two!”

“He’s dead,” Tracy whispered to her father. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

He tore his eyes away from the ring for an instant. “No, of course not. He’s just down for the count.”

“Five! Six!”

She watched the downed boxer. His chest didn’t heave like the other one’s. “I think he’s dead, daddy,” she said in a trembling voice.

“Nonsense,” he said. “He just doesn’t want to fight anymore. If he doesn’t get up by the time the ref counts to ten, he’s conceded defeat, given up.”

Tracy held her breath. She focused all her concentration on the man on the mat, willing him to stand. Get up, she silently prayed. Don’t give up. Get on your feet.


The man in the yellow shorts raised both arms in the air. The crowd went wild, screaming and stamping their feet. Flashbulbs popped and people stormed the ring. The man in the blue shorts never moved a muscle. Tracy was sure he was dead. As long as you were still alive, she was convinced, you could never give up.

* * *

She’d called her brother right away with the news of their father’s stroke and left a message on his answering machine. He didn’t call back, nor did he telephone the hospital or send flowers or a card. Buck had tried to live his life as unlike their father’s as possible. He seemed determined to be a model of family stability and responsibility. And, as if to escape any shred of influence, he’d moved to the opposite coast, as far away as he could get and still stay in the country. He’d returned only once, ten years ago for their mother’s funeral. They exchanged Christmas cards, but rarely spoke on the phone, and Tracy had never met his children.

After her father had been home from the hospital for two weeks, the day nurse took Tracy aside and in a crisply professional tone stated that he needed full-time care. He couldn’t live alone anymore. She suggested a nursing home. The notion upset Tracy. She packed her belongings and moved into his apartment, sleeping on the Hide-A-Way bed in the hall. That night, from the phone in the kitchen she called her brother’s machine again. This time he picked up the receiver.

“Don’t do it,” he said. “Don’t move in.”

“But he needs help,” Tracy protested.

“Then get him help,” he said. “Put him in a nursing home and send me the bills. But whatever you do, Tracy, don’t move in.”

She had it in her mind that maybe this was her chance to finally get to know her father. After she’d failed as an athlete, he didn’t have much time for her, and after the divorce she hardly ever saw him. But now they were both adults. Maybe they could catch up.

“He’s sick, Buck,” she whispered. “He really needs me.”

“He doesn’t need you,” her brother sighed. “He doesn’t need anyone. Didn’t that sink in growing up?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

A moment passed. She could hear him breathing across the vast distance.

She went on. “Just because he didn’t show it when we were growing up doesn’t mean…”

“It doesn’t mean a thing,” Buck interrupted. “Nothing he could say means a damn thing. Not anymore. Give up, Tracy.”

“Daddy loves us, Bucky,” she said in a small voice. “I know he does.”



“How do you know?”

Tracy was caught off-guard. She couldn’t think how to answer. Finally, she said, “I just do.” She waited for him to make some murmur of assent. A moment passed. When he didn’t speak, she tried to come up with some more convincing evidence, but nothing came to mind. She felt oddly discomforted.

“Just say hello to him, you’ll see,” she pleaded. “I know he’d love to hear your voice. I’m putting him on.”

Tracy carried the receiver into the living room and held it to her father’s ear.

“It’s Buck, daddy,” she said. “It’s your son. Say something.”

His eyes registered surprise, and though his cheek muscles couldn’t lift all the way into a smile, the mobile half of his face inched upward in a tight grimace. His mouth worked feverishly. Tracy realized that he was trying to purse his lips to blow a kiss. Her heart caught. He’s a good father, she thought, it’s just the stroke. He doesn’t mean the things he says.

“Say hello to Buck, daddy,” she said brightly.

His face fell heavily toward the phone. Forced air burst from his mouth in a shout.


She gasped. “He didn’t mean that, Bucky,” she said hastily. “That’s why I’m here. I think I can help, you know, save him from what this stroke has done to him.”

“Save yourself,” he said, and hung up.

* * *

The apartment was on the second floor. The big picture window looked out onto the upper branches of a tall oak at the place where the trunk forked. The tip of an overhanging branch bobbed in the breeze, lightly brushing a pair of heavy electrical cables that came in from the street. Birds often stopped in mid-flight to perch on the wires on their way to the eaves or the treetops.

Tracy bought a slant-roofed cedar birdfeeder at the hardware store and filled it with gravelly birdseed. She found an aluminum ladder in the basement, ratcheted it out to its full height, and propped it against the electrical wires. They bowed under the pressure. Tracy brought her heel down on the bottom rung and, holding the feeder in one hand, climbed slowly. Her knees shook. Her step felt unsteady.

With each step, Tracy was conscious of moving farther from the earth. She was acutely aware of her own body, like a shadow trailing heavily behind her. The air around her seemed insubstantial by contrast. She looked down, then quickly back up again, feeling a little lightheaded.

She was nearly to the second floor. Flickering sunlight glanced through the leaves of the tree and bounced off the windows, turning them into mirrors one minute, opaque the next. She peered up through a bottom pane into the dark room. The light shifted again and for an instant Tracy glimpsed her father sitting straight-backed in his chair. Looking up at him from this angle he appeared as he had in her childhood: massive and heroically tall. This view of him brought her back, in a rush, to her twelve-year-old self when she had been so desperate for his attention.

“Look at me, daddy,” she nearly cried out.

“Watch me!”

Her hand came up in an involuntary wave, but he didn’t see her. “Dad,” she called. “Is this high enough? Can you see this spot?” She hoisted the feeder.

He didn’t respond. She waved again, but still he gave no sign of recognition. The ladder swayed. She reached out for something to hold on to, made a grab for the rung and latched onto the branch instead. It swayed in her grip. A fan of splayed leaves smacked into her face. Her head whipped back. She released the branch, glanced down. Suddenly, the ground rose up. The earth, the sky, everything tilted sharply. Her stomach lurched. She stepped away from the ladder and went sprawling through the air, slamming onto her back in a thick stand of ivy, knocking the wind out of her and leaving her breathless.

Her ribs were stiff and sore for days, but even worse than the pain was her humiliation. It was a scene straight out of her childhood. She recalled her many attempts at daring feats well beyond her abilities in a vain bid for his approval—and failing at both. Why was she still trying? She felt foolish and angry at herself, but part of her was mad at her father, too.

She hired one of the maintenance men to string up the feeder in the oak outside her father’s window. Almost immediately, it seemed, dozens more birds swept the window. Her father watched, rapt, for hours as sparrows vied with wrens for a spot on the crowded perches. Into the kitchen floated quick, surprised inhalations and soft, punctuated sighs: “Ahh!” she heard, and “Ooh!” Once, he cried out and Tracy rushed in only to see a blackbird’s disappearing red wing pattern as it scissored by. It thrilled him to watch birds dive-bomb the feeders and perform mating dances. It was their agility and nimble grace in the air that captivated him, Tracy guessed, as much as their beauty and song.

Under Felicia’s care, the old man’s condition began to incrementally improve. She explained that her attempts to draw him out were a way of getting him to exercise the rigid nerves and muscles in his face and neck. She didn’t understand a word he said, she only pretended to. This struck Tracy as vaguely deceitful and she felt indignation rising on her father’s behalf. But in truth she was hurt by all his voluble chatter to Felicia. He’d been uncommunicative while she was growing up, barking commands and tersely answering questions. Tracy hadn’t been able to tell whether the few garbled words he muttered after the stroke were a result of it or his natural reticence with her. Now she knew. She was jealous that he had so much to say to Felicia, a stranger, especially when she, Tracy, was trying so hard to communicate with him.

She read the sports pages aloud to him, and indulged in juicy gossip about the neighbors. She remembered how fired up he used to get at ball games, castigating the umps and challenging the called outs. Tracy had an all-sports cable channel piped into the apartment and watched the spring opener with him. Whenever a pitcher fouled, she steeled herself for a battery of expletives, but he merely grunted when he bothered to react at all.

She unpacked her old photo album stuffed with yellowing newspaper clippings of his athletic triumphs. She spread it over his knees and paged through it, reminiscing out loud. But this only seemed to enrage him. His arm lashed out, smacking the scrapbook and sending it skidding across the floor.

Passing the living room one afternoon, she paused for a moment in the doorframe.

“Now, you’re just not trying, Mr. Buckley,” Felicia said, patiently. She wrapped his fingers around a discolored old tennis ball. Gently, she maneuvered his arm backward. Throwing a ball was supposed to contract the muscles in his forearm. “Try again.”

His arm hooked smoothly into an arc, but at the moment of release, instead of hurling forward, the ball plopped to the floor and rolled into a corner. It had been Felicia’s idea to reintroduce the equipment from his former athletic career back into his life. Having his old racquets and clubs around him, she thought, might reignite his interest in sports again, which could motivate him to exercise. So Tracy had hauled his old golf bag, flyrods and shotguns up from the basement and arranged them around the living room in plain sight. She polished his lucky golden gloves and hung them over the window where he couldn’t miss them.

Felicia plucked another tennis ball from a wire basket.

“Let’s try again, shall we, Mr. Buckley,” she said.

“Ass!” he barked.

She looked quickly at him, startled.

“He means Ace,” Tracy interjected, hurrying into the room. “He wants you to call him Ace. It was his nickname.”

Felicia nodded. “All right, Ace,” She settled the ball in his palm. “Let’s see your best pitch.”

Blood jumped along the veins in his arm as he strained to tighten his grip on the ball. The tips of his finger whitened with effort. Slowly, with aching deliberation, his arm curled back. Suddenly, Tracy saw that what had once been a simple reflex, done for the sheer pleasure of feeling his own powerful muscles ripple, was now a painstaking process that required fierce concentration. His body, once so completely under his unconscious command, had turned willfully disobedient.

Suddenly, she felt a kinship with him. She understood only too well what it was like to have arms that refused to cooperate. She knew what it was to be trapped and betrayed by your own body. For the first time, Tracy knew exactly how he felt and her heart went out to him. Finally, she thought, they had something in common.

He let go of the ball and it sank to the floor with a dull thud. He slumped. His chin fell heavily onto his chest.

“Maybe that’s enough for today,” Felicia said. “We can try again tomorrow.”

“Ass,” he exhaled morosely to himself.

Later, Tracy heard a hollow thumping sound coming from the living room. She found the old man hunched over. Dozens of tennis balls littered the floor around his chair. With effort, he reached for one. Tracy wanted to jump for joy. It was his first independent act, without help from either Felicia or herself. He’s finally accepted his condition, she thought; he’s exercising on his own.

Then she saw the squirrel. It crawled along the electrical wires, scattering the birds in all directions. It dangled upside down over the feeder, helping itself to the seed. Its quick arms moved compulsively from tray to mouth as it stuffed seeds into its plump cheeks. It chewed rapidly, keeping a watchful eye on the window.

Her father released the ball. It sailed through the air and out the open window, whizzed by the squirrel, and bounded into the courtyard. The animal froze momentarily, then somersaulted up onto the wires. They bobbed and dipped crazily under the sudden weight. The squirrel raced, legs splayed and panic-stricken, toward the tree like a terrified tight-rope walker. When it got to the low-hanging branch, it hesitated momentarily, bushy tail swishing back and forth, then hurled itself high into the air in a daring leap. It clutched a slender, sinking branch, then vaulted for trunk, scurried into the upper leaves and disappeared.

Tracy gasped in delight. She clapped her hands over her heart and stared in stunned amazement. “Wow! Did you see that?”

Her father wrenched his head in her direction and glared malevolently at her. His fist came down hard on the arm of his chair. His voice shook with fury.

“Big. Fat. Sss…Girl!”

* * *

The last year they had lived together as a family everything changed. She was cut from every team and without the promise of sports, of winning, to bind them, she rarely saw him anymore. Her mother got a job and her brother went to high school on the other side of town. For the first time they attended different schools and a wall as thick and impenetrable as the concrete of her brother’s new school building came between them.

She and Buck had always walked home from school together, but now she didn’t know how they would manage it. When he wasn’t there after the final bell on the first day, Tracy raced across town. She found him outside the gym surrounded by unfamiliar faces. He refused to leave with her or even acknowledge her and instead disappeared downtown, lost in the crowd.

She went to the high school every afternoon, hanging around at a safe distance from her brother’s new friends, sometimes trailing after them for a few blocks. Increasingly, he ignored her and went off with them. Always before, the two of them had been each other’s ally, but now he had a whole separate life apart from her, one he never wanted to talk about.

Shuffling alone down the sidewalk one day she saw a circle of people gathered up ahead of her. She heard shouting. As she approached, she could see over their heads that two boys were fighting. They rolled around on the asphalt, fists flying. They weren’t evenly matched. The bigger boy, closer to her size, was giving the littler one a drubbing. She was on the point of turning away when she suddenly saw that the smaller boy was Buck.

Tracy crashed through the crowd. She grabbed the big boy, wrenching him off her brother and slammed her fist into his face. She kept throwing punches until he curled up on the sidewalk, whimpering, and then she threw herself on top of him and continued belting him. She was possessed by blind fury. All thought, all reason, had flown. All she was left with were her fists and her big body and her terrible, unstoppable rage.

The students who had pressed close and hurled shouts of encouragement now stepped back in awe. A hush fell over the crowd. Several teachers hurried over to break it up. It took two of them to pry Tracy off the boy and a third to help hold her still until she stopped flailing around. When at last she calmed down, she looked around as though through eyes newly opened. She was surprised to see the crumpled boy, and the blood, and her brother staring at her with his mouth hanging open.

Later, she would remember almost nothing of what had happened, only the powerful sensation that had inhabited her body and taken control of it. It was as though some crucial cord had been cut between her brain and her nerve endings. But the feeling stayed with her for a long time. She couldn’t shake it. Sometimes at night the involuntary twitching of her muscles kept her awake and the memory would seize her of how it felt to be caught up in the spinning whirlwind of a murderous rage. Her heart pounded with fear at what she had done and, for the first time, at what her body was capable of.

* * *

When the home care insurance coverage expired, Felicia stopped coming. She had worked wonders with his large muscle groups, but, she confided to Tracy, he was still in denial about his stroke.

“He refuses to accept that I’m a physical therapist,” she said. “He has it in his mind that I’m some sort of masseuse here to give him a rub-down and this is a locker room or something.”

Tracy tried to explain that he needed more time, how everything had always come so easily to him that he wasn’t accustomed to making an effort. But Felicia said that until he reconciled himself to his condition and started following a disciplined regime, his coordination and control would never improve, and there wasn’t much she could do for him until then. She felt he’d be better off in a nursing home.

The old man was inconsolable. Tracy explained that he could have another physical therapist if he’d just let her take him to the clinic, but he adamantly refused. He seemed to believe that Felicia’s ministrations—her deft touch and physical nearness—were personal, directed toward him alone. And when she no longer came to see him, he took that personally, too.

He became increasingly irascible and uncooperative, throwing tantrums and swearing a blue streak at the day nurse until she quit in a huff. He refused to let Tracy bathe or help him on with his clothes. Once, he tripped on the untied laces of his shoes and went flying. Now, she thought, he’ll have to let me help him, but instead he stopped wearing shoes and shuffled about barefoot behind his walker.

Without therapy, his condition stalled. Even he seemed aware of it. More than once Tracy caught him staring dumbly at his fingers refusing to bend around a fork. She tried to take Felicia’s place, but every time Tracy coaxed him into doing leg lifts, he flew into a rage, spitting monosyllables at her. “You. Ex. Er. Size. Fa. Tee!” He couldn’t make his body do what he wanted and without Felicia’s gentle coaxing, his frustration mounted with each passing day. Tracy tried to get up the courage to express the sympathy she felt, to tell him she knew all too well what it was like when your body was beyond your control. She longed to confide that she understood his plight, and hoped that maybe now he’d be able to understand hers, to finally accept her. But every time she broached the subject, he turned on the radio or TV.

They were watching the third round of a Las Vegas fight when the thunderstorm broke. It had been hovering all day on the edge of the horizon, turning the sky white then gray then the color of a deep bruise. In the minutes before it erupted directly overhead, the wind died abruptly, became eerily calm, and the air grew thick and clotted with moisture. The birds abandoned the feeders in a sudden burst of wings. Fat raindrops as big around as silver dollars splattered onto the panes.

Tracy got up to shut the windows then returned to sit beside her father. The sky darkened by degrees until night eclipsed the afternoon and the day ended suddenly at two o’clock. All at once, a crash of thunder sounded nearby. It reverberated through the apartment, jostling the air waves. A torn streak of lightning hit and for a split second the tree and feeders were outlined in a stark white flash. Then the room went dark.

The TV, lamps, and streetlights all blinked off. A transformer popped loudly. Beside her, Tracy heard her father’s quick intake of breath, sensed his nerves jolt in surprise. She felt along the arm of the chair for his hand. It trembled in hers. Pulse cord fluttered irregularly under his skin.

“A transformer blew, dad,” she said. “It’s nothing to be afraid of.”

His hand wrenched free of hers. In the total darkness, she couldn’t make him out. No silhouette, no shadow took shape before her eyes. It was like the last instant of consciousness following a knockout before everything went black. She took a deep breath.

“You know, when I was a kid I used to be so afraid of getting hit by the ball.” She ventured tentatively. “Since I was such a big target and all.”

She paused. She could hear the soft susurrus of her father’s shallow breathing.

“I was so clumsy that I couldn’t catch the ball half the time,” she went on in a slow, halting voice. “And I couldn’t get out of the way fast enough, so I got hit a lot. I can still remember what it was like to get knocked unconscious, to lose my bearings, how dark everything got, how scary that was.”

A moment passed. Tracy waited for her father to say something, and when he remained silent, she went on in a gentle, unwavering tone. “I just couldn’t make my body do what my head told it to. I’d concentrate on running like crazy, but I always ended up last. My feet never landed in the right spot. My arms and legs were beyond my control. It was so frustrating.”

She continued addressing the darkness, saying things she had always wanted to tell him, things she had never been able to say before. Tracy talked about how hard she had tried to be a good player, how she wanted to emulate him, to make him proud of her. She confessed her fears, her inadequacies, her pain. In the surrounding blackness, she found herself opening up for the first time and as she spoke her words filled up the empty space between them. After a while, the rain subsided. The sky lightened. Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she could make out his profile.

“I’m sorry if I let you down, daddy,” she said in a low voice. Swallowed tears filled her throat, thickening her words. “I tried my best.”

They sat in silence. It had taken all these years, but here finally was something they shared in a way they had never shared athletic ability. Now, as a result of his age and infirmity, her father could understand how it had been for Tracy, and she, in turn, could help him accept his limitations, as she’d been forced to accept hers so many years ago. She had never felt close to him before. Now she sensed, for the first time, that they were on common ground. She reached out to touch him.

“I’m trying to say that I sympathize, daddy,” she said softly. “I know what you’re going through.”

“Shit!” he boomed.

“What?” Tracy said, startled.

She stared at him. His face was blank. A single muscle that had escaped paralysis twitched spasmodically in his right temple. With effort, he slowly pulled himself up to a standing position. His breath was ragged and labored. He bent stiffly at the waist, leaning heavily on the walker. He stamped it angrily on the floor.

“Shit! Me!”

Hit me.

He was still in denial, not just about his stroke but about everything. His life had been one long competition on an endless proving ground. He had lived each day like it was a prizefight, trying to prove over and over again how powerful he was, how invincible, that no one could touch him. And by offering sympathy, she’d only managed to enrage him more. He was never going to see that he was no longer the athlete he’d once been. He’d never been able to accept it in her and now he couldn’t accept it in himself. She’d reached out to him, tried to identify with him and been rejected. Just like when she was growing up. She felt the blood pumping in her arms. Her muscles clenched involuntarily.

She remembered his many invitations to sock him, how he’d bare his teeth and tense his stomach. “C’mon, hit me!” he’d goad them. “You can’t hurt me. I won’t even feel it. Don’t think your old man can take a punch anymore?” Tracy thought of how, in their last year as a family, her brother would throw one sharp jab after another, not even bothering to turn the big carved class ring on his finger around. She recalled his unembarrassed glee at pelting their father, how he used to throw his whole body into each punch as though really trying to hurt him. And how, after a dozen blows, when it seemed that in fact Buck couldn’t hurt their father, Buck’s delight turned to rage, and he began pummeling him in earnest. Their father had been middle-aged then. He’d never held a steady job and his prospects were growing dimmer each year.

Then it hit her. It wasn’t her he was mad at, it was himself. It wasn’t even about her, had never been about her.

She’d just served as a necessary opponent, convenient. The person who’d always disappointed him and let him down, the one he really wanted to beat up was himself. He may have been a natural, but throughout his third-rate career he’d never pushed himself, and was washed up, a has-been, while still young. He’d given up too easily, thrown in the towel.

She looked at him standing shakily before her. He was old and sick. Behind the walker, his legs trembled. The breath entering and leaving his chest was audible.

“Shit! Me!” he croaked again. Spittle flew from his mouth.

He was admitting as much in the only language he understood, the language of physical punishment. Tears sprang to her eyes. Tracy wanted to reach out and pull him to her. More than anything, her arms ached to wrap around him in a tight embrace. But that would cripple what was left of his pride, and even worse, he wouldn’t be able to shake her off. It would kill him.

Slowly, she curled her knuckles into a loose ball. She bent her elbow, pulled her arm back, curling it behind her as far as she could, then swung it forward. Her fist arced through the air in a deft upper cut that landed with an audible thud in his stomach. Not hard enough to hurt him, just hard enough to show she meant it.

Originally from Virginia, Leslie Carper recently won the Winter-at-the-Refuge Scholarship from the Montana Artists Refuge. A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Leslie’s short stories have appeared in a number of literary magazines including American Short Fiction, Antietam Review, Chelsea, Faultline, Icarus, in*tense, Mid-Atlantic Quarterly, New American Writing, New Delta Review, New Literary Journal, Outerbridge, River City Review, and West End Review, among others. She has won a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artists Grant, Ludwig Vogelstein National Foundation Award, Hackney National Literary Short Story Award, Glimmer Train New Writers Award, and been a winner or finalist in the Austin Heart of Film Festival, Massachusetts Film Council, Nicholl Fellowship, and Virginia Governor’s Film Office screenplay competitions. She has also completed a collection of twelve short stories, Father Knows Best, whose unifying focus is the baby-boom generation and the fifties post-war TV era that formed them.

“Down for the Count” copyright © 2002 by Leslie Carper.