By: Erin E. McKee, Decedent Care Education Coordinator with Novant Health
Photo by Niels Kliim
The tree was fixing to fall, and he knew it. He knew it before the headlights swiped the last stand of hickory by the unmarked drive. Not by sight, but by feeling – the weight of it, the force of wet bark half-becoming earth. It was a feeling that caught in his throat as he strained the sedan into washed-out ruts of the drive to daddy’s place. The seatbelt cut a track across his gut. He was tired of the car. It was another half-mile down the drive along the woods, the gravel skirt of the gully, the brushy field opening up to receive the narrow house. He could just make it out, and then it was there. In the double pools of car light – the old tree, leaning. Shit.
He cut the motor and sat. Water rolled down the windshield and popped here and there on the hardtop. The rain was from before – leaf-stripping rain shedding now from naked limbs. Through the rivulets, he made out the wavering edge of the house at the end of the drive. A television lit hot and cold in the front room. Six o’clock – the damned old tree illuminated by the evening news. The sight of it messed with his breath. It was fixing to fall. Hanging by a root or two – a streak of good wood. But it would come down. It would take the house, too. It would leave the kind of mess that stayed.
The man hadn’t been here in a while. Years, if he counted them. The drive from the east had gnawed up the better part of a day, in part because he couldn’t seem to hold his own water anymore. He was growing old, and his father older still. Hourly stops at backwater Gas Ups and tackle shops with a gas pump or two were a small indignity, but they reminded him of death. His passenger seat was strewn with the plastic hulls of Slim Jims and pickled sausages bought in exchange for polite use of the premises.
His breath clouded the edges of the windows, and he recalled the glass buildings wading in the morning’s fog, far below his office window.
“I’ve got to go for a while,” he had told his business partner, passing him the inventory book, “I’ve got what you might call a family emergency.”
“Oh,” his partner had said, “I didn’t know you had family left.”
The man had shrugged. “Hard to say, really.”
And it was hard to say. He couldn’t imagine what would be urgent enough that he should come up in the middle of the week when he hadn’t even been to his daddy’s since the new woman was hired. Unless his daddy was dead. Or dying. Which the woman insisted he wasn’t. In any case, he figured he’d like to see how his retirement savings was being spent.
The hired woman met him at the kitchen door with a towel. She glanced at his car, then his feet.
“You’d do best just to take them shoes off and let me clean them. Rather clean nasty shoes than nasty footprints.”
“Sure,” he said, “Hello.”
She filled the door-frame entirely, cracking the screen just enough to exchange her towel for his loafers, earthed and leaved. With a sudden pivot, she was inside, her back to him at the sink. The man was left on the porch as the kitchen light struck across his eyes. He stepped barefoot and blinded across the threshold, the door catching on a peeled edge of linoleum.
“He’s in there watching the news,” she said, gesturing with her shoulder towards the stunted hall. “Had a rough day. Rough week. Glad you’re here.”
“Sure,” he said, “sure.”
From inside the house, it was full night. Their reflections shone dimly against the black windowpanes. He watched the woman scrubbing, not knowing what she meant, exactly, or if there was a real good reason she had called to ask him to come. She was a stranger – a local woman.
He had hired her mostly because she wasn’t a nurse. The nurses charged too much. The county called when his daddy got too tired to walk down the drive to meet the van they sent to take him to dialysis. The old man’s kidneys were fallow as his fields. The van wouldn’t go up the drive because the county said a gravel road wasn’t a road. By that measure, half the county was a wilderness.
No one up here would help the old man out unless they were paid. His friends were all laid out under the hillside and his family had mostly pried themselves from the holler, even if only to land just over the ridge. No one remembered who he was. A church group took him to his appointments for a while, but after a month or so, a few of the women began to call his son and complain. First they railed against his father’s swearing, then his hygiene, then his habit of giving them crude nicknames. Prissy women, thought his son. But they called one day because the lights were out at the house. No one had paid the bill, and the porch had half-collapsed from rot. The toilet was backed up, and how long, they wondered, had his daddy just been going in the woods.
He got rid of the church and called up an agency. It was what he read you ought to do. They had four packages of help for the aged and infirm and he picked the most natural-sounding. The client coordinator was more than pleasant, and their “family friend” was dispatched the next week for three eight-hour shifts of transportation, companionship, meal-preparation, and light housekeeping. That was a year ago. He guessed everything was okay. The lights were still on, and the kitchen smelled of artificial pine. There was a foil-covered pan on the counter, and neatly beside it, there was a can of Folger’s and a stack of paper plates. An orange vial of pills sat in a cut-glass candy dish he remembered from ancient Christmases.
“Course it don’t help we got the hundred year flood.”
The hired woman turned and met his lost gaze – the fruit of half his savings thrusting forth his scoured shoes.
“Has it really been that bad?”
The hired woman nodded. “Going to get worse. Another front’s moving through overnight. You ought to put that car someplace you can get it out come morning.”
He took the shoes and wedged them on. It had rained on his trip, but he hadn’t thought to check the weather. “No,” he said, “I mean, with Daddy. Daddy’s health.”
The woman leaned back into the counter and rested the back of her head against the cabinet where the man’s mother used to keep cornmeal. She had the look of a child waiting to hear how she’d be punished for some mischief – crayon on some wall he was bound to find. She couldn’t be much beyond such things in years – taut ponytail, moony cheeks.
“I’m not supposed to say too much,” she began, brushing her palms against the hips of her scrubs, “on account of me not being medical or whatever. But there’s just a change come over him. Just a difference.”
Damned if the hired woman hadn’t bothered to put the teeth in Daddy’s head. His son watched him in the front room from the little hallway, a shrunken man hunkered in the recliner with a dry plug of tongue between his lips. The clawed shadow of the tree out front flashed onto the papered walls. The news still rattled in the television, and he’d sent the hired woman home. It was her headlights lighting up the tree. He couldn’t stand to think of the hours she had passed with his daddy talking about god-knows-what. The old man had not been a talker, but loneliness shook stories from mouths like acorns from a branch.
The man knew loneliness in the faces of the salesmen sent traveling from his business – some bone-deep magnetism drawing their words out in clumps. They scheduled the sales meetings in tight time-slots and watched the receptionist fend them off with phantom phone calls. His daddy had to be lonely. He was, at least, alone.
What did the hired woman know of him, of the corners of the home that saw his boyhood? He’d left town long ago, and coming home now, he had hoped that those who kept his memories had all died or fallen away.
He drew up to the wingback across from the recliner, taking the remote from the empty coffee table to mute the weather-woman and the green map behind her. His daddy did not register his presence. He had not been watching the news, but the window – his own face shining back.
“Evening,” said the man.
The old man stirred a little and hoisted his lower jaw into place. He turned to his son, empty-eyed a split-second too long. He rocked upright, beaming tight-lipped as he could.
“Hello, friend, you,” said his daddy, “By god, it’s good to see you.”
The man pulled his collar away from his throat and sat back.
“How long’s this damn tree been fixing to fall?”
It was six when he awoke to the ringing phone and the rain, beads of water trailing down the seams of the front room’s paneling, the damp-heavy quilt and the damp couch beneath him. On the phone, the hired woman sounded raw.
“Ain’t coming in. Road’s washed out.”
The man shifted the receiver to his better ear.
“Dialysis place’s still open. Already called. I usually get him there about eight.”
“Shit,” said the man, straining the spiraled cord to see out the window, “What do you mean washed out? Where?”.
“All over. Creeks are all up. I’d go now before the river gets the eighteen bridge.”
The morning blur crept from the corners of the man’s eyes, but the sight outside was the same – gray curtains of rain, the mirror-edge of the puddled woods, and just before him, wet-black and bent in the wind, the tree getting ready to fall. He swallowed hard.
“Go now,” said the voice on the phone, “Bring something to eat.”
In the kitchen, the man found his daddy seated at the dinette. He was dressed in boots and canvas work pants, a t-shirt from the feed and seed tucked neatly under his belt. His white hair was parted and combed back with grease.
“Morning,” he said, “Paper didn’t come.”
“You get the paper?” asked the man.
His father blinked, the crepey curtains of his eyelids lowered and raised.
“Well,” said the man, “we’ll have to get one in town.”
The man took yesterday’s Oxford from the back of one of the kitchen chairs and worked his arms through the sleeves. He had slept in his undershirt and pants. There was a suitcase out in the car, but screw it. He had smelled worse.
“I’ve been thinking,” said his daddy, chair squealing as he pushed back from the table, “We ought to go by the station and get some gas for the chainsaw. I’ve been wanting to cut down that damn tree forty, fifty years.” He was breathless, clinging to the top rung of the ladderback chair as he stood, stooped.
The man took the covered aluminum pan from the counter, ducked back into the front room, and threw the wet quilt over his back. “Was there a chainsaw?”
“I like how you’re thinking, but we have to wait and see,” he said, “Creeks are up. We’ve got to get you into town.”
“You listen here,” said his father, “This is important to me.” He straightened his back. “You might not know the tale of that damned old tree out there, but I do, and boy it’s a real hell of a bad one.”
“You can tell me on the way,” said the man, the bird-hollow blade of his father’s shoulder in the crook of his arm, “The roads are flooding. We’ve got to get you scrubbed out.”
He pulled the quilt over the both of them and they halted in tandem over the threshold onto the porch, down the two stairs and through the marshy yard. The cold rain spilled over them, soaking the quilt, filling their ears with the riot of drops through the treetops and the roar of the current sweeping through the gulley. It was louder still in the car, his father fastened into the back seat, humming. The sedan groaned over the gravel, trailing a foamy, stone-colored wake down the flooded drive.
In the rearview, the man cursed his father’s toothless jaw. Did he even have false teeth? He must have – somewhere. As if the teeth would make him whole, he thought – this suggestible stranger, unperturbed by strange company and accidents of water. Ahead, between the tick of the wiper blades, the black road looked clear.
“I’ll tell you the first thing about that tree,” said his father, peering out the rear window toward the house, “I planted the damn thing. A pin oak. Bought it from the nursery myself. Weren’t but five feet – maybe six feet tall. A shade tree, you know? Grows quick.” He clucked his tongue.
“Sure,” said the man.
“Nothing but shit,” he clucked again, “Nothing but shit.”
The old man’s face went slack.
“What do you mean?” prodded his son, “The leaves? Big old acorns?”
“Yeah, acorns,” he replied, absently, “Yeah, acorns and all kinds of mess. That kind of thing. But the worst part – the worst part you wouldn’t believe.”
“Try me,” said the man.
“I should’ve cut it down that day,” the old man spat.
“Why didn’t you?”
“Cut it down then?”
The old man clucked and raised his hand, a flesh-toned wisp in the rearview mirror.
“Live and let live, old boy,” he said, and then, “We getting close?”
“Nowhere close,” said the man.
He stopped the car and surveyed the cascades tumbling down the road cut, splashing from the ditch, sheeting across the turnout and down into the ravine on the road’s right side. Letting off the brake, they slurred around the bend. Even as the rain let up, the water rolled on down from the hill country above.
The hired woman had said it. “Hundred-year flood.” The man remembered boyhood rainstorms – summer gulley-washers, the stray hurricanes corralled in the northern arc of the mountains. A thousand unnamed creeks snaked through the valleys here, quick to rear their clouded waters above the bottomland – fence-railed pastures and sorry-looking homes – and to swell into ugly rivers that sucked the crops from the land, kittens from the barns, trucks and tractors from the sheds. When the rain stopped, the floods would keep on, gathering force from the waters upstream. He remembered the blue skies shining in the pools of the fields and muddy tulips blooming from downed poplars. He remembered his mama and daddy clearing the river-slung garbage from the porch, watching them from his cot by the window with bandages packed at his throat.
“Nothing but shit,” said his daddy from the backseat.
The wrappers from the day before rattled as the man turned up the heat.
“Thing about pin oaks is the bottom branches grow funny, kind of bent down towards the ground. But there’s just about no going back, once you put a thing in the ground. Once it got planted it grew just as fast as the man at the nursery said it would. Friend, I tell you it was fifty feet tall before we slung that rope up there and hung that swing. And it – damn it – it always swung wrong. Crooked. On account of the branch was so bent.”
The man’s heart shrank back into his chest. It was worse than he’d imagined, the water sloshing at his tires, the stranger-father backseat recollecting.
“Problem is the young one learned real quick how to wind up the rope. Hoo, it was something. He’d go spinning around and around and get to laughing so hard and carrying on, standing on the plank and just going and going and going ‘til he was just about sick. And on the day it happened – on the day it happened, there wasn’t any kind of noise to it. None at all. Reckon it got him before he would let out a yelp. His foot must’ve slipped. Caught him – the rope did, I mean – in the fork where it was twisted up, and his leg twisted up, too, and hung him. Lord, hung him just the same as any thief.”
The old man clucked and turned his head towards the window, the low ceiling of fog.
“Well,” said his son. He gripped the wheel with one hand and undid his collar with the other. “Well, that’s an awful way to lose someone.”
“No,” said the old man, “No, he wasn’t dead. Or not for long. His mama found him. Saw him from the house. Purple as a plum. We don’t know how long he hung there. Hands all bloodied. He was – he was a ragdoll. She just tore him down, his mama. Like to broke his neck, if it wasn’t broken already. Hollering – I heard her from the shed out back, and we threw him in the truck and went roaring down the road. His mama laid with him in the back – said she heard the breath in him, and hurry, slapping that boy’s face and raining on him tears. I never.”
The old man was still talking when they rolled up to the bridge that led to town and the narrow street lined with storefronts – mostly empty – and the county clinic. The fifteen-mile trip had stretched into an hour.
“Doctor said he might wake up, but he’d be gone. Gone in the head. He laid there in that hospital bed ten days and ten nights, and me beside him. Little puffs of air pumping in and out and doctors coming in, shining lights in his face. His throat was ruined. Tubes stuck in him -down his mouth coming out of his skinny little arms. Awful. His mama about died. Nothing to do but sit there and watch. But his little eyes came open in the afternoon on the eleventh day. And he got better and better, you know. It was a real goddamn miracle.”
“Well,” said the man, easing the car out of gear, “Doctors aren’t always right, are they?”
His father paused and ran his tongue over his gums. “Oh, they were right,” he said, “In their own way.”
“How’s that?” the man asked.
“His head was okay, but he did leave us. Later. Left and never came back.”
The man unbuckled his seatbelt and turned all the way around, closing and opening his eyes as if to clear his sight.
“Not even for Thanksgiving and Christmas?”
The old man cocked his head. “No.”
“Not even when Mama died?”
The old man ran his hand back over the oily crest of his hair. “Where the hell are you taking me?”
The brown creek was up over the low bridge, twisting across in thick twin cords. The man had heard stories of cars swept away in inches of current, found buried in silt or folded around a tree. It wouldn’t be safe to cross.
The man put his car in reverse and left it a good ways back from the creek. He lifted his daddy from the backseat and carried him – carried him down the road and over the bridge towards town, splashing through the ankle deep streams spilling across. His waterlogged loafers squelched underfoot, the old man curled like a dried leaf in his arms. The water gnawed at the shoulders of the road, and he walked down the middle of the empty asphalt feeling the angles of his daddy’s bones against his belly. At least the rain had stopped.
The brown facade of the dialysis place reared just beyond the corner of the main road, and as they reached the front walk, the old man dropped from his son’s arms and lit upon the ramp to the door. It was open – propped wide with a cinderblock.
“Hello, Angels,” he shouted, stepping into the vestibule, “By god, it’s good to see you.”
Beyond the single door lay the vinyl-tiled waiting room with its two folding chairs. The man tilted his head at the drop ceiling. He looked around for a magazine or a bowl of mints – nothing. A small white room for sitting upright. There wasn’t even a clock on the wall.
A woman in flowered scrubs greeted them from behind a pane of sliding glass. “Go on ahead back, Roy,” she said, “We got the generator hot and running just for you.”
The man hadn’t thought about the power being out. His stomach was empty, and he thought of the pan of leftover road food thrown in the backseat of his car. He patted his rear end to find his wallet resting there. He hoped the car was safe where it was.
The woman in scrubs scooted her backside against a door beside the glass to hold it open for Roy.
“Who’s your company?” she asked him.
“Old friend,” he replied, creeping through the doorway.
The woman knitted her brow. “I thought you said your son was coming up sometime.”
“No, no,” said Roy, clucking, “It just wouldn’t do no good for a son to see his daddy like this.”
The man met the woman’s glance by mistake – a quick brush of pity. She held the door until both men were through to the back room – a paneled space that gave the vague impression of a church fellowship hall. There were posters scotch-taped to the walls – the food pyramid, an anatomical drawing of the kidneys – and worn recliners lining the perimeter, empty.
“Well, Roy,” she said, “You got a real good friend to take you out in this weather, and you got the place all to yourself.”
The woman introduced herself – an RN who’d grown up someplace not far off. She’d stayed here overnight with another one, sleeping on the recliners and listening to the rain. They had to make sure there would be someone to handle the patients trickling in from the hills, if they could make it. She was so glad they made the drive. No one else, no – not yet. The vans couldn’t pick anyone up with the roads washed out. Every three days for the past two years, yes, and for three hours at a time. It had been quite a rain, a hundred year flood, and they could wait in the front or in the back with Roy, if he wanted, since no one was here to make a fuss. Yes, Roy sometimes seemed confused. Agitated. It was funny how they looked sort of alike – how she knew right away. And the scar – yes, she knew it from the stories he had told. You know, he had trouble remembering things, but not his past. He was in and out of the time being. But he always had his hair combed back, and he always took his pills.
The man felt his hands clenching at his sides as she spoke. “I guess what I’m left wondering is what’s the point?” asked the man, and he turned and walked back through the doors outside, leaving wet footprints behind.
The man remembered when he was a boy, waking from the soft dark nothing into the bright beige room, the hard bed with its harsh sheets and the arrows of light between the slats of the blinds. He could not move or speak, but he could feel – the pressure in his chest, the clumsy apparatus at his throat – and above the whirr of some close machine, he heard his daddy’s voice, reading aloud from the local swap paper.
“McCulloch gas chainsaw: used one season but in good shape. Will take best offer or trade for nail gun, etc. Well that’s alright, but if it works that good he really ought to keep it, you know. Here’s another one for a Cub Cadet. Whew – not at that price. They’ll come down, I’ll bet. It’s used, for god’s sake.”
The recitation went on for what seemed like a very long time – through weedeaters, bushhogs, and lawnmowers cluttering the spectrum from busted to like-new. He could just make out his daddy’s shape at the edges of his vision – a brick of a man, boots squarely on the floor.
He was drifting back down into the place he had sloughed off when his daddy’s face appeared before him. It drew so near it filled his entire field of vision, planetary, peppered with a start of beard.
“Nurse!” he was screaming, and the spray from his mouth flecked the boy across the nose, “Nurse, my son’s come back! My son!”.
The boy could only shut his eyes again.
Now, hiking down the car-less thoroughfare of his boyhood town, the man assessed the present. The ground was wet to bursting – he could start there. And his daddy was sick. Gone. Not coming back. His stomach was growing. His feet were rubbing raw. And that damn tree was going to fall. It was only a matter of when. And how – wind, rain, or nothing at all.
He thought of the hired woman with a sudden shock of anger. How long had she waited to call him, collecting her checks while his daddy skidded down this aimless road, gumming his breakfast and climbing into cars with strangers? He thought to call the agency and complain, but what good would that do? There would only be another hired woman with a different color of hair.
Phone calls every week – is that what he wanted? Daily updates? I mean, what would it take? The rest home? Great – nurses in the bureau drawer, and a Polaroid print of his daddy playing bingo on their bulletin board in the dining hall. How much money would that cost? And how long could it go on?
His mother had died suddenly, and it had been a gift.
There was an old gas station with a Shop-N-Go just before the main road petered into farmland, and the man scanned its parking lot for signs of life. An old Chevrolet poked its nose from the back of the building, but the plate glass storefront shone back at him – his rumpled figure and the gas pumps slouched against the blurred-out woods. He could hear the water rising up, washing through the underbrush to meet the road. He swore he could hear the briars crackling one by one.
The station door glided right open when he pulled. No lights on inside, but a clerk behind the counter, shuffling receipts, tonguing at an unlit cigarette in the corner of his mouth.
“We’re closed,” said the clerk, “Got to run home before the bridge gives out.”
“All I need is a gas can full of good gasoline,” said the man, “for the chainsaw.”
“Pumps won’t run with the power out. Sorry, bud.”
“Shit,” said the man, “I can’t go swinging an ax.”
He looked down the dark aisle of the little store – the plastic sacks of pork rinds, breath mints, 10W-40, night crawlers in a plastic bin. There was a freezer in the back that should have glowed and hummed. The clerk kept his eye on the man and one hand beneath the counter.
“You got some kind of siphon you’d sell me?” asked the man.
“You got cash?” asked the clerk.
The man went back down the road with the plastic siphon’s hose draped around his neck. He swung a plastic shopping bag freighted with two half-gallon cartons of strawberry ice cream – on the house, said the clerk, since it was going to melt anyway – four cans of sardines in Louisiana hot sauce, and a whole case of Hershey bars with almonds. He’d already been in the chocolate.
The water had claimed more of the road, and the man walked on the left side of it, close to the empty buildings – the old post office, a general store turned thrift store turned sweepstakes parlor, the single board hanging where the lawyer’s office used to be. Most of the doctors had left town, too. It had been a railroad town once, but the trains were long gone. He wondered where anyone – his daddy – bought food anymore.
When his business sent salesmen out through places like this – always on the way to somewhere else – they came back hangdog, complaining how the trip had taken years off of their lives. The man didn’t tell them what they didn’t need to know.
When he came upon the dialysis place again, he set down his bag and rested on a low cement wall. He opened the carton of ice cream and with his fingers, scraped a thick curl of it to his mouth. He was practically raised on the stuff. The cool sludge slid down his palms and streaked his forearms. He felt ready to go inside.
The RN led him to the restroom and then back to his daddy, asleep in the chair with two lines running from his arm to the tower on his left – a machine buzzing with what must have been a blood-scrubbing sound. He lowered himself into an empty recliner while the RN stood across the room, arms crossed.
“You know he can’t eat that,” said the nurse, gesturing to the shopping bag sweating on the floor. The man looked down at his loot.
“No,” said the man, “I don’t know anything about anything.”
The nurse crossed the floor and eased herself into the next recliner, rocking. She toed open the mouth of the bag as if to investigate further.
“The dairy’s real bad for his kidneys. All dairy. Not just because the ice cream’s sweet. And there’s caffeine in the chocolate – another big no no. Salt in those nasty fish – ugh – I’m guessing, anyway.”
The man stared straight at the wall as she spoke, letting his vision go in and out of focus. He bit his lip.
“And you’ve got to keep on him about drinking water,” she went on, “I can give you a pamphlet if you’re going to be taking care of him some. I can get someone to -“
The man waved his hand for her to stop. “Isn’t it just awful,” he said, “If this is what there is left? He’s gone, baby, gone. Left the building, as they say. And I’d make him baked Alaska for breakfast if he could think to ask for it.”
The RN leaned forward in her seat. “Was he a good daddy to you?” she asked.
The man felt the tightness in his throat. “I’m not a bad son,” he said, and crossed his legs, “And that’s beside the point.”
“Okay,” said the nurse, “You think of him the way he thinks of you, then. It’s a blessing, in a way. And he’s happy. He’s like a kid, sometimes. They get like that – the old folks, some of them. And he’s a pain in the butt others. They get that way sometimes, too. But you can tell he’s not a mean man. He likes coming to see us, likes his home aide. He doesn’t act real, real sick. But he will if he starts eating trash.”
“It’s not about whether he’s mean or nice or happy or sad. It’s about whether he’s gone or coming back. Tell me what happens if he stops coming here and doing this,” asked the man.
“I mean, he needs to come here. To live,” said the RN, “to have a life.”
“And if he stopped he’d just -“
“Die,” said the nurse, abruptly, “And not right away. He’d suffer first.”
The man gave a curt nod.
“Do I need to make a phone call?” she asked, standing, darkening, patting her pants pocket for her phone.
“No, no, no,” said the man, “I’m just trying to understand.”
“You don’t get a kidney transplant when you’re ninety-two and crazy as a yardbird,” she said, “You don’t get home dialysis unless the county or whoever sees you can do it without poisoning your blood. I mean, you could hire someone to do it unless you spent all of your money on sardines and candy bars.”
“No, no, no,” said the man again, “I see it. This is just some kind of messed-up holding pattern he’s in. Indefinitely.”
“Well, that’s pleasant. That’s life, isn’t it? For all of us.”
The man leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He wanted to get back to the house before the tree came down.
“What you said a minute ago – there’s a difference between living and having a life.”
“I swear to god,” said the RN, “If you or somebody else don’t have him back here for the next time, there will be trouble. I don’t care if you have to take a boat.”
“I hear you,” said the man, “But remember that you are the saints letting a poor old man run around without the teeth in his head. There are some things worse than dying.”
The RN reached over and flipped a switch on his daddy’s tower.
“You think you know me,” said the man.
“No,” said the RN, “I sure don’t.”
The creek hurried across the bridge now shin-deep and brown. The old man never really woke up, his head bowed, slack-jawed and mumbling softly from the wheelchair they borrowed from the clinic. The man lowered the brakes and lifted him easily, abandoning the chair and shuffling towards the water. It was not yet noon, and a dark new bank of clouds rolled in overhead. What was the point of any of it?
The creek’s oversized jaws clamped cold upon the man, tearing at the legs of his pants like a loose dog. He struggled to stand – to keep his hold on the man stirring in his arms. The asphalt slid beneath the soles of his shoes, and he planted his feet wide against the downstream force. Each step was a gamble – balanced on one foot cradling a ghost. And for what? His chest began to burn. He could let go, and that would be it – an accident, done, both of them gone. The man who sat at his bedside ten days, waiting for death or a miracle – he was just a story now. A fresh rain roused the old man to cursing, but the dim waters receded – shins, ankles, feet. The wheelchair sat behind them on the opposite shore, its seat collecting rain. They were almost to the car.
On the drive back to the house, the man peeled back the foil of the covered pan to reveal a husk of pot pie scabbed and furred with mold. He rolled down the window and tossed it into the rain. The old man dozed in the back seat, drawing snotty breaths. He couldn’t go. He couldn’t go. There was the business with the tree. There was the water – more and more. And the hired woman – when would she return? But the road was unchanged from the morning, or maybe he had learned the worst parts on the way.
Pulling onto the unmarked drive, the earth grumbled beneath his tires. The gulley was running. He knew the water would swallow up the gravel and rest itself in the field, but also that it would slip away, leaving silt and trash and revelations, too. The woods gave way to the clearing and the house, to the black tree leaning like a bad tooth from its hole. Shit. But there it was.
The car parked and the rain lifting, the man clicked open the gas tank and laid the siphon on the hood. The old man slept. His son watched him briefly through the wet glass and stalked towards the shed out back. He was looking for a chainsaw. A wet one would do – one with cobwebs and rust. A shit one from a fifty-year-old ad. He needed to hold one in his hands – to say he’d tried to do it, even if the damn thing fell on its own.