by Bob Gardner
I could hear their voices as the cab stopped in front of the old house. My younger brother and sister arguing again in the house where we were raised.
“I guess a delayed flight isn’t always a bad thing.”
Fragments of their snarls floated into the stale August night.
“…just a few days… new nurse.” Brad’s polished voice strained.
“…like hell. I have a life, too…” Rita’s acting school drawl, “Like hey-uhl.”
I looked over my shoulder for an exit but my cab was gone.
“Perfect. Between a jerk and a hard case.”
I shuffled up the crumbling front steps and jumped aside just as the screen door exploded out. Rita pushed past me. She paused, smiled, winked, waggled her thumb and pinkie finger by her ear, mouthed, “Call me.” Rita. Always onstage.
My arms wide, I mouthed, “Is she OK?” but Rita jumped into a waiting van and shouted, “Later!” Her third husband gunned it and they squealed away.
My worn carryon slid to the sagging porch and I leaned against one of the remaining wooden columns. Inside, my younger brother’s voice, now a quiet monotone repeated, “Calm now, mother. I have it under control.”
I wrapped my arm around the column, let my face rest against the broken surface. With my middle finger I dug divots into the peeling paint and bare wood.
For the last two years Brad’s personal assistant called requesting that I travel back to Louisville to take our mother to chemo. The ticket was always first class.
“He knows I’ve been laid off from two newspapers. That I’m struggling in free-lance. He doesn’t want it to seem like charity. Which it is. That and keeping him from dealing with her.”
Two days earlier, Brad himself called with the news.
“Hey, Phil, you need to be there. Still flexible, right?” He coughed, “The usual arrangements, of course.”
“Phil’s here, mom.” His voice was calm, accustomed to soothing wealthy clients. He breezed through the damaged screen door. Shook his head.
“She’s made up her mind, Phil. Says she’s going to die here.” He glanced at a gaudy timepiece. “I need to jet, man. Gotta’ prep. Big conference call tomorrow. The bad guys want to settle.” He winked.
“So. What? I’m supposed to stay here with her?”
“Hey, just an hour or so. The temp nurse gets here around midnight.” He shrugged and headed to a sleek, black Benz.
I blew out a long breath and stared at the olive-drab porch swing, chain covered in rust. Two cracked slats bore yellow splotches. Some unfinished attempt to brighten the place. I kicked the carryon and walked inside.
“Phillip? About time.” Her voice brittle. The “L’s” slurred.
“My plane was late, mom. I—“
“Should-a taken an earlier plane.” “Should-a came out ‘shurra’. Her right eye drooped.
“I’m here now. You look good, mom.” The air reeked of Lysol.
“Bullshit, Phillip. I know I’m dying.” Her language, at least, was still strong.
I shook my head and rubbed my left palm over the stub of my right index finger.
“Is it acting up?’
“Mom, it’s fine.”
“I remember. When you hurt it. Damn shame they couldn’t do anything about it.”
“How are you feeling?”
She ignored me. “That reminds me. Hand me that goddam newspaper. No, the other stack. Toward the hutch.”
I ran my hand over dusty stacks of newspapers, remembered she hid cigarettes.
“Are you still smoking, mom?”
Ignored again. “That’s it. Bring it here.”
I shook out a section of the Tribune. Dust billowed over the cracked lampshade beside her.
“Here. See?” The paper shook but I saw she was holding the obits. Her bony finger slid across the page then stopped on a photograph.
“Who’s that?” I squinted at the photograph.
She swatted at me with the folded newspaper. “Donald. It’s your best friend, Donald.” A cough rattled around in her chest and shook her until she sank back into the lumpy brown chair. She drew a deep breath and picked stuffing from a hole in the arm.
“Donald who? I never had a friend named Donald.”
“He was there the day you hurt your finger. He saw it.”
I rolled my eyes. How many times had she tried to tell this? How many times had I ignored her? Always making such a big deal.
“His mother came to us. Told us what happened.” She cleared her throat. “He was such a nice, respectful boy.”
“OK, OK, so how are–”
“She was crying so hard we barely understood her.” She spoke to the paper now. “Poor thing. He struggled so hard even before.”
Donald. Who was this Donald she was trying to tell me about? I ran through names I could recall from the neighborhood forty years ago.
Holy Jesus. She was talking about Dooley. Skinny, goofy Dooley Parker.
Jimmy Krause and I were pressed against the roof of old man Flynn’s garage. An ancient walnut tree swooned over half the roof; my hideout since I could climb. The roof commanded a view up and down Maple Street. From my perch I hide from my sister and brother. Held the fort against imaginary enemies.
I wasn’t thinking when I told Jimmy about my spot. When he climbed the tree the first time something changed. He threw walnuts into the street.
“Cars run over ‘em and knock off the husk.”
I knew it wasn’t right but I felt stuck.
That day we were hiding from Dooley.
“He does know he’s the biggest ass pain ever, right?”
Dooley followed me like a lost pup. Giggled when I tossed ball with him. But, I didn’t tell Jimmy.
Instead I said, “Beat’s me but he sure is.” I was taller than Jimmy by a head but his steel-blue eyes, square chin and perfectly waxed blonde hair made him a natural leader. Kids followed him without question. I felt lucky he liked me.
“Fee-ul! FEEE-ul!” Dooley. Calling my name. Trying to find one of the few who would play with him.
“Jeez, that retard’s voice!” Jimmy flipped to his belly, crawled to the peak of the roof. “Come on. Take a look. Fee-ul.”
My face burned but I kept my mouth shut and crawled.
Dooley’s bike screeched a harsh, metallic bray. He peddled toward us.
“God, that voice and that squeak are driving me crazy.” He glanced above me. “Get him to knock it off.”
It took me a second but I slowly understood what he meant. I studied a shingle, pulled off a corner. Hoped he would let it go. My mother had few rules in our house. Don’t sass. Home by supper. Never throw rocks, or walnuts at anyone. I was whipped once for throwing at brother. Didn’t even hit him.
“Come on, Feee-ul. Do it. Get him to stop. Hey? You chickenshit?”
I was trapped and I knew it. If I didn’t, Jimmy would tell every kid at school I was a chickenshit. If I did, my mother would find out. But maybe she wouldn’t.
The squeaky bike got closer.
“Come on chickenshit.”
“I can’t.” Blades of sweat stabbed my back.
“Chickenshit. Fee-ul the chickenshit.”
“Prove it,” he hissed.
My face burned. My vision blurred.
I twisted three green walnuts off a branch.
“We’ll see who’s a chickenshit.” I rose to my knees, measured the distance, and whipped my arm forward.
Dooley looked up, smiled, but then his eyes locked on mine. The green projectile hurtled toward his head but he never blinked. The husk grazed the top of his head but may as well have pierced the middle of his forehead. He twisted the handlebars sharply. Green and yellow shrapnel splattered Dooley Parker. After the bike and boy hit the asphalt silence thundered around us. Jimmy’s jaw dropped, his eyes opened wide and he twisted his head from me to the street.
Dooley lay still.
I dropped the other walnuts, slid to the tree and clambered down. I ran through the space between the garage and a brown patch of garden in a side yard. I kept running until I tried to jump a rusty, chest-high, chain-link fence. I used my right hand to hurdle it but a twist of fence pierced my hand, hooked me like a trout. The blood and screaming began immediately. I tried to pull myself off but I was tearing flesh, tendons and bone. Just before I passed out I watched blood flow over my hand, stained yellow and green.
“Phillip? Are you OK?” My mother’s slurred whisper brought me back.
I wiped the arm of my blazer across my face.
“Yeah, I’m ok. Sometimes my eyes get tired from reading.”
“I know, Phillip, I know. But, Donald was always slow. Even before the accident. The market was going to fire him anyway. His mother never blamed you.”
I rubbed the place my finger had been, darkened now with newsprint or something. I tried again to wipe away the stain.