The Free Clinic – Barney T. Haney
I found this growth on my dick. How long it had been there, I didn’t know. It was too horrible to think about and it was all I could think about.
Earlier that day I’d been at the library, scrolling through hundreds of images online, comparing them to the picture I’d taken with Emma’s camera. They all looked like maybes. Anything seemed like it could sprout from that hideous seed. The librarian touched my shoulder and I clicked the window closed, but there were too many other open windows. She told me that I had to leave, but I kept clicking, canceling frames until that damn computer froze on a close-up of goulash gone south.
It was bad omen.
She began explaining the library’s first offense policy. That goulash reflected on the lenses of her glasses.
“This is a medical emergency,” I said, “for a friend, and my friend’s marriage is not great right now.”
The librarian was new to town. She looked smart in her cat frames. Her eyes scanned the pink seams of scar tissue along the severed fingers of my left hand. She seemed like the type of person who remembers things. She said that she wasn’t one to judge, but rules were rules.
That night, I sharpened my pocket knife, doused it with rubbing alcohol, then sat on the toilet with my underwear around my ankles and cried. Rain popped on the windowpane. I’d never fooled around on Emma. I couldn’t accept that she’d cheated on me. I needed to believe that we still loved each other despite all that had happened. That was the kind of world I wanted to make for our son, a world of wider possibility. But it was so hard. I folded the blade into its handle and I told myself that this thing on my dick, whatever the hell it was, was probably nothing, that it would be gone in the morning.
It wasn’t gone in the morning.
I went to see about borrowing George’s truck. My car had died. I knew its day was coming—the block was cracked, anti-freeze spewed from the radiator, gas dribbled from a hole in the fuel line. I took it personal. Emma had taken Hank to her mother’s in May, now June was nearly over. For weeks, I’d been telling myself things like, if the car starts, and makes it to wherever, they will have a job for me. On bad days, after getting blitzed at the park, I’d rev the engine at busy intersections in town, hoping another driver would flick a cigarette out of their window and that a breeze would sweep it into that gas drip.
Ours were the only two houses in that galaxy of rolling pastures and row crops. I walked along the road’s shoulder, gazing down at the blistered tar snakes near the edge of the chipseal. Rabbit-gnawed buckhorn plantains brushed against my pant leg. Poisonous, purple-crowned cockleburs, deep in the ditch, wrecked the fence lines, and I broke into a run.
George waved when he saw me coming. He’d drug a tarp and his kitchen table into the yard and was peeling the finish from it with a putty knife. He and his wife, Joyce, ran a small concrete construction business, but he’d stopped taking contracts to care for her. The doctors said she wouldn’t make it through the summer. Cancer. It hurt to have to bring my shit to him.
“She’s going to be like new when I’m finished with her,” George said. He shook a glob of sappy-looking gunk from the knife and it landed on the tarp in a wet plop. I’d never seen that table without a cloth covering it and George wasn’t one for preening.
“How’s Joyce?” I asked.
“Sleeping more,” George said. “Bettie’s in with her now.”
I recognized the hospice nurse’s minivan in the driveway. George’s mouth twisted and he looked beyond me, across the pasture, where the pond lay hid.
“Says she’s been talking with the Holy Ghost,” he said. “Says it’s been giving her messages for everyone. She has one for you, too.”
I shook my head.
“You holding up?” I asked
“Learning the place all over again. How ‘bout you? Your hand looks better.”
I turned it palm-up for us to look at. I’d gotten it caught in a press that bends metal plates into girders for grain bins. The lever that moves the press up and down has a slip in it. Sometimes it didn’t disengage. We’d all complained about it. I was adjusting the plate at the last second, like I often did, trying to make it perfect. The press took the pinky and half of the ring finger, crushed them into bloody mush.
“The nerves tingle some,” I said.
“How much longer till you go back to Patton’s?” George asked.
“My suspension ended last Monday, then they call and tell me it’ll be another two weeks. Said they’re short on orders. Talked to Ricky Mason, he said they’re getting the same numbers they’ve always gotten.”
George shook his head.
I tried not to look at that table.
“Have you talked with Emma lately?” He said.
I turned my eyes up at him.
He sighed. Sweat rings darkened his underarms and the stretched-out collar of his shirt. He took off his glasses and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. He looked exhausted.
“Here’s how dumb I am,” George said. “Never in all the time that I thought about us not having kids, did I think about not having grandkids. I should have paid more attention, should’ve adopted a whole damn orphanage.”
He took another swipe at the table. Stripper and varnish folded into gooey sludge. The wood underneath looked so soft and vulnerable.
“Emma and Hank are coming to visit Joyce tomorrow,” he said. “I want you to come, too.”
He wiped the blade on a rag and waited for me to say something. I’d known George and Joyce since I was sixteen. They were the parents that I wished my parents had been: patient, loving, unshakably optimistic.
“I need to borrow your truck,” I said.
It was the only clinic of its kind within two hundred miles. I parked up the street and looked around to see if anyone was near, then unzipped. The growth stared back at me, bright and striking in the daylight. I tucked myself back in my pants and a little boy zoomed past on a bike. Red, glittering pom-poms waved out the ends of the bike’s handlebars like jewels on fire as he raced down the hill, threading it between a box truck and an old phone booth going full-bore, clearing the space by centimeters. I thought of Hank pushing Jeffrey down the hill at George’s pond on the saucer sled we bought him for Christmas. Jeffrey was a gift from Joyce, a small cedar pen case that had belonged to her father. Hank loved the thing. He made up songs about it, he even slept with it. I’d slogged through the snow with him and Jeffery on my shoulders then got upset when he wouldn’t let me push him down the hill. He wanted to push Jeffrey. The sled got away from us and he cried for Jeffrey to come back.
I got out of the truck, ran down the street, and barged through the clinic’s door. The receptionist jumped from her chair. Coffee splashed down her smock. She gasped. Her fingers spread wide. Her expression said that the coffee was hot.
“What the hell did you do that for?” She yelled.
“Sorry,” I said.
She grabbed a tuft of tissues from the small mound of used tissues on her desk and dabbed the stains. A redhead in cutoffs further down the counter giggled. She stood on her tip-toes with her arm elbow-deep in a large plastic jar of condoms.
“What do you want?” the receptionist snorted. She crossed her arms over a block of bosom. Bits of tissue stuck to her smock. I was confused and afraid. I thought that there would be a modicum of privacy, but her stink-face said that this was my allotment. I leaned over the counter and whispered.
“I need to have something looked at.”
“What exactly do you have that needs looked?” She said.
It got real quiet then. Or seemed it to. A sink hole opened inside my guts. I gripped the counter to steady myself. There was enough dirt under my fingernails to grow potatoes.
“I don’t know,” I said.
She huffed and rolled her eyes.
“We close at four,” she said. “It’s first come, first serve. You can try waiting it out or come back tomorrow. We open at nine.”
I told her I’d wait.
She handed me a clipboard with some forms. Beside the condom jar was a dusty mug with pens sticking out of it. The redhead had moved on. I took a seat beside the brochure rack. A handful of young women from the nearby university waited in chairs along the wall, thumbing the screens of their phones. I didn’t expect this. I don’t think I’d expected anything, really, but when I saw those women, so young and bored, it hit me that I might never have sex again, and I caught myself smelling my gnarled hand—a habit I’d retained from the gauze days—and somehow my mind produced the old stank of funky bandage. I tucked the hand away in my armpit then got tired of holding it there and hid it under a brochure about family planning.
Emma and I were going to love each other forever. I’d come home after a twelve-hour nightshift at Patton’s and she’d be hugging and kissing on me before I could get out of the car. A night was too long not to see each other. She stood on the lid of the toilet, her head above the shower curtain, smiling while I scrubbed, telling me all the things we were going to do, the plans she had, what our kids would be like, then I’d be out of the shower, filled with those dreams, hugging and kissing on her, barefooting it over that jagged limestone driveway to her car, making her late for work.
She cut my hair, too, made me feel handsome.
Hank was born in the spring and our days of car-to-car pawing stopped. Insurance-wise, it made more sense for Emma to quit her job. I hustled for five days a week instead of the three-then-four rotation, hounded my coworkers for their weekend shifts, picked up all the overtime I could. I ate the same Miracle Whip and baloney sandwiches, said the same stupid things, felt the same tired. Emma was tired, too. No matter how much she gave of herself to Hank, it wasn’t enough. She was making most of the decisions concerning him and having to doing this alone scared her and when she got scared she wanted to fight. We got shitty with each other over nothing: dirty dishes, dirty clothes, yard that needing mowing. What was wrong with us? I wondered. Why couldn’t we get it done? How did others do this? I asked my coworkers and learned that they were worse off than we were, some of them far worse. They said that we were lucky. I felt like we’d all been tricked.
My hair got shaggy.
Word spread about how good we had it and the weekend hours dried up. I took to driving around after work. Sometimes I’d go out to the fairgrounds and watch these rich women ride horses from under the bleachers of the grandstand. I wished I could buy Emma a horse. When I got home I’d take care of Hank while she napped. Most of the time I’d be too tired to stay awake. I’d lie down on the couch with him on my chest and listen to his tiny breaths and soon I’d fall asleep.
One morning I woke to find his face buried in the folds of shirt fabric between my arm and chest. He was as blue and cold as cow guts. I yelled for Emma as I laid him on the floor. I thought I’d hurt him up if I breathed into him, if I pressed on his chest. I thought he would die. Long before the paramedics arrived, he was nursing. They told me that I’d saved his life. I knew I’d damn near killed him. Emma knew it, too. We took him to the hospital and the doctors ran some tests.
“How long was he not breathing?” Emma asked.
“We cannot tell how long someone went without oxygen,” Dr. Kerr said. “We can only tell whether or not the brain went without oxygen long enough to cause damage. Depending on the timing of brain imaging, certain MRI images, we can see effects of hypoxia on the brain. Your son’s images look fine as far as we can tell.”
“But what if?” Emma said.
“Prognosis is impossible,” Dr. Kerr said. “Infants have incredible plasticity and typically have the ability to recover much more function than adult brains that are damaged, but the degree of function that will return cannot be predicted.”
It was an hour before the clinic closed. When the third person who’d signed in after me was called ahead of me I tried leveling with Grumpy McCoffee-Stains.
“My marriage depends on what happens here,” I told her.
“Mm-hmm,” she said, she didn’t even bother looking at me. “You can always come back tomorrow. We open at nine.”
The type of clock above the waiting room door was the same as the one in the breakroom at Patton’s, the same as the one that hung above the chalkboard in Hank’s old school room. I told Grumpy to hold my place and headed outside.
“You can’t keep your spot if you leave,” she hollered.
I ran up the street to that phone booth, trying to remember Emma’s mother’s number, wondering if collect calls were still a thing, but the booth was an empty shell.
Why that girder had to be perfect? You’d have to ask the person who’d been standing at that press for ten hours.
The day after the incident, Patton’s claimed that there was a “detrimental amount of alcohol” in the blood sample the hospital drew from me. Alcohol-related injuries meant a three month-suspension, they also negated worker’s compensation benefits. I hadn’t had a drink in days. Patton’s denied my request to see the lab results. I went to the hospital and they told me the same thing. Emma said we ought to get a lawyer, but I remembered when the chipper loft staircase collapsed on Dale Newman, breaking his back and Patton’s kept the case tied up in court until he freaked over his lawyer debts and settled for nothing. Our case was less significant and soiled with fraudulent evidence. So I did some research, made a list of all the safety violations I could think of, wrote and practiced a speech that ended with a grand proclamation that the entire floor crew would stand alongside me and that we would call OSHA if things weren’t made right.
I had the speech memorized by the time Patton’s monthly administration meeting came around. I stepped into their glass conference cube, holding my bandaged hand above my head so they’d know who I was and someone shouted, “Gun!”
A couple of ladies screamed. Some ducked under the table. The guy nearest me plastered his back against the wall and begged me not to kill him.
“It’s just my hand,” I said, and moved closer to show him.
The guy pissed himself.
I went out to the parking lot, sat down on the curb, and waited for the police. There was a lot of hubbub. The officers wanted to know what I was doing scaring all these people. The company vice president wanted to know what I was doing scaring all these people. A small crowd from day crew gathered just outside the workers’ entrance to watch. I lied and said I’d come to pick up my check.
That evening, Ricky Mason called during shift turnover. He said people were saying that I’d gone crazy. I told him I was calling OSHA.
“Cool it with that OSHA shit,” he said. “You’ll get us all put out of a job.”
We were broke. Emma’s mother said that Emma and Hank could stay with her. Emma said hell no. Her mother was not our favorite person. At our engagement party her mother had given an impromptu toast, the gist of which was that her ex was to blame for her daughter’s poor choices. I didn’t make a stink. I thought people knew how she was. Then years later, about a week after that morning with Hank, a sympathy card arrived from Emma’s aunt. She’d written that she’d heard about the “severe brain damage.” Not long after that, Jane Rotter, who partnered with Emma’s mother at the Wednesday night euchre league, ran into Emma and Hank at Kroger and burst into tears. I told her mother to stop, that she was going to turn Hank’s home on him. She didn’t understand or maybe she did and didn’t care.
Emma had no interest in going to her mother’s. She said we ought to talk to Joyce and George about a loan. I said hell no. She talked to them anyway. George dropped by the next evening and asked if my hand had healed enough to do a basement floor for him. Someone had dropped their appointment with the gastroenterologist in Indianapolis, he said. The hospital could get Joyce in earlier, but only if they went tomorrow.
It’d been years since I’d done anything concrete.
At five in the morning, I stitched rebar together. I was doubtful, but after an hour I noticed the birds and the wind and the smell of the hole. The three high schoolers who worked for George arrived around seven, carrying their lunch coolers and reeking of weed, then came the concrete trucks, and by noon we had the floor poured and floated. George called that evening. He said the doctors wanted to run some more tests on Joyce. Said they were staying another day, then told me how to prep the walls.
I studied the blueprints. I was nervous. I’d only worked with heavy, kerosene-soaked wooden forms and the Styrofoam ones felt too light. The kids and I spent the day setting, plumbing, and bracing the forms for concrete. I kept re-measuring, asking if it looked right to them. They just wanted to go home. That afternoon, I brought Emma and Hank out to see it. The air had cooled. Emma walked around the perimeter of the hole then said she wanted to look at it from the inside. I got the ladder from George’s truck. That night we made love for the first time in months.
George called early the next morning with the news. I told him that I was canceling the pour, that Emma I were coming down to drive them home. He said that it was too late to cancel it, and that he and Joyce wanted to take the scenic route home, just the two of them. He told me to be safe pouring the walls. Start away from the corners, he said, fill them no more than three feet at a time.
The hose of the pump truck dangled limply over the forms. The operator manipulated the truck’s boom with a heavy-looking remote control that hung from a strap around his neck. The boys yawned and scratched themselves. I was anxious for the cement trucks to arrive.
I handled the business end of the hose. Two of the boys vibrated the pour behind me while the other one patrolled the pit, tapping the forms with a rubber mallet to keep the pour even. The boom operator kept pace with us. The boys were better workers than I’d given them credit for. We fell into a nice groove of work. We made the final pass over the north, west, and south walls. Then, halfway across the east wall, I looked over the edge of the forms below me and saw the trickle. I couldn’t make sense of it. I was certain that I’d braced that section, that I’d seen it braced. The forms began to pull apart.
“Get the wheelbarrow,” I yelled to the kid in the pit, then, without thinking, I leapt over the top of the wall. A terrible pain shot through my ankles into my hips when I hit the floor and I crumpled into myself as thousand pounds of wet concrete piled beside me. Someone was shouting over the noise of the suck pump’s motor. I looked up, and there was George.
We spent most of that night in his pole barn. Emma had taken Hank to her mother’s and was helping the hospice people get the hospital bed into George and Joyce’s living room. George was pissing in a corner and when she peeked her head in the barn he let out a mighty fart. She said Joyce was asleep. I told her I’d take her home, but she told me to stay, that she wanted to walk back. George sat down and we passed the whiskey till it was gone. Emma was awake when I came home. She said she was going to stay at her mother’s for a while. I couldn’t say anything. The next morning, she left for Lake Manitou. A week later, I got a call from Hank’s school.
Ms. Barrett looked fresh out of college. She’d called Emma, too, said that the three of us needed to talk. Emma got there early. They stopped talking when I walked in. Emma wiped her face and tried to hide that she’d been crying. My chest knotted. Ms. Barrett offered me her hand. The gauze around my hand smelled like concrete and olives. I hadn’t slept well since Emma left. George had given me one of the comfort casseroles that arrived daily on their doorstep. I’d hardly touched it. Ms. Barrett stared at my hand then addressed Emma.
“Let me start by saying that a lot of thought has gone into this,” she said. “As you know, Hank’s progression has concerned us all year. I’ve personally spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I have requested that he be removed from our kindergarten program.”
“What for?” I said.
Ms. Barrett glanced at me then turned her attention back to Emma.
“Hank is resistant toward classroom activities,” she said. “When I explain the rules he becomes violent toward himself and others.”
“All kids do that,” I said. “What are these classroom activities?”
“I’ve had to ask your wife to pick him up twice this week,” Ms. Barrett said.
Emma wouldn’t look back at me. I wondered if she’d told Ms. Barrett that she and Hank were staying at her mother’s, that we hadn’t talked since she’d left.
“We believe that Hank’s frustration stems from his cognitive abilities,” Ms. Barrett said. “I’ve discussed my observations with fellow colleagues and the principal, and we’ve come to the conclusion that Hank belongs in an environment more suitable to his needs.”
Emma began to shake.
“Maybe this isn’t a good time,” Ms. Barrett said.
“How old are you?” I said. “Twenty-two? How many kids could you have possibly observed at this point?”
She looked at Emma.
“How many students do you have that can tie their own shoes?” I said.
Her lips tightened.
“Hank can tie his own shoes.”
“This isn’t about which students can tie their shoes.”
“There’s only one month of school left,” I said.
“Mr. Brown, please.”
“He just has a speech impediment.”
Emma started to cry.
Ms. Barrett slid a folder across her desk. “I’ve included the number of a local learning therapist and some schools that come highly recommended.”
Emma picked up the folder. Nothing was wrong with Hank. Dr. Kerr had said so. We’d reminded each other of this so many times. I reached for her hand, but she stood and walked out of the room. Ms. Barrett and I sat there quiet for a moment. I wondered if Emma had ever really believed it. I wondered if living with her mother was that hard for her after all.
“This is the best thing for your son,” Ms. Barrett said. “I want what’s best for Hank, too.”
I looked for Emma’s car in the parking lot, but she was gone. I didn’t want to leave yet. I sat down on a bench near the bus lane. Maybe Dr. Kerr had missed something or maybe Hank had some disability that was in no way connected to what had happened that morning or maybe he was fine. Maybe Ms. Barrett was a well-meaning, but narrow-minded asshole, or maybe it was me, I didn’t know. Ever since that morning, I’d believed that nothing serious had happened to Hank while simultaneously blaming myself as if something had. How can you square shit like that? I’d built an inner barrier between me and my son out of glass so fine that I could convince myself that I felt the breeze coming through it no matter how many times I hit my head against it.
Ashamed and embarrassed, I went back inside the school and asked Ms. Barrett if she would please explain what was in Hank’s file. I took notes. I tried to see things from her perspective. She said she that was sorry about what had happened. I thought she was talking about Emma leaving. Then she told me the story that Emma’s mother had told her on grandparents’ day.
I drove home and ate that entire casserole.
The sun stared at me through the clinic’s window. It was ten minutes before they closed. What possibility was there if Emma had cheated on me? Was I creating this or was it really happening? And if I’d created it, then why? I didn’t understand. Last night, I’d threatened my dick with a blade, tonight I’d castrate myself. I got up and started toward the door not knowing where I was going when the nurse called my name.
I followed her down a narrow, bleach-smelling hall to a room no bigger than our kitchen. She asked some questions, checked my vitals, then told me to take off everything below the waist and have a seat on the examination table. Dr. Barbara would be in soon.
My guts were a horse in the throes of colic. Dr. Barbara had surely dealt with hundreds of cases of unwanted pregnancies, rapes, incest. No doubt she’d formed a healthy hatred of men. I second guessed lying on the admittance form. Where it said marital status, I’d x-ed single, unwittingly stereotyping myself. I hadn’t wanted to answer the questions that x-ing married might have provoked and now Dr. Barbara was liable to hack my dick off. She would if Grumpy McCoffee-Stains had any say in it.
I braced myself—why wouldn’t she make assumptions about me if I’d made them about her? Shame and rage ate at me. I thought about the alcohol class I’d taken to expedite my suspension at Patton’s. A group of mothers stood in front of a projector screen in a conference room inside a converted strip mall. Images of their smiling children looped behind them while Tears in Heaven played from a boom box. They passed a microphone, told us about Joshua’s love for model planes and Britney’s poetry and how Samantha had received a track scholarship from Stanford before she was killed by a drunk driver. A dozen other attendees were scattered amongst the chairs. No one sat by each other, no one paid much attention. The mothers’ spectacle was a facile notion that could only betray itself. They grouped and shamed without considering that we might also be suffering or that we were even capable of it. They got sauced on their own self-righteousness. I pitied those dead children, but I only felt disdain for the mothers.
Someone knocked at the door. I sat up and tried to look respectable, but the waxy paper covering the examination table had glued itself to my bare ass and its crinkling noise made me nervous.
“Sorry,” I said, then wondered why I was apologizing.
Dr. Barbara was a plump, attractive woman. The weary look of experience was etched into her face. She asked the same questions the nurse already asked then raised the tails of my shirt. Her hands were not the cold, penis-slaughterers I’d feared they’d be. They moved with purpose and care. I put my mind on something other than her gentle touch. This was medical, I reminded myself. You have a growth on your dick, I reminded myself. But it felt good to be touched. She poked at the growth with a long Q-tip. I concentrated on the crayon drawing tacked to the cork board beside the cabinet. The sketch was done on black construction paper and the long white coat stood out. The woman’s hair was wavy and brown like Dr. Barbara’s and above the image MOMMY was written in bold letters, each a different color. In the corner, it said Tina, Age 5.
“Your daughter draw that?”
“She did,” Dr. Barbara said.
“I have a five-year-old, too,” I said. “He dances and makes up these incredible songs about animals.” A lost memory came back to me and I laughed. “Wish I’d recorded one.”
Dr. Barbara stopped poking and looked at me.
“It’s just a skin tag,” she said. “You’ve probably had it for years. We can get rid of it if you want to.”
Acid on your penis is worse than getting your fingers crushed in a metal press. Unbelievably, it is slower. And it fizzes.
I clutched the table with both hands. Dr. Barbara kept time on her watch. She said that the scab would fall off in a week, and not to pick at it, then she scooped a spoonful of white powder from a jar and dumped it on the acid. My jaw eased. I tasted blood from having bitten my tongue. Dr. Barbara put her hand on my arm.
“You’re good to go,” she said.
I hugged her, waxy paper stuck to my ass and all.
It was late in the evening when I pulled into George and Joyce’s driveway. The table stood bare in the yard, its finish stripped away. I’d passed the hospice nurse on my way in. We waved. It seemed late for her to just be leaving. Joyce’s wheelchair was beside the front door. She sat on the porch swing with Chester. For years she’d fed the orange tabby table scraps. Scrambled eggs were his favorite. The cat was as big as a rugby football, which made her pale, emaciated body look all the worse. She wore a wool sweater over the worn house dress. Her eyes were the yellow of an old bruise and her lips were chapped and split, and still there was her loveliness and it killed me to see it. She couldn’t see who I was from the porch, but she recognized the sound of George’s truck. I sat down beside her and took her hand. Her skin was papery and so cold.
“You been avoiding me,” she said.
“I’m scared,” I told her.
“I’ve not much longer.”
“Can I do anything for you?”
She closed her eyes. For a moment, I thought that she nodded off. I scratched Chester’s head. He opened his eyes just enough to see who was petting him then yawned his fat-cat yawn.
“He’s here,” she whispered.
I remembered what George had said that morning, about Joyce giving everyone messages. She opened her eyes and her chin rose toward the sky and the light shined on her teeth. Then she turned toward me and in the milk of her cataracts I saw my image reflected.
“You’re a silly wind,” she said.
She closed her eyes again and her body sort of wilted into itself as if a wave of pain had passed. I didn’t understand what it meant, a silly wind? The hospice nurse must have doped her up. I thought I’d better get her off of that porch.
“It’s cooling off,” I said. “Let me help you inside.”
I carried her into the living room. I’d held chickens with more to them. Her hospital bed was beside the big picture window. I took off her slippers. The water and food on her table were untouched. What the hell was that hospice nurse doing?
“You haven’t eaten,” I said.
“George will be here soon,” she said.
She shivered a little then resituated herself, a small movement that took such great effort. Chester leapt onto the bed and settled in beside her. I unfolded her mother’s quilt and placed it over her legs.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“The pond,” she said, her voice no more than a breath.
The trail through the pasture was loose from the rain. I parked on a dry patch near the base of the hill where George had carved a narrow path up through the prairie grass. From the hilltop, the pond was visible over the trees. The dying light cast its surface in copper. A breeze rippled the giant plaque and a lone duck ferried along the current toward the old pier on the opposite shore. I couldn’t tell if it was mallard or wood. It was fat, too heavy to fly. George had been in the practice of tossing bread crusts to the ducks then shooting them from the thickets near the old sycamore. The window for a clean shot grew smaller as the duck neared the pier. I pressed my fingers to my ears and watched the duck paddle into the furthest piling, fall onto its side, and become a hat.
George’s body was submerged out near the lily pads. I went in through the rotted mud. The water blackened with sediment. Murk filled my ears and moss snagged the hook eyelets of my boots. His head rolled on his neck when I pulled up. I swam to the cut bank where there was a tangle of arthritic roots, but the roots became slick once I grabbed them and the bank was too steep and he was so heavy. I had to go back through the mud. I sank to my knees. I tilted his head back and pinched his nose and heard my breath go into him. I pumped his chest and the earth bubbled.
He’d leaned his .20-gauge against the sycamore. His bib overalls were beside his boots. The duck he’d shot buoyed near where he’d drowned. I sat there for a long time. Fireflies floated around us as if the air were water, as if the world had tipped on its side.
It was a job getting George up that incline. I propped him up on the truck seat and combed his hair off his forehead then strapped the seatbelt over him.
The porch light shined at their house, but the big picture window was dark. A silly wind. I knew I shouldn’t leave Joyce alone and still I turned south. The rough county roads bounced George’s body against the door and the seat springs made a horrible squeak. The fermented smell of pond mud filled the cab. I headed for the smoother surface of the state road and kept going. The smell got to be too much and I rolled my window down. George’s grey hair swirled under the strobe of dull street lamps. I hadn’t planned on ending up in town, didn’t seem like I’d gotten anywhere, then I felt cool air coming off of Lake Manitou.
Emma’s mother’s house was tucked back from the street behind a neighbor’s tennis court. Blue light flickered in the living room window. I stopped on the street at the end of her driveway and turned off the truck’s lights.
What an unbearable thing to do to, bringing George here. It was a mistake. Emma hadn’t cheated on me. She’d tried with me for so long. She didn’t want to live with her mother, she couldn’t stand her mother.
I parked in the shadows of that tennis cage and crept up to the house and crouched under the sprays of the dwarf willow outside the living room window. Emma and her mother were on the couch watching TV. Hank played on the floor in front of them. I spread the willow’s spray further. I heard music coming from the TV through the window. Hank tilted his head to the side like he did when he was taken by something then he stood and started moving his hips from side to side. Emma’s mother shooed at him to get out from in front of the screen. He started strutting, cupped his little hands into ears and raised them to either side of his head. It was his fox dance. Emma’s mother shouted at him to get out of the way. The pulsation swelled within me. He began singing and Emma’s mother shrieked and threw her pillow at his legs, staggering him, but he kept on dancing, and Emma came off the couch with her hand-ears up, laughing and singing along with him, and my hands went up, too. My hands were up.
Joyce didn’t wake when I carried George into their house. I peeked into the living room. She’d pulled her mother’s quilt up to her neck. I turned on the light in the hallway. I had trouble getting his shirt off of him. His arms were in a nice restful position and I worried about getting them back in place if I disturbed them too much.
He sort of hung over the side of the tub and water got on the floor. I thought about how he would have found love for this mess, too. I scrubbed the pond muck off of his feet. His eyes opened like Chester’s had when I washed his face. I trimmed his nose hairs then the hairs inside his ears and I plucked the wiry ones from his lobes. I took my time shaving his face. His eyes were still open when I went to get clothes from of his dresser.
Someone official had to be called. I didn’t know who. I laid George on the couch beside Joyce’s bed. She may have been dead then, I don’t know. When I reached out to touch her, thunder rumbled in the distance, and I remembered that the table was still in their yard.
Barney T. Haney teaches English at the University of Indianapolis He grew up on a small dairy farm in northern Indiana. His work has appeared in Fiction Writers Review and Mid-American Review.