By Bruce Holbert
In old black and white movies, deep sea divers traipse the bottom in bell helmets while a ship above supplies with air through a hose. The gear is heavy; each step requires deliberation, while aboard the ship walking remains as natural as growing toenails. My brother and sister gamboled above. I trudged the ocean floor.
A congenital heart defect. Doctors advised me to inhale three times for every two others might. I had to concentrate to exist.
Like all sick kids I watched a lot of TV, so much it appeared to me every person had their own program. The school housed a building full of televisions all playing at once. You’re in their show; they’re in yours, but it’s not the same one. The Brittle Girls had prime-time episodes. You know the Brittle Girls. Their mothers curl and spray their hair until they smell like wet dogs. My affliction stirred no sympathy from them, and if a girl came off weak the Brittle Girls would mow you like the lawn.
April was the cruelest month. The days might be sunny and warm, but my mother could always find a flu in the news. Even the cat got to go outside, but not me. I longed for a different script.
When I was 10, I approached my father. “I lived to fourth grade,” I said. “How about some swim lessons?”
“Little kids. Diapers. Swimming pools,” he replied.
I decided to take a job instead. Babysitting was out. Kids were Petrie dishes. Housekeeping included wiping up after other people’s grimy hands. Dogs, though, never got sick and wanted outdoors as much as I did.
Soon my mother returned home with a sign from the mercantile bulletin board. “Explain this.”
“It’s for people with dogs. To walk them for money.”
“Why didn’t you inform me?”
“We don’t have a dog,” I said.
A week after the dog walk poster, I heard my parents argue. They weren’t angry with one another; the subject was me, which was not unusual.
I was 14, my father said. I could get a harvest permit.
My father was a farmer. He worried too little rain would thin the yield; too much, he checked the stalks for mold or fungus. And if he navigated these obstacles, late summer his concerns turned to acquiring harvest help.
“You’d have to teach her how to drive,” my mother said.
“I’ve got too much to prepare.”
“I guess the point is moot then.”
The next morning I rose early while my father and mother shared their morning coffee.
“You could teach me to drive,” I said to my mother.
“Indeed she could,” my father replied.
My mother tugged my hair into a ponytail with a hairband, the harvest fashion, she said. I glanced into the mirror and saw a nice face. Nothing to write home about, but pleasant enough.
The first week, I drove one load then she the next. We delivered my father lunch on his combine. Halfway down the steps he stumbled face first into the stubble. He rose, grinning. Mother fed him a sandwich and he drank half his water jug to assure her he was fit to carry on.
At the end of the first week, one of the grain elevator operators delivered me a Coke and one for my mother, too. He nodded toward a boy named Ted inside the office.
That night, I robbed the candy sack for a Snickers for him. A day later, he offered me a tiny battery-operated fan for the hot days. I clipped it to the truck visor. Then he delivered me a flower. Not one from a store; one he’d picked from a garden.
“He’s not a cad,” my mother said. “He didn’t go straight to the flower.”
Following each harvest, our family visited the coast. My father likes the sea because once you get there you don’t have to do anything. This visit, Ann, my older sister, found a hill a half mile away with cellphone service, so she could talk to her boyfriend each day. My little brother Joe and I raced into the water as far as we could when the waves withdrew and raced out upon their return.
My dad usually flew kites with us, but he this year he seemed happy to watch us from his lawn chair and read his Bible. My father was a church elder in our little town and my mother sang in the choir. The flock ran a Sunday school during the services. As children we colored Jesus on a donkey and Moses holding a staff. I asked too many questions to last long in such environs so I was relegated to the pew next to my parents.
When a person gets sick the congregation plucks a string in a spider’s web and all the other strings vibrate. But when a person is well and neglects to cross a T or dot an I that same web clings to them until they are cocooned into a meal for the gossips.
I saw meanness in the church; my father saw weather.
But idling on the beach, I was pleased with myself. I drove the wheat truck and managed not to destroy anything. In my bank account was money that no one had up and given me.
“I think I could beat up those Brittle Girls in a fight,” I told Joe.
“One at a time maybe,” he replied. “Together no way.
The next spring I got sick. My fever hovered beyond 103 . Nothing mitigated it. I closed my eyes but my optic nerves smoldered in my head like two coals. I didn’t sleep so much as doze. People talked about me as if I were absent.
My father visited less. Work, my mother said, but I wondered if he didn’t want to be in the room when I died, if he couldn’t tolerate the end of me or if he didn’t want to think about the subject at all. He was religious. I knew he would pray but I wasn’t sure what for.
Slowly, I recovered. By May, I was home.
Ted delivered my homework.
“Gee, thanks,” I said.
He smiled a little. “I put the answers in the back.”
The Fourth of July my sister proposed to chaperone me for the fireworks show.
“We’ll stay on the hill,” she said. “No one but family will be there.”
My parents reluctantly agreed. Ann drove Joe and me to the hilltop at the town’s edge. Her boyfriend met us – he had showered twice – and he and Ann walked to the park where their friends circled them.
“Is she popular?” I asked.
Joe nodded. We drank iced tea. I asked him questions. I’d never done that. He ran fastest in his class when they did laps but in the short races he finished third. He had a girlfriend in third grade that he only talked to once.
“I won’t let you die,” he said finally.
The sky grew darker; Ann and her beau returned. They leaned against the pick-up bumper and held hands. I had never envied her before. I wanted to go outside and she could, sure, but I’d never longed to be in her place, under a boy’s arm who chose me over all the other girls.
Evenings, I collected the mail. That fall I received cards without stamps. Each contained one word. WILL. YOU. GO. TO. HOMECOMING. WITH. ME?
“How do you know I don’t have a boyfriend?” I asked Ted.
“Because you don’t,” he replied.
“How do you know I want one?”
And then he kissed me. No boy had kissed me since third grade.
The next week my father fell off the steps and broke his foot. One doctor aligned the bone and put him in a plastic boot another bored a hole in his skull and examined his brain through a tiny a scope. He brought the picture home to show us.
“Looks like Joseph’s head,” he said.
Surprisingly, homecoming was not an issue. My health had been so much in the present my father had no opportunity to consider dating. So it was up to my mother to offer advice. “Love is complicated,” she said.
“You mean sex?”
“Lord no,” my mother said. “Fools do that all the time.”
I wore one of Ann’s dresses. The Brittle Girls made up the homecoming royalty. The queen’s date danced without his arms like a robot down a quart of oil. My father reminded me I had a curfew. I blew it off. In my defense, it was an hour before the dance ended.
Between songs Ted and I wandered into the schoolyard trees. I sat on the grass and kissed him. I had discovered I could lead him to touch me like I wanted and I could touch him in a manner that quickened his breath and mine too. But now Ted wrestled me. I told him no several times and finally reached into my pants pocket and withdrew a key chain shocker. The electricity’s snap knocked Ted back 4 feet.
“I’m not a carnival ride.”
The following days, Ted did not speak to me in the halls. I stewed over what my refusal had broken in him. I did want some of what he wanted but I also didn’t. Sometimes things travelled a pipeline to my animal brain without checking with the higher parts. Others, those hemispheres stalled me into paralysis. This confused me; others saw my vacillation as charm, but it had never disconnected me from anyone before.
“Evolution,” Mr. Hempel said in biology class. “The person with genes suited to battle the Black Plague endured. Those that did not, well, the herd turned stronger without them.”
Shelly, the Brittle Girls’ informal chieftain, raised her hand. “Like sick people?” she asked.
I broke her nose.
The principal escorted me to the office.
“It wasn’t a fight,” I said. “She didn’t hit back.”
I expected my mother to arrive at the school, but it was my father who appeared. He signed a paper then insisted I escort him on an ambling drive farmers have an affinity for. He stopped the truck on a dirt road and exited the cab. I followed.
“What about this boy?” my father asked.
“He turned into a pumpkin.”
“Some days pumpkin is all a person can manage,” he said.
The wind through the wheat stalks alternated like the back and forth of the sea. My father had always claimed its authority, like God’s, was omnipresent. Omnipresent not omnipotent. The difference mattered to him. He collected a stalk and put it to his mouth and made a whistle.
“You have a tumor?” I asked him.
“That’s what they tell me,” he said. “This boy disappointed you.”
“I’ve been disappointed before.”
“When you got the wrong-colored socks for Christmas or a B on your report card. Not by a person.”
He bent to sort through more stalks then thought the better of it.
“Are you going to die?” I asked.
He laughed, a real laugh with his whole body. “I’ve been wanting someone to ask that question for a year now.
“So are you?”
“I’ve been wanting someone to answer it too.”
And then I cried. I cried for myself. I never cried for others. I was selfish. Perhaps it’s perpetual illness that made me so. Those who love you pause at any sniffle or cough or fever in you. And in the little church in the little town you live, people who believe things you may not still bring meals when you’re ill and mourn when you die.
I again asked if he was going to die.
“That’s not what you want to know,” he said.
I glanced up at him.
“You want to know if it’s going to be all right.”
“It is now,” he said. “Let’s not pile up the car on a straight away.”
Now, in a city full of concrete and pavement and stoplights I sit on the porch evenings no matter the weather and wait while the twilight descends and the moon forces itself through clouds ribboning the horizon; I wait until a few stars populate a firmament that looks like the earth from an airplane at night passing over Wyoming or somewhere else hardly anyone lives and then I consider such things.
Though the possibility has occupied much of my life, I still can’t tell you what it’s like to die. Like me, my father outlived expectations. In his final days, I asked what was happening to him. He told me he didn’t know, he wasn’t finished yet and he felt no compunction to hurry. The family worried over him as they had over me. He recognized our hovering; it satisfied him, I hope. He could close the circle he’d made and maybe witness how it intersected ours like those Venn diagrams in school. Maybe, but, like I say, he didn’t talk about it.
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