From WTP Vol. V #6
By Vic Sizemore
It is the last good day of Delmas and Lillian’s fifty-three years together, the last day that they dared the ferry, the beach walk they have relished for so long, the treacherous logs washed ashore.
It is late, and now the cold off the sound slaps and batters their jackets, their ears. It is not raining but it is dark; a sky-sized cloud hangs low, obscures the snowy slopes of the Olympic Mountains across the sound. Delmas squints against the wind and Lillian threads her frail arm through his, clasps onto his forearm with her weak claw. He keeps his hands in his pockets.
They make their way haltingly, careful not to step on the fat tubes of bullwhip kelp stretched across their path like brown furry boa constrictors. The shore pebbles, gray and white and black, so rounded and smooth from the endless tumble and roll of saltwater, shift under their feet and make the going more treacherous yet. A gangly hedge of weather-felled trees and debris, bark-less and sea-bleached, hems the entire strand. The wind is a constant white rumble past Delmas’ head.
“Did you see…?” Lillian’s voice is swept up by the wind.
Delmas nods. Mergansers float out on the blue water. Closer in, shiny black seal heads bob. The seals peer at the two of them with curious eyes, intelligent eyes that seem to betray a knowledge of more than swimming and catching fish. Much more.
“Did you?” she yells up at his ear.
He nods again, more insistently.
Under her green windbreaker, Lillian is wearing Delmas’s blue moth-eaten cardigan over a gray sweatshirt shed by a lover from before Delmas met her. The cuffs are frayed to almost nothing and Washington & Lee is faded to a shadowy blue arch over her breasts—her left still there though flattened and empty, the right, a puckered scar that stretches into her armpit. She no longer bothers with a bra.
The cancer is back; it has metastasized. The children don’t know yet.
On the hill above them are the massive gray guns of Fort Casey, bunkers and walks of concrete, handrails of steel, relics of an age when those cannons lobbed rounds into the sound with little more aim than stones hurled from catapults—on the ready for attackers from the sea. When they had been exploring the abandoned army post earlier, the bunkers were empty but for Japanese tourists snapping photos.
“Let’s try to get the next ferry back,” he yells into the wind.
“Sandy’s boy is coming over to give me an estimate on the porch,” she yells, her voice still steady and strong, a voice that might suggest health to a stranger. She tugs at his arm until he leans his ear down close to her mouth. “I want it fixed before one of the kids gets hurt.”
“Does he do good work, do you think?”
“Sandy says he does. He needs work, and I don’t care if it doesn’t look great. I just want it safe for the little ones.”
“What little ones?” he asks, and immediately regrets the words, the sardonic tone.
She doesn’t hear him in the wind, at least she does not respond.
They turn back, and the roar of the wind goes quiet in Delmas’s ears. He can now hear the occasional pebbly crunch of the stones shifting under their feet. He looks for the path, where they had climbed over the sea-bleached tangle of broken trees, slow and ridiculous as sloths. They were both athletes once.
Sandy’s boy leaves town suddenly before finishing the porch, takes what they’ve paid him and bolts. None of the grandkids gets hurt on the porch though, because none of them come to the house. All three of their children come at one time or another during Lil’s illness, but the grandkids are too wrapped up in their schools and extracurricular activities. It’s a different time. Their daughter Deborah, who doesn’t have children, eventually takes an emergency leave from her job and comes to stay for the long haul, except Lillian surprises them all, dies less than a week after Deborah settles in.
The morning before Lil’s funeral, Delmas sits on a bench at their nine-foot-long dining room table, facing the picture window. The front yard slopes down to the street; it is still dark, and a deer steps through the line of fir trees along the Chenault’s yard.
Lil had a local guy build this table and benches. Admiring it after the guy had put it together, taken his check and gone, she had said, “You could fit six kids per bench.” They only had two grandkids at the time. The noisy crowd around her dining room table never materialized. Their children moved back east and after a few years stopped visiting even at Christmas. It was only their eldest, Aaron, and his Chinese wife who chose to have kids, and then only the two. The first time Aaron had shown them a picture of his wife, whose name was a very un-Chinese Betsy, Lil had said, “Oh, is she a dark girl?” Aaron had gotten all in a huff, but it was a reasonable question. The photo was on his phone, was dark itself, and her skin is darker than some Chinese people’s skin.
Their other son Joshua had decided he was gay, and their only daughter Deborah was living with a black man and they didn’t want kids, which, as Delmas and Lil agreed, was just as well; it wouldn’t be fair to the kids, the world being the way it is. “Isn’t our family just the Rainbow People,” Lillian once said with a bemused smile, on one of the rare occasions when everyone was visiting at the same time. Her daughter took it wrong and it turned into this big fight. When it got out of hand, Delmas yelled, “While you are in my house, you will treat your mother with due respect.” Deborah had responded in a flat, measured tone: “Due is the key word in that sentence.”
After they’d gone Lil had cried, “Why do they hate us?”
Delmas had no answer.
Now all three children were in town for Lil’s funeral. They’d all brought their families, or whatever they call their living arrangements—except the two grandkids who stayed back east with Betsy’s Chinese parents—but none of them were staying at the house with Delmas; they all got hotel rooms in the city, no doubt all went out for drinks together after the wake last night to complain about Delmas. He’d tried to give them his banjo and mandolin and they’d looked at one another; nobody wanted his instruments. Delmas had once been in a bluegrass band, had played banjo, real three-finger picking, not the banjo bullshit popular now. None of Delmas’s grandkids play music; they walk around tapping and swiping at their little screens, wires hanging out of their ears.
The deer makes its way across the front yard, nosing for hickory nuts, stepping gingerly like Lillian would, across the frozen driveway in her heels. Delmas sits in the dark. The deer is backlit by the orange streetlight at the bottom of their driveway.
“Bop,” Delmas says at a conversational level.
The deer’s head stays down, its jaw churning silently. The heater kicks on downstairs, and a few long seconds later tepid air whispers out of the vent under the window.
“Bop,” Delmas says louder.
The deer straightens up and freezes. Stillness rushes back in to fill the space Delmas has disturbed with his voice.
Delmas stands and waves his arms. He yells and screams and hoots and shouts; he slaps the window with the palms of his hands. The deer drops into a little half-crouch, bounds across the driveway, and stops in the Harper’s front yard. Delmas yells more, even knocks on the window, but the deer will run no more. Safe in the Harper’s yard, it goes back to grazing.
Six months after Lil’s funeral, Delmas misses a step and falls down the basement stairs after only two beers. Deborah—with her black boyfriend—and Joshua—without his special friend—fly from back east and descend on him. They tell him it’s time to move out of the house. They reason and shame and cajole.
“I love you, dad,” Deb says, “and I’d do anything for you.”
“We’d do anything for you,” Josh says.
“But we can’t afford to fly out here every time you fall down.”
Deborah shames him into letting her have power of attorney. She sells the house, uses his money to buy him a small place—about the size of one of those two-room setups at the Embassy Suites—in a retirement village. He doesn’t mind it, but his bedroom window looks out on a tall wooden fence, the only barrier between his narrow patio and a row of dumpsters in back of a strip mall of strange-smelling stores where mostly Mexicans and other non-Americans go. A garbage truck comes at three or four in the morning a couple of times a week and empties the dumpsters, its diesel engine making a roaring and banging racket like multiple car crashes, one metallic boom after another, like a pile-up on a rainy road. Then the truck is gone and everything goes silent again. Except Delmas cannot ever go back to sleep.
“Give it a chance, dad,” Deborah tells him over the phone. His sons have stopped calling. Deborah says, “Give it six months. I can come out and check on you then.” A few days later, a white noise machine arrives in the mail, with Deborah’s hand-written instructions: “Put this on your bedside table and turn it up loud.”
He lies awake at night now and listens to the white noise, the clicks and pops as they spread out and fill the room, to become a melody inside Delmas’s head. Then one night the rhythm falls apart, the song in Delmas’s head dissipates. He stares into the dark waiting. Waiting for another rhythm to rise from the chaos of clicks, waiting for something to make sense.
Delmas wakes to a doctor leaning over him, looking down into his face. The doctor has bushy brown eyebrows; one of the eyebrow hairs twists away from the rest, toward the man’s receding hairline. He explains that Delmas is locked in. “Locked in” the man says repeatedly, you’re locked in. You’ve had a massive stroke. You’re fortunate to be alive.
He can blink his eyes but cannot turn his head. He is choking on a tube. His daughter is there. He can hear her voice as she reads, the shuffling pages, loose papers. Things she’s printed off the internet because she doesn’t entirely trust the doctors. Deborah says, “Recovery is a long, long process…”
He is choking on a tube. He cannot even move his tongue to swallow. There is no saliva, his mouth is sticky and dry—the tube down his throat; he is choking—he can’t get a single decent swallow. One good swallow would be as satisfying as anything he’s ever done in his life. Every now and then he gets the panic-stricken certainty that the tube they’ve got down his throat will be the thing that kills him. He panics and tries to thrash, tries to reach and rip the tube out of his throat. He tries to shout and the only thing his lifeless body produces are silent tears to run into his ears. His ears itch. He can’t scratch them. It is torture, this existence, a horror moment by moment. This could be hell. When he is exhausted he falls into a fitful sleep.
When he wakens to his new hell, Aaron, Josh, and Deb are playing a board game on the tray table over his bed. One game is called Scotland Yard, and he comes to understand that it is an elaborate and slow game of children’s chase across a map of London streets. The one being chased wears a black visor with a white X on it. Delmas is not included in the game, not that he could participate, but they don’t even look his way.
Women from some church come into his room and sing hymns from an old blue Baptist hymnal. They chat with his kids and ask if they can pray, and to Delmas’s great surprise the kids—almost militant in their atheism—let the women pray.
Nurses bathe him; they turn him over and clean his bottom like a baby’s. One of them is a black woman who is rough with him, and yells as if he’s deaf. His heart fills with fear every time she enters the room. She has a tattoo on the inside of her wrist that says BELL, a sloppy amateur tattoo, what they called prison tattoos in Delmas’s day. She is not a nurse. She changes his diapers. Precious little comes out of him now that he’s being feed through this tube, but what does leak out is messy and wet–he can still smell. He is not ashamed. He is not embarrassed. He views this old broken body with the same curiosity that his grandsons, when they visit, now do. He sleeps and dreams of Lillian—it’s the summer after they were married. She wears the floral print sundress she loved, yellow flowers with fat brown centers. She holds a sweating glass of white wine. Loud talk and laughter, the smell of charcoal grill smoke. A breeze blows; the dress clings to her body, outlining her then perfect breasts.
Deborah sits on his bed and looks down at him. She talks on and on about his recovery. She helps the nurse and the therapists; she massages and exercises his arms and legs. He sees the emaciated arms and legs move up and down, bend and stretch in her hands. Purple veins under pale, almost translucent skin. Cadaver limbs. Dead already. “It’s okay, daddy,” she says to him, “we’re going to beat this.” But he overhears one of his sons say, “It can take years,” and Deborah’s response, “And he’s just stubborn enough to hang on that long.” So when she says to him, “We’ll beat this,” of course she doesn’t mean him, but them, all of them will beat it, whatever comes, and this is how they’re doing it until he’s gone.
He is not locked in, as that doctor with the eyebrows explained down at his face, as his family keeps discussing. He is in the doorway—or a foyer, a vestibule—able to simultaneously look back from where he has come and glimpse forward to where he is going. And these people, his family who stand around, sit around, play board games on his hospital table…more and more he is losing them. They are drifting away, back and back, blending with the strangers in white coats, strangers in purple smocks and pink smocks, one in a smock with teddy bears all over it. He turns from these people, he thinks, for the last time. He closes his eyes against their affection for this dead thing of flesh that warred so against his spirit.
The singing voices fade, but the music remains strong. It is coming from a different direction, from in front of him. It is the hillbilly music of his childhood, a time before Rock & Roll, before Elvis Presley: mandolin, guitar, Hawaiian guitar. Banjo. And Lillian not only isn’t withered and consumed by cancer, but she is healthy, even a little plump. She is standing in the grass of the side yard in a blue-and-green-flowered shift and bare feet.
Then she is at the doorway of an old house much like his childhood home, so far away in Vinton, Virginia—“carry me back to old Virginny,” his dad used to sing as he strummed his 1942, sunburst Gibson. On that porch right there, Lil beckons to him from the doorway, and now he is in the dark inside room, where he can no longer see the ladies whose singing voices recede behind him. Through the dark house, out the back door, he sees a bright sunny yard—sagging porch steps, their oak-wood grain gone black beneath peeling gray paint. In the grassy drive from the house down to the river is Delmas’s dad and mom, and his sister and brother. All here. But wait: there is his old pal Hobert who died in Korea so many years ago. Good old Hobert, holding the Hawaiian guitar Delmas has been hearing. It is black and red and yellow, the chrome wheel glistens and flashes sunlight.
“Give me my banjo,” he says. And look here, Hobert picks up a banjo from beside him on the wooden bench. He holds it out to Delmas, and Lillian presses her hands together—how she loved to hear him play, that banjo with goat skin stretched across the head, mottled like white clouds in a blue-black sky. As if the banjo head were a small round window onto the sky above in yet another heavenly realm. The music becomes the white noise of a splashing river, and he smells the crisp air: leaves and grass scrubbed clean by water tumbling over rocks.
Delmas feels a jolt—the black woman with the prison tattoo is leaning over his bed, seeming to smother him like a pillow. The room is darkened, but there on the other side of his bed is his Deborah. She is reading from a thin computer screen—her head glows in low blue light. Her black boyfriend is over there with her, reading from his own glowing screen. Deborah coughs into her hand, and readjusts herself in the chair. She pulls her legs up, and the plastic cushion creaks. The room is quiet. Someone is talking in Spanish in the hallway.
The lights out there have been dimmed. It must be nighttime.
Vic Sizemore’s fiction and nonfiction is published or forthcoming in Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Connecticut Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, [PANK] Magazine, Silk Road Review, Reed Magazine, and elsewhere. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award and has been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and two Pushcart Prizes.