The Good Life _     _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _    _  Mark and Rebecca Spencer

 

 

FIFTEEN

 

     Now what?  Sweet Jesus.  Now what? 

     It's like when Nick was born.  Runt piglet.  Doctor's words echoing in my head.  I couldn't stop the words.  Never will be normalNever.  I don't like that word.  Never

     Standing alone in that waiting room after the doctor and that little nurse emptied out.  Your baby will have to be here a long while.  He'll maybe live but never be normal. 

     And I wondered, Now what? 

     Mama and Daddy came to the hospital, rushed into the waiting room, wearing their big grins because they hadn't heard yet.  Outside, it was an unbelievably warm January day.  Daddy had on a short-sleeve shirt with dark suit pants and his church shoes.  Mama had on a yellow dress and make-up, which she usually wore only on Sunday.  When I muttered the news to them, they seemed to deflate, to lose half their size.  Mama got misty eyed. 

     I said to Daddy, "Now what? What am I going to do?"  I looked down at the speckled tile, then up at the cracked white ceiling.  The walls were pea green.  That waiting room seemed like the worst room on earth.  It felt like the waiting room to Hell.  The way I interpreted the doctor's words, I was going to leave that room and step into Hell. 

     Daddy looked at the blank pea-green walls and said, "Why aren't there any windows?"

     "What am I going to do?" I said again.

     Daddy frowned.  He took a deep breath, grew back to his normal size, and said, "What do you mean, now what?  It's simple.  You go on.  Nothing else to do.  What were you thinking of doing?  You go in and you see Meg when she wakes up, and you tell her everything is going to be fine.  You go look at your baby, and you thank God for giving you a son.  You go home and you work.  You got a farm and a teaching job.  Your mother and I will help you all we can.  You got more than most people."

     "I don't know," I said.  "The doctors say his brain's not right."

     "Listen."  His face was suddenly beet red.  Then he shocked me.  "What you want to do?  Run off with the preacher's wife?"

     I looked into his eyes.  I looked at Mama, who looked away.

     Daddy said, "Yeah, I heard about it.  Your mama, too.  God heard about it.  The whole blasted county has.  Be a man, for Christ's sake."

     "You don't have to swear," Mama said.

     "If I don't swear, I'm gonna have to get a switch and beat this son of yours."

     I turned away, walked to one of the pea-green walls, leaned my head against it, and started crying.  Daddy didn't say another word that day.  I think he had said all he knew to say.  But he came over to me and put his big hands that smelled like lye soap on my shoulders and turned me around and hugged me, and for all his talk about being a man, he cried, too.  He patted my back.  Mama came over and hugged us both.

     Now. 

     Standing in front of Rose's house in a snow storm. 

     It feels like when Nick was born.  And it feels like when Meg died. 

     Now what? 

     I stand, staring at nothing, snow swirling around my old head.  Jake and Lon are heading toward the house.  The sky is low, right down on top of me.  The wind bites my face.

     Lon stops, turns.  "You coming, Fo?" 

     I hear, want to respond, but I have no control over whether my legs or arms move or my mouth.

     "You all right?"

     I tell myself there is nothing to do but go on.  I have a job to do.  No good in acting like a fool. 

     "Fo?"

     I nod.  Weights are strapped to my head.  I lift one foot, then the other.  Weights are strapped to my feet.

     Jake opens the front door, stops, backs away and turns to Lon with his mouth open.  Lon puts his hand on Jake's shoulder, looks through the door and shakes his head.

     I slowly lift one foot to the first porch step, then the other foot.  Then I'm on the second step, then the porch, and Lon and Jake move ahead of me into the dark house.

     Lon hits a light switch, and tiny black stars explode in front of my eyes.  A single bare light bulb hangs from the ceiling and burns fiercely.

     Things--I don't know what--crunch under my, Lon's, and Jake's feet.  The house looks like an overstocked bomb shelter, and no one has taken out the trash in twenty years.  Rose apparently held onto everything that ever became a part of her life. 

     There are five times too many pieces of furniture in here, all of it yard-sale junk--two-dollar coffee tables with edges

chewed away by an animal, plastic outdoor chairs, fifty-cent plant stands holding not plants but empty plastic cola bottles.  There are two sofas, both buried under stacks and stacks of newspapers: the Adams County papers, the Cincinnati papers, the Portsmouth paper, and supermarket tabloids.  There are piles of empty milk jugs and stacks of unopened Coke and 7-Up twelve packs, dozens of rolls of paper towels and toilet paper and probably hundreds of cans--green beans, corn, tomato sauce, deviled ham, beets.  Here and there, tossed down, are knickknacks, pieces of jewelry, plastic dolls, bags of snack foods, jumbles of Christmas lights and extension cords.  Bulging bags full of God knows what are stacked high against the faded, florid wallpaper. 

     Only a narrow, serpentine path weaves through the stacks and piles and furniture from the front door to the kitchen.  Lon and Jake and I step carefully.  I see now that the crunching sounds are pretzels, potato chips, and strings of Christmas lights.

     Jake pinches his nose between his thumb and forefinger.  Lon says, "I know." 

     The dominant smell is a medicinal one that reminds me of my grandmother's house fifty-five years ago, but the smell here is stronger, and there's something mingled with it--the smell of decay, rot, dust, urine. 

     I have a good nose and like good smells.  I like the smell of an old barn--hay and the lingering scents of animals long gone. 

     I like the smell of my house--Lysol, apple preserves, coffee.  As I approach the kitchen of this place, I single out smells--molded bread, spoiled milk, tuna.

     In the kitchen are more stacks of soft-drink cans, more empty milk jugs, hundreds of cans of cat food, but no sign of a cat.

     "Why did this lady have all this stuff?" Jake asks.

     Lon shrugs.  "Who knows?"

     "She should of had a yard sale."

     "Yeah," Lon says.  "She could have gotten rich off of it."

     Without thinking at all, like a knee jerk, I say, "She was crazy." 

     Lon and Jake don't seem to hear. 

     It occurs to me that maybe I have seen Rose in recent years on one or more of my weekly trips to town but that I didn't recognize her.  Maybe I saw some hideous, bent, wizened, dirty old woman, her gray hair stringy and wild . . . . 

     I think hard.  Have I seen anyone like that? 

     Sure.  But it wasn't Rose.

     Then I remember Rose's beauty--her eyes, her lips, her hair, her neck, the lines of her figure in the pale blue dress she wore the day I kissed her in the woods. 

     And my heart squeezes like a fist.

    

 

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