by Dan Patterson
The 23 year-old driveshaft decided it was finally time to quit. U-joint just gave up and it sounded like a pistol shot when it broke. “And here I sit with a bed full of split white oak,” he thought, and was a little surprised at his self-pity. It rattled in low range the other day when you let off the power, but pulled good in second and high. “But I shouldn’t ‘ve put so much strain on it with it knocking like that, and I knew better,” he thought. “Shoot. I just got what I deserved, I guess. That’s what you get for letting a little thing grow into a big thing, now what’re you gonna do, smarty, stuck down here by yourself?”
It was first week in October but you couldn’t tell it by the temperature. Like an oven and in the stagnant part of the evening with not a breath of air stirring, about two hours before dark, the heat wrapped on your face and head like a towel and it seems like no matter which way you look, that old sun is right in your eyes. It had been cool last month, and nice working and sleeping weather, but then it turned hot and dry for the past three weeks without a drop of rain anywhere. Leaves usually are near their peak color by now but they just turned yellow or brown and dropped straight to the dry ground where they lay and faded away. It was like they just gave up.
“Whoo boy, is it hot! Too hot for me to be out here cutting firewood by myself,” he half thought and half mumbled. Lately he’d been trying to keep from talking to himself so much, keeping his conversations to himself in his head. No one wants to hear an old man chatter on anyway; when he was younger he might listen to one of the old-timers for a few minutes just to be polite, but anything they said went in one ear and out the other. That’s the last thing he wanted, to be nuisance or a bore.
“Stay busy doing something”, he thought then said aloud “Yep. Better to be busy. Sure is.”
Staying busy had been the thing that helped the most since Teresa died nearly, what, six years ago now? That’s what got him down here in the first place, cutting a lightning-struck oak up into firewood. Staying busy. He didn’t need the wood but it sold well at the flea market on the weekends, and getting it gathered gave him a project and it got him out of the house, too. Kids were grown and gone, the three of them had left home within two years of each other and made the old brick house more of a waiting room than the home they used to know. The field here is half-mile away and used to be a tobacco farm, but there hasn’t been a crop made here for years and years. Fields all grown up, saplings, blackberry, and scrub pines mostly, but a tall line of cedar showed where a long fence used to be. Gives the rabbits a place to run and hawks something to hunt, I guess, but it’s a shame how it’s gone to waste. The family that owned the place gave it to their kids after they died, but they didn’t want anything to do with growing tobacco and started selling lots off of it, leaving the back few acres, too sloped for good building lots, to grow wild. Kids come down through here on their dirt bikes and use it for whatever kids do these days, but there hadn’t been a soul around all day and that suited him fine. People had been getting on his nerves, another sign of getting older he guessed, and it just gets worse as the seasons pass.
At Teresa’s funeral home visitation the place was full of people, packed with everybody from church and the community, friends of the kids’, pretty much everybody in the area because she had been so good to everybody and all the people loved her. Or said they did. After a few somber minutes most of them started chatting about one thing and another, nothing to do with their dead friend or the sad family standing around like they were lost and everybody just a-havin’ a good old time. “Yeah, I got my beans in this weekend and you know I put in some pole beans with the half-runners this year,” somebody was saying to the preacher. He nodded in agreement and went on about his garden, and how he declared it to have the prettiest sweet potato vines he’d ever seen. Everybody talking up a storm, all happy, like it was a party. With my dead wife and the mother of three children, them there as well, lying open for the whole world to see. Another couple about our age walked up in a hurry and looked at Teresa in her final pose, the woman said, “I would have picked a different outfit for her. And something about her hair don’t look right, does it?” Katherine, the oldest, bit her lip and tears welled in her eyes. “I was with her when she bought that outfit and she was so proud. I think she looks so good, don’t you?” I put my arm around her and she cried into my shoulder like she did when she was little. “You know I never got my cake plate back from her after that Christmas reception at the church over two years ago,” I overheard. That was Beth Bodford, they went to school together and sang in the choir. A few days later I went to the store and bought four different cake plates and a box of chocolate covered cherries, put them in a nice gift bag with a bow and a card that read “I know she wanted you to have these back, but she was so sick. And we were all busy taking care of her that it just got away from all of us. I’m not sure which one is yours but you can have them all and thank you so much.” Damn biddy.
The truck was sitting a little nose-low with the rear wheels on the up heaved roots of the white oak he’d been cutting. The tree had fallen beside a dry creek bed and the truck hung up in some ruts on the way out. Even though he knew what he’d see, his curiosity got the best of him and he took the long step down from the cab, got on his knees and looked into the shadow under the truck at the busted driveshaft. And right there a big black snake was looking straight at him, maybe a foot away, its tongue flicking out and its shiny body contracting like a hose emptying. Surprised that he wasn’t even slightly startled he said, “Well hey Mister Snake. You looking for some cool shade, too buddy?” The snake stared for a heartbeat, then warily moved a few feet away, still under the shade of the old truck. “Well I won’t bother you sir, you go on about your rat killin’ and don’t mind me even a little bit.”
“Whoo boy; raised up too fast,” and grabbed the outside mirror on the truck as he stood, but it took both hands. Standing uneasily waiting for the light-headed feeling to pass his hands and arms started tingling, all the way up to the elbows; felt like they were asleep. He held to the mirror and leaned against the door to get steady, huffing the hot air trying to catch his breath. “Breathing that ol’ exhaust from the chain saw didn’t do me much good,” he thought, and he could smell it on his shirt, mixing with the sweat and old man scent. Suddenly thirsty he took a deep slow breath to try and clear his head and said, “Got to keep upright, now. Don’t go falling down on top of Mister Snake down there.” And that was the funniest thing he’d ever said, the best joke he’d ever told and it just tickled him to no end, and he laughed so hard he was crying after a minute. “Mister Snake looking at me like ‘Who are you old man and what’er you doin’ down here?’”, he said between laughing to Marshal Thomas, his old friend from work standing straight as a board by the tailgate. A quiet man, a little older, Marshal had retired right before they closed the plant, and got out with some of his retirement; one of the lucky ones. Holding on to the mirror there beside the truck he had tears on his cheeks and his stomach muscles hurt from laughing so hard. He coughed and tried to catch his breath; a good laugh like that had been a long time coming, boy, a long time. He reached to his right back pocket where he always kept a handkerchief to wipe his face – Teresa had always ironed them but he never bothered with that any more.
His arms were feeling heavy and the tingling was worse, stinging now, and his hands were almost numb so he couldn’t feel the handkerchief in his pocket. Still leaning on the truck, he was so tired, he patted his pockets and thought he found it in the left one. He couldn’t get it out though so he took his ball cap off to wipe his forehead with his arm, but dropped the cap and felt that hot sun broiling down on his head making him sweat even more; his breathing quick and shallow now and felt like it was just moving the air around; his arms were throbbing all the way to his armpits.
“Oh Lord it’s so blessed hot!” The cap must’ve gotten kicked under the truck but that was too much work to get down and find it. “Why don’t you just let ol’ Mister Snake wear it?” he heard Marshal say after a minute, talking through his nose like he did, and that started another little laughing spell in spite of him feeling woozy and hurting so. “You think it’d fit him?”, he laughed some more and looked at Marshal but couldn’t see him, but he probably stepped over behind the brush to pee. Sweat was down in his eyes and they stung so he couldn’t make out much of anything, everything was moving and he felt like he was on a boat. “Hey Marshal. Hey! Where’d you go? Marshal! We got to get going, come on out now.” Still holding on to the mirror he moved over to the open door and put his rear against the edge of the seat. “I’m just going to sit here a minute and rest,” he thought, and pushed clumsily up on to the seat. It was about this time of year when the kids were still in school that Teresa went to the Doctor for a checkup and came home with the bad news about “needing to run more tests.” Thinking of that made him feel dark so he pushed it aside and leaned back closing his eyes, resting his head on the rear window of the truck; the door swung shut but he was too weak to push it back open and rested his throbbing arm on the ledge. His shirt was stuck to the back of the truck seat and he could feel the sweat drying and cooling and for just a moment he was still. Quiet, and resting. Then quick as you could sneeze a sheet of sickness covered him from his crotch to his chin and his ears started ringing, low at first but quickly growing to a loud shrill squeal. Reaching too quickly for the door handle he fumbled it so the baloney sandwich he’d had for lunch went between the door and the seat, the stink making him sick again and he gagged and heaved as he finally got the door open.
His feet didn’t move like they were supposed to and he tumbled onto the dry grass and dirt beside the truck, landing on his side. Gnats had started gathering around where he’d gotten sick and they danced all around his face but his arms just would not move enough to swat them away. The split oak in the truck bed was suddenly a very fragrant wet perfume mixed with the dry dusty smell of the grass, strong in his nose; things got dim and the ringing in his ears stopped. He spit the bile and cleared his throat, still smelling the oak and grass and trying hard to breathe. Then he was pulling on his coat and walking down the kitchen steps to the wood pile to help dad. They were splitting and stacking wood under the shed – with a hard winter coming they were getting ready early, but here it was just before Thanksgiving and a dust of snow and hoarfrost already on the ground and it was low clouds and cold. So cold his nose and ears were numb and when he breathed it stung his lips and lungs. But breathing came really easy now and he was relaxed like when you’re sleeping under a warm blanket.
“If you twist the handle and give it a little jerk the same time you can flip the pieces off the block,” dad was saying. “Let me show you,” and he took a smooth swing and expertly smacked a log with his sharp axe, the two pieces neatly falling on either side of the chopping block, as he did his left hand came off the handle like a batter swinging for the fence.
“I’ll put this up and you can split us some more,” he said, motioning to the stack of logs. His ten year-old arms were skinny and his hands were too small, but he rocked the red-handled double-bit axe out of the smaller block they used for making kindling and struggled a log up on the block.
“No, boy. Don’t use a double-bit for splitting a big log like that, it’s too light…”
“… light, follow the light, can you follow the light with just your eyes?” a pretty young voice said. But he could not understand her. He could see she was disappointed and she said some more things to him, pointing with the small bright flashlight and her other hand holding his head still. He could make out what she wanted and did it. She wore a white jacket and talked to some other people in white jackets, then they left the room. Some other people were in the room with him, one woman and two young men. The women kept putting her arm around his neck and hugging and that made him very uncomfortable; he never liked strange people touching him. The other two looked at him with somber worry and talked; he guessed they were talking to him but he couldn’t understand any of them. Finally they decided it was time to leave; he was weary of their worry and fret and was glad to be left alone. His shoulder hurt and it was in a tight sling that itched, he couldn’t make a fist with either hand and he had no idea of where he was or how he got there, and he was wearing thin pajamas with a robe over them. And he was hungry enough to eat a rag mop.
Steven, Randall, and Katherine walked down the hall of the Valley Rehabilitation Facility on their way out, Katherine walking in front a few steps with her head down.
“How’s your daddy doing today, honey?” Startled a little, Katherine looked up to see the nurse supervisor; she had given them all a summary of her father’s status when the call came; Katherine was the first to get here and led her brothers in supervising her father’s care. But all that was a temporary measure with no good plan for a next step.
“Oh, hey. His face is healing some, he’s alert but he doesn’t talk and I don’t think he knows us,” she said while the others caught up.
“Well it takes time, honey. It’s in the Lord’s hands and these doctors are all real good. I’ll pray for your daddy,” she said, “And for all y’all, too. We’ll take real good care of him for you.”
“Thank you,” they all said automatically. She went on her way leaving the three of them adrift and wondering what to do next.
An older lady came in the room next while he was fumbling with the slippers he was wearing and said something in a cheerful voice. He just looked at her waiting for her to speak English. “These people seem to know me, but who are they and where am I?” he thought. “And how did I get here,” but he had no answer and no one to ask. Every time he tried to talk some gibberish came out that only he could understand, so he quit trying. “Let’s get you to the dining room so you can have supper before your therapy!” she said to his unhearing ears, and took him dumbly by his elbow, the one that didn’t hurt, and walked very slowly to a room with several people sitting around round tables. She put him in a chair next to two fellows that looked like they’d been dug up out of a grave and a thin wrinkled old woman with long gray hair talking and laughing, and she kept on clapping her hands. A big cart came around and two smiling young men put plates down for everybody and they all ate what was on the plate, like kids in a school cafeteria. Whatever it was had no taste at all but he was glad to have it and finished every bite. After a while someone came for him and they went to a room where he sat on a bench and tried to squeeze a rubber ball, then walked in place on a treadmill for a long while.
All that went on for some days, he could not count how many and those same worried people came and went often, always worrying and fretful. Then after they all ate one day instead of squeezing rubber balls a lady stood in the center of the room and spoke loudly, and she was very pleased about it because she smiled and clapped her hands and the other people did too. Right soon three other people came in to the room, two women and a man and they had guitars, a small keyboard looking thing like a long suitcase and a yellow dog that looked almost like a collie but with shorter legs and shorter hair. The woman spoke and everyone laughed while the dog sat up and waved its paws. The woman spoke to the dog and it would do something and everyone would laugh and clap; the dog seemed to be enjoying itself too. After a few minutes the two men started strumming the guitar and playing chords on the keyboard while the woman brought three or four people to the middle of the circle, they all sat around and started leading them in a song. The dog sat beside the man playing the keyboard and soon curled up and closed its eyes.
Some of that started to make some sense after a while, not the words but the tones and chords were familiar and he could make those sounds in his head. After a minute he mimicked the keyboard sound very low without opening his mouth, sort of a humming, matching the sounds when they were played long enough to hear well.
“He’s got the whole world in his hands” the three sang, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” There were two long notes he could hum and some shorter ones that he could not quite make out. He went on trying like that, trying to make that shorter, higher sounds but it wasn’t right. The next time he heard it he made his sound louder, with his mouth open just a little but it still wasn’t the same sound.
But the dog heard him this time and broke awake with its ears perked, looking around the room, its front legs now stiff and its hind legs quivering ready to spring. The three went on from those sounds to another one, slower and with the sounds not changing as much. The dog had relaxed a little but was still wide awake and looking around the room.
“You are my sun shine, my only sun shine,” went the singers slowly in a language foreign to him but most everyone else was singing too. And badly. But the sounds were coming more easily and something was familiar about them now. And when the sounds were longer like this he could match them pretty well. “..ha-ppeeee when skies are graaaay…” and when the long sound was made he opened his mouth and made that sound too, hoarse and a little trembly, “…eeee”, then “aaaaay” he sounded. And the dog sprinted from its seat and made a bee-line for where he was sitting. It sat right in front of him at attention and looked at his mouth as he made his sounds.
“Please don’t taaaake my sunnn shine awaaaaaay,” they sang. And he sounded “aaaake” and when he made the “aaaaay” sound the dog did too. “WOOOoooo…RrrrooooOOOO,” it sang and pawed at his knee with its tongue out. That seemed to make everybody happy and faces were turned to him and the yellow dog, some smiling and making sounds. He started to recognize the laughing sounds people were making, like a picture coming in to focus.
“Good girl, good girl! Let’s sing together girl!” Those were just noises to him, but the dog was looking at the young man slowly strumming his guitar. “You are my…” and he waited for the dog. “Suunnn shiiine,” he sang and strummed, the dog’s mouth trembled. The keyboard made a chord. “Myyyy onnnly… suunn shiiine,” he sang and this time the dog joined with another “ooohhhwwww” and everyone laughed and they all stopped playing.
“Sing with us Dale. Come on now don’t be bashful, you have a good voice,” his mother said as she scooted on to the piano bench. “No I do not, either,” he thought to himself. Dad has a smooth dark brown baritone, mom a higher women’s sound, more yellow. And older sisters Brenda and Karen could carry a tune without thinking about it in their clear green middle-pitched voices. I had a hard time finding where I fit and it made me feel right much out of place not to be able to sing like they could. I wanted to just go on outside and not be a bother, but they all made me stay. “Here Dale, this is your note” and she played a single, unadorned piano key, bright as a full moon. “Now that is an ‘E’, sing that note while I play it,” and I did, matching the piano sound after two or three tries with my kid voice; sisters behind me both giving me encouragement saying I was a natural and wishing they could sing like that, just to make me feel good. Dad was quiet, but smiling. “This is my note, it’s a ‘G’ and she sang it while she played her note. “Put them together,” she sang her note and played mine while I matched it, “and we get harmony. See how easy that is? Doesn’t it make you feel good?” Then everybody stood close together as mom played our notes one at a time and we all matched it with our voices, I was last and filled in the empty place just like the piece of a jigsaw puzzle coming together. Mom said it felt good and she was right.
“You make me ha-ppeeee,” he sort-of sang and the dog jumped in his lap. Numb hands could not feel it, but with his face against it’s muzzle he breathed in the dog aroma and dog breath; it licked at his face and they were soon friends, its tail whacking him in the ribs. “You make me ha-peee,” he sang again as best as he could, trying to make the notes sound right. The woman was trying to tell him something but it didn’t make sense. He looked at her with his face against the dog’s muzzle and she kept making sounds that he could not understand. She kept motioning to dog and saying something, and now she was crying for heaven’s sake. Such a pretty thing to cry like that. The dog stayed on his lap and pawed at her and she stopped crying and laughed a little; he could tell those sounds.
The man playing the keyboard and the woman helped move his instrument to where him and the dog were sitting, the other man brought over his guitar. The woman made some sounds and the man on the keyboard played two notes, alone with no chords, while she made her sounds.
“Taaa-Feee” she sang high to lower. “Taaa-Feee” and petted the dog in his lap. “Taa-Fee” he sang but weakly. “Taaa-Feee”, and the keyboard played the two notes and the man sang with him. The two did that several times, changing the two notes until he got them right, high to low, finally G to E. “Taaa-Feee” they sang several times.
“Taffy” he said hoarsely to his dogbuddy. “Taffy,” and laughed a little to himself.
Dan Patterson is a Southern gentleman with a good sense of humor and a bad temper. A doer of good deeds, rescuer of dogs, decent cook, and occassional writer. He appreciates old bourbon and young women, and lives in the Piedmont region of NC with his wife and eight dogs.